God, Guns and the Government: A Paper to Send Your Pastor

Why the Right to Bear Arms Is a Natural Cause for Christians

By Jason Jones & John Zmirak Published on July 15, 2020

Editor’s Note: This article is significantly longer than what is usually published on The Stream, but we encourage you to take time to read it in its entirely. The right to bear arms as stated in the Second Amendment has lost enthusiasm and support among many Christians in recent years. The primary cause for such decline is simply a lack of understanding of why it exists in the first place. Jones and Zmirak present here a remarkable case for how it developed out of a historical and biblical framework, how and why it has fallen out of favor, and why it is one of the most important issues at stake in the 2020 election.

Natural allies aren’t always bosom buddies. Sometimes people share much more in common than they realize, and they just need that pointed out to them. It took far too long for Evangelical Christians and Catholics to work together in the pro-life movement, for instance. But now they are a powerful force, which also defends religious liberty against hostile government initiatives.

Further back, Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal assembled a powerful electoral coalition for the Democratic Party out of disparate social and ethnic groups with common interests. Likewise, in the 1850s, various groups opposed the dominance of the slave states for different reasons, and it required a conscious effort to bring them together and form the new Republican Party out of the fragments of the dying Whigs. Effective democracy requires such coalitions, which take on special importance when shared values come under urgent threat.

Those of us concerned about religious freedom and constitutional liberties have ample reason to put the Second Amendment among the foremost rights we lobby to protect. Even if we might personally have no interest in target practice or hunting, we need to see that central to our tradition and everything else we value stand two crucial assertions:

  • The right of the individual to defend himself from violence.
  • The right of the community to resist state violence.

The Religious Roots of Gun Rights

Defenders of the Second Amendment and orthodox Christians have a great deal in common. Not just in the sense of a Venn diagram, which would reveal that they’re often the same people. Nor that distinct members of each group might back the same political candidates or face common opponents in today’s America. Nor even in the demonstrable fact that the right of self-defense and resistance to tyranny enshrined in the Second Amendment has its roots in the particular histories of the English people, the Protestant churches, and America’s earliest settlers.

The same human dignity that tells us not to tolerate slavery or racial segregation tells us that we must not let the state disarm citizens wholesale.

The truth goes deeper than that. The image of human dignity that emerged from Judeo-Christian revelation and classical philosophy directly implies the right of self-defense and resistance to tyranny. In fact, the same human dignity that tells us not to tolerate slavery or racial segregation tells us that we must not let the state disarm citizens wholesale or leave the defense of their lives, liberty, and pursuit of happiness to the agents of a state with a monopoly on violence. In this essay, I hope to demonstrate how this conclusion is inescapable.

Mounting Threats to Freedom

It’s more important than ever, at a time when state governors are banning even outdoor religious gatherings and denouncing demonstrations against the virus-driven lockdown of our economy, to insist on the basic liberties guaranteed by our Constitution. Especially as mobs led by Marxist organizations and spouting revolutionary slogan topple statues of U.S. founders, abolitionists, Union generals, and Catholic saints, and threaten to smash “white” images of Jesus. Angry, lawless crowds have taken over whole districts of cities, with police ordered to stand down.

In St. Louis, Missouri, we saw a couple forced to defend the historic home they’d lovingly reconstructed from a rage mob that had ripped off the gate to their private neighborhood, and swarmed the front lawn of their property. Now the local district attorney has seized their legal guns and is prosecuting them for the “crime” of … self-defense of their home.

The growing divide between committed churchgoers and America’s traditional gun culture could weaken support for self-defense in party platforms and future legislation.

When the governor of New Jersey can go on national television and admit that he didn’t consider the First Amendment relevant when he outlawed all religious services, America clearly needs a wake-up call to defend its founding principles. When the mayor of New York City can single out religious congregations (and no one else) with the threat that he will seize their buildings if they flout his quarantine orders, we are clearly entering dangerous territory. When governors arbitrarily deem gun shops “inessential” but abortion clinics “essential,” decreeing which businesses must close and which may open, we’re ripe for a reassertion of fundamental principles.

This Election Could Change Everything

The 2020 president election and congressional elections could prove critical to the future of self-defense rights in America. The presumptive Democratic nominee, Joe Biden, has called for a ban on the most popular hunting rifle in America, the AR-15, and has spoken scornfully of the Second Amendment’s primary purpose — as a backstop against tyranny. Although the Supreme Court has gradually moved toward a more originalist understanding of the Second Amendment, at least a couple of justices will probably retire in the next four years, meaning that the balance on the Court could easily change based on the outcome of the 2020 race. The growing divide between committed churchgoers and America’s traditional gun culture could weaken support for self-defense in party platforms and future legislation.

The most aggressive critics of self-defense present gun owners not as citizens with rights but as vectors of contagion. Now that every citizen stands under similar scrutiny, this is the time to insist on the deep religious roots of our rights as individuals.

Churches Catch the Social-Justice Virus

Second Amendment advocates face a challenge in making their case to many Christians. The problem is that churches have been colonized, especially among their elites, by adherents of statist paternalism. This paternalism historically has its roots in the “Social Gospel” movement of the late 19th century.

Churches which adopted the “social gospel” became virtual hatcheries for political activists of the dawning Progressive movement.

Responding to the doubts sown by Darwin’s theories about the reliability of the Bible on historical and doctrinal questions (i.e., the special creation of mankind, the existence of Adam and Eve, and hence the fact of Original Sin requiring redemption by Jesus Christ), many churches that we now identify as “Mainline Protestant” began to shift their emphasis away from personal holiness, evangelism, and (later) sexual morality.

They gradually ceded ground on such doctrinal questions, while insisting that Christian ethics of kindness, “social justice,” and concern for the poor remained untouched by doubts about biblical inerrancy, the Fall of Man, or even the miracles of the New Testament culminating in the Resurrection of Jesus. (See Richard Marsden, The Soul of the American University, p. 408 ff.)

How to make Christian ethical concerns effective, given their own fading belief in eternal punishment or reward? By implementing them through the State. Churches which adopted the “social gospel” became virtual hatcheries for political activists of the dawning Progressive movement, which saw either full-on socialism or an omnicompetent welfare state as the means by which the “Kingdom of God” could be made real on earth in our own time and by human means. (See Murray Rothbard, The Progressive Era, p. 316-17.)

Instead of individuals submitting themselves to the will of God and voluntarily taking part in the traditional “works of mercy” commended by the Gospel, citizens would be “educated” in public schools, “organized” by the central state, and compelled by law to sacrifice their own autonomy, wealth, and liberty for the “common good.”

Woodrow Wilson: ‘Messianic’ President

The most extreme example of the “social gospel” becoming directly political was the presidency of Woodrow Wilson, who saw his own administration, and especially his engineered U.S. intervention in World War I, as the hand of God at work in history, decisively re-orienting it toward the “gospel,” which he redefined in Progressive terms to refer to social change accomplished by the state. (See Richard Gamble, The War for Righteousness, Chapter 2.)

