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Laying down our guns and receiving Jesus: An Advent reflection

12.5. 2015 Written By: Matthew Morin 944 Times read

Matthew Morin worships with Milwaukee Mennonite Church.

We have been here before. Three years ago, almost to the date, a young man entered an elementary school in Connecticut and killed 26 people, 20 of them children.

The shooting occurred just before the third Sunday in Advent, and one of the passages read in worship that week included a promise from Zephaniah 3:

“I will remove disaster from you…I will deal with all your oppressors. And I will save the lame and gather the outcast.”

“Be patient, people,” we were told after Sandy Hook. “God is coming to deal with the murderers.” In the words of the saints’ song: “Ain’t that good news.”

It happened again this week. Again a mass murder; again during Advent; again during “Year C” of the lectionary cycle; again, again, again.

Humanity never makes progress; we can never outgrow or outlaw the temptation to violence. Perhaps that’s why the liturgical calendar is in the shape of a circle—a cyclical calendar for recurring impulses.

This week, being the second Sunday in Advent, the promise from Scripture is different. It is not from Zephaniah, but Malachi 3:

“The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight—indeed, he is coming, says the LORD of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver.”

“Be ready, people,” we are told after San Bernardino. “God is coming to deal with all of us.” In the words of the saints’ song: “Oh, sinner, you’d better get ready.”

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If I had to wager a guess, I would bet that most of us are more comfortable with Zephaniah’s message than Malachi’s. We are all for God removing disaster, but understandably less enthusiastic about God purifying us with fire. We are glad to know that God will take care of our oppressors; less so to know that God has work to do with each one of us.

I witnessed this tendency in the past week, through a number of conversations with fellow Mennonites about gun ownership.

Following the massacre in San Bernardino, many of my friends cried out once again for some type of meaningful political action in the United States. Banning assault weapons, prohibiting the sale of semi-automatic handguns and outlawing high-volume clips were all among the policy suggestions that I heard. No doubt these are much needed and long overdue measures.

However, when the topic of rifles came up, there was considerably less willingness to be disarmed.

“I have a rifle for shooting varmints,” said one Mennonite in an online forum. “One of our teens shoots competitively—skeet and target,” stated another.

I grew up in Evangelical circles, so I am well aware that Christians own guns. However, I was taken aback to learn that so many Mennonites—people from whom I am learning to practice and receive the nonviolent presence of Christ— apparently have few qualms when it comes to shooting hunting rifles. (As I processed all of this, the voice of theologian Stanley Hauerwas came back to me. “Don’t glamorize the Mennonites,” he once told a group of students. “I even know one who is a Yankees fan!”)

We want legislators to stop gun violence without considering the ways that our own decisions might shape collective consciousness and might contribute to the public problem of gun infatuation.

We ask God to remove disaster without considering that God might do so by purifying us first.

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Advent is the time when we are prepared by God to receive the gift of Jesus. Be patient, people of God; the gift will arrive in due time. Be ready, people of God, to receive the gift when it arrives.

And most importantly, remember that the gift has not been given to you so that you may hoard it, but so that you might share. Your freedom in Christ has been given for the sake of the whole world. The peace of Christ is a gift for the whole world.

The guns we possess have come to possess us. This is evidenced not only in mass murders, but also in the adamant refusals by people of goodwill to surrender their guns for the common good.

No, shooting a clay target, a pheasant, or a deer is not the same as shooting a person—not even remotely close. But there is no such thing as a purely private decision. It is high time to consider the societal repercussions of using guns for hunting and target practice.

If faith is “empty hands held open for God to fill,” then perhaps laying down our hunting rifles and shotguns will make it easier to hold the baby Jesus when he arrives.

Giving up our guns might be one way that God makes us ready to receive this gift. And certainly it is the case that gunlessness is a gift that we can give to the world—a gift that the world is aching to receive.

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12 Responses to “Laying down our guns and receiving Jesus: An Advent reflection”

  1. suzannah says:

    this argument might make sense for vegetarians, but hunting is an integral part of ethical meat eating for people who cannot otherwise afford to do so. desiring to know exactly where one’s food comes from has nothing at all to do with being infatuated with guns and much to do with peacemaking.

  2. M. South says:

    While we can certainly act for ourselves, according to Christian conscience – Jesus made plain the kingdom of God is not defended by the same means by which the kingdoms of the world were established – it would be wrong for us to remove the right to self defense from those who aren’t living in the kingdom.

    We could say that no human being should be armed, but then that must extend to police officers and soldiers as well.

    If the world outside God’s kingdom does not live according to its principles, then what sort of means can it use under its own principles to keep chaos at bay, from those who choose to be predators against the weak? If you are going to require disarming the population, it also will have to be done by force, using the very means considered wrong.

