“It’s important to note first of all that the right of self-defense is rooted in the teaching of Jesus himself. He once told his disciples that he would be ‘numbered with the transgressors,’ and that as a result their own lives could be endangered because of their association with him. He therefore counseled them, ‘Let the one who has no sword sell his cloak and buy one’ (Luke 22:36). You can’t get more legitimacy than that. A legal principle rooted in the teaching of Christ is pretty tough to beat.”
-Bryan Fischer, Director of Issues Analysis for the American Family Association, “When America HAD to Pack Heat to Church”
According to a recent AP report, there has been “no real reduction” in school shooting in the U.S. since the Newton Tragedy in December 2012. In spite of increases in security measures in schools, the rate of gun violence in schools has not changed since the 1990s. Reports of school lockdowns and of rampaging shopping mall gunmen are now frighteningly commonplace on our evening news reports.
In the public sphere there has been a lot of talk about violence in entertainment, access to mental health care, lax gun control, and other things that might be “part of the problem.” As we seek to find solutions that will make it increasingly difficult for these kinds of tragedies to be repeated, Christians are turning to the Bible to find support for their particular point of view. Unfortunately, much of the conversation is little more than folk theology.
For example, take a look at the quote above. It comes from a post by Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association. He was maligned in the media for his statements in the wake of the Sandy Hook shootings, asserting that when prayer was banned from schools, an environment was created in which God’s presence was no longer welcome, thus allowing the shootings to happen.
The quote originally appears in Fischer’s response to the murder-suicide of Javon Belcher, a Kansas City Chiefs football player, in early December 2012. Mr. Fischer asserts that the problem with the murder-suicide in Kansas City was “not that there were too many guns around but that there weren’t enough.” If Belcher’s girlfriend had been armed, he offers, perhaps she’d still be alive. After all, Fischer surmises, it is her God-given “right” to defend herself. For support of his claim, Mr. Fischer turns to the Bible and pulls a single verse out of Luke 22, which he claims is a command from Jesus to his followers to carry weapons for self-defense. His interpretation and application of this verse is indicative of the kind of folk theologizing that is dominating much of the Christian conversation these days.
Did Jesus, as Mr. Fischer claims, command his followers to arm themselves in order to defend against the coming persecution? If so, can this “right to self-defense” be interpreted in our present-day culture and applied as a Christian right (or even command) for gun ownership?
In the passage referenced by Mr. Fischer (Luke 22:24-38), Jesus has just finished the Last Supper and is warning his disciples that in the coming days, they will face all sorts of persecution because of him. He tells them that, in contrast to the last time he sent them out (Luke 10:1-24), this time they will be on their own in the world, without Jesus’ supernatural provision. Just after he gives the cryptic command in verse 36 for his followers to “buy a sword,” comes this:
The disciples said, “See, Lord, here are two swords.”
“That is enough,” he replied. (Luke 22:38)
There were at least eleven disciples with Jesus at this point (Judas had recently departed), likely more. We know that Jesus was often surrounded by followers in addition to the twelve apostles. Even if we assume that just eleven of the disciples were with Jesus (which is unlikely) and even if we take Jesus’ command for to buy a sword literally (also unlikely, as we will soon see), Jesus seems to be telling his followers that two swords among the twelve of them was “enough.”
In fact, most theologians who comment on this passage see Jesus’ command to buy a sword as an extreme figure of speech, used by Jesus to warn the disciples of the intensity of the coming persecution, not as a command to arm themselves. The disciples, dense as ever, took Jesus literally, at which point Jesus responded with a curt, “Enough of this!” The disciples didn’t get it (see Matthew 16:5-12 for a similar instance of the sometimes wooly-headed disciples taking Jesus’ metaphorical utterances literally).
Jesus never commanded his followers to engage in armed conflict. He made no caveat for self-defense, much less establish a “legal principle” of self-defense, as Mr. Fischer claims. When a disciple (Peter) drew a sword and cut off a man’s ear in self-defense just a few verses later, Jesus rebuked the sword-bearer and healed the one who’d been victimized. The collective witness of the early church is that Christians would die as martyrs before they’d fight back.
Let us not leave this talk of Jesus and swords there, though. The other passage that is often brought into this conversation is found in Matthew 10, where Jesus says,
Do not suppose I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword (Matthew 10:34).
Here is another verse that is commonly used to lend support to Christian engagement in violent conflict or in weapons use, and again the verse is misunderstood and often applied wrongly. Jesus is using a slick turn-of-phrase, a figure of speech called a marshal. Once again, the subsequent verses in the passage serve to clarify the one in focus here. Jesus is saying that following him is a choice that will make one unpopular, even in his or her own family. It will divide relationships along the lines of belief and unbelief just as cleanly as a sword separates bone from sinew. Choosing to follow Jesus will bring hardship and require humility and faithfulness. In saying that he is bringing “a sword,” Jesus is talking about the division that results from belief; he is not advocating bearing arms.
This post is titled, “Did Jesus Command His Followers to Pack Heat?” The answer is, of course, “no.” But that’s not really a fair question, is it? After all, Mr. Fischer doesn’t make that particular claim. Instead he claims that “the right of self-defense is rooted in the teaching of Jesus himself.” That claim is false. Jesus taught nothing of the sort, not in the verse Mr. Fischer quoted, nor anywhere else. If anything, Jesus taught and modeled self-sacrifice, not armed self-defense. He taught his followers to “love their enemies,” to “pray for those who persecute you,” to “turn the other cheek,” and to forgive someone “seventy times seven times.” Jesus chastised Peter for resorting to violence in his defense and then went boldly and subversively to the cross. So, if one is going to search the Bible for support of the use of deadly weapons in self-defense, one will have to look outside the life and witness of Jesus.
