by Jordan Whitaker (Bio)
(Guns Save Life) – For some people the question of self-defense, especially with deadly force, raises troubling moral and religious issues. As a Southern Baptist pastor and former US Army infantryman, I have fielded many such concerns from church goers as well as members of the general public who are concerned about the ethical ramifications of taking another person’s life, regardless of the circumstances. While many authors who are more qualified to do so than I have touched on the legal concerns that one should consider before making the decision to defend life, liberty and in very rare circumstances, property with whatever force is necessary to repel an attacker, I may be more qualified to speak on the ethical concerns that will undoubtedly arise if action against an aggressor is ever unavoidable.
My congregation members know that Jesus told his followers in the Sermon on the Mount to “turn the other cheek”. The command seems to be a clear message condemning personal resistance against aggressive action.
Many theologians have taken this directive very seriously, in that they have deemed any defensive action against an attacker to be contrary to the will of God and consequently sinful. But is God such a pacifist that he would disallow self-defense even if it would mean allowing evil to succeed?
I ask people to notice that Jesus also said that he didn’t come to change anything in the Old Testament law, and he personally promised that everything contained in those books would continue to be valid until the end of time.
The problem of course for pure pacifists is that the Old Testament (and in fact the New Testament) is chock full of examples where God did not allow evil to continue unabated, and more often than not, the instrument of justice in those situations were the very people being harmed. Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount did in fact warn against personal vengeance, but he was not advocating laying down of arms by any means. What he spoke against was the use of anger and pride as an excuse for doing violence or taking vengeance against another person. That is a notion our own legal system would also heartily agree on.
But for the die-hard pacifist (pun intended) who still believes defense against an attacker is morally wrong, what is the argument that is being made, and where could the line be drawn? Would God rather a man die than defend himself? Or further, would God rather you let your wife’s throat be cut than for you to dare raise a hand to protect her? Or would God rather you allow a group of men to do their worst to your six year old daughter, just as long as you refrain from soiling your perfect soul with violence? Does such a view of God or morality in general pass even your own imperfect human standards of justice?
Obviously it does not. So then why would anyone suggest a view of morality which says God values life in such a paradoxical way that defending life would be a sin, and it would be more righteous to allow the slaughter?
The true sin in a life or death situation is not to defend life, but to do nothing. If an able-bodied man were to sit idly by in one of the situations I just described, his inaction is tantamount to his compliance! If a man would actually be willing to allow harm to be perpetrated upon his daughter, then as the girl’s father chosen by God to guide, teach, and protect her, his sin could be called greater than the criminals’. To stop the attacker from carrying out their crimes is not sin, but justice. He (the criminal) has chosen his evil actions, and the consequences that he suffers are just. A man’s wife or daughter however is by no fault of their own dependent on him, so how could he ever chose to value his own piety above them?
One might say, “But I’m not God, so how can I say who deserves a death sentence and who doesn’t?” Well, put simply, you can’t. Unless you catch someone in the act of committing their crimes, it is impossibly hard for a mortal like you or I, limited in knowledge and wisdom, to say with certainty what exactly has transpired and what punishment would be appropriate. Our own human laws reflect that. If a woman were to shoot a man while he is in the act of assaulting her, no charges would be filed. But if she were to shoot the man only after a Judge has thrown out the case on a technicality, she has committed murder in the eyes of the law. God’s law says the same thing. Exodus 22 says that if someone breaks into your home at night and you kill him, it’s justified. But if you wait until the next day, you have committed murder.
In fact, we know our own human limitations so well that our official legal system for determining justice requires that twelve objective observers weigh the facts before we are willing to dole out punishment. But we also know that punishment is still deserved for criminal (sinful) acts, and when it comes, it isn’t re-sinful on the part of those that administer it, for it is justice.
Some people say that a good outcome doesn’t exist in a defense-with-deadly-force scenario, but it really does. Justice is the good outcome. A criminal knowingly commits acts that are evil, and so the consequences of those acts are natural and right. “For the wages of sin is death”.
Although in sermons, I would choose to show the righteousness of self-defense with a reliance on scripture, I have chosen to go light on the Biblical passages here. I hope for those of you that are Christians and struggling with these issues I have provided a basis for you to continue your study and understanding of the topic.
For those of you that wouldn’t claim to have much use for scripture, but are concerned with the ethical problems of self-defense all the same, I have tried to give the logical reasoning for those issues as well. If you are still unsure, at least take into consideration the source: I am an experienced minister now, but as an infantryman I have also killed people in a time of war. I have also gotten counseling about what I had to do by a Chaplain in the Army who is a former infantryman, like myself. I have been fortunate enough to briefly meet with a Palestinian missionary to talk about the same subject. I obviously must spend a lot of time in scripture looking at this topic, and I have also been called on to do counseling for other soldiers dealing with these same issues.
The bottom line is this: you will not know what it is like to have to defend yourself or a loved one with deadly force until you have actually done it. You will not know what it does to your spiritual life and thought processes until it actually happens. But be assured, the man or woman that must use even deadly force to repel an aggressor is not immoral for doing so.
Making that difficult choice and having the fortitude to follow through when necessary is perhaps one of the most honorable things you may ever be called upon to do.
Photos courtesy Oleg Volk unless otherwise credited in mouseover.