Recently I was pulled into a protracted debate on facebook. I was basically told that I couldn’t even be taken seriously and was being absurd by trying to make a biblical defense of self-defense. I was basically told I was confusing American macho-ism and my faith. Interestingly enough, my heretofore unexpressed thoughts were that they were confusing their liberal statism and inability to take responsibility for themselves with their faith, but hey – we’ve all got our problems, right? Insults and logically fallacies were continuously thrown my way, but not one logical argument was ever made. The conversation ended when the other party just decided we disagreed and that he wouldn’t engage any further. Oddly enough, that came after multiple requests that he provide me with his argument and scriptural support so that I could understand his point of view. At no point did I sink to the level of insulting him nor did I take a condescending tone, but no true debate was forthcoming. Despite accusations of me being ignorant, this is actually something I have studied rather extensively and have spent extended time in meditation and prayer over. So let’s jump right in on this.
The Old Testament
Now the first move by the Christian pacifist/non-violence arguments I’ve seen is to discount the entirety of the Old Testament. Why? Simply because the Old Testament is full of examples, commands, and praises about the ability to defend oneself or others. Now I understand that we need to be very careful how we apply the Old Testament in a post-Christ faith, however we cannot simply throw out the entirety of the Old Testament just because it makes arguments against our case. Christ came to fulfill the law (Matthew 5:17). While I acknowledge that Romans, Galatians, 2 Corinthians, Colossians, and Hebrews all spend a substantial amount of time arguing the case that a Christian is not beholden to the legal system of the Old Testament, it is more than just a history lesson. In it we find the definition of God, Man, Original Sin, and our Sin Nature. We see timeless principles for Godly living, warnings against disobedience, and examples of how to praise and obey God. All of these are referenced by either Christ or the writers of the New Testament. So while we need to understand the spirit of how the Old Testament is applicable in our lives, we also need to actually know what it says as it is still valid.
The Value of Human Life
The first salient point we find in the Old Testament is how absolutely valuable human life is to God. This is first seen in Genesis 9:6, “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.” Here we see that because man is not only a creation of God, but one made in His image, that the penalty for taking a life is forfeiture of your own life. Note, this was among the first things God said to Noah after the flood, thus this is pre-Mosaic law for those of you who want to throw out Mosaic law in it’s entirety. Add to this the fact that in 1 Chronicles we see that David, the man after God’s own heart, was prohibited by God from building the temple because he was a man who had shed much blood. The shed blood being referred to was blood David had shed in battle, defending God’s people. Now, this isn’t a ringing endorsement for defending your own life by taking another’s. It’s not meant to be. It’s a piece of the puzzle. It’s an item that shows you just how serious God is about taking the life of a human. It should be how seriously we consider it. Are our actions important enough that would would forfeit our life for it? Is it important enough to fundamentally change our qualification for ministry? We must answer these questions very carefully and honestly.
Mosaic Penalties for Killing, And It’s One Exception
Next we will look at what system the Mosaic law set up in light of Genesis 9:6 and also the sixth commandment (of the ten commandments) which states simply, “You shall not murder.” It should be noted that some older translation will say “You (or Thou) shall (shalt) not kill.” These translations use a more generic term when the original Hebrew actually uses a specific term for murder. Murder is typically defined as a malicious or hate filled killing. This clearly separates it from accidental, negligent, or even self defense killing, which is an important distinction in Mosaic law.
In Exodus 21:12-15, Numbers 35:6-34, and Deuteronomy 19:1-13 we see the penalties for accidental and negligent deaths. Again, the person who causes an accidental death, it’s even specified that he previously did not hate the person who died, forfeits his life. In this case, God does provide a merciful alternative. The person who caused the death can flee to a “city of refuge” where he will not be put to death as long as he stays in said city. Then there’s one other little exception listed in Exodus 22:2-3:
If a thief is found breaking in and is struck so that he dies, there shall be no bloodguilt for him, but if the sun has risen on him, there shall be bloodguilt for him. He shall surely pay. If he has nothing, then he shall be sold for his theft.
