Many people today forget that Dr. Martin Luther King, the leader of the peaceful resistance civil rights movement of the 1960s, had another title to his name: “Reverend.” His call to non-violent protest in the face of sometimes violent opposition wasn’t just a political tactic; it was a religious conviction that can be found at the heart of Christianity. It’s rooted in Jesus’ statement, “If someone strikes you on one cheek, turn to him the other also.”
I believe there are reasons that Jesus gave us this instruction other than that it is simply the right thing to do. One of those reasons is that it prevents the escalation of conflict in which each side feels it must seek revenge for the opposing side’s most recent attack. The other reason is that turning the other cheek leads others to embrace the faith. When people remain peaceful in the face of violent opposition, onlookers see the non-violent victims as righteous and those who impose violence on others as evil. This is how the persecution of non-violent Christians grew the faith in Ancient Rome and in 1800’s Africa. But if both sides trade violence back and forth, pretty soon the world forgets who started it and struggles to see either side as being righteous. This is what has happened to the United States in the War on Terror.
I know that conservatives will be quick to say that it’s impractical for us not to defend ourselves, and I agree. I agree that our only answer to Pearl Harbor was to force Japanese surrender, because Japan would otherwise have continued to expand its power and attack us again. I believe that when the Taliban harbored Al Qaeda, that it was right for us to defeat them and fight back against Al Qaeda. They declared war on us, so we have no choice but to fight that war. But the invasion of Iraq and the torture of Al Qaeda detainees goes beyond defense of a nation; both are examples of all out revenge and one-ups-man-ship.
When Al Qaeda destroyed the World Trade Center, the world’s heart went out to the United States. All of the other countries who were preparing bids for the 2012 Summer Olympic Games vowed to drop their bids in favor of New York City if NYC submitted one. They changed their minds when the U. S. invaded Iraq. Most of the world understood that, for once, we were the invaders, not the victims. And now with the torture of detainees, we have shown again that we are not merely content to defend ourselves, but that we insist on brutalizing those have or might have harmed us, not just for a day, but for months and years on end. It’s as if, in both cases, the Bush Administration wanted to show that if you mess with us, we won’t just defend ourselves, but we will pay you back with 100 times the anger and fury.
Unfortunately, Evangelical Christians, who are predominantly Republican these days, have been taught by the Republican Party that vengeful one-ups-man-ship is synonymous with Christianity. And this doesn’t just pertain to opinions on foreign policy, but it also pertains to guns.
I recently learned of a church in my area in which the staff and many of the members carry handguns to church. As a person who has been active in some pretty conservative denominations over the last 25 years, I was shocked to hear this. I have never in all of those years gone to a church where people brought guns to Sunday service. But that was before the Republican pundits and politicians convinced Christian Republicans that the president was going to take away all of their guns (even though neither the president nor any Democratic Party leaders have proposed such a thing). When I asked why so many people bring their guns to church, I was told it was because “Something might happen.” Well, I agree that anything is possible, and I can see how the increase in school shootings in recent years might increase paranoia, but I wonder whether such an action is Christian.
This brings us back to Martin Luther King. He led a movement of unarmed people who KNEW they were likely to be hurt or even killed, yet they chose to be unarmed. They employed peaceful resistance, were therefore seen by society as the righteous victims, and the nation rallied to their cause. Likewise, if we were to enter an age in which those who hated Christianity started to open fire in church services, Christians would be seen as the victims, and America would rally to their cause. But if Christians get gun happy and are not attacked, but instead use their guns to shoot others in church with whom they have a dispute (maybe over Obama), or they shoot someone they think is dangerous but is actually unarmed, then the word will get out to the world that the church is a dangerous place, and onlookers will see Christians as violent and will reject the faith, staying away from churches out of fear of being shot. Then Jesus’ quote from Matthew 26:52, “for all those who take up the sword shall perish by the sword,” will become “all churches who live by the gun will die by the gun,” not literally, of course, but figuratively in that churches will be seen as violent rather than as peaceful and will fall even more out of public favor than they already are.
I know what I’m about to say may be difficult for the causal Christian to grasp, but devout students of the Bible and church history know that thousands upon thousands of Christians have been put to death for their faith over the years. This includes Jesus himself. He did not try to kill those who came for him and he instructed those who wanted to violently resist not to do so. In fact, the book of Acts says that those who suffered beatings for their faith rejoiced that they suffered as Christ did. Suffering at the hands of those who hate Christians has been at the core of the faith for 2000 years. If someone enters your church and kills you because you’re a Christian (which would most likely be the reason they are entering a church with the intent of killing people), you have the honor of joining the ranks of thousands of saints, including Jesus’ own apostles, who were killed for their faith. Everyone must die, but to die as a result of religious persecution is something that the Bible honors in the book of Revelations. This is not the same as Muslims dying in Jihad, because they die while trying to kill others in war, not by refusing to kill or hurt those who might kill them. So to bring guns to kill anyone who might threaten you or your congregation is out of step with the history of Christianity.
Of course, I know deep inside that the increase in the number of gun-toting churchgoers really has little to do with the fear of a mass murderer entering the church with guns-a-blazin’. It has more to do with making the political statements that “You can’t take away my gun, because my possession means more to me than anything else” (an attitude rooted in greed) and, “You can’t tell me that I can’t take my gun anywhere I want,” (an attitude rooted in pride) that’s really all about forcefully imposing your will on others to show that no one had better mess with you, or you’ll show them! That’s pretty much how Republican politicians, from Ronald Reagan to Chris Christie, lead. And that’s the very opposite of turning the other cheek.