There is a strange contradiction at work in the American evangelical soul. I see it emerge every time there’s a discussion about either gun control or public protest. And as one who has promoted the benefits of strict gun control and who has been involved in my fair share of public protests, I have heard both of these seemingly opposing arguments many times.
FIRST, THERE’S THE RIGHT-TO-BEAR-ARMS AMERICAN
When the topic of gun control comes up, some evangelicals are quick to defend the 2nd Amendment, saying that banning firearms from law-abiding citizens would only give the state the advantage to rule over and dominate them. In claiming this, they echo the American Founding generation’s deep mistrust of governments and their standing armies.
Having just freed themselves from English colonial rule, many Founders believed that central governments simply couldn’t be trusted not to oppress the people. They figured if they could limit the new American government from having a standing army, the chances of an oppressive regime emerging to dominate their citizens would be reduced.
But what if a foreign adversary were to invade? How would America defend itself without a standing army? Simple. Guarantee the citizens the right to bear arms and to organize into a “well-regulated militia” whenever such an emergency arose.
As a non-American, it sounds pretty dicey to me.
And even some of the Founders considered it risky. Alexander Hamilton thought the idea was nuts. And as we know America never really went for it entirely because they do have a centrally controlled standing army.
But, 2nd Amendment champions don’t care. The right of the citizens to bear arms ensures that should any tyrant take the reins of government, the citizens can rise up and fight for their freedom.
THEN THERE’S THE SUBMIT-TO-YOUR-AUTHORITIES AMERICAN
Often times, the same Americans who insist on the right to bear arms in case they need to overthrow a tyrant in the White House, will condemn any form of public protest on the basis of Romans 13.
This is the passage in which Paul calls on the Jewish Christians in Rome to submit to the governing authorities of the day. He counsels them against withholding taxes or from becoming involved in any anti-Roman protests through sympathy with Palestinian Jewish nationalism.
In fact, he goes so far as to say, “…whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.” (Rom 13:2)
On the basis of this passage, many American evangelicals will say that any form of anti-government protest is condemned by Scripture. We are instructed, they will say, to submit to government authorities and live at peace with our rulers.
Furthermore, they will read similar passages like 1Peter 2:13-25 and argue that any protest against any authorities (president, police, parents and even pastors) is rebellion and therefore to be condemned. They readily shares verses like 1Pet 2:17: “Show proper respect to everyone, love the family of believers, fear God, honor the emperor.”
I hear this argument made when I argue for a change in immigration policy or support protesters at Standing Rock or participate in the Women’s March or express a negative opinion about the US President. Submit, Mike! That is your Christian duty.
SO, HOW DOES THAT WORK?
How is it possible to advocate, on the one hand, for the right to bear arms in the eventuality of needing to overthrow a tyrannical government, while on the other, to argue that we should always honor the emperor?
I’d like to suggest that you can’t. And I’d like to suggest that those who defend their freedom to overthrow tyrants while also trying to quell political dissent are being disingenuous.
Firstly, I don’t think anyone is fooled that 2nd Amendment advocates are concerned about the possibility of forming a militia to overthrow any tyrants. We know their argument about their rights runs more deeply to a concern about the imposition of controls over the autonomy of the individual.
And secondly, they often only quote Romans 13 and 1Peter 2 to quell political dissent when they don’t like the political position of the dissenters.
Both Paul and Peter were writing under the brutal dictatorship of the Roman emperor, Nero. Telling their churches to resist political dissent would be like a North Korean pastor today telling his underground church not to stir up trouble again Kim Jong Un. It makes perfect sense.
Paul’s directions in Romans 13 are for Jewish Christians to refrain from joining a nationalistic movement against Rome. I don’t think he’s offering a universal manifesto on church-state relations.
That said, I’m not suggesting we simply ignore Romans 13:1-7. I think we can agree with Paul that God’s hand is at work in the establishment of all governing authorities, and that believers should, insofar as it is possible, live in peace, respecting the law of the land.
But, of course, every government has been tainted with human sin and doesn’t conform to the rule of God, so if a governing body ceases to be a force for good and order, but instead becomes an instrument of evil and death, it is no longer a Christian’s duty to submit and obey that authority (cf. Acts 5:29).
The question for us today is, what does that resistance look like?
In a society ingrained with the belief that citizens should be able to keep firearms in case armed rebellion is required, all political dissent is only ever seen as potentially violent.
An illustration of this comes from Matthew Davis, a former spokesman for the Michigan Republican Party who back in 2012 questioned whether armed rebellion was justified over the Supreme Court ruling upholding Obamacare.
Davis, infuriated with the Supreme Court, wrote,
“There are times government has to do things to get what it wants and holds a gun to your head. I’m saying at some point, we have to ask the question when do we turn that gun around and say no and resist. You can’t have people walking with lattes and signs and think the object of your opposition is going to take you seriously. Armed rebellion is the end point of that physical confrontation.”
And there you have it. Public protest isn’t seen as the citizenry expressing their views to their elected officials, and demanding change in policy. It is seen as the first (usually ineffectual) step toward an uprising.
In other words, when it comes to gun ownership and political dissent, many American evangelicals assume the former is always good and the latter is always bad. I think this dichotomy sits at the heart of much of the inability for Americans in general, but conservative evangelicals in particular, to participate in constructive public discourse.
It’s either an angry mob, or it’s silent acquiescence.