On Piper, Falwell and a Christian View of Violence

Earlier this week, theologian John Piper wrote a response to Jerry Falwell Jr.’s call for the students of his Liberty University to carry firearms in order to defend themselves and their classmates from terrorist attacks. “Let’s teach them a lesson if they ever show up here,” Falwell said, clarifying that the “them” in question was “those Muslims.”

Falwell’s comments were problematic, if not for what he said then at least for the way he said it. Falwell laced his speech with a bravado that is all too common among American Christians and his rhetoric eschewed the grace and faith in God’s sovereignty that one would expect from a religious leader.

On the other hand, some of Piper’s comments were problematic as well, but more for what he said than how he said it. Piper, to his everlasting credit, is a thoughtful and gracious writer whose cautious prose stands in stark contrast to Falwell’s bombast. One writer, upon observing the divergent opinions of Falwell and Piper, articulated his distaste over the prospect of siding with Falwell. I cannot help but feel the same.

Piper’s post came extremely close to embracing individual pacifism without actually saying so. Piper wrote that Christians have the duty to not personally resist wrongdoers, a point which he confused by allowing Christian involvement in the government, police and military services. In Piper’s analysis, the Christian who is attacked by an armed robber is in the same position as missionaries who minister to hostile tribes.

Other, much more capable writers have responded to some of the theological problems in Piper’s article. Some found, as I did, that Piper’s analogizing of martyrdom with crime victimhood to be an insufficiently obvious conclusion from Scripture. Some also wrote that Piper’s selection of Scripture to support his position did not include passages that can be interpreted to contradict it. Ultimately, I must agree with this fantastic response – fantastic in both its content and tone – by The Calvinist International.

But even with the disagreement that I have with some of Piper’s conclusions, I have an intense agreement with his underlying point, that modern Christians, as represented by Jerry Falwell Jr., have a warped view of violence and its tools.

At the outset of his article, Piper wrote,

“My main concern in this article is with the appeal to students that stirs them up to have the mindset: Let’s all get guns and teach them a lesson if they come here.

“The issue is not primarily about when and if a Christian may ever use force in self-defense, or the defense of one’s family or friends. The issue is about the whole tenor and focus and demeanor and heart-attitude of the Christian life. Does it accord with the New Testament to encourage the attitude that says, ‘I have the power to kill you in my pocket, so don’t mess with me?’ My answer is, No.”

Now, unfortunately, the rest of Piper’s article contradicts his statement that it is not intended to determine “if a Christian may ever use force in self-defense.” But, even so, the issue at hand, as Piper lays it out here, is an extremely important one for Christians.

First, it is undeniably true that the Christian’s hope, faith and security are not found in the weapons we possess. I believe Piper is right to offer correction to the Christian who feels safe because of the gun he conceals inside his waistband. As Christians, we are to trust God with our lives and submit ourselves to the sovereignty of his will over them. And while I do not hold Piper’s opinion that this belief precludes the Christian from owning or using firearms, I do think it precludes us from placing our trust in them.

Second, we cannot hold the appropriate trust in God and still fear other men the way that modern Christians do. Again, Piper and I diverge on how this truth impacts our preparedness, but I endorse Piper’s reminder of the Scriptures’ command that we should “not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul.” Falwell’s – and the vast majority of American conservatives’ – rhetoric on matters of security, which is filled with fear and a desire for retribution, reject this section of the Scriptures and lead directly back to placing their hopes for safety in guns, not God.

Third, and finally, Piper is absolutely correct to call out Falwell and, by association, Christian conservatives for their almost gleeful glorification of violence. Remember that Falwell didn’t just encourage students to be careful and prepared to defend themselves. His tone was almost that of a man who wanted terrorists to try something on his campus. He seems almost eager to see his prepared students “teach them a lesson” by killing them.

There is all the difference in the world between being prepared to defend yourself and being joyful at doing so. The Bible teaches that lethal violence, even when used in self-defense or in accordance with God’s plan, is a sorrowful thing. The killing of an individual made in his image grieves God and this is no less the case when that person is attacking another. Old Testament Israel was given strict instructions about when deadly force may be applied against intruders. Even the accidental killing of another person was grounds for capital punishment if it was the result of negligence.

This has radical implications for Americans who have endured decades of Die Hards and Lethal Weapons, who have been taught to rejoice when the bad guy gets his due. In real life, in the world that God created, the death of a person is of substantially higher concern than Hollywood and Jerry Falwell Jr. let on. It isn’t the occasion for a “yippee ki yay” or a “we showed ’em.” God views the ending of human life very seriously

Perhaps most damning for Americans, God’s value on human life, and his distaste for those who attack it, isn’t negated by the doctrine of “collateral damage.”

Ultimately, I don’t hold Piper’s quasi-pacifism, although I respect it and recognize that the Holy Spirit convicts individuals differently. But I do hold his concern over the ungodly way that American Christians view and employ violence. I’m disappointed that, among all the debate over Piper’s article, the really important point is being overlooked.