To accomplish that, of course, Wilson virtually extinguished free political speech in America, imprisoning opponents and critics of U.S. involvement in that war, among many other constitutionally questionable measures.

If the State replaces the Church as the locus of man’s salvation, what room is left for the older, Anglo-American Protestant ideal of the individual as bearer of sovereign rights, including the right to defend himself, his family, his liberty and his belongings from direct assault by criminals, or tyrannical governments? Almost none at all.

Churches as NGOs

A century on from the rise of “Progressive Christianity,” we can see the outcome in the positions taken by “Mainline” Protestant churches on a long list of political issues, from economic to regulatory. Instead of trying to aid individual souls in deepening their relationship with God, these institutions become little more than incense-tinted Non-Governmental Organizations, offering theological support to projects of completely secular origin, aimed at furthering a vision of the “common good” far removed from Christian values.

That is why so many of these progressive churches are silent or outright pro-choice on the sanctity of unborn life, and ready to jettison other traditional Christian moral positions on sexual ethics. Rather than prophetic witnesses to an other-worldly reality, these ministers set themselves up as chaplains and cheerleaders to the rebuilding of human society on the model of the ant or termite colony, where individuals matter little, so long as collective goals are achieved.

Progressive ministers set themselves up as chaplains and cheerleaders to the rebuilding of human society on the model of the ant or termite colony, where individuals matter little.

For decades, many churches that we now identify as “mainline Protestant” have shifted their emphasis away from personal holiness, evangelism, and sexual morality. On one policy question after another, mainline Protestant churches see the state as the source and summit of human action, whose mission seems to trump the rights and claims of the individual in almost every case — except, perversely, when it comes to sexual autonomy, where these desiccated churches follow the culture in affirming sexual “freedoms” their founders would have considered deadly sins. The abandonment of traditional, individual rights is evident in the churches’ approach to self-defense.

Mainline Churches: The Velvet Glove on a Steel Fist

Look at the policy position of the National Council of Churches, the umbrella group that speaks for such postliberal religious congregations as the Episcopal Church; the Presbyterian Church, USA; and the United Church of Christ. In 2019, after a mass shooting, the National Council of Churches issued a statement that reads in part:

We are deeply discouraged by the awareness of the near certainty that our elected officials will not respond in any meaningful way to this violence, for they are collectively and shamefully within the captivity of the gun lobby. Our elected leaders are guilty of negligence and cowardice.

Incendiary language from leaders also must be boldly and consistently condemned and countered. Racist, inflammatory rhetoric must be replaced by words and deeds that create beloved communities, ones that embrace ethnic, racial, and religious diversity. These are the values we wish to see in a vibrant, inclusive America.

The combination of readily available weapons of mass destruction and a toxic white racist nationalist ideology is a recipe for disaster. If we cannot confront these two evils, far greater violence and social disruption awaits our nation.

No Commandments, No Moral Guidance

Apart from the long list of “woke” buzzwords that these religious leaders incant, the most notable thing in this statement is the use of impersonal, public-health jargon to describe horrific acts by mentally disturbed or evil individuals aimed at other individual citizens. These churchmen can’t speak of “murder.” They don’t cite the Ten Commandments. They say nothing of the sanctity of life or even the rights of the victims. Instead, they speak of guns as if they were evil totems in a fetishistic religion. They discuss “gun violence” as if it were a newly emergent virus or an atmospheric pollutant. When they do engage moral issues, it’s only to chide politicians and the “gun lobby” for resisting specific legal measures to restrict Americans’ constitutional rights. The statement nowhere acknowledges those rights — the rights of citizens to defend themselves from threats.

They don’t cite the Ten Commandments. They say nothing of the sanctity of life or even the rights of the victims. Instead, they speak of guns as if they were evil totems in a fetishistic religion.

Here the relevant moral agent is the state. The bearer of rights is not the person made in the image of God but the nebulous “community” or society. A more relentlessly collectivist way of framing political issues would be hard to find outside Venezuela or North Korea.

Catholic Bishops Trying to Pass for Liberal WASPs

Nor are mainline Protestants alone in taking this approach. After religious “modernism” swept through Catholic institutions in the 1960s, U.S. Catholic bishops now advocate Progressive policies on every hot-button leftist issue from entitlement programs to immigration. Today, with the exception of a few issues on which past Church teachings at “infallible” levels of authority tie their hands (abortion, and some questions of sexual ethics), the bishops have transformed themselves, collectively, in the image of the National Council of Churches.

Here is the official statement that the U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops released in 2019 after a mass shooting:

We can never again believe that mass shootings are an isolated exception. They are an epidemic against life that we must, in justice, face. God’s mercy and wisdom compel us to move toward preventative action. We encourage all Catholics to increased prayer and sacrifice for healing and the end of these shootings.

We encourage Catholics to pray and raise their voices for needed changes to our national policy and national culture as well. We call on all relevant committees of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops to outline a reinvigorated policy agenda and pastoral campaign to address ways we can help fight this social disease that has infected our nation.

The Conference has long advocated for responsible gun laws and increased resources for addressing the root causes of violence. We also call upon the President and Congress to set aside political interests and find ways to better protect innocent life.

Equating Gun Rights With Fetal Organ Trafficking

Cardinal Blaise Cupich, whom Pope Francis appointed as Archbishop of Chicago, offered the most blatant example of moral aphasia. In 2015 he published an op-ed in the Chicago Tribune after pro-life undercover journalists exposed Planned Parenthood’s illegal profiteering in the harvested organs of aborted babies. Stunningly, Cupich found a way to equate such an inhuman practice with Americans’ defense of their Second Amendment rights (among other leftist hobbyhorses). Cupich wrote:

While commerce in the remains of defenseless children is particularly repulsive, we should be no less appalled by the indifference toward the thousands of people who die daily for lack of decent medical care; who are denied rights by a broken immigration system and by racism; who suffer in hunger, joblessness and want; who pay the price of violence in gun-saturated neighborhoods; or who are executed by the state in the name of justice.

Evangelicals Scrambling to Get ‘Woke’

Evangelical Christians are not immune to this powerful trend among the churches. Strong cultural pressures to avoid losing young believers, escape media caricatures, and curry favor with current elites are influencing Evangelical pastors and churches.

Last year, the New Yorker ran that rare thing in its pages, a glowing portrait of an Evangelical Christian organization. The organization was the pressure group Heeding God’s Call to End Gun Violence. Youthful, idealistic, and poorly catechized Evangelicals — along with those who crave respect from elite publications — are drawn to organizations like this one. In its public statements on gun issues, Heeding is virtually indistinguishable from mainline Protestant and post–Vatican II Catholic organizations. The following comes from one of its press releases, issued after a mass shooting:

Here we are again, mourning and grieving the incredible loss of life at the hands of wielders of military-style semi-automatic assault weapons. And, again we pray for the dead, wounded and unhurt in El Paso and Dayton, as we do for families of victims and perpetrators in cities across the country who suffered this weekend and every day from gun violence in America.