Here we see that if one kills a thief in the night, they are not held guilty for the death. If he breaks in during the day it’s a different matter, presumably because you can see that he is a thief and not a criminal with worse intentions. In that case, he should be dealt with as a thief is normally dealt with under Mosaic law – he makes restitution for what he broke/stole. Of note is that this passage does not deal with people who break in to commit other crimes – rape, kidnapping, or murder, all of which are common in home invasion scenarios. It should also be noted that all of these crimes are capital offenses under Mosaic law. It is reasonable then to assume that if you are allowed to kill in self defense if a thief breaks in at night, you would be allowed to do the same for the other listed offenses, likely during any hour of the day as they are more grievous crimes.
A second example is found in Deuteronomy 22:25-27:
But if in the open country a man meets a young woman who is betrothed, and the man seizes her and lies with her, then only the man who lay with her shall die. But you shall do nothing to the young woman; she has committed no offense punishable by death. For this case is like that of a man attacking and murdering his neighbor, because he met her in the open country, and though the betrothed young woman cried for help there was no one to rescue her.
Here we see that because no one was able to save a woman from a sexual assault, she will be held blameless for the assault. By contrast the verses preceding this deal with a woman who could have screamed for help and didn’t – she is assumed to be complacent in the sexual act. If a violent self defense (in this case the defense of others) response to violent criminal attacks was complete forbidden, there would be no distinction made between the two types of sexual act. This passage indicates that not only can we protect ourselves, we can use violence to protect others. This is borne out in the very clear examples of self defense seen in the nation of Israel’s history.
Old Testament Examples of Self Defense
The first example of self defense in the Old Testament that we look at will be from Nehemiah. We are seeing the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem. Nehemiah has convinced the current ruler to free a portion of the Israelites so that they can return to their ethnic homeland and begin rebuilding their city. Once there, they find themselves under attack from the various ethnic groups that are now living nearby. Due to this, the Israelites are told in Nehemiah 4:14 to take up arms:
And I looked and arose and said to the nobles and to the officials and to the rest of the people, “Do not be afraid of them. Remember the Lord, who is great and awesome, and fight for your brothers, your sons, your daughters, your wives, and your homes.
It is very important here to notice that this is given not to soldiers or to law enforcement agents, but to the people. In fact, we see in other portions of Nehemiah that the rebuilding was done in family groups and that certain members of the family would stand watch while the other built. In 4:17-18 we see that anyone who had a weapon was to work with one hand and carry a weapon in the other and that all of the builders were to wear their swords continually. These were average people who were given charge over their own defense and the defense of their families.
The second example we have comes from the book of Esther, chapters eight and nine. In it the civil ruler, King Ahasuerus, granted the Israelites the ability to defend themselves against racial violence. In Esther 8:11 we see:
[the king sent letters] saying that the king allowed the Jews who were in every city to gather and defend their lives, to destroy, to kill, and to annihilate any armed force of any people or province that might attack them, children and women included, and to plunder their goods…
So what do the Israelites do in response? Esther 9:5 says “The Jews struck all their enemies with the sword, killing and destroying them, and did as they pleased to those who hated them.” If you finish reading the chapter you will notice that the Jews killed nearly 76,000 people and took no plunder. They defended their lives. Again, the Israelites had no formal army at this time as they were in captivity. These were normal Jews who rose up to defend themselves. No where that I can find is this behavior condemned, in fact it is remembered through the Jewish holiday of Purim. To reiterate that last bit: Jews to this day celebrate their ability to protect their lives and the deliverance that God granted them through their own hands. Which leads directly to the next point.
