Round Table: Christian Self-Defense and Lethal Force
Gun violence and lethal force have been hot topics on the evening news and the subject of debate in the social and political spheres for quite some time. Because of this, people are often categorized in one of two camps: those who are for and those who are against lethal weaponry. Instead of jumping into a heated political debate, we here at Conciliar Post asked our authors how they believe Christians should understand lethal force in self-defense. We encourage you, also, to add your voice to this conversation in the comment section below.
Question: When is it appropriate for a Christian to use potentially lethal force in self-defense?
Lord have mercy.
There is a story of an Orthodox priest who, some years prior to his ordination, was a high ranking army officer. He was tall and well-built—a formidable soldier in his previous life, but a gentle and kind priest. One day as he and his wife were walking through an ally to get home, several men appeared at the opposite end, blocking their way out. It was obvious they were of ill intentions. The priest and his wife turned back to avoid a confrontation but another set of men had already blocked their way out. They were trapped. The two gangs of men began closing the gap, all the while insulting the priest and shouting inappropriately at his wife. The ex-soldier priest, who burned with desire to protect his wife, successfully beat the men to a pulp, even though he was greatly outnumbered. The following day, he humbly ran to his spiritual father to confess, with tears, his actions. His spiritual father did not condemn him but only said something to the effect of this: “you have a responsibility to protect your wife, but had your wife not been with you, a greater cross may have been required of you.”
To a great extent, this summarizes (in my opinion) the Orthodox way of thinking toward self-defense. The issue is, I believe, far less black-and-white than many, on either side, may suppose (with self-defense in general; but lethal self-defense should be clearer, more black-and-white: Avoid at all costs). There are many roles of responsibility that may press upon a man the necessity of defensive action but none of these roles involve the defense of only himself. The role of a police officer is, in essence, a defense of the people of the community—his action in defense should be one of selflessness. For it is, indeed, one of putting himself at risk in order to protect the defenseless. Similar is the role of the husband and the father. However, such roles can often be exaggerated in an unhealthy manner, giving way to hero-type fantasies and ego; and any kind of “hero complex” seems to me egotistical and unhealthy, ultimately leading poor souls to insanity, control tendencies, and a head full of false authority and power.
We see many instances in Church history where entire families submitted to Holy Martyrdom. If the family is of great faith and the parents and children can accept it, let them do so. It seems to me that, for this, they will be doubly crowned. This is the Christian spirit, the essence of Christianity: the defeat of the forceful with Holy un-force. The cross cannot be defeated. If you use force against the cross you only reinforce the essence, and power, of the cross. If a man does not lift his hand against a petty band of robbers and they leave him for dead, taking only his money and his clothes, this man is a martyr—even though they did not beat him for the sake of his faith. This is a hard teaching, but he who can accept it, let him accept it. If someone cannot accept it, though, let him not judge his brother who cannot. God’s measurement scales are not our scales.
A number of us will likely never be put in a situation where we have to submit to physical martyrdom or self-defense. But everyday we face a corollary battle. When it comes to our sins, we should never defend ourselves or make excuses, but, as Saint Paisios and other Holy men say, we should always make excuses for our brothers. According to the Holy Fathers, if we can accept blame for things we did not do, or accept blame for something our brother did, this is the most perfect path, the clearest imitation of Christ. Certainly, however, as is clear in my own sullied life, it is difficult to accept blame for our own actions, let alone from which we are humanly justified or free from fault. But the Christian life is one of constant humbling: we must bow before our brethren and heal the relationship through humility, by accepting as wrong our actions instead of constantly justifying ourselves.
And this is where most of us find ourselves: our hands our clean but our minds are full of blood. We wish our brother dead with our complaints against him, our internal anger towards him. But this is spiritual suicide. And we wonder why we do not experience God. Let us always remember that each day is a day for us to die. For we will only gain true life if we give up our lives. Truly blessed is he who gives his life for his friend not only once but many times; not just physically, but by preferring his brothers will to his own.
The first kind of self-defense (physical self-defense) is related in some way to the second. For if we cannot help but lash out at our brothers when he wounds us internally, how are we to to know if thrashing him physically is not, at least in a minor way, related to our internal anger, though masked in the clothing of self-defense, when he slaps us across the cheek? Truly, to turn the other cheek, internally and externally, is the most perfect way.
I write as if I know about these things. In truth, I only feign knowledge by writing about it and not putting it into practice. My dear brothers and sisters please forgive me and pray that our our good God will have mercy on my poor and foolish soul.
Violence begets violence. If you run around wild, you get smacked and that’s it; that’s the laws of the universe … Do everything for peace. —John Lennon
In one sentence: It is not appropriate for a Christian to use potentially lethal force in self-defense. There are times when non-lethal force can be used in clear conscience, but such force is still never the most appropriate course of action.
First, life is always a gift, and our goal as Christian individuals should be to preserve life in all possible circumstances. If someone is attacking and threatening you, your response should not be to seek to end this person’s life.
