In January 2009 I attended “Heeding God’s Call,” a peace conference convened by three of the historic peace churches – Mennonite, Church of the Brethren, and Society of Friends (Quaker). One of the aspects of the conference was a public witness outside one of the more notorious of
’s gun shops. Volunteers from among conference participants called on the owner to join other gun sellers in Philadelphia in pledging to take steps to eliminate straw purchases and utilize methods of screening potential gun buyers so as to curb the easy flow of weapons into the hands of gang members and criminals. As an extension of that witness against gun violence, sixteen people of faith gathered for prayer along Pinch Road opposite the entrance to the Elstonville Sportsmen’s Association for an hour on a Saturday in April 2009. Our vigil was prompted by the celebration of guns being held on the grounds of the Sportsmen’s Association that day. Pennsylvania
The featured speaker at the celebration was Ted Nugent, who has been quoted widely for saying, among other things, that “free people have a God-given right to keep and bear arms.” None of the sources for that quote that I have read includes scriptural justification for such a statement, so I decided to search my Bible for what scripture does have to say about God-given rights.
The quick answer to that search is, “not a whole lot.” The words “right” and “rights” are used as a noun fewer than twenty times in the King James Bible, and more than half of those are translated “righteousness” in contemporary language. That leaves six passages that speak of “rights” in the sense that we understand them today, as something to which one has a just claim.
Starting with the earliest citation, the prophet Isaiah in the second half of the eighth century BCE cried out judgment against the rulers of Israel: “Ah, you who make iniquitous decrees, who write oppressive statutes, to turn aside the needy from justice and to rob the poor of my people of their right, that widows may be your spoil, and that you may make the orphans your prey!” (Isaiah 10:1-2) A century later, Jeremiah sounded the same theme: “They know no limits in deeds of wickedness; they do not judge with justice the cause of the orphan, to make it prosper, and they do not defend the rights of the needy.” (Jeremiah 5:28)
The rights that concerned these major prophets of God were the rights of the poor, widows and orphans who were among the most marginalized of the community, to have what is sufficient to flourish. These rights are comparable to what many today recognize as basic human rights – the right to adequate shelter, sustenance, clothing, education.
Jeremiah also speaks of “the right of redemption by purchase” in reference to a legal transaction in which he bought a field from his cousin. (Jeremiah 32:6-8) This right is related to the Torah mandate that land is to remain in the possession of the tribe or clan to which it was granted when the children of
first occupied the land. (See Joshua chapters 13 through 22 for details of the division of land among the tribes.) Israel
The final reference that I found in the Hebrew scriptures also has to do with a claim to land. When Nehemiah returned to
to lead the rebuilding after the first exile, he found foreign officials occupying the city and opposing his efforts. In asserting his determination to rebuild the walls, he told them, “The God of heaven is the one who will give us success, and we his servants are going to start building; but you have no share or claim or historic right in Jerusalem .” Jerusalem
Turning to the Christian scriptures, there is no record in the gospels of Jesus’ ever speaking of rights, God-given or otherwise. In the very carefully argued theological treatise known as The Letter to the Hebrews, the writer, in contrasting the early Christian Eucharistic meal with the dietary regulations associated with temple worship, affirms, “We have an altar from which those who officiate in the tent (or tabernacle) have no right to eat.”
The final passage is found in the vision of the New Heaven and New Earth which concludes the Revelation to John. Expressing the hope of renewal of paradise which characterized the early church, John states, “Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they will have the right to the tree of life and may enter the city by the gates.” (Revelation 22:14)
To summarize, the concept of rights expressed in the Bible fall into three broad categories: the right of the poor to justice and access to basic human needs, the right to possession of ancestral lands, and the right to claim abundant life in Jesus, the Christ.
As this examination of the Biblical texts indicates, there is no scriptural basis for claiming a God-given right to own and use arms. On the contrary, there is strong scriptural evidence that God regards reliance for safety and security on human-made weapons as a form of idolatry, contrary to God’s will. It is to the dangers inherent in such idolatry that our prayer vigil attested.
The powers of this world seek to seduce people into idolizing weapons by first evoking fear in their hearts, then holding up the myth of redemptive violence as the solution to fear. This is false security. That is why the poster I held during the prayer vigil read, “Be not afraid. Trust in God. End gun violence.” It is through trust in God who, through the resurrection of Christ, said an emphatic No to human violence that we can find true security.