EDITOR’S NOTE: The Southern Baptist Convention has never adopted a resolution on gun control during its annual meetings. Because gun control is a topic that generates diverse opinions among Baptists and other religious bodies, Baptist Press notes that the opinions expressed in this column represent only those of the writers, Thor Madsen and Rodney Harrison.
KANSAS CITY, Mo. (BP) — When a man enters a grade-school and kills 26 people by himself, public intellectuals quickly agree: we must do something. We must do something right now. Not tomorrow. Not next year, but now, and the reflex answer is legislative.
“Let there be laws,” they say. Let there be laws banning guns and laws banning violence. Let us make our schools safe by declaring them “safe-zones” where unsafe events are not allowed to happen. In a world made new by law, no guns would exist. Therefore, no one would shoot children in schools or anywhere else. And our politicians agree; they can hardly do otherwise. Who wants to defend gun rights when people are being killed by guns? Who wants to argue that such lethal power should be widely available? How, then, might Baptists contribute usefully to the national debate on guns?
We should begin by insisting that there be a debate, not an outburst driven by understandable grief and anger. In other words, we can encourage people to slow down and consider the long-term effects of laws adopted for the sake of doing something, anything to stop the madness. First, if private citizens cannot own assault rifles, they cannot resist enemies who have them — or not as well, at least. After all, the features which make assault rifles useful to criminals would also make them useful to private citizens in defense of their loved ones and property. This conclusion follows inescapably, but we have to slow down to see it. Second, we must not ignore history’s lessons, as Group A proposes to seize Group B’s guns. If absolute power corrupts, nothing would empower so completely, and corrupt so deeply, as a monopoly on coercive force. Thus, in 1 Samuel 13:19, we read, “No blacksmith could be found in all the land of Israel, because the Philistines had said, ‘Otherwise, the Hebrews will make swords or spears.'”
As Americans, we tend to believe that we can do anything and solve any problem. Thus we imagine that good public policy should involve no trade-offs, no balancing of costs and benefits. Everyone wins. No one loses. In reality, however, our laws have side-effects and unintended consequences; we cannot control access to guns reasonably without keeping this principle in mind. Laws and executive orders — both constitutional and otherwise — impose costs. If we take away guns, some good things will happen, but if we take them away, some bad things also will happen. Evil people would be less able to kill children rapidly, carelessly and spontaneously, and that would be a victory, considered on its own. But gun control would also leave weak, law-abiding people defenseless against society’s thugs, robbers and rapists — and they are the proximal danger to most of us, not insane men with AR-15s, bad as the latter are when they strike.
As Christians, we approach this debate with mixed feelings, because we cannot imagine Jesus wielding a Glock 19, notwithstanding some pictures drawn of him in the New Testament (e.g., Revelation 19:11-16). We also know that we must love our enemies, and this command might apply to those assailants named above — at least, some Christians have argued as much. But the Bible does not forbid self-protection and the use of deadly force. On the contrary, the Scriptures presuppose some occasions when killing is just, reasonable and tragic. In Exodus 22:2, one has permission to kill nighttime intruders, because he wouldn’t know, in that case, what they intend. Even the commandment to turn the other cheek requires qualification. Jesus isn’t insisting that we leave our loved ones undefended, nor that we suffer violence regardless of its motive. He is talking about suffering persecution and the daily insults of life, cases in which the aggressor attacks just because we are Christians. In this sense, an ounce of biblical insight is worth a pound of ER cure.
The most troubling aspect to this debate, from a Christian standpoint, is the deeper purpose of the Second Amendment. We have to face it plainly. The framers of our Constitution did not prohibit the seizure of arms held by private citizens because they wanted to protect deer hunting. When public figures ask why anyone needs an assault rifle to hunt deer, they are missing the point. We are given the right to keep and bear arms in order to ensure that we are governed with our consent, not by the use of raw, unchecked force.
Thor Madsen is dean of Midwestern Baptist College and professor of New Testament, ethics and philosophy at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Kan. Rodney Harrison is vice president for institutional effectiveness and dean of online & distance education at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is also a certified firearms safety instructor. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress ) and in your email ( baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).