Joe the Plumber, God, and Guns

Adam Ericksen

Samuel Wurzelbacher, also known as Joe the Plumber, re-emerged in the news last week. He made headlines in the wake of the shooting tragedy in Isla Vista, California. Joe wrote an “Open-Letter” to the families of the victims. One section of the letter has been highlighted more than any other:

I am sorry you lost your child. I myself have a son and daughter and the one think I never want to go through, is what you are going through now. But: As harsh as this sounds—your dead kids don’t trump my Constitutional rights.

Those two sentences are reflective of the convoluted mixture of Joe’s attempt at empathy and admitted harshness that runs throughout his letter. I’ll resist the temptation to judge his sincerity. Much more important to the work at Raven is the clear expression of rivalry, freedom, and theology behind Joe’s open letter.

A Pattern of Rivalry

Joe’s letter is fueled by a clear pattern of rivalry with anyone wanting to make stricter gun laws, but specifically with Richard Martinez. Joe quotes Martinez, whose son was murdered in the tragedy, as saying, “They talk about gun rights. What about my son’s right to live?” Well, Joe can play the “rights card” as well as anyone else.

As a father, husband, and a man, it is my responsibility to protect my family. I will stand up for that right vehemently. Please believe me, as a father I share your grief and I will pray for you and your family, as I do whenever I hear about senseless tragedies like this.

The pattern of rivalry is predictable. In this case, the more Martinez advocates for gun legislation, the more Joe will vehemently stand up for the right to carry a gun. Any infringement on that right will appear as a threat to Joe’s very identity as a father, husband, and man. And the more Joe vehemently defends his right to bear arms, the more Richard and his sympathizers will vehemently oppose Joe’s position. At this point, both sides become stuck in a pattern of rivalry where political winners and losers are trapped in a cycle of demonizing one another.

God’s Transformation of the Pattern of Rivalry

Joe claimed that he would pray for Richard and his family. I have no reason to doubt that he is praying for them, but by offering up prayer, Joe brings God into the story. I did some research and discovered that Joe is a Christian.

I won’t judge Joe’s sincerity, but I will judge his theology because it’s the same theology that runs through much of American culture, especially the NRA. It’s a theology that says God has given us the freedom, and the responsibility, to defend ourselves. It says that the only way to respond to “bad” violence is with good and divinely sanctioned violence. The more guns the better our ability to defend ourselves. That theology, it must be stated, has nothing to do with freedom. Rather, it has everything to do with enslavement to fear. Joe and the NRA are enslaved not only to rivalry, but also to fear of their fellow human beings. It’s a fear that believes someone is out to get them and they must defend their God given right to violently protect themselves.

From a Christian point of view, there is a huge problem with that theology, namely, Jesus. For Christians to have guns and to promote access to guns in the name of Jesus is to use God’s name in vain. It is the height of idolatry.
Jesus never once defended himself with violence. Never. In fact, Jesus never defended his nation, his friends, or his family with violence. To say that being a father, a husband, even something as generic as being a “man” is to protect ourselves with violence is to accuse Jesus of being less than a man.

The True Freedom of Nonviolent Love

Yet Christian tradition claims that Jesus was the fully human one. In fact, the only one who has ever lived a fully human life. I want to speak specifically to men at the point: Jesus was literally the Man because he resisted the temptation to use violence. If, at any point, you use violence to protect yourself or your family, you cannot do it in the name of Jesus or the God of Jesus. Jesus wasn’t run by rivalry or fear. He didn’t attempt to protect himself through violence. He never used God as a means to justify divinely sanctioned violence. Rather, Jesus took the world’s violence upon himself and used God’s name to offer something radically different than violence: Forgiveness and peace to his murderers. That’s how Jesus atoned for the sins of the world.

But I can hear someone quoting Jesus from Luke 22:36, “…the one who has no sword must sell his cloak and buy one.” People often use this quote to argue that Jesus told his followers to carry swords in order to defend themselves and so we should now use guns to defend ourselves. Whatever that passage means, it cannot be interpreted literally. The glaring problem with a literal interpretation of that passage is the fact that Jesus never used a sword to defend himself, and his disciples never used swords to defend themselves in the face of Roman persecution. So, in order to understand that passage literally to justify violence in the name of God, even in self-defense, a Christian has to believe that either Jesus got it wrong or his disciples misunderstood Jesus and they should have defended themselves with violence.

Yet, even the book of Revelation, which is consumed with violent imagery, clearly calls Christians to a life of nonviolence. “Let anyone who has an ear listen: If you are to be taken captive, into captivity you go; If you kill with the sword, with the sword you must be killed. Here is a call for the endurance and faith of the saints.”

The “endurance and faith of the saints” is an endurance and faith that patterns our desire away from violence towards nonviolent love. In other words, the God of Jesus is re-patterning our desire, re-patterning our sense of “manhood,” “womanhood,” and “childhood” away from a pattern of violent rivalry and into a pattern of nonviolent love and forgiveness.

Joe and the NRA can defend their rights to own a gun, but if they call themselves Christians, they must leave God out of it. The “freedom” and “right” to own a gun has nothing to do with Christian faith, but everything to do with fear and rivalry, the very things Jesus came to set us free from. True freedom is the freedom to love as Jesus first loved us, with nonviolence, forgiveness, and service. Nobody has said it better than the apostle Paul. No matter which side of the gun debate you are on, if you find yourself in rivalry with another, these words will likely convict you:

You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” If you bite and devour each other, watch out, or you will be destroyed by one another.