Of course, that won't solve the debates now roiling this nation about violence and the people and tools that perpetuate it. Nonetheless, the fact that Jesus has nothing to say about guns has not stopped a number of pundits from extrapolating Jesus' ethics on gun violence. In recent days, some Christians have tried to construct a case that Jesus himself would support self-defense in the form of individually owned firearms. Others vehemently disagree. Agreement is as hard to find among Christians as it is among the nation more broadly.
What would Jesus have to say to us today about a culture we all admit is far too saturated with violence and death? How would he guide us in light of recent tragedies like Newtown and Aurora?
While events like these rightly elevate our sense that something must be done, it is the truly ordinary nature of our culture's violence that ought to convince us to lay aside politics for the sake of our neighbors. Unfortunately, our political divisions foreclose most opportunities to have a reasonable conversation about such hot-button issues, even among people of common faith. But here's one potential route for reflection.
What if we all gave up guns for Lent?
This last week, Christians around the world gathered to mark the beginning of Lent, the 40 days leading to Easter and the celebration of Jesus' victory over the death. The first step on this annual pilgrimage is Ash Wednesday, when believers receive a tangible reminder of our mortality. With crosses of ash on our foreheads, we remind ourselves and the rest of the world that our bodies are frail, too easily broken, even as we look forward to God's final victory over death.
As we begin this season of Lent, Luke 4:1-13 narrates Jesus facing a triad of famous temptations. In the passage, Jesus is impelled by the Holy Spirit to wander in the wilderness, the place of Israel's ancient sojourn and also a place of great danger. For 40 days, Jesus fasts, depriving his body of sustenance, giving up something vital and necessary. When he is at his weakest, the devil approaches.
First, the devil invites Jesus to turn stones into bread, to concoct sustenance in the midst of a barren desert. Jesus is certainly capable of such deeds. In fact, later in the narrative, Jesus will feed not himself but a crowd of 5,000 (see Luke 9:12-17). Jesus responds that we do not live by bread alone. That is, in all times and in all places, we rely on God and God alone for our sustenance. Jesus' call is to feed others, not himself.
Second, the devil evokes a panoramic display of all the kingdoms of the world, telling Jesus that their power is in the devil's hands. If Jesus will only worship him, the devil will hand their power over to Jesus. Luke seems to believe the devil here; the devil indeed has the power of the world's kingdoms in his hands. When Luke looks at his world, he sees a massive empire capable of massive warfare and oppression with the devil at its reigns. But this empire will not fall by the exertion of military might but the path of service and sacrifice Jesus embraces. Jesus responds to this great temptation finally to free Israel from the bonds of Roman oppression by noting that we ought only to serve God. That is, in all times and in all places, only God is worthy of our worship. Jesus' call is to exercise power through weakness.
Last, the devil leads Jesus to the pinnacle of the temple in Jerusalem, inviting Jesus to cast himself down in a deadly fall. After all, the devil reasons, God won't let you die, right? Ironically, of course, we know the end of the story. Jesus would later return to this city and die a martyr's death; he would suffer the cruelty of an unjust execution. But not now. Do not tempt God, Jesus believes. That is, in all times and in all places, God's timetable is not ours. Jesus' call is to be faithful to the path God has laid out, even and especially because that path is littered with dangers and threats.
This powerful story is an ideal starting point for a season of Lent, following the tragedy of Newtown and the subsequent political debate our grief has inspired. Lenten practices call for us to give up something we think precious, vital, important. In the case of Jesus, he fasts from food for forty days and then turns away from the temptation to feed himself, to liberate his people from the clutches of Roman oppression, to prove to the devil that he is indeed God's servant.
But why? Why give up something we hold precious and necessary? Precisely because in letting go what we think is indispensable, we might discover its contingency. We might discover that we have been holding on tightly to shadows of fear and anxiety, not the sure anchors of hope and faith.
What if we all as a Lenten act of devotion gave up guns and the violence they engender? What if firearms were locked away? What if violent images were replaced with visions of peace? What if the guns of war stopped their incessant racket?
But what if this also meant that the police would be unarmed, that personal retaliation was not an option, that the armies of the world would lay down their weapons, that we had to rely on God and God alone for our safety?
What if this also meant that drones would no longer patrol the skies over Afghanistan? That violence could no longer be the stuff of our entertainment and delight?
Perhaps then we'd remember that safety is a value among many others competing for our commitments. Perhaps we'd remember that violence is sometimes unavoidable but never holy. Perhaps we'd remember that death ought never be a source of joy, only a spring of lament. Perhaps we'd remember that the world is a beautiful but dangerous place and that the protection of those we love and the most vulnerable among us is a high calling, a calling that comes with an equally high cost.
When I suggest giving up guns for Lent, I'm not interested in policy or legislation so much as how we posture ourselves toward a world full of death, violence and pain. We ought not cling to guns as a sure deposit of safety. But neither should any of us imagine that policies and laws by themselves can alleviate the forces of evil that drive us toward the edge of death and despair.
A fast from guns might bring some of the clarity we need. Christians should -- if we take our faith seriously -- talk about such contentious issues in a graceful and substantive way. Christians should -- if we take our faith seriously -- argue on the basis of our most deeply held values and not via imitation of our preferred partisans. And perhaps a fast from guns and the violence that surrounds them would lead us to a place of wisdom, compassion, graceful listening and even peace.
Editor's Note: ON Scripture - The Bible is a series of Christian scripture commentaries produced in collaboration with Odyssey Networks. Each week pastors from around the country will approach the lectionary text of the week through the lens of current events, providing a religious voice that is both pastoral and prophetic.