Saturday, February 24, 2018

Two Swords

Two Swords

“He said to them, “When I sent you out without a purse, bag, or sandals, did you lack anything?” They said, “No, not a thing.” He said to them, “But now, the one who has a purse must take it, and likewise a bag. And the one who has no sword must sell his cloak and buy one. For I tell you, this scripture must be fulfilled in me, ‘And he was counted among the lawless’; and indeed, what is written about me is being fulfilled.” They said, “Lord, look, here are two swords.” He replied, “It is enough.” Luke 22:35-38 (NRSV)
The recent South Florida school shooting has produced several intense Facebook debates, a few of which I have participated in. One subject that came of a couple times which caught me completely off guard was the Christian use of Luke 22:36 as justification for carrying a firearm. Now, I’ve been saying for a while there is a lot of questionable theology out there, but this literally shocked me; I simply could not believe what I was reading. After a few days to recover and think things through I decided to check my conclusions against other biblical commentators; in other words, I Googled it. Evidently this question is much more common than I thought. One site (under the search heading ‘orthodox interpretation of Luke 22:36) actually displayed an ad for a Facebook page titled ‘ActiveSelfProtection’ showing a hand holding a handgun, the holster on the belt, and the caption “Not Just a Constitutional Right. But, in Fact, a Biblical Command” below with Luke 22:36 quoted in full above.
Now, proper interpretation of any Biblical passage requires keeping a few things in mind. First, we must remember the Bible was not written for 21st Century United States readers. That is not to say it does not speak to us today; it is to say we must first determine what it said to the original audience. In this case, what was Jesus saying to His disciples? What was Luke trying to say to his readers? How does the message fit into the entirety of what the Christian Scriptures say and teach? Only then can we successfully determine what is being spoken to us here and now. Was Jesus really telling his disciples to buy swords? Do we take his words literally? Jesus often spoke in parable and metaphor; is this what is happening here? My first thought was Jesus is not speaking literally because nothing like this appears anywhere else in the New Testament. A literal interpretation simply does not fit.
The second principle of interpretation is to keep things in context. Here we need to ask what is going on around Jesus. Is this a stand-alone verse or part of a larger narrative? The context here is Jesus’ farewell discourse to His disciples. Luke’s narrative contains elements common to the Biblical farewell discourse: revelation of the speaker’s coming death (given in the institution of the Lord’ Supper (vs.14-23), final orders to disciples (vs.24-27), naming a successor (28-32), reflections on the speaker’s life and warnings about the future (33-38). The misunderstanding centers on the final orders; specifically, the meaning of the two swords.
Luke tells us Jesus had previously “...sent them [the twelve] out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal” after giving them “…power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases…” Luke 9:1-2 (NRSV); and again “After this the Lord appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go. He said to them…see, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves. Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals…Luke 10:1-4 (NRSV; italics mine). Jesus may be sending out His group as lambs amid wolves but note in this instance He does not advise them to carry anything for personal protection (or anything else, for that matter). Jesus has full confidence in the sufficiency of the Father to meet all needs, protective and otherwise. Which leads directly to the two swords.
Jesus now tells His disciples their situation is about to take a turn for the worse; He is about to be tried and executed. Not as a violent revolutionary-in which case His entire group would be executed as well-but as the leader of a non-violent movement. Rome’s policy in the case of non-violent insurrection was to execute the leader as a warning to the followers. Persecution will come to the disciples, but not just yet. Conditions will change; they must be prepared. Welcome will become hostility. The Father (and the Son, and the Spirit as well) will still be present. So will persecution. The time will come when the best interests of the Kingdom will mean martyrdom for the disciples; tradition holds all but John will die for their faith. Luke’s companion volume-Acts-records many of these persecutions and imprisonments but nowhere does Acts record a violent response from the disciples (including and especially Paul). I say again-the two swords are noticeably missing from Acts; and from the rest of the New Testament as well.  What then was their purpose, if not for self-defense?
Considering vs.37, where Jesus quotes Isaiah 53:12, some hold the two swords were just enough for Jesus to be ‘numbered with the transgressors”. Jesus and the twelve, by virtue of two swords, now become criminals. We have already shown this is not the case; if it were the disciples would have been arrested as well. The full quote reads “Therefore I will give him a portion among the great,
and he will divide the spoils with the strong,
because he poured out his life unto death,
and was numbered with the transgressors.
For he bore the sin of many,
and made intercession for the transgressors.
Isaiah 53:12 (NRSV; italics mine).
I believe ‘numbered with the transgressors’ refers to Jesus place between the two thieves-the transgressors-where He indeed ‘bore the sins of many’. Two swords were certainly not enough for self-defense, nor were they so intended; when Peter struck the servant’s ear slicing it off, Jesus rebukes Peter’s violent response and heals the ear. My position is the swords, as well as the bag and purse, were never meant to be understood literally. The statement in its entirety was metaphoric; Jesus was telling His disciples conditions were about to change, so get ready. The modern equivalent would be something like ‘better get your stuff together’. The disciples, taking Jesus literally and missing the point, as they were prone to do, produced Jesus’ exasperated response ‘that’s enough’; end of discussion.  
The two primary themes of Luke-Acts are concern for the marginalized and the restoration of Israel as a light to the world. After the birth narrative, Luke shows constant movement outward-from Galilee to Jerusalem to Judea to Samaria to the ends of the earth. Luke presents the Gospel-under the careful guidance of Jesus through the power of the Holy Spirit-moving ever outward. Gospel preachers-particularly Paul-would face constant danger, persecution and threat of martyrdom. And yet, never once in Luke or Acts or Matthew, Mark, or John do we ever see anything remotely resembling a violent response from Jesus, His disciples or His followers. In fact, the Gospels are filled with the exact opposite (see, for example, Mt.5-7 or John 9:51-56, esp. the NRSV text note).
 To pull one verse completely out of context and use it to justify the Second Amendment is not only bad theology but irresponsible and dangerous as well. Scripture interpretation, as I have said, requires consistency. Two swords as justification for handgun carry simply does not fit and is, in my opinion, one of the worst cases of allowing personal politics to influence personal theology. You want to carry a handgun? Fine. You believe in the Second Amendment? Fine. Don’t use the Bible to justify yourself; it does not, and in doing so you may well miss the most important, and most revolutionary, message Jesus has for us; the one we most desperately need to hear.
Peace JRG

