Nonviolence and the Christian: Self-Defense

While ideas can be clean, life is messy. We have begun wrestling with what the Bible says about violence. I have made the case that God calls us to nonviolence. While we can all agree on that admonition to nonviolence in most circumstances, what do we do in the midst of all sorts of situations that it appears that violence is necessary?

Arguing along with Preston Sprinkle and his book, Fight, I believe that while there are circumstances that physical restraint is appropriate, even physical restraint that might injure someone, we are never given biblical permission to use violent force that ends in death.

That is a position I come to tentatively and is an issue of conscience, not law. It is, in fact, a topic that Pastor Greg and I have respectful disagreement on.

I recognize from the outset that the positions I will be setting forth here are not only unpopular positions, they are minority positions. I respect those who come to different conclusions. I only recently changed my mind on what I believe is biblical. I hope you read charitably and with an understanding that I have no desire to stoke the flames of discord here, but rather to earnestly seek what God calls us to. If you haven’t read my first two posts that builds the case for nonviolence from the Old Testament and Jesus’ life, I would encourage you to do so.

So, let’s deal with the more difficult situations: self-defense or defense of someone else, or the use of violence while serving in the military. We will deal with the first question in this post and the question of the use of violence in the context of military service next week.

Let me begin with the fact that I believe that it is acceptable to use non-lethal force to neutralize aggression. So, I am not encouraging that a Christian be completely passive, but rather that there are restraints on what we can do.

An armed man enters your home. You wake up and hear footsteps in the living room. What is appropriate action? Everyone can agree the best first step is to call 911. But what if the situation escalates before the police arrive? Let’s raise it to the highest stakes: the gunman enters your room and, at gunpoint, threatens violence against your family.

There are two questions to ask: first, what is the ethical response for a Christian? And, second, what response will prove most successful? It is the first question we should be concerned about, but the second question will certainly weigh just what the cost of an ethical response will be.

Until recently, my belief was that when our life or another’s life is threatened, violence is permitted.

However, is there anything in the New Testament that would allow us to take the life of an attacker, even in self-defense? I don’t believe that there is any such passage. In our review of the pertinent Old Testament and New Testament texts, I don’t see any provision for taking the life of another human being if it is done in self-defense or even defense of another person. In fact, when Jesus deals directly with someone assaulting you in the Sermon on the Mount, he advocates allowing the perpetrator to inflict more violence on you (striking your other cheek, taking your cloak in addition to your tunic). To put it bluntly, while we have a right as citizens of America to defend our property and to end another’s life in self-defense, I don’t believe such a right extends to Christians.

The ethical response is what out to control our consciences on the matter of violence, and so, to me, the argument ends here.

That said, since everyone’s mind goes to the practical consequences of nonviolent action, I want to engage that conversation as well.

What is the most effective response to protect another in the midst of a violent attack?

Returning to the situation, let’s consider our options: we have the ability to resist verbally (talk or negotiate with the attacker), resist physically (hitting, tackling, or restraining the attacker), resist spiritually (praying that God would intervene or engaging the attacker on a spiritual level), or resist with violent force (a gun or knife used with the intent of taking the life of the attacker[i]). So, what shall we do? Which means are the most effective form of resistance?

If you believe your most effective form of resistance is with a gun, it should be in a safe (rates of violence increase proportionally for guns that are not locked and for guns that are not locked and are loaded[ii]), then you have to hope that the intruder has come into your home in such a way that you can obtain the firearm and load the firearm before the intruder attacks.

Once you confront the intruder, you now have to be prepared to take the life of the intruder if it appears that he is going to attack. As any firearms trainer teaches, every time you pull the trigger at another human being, it should be done with the intention to kill. Are you willing to take the life of the intruder? Did the presence of your own firearm escalate the situation? Did you really protect a member of your family from violence or would the attacker have changed his mind?

On the other hand, is it not possible that the other means at your disposal – verbal, spiritual, or physical resistance – would have been successful? Are you certain it would have been less effective than the use of the weapon? At the very least there isn’t evidence that is the case. And there does appear to be evidence that the presence of firearms increases rates of homicide and suicide in a home.[iii] With no real evidence that firearms are more effective, is that a risk you are willing to add to your home?

At the end of the day, I don’t believe the question of whether or not we should respond to violence with life-ending violence should be determined by the effectiveness of the response, but rather by the question of ethics. Even if it were clear that the use of firearms was an effective deterrent, I presently could not use them because of my conviction about the Bible’s teaching. My conscience would not allow me to resort to life-ending violence even in the face of a threat on my life or another.

Next week we will conclude this series on violence by tackling perhaps the thorniest issue of all: whether a Christian can serve in the military.


Photo by xandtor on Unsplash

[i] Some might push back on framing the use of a weapon as being necessarily connected with ending the life of the attacker, but any gun expert teaches his or her student that shooting to kill is the only appropriate way to use a gun. Likewise, even if a weapon is used with the express intent of killing, it undoubtedly raises the stakes of the conflict. A swipe with my right hand to the jaw of an attacker has the potential of a certain level of injury. That same swipe, with knife in hand, has a very different level of stakes.


[iii]I recognize that these studies are contentious and my point here isn’t to argue that the evidence is incontrovertible or even clear, but rather that the murkiness of the evidence itself should at least cause one to pause when considering the use of firearms.

For more on the Nonviolence and the Christian series, see:

Part 1: Nonviolence and the Christian: the Old Testament

Part 2: Nonviolence and the Christian: Jesus’ Ministry

Part 3: Nonviolence and the Christian: Self-Defense

Part 4: Nonviolence and the Christian: But What About the Swords?

Part 5: Nonviolence and the Christian: the Military