It’s too much. Too much grief. Too much mourning. Too many dead and wounded. Too many families damaged forever. Too many politicians unwilling to act to make our country and its residents safer from gun violence.

Yes, safer from gun violence — it’s possible and, with the power of faith, it can be done, but it’s time to get started. Now.

To us at Heeding the logical direction to start is to focus on the weapons that made killing and injuring so many in El Paso and Dayton so very easy, as they have in so many other places in the country. We call to “Demand the Ban,” namely a prohibition on manufacture, sales, transfers and possession of military-style semi-automatic assault guns.

We understand there are many issues at play regarding this weekend’s violence — white supremacism, racism, immigration and many more and we stand in solidarity with all those seeking to solve them. However, it has always been Heeding’s way to focus our attention on one issue at a time and, for many reasons, we focus now on Demand the Ban, because there is no legitimate reason to allow citizens to possess these killing machines. We doubt not that God, by whatever name, is with us and that our work is truly worship.

Man and His Rights Disappear

The talking points here are familiar, as are the weaponized buzzwords. More crucial is the philosophical shift the statement signals — one that abandons individual rights and traditional doctrinal positions, and neglects natural law reasoning. Instead of sins that need God’s forgiveness or virtues that we sinners must cultivate, we face instead “plagues,” “epidemics,” “syndromes,” and “social structures” that will yield only to government action, provoked by political activists.

Instead of sins that need God’s forgiveness or virtues that we sinners must cultivate, we face instead “plagues,” “epidemics,” “syndromes,” and “social structures” that will yield only to government action, provoked by political activists.

The human person, whom God created in His image with dignity and rights, disappears, becomes a statistic. For a person to insist on those rights in the face of a “dangerous epidemic” can only look as irresponsible as someone who willfully violates quarantine during an outbreak of the plague.

Returning to Scripture and Principles

How can those of us who treasure the Second Amendment precisely because of our reverence for the human person as divine-image-bearer respond to well-funded, media-amplified efforts to rip up the traditional American narrative of individual rights and limited government?

There are three Pillars of Support for self-defense rights that advocates should cite when addressing Christian voters:

  1. Natural law and human dignity.
  2. Judeo-Christian precedent and American history.
  3. Historical and contemporary assaults on religious and personal liberty.

I encourage others devoted to protecting human dignity and liberty to build on these pillars. While the threats today are different, human nature is not. We are still arrayed with the rights our Creator gave us, subject to threats of violence and disorder thanks to Man’s fallen intellect and will.

Pillar #1: Natural Law and Human Dignity Dictate a Right to Self-Defense

The term “natural law” refers to what we are able to know is right and wrong via reason alone, by reflecting on man’s nature and existence, without necessary reference to any religious tradition, divine revelation, or national customs and mores. Natural law describes what is proper to man as such, regardless of race, creed, or country.

What is the most basic human right in a fallen, violent world?

It must be that of self-defense against violence. Whether some aggressor aims at killing us, committing some grievous harm such as rape, or seizing our labor and its fruits, we feel intuitively that we as persons have the right to defend ourselves. And our family members. You might say that this claim arises from our animal nature, and this is true. As embodied spirits, we hearken to the call of the flesh at dinnertime, when “nature calls,” and when we decide to marry.

Man Is Something More

But man is something more. Whether you hold that we are the accidental fruit of endless random mutation and ruthless natural selection or the willed creation of a personal God, it really doesn’t matter. Not to the ethics we live by. Few dogmatic Darwinian materialists will wave off blatant racism or casual rape as “ordinary primate behavior,” although of course it is. These people, too, recognize that man is, and ought to be, different — though they have no good answer why.

What is the most basic human right in a fallen, violent world? It must be that of self-defense against violence.

We don’t really think of the antelope as having the “right” to flee from the lion. Nor do we watch nature documentaries and think of the lion as violating the antelope’s “rights.” We don’t look at termite colonies and consider that the workers are “oppressed” by the pampered queen. Nor do watch our putative evolutionary cousins, the apes, and tut-tut at them for adultery or incest. Scientists rightly dismiss such reactions as examples of “anthropomorphism.” There’s something about human nature that evokes a different kind of reaction, which we rightly call “moral.”

Body and Soul

Nor are we angels. Even the deeply mystical St. Francis of Assisi, for all his asceticism, embraced his physicality, using the affectionate term “Brother Ass” for his body. It might be stubborn and in need of regular discipline by the spirit, but his body was still his “brother,” not his enemy or his cage. The ancient Gnostics, who infiltrated Christian churches, disagreed. They insisted that the body was in fact the cage of the spirit, that its claims were completely opposite and were made by a lesser or even an evil god.

Their modern descendants, the Transhumanists, agree. They hope that our consciousness can be decoupled from our fragile, mortal frames and “uploaded” onto some more durable hardware, of silicon and plastic. But those of us who reject both Gnostic pessimism and Transhumanist fantasies know better than to grasp at ethical systems that don’t take account of the flesh and its needs.

We Live in Middle Earth

We live in a “middle realm” or “middle earth” — the term the Anglo-Saxons coined for the realm of ordinary, mortal life. We are the “crown of creation,” a “little lower than the angels.” We speculate and theorize, meditate and pray, unfurl the secrets of mathematics and physics, but to do all that we must live. In bodies.

You can’t enjoy your right to life, exercise your liberty, or pursue happiness in whatever form if you’re bleeding and dying.

America’s founders asserted a trio of moral claims in the Declaration of Independence: we are “endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights … among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Another right precedes each of those claims: the right to defend ourselves. You can’t enjoy your right to life, exercise your liberty, or pursue happiness in whatever form if you’re bleeding and dying. The muscle and bone of our bodies is the irreplaceable matrix for exercising other rights.

Why Slavery Haunts Us

That fact connects with the ugly cognitive dissonance we experience when we remember that many of our founders were slaveowners. Slaves as legal “chattel” had no final claim on their own bodies and labor, no recognized right of self-defense, no right to legal marriage or custody of their children. The attack that slavery constituted on their basic human rights was bodily. The law said that they could be whipped. They’d have to watch helplessly as their wives or daughters were raped.

The fundamental horror that slavery constitutes offers potent weapons to those who distrust or even reject the American system of ordered liberty. Yes, America was settled, and the United States founded, while the evil of slavery was accepted as a fact of life in almost every corner of the world, as it had been for most of human history. Does this vitiate every advance that Americans made toward human progress? Does it justify rejecting the documents produced and rights defended by imperfect men, who hadn’t outpaced the world enough to outlaw slavery, too? The activists who created The 1619 Project seem to think so. That’s why they twisted the documents and fudged the facts to make the entire movement of resistance to British rule in America seem like a conspiracy in defense of slavery. Better, more honest scholars have doggedly fought to correct them.

Slavery was an intolerable evil — a denial of the very human dignity that the Bible affirmed and the American Founding sought to defend. Can we really hearken to Founding Fathers who owned slaves and condoned the institution? Can we listen to theologians who made allowances for it? The answer is yes, but a qualified one. Clinging firmly to the deeper understanding of human dignity that the Christian-driven Abolition movement insisted on, we take what is of value and leave aside the errors. Yes, we are willing to say that we know better, on this issue, than Church Fathers and popes, statesmen and philosophers, whose times taught them to wink at such an evil.