Thursday, February 22, 2018

This post is actually a reply to my Gun Violence post. I'm putting it here because it refuses to post as a comment. Thank you for taking the time for your well-written reply. Over the years, many people have told me when God made me He broke the mold :).

One of the great things about the world God has created is that He has made individuals unique. As I recently read, God broke the mold after He created each one of us. There can never be another who is the exact same. Let me say this is an excellent read and very thought provoking. Obviously, there are things that people will agree with and disagree with. I'll just hit on a few things that speak to me.

1) It is extremely sad to see how unaware "modern" society has gone to distance itself from our Heavenly Father. I believe that society has put the awareness of our Savior aside in order to justify their own misdeeds; and yet they keep Him close enough to be able to call on Him when they need something or catastrophe strikes. If children and adults alike were to be brought up and nurtured in the Gospel rather that in the "participant trophy" easily offended day in which we live, things would be SO much different. It would be phenomenal to go out into the world every day and easily feel God's presence with every contact we have. Unfortunately, it won't happen because "the days are evil."

2) Something certainly has to be done to address all of the violence occuring in our schools (not to mention in addition to drug use, pornography, and all other sinful activity that is dragging our society down). It should have been more adequately addressed a long time ago. I honestly believe that things will only continue to get worse until the Lord returns on that white horse to recreate the world. The day is getting closer. Every creature is important to God and it would be foolish to sit idly by and do nothing while we wait for the Lord's return. We have to at least try.

3) How to try is the issue. Everyone has their own "perfect answer" which can, and will, be met with hesitation. In Psalm 82:3-4, we are told to "Defend the weak and the fatherless; uphold the cause of the poor and the oppressed. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked." The ultimate question is how to do this without stripping people of their rights and putting additional people into danger. Someone somewhere is going to have to make that decision. I hope they are a believer who will consult the Creator of All to direct their paths before announcing a decision that will affect so many people.

4) In closing, I am a gun owner. I carry it when, and where, I am permitted. I personally would like to see more security in schools. It's factual that the overwhelming vast majority of mass shootings occur in gun free zones. As it is beginning to come to light, there are so many issues with coordination of the current investigative, reporting, and mental health areas that we cannot get an accurate picture of how well the current system and laws work because they are just being blown off and "oops" is said when something happens. There are stories going around the internet (which all have to be taken with a grain of salt) that talk about how many times the army, FBI, and others have failed to communicate effectively to prevent incidents from happening. Only the Lord knows how things would be different if things were handled better and events were hopefully stopped before they could happen. Until a better means of communication and accountability are put into place, we cannot, and should not, be judging what laws already in place are, or aren't enough. 

