Is Personal Self Defence Morally Right? (Part 2)

Written on: May 31, 2022

Article by: Kevin Cleary

This article continues our discussion from last month.

Having established that killing and or violence is sometimes morally acceptable in both the new and Old Testament, let us turn to personal self defence. The first point we can make, is that scripture does not require a Christian to passively accept violence directed toward them.

On at least two occasions the Jews attempted to stone Jesus. In Luke 4:30 as well as John 10:39 Jesus resisted their efforts by escaping. When his enemies tried to take his life, the apostle Paul thwarted their efforts by sneaking out of Damascus in Acts 9:23-25. When attacked by a mob in the temple courtyard Paul took full advantage of his Roman Citizenship to seek the protections afforded him by the law Acts 22:22-29. Paul had to be forcefully rescued by Roman soldiers from the Jewish Sanhedrin and not long after that, he left Jerusalem under armed guard to guarantee his safe passage to Caesarea Acts 23:12-22.

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While neither Jesus nor Paul used personal violence, they took full advantage of the protection of government agents who did and whose actions deterred those with violent intent. A Christian does not have to passively accept violent or harmful behaviour directed toward them.

Another important passage that must be considered before returning to the pacifist argument is found in Luke 22:35-38. Jesus was preparing the disciples for their further evangelistic travels. Unlike the first time they were sent out (Luke 9:1-6) with no provision or protection, this time they are told to ensure they have both.

This is what he said: And He said to them, “When I sent you out without money belt and bag and sandals, you did not lack anything, did you?” They said, “No, nothing.” And He said to them, “But now, whoever has a money belt is to take it along, likewise also a bag, and whoever has no sword is to sell his coat and buy one”

Jesus told them, that anyone who had no sword should sell his cloak and buy one. The purpose of the sword was for self defence. It was not for use against authority figures such as those who came to arrest Jesus. When Peter did so, Jesus told Peter to put the sword back in its proper place. So it appears that Jesus extended to his disciples the same rights enjoyed by the general population, to defend themselves from unlawful violence. Some have attempted to make the sword figurative. But the sword appears in the list of practical things that they were to take…like a moneybag and knapsack to aid their travel. In response to Jesus instructions, two actual swords are produced. The disciples took Jesus literally and he did not correct them. The apostles were not preparing for battle, nor were they members of the military. The only reasonable explanation is that Jesus wanted the disciples to have the ability to defend themselves.

Returning to the pacifist argument let’s examine some of the scriptures most often cited. A close reading and careful exegesis of these passages is critically important. A proper understanding of the key references will demonstrate that they do not directly apply to personal self defence. After all how can Luke 22:35-38 be explained in light of what we have already seen in Matthew 5 and Romans 12?

Rather than starting with the Sermon on the mount, let us start with a principal established earlier, that God is the giver of human life (Gen 1:27; 2:7; Eccl 12:7) which is to be valued and respected. If we are to protect and uphold the sanctity of life, it makes sense that some protective measures should be in place. In his wisdom, God did exactly that in Genesis 9:5-6 when He stated: “Surely I will require your lifeblood; from every beast I will require it. And from every man, from every man’s brother I will require the life of man. Whoever sheds man’s blood, By man his blood shall be shed, For in the image of God He made man.”

God establishing capitol punishment in order to ensure that life is valued and respected. Someone contemplating murder, was to understand that their own life would be forfeit. And that should they murder another, they have taken their own life as well. Capital punishment fit the crime and obligated those who governed to carry out God’s will. Murderers who were not deterred by the threat of punishment were deterred from future crime by execution. This was the intend of the law and a critical tool for maintaining law and order.

Responding to those who object based on the ‘golden rule’, Foy E Wallace says “That puts the golden rule to work in reverse. It commits the Golden Rule to protect the wrong-doer and deserts the victim” (World Video Bible School, 2015).

What God said about capitol punishment was intended for the health and safety of society. History shows that when society allows human life to be taken without losing one’s own, such social orders are horrible to live in. When human life is cheap, human value is also degraded and love for one another suffers. God’s command in Genesis 9 was given out of love and intended to be a blessing.

From the general principal, that life must be valued and respected, let’s consider some specific passages.

Jesus pronounced a blessing upon those who make peace (Mat 5:9). There is no question that Christians are called to pursue peace with others and more importantly between God and man. But wanting peace and working toward it does not preclude Christians from encountering conflict. Nor does it exempt the Christian from threats of theft, violence or oppression. Paul devoted his life to the pursuit of peace yet faced a conspiracy to take his life in Acts 23. As mentioned earlier, Paul did not resisted that effort and used civil law along with military protection to carry on his ministry of peace.

Perhaps this is what Paul had in mind when he said “ If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all” (Rom 12:18) Here we have a clear admonition to pursue peace but also the recognition that it’s not always up to you. This would indicate that a person could be a peace maker embodying the teaching of the beatitude but still find themselves under attack. Therefore Jesus teaching does not forbid any effort to protect oneself from violence.

Jesus’ next statement, which we mentioned above, pertains to his teaching on the sixth commandment. “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.”

