God, Guns, and the Gospel

Is God pro-gun?  President Trump seems to think so.  This week Trump attacked Joe Biden, saying that Biden is going to “take away your guns, destroy your Second Amendment, no religion, no anything. Hurt the bible, hurt God. He’s against God, he’s against guns.”

Trump gives voice to a prototypical American myth of a land that loves God, guns, and the gospel.  You can see this mythic complex in cowboy movies and elsewhere.  WWII gave us a song with the lyrics, “Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition and we’ll all stay free.”  In 2009, Lynyrd Skynyrd released an album called “God & Guns.”  The title track (covered recently by Hank Williams, Jr.) says, “God and guns keep us strong.  That’s what this country was founded on.”  The song seems to respond to something Barack Obama said about “bitter” and “frustrated” Americans who “cling to guns or religion.”

Of course, religious liberty and gun ownership are protected by the First and Second Amendments.  But the subsequent case law is complicated and contentious.  These complex Constitutional questions are not easily reduced to the simplistic idea that to be an American is to praise the Lord and pass the ammunition.  The First Amendment gives you the right to worship God in your own way.  It protects pacifists, atheists, and militant Christians  The Second Amendment affirms the right to have a well-regulated militia and bear arms.  It does not, however, help us interpret the Bible.

We live in a country where over a quarter of Americans (28%) believe that the Bible should take precedence over the will of the people, according the Pew Center.  So, it is important to note that the Constitution allows Americans to disagree about the Bible.

The Bible is not a useful guide on the question of guns anyway. There is nothing in the Good Book about guns, which didn’t exist back then.  The Bible talks a lot about swords.  But to say that the Bible is pro-sword ignores those passages that suggest turning swords into plowshares (Isaiah 2:4).  I’ve pointed out in my book on the Bible that for many issues, ancient Biblical texts are indeterminate and uninformative.

Of course, guns and swords are part of a larger question of self-defense.  But the Bible is not a useful guide here either.  Some texts show the Jewish people fighting for their survival.  Paul wrote in his letter to the Romans that the political authorities use the sword to execute justice.  But Jesus told Peter to put away his sword.  And Christian martyrs often followed Jesus’s model and submitted to execution.

Some Christians are pacifists.  Others are not.  And the Bible is ambiguous.

A recent book by Michael Austin, God and Guns in America, reminds us of the diversity of Christian belief about guns.  Austin suggest that some Christians hate guns and love God.  But others love guns and love God.  I would add that even atheists disagree: some hate guns others don’t.

That’s why we ought to keep these issues separated, just as the First and Second Amendments are distinct.  On the one hand, religious liberty permits us to interpret the Bible any way we want.  On the other hand, there is the question of self-defense and the “well-regulated militia.”  The issues of legal self-defense and justified violence are complicated enough on their own, without conflating them with unanswerable questions about the Bible. 

But most public argument about this stuff lacks subtlety.  Political slogans, popular music, and prophetic preaching are typically not bastions of critical thinking.  Art and politics pull emotional levers by using affective language and making vague gestures.  Religion does that too, much of the time.  But critical thinking asks us to analyze arguments and carefully excavate the historical sources. 

Smart people continue to debate the Bible and the Constitution while reaching divergent conclusions.  That’s why it is hard to take Trump seriously when he says Biden will hurt God and the Bible.  The Constitution prevents any President—whether Trump or Biden—from taking unilateral action on any of these issues.  And if there is a God, He can probably take care of Himself. 

Bible and Proof

We need faith, but we still want answers

   Andrew Fiala

Originally published Fresno Bee 2012-04-07

Editor’s note: Andrew Fiala is contributing his column from Israel, where he is on sabbatical.

Is it possible to prove that religious belief is true? One approach would be to look for archaeological evidence. When ancient scrolls were found near the Dead Sea — the Dead Sea Scrolls — this discovery provided evidence of the antiquity of the Bible. But Christians and Jews still disagree about the meaning of these texts. Evidence still needs to be interpreted.

And archaeological evidence can be faked. Consider, for example, the findings of Ron Wyatt, who claimed that he had found the Ark of the Covenant buried in a cave in Jerusalem, directly beneath the spot where Jesus was crucified. Wyatt claimed to have found blood that had dripped from the cross. When he tested the blood, he found that it had only 24 chromosomes (23 plus a mysterious Y-chromosome), proof that it came from a man born of a virgin.

I learned about Wyatt when we visited a place called the Garden Tomb, which was where Wyatt claimed to have found his evidence. In the 19th century, this spot was suggested as a possible place for the crucifixion. Other Christians think it happened across town on the Mount of Olives. But most Christians believe that the Easter story unfolded at another place, at the site of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

The Church of the Holy Sepulcher is an uncanny place, full of candles and incense and filtered light. The church holds shrines and altars commemorating the location of both the crucifixion and the resurrection. This ancient building conceals strange nooks and crannies. At one point, I took a candle and crawled into dark and dusty tomb in a hidden corner of the church. Later I entered the holy tomb itself and touched the stone of the resurrection. It was cold and dark and slightly spooky.

The Garden Tomb is not nearly so mysterious. It sits in the open air, near a rock that looks like a skull. This fits the Biblical story that Jesus was crucified at Golgotha — the place of the skull. The empty tomb here is much bigger and airier than the tomb in the Holy Sepulcher. There is a groove cut into the ground in front of the tomb, through which a rock could have been rolled away on Easter morning.

Our tour guide in the Garden Tomb was a retired minister. He acknowledged the dispute about the location of the first Easter. But he said that the essential thing was to believe that on Easter morning the tomb was empty — wherever that tomb may be.

He also said that for him, the most memorable part of the whole Easter story was the moment when Jesus asked God to forgive those who were crucifying him. I like the message of forgiveness, too. But I wonder what kind of archaeological evidence would prove that Jesus actually said those words? The Gospel stories contain differing accounts. The words of forgiveness only show up in Luke.

How do we know what Jesus said or where he said it? Archaeology simply cannot dig that deep. The religious answer points away from knowledge in the direction of faith. Faith comes in when evidence is lacking.

The hunt for archaeological evidence of Biblical events thus points to a paradox. If the evidence were indisputable and obvious, then there would be no need for faith. If we really could see the blood and believe that it wasn’t fake, then we wouldn’t need faith at all. It might even be that, from a religious standpoint, there is more virtue in believing when the evidence is lacking, more virtue in faith than in knowledge.

Sometimes the craving for evidence can inspire wishful thinking that leaves us vulnerable to frauds and charlatans. Even Jesus warned about false prophets, wolves in sheep’s clothing.

But who do we trust, who do we believe? And what do we do when there is no evidence? What do we do when there are conflicting interpretations of the evidence we possess? These are the sorts of questions that keep you awake at night. These are the sorts of questions that can lead you to want to crawl into a dark tomb with a candle in your hand, looking for something, waiting to be shown the light.