The blogosphere is abuzz with Christians defending or rejecting their right and/or responsibility to bear arms against their enemies. This is an important discussion that leads to the deeper question of whether a Jesus-follower should ever engage in violence.
The emotionally charged rhetoric on both sides betrays the profound implications of where one lands on this issue.
I believe it reveals something else.
Could it be, while carving out our stances on pacifism, self-defense, and war, we are obfuscating what matters most by framing the debate in a way that misses the heart of Jesus altogether? Could it be our obsession with what we ought or ought not do in this or that situation reflects less of His heart and more of the heart of the Pharisees who were convinced they answered the questions correctly, even as their rejected their King?
Could it be we are beginning with the wrong questions?
In my view, the most fundamental questions in this debate are not, “When can I defend myself or my loved ones?“ Or, “When can I be violent and not sin?” While important, these questions are close to meaningless until we answer more fundamental questions like, “Where is my ultimate hope?” And, “How does my attitude toward those I call my enemies announce and embody the King and His Kingdom that has come?”
In the Sermon on the Mount and elsewhere, Jesus calls those who would follow Him to climb higher than the ethics of ought, personal rights, and pulling the correct moral lever in a given situation. He calls us into a completely new kind of life that asks entirely different questions that flow from supernaturally renewed hearts.
For example, instead of asking, “What must I do to divorce my wife properly?,” Jesus forces us to consider the kind of heart that seeks to divorce one’s wife (Mt 5:31-32). His subsequent allowance for divorce under narrow conditions is a subset of the greater issue of one’s heart toward his wife. Isn’t this why he defines adultery as a condition of the heart, not merely a physical act (Mt 5:27-28)?
Not surprisingly, to those who claimed the right to hate their enemies, Jesus insisted they love and pray for even them (Mt 5:43-48).
Doesn’t this suggest Jesus is less interested in questions like, “When can I shoot an enemy without sinning?” And more interested in questions like, “What does it mean for me to love the one I would rather hate.” Or, “Have I paused to pray even once for those I am so eager to send into a Christ-less eternity?”
On the other hand, lest you think this is just a veiled argument for strict pacifism, we cannot ignore that Jesus never rebuked the Roman Centurion for being a man of war. Instead, he praised this warrior for his faith (Mt 8:5-13). Why? Because the ethics of the Kingdom begin with “Who?” and “Why?” before getting to “What?” and “When?”
Put differently, for the follower of Jesus, the questions underlying any moral debate must be, “Which King am I serving?” And, “Whose Kingdom am I building?”
A careful reading of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (a Lutheran pastor who attempted to assassinate Adolph Hitler in WW II) leaves no doubt His heart belonged to the good King Jesus whom he believed he was serving by his actions. Likewise, many strict pacifists of that era (who could not have approved of Bonhoeffer’s actions) undoubtedly shared his devotion to Jesus.
So who was right? Who was wrong?
Could it be we can get the “ought” right and still get Jesus wrong? Is it possible to do the right thing wrongly? The wrong thing rightly? Could it be, as Jesus implied, our “why” often outweighs our “what” in moral debates like this?
As muddy as this makes the waters for those obsessed with pulling the right lever (or defending their right to do so), when we come to intractable debates like this, focusing on the bedrock questions of “Which King?” and “Whose Kingdom?,” while not always leading us to the same “ought,” will lead us to charity toward those with whom we disagree and, more importantly, burn away our self-centered hubris which fuels our self-righteous arrogance that always drives us away from the heart of Jesus, even when get the “ought” right.