I have grown rather weary of the “what would Jesus do?” cliche because everyone is using it now. I would rather ask “what did Jesus do?” I think that’s a better question, because it helps to prevent us from injecting our own personal feelings and prejudices into the speculation. To be sure, the Jesus most people are acquainted with is not the real Jesus depicted in the Bible. The Jesus most people are familiar with is a sweet, syrupy, kind of pacifist Jesus, who would never hurt a fly, and is always telling everyone to “just be nice” to each other. This is not the real Jesus, but it is the contemporary Jesus, and it is prevalent in our culture. The Jesus I’m familiar with (you know, the one we actually read about in the Bible) was just as likely to call out people as hypocrites (Matthew 15:7), tell you to leave your family to follow him (Luke 9:59-62), and make a public scene cracking a whip while overturning tables (John 2:13-17). So which Jesus is it? Is it the sweet and pacifist, contemporary Jesus? Or the aggressive and radical, Biblical Jesus? For me, it’s never been about “what would Jesus do?” but rather “what did Jesus do?” These two questions can sometimes present very different answers.
To be clear, the motive driving all of Jesus’ words and actions is love. But people seem to have a rather warped view of love these days. The contemporary understanding of love is best defined by the saying “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” This is a catchphrase based on a line from the Erich Segal novel Love Story and was popularized by its 1970 film adaptation. The idea behind it is that if you really love somebody, and that person really loves you, no apology is ever necessary because nothing ever gives offense. Thus, the idea of “sin” is eradicated under the contemporary understanding of love.
So when this contemporary understanding of love is applied to the love of God, there is no sin. Lust ceases to exist. Idolatry ceases to exist. All sins cease to exist. The only sin that could ever exist is daring to tell anyone they’re wrong, or daring to stop somebody from doing wrong. This can lead to either moral relativism or pacifism, depending on how you look at it, but in the end, the contemporary Jesus becomes a God you never have to say you’re sorry to.
In truth, the contemporary understanding of love is not love. It’s just sentimentality. The real Jesus (you know, the one in the Bible) had no problem calling a sin a sin, or a hypocrite a hypocrite, and he had no problem telling people it’s okay to defend themselves. That’s because the Biblical definition of love, Jesus love, is defined by sacrifice.
When Jesus called sin a sin, he was making a sacrifice, because he was losing popularity. When Jesus called out hypocrisy, he was making a sacrifice, because he was losing allies and making enemies. You see real love means sometimes saying things that are unpopular and offensive. It’s a self-sacrificial kind of love because one doesn’t say these things to get popular or make allies. When one says these things, he does so for the benefit of the person he’s talking to, and/or the benefit of those who are listening in. It’s a call to repentance, for the sake of the other person’s soul, because that’s in their best interest. Jesus only gained popularity the first half of his 3-year ministry. The other half was spent losing popularity. He allowed this as a form of self-sacrificial love, for the benefit of everyone else. He called sin a sin, and he called out hypocrisy for what it was. In the end, this got him crucified, and again, he offered that up as self-sacrificial love for all humanity. Real love, Jesus love (you know, the kind of love Jesus displayed in the Bible), is self-sacrificial love. It’s not always polite and gentle. It’s not always sweet and syrupy. It’s not sentimentality. Real love means saying what is right, and doing what is right, for the other person’s benefit, even if it means sacrificing your own comfort, popularity and even safety. And yes, if you offend somebody who loves you, especially God, you do have to say you’re sorry.
So now we venture into the topic of gun-control. There’s a lot of talk about gun-control lately, because of recent mass shootings in various cities. So the question at hand is; would Jesus support gun control? I would like to turn that around and ask; did Jesus support it?
Yes, we do have an example from the real Jesus, not the contemporary Jesus, but the real Jesus from the Bible. This very topic did come up, albeit in a different way, but it did come up during the course of his earthly ministry…
He [Jesus] said to them [his Apostles], “When I sent you out without purse, and wallet, and shoes, did you lack anything?”
They said, “Nothing.”
Then he said to them, “But now, whoever has a purse, let him take it, and likewise a wallet. Whoever has none, let him sell his cloak, and buy a sword. For I tell you that this which is written must still be fulfilled in me: ‘He was counted with transgressors.’ For that which concerns me has an end.”
They said, “Lord, behold, here are two swords.”
He said to them, “That is enough.”
— Luke 22:35-38
What!? Jesus condoned the buying of weapons!? Yes, he did, and for Christians, this discourse ought to govern our attitude toward weapons. In the first century, the most common and effective weapon of the time was the short sword. It was easily concealable compared to others, good for swinging in close spaces, double edged and sharp. It was definitely the kind of weapon one would want to be holding in any kind of street fight, brawl, showdown, robbery or war. The Apostles had two of these. Jesus said “that is enough.”