The Defenseless Are De Facto Slaves

Likewise, we must be willing to confront churchmen today who have blinded themselves to the human person’s right to direct, personal self-defense against crime, and to the citizenry’s collective right to defend itself against tyranny. One of us responded directly to the U.S. Catholic bishops’ embrace of the “public health” and “gun violence” language that the contemporary left promotes. Writing in the influential Catholic magazine Legatus, Jason Jones recalled the basic moral issue that these bishops (like so many modern churchmen) ignore: the fundamental rights of the person. He wrote:

On the issue of gun rights and gun control, we are speaking of perhaps the most basic human right imaginable: the right to defend yourself and your family against an immediate threat of violence — either against your person or your hard-earned property. The primary function of the state is more effectively to guard our lives, liberties and property from aggression, coercion and theft.

But the state cannot be everywhere, nor would we want it to be. Given that, there will always be situations where citizens must defend themselves and their families against immediate threats from criminals. That is their inalienable right, and for the state to deprive them of that right would be intrinsically evil. No situation justifies doing what is intrinsically evil. Therefore, no argument of public policy, no appeal to some “seamless garment” or sentimentalized version of Christian non-violence, could ever justify preventing citizens from protecting themselves from violence. …

In many American cities, violent crime is a constant threat to citizens’ well being — not only to their safety and that of their children, but to the fruits of their hard work. The home, the car, the possessions that a member of the working poor has managed to accumulate might have taken them many years to acquire and could prove impossible to replace. But short of full-on surveillance, there is no way for the state to provide such citizens adequate protection. So these citizens must be allowed to arm themselves in a proportionate manner.

The laws governing self-defense should rightly center first and foremost on the absolute right of each human being, the image of God, to protect himself and his family — not on the calculations of distant bureaucrats or the wistful imaginings of high-minded idealists.

Thousands of Citizens Saved by Defensive Gun Use

It helps to illustrate such abstractions with facts. Unfortunately, scholars and public officials cannot agree on the best methodology to obtain reliable figures on the number of defensive gun uses (which includes everything from brandishing one’s weapon to scare off a criminal, to shooting a violent offender dead). The highest scholarly estimate, of between 2.2 million and 2.5 million such uses each year, comes from Florida State University criminologists Gary Kleck and Marc Gertz.

Too many churchmen today have blinded themselves to the human person’s right to direct, personal self-defense against crime, and to the citizenry’s collective right to defend itself against tyranny.

Gun prohibitionists dispute these numbers, claiming that thousands of respondents to the survey were lying to researchers. The lowest estimate of such defensive gun uses is 116,000 annual incidents. But the methodology that generated that number is also controversial, as Brian Doherty observed in Reason magazine.

Since the social science here is unsettled and our goal is to advance an argument, let’s pretend that we believe the lowest number. As it happens, 116,000 is very close to the number of Americans who die of Alzheimer’s disease each year, which makes it the sixth leading cause of death in the country. If we don’t consider that a trivial number when reflecting on Alzheimer’s, neither should we here. Using the lowest plausible number, every year at least as many Americans preserve their lives, families, homes, and property from violence as die of Alzheimer’s.

Outlawing a Treatment for Sickle Cell Anemia?

Opponents of private firearm ownership for self-defense, those who would restrict that right so narrowly that it would essentially allow only for hunting, want to deprive Americans of the right to resist violence. They want to subject them to the traumatic, life-changing experience of being helpless in the face of aggression. They want to take away the medicine that our founders prescribed for that evil, just as surely as someone suppressing a life-saving treatment for Alzheimer’s.

Every year at least as many Americans preserve their lives, families, homes, and property from violence as die of Alzheimer’s.

Furthermore, violent crime’s impact on nonwhite and poorer Americans is vastly disproportionate, given the disparate crime rates in such communities. So suppressing private firearms use for self-defense would actually be more analogous to … suppressing a treatment for sickle-cell anemia. All this in the pursuit of the utopian hope that punishing law-abiding gun owners will someday — probably not in our lifetimes — result in a virtually gun-free society, which might have lower crime rates overall, since the means of violence are monopolized by the state. Which would never abuse such power … would it?

Is the government’s seizure of basic human rights moral? Is it right? That’s the question to pose to liberal pastors and those who heed them.

Pillar #2: Biblical Precedent and American History

Beyond the outlines of abstract natural law, most Americans subscribe to particular creeds of religious faith and individual rights, both derived from the English, Christian tradition in which this country was founded. Neither of these traditions supports the position that citizens should be disarmed, left defenseless individually or collectively against crime, disorder, and government violence.

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You wouldn’t know that from the aggressive, moralistic statements of Progressive Christians. Their stances seem to emerge from an ahistorical ether. They rarely cite any theological authority and quote only from a narrow range of biblical verses, shorn of context and presented as bald proof texts. In fact, the Christian churches (and before them, Jewish scholars) spent many centuries puzzling over contrasting statements in scripture that make reference to violence and the use of force, either on a personal level (self-defense) or the state level (revolution and warfare).

The Pacifist Inquisition

This broad Judeo-Christian tradition of reflection included a few thinkers who concluded that God demanded of believers personal pacifism, a total nonresistance to evil, even at the cost of letting innocent family members or bystanders suffer. But that was far, far from the consensus or mainstream position. The Christian sects that adopted a position of nonresistance are small and quite identifiable: Quakers, Mennonites, Amish, and a few other groups in the Anabaptist tradition.

Neither the Bible nor natural law teaches that citizens should be disarmed, left defenseless individually or collectively against crime, disorder, and government violence.

Not one of these traditions, however, goes as far as the demand implied in the statements of Progressive Christians today: namely, that Christians must impose this nonviolence/nonresistance ethic on every other citizen in the country, even if he dissents, using the force of law and the coercion of the police. (This, of course, is how gun restriction and confiscation laws work.)

What is more, such Christian traditions were equally skeptical about the use of force by the state itself, rejecting even defensive warfare and sometimes police violence. Today’s Progressive Christians show few such scruples, seeking to concentrate every means of violence in the hands of the state itself. Even if they are fashionably “antiwar,” few Progressive Christians today embrace outright pacifism or assert that it would have been a suitable stance for the Allies to have adopted in 1941.

Opportunistic and Ahistorical Bible-Raiding

In other words, today’s gun-grabbing Christians employ the antiviolence verses in scripture opportunistically and ahistorically, applying them only to citizens and not the state, in the interests of empowering the state as the means of social control and “transformation” along Progressive lines. Outside of a few truly “Woke” enclaves such as Minneapolis and Seattle, they do not wish to disarm local police and National Guard units, who are tasked with enforcing gun laws and with the confiscations and arrests needed to make their enforcement effective. Why exempt public authorities from what are presumably universal moral injunctions? The answer is: a collectivist preference for the rights of the state over those of the human person.

