“Take Up Your Guns Daily, and Follow Me”: The Problem with Christian Rights

Let’s be honest, guns are easier to carry than crosses.

Christians across America are taking to Facebook and lighting up the Twitterverse in response to President Obama’s proposal that introduced the most substantial gun control reform in decades. As plagued as social media may be, those who proclaim to follow Jesus have expressed their varied opinions and faithful concerns through intense arguments, devotional writings, and a frenzy of blog posts. Among the pro-gun control plaintiff’s concerns is the argument that they have rights and that a firmer gun control policy will violate their constitutional privileges.

We Americans are always prepared to reiterate the fact that we have rights: you have the right to defend yourself from someone mugging you; you have the legal right to own a gun; there is an inherent right for every human to express their freedom of speech, even at the expense of others. These are your “God-given” constitutional rights, as we like to say. So maybe we should be angry if President Obama is trying to take away, or impose more strict laws upon, your guns.

From a Christian point of view, the talk about “rights” – the right to own a gun, or the right to do this or that – is problematic. First, along the lines of the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5-7), Christ beckons us to give up our rights. Christ says when someone slaps you on the cheek, offer them the other one; when someone sues you in court for your coat, give them your cloak also; and when a Roman soldier asks you to walk a mile with their luggage (which was a Roman law imposed upon Jews), sacrifice your right to stop after only one mile and walk with them two. Furthermore, and maybe the most compelling, are Christ’s words in Luke 9:23. After addressing his disciples on his suffering and death to come, Jesus proclaims, “If any want to become my disciples, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23; NRSV). In other words, to follow Jesus means to give up the securities of daily life; forgo the riches and give to the poor; to leave your personal convictions behind and to look forward to an inverted world where only love and compassion make sense.

In light of these scriptures and the message of love that makes up the fabric of the entire biblical narrative, rights have little say, if any, in the life of Christian disciples. Christians in the early church had the right to not be fed to lions, but they willfully walked into the coliseum and met death with a kiss. Saint Peter had the right to be crucified like everyone else, but instead he felt unworthy of dying the death of Christ and chose to be crucified upside-down. Christianity urges us to give up our own rights as a witness to others, and as an imitation of our Lord. If anything, Christianity is the voluntary surrendering of rights and the acceptance of the counter-cultural understanding of the first being last, and the last first; of losing your life to find it.

Whereas rights connote a boundary or a zone that citizens possesses and others should not breach, Christianity suggests an openness to relationships that violate and transverse these very boundaries and securities in the name of love. In this way, we can experience what makes someone essentially human, not constitutionally American. When Christianity comes into contact with the political sphere (and it should), it is not that Christianity lives by an apolitical mantra that produces the quietist, “stay where you are and be happy,” mentality. On the contrary, The Christian faith produces another politic, a counter or inverted politic, that engages the real world, which includes real people and deals with authentic problems.

In all the muddiness with the interaction between faith and public life, Christians should always struggle to read the scriptures with sensitivity to the tensions that emerge, while also attempting to remain faithful to the difficult task of following Jesus in our contemporary setting. Certainly, taking into account the situation of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement, or the effect the issue of human trafficking has on the discussion of rights, leaves us with more questions to ponder and only deepens the difficulty of being a conscientious cross-bearer. We should always be reminded that the task of theology and discipleship is never finished.

The weight of a gun and the security it brings are far more appealing than being crucified. Guns protect those we love and hold dear to us. It is our American right to own a gun. However, there is no such thing as a Christian right to bear arms.