Q&R: Should followers of Jesus use the threat of deadly force in self-defense? Brad Jersak
Thank you for your inspiring article, “The Day of Vengeance.” What came to mind while reading it was the question of self-defense and the use of deadly force to protect others. My neighbor follows Jesus, is as wise as serpents, and intends no harm to others, yet ended up in a life-threatening situation. He would have used deadly force to stop harm intended for him and another. Thankfully, the violent man stopped threatening and was later arrested. Any comments?
My own intention (from personal experiences of violence) is to align with Jesus’ wisdom from the Sermon on the Mount. Some think Jesus’ call not to retaliate and Paul’s injunction, “Do not resist evil with evil, but overcome evil with good” are naive and idealistic. Christians actually tell me that all too frequently. But I think the world’s descent into the hell of war (as if it can bring peace) or the use of personal retaliation to resist the evil-doer are observably far more naive and idealistic. We’ve tried the way of the sword again and again (often in the name of self-defence), only to discover that sowing violence and the threat of violence reaps more violence, death and destruction. We sow what we reap, so the first three centuries of Christianity (before it aligned with the empire), treated Jesus’ words, “Put away your sword; for those who live by the sword, die by the sword,” as a command to all Christians.
Often, opponents of that view reduce the conversation to a zero-sum game, arguing, “So you’re saying ‘do nothing.’” That’s certainly not what Jesus said or I would say. To be “wise as serpents and innocent as doves” means looking at and training ourselves for the other 10 options beyond killing or doing nothing. One response that Jesus gave us was, “Turn the other cheek” (de-escalating by not retaliating). And Paul’s “overcoming evil with good” can come in many forms, if we’re creative and willing to invest in something other than the means of violence.
For example, I encounter many males who fantasize about what they would do if someone tried to rape their wife or daughter, but prefer the bravado of their imaginations without ever sending their wives or daughters to rape-prevention training. That training includes a LOT more than how to fight back. And in fact, it explains how rapists WANT the fight and are ready to escalate the violence involved. What then? Well, take the course or fund someone to take it. Better yet, why not include it in school curriculum. Such courses train people how to respond in the safest ways, including avoiding or fleeing life-threatening situations to begin with.
I mentioned my personal experience. As an adolescent who was bullied a lot, and I had ample opportunity to investigate and experiment with the use of violence to resist violence. Here’s what I discovered:
- + The “threat of force” doesn’t need to be deadly. When threatened, we don’t have to kill anyone or even threaten to do so. My uncle was a police officer who rose to second in rank in his city, next to the chief of police. He never once removed his pistol from his holster in forty years. If a police officer doesn’t need to threaten with deadly force, neither do I (who has no legal authority to do so).
- + I learned that if someone is a bully, I can assume they are generally stronger or better armed than I am. So, my threat or use of violence is coming from a place of weakness. I discovered that trying violence against stronger, meaner people led to more and worse beatings. IF they are actually stronger and meaner than I am, using violence is self-defeating and further endangers those I care about. But IF they are NOT stronger and meaner than I am, then I am actually the bully.
- + I also learned (by hard experience) that if I can occasionally overpower someone who I deem to be more wicked than I am (sometimes you get lucky), they do not usually just learn their lesson and leave me alone. I heard that fallacy all the time. “I fought back, and after that, the bullying ended.” Statistically speaking, that’s simply not true. It’s wishful thinking and bad advice. What actually happened to me, personally? They would bring more of their friends and sometimes more weapons. Sometimes knives, sometimes bats, and on one occasion, a gun. My naive violence created further hatred and danger, including vandalism of property and assaults on people I cared about. My self-defense argument escalated the violence. We see this same principle in individual skirmishes and in the international wars raging today, right now.
- + I learned that violence energizes the violent, escalates the violence, and increases the level of destruction. I traveled that path until I was stuck in regular murder and arson fantasies, trapped in fear and transformed by malice, while overcoming nothing. In my heart, I became the monster I imagined I needed to beat. The only deliverance for me was repentance and a call back to the Jesus Way.
- + I learned that preparing for violence by arming ourselves in advance further endangered us. For example, while very few people ever need to use a handgun to defend their family from a home invasion (and do you really want to take a life to protect your stuff?), I have read that the odds of suicide increase by 600% when there is a gun in the house (because everyone gets sad sometimes). After too many suicides in my extended family and the suicidal ideations that some in my own home have battled, the biggest threat of deadly force is self-inflicted.
So when measuring the Jesus Way against that of the violent ways of the world, I would strongly lean toward calling his words ‘practical wisdom’ and their advice ‘naive idealism.’ Not that you said that, but I hear it far too regularly from fellow Christians.
I noticed the threatening person involved in your scenario was later arrested. Paul teaches in Romans 12-13 that we need to leave the work of law enforcement to the state, and the Apostle Peter agreed. They were explicit in forbidding believers to participate in training for or participating in vigilante or insurgent violence.
I recognize that many in our world experience police culture as itself oppressive, depending on the nation, city, and on their training. Some officers honestly go to work every day “to serve and protect.” Others are corrupt (so I’m told by other officers). But even there, Paul says NOT to overcome evil with evil but to overcome evil with good. In his case, the evil WAS Nero’s occupying state forces, the very ones who would one day martyr Paul. But as Paul surveyed his options, he excluded both using violence AND doing nothing. He opted for (i) rejecting violent retaliation, (ii) preaching and living the gospel, (iii) doing his best to love everyone, even the enemy, and (iv) suffering rather than causing suffering, even when it meant martyrdom.
In the end, we (those who follow Jesus) have been shown Jesus Way, regardless of whether the state or the criminals follow it or not. That was a long response, but in our troubled times (always), it’s worth considering the question and its implications seriously. Thank you!