Consider just a few of the contrasting, pro-self-defense texts and traditions that Progressive Christians ignore when they moralize about the need to collect all means of violence in the hands of the modern state. Here I draw on the pioneering scholarship of law professor David Kopel, in his exhaustive work of Christian history, The Morality of Self-Defense and Military Action, and that of legal historian Stephen P. Halbrook’s constitutional study That Every Man Be Armed.

Millennia of Precedents for Faithful Self-Defense

Much of the debate among Christians about the scriptural injunctions to nonviolence has centered on warfare, defensive or otherwise. That is not directly relevant to the question at hand, since few antigun activists want to disarm the state. In fact, their intent is the opposite, to make more complete the state’s monopoly on violence, the better to use it as an instrument of effective “reform” of individual citizens.

So we will highlight some historical moments when biblical believers debated the use of violence (1) in personal self-defense against crime and (2) in collective self-defense against tyranny. Such precedents ought to be useful in arguments with people who cite postmodern, Progressive Christian slogans to oppose the legal right of self-defense.

The first elephant we must clear out of the room is the rhetorically powerful, utterly simplistic reading of the Fifth Commandment, “Thou shalt not kill,” which is better translated as “Thou shalt not murder.” It is easy enough to point out that the same Hebrew Bible that contains this decree against willful murder also includes multiple demands that magistrates punish crimes with the death penalty, whose presence in scripture goes all the way back to man’s first “covenant” with God, that given to Noah.

The Fifth Commandment, “Thou shalt not kill,” is better translated as “Thou shalt not murder.”

Nor should we see this penalty as something “primitive,” which God updated or abrogated with subsequent revelations: most of the scriptural injunctions for the use of the death penalty occur later in the Hebrew Bible than Exodus. The Jews of Moses’s time and subsequent centuries did not see that this rendered the Torah incoherent or self-contradictory. They knew that the commandment forbade willful killing of the innocent, not any use of violence whatsoever — which would have condemned the actions of countless Jewish heroes who led the nation in war, assassinated tyrants, and otherwise used violence to defend the innocent. Progressive Christians are nonetheless prone to cite this commandment, stripped of context, explanation, or nuance, to support their specific policy goals.

Nor does the Torah confine the legitimate use of violence to the state. One of the earliest biblical passages of relevance here is Exodus 22:2–3: “If a thief is found breaking in and is struck so that he dies, there shall be no bloodguilt for him; but if the sun has risen upon him, there shall be bloodguilt for him.”

Was Moses a Murderer?

In other words, a victim of crime may employ immediate, direct force on a thief while the thief is engaged in his crime, but he may not capture and execute the thief later, acting in lieu of the legitimate authorities. Jewish scholars also pointed to the example of Moses, who killed an Egyptian who was assaulting a Hebrew slave. Biblical interpreters presented this not as one of Moses’s mistakes, or sins, but as an example of admirable zeal in defense of the innocent.

Jewish rabbis taught that a victim of crime may employ immediate, direct force on a thief while the thief is engaged in his crime.

Kopel cites Maimonides’s Mishneh Torak (#247), which admonishes Jews “to save a person who is being pursued, even if it is necessary to kill the pursuer.” This balanced assertion of the right we have in our own homes to act in self-defense of person and property should seem familiar: its presence in the Hebrew Bible helped enshrine it as a principle in English common law, under what we know as the “castle doctrine” (i.e., a man’s home is his castle).

Was Cicero an Anarchist?

The great Hellenizing Jewish scholar Philo pointed out that Roman law contained a similar doctrine. Stephen Halbrook identifies this provision in Roman law as a source of self-defense doctrine in subsequent jurisprudence, both ancient and medieval (that is, both pagan and Christian). The statesman Cicero recognized the right of self-defense as primordial, pre-political, and immediately apparent to any rational man — that is, as a fundamental element of natural law. He wrote:

[T]here exists a law, not written down anywhere but inborn in our hearts; a law which comes to us not by training or custom or reading but by derivation and absorption and adoption from nature itself; a law which has come to us not from theory but from practice, not by instruction but by natural intuition. I refer to the law which lays it down that, if our lives are endangered by plots or violence or armed robbers or enemies, any and every method of protecting ourselves is morally right.

Did Jesus Come to Crucify Us All?

Did Jesus come to repeal this right? Is that what He meant by “turn the other cheek”? That’s a frequent implication, rarely made explicit by anti-self-defense Christians — because to speak it aloud suggests that Jesus’s demands are irrational, even incompatible with the survival of our species.

Assertions like this one, which set Jesus’s words so completely at odds with numerous divine commands and teachings in the Hebrew Bible, amount to the early Church heresy of Marcionism. In the second century, the wealthy Christian convert Marcion deduced from his own reading that the “God” of the Old Testament was a harsh, cruel, and vindictive tyrant, whom Jesus came to save us from.

The Progressive Christian seems to believe that Jesus’s demands are irrational, even incompatible with the survival of our species.

Hence Marcion determined that the Hebrew Bible and people were evil and that their injunctions had no relevance for interpreting Jesus’s teaching. (Marcion also had to prune the New Testament of most of its books to maintain his position. He created his own personal “canon,” an action that drove the mainstream Church to respond with its own, first canon of scripture.)

Church leaders condemned Marcionism, but it never entirely vanished. It saw a revival during the Enlightenment. The great theologian Hans urs von Balthasar documented how radical thinkers who wished to reinterpret Christianity as a simple ethical system, divorced from clergy, sacraments, miracles, or even life after death, employed the Marcionite strategy of decoupling the New Testament entirely from the Old.

Much of the “higher criticism” that became dominant in the nineteenth century and gave birth to the “Social Gospel” movement embedded such Marcionite premises in its canons of biblical interpretation. Jesus as a simple moral teacher and reformer could then be read as contradicting thousands of years of Jewish biblical reading and annulling the examples of Joshua, Moses, and David. It’s only with such an (unspoken) premise that we can read “turn the other cheek” as an exceptionless moral norm forbidding self-defense or defense of the innocent.

Jesus Used Violence

Early Christians certainly did not interpret Jesus’s call to “turn the other cheek” as a command to total nonresistance to evil. For one thing, as David Kopel says bluntly, “Jesus used violence.”

His “cleansing of the temple” using a whip made of cords would fall under our legal definition of assault. It is true that He ordered the apostles not to resist His arrest, trial, and execution. Should we take from that the lesson that we are never to resist any violent assaults on our persons or our families? To conclude that, one must willfully forget Jesus’s unique mission, which was to offer Himself as an unblemished sacrifice to the Father for the sins of Adam and all subsequent mankind.

Jesus used violence. His “cleansing of the temple” using a whip made of cords would fall under our legal definition of assault.

Or else we must conclude that He intended all men to join in that sacrifice, by making themselves equally the unresisting victims of violence. Few Christians believed that Jesus had come to nail our entire race to the cross. (He asked us to “carry” crosses, suggesting not violent death but daily work and self-sacrifice.)

