Christians and Self-Defense

The George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin case has brought into the public spotlight the “stand your ground” laws on the books in many of our states.  “Stand your ground” removes the condition of attempted retreat, allowing a person to defend themselves, including lethal force, if they believe their life is significantly threatened.

In light of Zimmerman/Martin, many have argued these laws must be repealed.  Many have become too uncomfortable with the broad amount of discretion the law grants to would be defenders.

Zimmerman may not even be able to use the “stand your ground” defense, because he, in fact, first pursued Martin, even after he was told to cease by a 911 operator.  However, for the Christian, “stand your ground” laws raise more general questions about self-defense.  Can a Christian engage in self-defense, especially when the defense could lead to violent bodily harm for the attacker?  Or does the way of the cross mean a disciple surrenders their right to defend themselves?

Even broader than the questions dealing with self-defense is the meaning of the cross itself.  Was the act of Jesus dying self-willing on the cross an all-time denouncement against violence for any reason?  Many argue that it was; linking the cross and nonviolence is currently very trendy and pacifism is on the rise.

Is nonviolence the meaning of the cross?

I think we should avoid overly simplistic treatments on this issue.  On the one hand, Jesus dying on the cross was certainly a rejection of power via the violent ways of the world.  From the temptation of Jesus in the Wilderness, Satan attempted to lead Jesus down the path of glory and power sans the cross.  In rejecting this path, Jesus certainly calls on his people to denounce violent power grabs and worldly ways of ruling.  This is embedded in his call for us to “pick up our cross and follow [Jesus].”

On the other hand, it is hard to textually support the idea that the cross was to  be interpreted as a condemnation of violent force in every situation.  Paul, who elaborates the most upon the cross of any biblical writer, seems to think the cross is primarily about redemption and reconciliation.  I get uneasy with theologians who today want to make the cross a symbol for their favorite issue.  I’ve seen this done with “nonviolence” along with many other favorite issues.  The more your view of the cross causes redemption to recede into the background, the more there is a problem with your view.

But I still haven’t really addressed the issue at hand, nor have I dealt with that oft cited reference (Matt. 5:39) about “turning the other cheek” from the Sermon on the Mount (SOTM).  I think it is very unlikely that Jesus’ admonition applies universally to all situations involving self-defense.  Being struck on the cheek had to do with a particular type of insult, not a physical attack.  An immediate response to a violent attack does not seem to be in view at all within this context (Matt. 5:38-48).  I do think Jesus is dealing with the issue of retaliation and getting even.  Neither of those aims are becoming of a disciple.

Though it is clear that Christians are not to fight back violently when persecuted for Jesus’ name sake (cf. Matt. 5:11-12), it does not follow that Christians should just allow themselves to be pummeled by random thugs.  Consider these scenarios.

  • A woman fights off her would be raper.
  • A family man defends himself from being beaten, potentially to death, as a victim of a robbery.
  • A security guard uses lethal force to subdue a man ready to take hostages at a bank.

There may be many situations when a Christian filled with the vision of the cross will forgo self-defense.  Yet, I believe there are situations where the brave and Christian thing to do is to meet with force with force.  To live the disciple life is not to have all the answers in cookie cutter, one law fits all situations, but rather to have to wrestle with Christ-like, cross-led discernment.

Christians always have the right to self-defense.  Christians can never defend themselves (or others?).  Both these statements take the easy way out.  The answer does not lie in between two extreme positions, but in the recognition that should we ever be pressed into such a situation, we will need the help of God to help us know how best to respond.

p.s.  For a look on how this debate is impacting the Church in Nigeria please see http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2011/december/self-defense-debate.html

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About dgkeheflin

I blog about theology, church, culture, etc.
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