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    Greg and Beth

    the political and personal musings of two
    mountaineers living in west-central Florida
     
    Self Defense and Christianity Comment
    Gregory Morris, 6/20/07 8:30:47 am
    First, let me state that I am not a Bible scholar. I try to know and understand as much as I can about the Bible, as well as Orthodox tradition, but I confess that I regularly find my knowledge lacking. I am an Orthodox Christian, and I feel strongly that answers to any life situation or problem can be found through prayer and learning.
    Most of my posts here have been purely secular and political in nature. The point of this essay, however, is more for me to learn than to state my beliefs. Therefore I have no regret saying what I say today, with the knowledge that I might know better tomorrow. I encourage feedback on this topic, especially from those who may understand the subject more completely. The topic I will be discussing holds a significant importance to both my earthly and spiritual life. My first attempt at this will basically be a collection of disparate quotes from both the Old and New Testaments, along with my (likely inadequate) interpretation of them. As I come to understand these things more completely, I hope to be able to write a more coherent treatise on the matter.

    "Thou shalt not kill" (Ex 20:13, Deut 5:17)

    I have heard that the word "kill" may be more accurately translated (from the Hebrew "ratasch") as "murder", since this word is thought by some to have the connotation of murder. It is also different from the words (i.e. "harag", "muwth") which are commonly used to describe putting a criminal to death, or killing your enemy in war. Clearly killing another human being is never a good thing, but I do believe that it is justified in certain cases, such as self defense, defense of your country, and defense of Christianity. Regardless of our sin, it is only by God's grace that we are saved.

    If a thief be found breaking up, and be smitten that he die, there shall no blood be shed for him. (Exodus 22:2)

    This seems to imply that by the Old Testament, self defense (or more specifically the defense of your home) is reasonable and lawful. In addition, there are clearly cases where it was found to be within the law to put a criminal or enemy to death (hence, the 6th Commandment, even if read with the word "kill", is not absolute.) However, the next verse (Exodus 22:3) basically states killing a thief would be punishable by your death, if it happens during the day. So, I'm really not sure what I think about Exodus 22, except that it makes it clear that there are indeed exceptions to the 6th Commandment. The day/night difference in verses 2 and 3 also imply that you should act prudently, and if you have the power to stop a criminal without violence, you should, as it ought to be easier to avoid bloodshed during the day. It may also be noted that according protestant theologian John Wesley's notes, this passage implies that self defense is justified, even in the daytime. He also noted that the 6th Commandment forbids killing out of hatred, not defense.

    "A righteous man who falters before the wicked is like a murky spring and a polluted well." (Proverbs 25:26)

    According to this verse one is not only allowed, but in fact has the responsibility to fight evil. I am not sure whether this should be construed only as spiritual evil, or if it also applies to physical evil deeds we may encounter. The New Testament makes it pretty clear that this is but a material world, and we should worry more with preparing ourselves for the Kingdom of God than with whatever pain we may feel now. However, it also espouses the idea that you should always make an effort to help those in need. Does that mean you can or should defend your neighbor, in their time of need? In Matthew, Jesus says "If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also," renouncing the Old Testament's "eye for an eye" justice (Deuteronomy 19:21). What are we to do when someone is attempting to take our life, giving us no other cheek to turn? What are we to do when that "someone" is striking our wife, child, friend or neighbor?

