Friday, January 01, 2016

David Kopel: An implausible argument that evangelicals must oppose self-defense

Monday’s Washington Post featured a PostEverything commentary titled, “I’m an evangelical preacher. You can’t be pro-life and pro-gun.” The subhead is “The American obsession with guns just doesn’t square with biblical teaching.” The author is Rob Schenck, an influential evangelical minister. Although the commentary promises to use “biblical teaching” to prove its thesis, his cited texts demonstrate the opposite.

Previously, explains Schenck, “I believed that we had a God-given right to defend ourselves.” He acknowledges that most evangelicals share this belief, and he aims to explain why his former belief is incorrect. Thus, he is arguing that pacifism is the only legitimate Christian position. (Or at least the only legitimate position for evangelicals, who rely on the Bible as an inerrant source of authority.)

Pacifism has always had a role in Christianity, and has never been the sole view of Christians. For example, among the Church Fathers, Clement of Alexandria (150-215) was not a pacifist, while Justin Martyr (approx. 100-165) was. Justin’s tradition was carried forward by eminent Christians such as St. Martin of Tours (approx. 316-397), Menno Simons (early 16th-century Anabaptist) and George Fox (17th-century founder of the Quakers). Today, the doctrine of the Catholic Church is that pacifism can be a legitimate choice for a Christian, but it is not mandatory, and that choosing not to be a pacifist is equally legitimate. The enduring presence in Christianity of pacifism and of non-pacifism is one of the subjects of my forthcoming book “The Morality of Self-Defense and Military Action: The Judeo-Christian Tradition” (Praeger, 2016).

Schenck, however, goes much further and argues that Christians “can’t” disagree with his anti-gun pacifist mandate. Within the evangelical framework, he has to prove his theory by using the Bible. So what is his biblical argument?

“At no time did Jesus use deadly force,” writes Schenck. This is true, but doesn’t prove much. Jesus did not marry, yet only a few eccentric sects have extrapolated Jesus’s behavior into a rule that no one should marry. Few people argue that Christians are morally compelled to imitate Christ by not marrying, by having no possessions or by not having any natural children. Lifetime celibacy might be considered a characteristic of people with a special vocation (for example, priests and nuns) but is not a requirement for all conscientious believers. Jesus was carpenter and a rabbi, but that does not mean it is un-Christian to be an accountant, a plumber or an aviator.

Schenck continues: “Although he once allowed his disciples to defend themselves with ‘a sword,’ that permission came with a limitation on the number of weapons they could possess.” The sentence on its face refutes the notion that Jesus opposed his disciples defending themselves with deadly weapons.

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