(RNS) — It takes some serious theological gymnastics to twist the Bible to defend guns.
Ted Cruz was the largest recipient of National Rifle Association funds in the Senate race of 2016. And it appears to have affected the way he interprets the Bible.
Here’s the backdrop for those who missed it. It all started with a tweet thread from Texas state Rep. Matt Schaefer in which he declared gun ownership to be one of our “God-given rights.” Not Constitution-given, but God-given. Enter Alyssa Milano. The actress-turned-activist (and perhaps now a budding theologian?) asked a fair question: “Can someone cite which passage of the Bible God states it is a god-given right to own a gun?”
Cruz took the bait and responded with a lengthy thread of his own. In an attempt to defend the “God-given right” to own a gun, Cruz quoted an obscure text from the Book of Exodus: “If a thief is caught breaking in at night and is struck a fatal blow, the defender is not guilty of bloodshed” (Exodus 22:2). Cruz himself even conceded the next verse says if the same thing happens during daylight, it’s no longer self-defense and the law forbids it. So by Cruz’s own argument, the right to self-defense by gun ends at dawn. After that, it is murder.
It certainly is a stretch to say a verse in Exodus allowing for self-defense in the middle of the night justifies the right to own military weapons and take them into Walmart in broad daylight. But that’s where Cruz's logic takes us.
It’s noteworthy that the same chapter of Exodus used by Cruz speaks pointedly about caring for foreigners, widows and orphans and making sure the poor receive justice and compassion. The same chapter, Exodus 22, says this: “Do not mistreat or oppress a foreigner, for you were once foreigners in Egypt. Do not take advantage of the widow or the fatherless. If you do, and they cry out to me, I will certainly hear their cry.” Whoa. I wished he took that part literally.
Or the part in the next chapter, Exodus 23, that says, “Do not accept a bribe.”
While Exodus does not defend guns, it does prohibit taking a bribe … like, say $360,727.
Like a target at the shooting range, there are many holes in Cruz’s theology. But the biggest hole in his theology is this: There is no Jesus in it. In his argument in support of guns, he doesn’t mention Jesus or the gospel a single time.
When it comes to interpreting the Old Testament, Jesus is the lens through which we understand everything. When you interpret Jesus in light of Exodus, rather than Exodus in light of Jesus, you get some whacked-out theology.
Any pro-gun Christian has the nagging problem of Jesus, and the Sermon on the Mount, and the Beatitudes, and the enemy-love Jesus displays on the cross. At the heart of Christianity is a savior who was a victim of violence, not a defender of violence.
So I started thinking what text I would use if I were leading a Bible study with Cruz (or Milano, for that matter). In fact, the two have agreed to meet in person next week to discuss the topic.
Were I to sit down with Cruz and a Bible, I would turn to a story that appears in Luke 22 — when the disciple Peter uses a weapon to defend Jesus — a story so important to the disciples that it appears in all four Gospels.
When the Roman soldiers attempt to arrest Jesus, Peter picks up his sword and cuts a man’s ear off. Jesus responds in a stunning and bemusing way. He scolds Peter and tells him to put his sword away, insisting “those who live by the sword will die by the sword.” Then Jesus heals the wounded man, picking up the man’s ear and putting it back on.
Peter learned, as any of us who dare follow Jesus must learn, we cannot carry a cross in one hand and a weapon in the other. Jesus models for us how to interact with violence without mirroring the violence.
Early church father Tertullian said, “When Jesus disarmed Peter, he disarmed every one of us.” There is not a single Christian in the first 300 years of the faith who justified violence or made a case for self-defense. Instead, history records the opposite. Early Christians insisted that for Christ we can die on behalf of others, but we cannot kill for them.
Cruz offers a version of “Christianity” that has traded the cross for a gun.
But the gun and the cross offer us two very different versions of what power looks like. One is willing to die. The other is willing to kill.
I will say this: Cruz teaches us one thing worth paying attention to. Gun violence is not just a political problem, it's a spiritual problem. At the root of our gun problem is a theological and moral crisis.
Don’t forget, the day after this recent shooting in Texas, the state changed its gun laws to allow people to carry guns to church. Christians are packing heat as they worship the Prince of Peace.
Christians own guns at a higher rate than the general population, and are using the Bible to defend those guns (just as it was once used to defend slavery).
The highest gun-owning demographic in America is white evangelical Christians. It’s clear that gun violence has persisted in America not in spite of Christians, but because of Christians ... many of whom claim to be “pro-life.”
Christians like to talk about being pro-life, but too often it would be more accurate to say we are pro-birth or anti-abortion. Christians need a pro-life vision that is consistent and that champions life from the womb to the tomb.
Gun violence is a pro-life issue.
Over 100 lives a day — each made in the image of God — are lost to guns. That matters to God, and it should matter to us.
(Shane Claiborne is founder of The Simple Way in Philadelphia and co-founder of Red Letter Christians. His books include, as co-author, "Beating Guns: Hope for People Who Are Weary of Violence." The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of Religion News Service.)