The image of Jesus that most people have is rightfully a peaceful Jewish hippie spreading the message of love and nonviolence among his followers. Certainly Jesus was opposed to violence in general, but there are always two sticking points that arise in discussions of violence and Christianity. Namely, the issue of using force in self defense or defense of a loved one, and partaking in violence instituted by the state. This post is only going to deal with the self defense issue. I will try to address the state violence issue later.
So, let’s examine this thorny issue using my patented three step system for determining Christian morality. We’ll start by looking into the Old Testament to see what that tells us of God’s character and laws.
There is actually a pretty clear law in Exodus 22:2-3 which says “If a thief is caught in the act of breaking in [some translations specify ‘at night’], and he is beaten to death, no one is guilty of bloodshed. But if this happens after sunrise, there is guilt of bloodshed”
So, we can infer that God does have some expectation that we have a right to defend ourselves in our own homes. But what is this corollary about the sun rising? There are two ways to interpret this, and I am not really certain which is correct. However, in my opinion they both point toward the same conclusion.
The first is that, if the intruder breaks in during the day, the homeowner can presumably see him coming and run away, or perhaps yell for help since there will likely be people milling about in the street. I do not think the “day” aspect should be taken too literally here, but we can infer that if there are other options, then killing the attacker is not justified. So to put it in modern context, if we have the chance to run or hide or call 911, then that should be our first option.
The second interpretation of this verse rests in the assumption that the crime will occur at night and that the “after sunrise” means the following day. Thus it is saying that if you wake up and realize you’ve been robbed and the perpetrator has escaped, you cannot hunt him down and kill him. There are many other clear instructions against revenge in the Bible as well. (Romans 12:19)
There are other verses in the Old Testament that further suggest God does not expect his people to be helpless in the face of evil or violence. Proverbs 25:26 says “Like a muddied spring or a polluted fountain is a righteous man who gives way before the wicked.” Proverbs 24:11 says “Rescue those who are being taken away to death; hold back those who are stumbling to the slaughter.”
So I believe these verses tell us that God finds righteousness in standing up against evil. Now let us examine the New Testament and direct teachings of Jesus.
Jesus famously told his disciples to “turn the other cheek” (Matt. 5:39) but this verse is often misconstrued to mean that Christians should not defend themselves against violence. The strike on the cheek that Jesus refers to here is more of an insulting gesture than a violent one. He is saying to not let people provoke you to anger by insulting you and instead offer them the other cheek as well.
When he was being arrested by the Romans, Jesus chastised Peter and told him to put his sword away. (Matt. 26:52) Peter was trying to valiantly defend Jesus from the Romans, but as Jesus pointed out, with all the legions of heaven at his disposal, he did not need Peter’s sword arm to protect himself. He responded to his attackers with kindness by healing Malchus’s severed ear, and then letting them take him away and ultimately kill him.
However, I urge caution against extrapolating Jesus’s example here beyond its specific context. Jesus let the Romans kill him because that was his intent in coming to Earth. I do not think we necessarily need infer that we should let anyone who wants to kill us do so, and in fact Jesus evaded angry mobs that threatened him before his time to die on the cross came. (John 10:39)
In fact, in Luke 22:36 Jesus (knowing that his death draws nigh) commands his followers “Let the one who has no sword sell his cloak and buy one.” But when his disciples say that they have two swords, he says “That is enough.” Enough for what? Two swords is certainly not enough to conquer a city, but it is probably adequate to defend oneself from brigands. Perhaps Jesus is suggesting that is the only acceptable use of a sword, and anything else is excessive.
In Mark 3:27, Jesus tells this adage. “But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man. Then indeed he may plunder his house. ” Notice that he offers no condemnation of the strong man who would seek to defend his home.
Now then, I am certainly not suggesting that Jesus advocated violence. He did not. The overwhelming bulk of his message was of peace, love, and unity. But I do think there is a cogent case to be made that Jesus believed his followers had a right to defend themselves and their families from imminent harm.
Finally, let us look at the third phase of my system: the Holy Spirit. Fortunately, I have never been in a situation where I felt like my life was threatened, and I hope to never be. But these things do happen to people, and it is possible it could happen to me. What would the Spirit guide me to do in such a situation?
I do not think anyone would suggest that if a father wakes up in the night to find an intruder raping or attempting to murder one of his children that Jesus would stand idly by and do nothing. Clearly, in such cases swift and decisive action is warranted. Killing the attacker should not necessarily be the goal, but as Exodus 22 makes plain, if he should happen to die, then there is no guilt.
But what about defending yourself and not a beloved spouse or or child? I think this is where listening closely to the Spirit comes in. If escape is not possible, it might be possible to pray over the attacker and plead with him to leave. Showing love and kindness in such a frightening situation would certainly be a powerful testament to the love of Jesus. Remember that even a violent intruder in your home is your neighbor, and Jesus commands us to love our neighbor.
I believe that the Holy Spirit will indicate if the person would be receptive to such a response, or if a forceful defense is necessary. If it turns out to be necessary, then it is a shame, but I think there is no guilt.
1 Timothy 5:8 makes clear that we are to provide for our families, and dying unnecessarily at the hands of an assailant does not constitute providing for your family. Thus, I believe that we also have an obligation to try to survive if we can.
The official stance of the Catholic Church is in agreement with my conclusion. “Legitimate defense can be not only a right but a grave duty for one who is responsible for the lives of others. The defense of the common good requires that an unjust aggressor be rendered unable to cause harm. For this reason, those who legitimately hold authority also have the right to use arms to repel aggressors against the civil community entrusted to their responsibility.”
As a final comment, I remind the reader that all of the situations I have described in which violence is justified in self-defense apply only to defense of one’s life or loved ones and not property. I do not think God considers theft or vandalism to be a capital offense and worthy of death. As for myself, I have insurance. If someone steals my TV or my wallet, that can be replaced. My beautiful wife cannot. So, I think the example of Jesus is clear that we should not care about material things and focus on loving our families and neighbors.