Can you be a gun-lover and a good Christian?

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Dear Rebecca:

Serious question: Is there a good theological case for the ownership and use of guns by Christians?

I’m not really aware of one, but I raise the question for a couple of reasons:

• I have friends whose faith is far more sturdy than mine who are also avid gun owners. They live a more authentically Christian life than I do, but with one glaring (it seems to me) exception.

• I think there are robust theological arguments against Christian gun ownership. (But then I would wouldn’t I?) The latest comes from Charles Marsh at Religion & Politics:

Suffice it to say, the call to an armed laity puts the evangelical gun loyalist in an exceedingly awkward relation to the teachings of Jesus.  “Put your sword back in its place,” Jesus tells Peter in the Garden of Gethsemane. “Everyone who uses a sword will be killed by a sword.” This is not to say that the Christian tradition is, or ought to be, uniformly pacifist; still, the religion of Jesus clusters undeniably around the practices of forgiveness, reconciliation, and the preferential option for nonviolence. “Christians, instead of arming themselves with swords, extend their hands in prayer,” wrote one of the fourth-century authors of Christian orthodoxy, Athanasius of Alexandria. An armed church is a church without martyrs.

Marsh goes on to ask: “What real significance can the Gospel have if its ambassadors so readily gamble with human life?” And it seems like a good question to me.

Still: Talking about martyrdom is easy – living a life in preparation for it is really hard. And maybe this is one of those areas where I notice the speck in my neighbor’s eye without checking the cinder in my own?

One of the most straightforward cases for Christian gun use I can find is here, in a post called “Why Some People Need a Good Killing.”

 While it is true that Jesus told Peter to put away His sword because he must be crucified for the sins of the world (Matthew 26:52), he told them that very night to buy a sword in advance of their coming persecution (Luke 22:36). While Jesus’ exhortation that we turn the cheek from insult (Matthew 5:39) has been taken by pacifists (defined by JD’d dictionary as “those who let others die for their lives and liberties”) to be the locus classicus text for passive non-resistance, a robust theology of persecution reveals that that the thrice-holy God has indeed called his people to self-defense, protection of the innocent through violent means, and promotion of the general welfare through war. There is no logical reason to believe that God’s call to arms throughout Scripture has been abrogated in this current dispensation, for God does not change (Malachi 3:6) and his Word is immutable (Hebrews 6:17). Furthermore, the call to martyrdom that we see repeated throughout the New Testament does not imply that our death for the sake of the cross be a peaceful surrendering of ourselves over to injustice or voluntary death.

That seems … like a rationalization to me.

Let me explain: It seems like the New Testament most clearly implies that “our death for the sake of the cross be a peaceful surrendering of ourselves” with one knockout blow: The example of Jesus himself, where the author of this paragraph begins. If Jesus tells Peter to put his sword away, why would I — the follower of Jesus — be encouraged to do any differently?

I want to be fair to my gun-loving friends of faith. But I have a hard time seeing the case for their stance. Defending yourself is the most natural, most human thing in the world. Living a martyr’s life? Not so much. That’s why I expect it’s probably the more Christian stance to take.

Sincerely,
Joel

Are we ‘willing to be persecuted for righteousness’ sake?’ American Christians and Donald Trump

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The savior?

Dear Rebecca:

I’ve been perusing the Mennonite Confession of Faith recently, pondering where I — a person with one foot in and one foot out of the church — fit in, when I came across this sentence in the section on “Peace, Justice, and Nonresistance”:*

“As followers of Jesus, we participate in his ministry of peace and justice. He has called us to find our blessing in making peace and seeking justice. We do so in a spirit of gentleness, willing to be persecuted for righteousness’ sake.”

“Willing to be persecuted for righteousness’ sake.” That’s an extraordinary claim to make on the lives of believers, and I think it gets to something about why a large section of the American Church — I’m speaking here of broader Christianity, not just Mennonites — has thrown its weight behind Donald Trump: Because the church really isn’t willing to be persecuted for righteousness’ sake.

This section of the confession points straight to the Beatitudes as its inspiration.

Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called children of God.