That being said, and second, there are situations when the use of force is justifiable. When your life (and/or the life of another) is threatened with immediate destruction, force can be used as a last-resort option. But the end goal of this force cannot be to end the life of another.1 Non-lethal force can thus be used in clear conscience, yet it is never the appropriate “first response” to a dangerous situation. This is due to: 1) the risk inherent in non-lethal violence, namely, that it will escalate the conflict and bring about more violence; and 2) the preferability of deescalating the situation, fleeing the situation, or committing to pacifism full stop.
Third and finally, we must keep in mind that self-defense scenarios are often high-stress situations in which the ethical course of action is difficult to determine. Acknowledging that each case is unique,2 I have laid out these general principles because I think they make us worthy of our calling (Eph 4) and prevent us from descending into evil actions.
One of our rationalizations for violence is the illusion that we have control over history. Let us prayerfully strive to avoid the path of domination and instead follow the example of our Lord, who turned the other cheek (Matt 5:39).Show Sources
1 It should be noted that eliminating the threat of violence is not equivocal with eliminating the threatening person. For example, through physical combat one can strive to deal the attacker a knock-out—but not a killing—blow. Since this is a matter of internal disposition, there are situations when it will be impossible for an external observer to determine whether the force used was intended to be lethal.
2 John Howard Yoder does an excellent job addressing unique situations in his book What Would You Do? From the Amazon synopsis: “John Howard Yoder helps answer the age-old question, What would you do if someone was attacking your grandmother, husband, wife, daughter, or son?”
Attending a Free Methodist Church
When/Is it appropriate for a Christian to use potentially lethal force in self-defense?
Before answering any such question it helpful to first clarify our terms. “Christian” and “lethal force” are both obvious to me, but “self-defense” suffers ambiguity. In our age, depending on the state, this might mean thwacking a home invader on the head with a commemorative baseball bat, or it might mean shooting a child on the street and receiving no legal penalties.
Not to be pedantic, but self-defense is a phrase constituent of two words, self and defense. The self is comprised of both body and soul, a fact I think is largely forgotten when this debate inevitably arises. The body may be harmed, even destroyed, by an external force; this is the principal argument for self-defense, that one be entitled to take measures to prevent said harm. What I am more concerned about, as was our Lord, is that which may destroy the soul. Obviously an invader cannot shoot my soul, and likewise I cannot shoot his. We do not yet have this technology.
However, I have sometimes heard proponents of lethal self-defense hesitate only for the idea that taking the life of their assailant might result in that person’s damnation in the event they are not yet “saved”, as if soteriology were a matter of good aim and not the individual’s relationship to God. This, of course, is preposterous, as one person does not have the power to effect the salvation or damnation of another. There is still a soul in danger despite this. It is the soul of the victim, and herein lies my main concern with the question of Christians and lethal self-defense.
The danger comes in the assumption that lethal response is not only permitted, but is somehow even righteous. This allows a person to cultivate fantasies about taking the life of another and remain, in their mind, the hero of their story—or even a champion of the Lord. Yet Christ taught that even daydreams of sin imperiled the soul as much as the deed itself. I cannot say that lethal self-defense is all good or all bad at all times, but I can say that a dark temptation lurks in the idea. We may do great evil under the assumption we are being righteous.
The prospect of taking another’s life must be loathsome and repulsive. It must sicken us and drive us to pray for alternatives, to search them out with all our heart, soul, and mind. An individual may decide in the end that he has no alternative to lethal violence when faced with such a horrible decision. I will not begrudge them their decision to fire if done in the spirit of regret and reluctance. I am not ignorant of the depths of evil in the world.
However, for the individual who has long enjoyed the fantasy of taking the life of another while being declared righteous for it, judgment awaits in the end. Killing in the spirit of self-righteousness, pride, or bloodlust is simply murder, and murderers will be brought to account.
Reformed / Reformed Baptist
“Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement.”1 Gandalf’s sobering reminder puts the discussion of self-defense in an important context: even when talking about taking out a bad guy, we’re talking about ending a life. It is not something that to be considered glibly.
This is all the more the case when we have a command from our Lord to love our enemies: “But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:44-45).2 This raises a question that I think precedes the question we are asking, namely, can Christians justify lethal force in the face of the command to love our enemy? From my perspective, when we consider the entirety of Scripture, the answer needs to be yes.
As a first instructive example, it is helpful to head to Genesis. Specifically, we want to look at Genesis 9:6: “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his image.” Out of the other things that could be inferred from this passage, it should be noted that God is commanding the end of human life. God, as the giver of human life, can authorize us to end life. The use of the death penalty in Old Testament law and Paul’s references to secular rulers bearing the sword3 provide additional support to this conclusion. Does this give individuals the option to lethal self-defense, though? The fact that a government can do something does not de facto mean that individuals can do the same thing (and, it should be noted, this works in reverse as well). One potentially helpful starting point is Exodus 22:2-3a, “If a thief is found breaking in and is struck so that he dies, there shall be no bloodguilt for him, but if the sun has risen on him, there shall be bloodguilt for him.” If I’m reading this passage right, we see a clear example of lethal self-defense justified in Old Testament case law. While not proving that all instances of lethal force are condoned, it does provide an instance where lethal self defense was justifiable.