    How likely is our government and society, outside those of us trying to live according to the Spirit and Jesus’ example, to give up the weapons of war on which so much of its economy, power and prestige depend? The reality is that the military industrial security complex is not going away, even if our influence can be used to bring salt and light to the kingdom which spends more on armaments and exports more than the rest of the world. This is a society that glorifies violence, believes killing transformative and redemptive, as it was founded upon it and confirmed in the baptism of the Civil War. It needs these beliefs in order to have people who will serve in its imperial armies as well as design and build its weaponry, even if the moral collateral damage causes an acceptance of violence in ordinary life.

    When the disciples prepared to go with Jesus to Gethsemane, they took inventory and proposed defending Him with the two swords they discovered. One of the swords probably was Peter’s; it can be speculated the other belonged to Judas.

    Jesus asked them, if they lacked for anything when he sent them out with neither purse nor scrip. They answered Him that despite that, they nevertheless lacked for nothing.

    He then said, let him who has a purse and scrip, even sell their clothing to buy a sword.

    Those living in God’s kingdom didn’t need a sword to defend it, but to those whose purse and money are their treasure, they will need at some point to use weaponry to defend their kingdom based upon it. Jesus also later made it clear to Pilate that His kingdom was not based on military power, as Rome’s was, else he could not have been taken.

    Confronted with a situation where it may appear clear that defending innocent life with proportionate force is the starkest probability, living in God’s kingdom and in his Spirit may well provide the opportunity for peaceable alternatives. Yet, this is not a choice that we should force on others, given the world that is not in God’s kingdom, and still be faithful to God, because enforcing it would be another case of using a bad means to achieve a good end. Using bad means always makes the sought after end no better than that bad means.

    Jesus didn’t seek to pre-emptively disarm not just his own disciples as he allowed Peter his sword, and even counseled going the extra mile to help carry a soldier’s load beyond that required by Roman law. What he did model was acting in ways that did not involve violent solutions, through walking in the Spirit.

    Jesus refused the reigns of secular force, first in the temptation offered in the desert to rule over the worldly kingdoms by becoming part of them, if He would only bow down in a hierarchy of domination. He refused the military messiahship offered by popular acclaim by the people of Jerusalem, provoking their own rejection of Him.

    Therefore neither is it for us to lord it over the kingdoms of the Gentiles and consider ourselves thereby benefactors. Rather, we are to serve by practical example. While not wielding power, we can certainly speak truth to it. We can with plain practicality influence that worldly kingdom by showing how mistaken its policies are and how contrary to what people of good will wish to accomplish. We can by acts of conscience provoke conscience in others. We will never abolish its wars or end its violence completely, but we can act as salt and light to help restrain its worst excesses.

    Laws aimed at taking away peoples’ means of self defense, not through individual conscience, but by edict and force, are doomed to fail to bring benefit. The culture itself must first be shifted away from the well-entrenched belief in violence which is judged acceptable given a certain level of provocation, an elastic concept indeed, whether when making war or waging individual revenge for grievances.

    • Dayvid says:

      M South… First I want to acknowledge that I didn’t read your whole post. It was just too long for my attention span.

      But I’d wonder how we can “love our enemies” when we kill them?

      And as I’ve traveled around the world, I listen to those in countries asking why Americans allow gun ownership when there is so much gun violence in our country. Australia is just one country that responded to a mass shooting by taking away the privilege of gun ownership. Most of the population willingly gave up their firearms out of remorse and compassion for those families who lost loved ones in that shooting. Many other countries around the world have very strict laws about gun ownership. AND they don’t live in fear.

      May the peace of Jesus flow through us to address gun violence in America and the world!

      • M. South says:

        “M South… First I want to acknowledge that I didn’t read your whole post. It was just too long for my attention span.”

        So… you are presuming to answering me without even listening to what I have to say. Can’t take your reply seriously in such a case, as it is then an answer out of ignorance, not engagement.

        Complex problems demand more than simplistic solutions. It’s odd that anabaptists would favor government force solutions against conscience of others. But I suppose reading anabaptist history in search of understanding would take a longer attention span than the length of a TV sound bite!

        • Dayvid says:

          M South… I apologize for not quoting the portion of your post I was responding to.

          You wrote, “…it would be wrong for us to remove the right to self defense from those who aren’t living in the kingdom…If the world outside God’s kingdom does not live according to its principles, then what sort of means can it use under its own principles to keep chaos at bay, from those who choose to be predators against the weak? If you are going to require disarming the population, it also will have to be done by force, using the very means considered wrong.”

          As I wrote previously about Australia’s response to the most deadly mass shooting in their country, it was less about disarming the population by force, but more about a willingness to give up their firearms out of remorse and compassion. It CAN be done without violence and force, because it HAS been done.