Both sides will agree that this as an expansion or deepening of the commandment, enlarging the application to include matters and motives of the heart. But let us also notice two things. The prohibition began with murder and not simply any and all killing. And closely related to that, Jesus was addressing a settled or growing inner agitation and hatred toward another. This has little in common with a self defence situation or even war for that matter. Conflict between strangers and acts of self defence arising out of them rarely involve harsh feelings or personally targeted hatred. In many cases, the victim and the assailant have never met. Defending oneself without wishing harm to another are not mutually exclusive. It is possible to desire what is best for another while not allowing them to harm you or your loved ones. This is evidenced by the sheer number of accounts where someone shoots an attacker, and then proceeds to call 911 to secure medical attention and even performs first aid and CPR to help their attacker as much as possible.

Matthew 5:38-42 may be more difficult, as it sounds more like a self defence situation than other passages. Matthew records Jesus saying:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.

The kind of restraint that Jesus advocated is the same sort taught by his apostles. In each and every circumstance where you are able, do not ever take the law into your own hands. When insulted or struck, do not retaliate. When taken to court, settle matters by going beyond what is required. Christians ought never engage in ‘vigilante justice’. Antifa demands the right to ‘punch a Nazi’. And it is that attitude that Jesus addressed.

The apostle Paul said much the same when he wrote: “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” (Rom 12:18). The admonition to “not resist an evil person” is given in the context of personal revenge. It is not commanding us to let someone engage in wicked practices and to perpetrate violence if we can stop it. This would itself be wicked. The wise man said “Like a muddied spring or a polluted fountain is a righteous man who gives way before the wicked” (Prov 25:26). If this verse were taken out of context, it would require us to free all prisoners, disband all military and police forces, and never stop domestic abuse. The implications would not only result in anarchy but they would violate the teaching of scripture elsewhere such as Romans 13:1-4 or Matthew 22:39. A careful reading along with proper exegesis reveals that Jesus was not commanding Christians to submit to physical violence nor was he restricting them from protecting themselves. Nor does this passage restrict Christians from police or military service.

Well then, what of the command to “Love your neighbour as yourself” (Mat 22:39)? The pacifist argues that love and violence are mutually exclusive. Thus any act of physical violence would disobey this principal.

But as we have pointed out, God put capitol punishment in place because he loved us. God’s love and those who act as his agents express that love by protecting the innocent and punishing evil Heb 12:6. Studies show that children who are not disciplined feel that they are not loved. A society built on love, will have rules in place to ensure that bullies and criminals are dealt with. The meaning of what Jesus said turns on what it means to ‘love oneself’. The responsible care and keeping of oneself ought to extend equally to others. Wishing to live at peace includes the right to secure such peace if attacked by others. We are not surprised when we discover that Jesus and his disciples avoided harm as much as they could. They ran when possible and reasoned with those who wished them harm. Yet Jesus instructed his disciples to make provision for self defence if all else failed.

Before moving to the next passage, there is another principal that we have only touched on but not fully discussed.

We have looked at two passages in which we are told not to retaliate or respond in kind (Mat 538-42, Rom 12:20-21). Jesus and Paul both teach us that we should respond to evil people with kindness and love. We should pray for them and return good for evil. This is part of what makes us different from unbelievers (Mat 5:46-48). These principals protect us from taking revenge when our pride is hurt or our loved ones are harmed. Vengeance is not the same thing as defending ourselves and our loves ones from harm. Careful thought must be given in advance to just where ‘self-defence’ ends and retaliation begins. We will discuss more about controlling emotion as a safety precaution, as well as to avoid a sinful response later.

Our last passage is perhaps one that is most commonly quoted when discussing our subject.

It was uttered by Jesus when he was being arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane (see Matthew 26:51; Mark 14:47 and Luke 22:50) Peter tried to defend Jesus with his sword and very nearly killed a man. Jesus turned to Peter telling him to put the sword away for “all who take the sword will perish by the sword”. Jesus then explained why ‘the sword’ was out of place. If the disciples of Jesus rescued him from arrest, then the scriptures would not be fulfilled nor would the world be saved. The angels of heaven were at the Lord’s disposal but were not called. Jesus didn’t defend himself because his time had come (John 12:23).

Jesus could have avoided arrest, knowing where Judas would bring the guards. He had come to Jerusalem for this very purpose. But Jesus knew that what was happening needed to happen (John 19:30). His words to Peter were not about never defending yourself from violence, but rather, were about how Jesus would achieve the plan of redemption and his ultimate glory. Hebrews 2:9 tells us that Jesus was “crowned with glory and honour because of the suffering of death.” Jesus’ victory was achieved through sacrifice and obedience, which is still how God’s kingdom grows and succeeds1.

To sum up: we have looked at some passages that at first seemed to favour pacifism but which do not exclude the use of force in self defence. We have shown that when properly examined and understood the scriptures that are claimed to condemn any and all use of violence don’t really do that. In our next article, we want to suggest a path forward including some guidance for how a Christian is to conduct him or herself if a dangerous situation should one ever arise.

1 Quite apart from questions about personal self defence is that larger question of a Christian’s participation in the military or law-enforcement agencies. Those who oppose this often cite Ephesians 6:12 and II Corinthians 10:3-5 which both teach that Christians are engaged in a spiritual war and not a physical one. This of course is true, but it does not address the question that we have raised. While engaged in matters pertaining to the kingdom of heaven “we don’t wage war according to the flesh” nor “wrestle against flesh and blood”. But Paul is not answering the question of whether a Christian may serve in the military or the police force as an agent of the state. Romans 13:1-4 would indicate that these institutions are ministers of God to ensure the safety and orderliness of society. Yet we would point out that this discussion and the one from Matthew 26 make it clear that God’s Kingdom is never to be spread using physical strength or military force (Jn 18:36).

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