10 Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

11 “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. 12 Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

The first thing to point out is: This is very, very counterintuitive. Nobody feels blessed when they’re insulted and persecuted. The temptation is not to rejoice and be glad. And frankly, it depends on a pretty deep faith — one I don’t really have — for a payoff: You’ll be rewarded in heaven.

Here on earth? Not so much.

Again, it’s interesting to view the relationship between Donald Trump and the church in this light. Because so many Christian leaders seem not to “rejoice and be glad” in the face of difficulties. They are not “willing to be persecuted for righteousness’ sake.” Instead … they throw down.

One can argue how much American Christians really are persecuted, but it’s certainly less and less the case that society is ordered along the lines they desire. It’s hard to feel bad for folks if they feel persecuted because other people can get married, because other people don’t say “Merry Christmas” at the holidays, because, frankly, they’re no longer dominant.** But they feel persecuted, and that’s where Donald Trump comes in.

Donald Trump promises we’ll all say “Merry Christmas.” Donald Trump gives conservatives the judges they want. Donald Trump, in essence, promises American Christians they won’t have to be the persecuted, ever. He promises, essentially, that they shouldn’t ever feel all that uncomfortable.

That’s got to be really appealing.

When Christianity manifests itself as just another American tribe, jostling for dominance, it seems very much to me like an act of unbelief, then. There’s not a trust that the reward is coming in heaven, only a need to win battles right now. It suggests that even believers don’t really believe in a “reward in heaven.”

It’s possibly hypocritical for me to note this, because I’m unsure of a reward in heaven, too. But it suggests to me that a Christianity whose prime concern is winning today’s political debates is one that, ultimately, doesn’t really believe in what it’s selling.

Respectfully,

Joel

*I’m glad the Mennonites use the Oxford comma. Is that weird?

**I’m actually somewhat sympathetic to people who don’t want to make cakes for gay weddings, in the sense I wouldn’t want my creative work to be used for causes I disagree with, either. I also don’t think it’s wise of them to refuse, based on the whole “if your brother asks for your coat, give it to him” understanding of scripture, but YMMV. I suspect the Supreme Court will eventually weigh in on that matter, on the side of the bakers. Ethically, it’s a conundrum! But that said, the sense of Christians being persecuted in America mostly comes from no longer dominating the culture.

July 4 and Mennonites

Dear Rebecca:

Do you celebrate July 4?

That’s a question I don’t think will compute for many of our non-Mennonite readers. But our church has a long history of eschewing patriotism, particularly where it curdled into militarism — the folks I grew up with in Central Kansas were descended from people who (in the popular telling) had fled from Germany to Russia to avoid fighting in German wars, then Russia to America to avoid being conscripted into Russian wars. Back in World Wars I and II, those folks had grown extremely unpopular: People with German names — a lot of them still spoke the language, assimilating slowly — wouldn’t take up arms against the Krauts! It wasn’t a popular position.

The manifestations of that theology remain unpopular in the broader culture. A few years ago, a conservative talk show host aroused popular anger against Goshen College because it didn’t play the national anthem prior to sporting events. “It is, after all, about a military battle (“bombs bursting in air,” etc.), and some Mennonites believe that any expression of patriotism, placing love of country above love of God, risks idolatry,” the New York Times reported. “Countries rise and fall; the message of Jesus is supposed to be eternal.” Goshen briefly backed down, but ultimately settled on playing a different, less bombastic song, “America the Beautiful.”

(Editor’s note: The second verse of “America the Beautiful” might sound familiar, thematically, in a lot of Mennonite churches:

O beautiful for pilgrim feet

Whose stern impassioned stress

A thoroughfare of freedom beat

Across the wilderness!

America! America!

God mend thine every flaw,

Confirm thy soul in self-control,

Thy liberty in law!

Mennonites have that pilgrim heritage, after all. And oh, how they love self-control!)

Anyway: Independence Day, when this country’s leaders decided to launch a rebel war against their British masters, is unavoidably militaristic. The fireworks!

So: Do you celebrate?

Me? Yes. Ish.

Let me tell a story. It’s one I’ve told publicly before, but it’s kind of a touchstone for me, and so it is here.