Christians Defending the Innocent

Instead, early Christians relied on Old Testament precedent and natural law reasoning to determine how Jesus’s words should inform our ethical practice. As Kopel notes, an important exception was St. Ambrose, who held that Jesus’s words prevented a Christian from fighting in his own self-defense but stipulated that one may and even must use violence in defense of other, innocent third parties (such as one’s family or friends). Ambrose’s pupil St. Augustine rejected this position, seeing it as irreconcilable with the obvious implications of natural law. St. Thomas Aquinas later argued that self-defense was perfectly justified but should not aim intentionally at killing the offender, though that could be an acceptable, if unintended, side effect.

Many early Christian converts refused military service with the pagan Roman Empire. But not all did, a decision that church leaders justified by pointing to the encounters Jesus had with soldiers in the Gospels. At no point did Jesus tell them that the price of following Him included their abandoning the army. A more likely concern for Christians were the mandatory pagan rituals that most Roman legions engaged in. Making sacrifices to the “household gods” of a given Roman legion was surely incompatible with the Bible (its First Commandment). But enforcing laws and fighting barbarian invaders was not.

At no point did Jesus tell soldiers that the price of following Him included their abandoning the army.

A tradition of pacifism did subsist among a few Church fathers and theologians, but in an age of barbarian invasions that threatened to destroy public order, such arguments fell on stony ground and died — especially after Constantine converted to Christianity and purged Roman armies of pagan customs.

The Right to Rebellion

What about collective self-defense against tyranny? The right of rebellion is not so obvious an implication of natural law as that of personal self-defense. Nor is it usually easy to draw the line between a government that has some important unjust laws and one that has lost all legitimacy and become a predator on the people. The greatest political philosophers have differed widely on the ideal forms of government and the nature of legitimacy. So the question of collective resistance to an evil government that has lost legitimacy is much more vexed.

But I will briefly survey the principles that informed the American Founding and the crafting of the Second Amendment in light of the Christian and natural law principles we have so far used as lodestars.

Jewish Revolts: The Maccabees and More

Jewish history and scripture offer many examples of acts of tyrannicide or justified rebellion. The most paradigmatic is the story of the Maccabees, who refused the commands of a Hellenizing ruler (one of the successors to Alexander the Great) to perform pagan sacrifices or consume foods like pork forbidden by the Torah. That rebellion was successful and established for some centuries an independent Jewish state.

The Maccabees’ rebellion was successful and established for some centuries an independent Jewish state.

But the Roman Empire’s expansion proved unstoppable, and the efforts of Jewish religious leaders to maintain spiritual independence while under Roman occupation left large sectors of the population unsatisfied. Repeated revolts against Roman rule ended in catastrophe — the infamous destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple. That required a large-scale reinvention of what had been a localized cultus into a religion suited to a people scattered in the Diaspora. The rise of Christianity and Islam meant that most Jews lived under the rule of periodically intolerant, numerically superior aliens.

As Kopel observes, this shunted Jewish thinking about collective self-defense into a quietist, if not quite pacifist, direction. Any other attitude would have amounted to a blueprint for self-destruction. It was only in the nineteenth century with the rise of Zionism that Jewish thinking returned to its scriptural roots, with a robust sense of the community’s right to resist unjust governments using force. This movement helped birth some significant Jewish armed resistance to the Holocaust and made possible the heroic battle for Israel’s independence in 1948.

Old Testament heroes would become an important part of America’s political heritage, as Protestants seeking justification for resistance against religious persecution looked for scriptural precedents.

The examples of Old Testament heroes would become an important part of America’s political heritage, as Protestants seeking justification for resistance against religious persecution looked for scriptural precedents.

Christians and the State

In the early Christian Church, most believers took their bearings from St. Paul, who urged Christians to view their (then-pagan) rulers as legitimate, as wielding God-given authority for the punishment of crimes and the maintenance of peace. The first sign of Christian resistance to Roman authority came when the Emperor Nero began persecuting Christians as an unpopular fringe sect with murky, little-known beliefs. Subsequent emperors would revive or suspend such persecutions, which hinged on the complaint that by neglecting the traditional gods of the empire, Christians were bringing misfortune down on it. In the early fourth century, Diocletian made mandatory the cult of the emperor as a divine figure deserving worship. Authorities tortured and killed many thousands of Christians for refusing to take part in these idolatrous rituals.

But through all this, Christian resistance remained passive. Christians refused to obey unjust laws and sought to evade punishment for it. No Christian teaching justified mass armed resistance to such unjust laws or tyrannical governments. Christian thinking on government received a jump-start from the conversion of Constantine, who announced religious tolerance and began to lean on bishops for political support, even entrusting some with civic responsibilities. Having the support of the powerful empire forced Christians to think about the origins of political legitimacy, the limits of state authority (for instance, over the Church), and the ethics of making war.

Clear Moral Limits on Caesar

In the early fifth century, Augustine’s epic achievement, The City of God, made clear that any human government, even a Christian one, was largely a negative force intended to limit the impact of human sinfulness and maintain some earthly order. But the true “city” in which Christians maintained citizenship was the City of God, the invisible Church on earth and in Heaven. There was no excuse for conflating earthly with spiritual power or ever again divinizing emperors.

Perhaps Augustine’s key contribution for our purposes was his formulation of “just war” doctrine, which set ethical limits on the making of war — a practice that most governments, historically, had viewed as perfectly natural and inevitable, a function of national interest and the quest for glory, with no real need for justification. Just war doctrine found broad acceptance throughout the Christian world and remains today deeply influential. In its current formulation, taken from the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

The strict conditions for legitimate defense by military force require rigorous consideration. The gravity of such a decision makes it subject to rigorous conditions of moral legitimacy. At one and the same time:

  • the damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain;
  • all other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective;
  • there must be serious prospects of success;

the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated. The power of modern means of destruction weighs very heavily in evaluating this condition. (CCC 2309)

Christians have widely adopted this calculus as the litmus for acts of armed resistance to one’s own government, too. A rebellion or civil war is a war nonetheless and must be avoided unless all of the criteria above are satisfied.

The Church Resisting Caesar

The first significant assertion of Christians’ right to resist tyrannical or unjust rulers came six centuries later, when Pope Gregory VII insisted on the rights of the Church to control its own institutions, especially the appointment of bishops, abbots, and other important clergy. The entanglement of churchmen in the feudal order of the Holy Roman Empire and other monarchies had meant that bishops controlled vast fiefs and large incomes, and monarchs claimed the power to appoint such men as part of their God-given royal sovereignty.

Gregory, by contrast, claimed not just the absolute papal right to make such appointments but also the power to depose monarchs if they violated God’s laws. That might not sound like a promising start for the liberal tradition in the West, but it did make the claim that monarchs were subject to some higher law than their own sovereignty and that their subjects could depose and replace them in some cases — albeit only when they conflicted with the higher moral claims of the Church.

As Kopel chronicles, St. Thomas Aquinas considered this subject in greater depth and drew from Gregory’s claim certain important logical conclusions — namely, that a ruler who had become a tyrant might be deposed by the agreement of his subordinate public authorities in his kingdom. The actions of English barons against King John of England, which resulted in the Magna Carta, seems to be the kind of action Aquinas had in mind.

