By Syd at Sight M1911
December 14th, 2007 by Syd
For anyone who has been raised with traditional Christianity and who takes seriously the right and responsibility of self-defense, the vision of church members armed and engaging psychopathic killers in the church presents a jarring cognitive dissonance. After all, the church is supposed to be a place of peace, healing and redemption, a sanctuary from the evil of the outside world, and not an arena for combat. How can a thoughtful Christian reconcile armed self-defense with an understanding of New Testament Christianity?
The attack on the New Life Church in Colorado Springs which was stopped by an armed Christian woman draws this question into sharp focus. Jeanne Assam used her personal firearm to stop the deadly attack on the church and in doing so, saved many lives but ended the life of the young man who launched the attack. In her words:
Assam appeared before the media with applause and said “God guided me and protected me.”
“I give credit to God,” Assam said. “God was with me. I didn’t think for a minute to run away.” Source
“This has got to be God, because of the firepower that [the gunman] had vs. what I had – was God. I did not run away and I didn’t think for a minute to run away, I just knew that I was given the assignment to end this before it got too much worse. I just prayed for the Holy Spirit to guide me.” Source
Assam clearly seems to have her faith squared away in regard to self-defense. She does not seem to be conflicted about self-defense and Christian discipleship, but many Christians are. I think she is a hero and I would hope that if I ever find myself in the position she faced that I will act as courageously as she did.
At the same time, while we watched this story play out, all of those teachings that we learned in Sunday school whisper from the back of our heads: “Blessed are the peacemakers.” “Turn the other cheek.” “Pray for your enemies.” “He who would win his life must lose it”. “Peace I leave with you. My peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give unto you.” “Pick up your cross and follow me.”
Many Christians read the New Testament as requiring a radical pacifism: “But I say to you, do not resist the evildoer. But whoever strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other to him as well.” Personally, I think Jesus is speaking here of seeking retribution for insults, and had he meant, “stand there and let them kill you,” he would have said that. But some readers of the New Testament interpret it exactly that way. By inference, the radical pacifists would say that the only appropriate response for the members of the New Life Church would be to stand there and pray, and be slaughtered. By no means should Christians offer resistance in self-defense, especially armed self-defense.
Is the Christian faith a call to radical martyrdom? The short answer is that sometimes it is. German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer felt that his call to discipleship led him to get involved in the plot to overthrow Hitler, and it cost Bonhoeffer his life. Paradoxically, the plot would result in the death of Hitler if it succeeded, and Bonhoeffer struggled with this. Jesus and most of the disciples died the death of martyrs. Paul’s call led him to execution. The notion of martyrdom is deeply embedded in Christian tradition. But, does being a Christian mean that we are compelled by the faith to seek martyrdom? Is self-defense contradictory to Christian doctrine?
The word “martyr” literally means “witness”. Martyrs are people who die as a result of their bearing witness to Christ. There is intentionality about the deaths of the early Christian leaders. Their deaths made a statement: the gospel of Christ was more important than life. Their deaths were highly visible and made a profound impact on millions of people. Untold millions converted to the faith as a result of the witness offered by the early church in refusing to renounce the faith, even in the face of death. Yet, most Christian deaths are not martyrs. Most of them are just deaths. While some might disagree, I don’t believe that martyrdom is generally required of all Christians. Perhaps, it’s not actually required of any. To my mind, allowing oneself to be randomly murdered by a mentally ill person does not rise to the standard of intentionality and witness that characterizes the martyrdom of the early church. Further, Christians believe that Christ died for the sins of the world, and assuming that is true, it should be unnecessary, even blasphemous, to think that we also need to die for our sins.
Jesus also spoke a lot about justice. It is clear from the teachings of Jesus that he believed that evil and injustice would be thrown down in God’s kingdom, and it would not be gentle. Evil and oppression will not be endlessly tolerated. “It will be this way at the end of the age. Angels will come and separate the evil from the righteous.” It is as if he is warning the disciples that it’s going to get rough out there: “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace but a sword.” In his most often quoted statement on self defense, Jesus says: “…let the one who has no sword sell his cloak and buy one.”
