Guns and Jesus

Christians Wonder: Would Prince of Peace Own Weapon?

Published: Saturday, August 29, 1998
Section: LIVING
Page: E1

By Mark I. Pinsky of The Sentinel Staff

A popular line of Christian jewelry asks: ``What Would Jesus Do?'' But across the nation this summer, a more timely question among religious people is: ``Would Jesus own a gun?''

As a symbol of brotherhood and teacher of peace, Jesus probably didn't carry a weapon in his day. Those who try to follow his example now, though, are struggling to reconcile religious beliefs with concerns for personal security and, for some, a love of hunting.

``He didn't need to have a weapon because he was God in the flesh,'' said the Rev. Rylan Millett of Crossroads Baptist Church in Maitland. Still, Millett said, it is ``a God-given right as an American to have a gun in your house or to go hunting.''

The issue arose in June when leaders of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) voted by a 3-1 margin to advise their members to remove handguns and assault weapons from their homes. For 25 years, the denomination has supported increasingly stringent forms of gun control. This year, church officials said, it was time to take the next step.

Prompted by school shootings and citing U.S. firearm death statistics, the resolution of the Presbyterian General Assembly noted that ``God has called all followers of Christ to be active seekers of peace.''

The resolution came when the death rate from guns actually appears to be declining. There were 35,957 deaths by firearms - including murders, suicides and accidents - in the United States in 1995, the latest year for which figures are available. That was down from 38,505 deaths reported in 1994. Federal officials say they expect a further drop for 1996's statistics.

As if to mark the other end of the gun ownership spectrum, the Kentucky Legislature last month made it legal for clergy with concealed-weapons permits to carry handguns inside places of worship. A lay minister at a small church led the effort to change the law after an armed robbery and a kidnapping at gunpoint at nearby churches.

The Rev. Nancy Jo Kemper, executive director of the Kentucky Council of Churches, was outraged by the Legislature's action.

``Jesus would puke,'' she said. ``Jesus would be both surprised and appalled. If he went after the money-changers in the temple with a whip, I can seriously believe he would tongue-lash anyone who would carry a weapon into a sanctuary.''

How can Christians reach such different conclusions about the rightness of owning a gun?

``Religion and culture interact in very complex ways,'' said Robert L. Young, associate professor of sociology at the University of Texas at Arlington.

Young, author of a journal article titled ``Protestant Heritage and the Spirit of Gun Ownership,'' said Southern and rural Protestants are more likely to think it is all right to have guns because they are more likely to hunt.

But theology also can influence attitudes toward guns among Christians who don't hunt. Fundamentalists who believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible may be more likely to use guns to defend their homes and themselves, Young said. This is especially true in their reading of the Old Testament, which emphasizes uncompromising punishment for sin.

``Gun ownership is a punitive response to crime, as opposed to a strictly defensive response,'' Young said.

Christians who emphasize the New Testament and its themes of forgiveness prefer crime-deterrent measures, such as alarm systems and watchdogs, Young said. Willie Ramsey, the Kentucky preacher who campaigned for the right to carry a gun, calls Young's analysis nonsense. He said he relied on numerous verses from the New Testament, including one in the book of Luke, in which Jesus advises his disciples to sell their clothes in order to buy swords.

The relevant question for Christians, Ramsey said, is not ``What would Jesus do?'' but ``What does Jesus allow his disciples to do?'' The Rev. Howard Edington, of First Presbyterian Church of Orlando, reads the New Testament differently.

``I don't own a gun and would be unable to use one,'' said Edington, who attended the Presbyterian General Assembly and supports the denomination's resolution. ``I think the church ought to be engaged in constructive actions.''

But not even all Presbyterian pastors agree with the resolution. The Rev. Atlee Stevens, pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Lake Mary, shoots targets two or three times a week and has a permit to carry a weapon.

``I see no real conflict with Scripture and owning guns,'' Stevens said. ``I understand where people are coming from who don't want you to carry a weapon, but as far as it conflicting immediately with scripture, no, I don't think it does.''

Sometimes the realities of modern American society can put theology in conflict with practicality.

``Christians have a responsibility to defend themselves,'' said the Rev. Samuel Hoard, a retired Lutheran minister in Orlando. Hoard has a concealed-weapons permit and said he has carried a gun since he served as a chaplain in Vietnam.

``I keep one today because I'm always in the inner city'' - a place where he has encountered vagrants, panhandlers and drug addicts, Hoard said.

But as an African-American, Hoard said, he feels more secure with his gun wherever he is. He cited the case of a black man in Texas who was recently dragged to death behind a truck. Three white men have been indicted on capital murder charges in the death.

``I am concerned about my safety late at night when people will attack you just because of your race,'' Hoard said.

Owning a firearm is one issue; gun control is another. Pastors on both sides of the ownership question agree that existing laws regarding gun control and registration should be obeyed. They cite Jesus' admonition to ``render unto Caesar what is Caesar's,'' as well as similar passages regarding civil authority in the books of Romans and Titus.

Most mainline Protestant, Catholic and Jewish organizations and denominations have supported some form of gun control. The United Methodist Church, for example, voted in 1996 to make its churches ``no-gun zones.''

In November, Florida voters will decide whether to allow counties to impose waiting periods and mandatory background checks on people wanting to buy firearms at flea markets and gun shows. Will church goers rely on their denomination for guidance?

``I believe that they will,'' said the Rev. John Dalles, who pastors Wekiva Presbyterian Church in Longwood and supports the Presbyterian's anti-gun stance. ``I think Presbyterians are paying very

close attention. ... There is such a high concern about this, especially with the guns being taken to school.''

Copyright 1998, Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.
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