When Pastor Andy Gipson rises to preach in the Gum Springs Baptist Church, in Braxton, Mississippi, he occasionally carries a gun into the pulpit.
Some congregations “don’t have the resources to hire professional security,” Gipson has said, leaving it up to members of churches like his to protect themselves. Should a situation ever call for lethal force inside the sanctuary, he believes that a worshipper who shoots and kills while claiming self-defense should be granted the same legal protections as gun owners who stand their ground in secular settings.
Because Gipson is not only the well-armed minister of a small Baptist congregation, but also a member of the Mississippi House of Representatives, he is now in the position to turn his vision for keeping his 100-member church safe into the law of the land. A bill he filed, the “Mississippi Church Protection Act,” was approved by the state Senate on Tuesday and now goes back to the lower chamber for reconciliation. If changes made to the bill since the lower chamber voted in favor of it in February are approved, it will only need the signature of Republican Governor Phil Bryant to take effect.
The new law would extend to houses of worship the “castle doctrine” that provides legal cover to those who take a life while claiming to defend homes, vehicles, or property. The measure places no limit on the number of congregants who can be named to “church security teams” that would be “immune from civil liability.”
Opponents of the Church Protection Act include some faith leaders who suggest that mixing weapons and prayer might not be in keeping with the Gospels. But other Christians see no contradiction in Jesus’s advice to turn the other cheek and Gipson’s call for firearms in the pews. Indeed, for a number of religious gun owners nationwide, the Second Amendment merely provides legal justification for possessing firearms, while the primary source for their entitlement is not of this earth. The right to bear to arms, say these adherents, comes from on high.
Manifested most vividly in Sarah Palin’s “bitter-clingers” rant about “our guns, our God,” and half-serious pro-gun Jesus t-shirts, the earnest belief in a divine right to self-defense-by-gun is the latest manifestation of a peculiarly American interpretation of the Christian faith. Valuing force alongside forgiveness, its adherents turn to scripture for unambiguous approval of modern weapons, despite those texts being written millennia before firearms came into the world.
“We don’t have the right to keep and bear arms because the Bill of Rights says so,” the Daily Caller’s AWR Hawkins has argued. “Rather, the Bill of Rights says so because the right to keep and bear arms is intrinsic to our very being: It is a right with which we were endowed by our Creator.”
Writing in the National Review, David French gets a bit more specific. “Self defense is a Biblical and natural right of man.” In his reading, the possibility of church security teams taking lives with impunity, far from being in conflict with scripture, flows directly from it. “There is nothing about the cross that requires me to allow someone to kill my family — or anyone else for that matter,” French adds. “Indeed, I have a moral imperative to come to the aid of those in distress.”
Among the passages French invokes is an Old Testament verse from the Book of Esther advising “to destroy, to kill, and to annihilate any armed force of any people or province that might attack them, children and women included, and to plunder their goods.” French goes on to note that the New Testament admonishes individual Christians against taking it upon themselves to seek violent redress for a wrong. But he believes that while the Bible bans individual acts of vengeance, it allows and even encourages the use of deadly weapons for protection. “Jesus’s disciples carried swords,” French writes, “and Jesus even said in some contexts the unarmed should arm themselves.”
The fact that “gun” appears nowhere in the Bible means that literal evidence of a divine right to bear them is not available. Instead, believers find their proof in words seen as conveying God’s gun-friendliness. Sometimes the “rod” is cited, as in Psalm 23: “I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me …” Others times, hands and fingers are enlisted to suggest the weapons they might wield, as in Psalm 144, a passage quoted reverently by “Saving Private Ryan’s” scripture spouting sniper just before he pulls the trigger. “Blessed be the Lord my strength, which teaches my hands to war, and my fingers to fight.”
But it’s the sword that comes up most often, and here a recent debate in Texas shows how that ancient weapon factors into conflicts over contemporary laws. Last year, churches in the state engaged in their own back and forth over the appropriateness of bringing firearms into the pews. On one side, the Texas Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church made “guns prohibited” signs available to its congregations, and a Catholic bishop banned guns from his diocese; on the other, some of the bishop’s parishioners vowed to defy him.
Amid the controversy, the Dallas-based nondenominational congregation Watermark Church posted a video to its YouTube channel addressing the larger question then being asked by many of their members: “Is It Ok for a Christian to Have a Concealed Handgun License?” In providing an answer, the church’s leader looked to what the apostles carried.