Today, the modern equivalent of this weapon would be a medium caliber handgun – ranging from the nine millimeter to the thirty-eight special. If this discourse between Jesus and his Apostles happened today, it might have gone down like this…
Then he said to them, “But now, whoever has a purse, let him take it, and likewise a wallet. Whoever has none, let him sell his cloak, and buy a gun. For I tell you that this which is written must still be fulfilled in me: ‘He was counted with transgressors.’ For that which concerns me has an end.”
They said, “Lord, behold, here are two handguns.”
He said to them, “That is enough.”
This gives the Scriptures a totally different feel, doesn’t it? Jesus not only condoned the possession of weapons, but he actually commanded his Apostles to buy some. Then when they showed him that they already had two, he told them that was plenty. From this we learn that Jesus (the real Jesus, not the syrupy Jesus) was not only “okay” with people having weapons, but even expects it of his followers, to a certain limited degree. Again, I’m not asking “what would Jesus do?” but rather “what did Jesus do?” That’s a more important question, because from that we can discern what that means in our time. Is Jesus okay with guns? Well, he was okay with swords, and that’s sort of the same thing.
Jesus, however, explained the reason why he told his Apostles to buy a sword. Did you catch it? He said he was leaving this world, and after he was gone, things would be different. They would no longer have the same divine protection they once had while Jesus was with them. The would need more natural means to defend themselves now.
A weapon can only serve two purposes — offensive and defensive. The weapons he wanted them to have were for defensive purposes only. Two swords for twelve men is hardly enough to be used in any kind of offensive way. At best, they could be used by two Apostles as defensive weapons (defending the rest) against a few robbers or thugs, but that’s about it. Jesus was not a revolutionary. He certainly wasn’t the militaristic Messiah many had been expecting. One doesn’t foment a rebellion with just two swords. It should be obvious that wasn’t Jesus’ intention, not just from this passage alone, but from many others throughout the New Testament where Jesus talks about “turning the other cheek” (Matthew 5:39) and “my kingdom is not of this world, if it were my servants would fight” (John 18:36).
We read on in the gospel narrative that St. Peter didn’t get it. When the Temple guards came to arrest Jesus, he took one of those very swords he had just showed to Jesus, and lunged toward the high priest’s servant who was probably the one leading the guard (Luke 22:50; John 18:10). The servant must have moved to the side at just the right time, dodging a chop to the head, causing Peter to miss his head entirely and only slice off his ear.
The scene plays out in the painting above, which is zoomed in on St. Peter swinging the sword. You can see the whole painting here. Jesus commanded Peter to stop, rebuked and scolded him for doing it, then he healed the servant’s ear.
Rebellion and revolution are not in the Christian equation. That’s not why Christians are allowed to carry weapons. The one and only reason is self defense, or defense of others against lawlessness (thugs, rapists, murderers, etc.). The Temple guards were following orders from their lawful superiors. Jesus was voluntarily submitting to the summons of those superiors. St. Peter had no right to act. He was not in danger from lawless thugs, neither was his Master. Jesus could have called down a whole army of angels to defend him if he wanted to, and he already demonstrated to these guards that he, himself, had the power to drive them off if he wanted to. After demonstrating this power, he commanded that they take him only and leave his Apostles alone (John 18:5-8). Fearful of Jesus, they did just that, even after St. Peter had assaulted one of them with a deadly weapon.
Jesus clearly allowed, and even commanded, his Apostles to have weapons, but not many. From this, we can deduce that he wanted his Apostles to have the means to defend themselves against bandits and thugs, but not enough to be a threat to any civil government. This concept is reinforced in the Catechism of the Catholic Church…
Love toward oneself remains a fundamental principle of morality. Therefore it is legitimate to insist on respect for one’s own right to life. Someone who defends his life is not guilty of murder even if he is forced to deal his aggressor a lethal blow:
If a man in self-defense uses more than necessary violence, it will be unlawful: whereas if he repels force with moderation, his defense will be lawful…. Nor is it necessary for salvation that a man omit the act of moderate self-defense to avoid killing the other man, since one is bound to take more care of one’s own life than of another’s.
Legitimate defense can be not only a right but a grave duty for someone responsible for another’s life. Preserving the common good requires rendering the unjust aggressor unable to inflict harm. To this end, those holding legitimate authority have the right to repel by armed force aggressors against the civil community entrusted to their charge.
— CCC 2264-2265
As you can see, the Catechism sanctions the use of armed and lethal force (what kind is not specified) for self defense or the defense of others, but that’s about it. What’s the takeaway from this? The message is that Catholics can hold good-faith opinions on both sides of the gun-control debate. While it’s hard for Catholics to make the argument that anyone needs a large arsenal, there is nobody who can compel Catholics to surrender their side arms for use in personal defense. Catholics can own handguns, shotguns, riffles, crossbows, swords, knives, spears and clubs if they want to, and there is nothing in either the Bible or the Catechism that says they can’t. The sweet and syrupy, contemporary Jesus doesn’t apply here, because he doesn’t exist. He’s a figment of people’s imagination. The only Jesus that matters is the one we read about in the Bible, and he thought a couple swords were a pretty good thing to have around.