Giving God the Credit for Work He Allowed Us to Do
This point is shown here in the Old Testament, but there is a New Testament angle to it as well. One of the big arguments against self defense is that it shows a lack of faith in God’s protection. As we saw in Esther, the Jews celebrate to this day the fact that they protected themselves against a plot of annihilation, but that is not the only time God is praised for the work man has done to defend himself. In Psalm 46:1 David claims, “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble,” and then in Psalm 144:1 says, “Blessed be the Lord, my rock, who trains my hands for war, and my fingers for battle.” David also says in Psalm 18:34, “He trains my hands for war, so that my arms can bend a bow of bronze.” David praises God for his protection and also for God giving him the ability to protect himself. Why? Because, just like in many other aspects of our faith, God asks us to trust him and then do the work ourselves. Take for instance 1 Timothy 5:8, which says:
But if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.
Also, consider 2 Thessalonians 3:10:
For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat.
It seems clear from these passage that while we should rely on God for our provision (Matthew 7:7-11 for instance) we are still clearly expected to work for said provision and are considered worse than unbelievers if we do not. The same principle should apply to God’s promise of protection.
The New Testament
The previous point spans throughout scripture, being seen in theory in both the Old and New Testaments. However, there is support for self defense found in the New Testament as well. First we can look at the actions of Jesus and the disciples.
What We See About Self Defense from Jesus
In Luke 22:35-39 we see the following:
And he said to them, “When I sent you out with no moneybag or knapsack or sandals, did you lack anything?” They said, “Nothing.” He said to them, “But now let the one who has a moneybag take it, and likewise a knapsack. And let the one who has no sword sell his cloak and buy one. For I tell you that this Scripture must be fulfilled in me: ‘And he was numbered with the transgressors.’ For what is written about me has its fulfillment.” And they said, “Look, Lord, here are two swords.” And he said to them, “It is enough.” And he came out and went, as was his custom, to the Mount of Olives, and the disciples followed him.
I will be the first to admit that this passage can be problematic but if one breaks it down, the meaning becomes clear. In verse 35 Jesus sets up what their ministry has been like to this point. They have had nothing, but they have lacked nothing. Second he sets up what their ministry will be like from this point forward (i.e.: after his death). He says they will need everything they’ve got and that if they don’t have a sword, they were better to be without their outer garment (which was used for warmth and bedding amongst other things) and to have money for a sword. Next he talks about what is coming next (as he had been all night) by saying it’s time he went and got arrested like a common criminal. The disciples tied the two statements together and asked if they had enough swords. Since Jesus wasn’t concerned about what was happening, he indicated that yes, two would be enough. At this point, many Christian pacifict/non-violent supporters will say that they needed the swords to be considered criminals. However, the Jews were allowed to carry swords for self defense under Roman rule, so that argument holds no real validity. Of note however is the fact that at least two disciples had already carried swords in Jesus’ presence without him condemning them.,/p>
To truly see if Jesus was against all violence and self-defense we will take a look at how the aforementioned swords were used. We can find the applicable passages are Matthew 26:51-56, Luke 22:49-53, and John 18:10-11. Through this there are three main points that can be seen. First is though Christ has come to die and is willingly going with those who are arresting him, he has the right to protect his life with both the sword and legions of angels. Second we see that those who are quick to violence will die violently. This echoes Psalm 11:5, “The Lord tests the righteous, but his soul hates the wicked and the one who loves violence.” Third we see that Peter is told to put his sword in it’s place, indicating that Jesus does not take issue with him having or carrying a sword. If He had, he could have easily told Peter to throw his sword away or to get rid of it.
Possible Problem Passages in the New Testament
One of the main verses quoted by proponents of non-violence is Matthew 5:38-39:
“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.
Well, there you have it. We are not to retaliate to violence – see the part about the slap? The problem is, this verse has nothing to do with violent opposition to violent attacks.
First, in order to know what Jesus is referring to, we have to know what he is quoting (as both verses are actually quotes. Verse 38 about “an eye for an eye…” is from one of the following verses: Exodus 21:24; Leviticus 24:20; Deuteronomy 19:21. These verses all deal with limiting the power of a court in response to a crime – so that the punishment would fit the crime committed. If read in the context of the entire passage (Matthew 5:38-42) we see that Jesus is speaking out against personal vengeance for a wrong committed. At this point in Jewish history, the Pharisee’s had taken the original Old Testament verses and instead of applying them to the limiting of a court’s power, had used it as justification for personal vengeance. It was allowed, according to the Pharisees, to go to a person’s home and exact vengeance, as long as it was with in the bounds of the original offense. Jesus is condemning this practice.
