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I am an American evangelical in every sense. I came to faith in Christ as a teenager in 1974 and joined an evangelical church. I attended an evangelical college and seminary and was ordained an evangelical minister. I now chair the board of one of the oldest associations of evangelical clergy in the country. My entire adult life has been organized around evangelical churches and ministry work.
And I believe, as an evangelical, that the position my community takes on guns is in conflict with our most deeply held principles.
Polls suggest that evangelicals are the largest religious group most opposed to gun control laws, and that we're the religious group most likely to have access to guns. Critics like to point out that this appears to contradict what Jesus said about peace and love in his Sermon on the Mount, but there is an explanation for this seeming dichotomy rooted in a long and complex history.
The story behind evangelicals and guns begins at the inception of our American republic. Although the clergy and church members who enthusiastically joined the continental militias in the Revolutionary War were largely Presbyterian/Reformed and Episcopal, modern-day evangelicals claim virtually all of the early, overtly religious American patriots as our own.
One legendary patriot is of particular importance. The Reverend Peter Muhlenberg, a Virginia cleric, is credited with leading the Black Robe Regiment, a band of colonial clergy who used their pulpits to validate the cause of independence. The story goes that while preaching against British tyranny, Muhlenberg dramatically stripped off his clerical robe to reveal a Colonial Army uniform, raised a musket, and led the men in his congregation out the door to go enlist.
That story about Muhlenberg is likely embellished — or utterly fictional. The real story of evangelicals and the War of Independence is more complicated. Church of England cleric John Wesley, the founder of Methodism and arguably the progenitor of modern global evangelicalism, actually opposed the American cause as a violation of St. Paul's admonition to "Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation." (Romans 13:1-2)
'It's in our evangelical DNA. We've always had guns and always will.'
At that time, there was also a large and influential pacifist population of proto-evangelicals in places like Pennsylvania who had descended from German Reformation groups. Still, plenty of early American Presbyterians, Baptists, and others took up arms not only in the war against the British, but later as settlers in America's western expansion. Various brands of evangelicalism took root in the lonely frontier, and a gun was present in these settlers' everyday lives for hunting and defense.
As one evangelical colleague explained to me about his commitment to gun rights, "It's in our evangelical DNA. We've always had guns and always will."
In my conversations with church leaders, the justification often given for owning guns is the need to potentially defend ourselves against a hostile federal government. There is a serious breakdown of trust between the evangelical Christian community and the federal government — a phenomenon that may be thanks in large part to the historical prevalence of southern evangelicalism and the legacy of the Civil War.
This tension has been exacerbated in recent years by a rack of executive, legislative, and judicial actions seen as hostile to Bible-believing Christians. On top of all this is what I believe to be an inordinate fear that Islamic terrorist organizations may begin targeting American evangelicals — and that the Obama administration is not concerned with this danger.
It's precisely this breakdown of trust — and, even more so, this pervasive fear — that has led me into the conversation and debate over "armed discipleship." Through my reading of Scripture, examination of the life of Jesus Christ and His disciples, study of historic Christian moral instruction, and survey of Christian ethics, I've concluded that evangelical readiness to use lethal force, especially with guns, is contrary to the gospel we preach and seek to live out.
This is not to say I am a pacifist. I believe, lamentably, that guns are necessary to maintain an ordered society. Violence can sometimes be stopped only by more violence, but that's something all of us should deeply regret, not celebrate. We are right to delegate this onerous task to professionals in law enforcement and the military. I interact with many law enforcement and military chaplains who speak often about the "moral injury" sustained by those under their charge. This includes the guilt, remorse, and mental anguish that many police officers and soldiers experience after even the most justified acts of killing.
It's understandable that I am often asked by my pro-gun cohorts why we should focus on one particular means of killing — guns — when there are so many other ways to kill. What about knives, baseball bats, even cars? My answer is that guns are uniquely fashioned to kill and especially effective at it.
"Whenever you take a gun to your side for personal defense, you must be ready to kill in an instant," my instructor told me during firearms training I took to prepare for a film on the subject. "If you are not ready to kill, you are more dangerous with the weapon than without it, because it will likely be taken from you and used to kill you and others."
This means that, when armed, we must mentally see the world through a lethal lens. We must be prepared to shoot to kill, be constantly wary of those who may potentially be a threat, be continuously conscious of the deadly instrument strapped to our bodies or secreted in a pocket, and be prepared to make the wrong judgment and kill an innocent person.
These are all good reasons to limit who is able to exercise the option to kill with a gun.
The idea that Americans can shoot to kill at will, in almost any situation, under almost any circumstance, with little or no training or accountability, is not, to me, a Christian moral vision. It's past time that we evangelicals prayerfully — and in a biblically informed way — re-examine our position on lethal firepower and challenge the often sinful impulses that find expression through the false security and too-easy relief that a deadly weapon provides.
Loving our neighbor and being ready to kill our neighbor are things that we must reconcile as Christ-followers. In doing so, I believe we will find that Christians should be less fearful and more faith-filled, eager to affirm God's gift of life in others — not take it from them.
The Reverend Dr. Rob Schenck is an ordained evangelical minister and president of Faith and Action in the Nation's Capital, a Christian outreach to top government officials in Washington, DC. Follow him on Twitter: @RevRobSchenck1