Monday, February 19, 2018

Gun Violence

Guns + Violence=Gun Violence

In the wake of the Parkland, Florida school shootings social media and news networks have generally been focused on gun control. Over the weekend surviving students from Marjory Stone Douglas High School have become quite outspoken about what they perceive to be the failure of our political leadership. They of course have every right to speak out-some would argue they have an obligation to speak out-against gun violence in our schools. While the “I call BS” quote seems to be gaining lots of traction, my favorite is the response to second the amendment rights question, stated emphatically: “I have the right to live!”. We should be listening; we should also be thinking about why they are taking the lead here, and not us ‘responsible adults’. We are finally being held accountable by those who are most affected and I wholeheartedly support their efforts, and their message.
As my title suggests, gun violence has two components; guns and violence. Today I will set the gun half aside-our children seem to be doing fine addressing this and hopefully the passion and determination of youth will get the appropriate attention. What has not been getting much attention is the violence side. Maybe I should re-phrase that. Violence has been getting attention insofar as gun rights advocates point to all manner of violence, apart from guns, to make their case that guns don’t kill people, people kill people. As if to say violence is acceptable because it always has been and always will be part and parcel of our culture. Since it always has and always will exist, the only reasonable deterrent is to meet violence head on with more violence. Following this logic to its inevitable conclusion leads us to armed guards in every school-hopefully carrying automatic weapons only because hand-held nukes are not yet practical. In response, to paraphrase Paul, let me propose a better way.
            First, a few disclaimers. I am not coming after anyone’s guns, even if I fail to understand Conservative Evangelicalism’s fascination with all things guns and military. Violence always has and probably always will be with us, at least until out Lord returns. There are and will continue to be situations where armed resistance is necessary; such times are best left to highly trained and skilled professionals. Nor is this about the Second Amendment, although I will touch on that. Now, with that out of the way let me say violence is a lie and a sin against God. Responding to violence with more violence is two lies and two sins against God and for a Christian-especially a Christian leader-to respond to violence with the threat of more violence is three lies and three sins against God.
Violence is a lie because it assumes the only acceptable response to any given situation is the imposition one’s beliefs by force of will upon another. It is a lie and a sin because in committing a violent act I am saying I am more important than you; you must bow to my wishes. Violence is a sin before God not only for that reason but because God, secure in the knowledge that He alone is capable of determining right and wrong, must now watch His creatures usurp His authority and decide right and wrong for ourselves (“Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden…for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” Genesis 3:1-5; italics mine).  The questions now become ‘whose good is greater; who gets to decide, how will the decision be enforced’ (see also James 4:1-10, esp. vs.5). Because God forbid we let Him decide or tell us what to do-who knows where that will end up.
Responding to violence with violence is two lies, first because of the violence itself; second because of the assumption that a violent response is necessary. That somehow violence can only be contained or controlled by greater violence. Of course, this greater violence is acceptable because it is being perpetrated by the “good guys”. The Biblical principle is a little different: “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (Proverbs 15:1). Jesus unpacks this in Mt. 5:21-26; 38-41, His point being ending the cycle of violence wherever possible is always preferable to perpetuating it, even in the name of justice and especially where justice is decided by whoever has the most firepower. Most arguments I have heard favoring a violent response to violence are thinly disguised justifications for second amendment rights. I will say it again because it bears repeating: I do not understand the Conservative Evangelical infatuation with all things guns and military. (That isn’t completely true. I do think I might understand it as it fits nicely with the false worldview of Nationalism. I just can’t quite believe it’s happening). One more point-I do not believe armed guards in schools to be the deterrent their proponents believe them to be; they simply run the risk of encouraging ever greater violence (ex. Oh good, I can get the guards first. Need more guns. Need more ammo.)  I’m old enough to remember the college student who placed a flower in the barrel of a National Guard rifle at Kent State. That would have worked out better for all involved had there been a little more Gospel present.
Which leads me to Christian leaders advocating violent response (or, for that matter, encouraging armed students in their colleges and armed parishioners in their churches). Three lies-the lie of violence itself, the lie of a necessary violent response, and the lie that the Gospel is somehow insufficient or impractical; as though the Gospel message is fine for the Sunday pulpit or daily meditation in the privacy of our homes but out there in the real world we need serious protection. Because everybody knows God just can’t protect our kids, right? And anyway, we kicked Him out of our schools. Another lie-an omnipresent God cannot be kicked out of anything anywhere. What’s missing is the awareness of His presence, which we should be cultivating in our own lives and teaching our kids. And since He isn’t allowed in our schools we’re pretty much on our own, aren’t we? Listen to the voices of the Parkland survivors. They are crying out for our God. Every Christian-but especially every Christian leader-who posts some pithy pro-second amendment saying or some cute meme featuring a smoking gun or an AR-15 in defense their personal rights has just seen any credible influence or ability to preach the Gospel instantly evaporate. These kids-the whole of society, for that matter-do not need a culturally compromised Gospel. They do not need a faith focused on a behavior-reward system designed, as someone else I can’t remember put it, to procure a good exit strategy and they-we-certainly do not need more guns. They need-and they know they need-a faith which impacts day to day, minute by minute life. They need someone whom they can trust with their lives and follow with all their hearts. So do you. So do I. To paraphrase Paul “woe to us if we do not preach the Gospel”.
I know that faith, even if I fail to practice it a lot more frequently than I should. I know that God, even if I fail to follow Him a lot more closely than I should. So here is my final point; final answer. I publicly condemn in the strongest possible terms violence of any and every type. Adult shooters firing into a concert? Nope. Young adult drivers driving into a crowd of protesters? Uh-uh. Kids bring semi-automatic weapons into schools bent upon maximum destruction? No way. Firefights in the halls? Oh hell no. We have reached the point-we are way past the point-where we must ask ourselves what is more important-the right to keep and bear semi-automatic weapons or the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? We might even ask ourselves about the deeper meaning of Jesus’ statement “He who loves his life will lose it”. I know a couple teachers might be willing to help us out with that one. We have the answer. Will we render it null and void by proclaiming it is somehow not enough, or will we trust in The Lord with all our hearts, not on our own understanding? Will we acknowledge Him in all our ways and allow Him to direct our paths? Or will we reserve a few things for ourselves? After all, we are only being practical……