The issue of Christian ethics and the use of violence in self-defense has been hotly debated. The recent surge of hostility against Christians, including beheadings, church bombings, etc. has led me to more deeply examine the questions: Is it morally permissible for Christians to use violence to protect themselves and others when faced with an imminently fatal situation? Does Scripture have anything to say about this issue one way or the other, or are we left to extrapolate our ethic–as best we can–from examples set by biblical figures? Here I will argue that there are contexts in which violent defense is completely justified and supported by Scripture. Some preliminary discussion is in order.
First, it should be emphasized that Christians are called to love our enemies:
But I say to you who listen: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. (Jesus, in Luke 6:27-28)
Furthermore, Christians are instructed to be peacemakers:
Blessed are the peacemakers, because they will be called sons of God. (Jesus, in Matthew 5:9)
The obvious conclusion from these passages is that we should go to the greatest length possible to avoid violence and achieve peace with our fellow man. Insult, robbery, or minor physical aggression are not justifications for retaliation, including the attempt to physically harm another human being:
If anyone hits you on the cheek, offer the other also. And if anyone takes away your coat, don’t hold back your shirt either. Give to everyone who asks from you, and from one who takes away your things, don’t ask for them back.(Jesus, in Luke 6:29-30 )
Often, Christians who advocate for pacifism at all costs will often misuse Luke 6:29 (above) in making their case. Note that this verse says nothing about what we should do in a life-threatening situation, therefore it cannot be cited as support for avoiding violent self-defense.
Another common argument employs the “Jesus example.” In the Gospel of John, we find an armed mob, led by Judas, arriving to arrest Jesus. Simon Peter draws his sword and cuts off the ear of the High Priest’s servant, Malchus (John 18:10). Jesus miraculously heals Malchus and says to Simon Peter, “Put your sword away! Shall I not drink the cup the Father has given me?” (John 18:11). There are two important things to note here: The High Priest’s mob was heavily armed, but Jesus’ life was not in immediate danger. The mob had not come to kill Him, only to arrest him. But far more importantly, this situation was wholly unique to the Messiah–He was acting in direct obedience, doing what was required of Him for the salvation of mankind. In parallel fashion, Jesus subsequently endured merciless scourging and Roman crucifixion.
Martyrs throughout Scripture are sometimes upheld as examples for us to follow in the event that our very life is demanded by fellow men as a consequence of our Christian faith. I believe this, too, is a flawed argument. The account of Stephen’s martyrdom, for instance, doesn’t support the idea that we should calmly submit when our life is threatened. Before his stoning began, God gave Stephen a vision of God’s glory and of Jesus standing at the right hand of God. This was another unique situation, one in which God was directly communicating with Stephen, showing him that his appointed time of departure was near. Nothing in the passage indicates whether or not Stephen tried to defend himself during the stoning, though he certainly demonstrated bravery, forgiveness, and dignity at the end. The account of James’ martyrdom isn’t detailed, it simply says that King Herod had him killed with the sword (Acts 12:2). But nevertheless, the issue of martyrdom is unique and must be carefully distinguished from other cases where violent self defense is necessary.
So, what case can be made for the morally-permissible use of violence in self-defense or the defense of the vulnerable (someone who is unable to defend themselves)? The fact that human life is sacred can be easily supported by Scripture. Thus, its preservation is of the utmost importance. If an attempt is made on your life or the life of your child, and your only course of protection is to deter the attacker in a manner that could be fatal to said attacker, doing so is not only morally permissible, it is a moral duty. Though human lives are equally valuable, situations arise in which innocent life necessarily trumps that of the one attempting to wrongly take life. It should be noted, however, that this is completely different from actions of retaliatory violence.
Besides the sanctity of life, is there a more direct endorsement of violent defense of life in Scripture? Yes, and it came from the mouth of Jesus, no less. Before he was arrested, He had a serious conversation with his disciples in which He prepared them, mentally and practically, for the days to come. Things were about to change for all of them on a cosmic scale, and tremendous danger would dog their footsteps for the rest of their lives. Jesus instructs them:
But now, whoever has a money-bag should take it, and also a traveling bag. And whoever doesn’t have a sword should sell his robe and buy one. (Luke 22:36)
I don’t believe there’s any other way to interpret this statement; Jesus knew they should be equipped with weapons of self-defense as they faced the looming persecution.
My conclusion is that violence is to be avoided when at all possible, but not at all costs. Scripture clearly supports the defense of human life “by the sword.” In our day, most of us don’t walk around with a sword strapped to ourselves (now that would be incredibly cool), so you’re probably thinking about modern weapons. Without getting into the numerous complexities of responsible firearm legislation, I will simply say that I believe the right to bear arms for the purpose of defense is, in essence, the right to be able to preserve human life under the worst of circumstances.