When knights in the service of King Henry II showed up at Canterbury Cathedral in 1170 looking for Archbishop Thomas Becket, monks tried to block the door. But Becket forbade the effort, declaring that the church was “a house of prayer” and not “a fortress.”
As a result, Becket was hacked to death, practically at the foot of the church’s holiest spot, the altar.
Nowadays, a siege mentality is what advocates for open carry on church property favor in the wake of the Nov. 5 shooting at First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, Texas. Speaking to Fox News hours after more than two dozen people were killed in that shooting, Texas’ attorney general, Ken Paxton, suggested that heightened security and “arming some of the parishioners or the congregation” could help prevent such tragedies. On “Fox and Friends” the next morning, Dallas pastor and Trump faith adviser the Rev. Robert Jeffress boasted that members of his congregation routinely bring guns to worship services. If a would-be assassin attempted anything in his church, Jeffress warned, “they may get one shot off, or two shots off, but that’s it — and that’s the last thing they’ll ever do in this life.”
Pistol-packing parishioners may seem like a way to prevent tragic events like Sutherland Springs, or the 2015 Charleston massacre, or the other church shootings that have become so seemingly commonplace that the Center for Homicide Research in Minneapolis created a database to track them. Yet such strategies not only fly in the face of long-standing ecclesiastical tradition but also with Scripture itself.
Both the Old and New Testaments are rife with references to swords and, to a lesser degree, knives and daggers, the biblical-era equivalents of the AR-15 or the handgun. Many are quasi-metaphorical, often in the context of war, as in Judges 1:8, when the Israelites, under Judah, attacked Jerusalem “and put the city to the sword.” As tools of self-defense, the list narrows considerably. Still, those who look to Scripture to justify open carry in the aisles might quote Exodus 22:2, a passage dealing with property laws, which exonerates anyone from “bloodguiltiness” for slaying a thief in the night. (The very next verse, however, reverses that judgment if the event occurs in broad daylight.) Yet earlier in Exodus (21:12), the punishment for “[w]hoever strikes a person mortally” is clear-cut: he “shall be put to death” under the rule of law and not by vigilantes.
Jesus’ warning in Matthew 10:34, that “I have come not to bring peace … but a sword,” seems like a handy verse to reach for, along with your Glock. But standard interpretations of this passage hold that by “sword” Jesus means the controversy and division that his ministry will create, even among family members.
During his arrest, Jesus makes plain his position on the use of violence in self-defense. When Peter, ever the bungling apostle, thinks he is saving the day by drawing his sword and cutting off the ear of the high priest, Jesus commands him to put away his weapon, declaring, in one of his most famous, pacifist dictums: “[A]ll who draw the sword will die by the sword” (Matthew 26:52).
Places of worship also served as sanctuaries, where asylum seekers, like the usurper Adonijah fleeing Solomon’s wrath in 1 Kings 1:50-51, sought refuge, while checking their weapons at the door. The tradition continued into the Middle Ages, when weapons were generally forbidden in churches, with the exception of those used in rituals.
“The church was to be a place above and beyond the mundane world. It should not be a place of violence, and an armed congregation is one where arguments are likely to get out of hand,” said Daniel Gerrard, author of “The Church at War: The Military Activities of Bishops, Abbots and Other Clergy in England, c.900-1200.”
Medieval Scandinavian and Germanic church architecture reflected these spiritual precepts. The covered porch abutting the church door was traditionally known as the vapenhus (“weapons house”), a place to store arms when entering a church. Even acts of violence committed within the vicinity of a church carried increasingly severe penalties.
“The closer you got to a church, the more penance you did for killing someone,” said Kurt Villads Jensen, director of Stockholm University’s Centre for Medieval Studies. Committing murder on a church road “was a worse offense than on other roads,” he added, while “killing someone in a consecrated area, like near the altar, was an automatic excommunication.” (Indeed, Becket’s murderers suffered this fate.)
The clergy in particular, by custom and canon law, were prohibited from bearing arms, in church or elsewhere. Writing in the 10th century, Bishop Ratherius of Verona warned clerics that “our arms must be spiritual ones,” while the Anglo-Norman church made it official in 1070: “No cleric should bear secular arms.” These traditions survived into 19th-century American religious life. In 1864, the Episcopal Church, reflecting on the carnage of the Civil War, reaffirmed its long-standing opposition to the bearing of arms by clergy. The church’s objection was rooted in “the ancient Common Law and custom of England” and predicated on the horrifying prospect of receiving Holy Communion “from hands that dripped with human blood.”
Yet transplanted, European ecclesiastical traditions did not always align, historically, with rough and ready American, Colonial-era norms. Royalist preacher Jonathan Boucher, rector of Queen Anne’s Parish in Prince George’s County, Md., during the early 1770s, kept a pair of loaded pistols in the pulpit. On one occasion, when 200 armed anti-Royalist parishioners packed the church, he threatened their leader that he would “blow his brains out” if any laid a hand on him.
Clayton Cramer, author of “Armed America: The Remarkable Story of How and Why Guns Became as American as Apple Pie,” has pointed out that “the duty to come to church armed” was common in many Colonies. Yet he just as quickly acknowledged that fear of Indian attack and slave uprisings inspired the mandate, neither of which are likely threats these days. (In fact, statistically, white males – as opposed to African-Americans, let alone Native Americans – have been responsible for the majority of mass shootings in the United States over the last 35 years.)
A 2012 poll by the Public Religion Research Institute found that roughly three-quarters of Americans oppose guns in churches and places of worship. And many denominations, from Lutherans to Methodists to Roman Catholics, either in the wake of Sutherland Springs or well before, have taken a stance on the issue, condemning gun violence and advocating for greater gun control. Some dioceses, including those in Texas and Georgia, have called for the prohibition of guns in churches, asserting their legal rights to restrict weapons on private property.
Currently, fewer than a dozen states have laws governing guns in houses of worship. Whereas states such as South Carolina have banned guns in church, legislators in Texas recently made it legal for congregations to arm themselves as a security measure. In 2014, Georgians pushed back against a 2010 federal court ruling that banned guns in church, and won. And in Arkansas in 2013, Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe signed a law permitting concealed-carry permit holders to carry weapons into church.
A few weeks before Sutherland Springs, The Associated Press reported that there had been 13 church shootings in the U.S. since 2012. Regardless of what Jesus might do in response to such troubling statistics, firearms safety instructor Dean Weingarten, in a column for Ammoland published the day after the Texas church shooting, predicted that “with the recent attacks on church attendees, the legal carry of firearms to church is bound to rise.”
Tom Verde is a freelance journalist who writes about religion, culture and history. The views expressed in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.