 I take this term from Stanley Grenz and Roger Olson’s excellent work, Who Needs Theology?: An Invitation to the Study of God. In it they define folk theology as “a kind of theology that rejects critical reflection and enthusiastically embraces simplistic acceptance of an informal tradition of beliefs and practices composed mainly of clichés and legends. . . . Folk theology is often intensely experiential and pragmatic–that is, the criteria of true belief are feelings and results” (Grenz and Olson, Who Needs Theology?, 27).
 William Barclay says of this exchange between Jesus and his disciples, “Verses 33 to 38 with their talk of swords is a strange passage. But what they mean is this–Jesus was saying, ‘All the time so far you have had me with you. In a very short time you are going to be cast upon your own resources. What are you going to do about it? The danger in a very short time is not that you will possess nothing; but that you will have to fight for your very existence.’ This was not an incitement to armed force. It was simply a vivid eastern way of telling the disciples that their very lives were at stake” (Barclay, The Gospel of Luke, 269-270).
Similarly, Leon Morris writes, “The disciples did not understand. They spoke in terms of this world’s arms and said they could muster only two swords. Jesus’ response, ‘It is enough,’ means not, ‘Two will be sufficient’ but rather, ‘Enough of this kind of talk!’ It is a way of dismissing a subject in which the disciples were hopelessly astray” (Morris, Luke, 310).
Noted New Testament scholar I. Howard Marshall says of the passage, “It brings to a climax the misunderstanding and earthly-mindedness of the disciples which has already figured three times in the dialogue, and which stands over against the promises and warnings of Jesus. . . . the disciples fail to understand; taking Jesus literally, they produce two swords, and Jesus has to rebuke them for their lack of comprehension–a lack that will become even more evident when Jesus is arrested” (Marshall, Commentary on Luke, 823-824).
Finally, Darrell L. Bock: “Jesus’ final words make it clear that circumstances are changing. Opposition to the disciples is rising. Where before Jesus had sent them out empty-handed yet they were provided for (9:1-6; 10:3-4), now they will have to take provisions and protection for their travel. They will have to procure a sword. . . . The disciples take Jesus’ remarks literally and incorrectly. They note that they have two swords, but Jesus cuts off the discussion. Something is not right, but it is too late to discuss it. As the arrest will show, they have misunderstood. They draw swords then, but Jesus stops their defense in its tracks. He is not telling them to buy swords to wield in physical battle. They will have to provide for themselves and fend for themselves, but not through the shedding of blood. They are being drawn into a great cosmic struggle, and they must fight with spiritual swords and resources. The purchase of swords serves only to picture this coming battle. This fight requires special weapons (Eph. 6:10-18). . . . Jesus is about to exemplify the walk of the innocent before a hostile world. His success is not indicated by his withdrawl or even his survival; it is indicated by his faithfulness” (Bock, Luke, 354-355).
 This mashal is clearly intended as “a paradoxical saying, one that sounds unbelievable! That it is contrary to prevailing opinion is indicated by the opening words, ‘Do not think that . . . ‘ Cf. 3:9; 5:17; John 5:45. What Jesus says here causes the one who hears or reads it to startle in shocked disbelief. The natural reaction to the surprising statement would be: ‘How can this saying be true? Is not Christ the “prince of Peace” (Isa. 9:6)? Is he not the One who pronounces a blessing on those who make peace (Matt. 5:9)? If he did not come in order to bring peace how can the following passages be true: Ps. 72:3, 7; Luke 1:79; 2:14; 7:50; 8:48; John 14:27; 16:33; 20:19, 21; Rom. 5:1; 10:15; 14:17; Eph 2:14; Col 1:20; Heb. 6:20-7:2? Do not all of them in the strongest words proclaim Jesus as the Bringer of peace?’ We should remember, however, that it is the characteristic of many a mashal to place emphasis on one aspect of truth rather than on a proposition that is universally valid. . . . A little reflection will soon convince the earnest student of Scripture that there is a sense in which the coming of Christ into this world not only brought division but was even intended to do so. . . . Here ‘on earth,’ . . . the followers of Christ must expect ‘the sword.’ The word here is used to symbolize the very opposite of peace; hence, ‘division’ (Luke 12:51), resulting in persecution” (William Hendricksen. The Gospel of Matthew, 474, 475) “As Jesus concludes His commissioning charge to His disciples-turning-apostles, He makes it impossible for His followers to misunderstand what He demands of them. They dare not believe He is leading them into a trouble free utopia. ‘Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace on earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword’ (Matthew 10:34). In Ephesians 6:17, Paul calls the Word of God the ‘sword of the Spirit.’ This sword ‘penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow’ (Hebrews 4:12). Jesus is the Prince of Peace, but He is also ‘the way and the truth and the life’ (John 14:6), and as every wise person has discovered, truth divides” ( LeRoy Lawson. Matthew, 145-146).  In the parallel occurrence of this passage in Luke, there is no mention of a sword. Jesus says, “Did you think I came to bring peace? No, I tell you, but division.”