“Jesus when he first sent his disciples out, he said to them, when I sent you out the first time, I told you not to take anything with you,” Watermark pastor Todd Wagner says in the clip. “And then you’ll see at the very end of Jesus’s life, when he told him that times are a-changing, in Luke 22, he did say, ‘Hey look, now things are a little different. If you don’t have a sword, you know, take your cloak, sell it, and get one.”
The passage Wagner is referencing — Luke 22:36-38 — is frequently cited as providing direct textual support for God-given gun rights. Among some Christian gun enthusiasts, the sword it mentions stands so unmistakably for guns that the verse can be playfully translated as, “If you don’t have an AR-15, sell your coat and buy one.”
The message for believers gets murkier, however, when considered in the context of Jesus’ other teachings. Elsewhere in the gospels, for example, Jesus rebukes the apostle Peter for using the very weapon he suggested his followers should carry. When the disciples see their teacher seized by armed men the night before he will be crucified, Peter lashes out and cuts off the ear of a priest’s servant. In the Gospel of John, Jesus tells Peter to put his weapon away; his fate is sealed, and there can be no fighting it. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus adds a general opprobrium against meeting force with force, saying, “Put up again thy sword into his place: for all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword.”
In his video, Wagner acknowledges that some students of the Bible read those words as meaning that Jesus would disapprove of defensive shootings. But he reaches a different conclusion. “For someone to use that story to tell you that you can never use a concealed handgun?” Wagner asks. “Why would Jesus tell you to buy one if you’re never supposed to use it?”
The bottom line for Wagner, and many gun-carrying Christians, is that it is in fact okay for Christians have guns, and to use them — so long as they do so for the right reasons. Guns should be not be used for vengeance, he says, but for love. “There is a time when the most loving thing you can do is restrain evil.”
“The Bible does say in Matthew 5:9, blessed are the peace makers,” Wagner adds, “and we actually call guys who carry weapons ‘peace officers’ — right? — because they are there to help enforce that which is going to suppress evil and protect the innocent.”
Such talk of blessed peacemaking from the barrel of a sidearm fits perfectly with today’s “good guy with a gun” fantasies. But it likely has another, older parent as well: the aggressively masculine “muscular Christianity” popularized through the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, whose shadow still lingers over much of the evangelical world.
Begun in response to the critique that the faith had become overly feminized — and that ministers especially had become too sedentary and bookish in their ways — muscular Christianity espoused physical fitness and athletic prowess as signs of godliness.
“We believe in muscular Christianity,” a newspaper editorial from 1860 said. “We believe that the minister of muscle will fight a more valiant and stronger battle with the passions and prejudices of men. We believe that sana mens in sano corpore applies to parsons as well as parishioners, and that saints’ bodies as well as sinners’ are none the worse for an hour at the dumb bells or weights.”
In time, accounts of clergy spending as much time in gymnasiums as libraries gave way to news reports of preachers beating down sermon-interrupting ruffians and defending the poor box through force. As these exploits intersected with the mythologies of the expanding nation, the legend of the “pistol-packin’ preacher” — “with gun in hand, and Bible in pocket,” in the words of one frontier evangelist — permanently joined firearms to the faith.
Yet as often as tales of armed and muscular Christianity have been told throughout American history, far less heroic stories of firearms in churches could also be told: In 1885, a scuffle at a church fair in Emporia, Kansas, ended with a preacher arrested for shooting a member of his congregation from the pulpit. In 1889, a disagreement between two men erupted in a pew-emptying melee after one deacon shot another. (“Some say a woman was at the bottom of it,” it was reported at the time, “while others claim that it grew out of a church argument about regeneration.”) Gunfire in churches did not cease with the arrival of the 20th century. In 1979, when two members of a Pontiac, Michigan, church called New Hope settled a disagreement with a gunshot, a 65-year-old woman was killed at 9:50 a.m. on a Sunday morning.
Examples are never more than anecdotal evidence, but they are reminders enough that houses of worship are no less likely to serve as venues of conflicts that escalate uncontrollably because of the presence of a gun than the non-religious spaces currently covered by stand your ground laws. “We’re creating a problem we don’t necessarily need,” Senator David Jordan predicted during debate on the bill Tuesday. “Everybody’s going to be packing a .45, even the ministers.” If more weapons begin to turn up in congregations in Mississippi and around the country, we may soon hear stories of church guns and their unholy uses told and retold, like so many verses from scripture.
Peter Manseau is the author of One Nation, Under Gods: A New American History. His most recent book is Melancholy Accidents: Three Centuries of Stray Bullets and Bad Luck.
[Photo: Flickr user James Walsh]