          You also imply that taking away gun ownership is “remov(ing) the right to self defense.” Are guns the only possible means of self-defense? The implication of this is that everyone carries a gun. It seems to me that more guns mean more deaths. The opposite argument usually goes like, “I’ll kill them before they kill me.”…or… “Because I carry a gun, they will be afraid of me.” But in all reality, the “good guy” with the gun rarely has the opportunity to draw their weapon first. Are there other ways to defend one’s self? There are many! It takes imagination and creativity. Can you imagine what it would be like to live in a world where there was no military? And no police? Wow! And a world with no national boundaries? Wouldn’t that be great? No fear. A world where every person and family had enough.

          Okay, I know your post separated those outside the kingdom from those inside the kingdom. So maybe we just let those on the outside do whatever they jolly well please, because those of us inside the kingdom of God are going to heaven if we get shot. And that’s a better place than where we are living now. And if going to heaven is so much better than what we have here, then what do we need to protect? Those of us within the kingdom of God know that God calls us “home” when our time is up on earth. So why would we stop God’s will with a gun to protect ourselves?

          I also read in your post that

          • M. South says:

            Would you call the police if there were a threat to children under your care, or not? If so, since it’s likely they would arrive too late, is it wrong for anyone to defend children if it’s right for the police? And if so, what is the difference between asking the police to use violence instead of yourself? Or do you let the children be killed without preventing it by force, under the belief they are going to a better place? What do you think parents would say if you didn’t defend those in your care when you could have?

      • M. South says:

        The confiscation in Australia wasn’t voluntary. It was done by an armed police force that itself remains fully armed with deadly weapons. Australia’s military remains an enormous fully armed force that participates in the pre-emptive middle eastern wars that drive domestic violence. Guns still are in the hands of those willing to break the law. Those few who gave up their hunting rifles joyfully were never going to be the ones who would misuse them. Some societies’ elitist leaders simply believe that individual rights of the many are to be sacrificed when a few abuse them, whether it is in the matter of speech, travel, immigration or any other choice. It is true the most heavily policed and conformist societies, often totalitarian, have always been the ones with the lowest street crime – harsh measures can be taken and the population has little choice but to obey.

        BTW, Australia is not a climate congenial to anabaptists or Mennonites – there are less than one hundred adherents in the country. The religion, such as remains, is of the patriotic “War Jesus” variety that conflates war, national interest and religion.

  3. Jonathan says:

    What did Jesus say to Peter in the garden? Read Matthew 26:51-54. Is the true follower of Jesus not to follow His example? John 18:36 is one verse I need to remind myself of,and strive to follow.

  4. M. South says:

    By all means, give up your gun if your conscience dictates it. I take it you likely have never found a need to hunt or have to work where they are needed, though it is probable that you depend in some way upon the deterrence of an armed police force. But remember, it is still your own conscience, not someone else’s. It is presumptive and judgmental to think you can stand in for the conscience of others and believe yourself superior.

    “laying down our hunting rifles and shotguns will make it easier to hold the baby Jesus when he arrives.”

    That’s nice sounding rhetoric, but there is no reality to it. I don’t know anyone who is always parading around with guns in hand other than the country’s soldiers engaged in a multitude of foreign wars and death dealing, unlike a hunter. The same politicians who seek to disarm the population, at the same time won’t be giving up their wars, but by all indications expanding them. And Jesus will not be returning as a babe in arms.

  5. M. South says:

    Further thoughts:

    Is the right to self defense an inherent right of the individual, or one reserved alone to government or other corporate body, even if informal? Does an individual have a right to defend himself or others from harm? Or must one die if no governmental authority is at hand?

    Even as a person who believes Christians ought to live in the kingdom of God, which isn’t defended by force, I have a hard time contemplating depriving others of what seems to be an inherent right to self defense – which surely includes an appropriate use of force, which must clearly include more than the weak fists of the aged widow if against a violent predator.

    It’s not necessary for any of us to demand our rights – there are times when God’s will is that we do not – in order for those natural rights to still exist. It does seem though that defense of life and liberty should not be denied to others, though, just because of what we ourselves can or may be led by the Spirit in alternative.

  6. Erin C. says:

    I was overwhelmed to hear a fellow Mennonite at church this past Sunday say that despite being a gun owner because he was an avid hunter, he would gladly give up his ability to ever hunt again (and his guns along with it) if it would rid our world of mass shootings. I challenge us as a country to question what we are willing to give up in order to have our children not practicing mass shooting drills in their schools. Take a deep breath before we start screaming about our “rights” and think about every human beings right to feel safe.

    • M. South says:

      “he would gladly give up his ability to ever hunt again (and his guns along with it) if it would rid our world of mass shootings”

      But it wouldn’t because his giving up his freedom wouldn’t result in fewer mass shootings, or eliminating the foreign wars that foment them.