From Reformation to Armed Rebellion

It took the Protestant Reformation, and the reality of secular rulers persecuting churchmen at the behest of the papacy, to spur Christians into thinking more deeply and consistently about the rights of subjects. Martin Luther made alliances with feudal lords of the Holy Roman Empire against the intolerant Catholic policies of Emperor Charles V and affirmed the rights of individual Christians against governments that persecuted them. But the nightmare of the German Peasants’ War frightened Luther at the prospect of continent-wide anarchy, driving him to reassert St. Paul’s doctrine of the duty of the subject to obey his monarch — except insofar as that ruler persecuted the (now-Reformed) church.

Kopel shows in detail how John Calvin and his followers, especially in religiously torn France, revived Aquinas’s arguments about overthrowing tyrannical monarchs and applied them first to magistrates and then to the body of the people. The most influential such Calvinist thinker was a French Huguenot who wrote under the name Marcus Junius Brutus. Drawing on Aquinas and other Catholic thinkers as well as biblical precedent, Brutus argued that the personal right to self-defense logically implied the right of the people to corporate self-defense. He also made the case for the relationship between a ruler and his people as a covenant — one that a ruler could vitiate by behaving tyrannically, as the Jews at various points had voided their covenants with God by behaving faithlessly.

English Reformers Follow Calvin, Not Luther

Kopel notes that Brutus’s work, Vindicae Contra Tyrranos, “gained extremely wide influence and was printed 12 times in Latin, and translated into English in 1581, 1648, and 1689 (the latter two being revolutionary years in England).” Kopel adds, “The English government ordered the book burned in 1683.”

The strong Calvinist influence on the English Reformation helped guarantee that such an argument, that the people could resist and even overthrow an overweening monarch, would become central in the struggle for power between Parliament and the absolutist Stuart monarchs James I and Charles I. Here we discover detailed theological arguments that would prove formative in the American Founding. What is equally important, these arguments are the first to do what we today would see as full justice to the dignity and rights of the human person as an image of God — over against the claims of the state.

Calvinists taught that the people could resist and even overthrow an overweening monarch who threatened their religious liberty.

In 1644, Scottish Calvinist Samuel Rutherford published Lex, Rex, or The Law and the Prince. Rutherford echoed Brutus’s arguments for the communal right of self-defense, advancing them by directly raising the significance of an armed citizenry, which could form a popular militia in case of the necessity of resisting and removing a tyrannical regime. As Kopel points out, Rutherford applied a form of the just war calculus to the question of when such a grave and dangerous course of action could be justified, and his language was echoed in the American Declaration of Independence.

John Locke, Heir to Calvin, Not Hobbes

This fervently Christian milieu of Protestants resisting persecution, focused on religious liberty as the first freedom, is the true intellectual background of the American liberties that some conservatives today, such as Patrick Deneen, wish to trace back to free-thinking secularism or Hobbesian atomism.

The churches weren’t all equally fast to adopt such a view of authority, of course. But this covenantal or contractual theory became politically dominant in Britain thanks to the victory of Parliament in the English Civil War, and its second victory in the Revolution of 1688 against King James II — an ally and long the guest of King Louis XIV, the epitome of absolutism and the ferocious persecutor of the Protestant Huguenots.

The Bill of Rights that Parliament presented and that the newly installed monarchs William and Mary approved included the right to bear arms and linked it directly to religious freedom, specifying that the Crown could not deny Protestants access to firearms — as they argued that James II had done. As Halbrook documents, the two thinkers most influential in the overthrow of James and the shaping of its constitutional monarchy were John Locke and Algernon Sidney.

Locke’s career is well known, but too often his defense of a social contract and the right of rebellion are cast as proto-secularist assertions of the kind of absolute individualism that Justice Anthony Kennedy anachronistically projected onto the American founders in Planned Parenthood v. Casey. In fact, there is no reason to doubt Locke’s lifelong assertions that he was a sincere Protestant Christian, nor to believe that he was being disingenuous when he argued that the attack on the rights of individuals made in the image of God was a violation of God’s laws. While Locke laid heavier emphasis than previous Protestant thinkers on the sanctity of property rights, he was much more emphatic on the centrality of the rights of religious conscience.

We do see some inconsistency in his unwillingness to extend that to Roman Catholics, whom he regarded as unsafe ingredients in the British commonwealth. We can mitigate our dudgeon here by remembering the persecution of Protestants that Catholic France had only recently completed in his day. Although the Vatican had discouraged that persecution, Catholic political theory made room for it, and it would only be at the Second Vatican Council almost 300 years later that the Church would embrace the principle of religious liberty and the sanctity of conscience against state interference.

Sunday Sermons: ‘Join the Militia!’

The steady exodus of English Puritans to New England, and the predominance of low-church Calvinism even among the Anglican pastors of Virginia, ensured that such Whig-Protestant arguments would dominate the intermingled religious and political culture of the American colonies. As Kopel shows, religious sermons for a century before the American Revolution incessantly reiterated the Christian duty of citizens to serve in popular militias — to maintain order, resist Indian attacks, and obviate the need for a standing army in peacetime.

Sunday sermons for a century before the American Revolution incessantly reiterated the Christian duty of citizens to serve in popular militias.

Halbrook notes that the institution of a state-controlled standing army appeared to the colonists as it had to the Puritans on the eve of the English Civil War: a potential instrument of tyranny, and hence a permanent threat to liberty, as proven in the imperial phase of Roman history and on countless occasions throughout the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.

No Second Amendment, No First

Popular militias, by contrast, they associated with the virtues of the Roman Republic and the free republics of Renaissance Italy before their subjugation by local tyrants or foreign princes. Indeed, popular militias would fight some of the early key battles of the American Revolution and form the backbone of the Continental Army. The attachment to militias and suspicion of standing armies was not alien even to George Washington, for all that he grew frustrated sometimes at the former and commanded the latter. His dogged insistence on civilian control of the military, and his strict deference to Congress, proved critical in preventing the infant United States from taking a Napoleonic turn into despotism.

The founders were so united on the centrality of self-defense, and the role of popular militias formed in case of tyrannical overreach, that the only real debate over the Second Amendment to the Constitution turned on whether it was necessary to put such obvious, universally accepted truths into writing. Halbrook’s representative quotations from the arguments over the Second Amendment make that abundantly clear. None of the founders questioned Americans’ gun rights, or the role such rights played in preserving liberty.

None of the founders questioned Americans’ gun rights, or the role such rights played in preserving liberty.

David Kopel nicely summarizes the centrality of religious freedom and its organic connection to the right to communal self-defense against tyranny:

It is instructive that James Madison and the First Congress placed religious rights and arms rights next to each other when they wrote the Bill of Rights. To Locke, and to the American founders, the right to free exercise of religion and the right to revolution were inextricable.

