Christian ethics at the National Review and The Dish

Two mainstream media outlets – the National Review Online and Andrew Sullivan’s The Dish – recently applied Christian ethics to the gun-violence debate, to very different results.

Over at the National Review, David French argues that we have an obligation to protect things like human life - even if we have to act violently. He points to one of God's first commands to Noah after the Flood: "Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man his blood shall be shed; for in the image of God He made man." This verse, French points out, isn't directed to the police or some nation-state, but to individuals.

He also pointed to Exodus 22:2-3, which allows you to kill a thief breaking into your home at night without penalty, as well as cases from Nehemiah and Esther where the Israelites defended themselves against violent aggressors. And in the New Testament, French argues, Jesus restricted vengeance to God and the state, but people still had every right to protect themselves. As French puts it, "The idea that one is required to surrender his life - or the lives of his family, neighbors or even strangers - in the face of armed attack is alien to Scripture."

Andrew Sullivan takes a different approach. The Easter story "requires absolute nonviolence in the face of even immense injustice," he writes at The Dish. In the Garden of Gethsemane, when Jesus cuts off the soldier's ear, Jesus heals the servant and rebukes Peter, telling us "those who live by the sword will die by it." In the Sermon on the Mount, He calls on us to turn the other cheek and turns many of the Old Testament legal prohibitions that French invokes on their head. In Sullivan's words, "To use Jesus as an advocate of armed self-defense is almost comical if it were not so despicable."

To be clear, Sullivan isn't calling people to be pacifists. Secular philosophers like Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, he says, make good cases for violent self-defense. We can make a case for violence in certain circumstances within the Christian tradition, as well. "In a fallen world," Sullivan wrote, "there is also a case for just war (but one that Aquinas had to come up with, for Jesus was uninterested)." Violence may sometimes be necessary, even good - but when it is celebrated, Sullivan thinks that's contrary to Christ's example.

Who's right here? As with many things, the truth lies somewhere in the middle. I agree with French that we are commanded to protect certain things, most especially human life. This is a struggle I face regularly as a pacifist. Aren't I putting my own moral purity over the safety of others because I'm afraid to get my hands dirty by using a gun? But French also bases his argument largely on historical examples taken from a more violent age. God's law is permanent, of course, but our application of it may not be. We have more ways to prevent violence than the ancient Israelites did, and our responses to threats and injustice should change with this.

Sullivan suffers from a different spin on the same problem. In Gethsemane, Jesus was not trying to avoid an injustice; He realized He had to be captured and eventually die. This is almost never the case historically. And while Jesus didn't lead an army in the Gospels, His words have often been interpreted as pointing to a Second Coming when He will take on a more military role. The Jesus of the Gospels didn't have the political power to overthrow the Romans or the Sadducees and so He submitted. Would He have told Peter to put away his sword if He could have accomplished His goal through fighting? That's a much more complicated question.

When it comes to guns, neither extreme has it exactly right. Christians are commanded to protect the weak and downtrodden, and in some rare cases this may require gun violence. We should be careful, though: guns are dangerous, and we must use them for the right reasons if we're going to use them at all. Does someone face a bigger risk from handguns (due to shooting accidents) than they face from criminals? Are we more concerned with our rights and our personal safety than whether guns help us do good? Or, from the other side: does not owning a gun keep us from protecting our families and neighbors when required?

French was right about one thing: we serve a God who loves life and calls us to protect the weak. But what does that mean in practical terms? Must we carry guns and be prepared to use them? If so, when?

Editor's note: This post was part of a March Synchroblog challenge on the topic of Guns & God. You can find links to other posts in the series here.

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I wrote short a short, light-hearted dialogue recently that encapsulates my thoughts on the matter ( I’m a Marine veteran, but I consider myself a pacifist these days. I’ve yet to see a convincing “pro-defense” argument that takes into account God’s sovereignty and unconditional love.

I have seen many try to justify worldly principles (violence, retribution) with Biblical references, however.


Clearly this is a difficult question.

To your discussion: it is interesting that some of the church fathers would have argued (contra French’s reading of the Gospels) that, for a Christian, self-defense cannot be justified, but participation in violence at the level of the state—-the just war, presumably to defend the defenseless—-is, in fact, a moral imperative.

I suspect the same reasoning can apply to defense of self versus defense of others in the context of policing such that shooting someone to protect others (e.g., when acting in one’s capacity as a guard or police officer) is imperative ethically, but shooting the same person to save yourself is untenable.

Sullivan’s reading of scripture seems to miss important context, as you note, but French has a somewhat selective reading too—-one, I think, that reads the Gospels too much in the frame of one’s individual rights.


Thank you for your thoughts (and your service), Chris. I think you get at the heart of this issue when you appeal to things like God’s sovereignty and unconditional love. The difficulty is that we are called to love everyone, the person being threatened by violence and not just the person threatening it. I consider myself a pacifist, practically if not always philosophically, but I definitely wrestle with how I would respond violently if someone else was being threatened. (Interestingly, this seems to be the much harder question than self-defense. I’m willing to die rather than kill, but it’s much harder to stand by and watch someone else suffer.)

At a minimum, I think it’s really important to wrestle with this issue and think long and hard about whether we’re relying too much on non-Biblical ideals when it comes to whether we’re prepared to use a gun. I think I could disagree in good conscience with a brother in Christ who thought loving his neighbor meant being ready to shoot to protect him, if necessary. I’d have a much harder time saying that if I thought he was letting his fear and need for security and retribution drive him.

This is a really important point, Jason. I do agree that both men are doing a selective reading. Doing a holistic reading of Scripture, taking stock of both the parts friendly to our views and those that challenge us is always crucial - and on this particular issue it’s particularly important, because the issue is quite literally life and death and because our society is so polarized. I actually meant to point out Sullivan’s shortcomings here, but it’s hard to due a complicated question like this justice in a short space and I don’t think I was able to emphasize that as much as I’d like.

Do you have any particular church fathers in mind? I know I would like to read more about what they said on this topic, and I may not be the only one.

Yes, I was correct: both Ambrose and Augustine. There is a good discussion of both in the book St. Augustine and the Theory of Just War by John Mark Mattox.

Must we carry a weapon and be prepared to use it? My personal philosophy is no:

Then again, I think in terms of “must”, the answer for every Christian is no. After all, we are free in Christ to take whatever course we like on the matter. And that also includes carrying a firearm, for freedom works both ways.

Good discussion you’ve got going here, Marta.


Thanks Marta, you’ve raised interesting issues and got a good discussion going.

I love the way you cover both extremes without judging the people who hold them.

I find the witness of the early church challenging on this. Tertullian said “Christ, in disarming Peter, unbelted every soldier.”

Clement of Alexandria said: “If you enroll as one of God’s people, heaven is your country and God your lawgiver. And what are His laws? You shall not kill, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. To him that strikes you on the one cheek, turn to him the other also.”

St Basil the Great wrote “Nothing is so characteristically Christian as being a peacemaker.”

Your questions are good ones- statistically, yes, guns in a home present a greater risk than armed intruders.

I’m reminded, in thinking about your questions, of the verse “Some trust in horses and some in chariots, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God.”

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