Within a few weeks of 9/11, I got in my car and started driving to New York. History was happening, and I’d become a journalist because I wanted to see history with my own eyes. So I drove cross-country on my own. I stopped to talk with people who live outside Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri, where B-2 bombers were flying attack missions to Afghanistan; I stopped at the Mennonite seminary in Indiana to visit friends and write a story about how pacifists were dealing with events; I visited the Pennsylvania field where Flight 93 crashed, and sat in a mortuary with the overwhelmed county coroner, sitting in his socks as he dazedly recounted his efforts of recent weeks.

And then I ended up in the city. I saw what was left of the Twin Towers, saw smoke still rising from the wreckage, and … smelled it.

More importantly, I talked with people who’d experienced the day. Most importantly, I was taken to meet a Puerto Rican family in their home – a tiny apartment where they’d raised their family, and was given lime-flavored coffee to drink while we talked, while the mother of the family talked about watching the Towers come down.

The trip made me love America, but not in a defensive how dare they attack us! way. Driving by myself and covering only the northeast quarter of the country, I’d gotten a taste of how much bigger and more diverse this country is than my Kansas upbringing had allowed me to see. Within a few years, I’d be raising a family in a tiny Philadelphia apartment, even smaller than the place I’d been hosted.

July 4 is problematic for Mennonites for reasons I listed before, and for liberals who don’t hate America, but do want to temper pride with humility, a recognition that the good things we have were often obtained through sinful, destructive means like slavery and Jim Crow and theft of the land from its original owners. And this year, let’s face it, for a lot of us this country seems a bit uglier and meaner than it did a year ago. It’s hard to feel celebratory.

But Mennonites also do community very well. It’s one reason I love them. (And they don’t do it without problems of their own either, as you well know.)

So on July 4, I will go and spend time with friends. We will eat food and my kid will play with their kids. I will enjoy the community I’ve created, and love that America contains so many different kinds of communities, and I will celebrate that as our strength.

We are large. We contain multitudes. That is my July 4.

Sincerely, Joel

P.S.: I’d be remiss if I didn’t note that July 4 is also the fourth anniversary of my mother’s death. It makes the day more complicated for me,  the need to spend time in community even more precious. FWIW.

In Christ there is no East or West

Dear Rebecca:

I’m sorry I haven’t posted lately. My silence has been driven by two things: Busyness, but also a deep anger about our politics — with heartless Republicans and smug liberals — and, well, I haven’t trusted myself to comment rationally and persuasively.

I went to church this morning, though, and got to sing the traditional version of this untraditional Mavis Staples take on an old hymn:

The United Methodist Church has an interesting website devoted to the history of hymns. About the original version, it says this:

As UM Hymnal editor Carlton Young observes, “[t]he theme of Oxenham’s hymn, one of the most durable hymnic statements of Christian unity in the twentieth century, is from Galatians 3:28: ‘There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ.’”

Though originating in the missionary movement in the 19th and early 20th centuries, this hymn gratefully lacks the triumphalism and hegemonic assumptions of so many mission hymns of this era. Perhaps the author’s extensive travel helped him develop a sense of Christian unity beyond the racial and cultural differences that he observed.

This is my animating idea when it comes to the church, I guess. It’s why I resist Christianity as tribalism, or as a force that reinforces our tribalism. If there is a god and that being is the God of us all, what excuse do we have to separate ourselves and to exult in, be prideful about, those separations?

It was a good morning to be in church. A time to be reminded of some important stuff.

Sincerely,
Joel

Jesus and Memorial Day

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Rebecca:

I’m not one of those pacifist Christians who pooh-poohs the idea of Memorial Day. Though my own inclinations are dovish, I have friends who have served honorably in the military — I care very much for and about those friends — and I know that people who served in our military have almost always done so with the best of intentions. Live and let live, I say.

On the other hand, I have to admit being skeptical of this:

Every year there are the usual Christian bloggers denouncing the supposedly idolatrous nationalism of patriotic holidays like Memorial Day and July 4. Any display of the flag in proximity to the church or congregational reverence for fallen soldiers is ostensibly a grievous rebuke to the Gospel.