In “War and Self Defense,” Randall Watters says:
The Lord Jesus only appears to have said two things that deal directly with self-defense and warfare, and these statements appear to be contradictory at first glance. On the night of his betrayal, knowing that he would soon be parted from his disciples, he told them,
And he said to them, “When I sent you out without purse and bag and sandals, you did not lack anything, did you?” And they said, “No, nothing.” And he said to them, “But now, let him who has a purse take it along, likewise also a bag, and let him who has no sword sell his robe and buy one.” (Luke 22:35, 36)
…So they said, “Look, Lord, here are two swords.” Then he told them, “It is enough.” (Luke 22:38)
The second statement he made later that night, when Peter struck at the slave of the high priest with his sword:
Put your sword back into its place; for all those who take up the sword shall perish by the sword. Or do you think that I cannot appeal to My Father, and He will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels? How then shall the Scripture be fulfilled that it must happen this way? (Matt. 26:52-54)
Why did Jesus tell them to take up provisions that would equip them for new conditions in the ministry, including a sword for self-defense, and then shortly thereafter tell Peter not to use the sword?
The key lies in the context of each statement. Peter was told not to use the sword because he was acting in the flesh, forgetting that Jesus told him he would have to be arrested and suffer death. Peter did not see the purpose in Jesus’ arrest and death. He was acting out of his flesh rather than from wisdom. Those who live out of their flesh, Jesus intimated, with its violent and unbridled passions, will die at the hands of the same. Yet, Peter and the others were told to take up swords and money pouches and an outer garment for specific reasons (not just out of symbolism; as he would have only mentioned swords and not pouches if this was the case). Randall Watters, “War and Self Defense,”
Context is indeed critical. Jesus does not prohibit self-defense here, or anywhere else in the New Testament. In fact, Luke shows us that the disciples were armed.
One of my favorites of the sayings of Jesus is, “Be as wise of serpents and as gentle as doves.” What this says to me is: be kind, love life, seek peace, justice and fairness in what you do, but be smart about it. Be reasonable and rational. Don’t get caught up in the irrational and the nonsensical. I believe that simply throwing your life away for no reason is both irrational and nonsensical.
Some have argued that using guns for self-defense reveals a lack of faith in God. To this, Larry Fox says:
“We buy clothes primarily for modesty and protection from the weather. We buy or rent homes to protect ourselves from weather, animals and people who might harm us. We buy insurance to cover potential health and medical expenses. We invest in retirement funds to provide for future needs. We expect protection from credit card theft and fraud. We lock our homes to protect ourselves and our belongings. Why do we take all these protective measures? Because we don’t trust God to protect us? Do we protect our children from drug dealers and pedophiles because we don’t think God can or will? Should we get flu shots? Should we stop killing bugs, fleas and mosquitoes that can spread disease? Should we not be concerned about cooking meats and eggs to correct temperatures to kill parasites and bacteria? Should we stop washing our hands and cleansing food utensils? Should we not take food supplements to protect our bodies from illness or malnutrition? Should we protect our children from dangerous animals or circumstances? The point is this: We take a variety of measures to protect ourselves from circumstances, animals and people who might harm us. We consider these prudent measures, not lapses of faith.” – Larry Fox, A Christian Perspective of Self Defense
Many thoughtful people will take a different tack on this and argue that the New Testament does indeed call for a radical pacifism. I respect that point of view; I just don’t agree with it. There are many texts which can be quoted to support the passive viewpoint. I will not attempt to debate all of those texts. That would be at least a book or two. It is my contention that the New Testament contains neither a mandate for radical pacifism nor a demand for universal believer martyrdom. The disciples were encouraged to carry self-defense weapons, and no soldier was ever condemned by Jesus for his vocation.
Now, does this mean that God’s model for the “New Jerusalem” is Tombstone? Of course not. If you read even the Old Testament prophets, it is clear that God’s vision for humanity is a time in which war, violence, pain and suffering will be no more – an earthly paradise. And I am sure that it grieves God every time someone is hurt, abused or killed. God’s plan for us is peace and joy, and the New Testament is full of instructions to Christians to work for peace, justice and reconciliation in the world. I believe that the sword discussion in Luke demonstrates that working for a more peaceful world and taking prudent measures for self-defense are not mutually exclusive efforts. They certainly represent a dynamic tension but they can coexist within the context of New Testament Christianity.