Somehow, inexplicably, it always begins–and ends–the same way. An intruder bursts into our home, and my wife is always irretrievably in harm’s way. From what I am told, the intruder never comes to steal our iPads, jewelry, credit cards, or any other valuables. He has only come to rape and to kill.
And I only ever have seconds to react. Do I love my wife, or do I despise her? Do I want to protect her, or do I, with the intruder, seek her harm? Am I willing to do the difficult thing and save her, or am I committed to stand by and witness her and/or my slaughter?
I only ever have two choices. Either the gun I responsibly own suddenly appears in my right hand, and I suddenly, but expertly, pull the trigger, firing a single bullet directly into and through the onrushing forehead of this dark assailant. This is just in time to send him crashing to our white linoleum floor in a pile of twisted limbs, a pool of blood slowly spreading beneath his head, stopping just inches from my wife’s bare feet . . . Or, gripped by what can only be described as a selfish, cowardly pietism (no doubt, the product of too many degrees and too many years of ivory-tower theologizing,) I stand motionless on that white linoleum floor, unwilling to do my necessary, God-given duty as a man in the real world of my real home. Instead, I watch in silence as my wife is murdered before my very eyes, as though I were seated in a movie theatre – that limp, empty, uncourageous right hand reaching not for justice but for more popcorn.
How have I, especially as an evangelical pastor, come to hate what is good? How many women and children, my interlocutor asks, will be sacrificed on the altar of my passivity, my dangerous, unrealistic theology of Christian non-violence? How can I justify this moral paralysis, this ethical voyeurism, as love for those Christ has given to my care? Can it be called anything other than hate or fear? Fear of being hurt? Hatred of those–my wife, my friends, my family, and everyone I have ever known or can imagine meeting–who are both innocent and good, who by rights deserve a life free from suffering and death?
But I, of course, digress. Because that is what we evangelicals tend to do the moment the issue of Christians and guns is raised. The above scenario, and a others like it (involving my child–your child–being kidnapped before your very eyes and bundled away into a van), have combined into something like an extended fever-dream in which conservative American evangelicals most often seem to deliberate their ethics. As dreams, these are not arguments, but they are always deployed as though they were arguments–rolled out like little concussion bombs of horrifying (but also, importantly, heroic) emotion. They effectively derail even the most persuasive arguments regarding what a Christ-centered response to guns, violence, and the treatment of one’s enemies–real or imagined–might, in fact, look like.
More problematically, these hypothetical scenarios are, in fact, carefully constructed fantasies of fear, future-trips of absolutized and fundamentally self-centered terror. In these dreams the worst thing possible for me to imagine is the very thing that is happening to me and the people I love. Because the projected emotions of these scenes are so powerful, and that these scenes pivot so decisively on what we imaginatively choose to do (or refuse to do), it is from these imaginary realms that we as Christians so often decide how we should think and act in the real world.
Yet for Christians, the biggest problem with these ethical fantasies is that they are, to put it simply, not Christian. In these fantasies the worst thing for me to imagine is the loss of either my life or the lives of those I love. As fears go, the destruction of one’s body is a perfectly reasonable fear to have, it is not a fear permitted to Christians. No doubt anyone off the street, if pressed, would name death, especially death by murder, as among the worst possible things one could imagine occurring to oneself. And it stands to reason that those same people would view any and all possible measures one could take in defense of one’s body, or the bodies of those one loves, to be a normal, natural, and responsible course of action. Imagining hypothetical scenarios rooted in one’s fear of death? Normal. A pre-mediated willingness and preparation to kill those who would harm your body or the bodies of those you love? Natural. Human instinct. Practical preparedness. What anyone with half a brain would do. Perfectly reasonable.
But here, as with so many things ‘reasonable’ to the natural man, the voice of Christ erupts like a cataclysm: Even the pagans do such things! But with you it must be different. You have heard it said ‘an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth,’ but I say to you, do not resist an evil person. You have heard it said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. For those who seek to save their life will lose it, but the one who loses his life for my sake will save it. Categorically unreasonable. To many, irresponsible. Certainly ineffective. But a Christian is someone called by Jesus to think and act, to deliberate and respond, in ways only made possible by the power of the Holy Spirit and in ways only made conceivable by the life, teachings, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The life of a Christian should rarely, if ever, appear ‘perfectly reasonable’ to someone who has not yet received and experienced the forgiveness, redemption, empowerment, and transformation only Jesus Christ and his gospel of grace can effect.
A Christian is one whose thoughts and actions are being transformed to reflect the thoughts and actions of Christ who:
- Refused to defend himself though he was the only perfect innocent;
- Counseled the obtaining of swords to fulfill a prophecy that he would be counted among the rebels and arrested, but who refused and rebuked their use;
- Told Peter that Peter’s own body would one day be killed as the cost of his discipleship, but who nonetheless counseled neither self-defense nor fear;
- Anticipated our peculiar mode of ethical narcissism and penchant for abstraction, and
- Who, in the very teeth of our fears about the future and our concern about the safety of our bodies, commanded us not to worry about tomorrow and not to fear those who might kill the body, but to be living sacrifices to our great God and the mission of his kingdom on this earth.
For our bodies are not our own and tomorrow is not a real place. We are only capable of being Christians today. We are only capable of obeying or refusing to obey Jesus at this very moment. And so it is our enemies, today, that we are commanded to love and bless and forgive, to do all that we can to bring the Gospel. For if we, as Christians, are called to fear anything at all in this brief, flickering life of flesh, it is to fear the death of those who do not yet know or believe that Jesus Christ is Lord. Who among us is so willing to visit that terror on one who may yet repent and be saved? To be a Christian is to give one’s life, today, to those who do not yet know Jesus, to tell them, in word and deed, that though, we, too, were the enemies of God, Christ has forgiven us and not destroyed us, has given us life when we deserved death. This is the only real world a Christian inhabits: grace and forgiveness for the enemies of God, that they might become his friends.
“So exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.” (Hebrews 3:13)