This globalist mindset for Western secular elites is increasingly true for many American church elites, including some Evangelicals, whose elitism recoils at populist patriotic spirituality in Christian and especially evangelical subculture. It’s part of a larger spiritual universalism that rejects or minimizes particular loyalties. Although it nobly aspires to love for all humanity, it fails to appreciate that love meaningfully can only begin with relations in proximity, with family, friends, neighborhood and country. Loving everybody everywhere abstractly is unlikely without first loving nearby persons.

And that’s why Jesus was the Messiah *just for the Jews.*

Forgive the snark.

Loving the people around you is easy, but Jesus rarely preached the virtue of easy attachments. He spoke of loving your enemies, of visiting the prisoner. He offered parables about good Samaritans — Samaritans being outside of Jesus’s circle of “nearby persons.” John 3:16 speaks of a God who loves *the world.*

I am very much against Christianity as nationalistic tribalism. It’s one reason I’ve not found a place in the church. Living the way that Jesus speaks, with a kind of universal love, is damn hard. It doesn’t preclude your nearby attachments. It does suggest that killing for those attachments … might be unwise.

Which might be read as a criticism of Memorial Day, after all. Nah. I suspect some of us are called differently. Life is complicated.

—J

For Mother’s Day, Rod Dreher Decided to be a Jerk

Rebecca:

I’ve written the following about Rod Dreher on this blog:

I love Rod Dreher. I hate Rod Dreher. He’s essential reading. I sometimes have to turn off his RSS feed for weeks or months. He’s incredibly thoughtful. He’s a kneejerk reactionary. He’s terrified of the influence that gays will have on American society. He’s really good friends with Andrew Sullivan — who kind of helped kickstart the gay marriage movement decades ago. He’s profoundly human, but I wish he could be a bit more humane and less purely contemptuous of people who think differently than he does. I think there’s stuff we have to learn from him, and for God’s sake sometimes I wish he’d just shut the hell up.

Tonight, I wish he’d shut the hell up. Why? Here’s Twitter.

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Now. Maybe it’s because I just celebrated another Mother’s Day without my mother — the day after what should’ve been my parents’ 45th wedding anniversary.

Or maybe it’s because I saw the image posted earlier in the day, by a friend who spent many years longing to become a parent — she and her husband finally adopted a couple of years back, a joy to them and all who know them — and who, I know, still vividly remembers the pain of that yearning.

But:

Rod Dreher has written not one, but two books substantially centered on his daddy issues. Some people draw memes suggesting flowers for people who have family issues; Dreher’s made an income from his.

And Dreher’s whole shtick is that modern American society is destroying the family, and that civilization will soon follow. So why not make fun of people who yearn for family, or to improve their family relationships?

Dreher’s feelings get hurt easily. We know that from reading his blog and books. But he doesn’t reciprocate the sensitivity he seeks from others. One moment where a bit of humanity might’ve proven beneficial from him, and he chose to go for the hurtful snark.

So screw him. He deserves as much of a respectful hearing as he gives others. Which is to say: None.

-Joel

P.S. “Participation trophies” are for folks who have lost competitions. Family isn’t — shouldn’t be — a competition.

P.S. again: Dreher didn’t like my series of tweets castigating him for his tweet. Apparently he can dish out the “participation trophy” disses, but can’t stand when the heat is redirected. That’s fine.

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What can non-Christians tell Christians like Erick Erickson about Christianity?

President Trump’s budget came out Thursday, with big increases to military spending and big cuts to pretty much all other discretionary spending. Lots of people raised a big stink, to which conservative Erick Erickson responded:

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So. Can Christians learn anything about Christianity from non-Christians?

I’d like to think so. Certainly, we can read the Bible as well as any Christian can, and if we who are atheist or agnostic or Jewish or Muslim can read those words, look at how Christians behave, and draw some conclusions about the sincerity or authenticity of that faith.

We can read, for example, Mathew 25:

34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

…and expect Christians to act accordingly.

Don’t get me wrong: There’s still plenty to argue about, I guess, regarding the “how” we feed the hungry and clothe the naked. Does that have to be a government program?

But understand: American Christians bring their religiously based moral understandings to bear on a whole bunch of government policy — especially as regards reproductive rights, but also a whole bunch of other stuff. If they want to hold society to their standards, it’s only fair that the rest of us try to hold them to their standards too, no?