Balanced alongside loving our enemy, the preceding thoughts paint a picture that is more nuanced than merely violence or no violence. What we have found is that there are times where ending a human life is necessary and, further, that it is possible that some of these times will fall on an individual’s initiative. What are these instances? Well, here’s the interesting catch. When I try to think of instances where lethal force might be required of an individual, the vast majority involve defending others. Those situations are fairly easy to justify. Merely defending myself though . . . that’s tougher. I’ll float the one situation that has struck me as falling in line with God’s nature: Protecting oneself to allow for further protection of and care for others (particularly one’s family). Given the importance of family in Scripture and God’s hatred for evil, using lethal self defense so that one could continue the provision and protection of their family seems to fit with the overarching messages of Scripture.
Could there be other scenarios when lethal self defense is justifiable? Possibly. That’s part of why I’m looking forward to reading my fellow authors’ contributions. At the same time, the difficulty that I have experienced thinking through these issues serves to highlight the wisdom in Gandalf’s words. This life isn’t one of those games where you can get a fresh life and start over. Once a life is ended, it’s chapter is closed. Justified or not, that final pen stroke is one that should be soberly considered.Show Sources
- Tolkien, John Ronald Reuel. The Lord of the Rings (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1993), 73.
- Scripture quotations are from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
- Romans 13:4
When I was 15-years-old I drove my grandparents and my younger brother to Nashville to spend time with my father for Thanksgiving. My parents had recently divorced and my father had just moved in with his mistress. This was the very first time that I went to visit him in his new place and in the new sphere of life that had caused him to abandon his covenantal commitments to my mother and our little family. I had only met my father’s new lover a handful of times. I didn’t know much about her at the time. However, I knew one thing for certain: I absolutely hated her. Every fiber of my being wished her harm for what she did to my family and for how she had wooed my dad away from his fidelity to my mother.
My father had arranged for us to all have a “family” Thanksgiving dinner together, seeking to awkwardly cram all of us neatly into this new life that he was seeking to forge for himself. Dad worked hard to prep his new home to be hospitable for us and he cooked up a delicious Thanksgiving feast. The only problem was that his girlfriend was running late and he couldn’t get ahold of her. She missed dinner. She missed dessert. She missed my father’s anxious pacing through their living room as the end of the day drew nearer and nearer. She missed it all and I remember thinking that I was truly grateful. The less I had to do with her the better, in my mind. My brother and I put ourselves to bed as my dad continued to anxiously pace.
I awoke in the middle of the night to my father’s shouts for help. At first I thought it was a dream. After he persisted and his shouts got louder I snapped awake. I rushed downstairs to the sight of a horrific display. My father had his girlfriend pinned down to the floor. She was flailing about uncontrollably spouting a bunch of vulgarities at him. He had a gash in his shirt and his stomach from where she had sought to run him through with a butcher knife. The knife itself was only about a foot from her left hand. My father urged me to grab the knife and get it away from her. So, I picked it up. Then, still pinned down by my father, she began to insult me. As she looked up and cussed me, everything in me wanted to end her. I mean everything. The power was in my hands and I knew that if I didn’t do something in that moment she would try to finish the job later. I felt like I would be defending my family and especially my father by acting upon my inner raging voice.
Yet, I couldn’t follow through with it. Whether it was cowardice or faintheartedness, I don’t know. It certainly didn’t flow from an ethical conviction to love my enemy because I didn’t become a Christian until the following year. As a confessional Calvinist now I will certainly say that it was providential. In our Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 1, we profess that, “not even a hair can fall from my head without the will of my Father in heaven.” It is also equally true that I cannot harm even the slightest hair upon the head of my enemy apart from the will of my Father in heaven. Even though I didn’t believe in Him at the time God held my actions at bay.
After that evening this woman’s offenses had caught up with her and she spent the next several years of her life in prison. Not too long after that evening something else happened. I came to know the Lord. By God’s grace I gradually learned how to better manage her unique and troubling place within my heart. Loathing gradually shifted to compassion for her. Vile hatred melted into a desire to forgive her. She was still an enemy to me but she quickly became the enemy that I had a duty to pray for. Who was I to withhold forgiveness whenever God had forgiven me so much?
When is it appropriate to defend oneself and one’s family? I am not sure that I know the answer to that question. I am truly grateful, however, that God kept me from acting upon my violent impulses that evening. Had He not, I am not sure I would have ever learned the deeply painful, yet powerfully transformative, victory that accompanies forgiving one’s enemies.