    "...But now, he who has a money bag, let him take it, and likewise a sack and he who has no sword let him sell his garment and buy one" (Luke 22:36)

    I feel that His words in this case are not necessarily literal. Jesus was not instructing his disciples to arm themselves with blades for an earthly battle, rather He was telling them to prepare their spiritual defenses for the trials and persecution that were to follow. This is echoed in Ephesians 6:17, which states, "And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God," to do battle against the evil one. Still, His disciples showed him they were physically armed, and He simply said "It is enough." A lot of people also quote Luke 22:36 without remembering that Jesus later said "...all who take the sword will perish by the sword." It is clear to me that Jesus was rebuking his disciple for acting rashly, more in scared retribution than in defense of Jesus Himself. In addition, it also seems that Jesus was telling His disciple that given the situation, it would be a bad time to fight (or as my dad always said, "choose your battles wisely.") Jesus made it clear that in order for the scripture to be fulfilled, the events that were happening were necessary, and besides, He had no need of His disciple's sword for defense. Christ's words explain that you should be peaceful, and abhor violence. Still, He never says that it is wrong to defend your life from those who are evil. While you must have absolute faith in the Lord, you must also act within your own conscience.

    "But if any provide not for his own, and specially for those of his own house, he hath denied the faith, and is worse than an infidel." (1 Timothy 5:8 )

    While 1 Timothy 5 specifically discusses the way that widows should be cared for, the eighth verse describes the role of the head of a household, or lacking that (in the case of a widow), the church. Providing for ones wife and family, I believe, means not only providing shelter and food, but also defense. It is a terrible man who would let harm come to his family, when he has the power to stop it. In addition, defense of your family necessarily implies defense of yourself. If you were to let yourself be killed without attempting to defend your life, then you would also be failing as a provider for your family.

    "Blessed be the LORD my strength which teacheth my hands to war, and my fingers to fight..." (Psalms 144:1)

    Psalm 144, although it references war and fighting, reinforces the truth that your strength comes from God. Even as you fight your material battles on earth, it is only ever the will of God that is done, and not your own. This tells me to use the strength that God has given me, to do what is right.

    As an Orthodox Christian, I believe that the Holy Bible is central to my faith. However, it is Church tradition that explains the Scripture, and without the church's guidance, we would find ourselves lost in a sea of blasphemy. There is not much Orthodox literature that I have been able to find regarding individual self defense, even though volumes have been written about defense of the Church or of a nation. St. Gregory of Nyssa stated that if a priest should "fall into the defilement of murder even involuntarily, he will be deprived of the grace of the priesthood, which he will have profaned by this sacrilegious crime." It is the practice of the Church to preclude one who has killed (even in self defense) from the priesthood, although I am not sure if this is actually canon.

    According to professor of religion Philip LeMasters:
    "the norm of nonresistant love may not be directly applicable to those whose vocations in our broken world require the defense of the innocent. These may grow in holiness by fighting justly, even as they mourn the harm done to themselves and others by their use of violence."
    In other words, soldiers, law enforcement and those who commit violence to protect others are doing what is acceptable, although not necessarily good. And further:
    "Greater harm, indeed, might befall them and others if they refused to defend the innocent from attack and abuse. In a fallen world populated by sinful people, every Christianís journey to the Kingdom will be marked by a measure of spiritual brokenness, and repentance is the only road to healing."
    As I stated before, it is only by the grace of God that we are saved. Although we can never aspire to be entirely free of sin, we must ask forgiveness in everything we do. Since he has written it better than I could have:
    "Though the nonresistant love of Christ is the ultimate norm for the Christian in response to evil, the Church recognizes that we live in a corrupted world in which the use of force is sometimes mournfully necessary to restrain evil, protect the innocent, and foster a humane social order."


    In summary, I believe that lethal self defense must be an absolute last option. When no other route is possible, given a lethal threat to your life, or that of another innocent, self defense is justified by the law of the Old Testament, and is certainly not disallowed by the New. Still, relying on your weapon and your training to save your life may mean forsaking absolute faith in God's protection. Yet keeping a weapon and being trained to use it is not of itself sinful. I never intend to justify sin, simply to confess it. We are all sinners, we are all weak, we all doubt, and we all lose faith. Regardless of our thoughts or actions, forgiveness is given to us if we choose to accept it. I'm not sure I have a conclusion to this topic, but I do feel that I am getting closer to understanding.

    [Comments are closed after a month.]

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