Monday, June 28, 2010

The Bible, the Supreme Court, and the Second Amendment

"Wisdom is better than weapons of war," says the Teacher in Ecclesiastes 9:18. Today's Supreme Court ruling in McDonald vs. Chicago, however, gives an important victory to the weapons of war.

The decision expands upon the precedent set two years ago in District of Columbia vs. Heller, when the Roberts Court ruled that the second amendment--involving the right to bear arms--applies both to groups and to individuals. Though the point is hotly debated in Constitutional and legal circles, today's verdict assures that the individual's right to bear arms will hold on both the federal and the state and local levels. (The Times can probably do a better job of summarizing than I can.)

Now, while neither the Bible nor any other scripture should influence the Court's rulings, it is worth noting that the Roberts Court's general movement on the issue of gun ownership--toward a more permissive stance--is counter to that of Biblical wisdom, which acknowledges the dire need of the "weapons of war" in the bloody present but envisions an ideal, sword-less future.

In the Bible, the nation of Israel is constantly surrounded by real military threats, and weapons are often necessary for self-defense. A famous example comes in Nehemiah 4, when the Israelites take twice as long as they might in rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem because every worker holds a sword in one hand and a trowel in the other.

But the sword in the Bible is not only a defensive tool but also an offensive weapon. In Leviticus, God says that he will reward the Israelites with military victories "by the sword" if they keep His covenant: "If you follow my statutes and keep my commandments and observe them faithfully [...] You shall give chase to your enemies, and they shall fall before you by the sword" (Leviticus 26:1, 7).

That having been said, the Bible often characterizes "the sword" as a necessary evil that will someday fall by the wayside. Also in Leviticus, God suggests that if the first reward of obedience is military victory, the final prize is the end of weaponized strife; he continues, "And I will grant peace in the land, and you shall lie down, and no one shall make you afraid; I will remove dangerous animals from the land, and no sword shall go through your land" (26:6).

This in moving toward the famous, peaceful utopia of Isaiah 2:4: "they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, / and their spears into pruning-hooks; / nation shall not lift up sword against nation, / neither shall they learn war any more."

In this pacific future, "weapons of war" are turned into instruments of agricultural production--tools of death are transformed into tools of life. The motion is away from sword ownership, not toward it. And away, it seems, from today's Court decision.


  1. But let us not also forget that Jesus commanded "let him who has no sword sell his mantle and buy one" (Lk 22.36), and declared: "Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword" (Mt 10.34).

  2. The Outlaw Josey WalesJune 29, 2010 at 8:20 AM

    That is an interesting comment qohelet. It would appear that Jesus in the first quote is suggesting people get weapons, but I haven't looked it up so I am unclear as to what the motivation for such purchase. Does it mean that he is not envisioning an eventual ideal swordless future as Joshua suggests?

    The second quote does not seem to imply that we should own swords, but rather that Jesus is bringing a sword - and in in my opinion seems to be a metaphor rather than an actual physical sword.

    I think Joshua said it best when he said that neither the Bible nor any other scripture should influence the court's ruling.

  3. It is true, Qohelet ... the Hebrew Bible, like Jesus, tends to criticize those who would call for peace prematurely. Jeremiah writes, "They have treated the wound of my people carelessly, saying 'Peace, peace', when there is no peace."

    Incidentally, the Hutaree--the Christian militia in Michigan recently arrested for plotting terrorist acts--cite Luke 22:35--a passage similar to Matthew 10:34--as part of their creed. I wrote about it back in March:

  4. Minor point: Bit of carelessness with the image (from "The Ten Commandments"). It's backwards, so the writing (in Paleo-Hebrew script) makes no sense at all!


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