Verse 39, about turning the other cheek, is a quote from Lamentations 3:30 where the turning of your cheek is clearly ignoring an insult as backhanded slaps were a common insult at the time. In fact this insult meant that the person slapping you considered you nothing and of no consequence, which is much more of a blow to your self-worth than it is to your physical body. This in no ways means that you cannot defend yourself against violent attack. Jesus is merely saying that you should be able to take an insult and let it pass by. The entirety of this passage deals with foregoing personal retribution in demeaning or embarrassing situations. The original hearers of the Sermon on the Mount would have understood this context as well.
The second problem passage that some may see is Romans 12:18, which says:
If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.
This verse and the entire passage is easier for me to swallow. I am 100% capable, with God’s power and following Jesus’ teachings, to be peaceful with all men. I do not have to respond angrily or violently to what others say and do. I can be harmonious. I can let insults slide. I can easily let God be the ultimate judge and continue to love others despite of how they treat me. However, verse 18 says, “IF possible, SO FAR AS IT DEPENDS ON YOU.” As stated, with God, I am able to do that. However, I see no prohibition here against protecting yourself from an evil man.
Much like the Matthew passage dealt with retribution and vengeance, so does this passage. The difference is the difference between coming home and finding out your wife or kids were attacked that day and loading up for bear, heading over to the offender’s house, and blowing his head off while he eats dinner and reacting to stop an attack in progress. I am able to let God mete out justice in the first instance. I am able to love that person as God loves them and to pray for them. However, if I have the opportunity to prevent such an act because I am present, I am responsible for doing so as we have seen previously.
Third is the Matthew 5:38-43 in which we are told to love and pray for our enemies. Jesus was speaking in context of the common belief at the time that the Jews were only to love their own people and were to scorn and hate their enemies (in this case the half Jewish Samaritans and the Gentiles who were everyone else). He is saying that you should not hate anyone. You should love them and you should pray for them. He nowhere says you have to like them or that you have to let them do whatever they want because you love them. He is merely saying that you should not return their hate. You should love every one the way that God loves every one of us.
These verses together all point to one thing – we are to live at peace as much as we are able. We are not to seek personal gain, whether in physical possession or in reputation, at the expense of others. Nor are we to seek retribution or vengeance for their acts against us. We are not to be easily insulted – we are in fact supposed to return insults and hate with love. This is meant for us to further show the characteristics of Christ and God. A God who violently defended his people on more than one occasion.
We have established that God values human life greatly because man is made in His image. The penalty for taking a life is death, however there are a few understood exemptions from this. However, even taking lives in a way that God allows can have negative affects on our lives and our ministry. We see that God sanctioned the Israelites carrying weapons and protecting their lives and the lives of others. We have seen that though we praise God for his protection, we also praise him for the ability to defend ourselves. We see that Jesus was not opposed to carrying weapons or to defending yourself, except in situations where He needed to fulfill prophecy. We see that Jesus never clearly taught that self defense was wrong, but that we should be more level headed and peaceful than those who do not follow Jesus.
All of this leads me to the conclusion that self-defense is not prohibited by scripture. That said, we are not to be violent people and we are to discern between actually defending our lives and the lives of others versus defending our property or our reputation. Furthermore, self-defense is not commanded. I see room for those who chose pacifism as the ultimate example of Christ’s love. I do not agree with their position, as I do not think allowing someone to murder you for your wallet will actually teach them anything about the love of God. It may however teach them that Christians are easy targets for their despicable acts. However, just because I disagree on this point does not mean that I disagree on the actual important tenants of our faith – I will not chose to make this a break in fellowship. In other words, so far as it depends on me, I will live peaceably with all.