Guns and Jesus
Christians Wonder: Would
Prince of Peace Own Weapon?
August 29, 1998
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
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,''
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
``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
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
``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.''
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