Every generation has to relearn the story of Jesus. In many ways His story is viewed through the filter of cultural context in which it is read. The bias and attitude of the age makes adjustments to the stories of the past. It becomes an eye-opening experience for successive generations to hear an ancient story for its own sake without the cultural and contextual blinders of the current age.
When news broke a short time ago about a Michigan arms manufacturer supplying scopes for United States military rifles engraved with scriptural references I had to do a double take. Guns with scriptural references to Christ as the light of the world? Something did not fit with this picture. Scripture does not say Jesus, the FIGHT of the world -- it says LIGHT of the world. Yet there it was.
What are we to understand from such a practice? What does it say about our culture? About us? Is it not assuming that the US soldier is a missionary spreading Christian values by means of force? Does it suggest that Christian and American are synonymous? The US is at war on two fronts. Young people are coming home in body bags after paying the ultimate sacrifice. Reverence and respect is to be paid to those who stood in harm's way. Consistently we are told it is for the advancement of a noble cause -- freedom, democracy and justice. To question war -- or to question America in war -- is fraught with misunderstanding. But question we must, even if it were simply for our own personal understanding of what it means to be human.
We have to query the use of scripture on weaponry -- especially when there is a claim, however indirect, that it is in keeping with the Christian teachings of Jesus.
It has long been recognized that a soldier is more apt to go in harm's way for a nation or a cause that he or she is convinced is on the right side. Sacrifice of life itself is much more palatable when there is a just cause. When so convinced of the rightness of the pursuit the soldier is more daring. It is a strange phenomenon -- the more religious the fervour the more vicious and effective the fighter. In such circumstance only death itself will stop the soldiers advance against the enemy. The generals of ancient history used religion in this way. Even Alexander the Great was defined as a son of the gods by his men thus laying the groundwork for the Roman Caesars claims of divinity.
It was during the Roman domination of the Holy Land that Jesus began His ministry. He proclaimed that "The Kingdom of God" had come, but just what kind of Kingdom was it? It was a strange kingdom -- it rejected the intimidation of an army. Rather it was maintained by a holy understanding of God's love for man and man's sacrificial love for God and fellowmen. It was and remains a difficult concept to grasp, for man's envious heart is at constant war with others drunk with a desire for power and domination.
Even His own followers were slow to understand. Amongst them were the zealots James and John, known as the "Sons of Thunder." After a village refused entry to Jesus and His message these brothers asked Jesus, "Lord, do You want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them, just as Elijah did?" (Luke 9:54 NKJV) They had no hesitancy about the use of force. If those ungrateful people were not willing to accept Christ and His teachings they had no right to life -- as far as the brothers were concerned the Lord ought to eliminate them. However, their self-righteous indignation was met by an unexpected response of Jesus: "You do not know what manner of spirit you are of. For the Son of Man did not come to destroy men's lives but to save them" (Luke 9:55,56 NKJV).
A similar rebuke was given to the Apostle Peter upon the arrest of Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane. Peter swung his weapon at the crowd who arrested Jesus cutting off the ear of one. "Put your sword in its place," Jesus demanded, "for all who take the sword will perish by the sword" (Matthew 26:52 NKJV).
Given such evidence it hardly seems likely that Jesus would have approved the etching upon the sword, "Jesus the Light of the world" or some such reference. The Lord's Kingdom is not of this world -- His weapons do not require gunpowder. Rather, it is the truth of God's longsuffering love of man to draw all people to Himself (John 12:32).
Barry W. Bussey is the director of the Office of Legislative Affairs for the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Washington, DC and editor of a forthcoming book, Should I Fight: Essays on Conscientious Objection and the Seventh-day Adventist Church.