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Defending the Innocent: Weapons and Worship

Dr. John Mark Reynolds | The Torrey Honors Institute | Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Defending the Innocent: Weapons and Worship

Some New York-area rabbis are planning to bring weapons to High Holy Day services this month to guard against terrorist threats. In June, a Kentucky pastor invited his congregation members to bring their firearms to church to celebrate the Second Amendment.

Do weapons belong in worship? Should clergy be armed? Do the Ten Commandments trump the Second Amendment?

Weapons do not belong in worship, but they sometimes belong on those who go to worship. Church is not generally the right place to celebrate our civil rights, though we may thank God for them, but it might be the right place to urge citizens to exercise them to protect the innocent.

For Christians, armed force is not the job of the Church as Church. Whatever the provocation, Christians learned from their own history that crusades are not the right response to it. It is inconsistent with our primary message. The Church is about Jesus and Jesus came to heal the sick of soul and body. Christian churches have always built hospitals and came to regret it when they built armies.

We learned to leave usual exercise of military power to the state. While this is the normal state of affairs, Christians are not foolish enough to believe that the state will always do its duty. As responsible and wise leaders of the community, it might be the rare job of ministers to suggest that the time has come for responsible groups of citizens to take on a burden that the state is shirking.

While the Church is pacific, its members need not be pacifists. Letting the innocent die waiting for an impotent state to act is cowardice, and courage is a virtue.

Have we reached a point where reasonable people in the Jewish community feel that the government cannot protect them in their houses of worship on their holiest day? God forgive our nation if this is so.

As an outsider, I am hesitant to judge this situation. Wicked men have made the Jewish community their special target for violence and promises by Western governments of protection have often proven empty words.

If our government really can no longer provide sufficient deterrent to such evil, then no man should rush to condemn the actions of the rabbis. The rabbis, after all, are not posing a threat to society by arming themselves defensively, but are merely doing a job they feel society is failing to do. New York is in no danger from these rabbis, but should consider that her rabbis feel in danger from the perceived failure of New York to provide adequate protection. It is a dangerous course the rabbis have chosen, but in horrid times dangerous paths may be the safest or only paths.

Christians, at least, should not hastily condemn those who act to defend fellow human beings that the state cannot defend. A Christian minister who does not urge his members to defend the weak and the powerless has missed part of the message of Scripture. We are personally called to love our enemy, but love does not demand that we allow our enemy to do mortal damage to his own soul and to the lives of others by harming the innocent.

A Christian man should choose to turn the other cheek, but has no right to force innocents to turn their cheeks. We have a right to choose martyrdom, but must not allow the wicked to force martyrdom on the weak and the poor because we refused to act. A Christian fights for the right of other men to choose their own destiny. He never arms himself for personal vengeance or to impose his faith on others, but he must fight to protect the poor and the powerless.

This is not just a Christian tradition, but is an American tradition.

The founding Revolution of our great Republic saw Christian ministers urge their congregations to protect the rights of the oppressed and resist the demands of tyrants. Whole volumes exist of sermons preached in favor of the cause of American Independence and justice. Some ministers actually led their congregation to enroll in the patriot's cause and fought with their members. After all, any true pastor was a gentleman and citizen before he was ordained a minister.

Abraham Lincoln sought and received invaluable aid, both here and abroad, from Evangelical ministers and other religious leaders in the Civil War. Such preachers urged their congregations to take up arms in the struggle against slavery on the side of freedom. They provided important arguments that helped defeat the sophistry of others who argued in favor of the tyranny of race-based slavery. Some churches even provided money and arms for the Union.

No church or religious group should take these steps lightly and mainstream American religious groups have never done so. At the time of the Revolution a tyrant king had ignored all reasonable pleas and was imposing his unjust power by unlawful force. At the time of the Civil War the Constitutional order enshrined the injustice of slavery and all attempts to check it had failed. Unjust men were creating a social order to perpetuate race-based slavery on this continent forever.

It is a sad day when civil government cannot provide the protection and justice that should be given to men and women, but sad days do occur this side of paradise.

This idea is found throughout Sacred Scriptures. Ever since God used Queen Esther to give them the right to bear arms in their own defense, Jews and Christians have recognized that when the state fails us, we have the obligation to protect His innocent followers from injustice.

The ideal is for the ministers of justice, government officials, to protect the weak and innocent. It is the job of the due civil authority to protect just citizens from the ravages of the unjust, but sometimes government fails. Government is our first line of defense against the wicked, but Biblically and under the American Constitution not the last line of defense.

At the founding of the Republic, two great thinkers, Hobbes and Locke, offered competing visions of the state and power. The philosopher Thomas Hobbes argued that only the state could exercise supreme sovereignty, but the Founders of the United States rejected Hobbes' vision of the leviathan state that must be obeyed.

Instead, the Founders followed the advice of the Christian apologist and philosopher John Locke, who argued that in some circumstances the state could fail the people and that the people would have to assume the powers normally given to the state. Locke warns against extremists, who beset us still, who would lightly use this power. He outlines careful restrictions on when the rest of society may have to assume power normally reserved to the state, but he allows for it in theory. For a family, a church, or a community to defend itself is the last resort and a powerful indictment of the government.

I hesitate to say that the situation in New York calls for such steps, but the fact that seemingly serious men and women believe it does suggests something is seriously wrong. We must not condemn their actions without careful consideration, because Americans have always admitted the possibility that the state will fail us. Citizens of all faiths should demand that the government act to secure the safety and peace of the synagogues of New York from the perils they face.

If it is reasonable to believe that the government cannot or will not protect the Jewish people of New York, their religious leaders are to be commended for taking steps to protect them. They follow the noble tradition of Judas Maccabeus in doing so. A show of force might, after all, deter bloodshed as it did in the days of noble Queen Esther.

After all, the ability to defend the innocent sheep often deters the wolves from attack.

No American that saw 9/11 is foolish enough to believe that mad and wicked men cannot abuse these rights. Many on the fringes of both the right and left will call for armed struggle not as a last resort, but to sate their desires for tyrannical control. Any check and balance on the power of the state can be abused. We live in an imperfect world and while religion may improve men, it does not make them angels.

This is why power must not be reserved only for one group, one part of society, or one class of people. We are best protected when family, the religious man, the state, and individuals all share in power. The greatest danger is when only the state is armed and the citizens, the church, and society as a whole are supine before its tyranny. The last century saw mad private citizens and groups kill their hundreds, but mad states kill their millions.

Better to take the risk chosen by the Judeo-Christian West and allow for armed families, citizens, and social groups, than to bring on the certain abuse of power of a tyrannical state that has a monopoly on lethal force.

Armed citizens, religious and otherwise, may behave badly, but unarmed and supine citizens will guarantee a more certainty injustice.

John Mark Reynolds is the founder and director of the Torrey Honors Institute, and Professor of Philosophy at Biola University. In 1996 he received his Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Rochester. John Mark Reynolds can be found blogging regularly at Scriptorium Daily.