Pillar #3: Assaults on Religious and Personal Liberty

This too-brief, too-general survey of the development of Christian thinking on resistance to tyranny, popular sovereignty, and gun rights is meant to show an alternative political path for Christians considering the debates over self-defense in our society. These Reformation-era and colonial debates about an armed citizenry as necessary to prevent tyranny are not of antiquarian interest. The modern state outside of the Anglosphere has proven itself the deadly enemy of religious and other liberties on countless occasions. Scholar of “democide” R. J. Rummel shows that between 1900 and 1990, governments intentionally killed a staggering 169,202,000 civilians, not including casualties of war.

In Gun Control in the Third Reich, Stephen Halbrook looks at how disarming the general public during the Weimar Republic made possible the rise of a totalitarian government in Europe’s most highly educated country and rendered efforts to resist it mostly impotent — until Germany’s armies invaded nations that had large stocks of firearms still in civilian hands.

Today’s Threats to Religious Freedom, Worldwide

Since the Nazi regime is cited so often as to risk being hackneyed, and since Nazi evil was so grotesque that the example might seem overheated, let us look to a more recent instance of religious freedom imperiled by the helplessness of citizens and rescued where they had access to the means of self-defense. Within the past few years, we have seen the closest thing to controlled laboratory studies in the value of private firearms for religious freedom: the contrasting experience of Yazidis in Iraq and Syriac Christians in northeastern Syria in the face of savage religious persecution by ISIS.

In a 2017 report, the nonprofit Counter-Extremism Project described the fate of Yazidis, a small and unpopular ethnic/religious minority in the Middle East. Citing a United Nations study, the Project said that more than 400,000 Yazidis had been “displaced, captured, or killed” in under two years, since “ISIS launched a deadly siege on Yazidis in Mount Sinjar.” ISIS captured an estimated 6,300 Yazidis during the siege and “traded hundreds of Yazidi women and girls—some as young as nine years old—as sex slaves in its auctions.” The Counter-Extremism Project wrote:

According to a 2016 report by the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, ‘no other religious group’ in ISIS-controlled areas ‘has been subjected to the destruction that the Yazidis have suffered.’

The Yazidis had no organized militias or significant access to private firearms. They relied almost entirely on the security forces of the Iraqi government, which was not strongly motivated to risk defeat against the fanatical ISIS fighters to protect a religious minority that many Muslims (falsely) regard as “devil worshipers.” Currently, surviving Yazidis are making some efforts to form self-defense units, in alliance with the equally persecuted Assyrian and Chaldean Christians remaining in Iraq.

The Yazidis had no organized militias or significant access to private firearms. So they were the most helpless, savagely mistreated victims of ISIS.

A very different story emerges when we look at ISIS’s attempts to terrorize Syriac Christians in the course of Syria’s civil war. In that country, significant numbers of Syriac Christians allied with the Kurdish Peshmerga, forming self-defense units grouped under the Syriac Military Council. Human rights activist Johannes de Jong reported in 2016 on the experience in the Kurdish-led enclave then called the Democratic Self-Administration (DSA):

The DSA government is secular and tolerant, governed by a Social Contract that functions as a kind of constitution. The DSA’s Social Contract rejects Islamism and dictatorship, and guarantees political representation for women. A network of “women’s houses” and female-led organizations supports this move to offer equal rights for all. Syriac Christians have their own cultural, civic, political, and media organizations, whose members I was privileged to meet on one of my visits to DSA’s region of Syria. …

As the DSA is in an ongoing war against ISIS, members of the ethnic and religious groups living there join in the fight — including the mostly Kurdish YPG, the Christian-led Syriac Military Council, and smaller Arab militias (the Jaish al Thuwwar, Burkan-Al Firat and Sanadid forces). In late 2015, the DSA linked these smaller militias into the umbrella group called the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which has begun to receive support and airpower protection from the United States. The U.S. now treats the SDF as a formal American ally in the fight against ISIS.

Progressive Christians Would Leave the Yazidis to ISIS

Since that report was written, the DSA’s ground forces administered the death blow to ISIS, destroying its last military enclaves in 2018. Now the coalition government there defends the region from incursions by the Turkish military and its al-Qaeda-linked jihadi militias, and against aggression from the dictatorial Assad regime based in Damascus.

What would the Progressive Christians who oppose access to private firearms say to the Yazidis of Iraq? That it was good that the Iraqi government kept them disarmed? That they should have done a better job of lobbying the regime to protect them?

What would those same Christians say to the Syriac Christians who helped defeat ISIS? That they should not have taken up arms but instead sought protection from Assad’s retreating army?

Threats to religious minorities are on the rise. Christians are now the most persecuted religious group on earth, with attacks on believers happening across Africa as well as the Middle East, not to mention China. How incongruous and scandalous the “nonviolence” rhetoric of such safe, privileged churches must appear to Christians on the front lines of resurgent jihad — or those in Hong Kong, where a totalitarian government violently represses peaceful demonstrations.

We Can’t Be Bad Samaritans

The case for vitiating the Second Amendment, and stripping most of the citizenry of the means of self-defense against both crime and tyrannical government, does not rest on good natural law arguments, the consensus view of the Old and New Testaments, the mainstream of any major Christian tradition, or any theory of the rights of citizens that most would find acceptable today. Religious groups that argue for gun confiscation are using their own texts and traditions tendentiously and selectively, showing that their real allegiance is to the state over the individual. This omnicompetent state replaces the Church, and perhaps even Christ, as the locus of loyalty and trust, just as a this-worldly utopia replaces the Kingdom of Heaven in “Social Gospel” writing and activism. Faithful traditional Christians should reject this collectivist idol for solid theological reasons, just as American citizens should resist it for constitutional ones.

I’d ask some provocative questions of self-defense opponents who presume to claim the whole Christian tradition for their position. For instance:

  • Were the Jewish people wrong to defend their country against invasions? Were Jews wrong to take up arms to fight persecution, both during the Holocaust and when Israel was attacked in 1948?
  • Why should religious and ethnic minorities trust the state to monopolize the means of violence? Has the track record of governments at defending minority citizens been so spotless, even in modern times?
  • Do you have the right to “turn the other cheek” on someone else’s behalf? If you see a child being abducted or raped, for instance?
  • Do you have the right to use a knife or a stick to defend yourself and your family from violence? Then why not a gun? Should the law mandate that you’re less well armed than criminals and dependent on faraway police?
  • Don’t people in poor neighborhoods need self-defense more than those in gated communities with private security guards?
  • Religious minorities are under attack in the Middle East and Africa, left unprotected by governments. Do you think the Yazidis of Iraq or the Christians of Syria and Nigeria have the right to defend themselves using weapons proportional to their enemies’? If not, why not?


Jason Jones is a senior contributor to The Stream. He is a film producer, author, activist and human rights worker. You can follow him at @JasonJonesShow.

John Zmirak is a senior editor at The Stream, and author or co-author of ten books, including The Politically Incorrect Guide to Immigration and The Politically Incorrect Guide to Catholicism.

Together, Jones and Zmirak wrote The Race to Save Our Century.

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