Right after the tragic Sandy Hook Elementary shootings, I Googled ‘Christian gun control’ and ‘Christian gun rights,’ and found, not surprisingly, some spirited Biblical defenses of the right to bear arms. Today, I’m happy to report, these pages are mostly drowned out by evangelical voices, whether conservative evangelicals or former conservatives, who are increasingly willing to challenge the doctrines of the NRA.
The debate remains shrill and intractable, of course, among evangelicals, just like the larger national debate. One reason for this, I believe, is that evangelicals try to resolve moral questions by appeal to Scripture, and yet they operate with hermeneutical assumptions that make this appeal fruitless.
For example, Ellen Painter Dollar, a former blogger for Christianity Today, writes a particularly powerful piece in which she relates how her attempts to advocate tighter gun control were silenced by CT’s editors. When she turns to the Bible to defend gun control, she (like many others) quotes Matthew 26:47-52. When one of Jesus’ disciples try to defend him with his sword, Jesus rebukes him:
“Put your sword back in its place,” Jesus said to him, “for all who draw the sword will die by the sword.
Dollar interprets this as: “And those who live by the gun—who look to guns to protect us from guns—will die by the gun.” Notice her assumption: when the Bible talks about swords, it means guns.
Swords are equivalent to guns.
Now consider this Christian defense of gun rights by Larry Pratt on www.keepandbeararms.com. Pratt offers a thorough Biblical defense of the right of an individual to self-defense. Among his other arguments, he quotes from Christ’s words in Luke 22:36:
“. . . But now, he who has a money bag, let him take it, and likewise a sack; and he who has no sword, let him sell his garment and buy one.”
Then he comments: “Keep in mind that the sword was the finest offensive weapon available to an individual soldier — the equivalent then of a military rifle today.”
Again, swords are equivalent to guns.
Unlike Dollar, Pratt offers an explicit justification for this claim. The sword, he argues, is a member of a larger class: ‘finest offensive weapon available.’ Although the Bible says ‘sword,’ which literally refers to a weapon with a long blade and a handle, it means ‘finest offensive weapon.’ Since a gun is the finest offensive weapon available today, the Bible’s teachings about swords apply directly to guns.
The sort of Christian who makes this argument likely thinks of himself as a ‘Biblical literalist,’ and most people are probably happy to grant him the label. But he cannot possibly be a literalist. The literal meaning of ‘sword’ is, well, a sword. Pratt, however, has translated ‘sword’ into the general concept ‘offensive weapon.’ This kind of translation is the essence of allegory, that most un-literal of hermeneutics. It’s easy to miss, however, because traditionally Christian allegory spiritualizes bodily particulars — ‘sword’ might refer to the ‘sword of the Word,’ for example. Evangelical allegory, by contrast — both in the ‘liberal’ Dollar and the ‘conservative’ Pratt — moves not from body to spirit but from particular to general: not from sword to Word but from sword to weapon.
In Pratt’s essay, this assumption leads to some particularly interesting extended allegories. Gun rights advocates love the story in 1 Samuel 13:19-23, in which the Philistines oppress the Israelites by outlawing the production of weapons:
Now there was no blacksmith to be found throughout all the land of Israel: for the Philistines said, ‘Lest the Hebrews make themselves swords or spears.’ But all the Israelites went down to the Philistines to sharpen each man’s plowshares, his mattock, his ax, and his sickle . . . So it came about, on the day of battle, that there was neither sword nor spear found in the hand of any of the people who were with Saul and Jonathan.
Pratt reads this as an allegory about gun control:
Today, the same goals of the Philistines would be carried out by an oppressor who would ban gunsmiths from the land. The sword of today is the handgun, rifle, or shotgun. The sword control of the Philistines is today’s gun control of those civil governments that do not trust their people with guns.
Notice the allegorical translations:
- ‘sword’ = ‘handgun, rifle, or shotgun’
- ‘blacksmith’ = ‘gunsmith’
- ‘sword control’ = ‘gun control’
- ‘Philistines’ = ‘those civil governments that do not trust their people with guns’
Once one recognizes this kind of reading as allegorical, one can apply the usual criticisms of allegory. First, allegory eviscerates the literal sense. Both Dollar and Pratt totally ignore certain features of swords — they have blades, hilts, etc. — and see only their function as weapons.
Moreover, allegory does this arbitrarily. Why does sword mean ‘weapon’ and not ‘bladed thing’ or, for that matter, ‘sword of the Word?’ How does one decide that the sword’s character as a weapon is meaningful but the sword’s character as a blade is not?
Because allegory is so arbitrary, it is no wonder it leads to fruitless arguments. But they are made more fruitless and intractable because the parties do not recognize that they are reading allegorically. They assume that their allegorical translation, ‘sword’ = ‘gun,’ is the meaning of the Bible. This is a dangerous illusion. To speak human words as if they are God’s word comes awfully close to a kind of false prophecy. No wonder these debates become shrill and vicious.
There are better ways to approach the Bible — but that will be the subject of my next post.