Evertbody Wants to Kill Somebody: Part 4 War and Self Defense

This is the link to the entire document, Eberybody Wants to Kill Somebody: An Epistle for Killers Everybody wants to Kill (1)

War: Stuff Happens!

In a sense war is the continual state of unregenerate humanity. Scripture uses the language of war to describe our fallen relationship with God. We are at enmity with God. We are in rebellion against our Creator. We are in a constant state of war.

In each of the preceding sections we have used reason and faithfulness as a guide to prepare the Christian in advance of encountering a life and death decision. In the case of war, reason falls apart. War is madness. Reasonable people do not start wars. If we could assemble a group of rational world leaders to establish the criteria by which a war could commence and the proper rules under which it may be fought, they would decide not to have a war.

The American Civil War cost over 620 billion dollars in today’s currency and took more than 750,000 lives in four years. All of this to solve a problem that both sides agreed had to be solved.  One would think that rational people given $620,000,000,000 and four years’ time could find a way to settle a problem that did not involve burning down our cities and killing close to a million people.

At least in modern times, wars are not started by rational people. They just happen. On the morning of September 11, 2001 Americans awoke to discover they were at war. Nobody ever debated the idea of going to war. There is no identifiable moment at which the decision was made to go to war, but buildings were falling, people were dying, and smoke filled the skies. The United States was at war and likely had been for some time before anyone noticed. Wars happen.

I am loathed to use the phrase “just war’ (see again footnote 7) but I must yield that there is the occasional necessary war. History has confirmed what Scripture has always taught: There are people out there who want to turn what’s left of this garden into a desert, and really bad  people do not go away all by themselves. Someone must go stop them. The peace of which the angels sing over Bethlehem is not a general notice to retire the police force, open all the prisons, and send the generals home.

We will not debate whether war can be avoidable or just or necessary. Theologians can argue these points behind ivy covered walls, but theologians don’t start wars and the people who do are not listening. We begin and end this section with the reality that war is. It is the continual state of unregenerate humanity. Scripture suggests that when Christ returns, he will find us at war.

Our question is not “Should we have a war?” but “How does the Christian respond amongst a people at war?” War is begotten of sin and begets sin. It is the Devil’s playground. The only moral response to any war is to bring it to an end as quickly as possible and to be prepared to do the same with the next war.

It is precisely at this point, determining how to bring the war to an end, that the madness of war causes our reason to fall apart. Our knowledge is limited in the best of times. We are not perfect in knowledge therefore we make mistakes. We believe people to be better than they are or worse than they are because our knowledge is imperfect. In times of war, the first ground the warring parties seize is the ground of information. Each side uses censorship and propaganda to attract loyalists to their cause. Our already limited knowledge is now further diminished. There is much we cannot know, and some of what we know is not true.

Because our knowledge is faulty, the ideal of bringing war to a speedy end will take different forms with different people. Christians will agree on the goal, but we will not agree on the best means of accomplishing the goal. Therefore, we ought to be supportive of each other in our individual efforts while remaining open to the persuasion of the other that their means has more merit.

Some will be convinced that the best way to bring the war to an end is by taking up arms and joining those already in the field (the volunteers of 9/11). Others will be sure that the best way to end the war is by refusing to take up arms at all (the draft resistors of Vietnam). Still others will be persuaded that the best way to end the war is by taking up arms against one’s own country (the Resistance of 1940’s Europe). Each of these choices is a moral choice if it is a sincere attempt to bring the madness to an end, motivated by our love of God and neighbor more than love of country, and if the path is chosen after our best efforts to discern truth from what little knowledge is available to us. A choice must be made. Too often it is the indecisive, the uncertain, the unwilling to act that cause war to be prolonged.

While no state can survive if it tolerates much of the conscientious objector or anything of the Resistance, it is the responsibility of the church to offer support and affirmation for each of the three moral choices. If the bishops have some claim to knowledge amidst this madness that is superior to that of the rest of humanity, then the church may assert that only one of these options is the moral one. Lacking that, the role of the church for a people at war is at best that of chaplain to all of those who have chosen a path. Many Christian soldiers are about to learn that any taking of human life does something to our soul. Even the conscientious objector will discover that objecting has consequences for self and for others that will hurt their conscience. Before it is over, everyone will need a sanctuary where we can learn to love again and be loved gain.


Killing in Self-defense: It’s a given—except when it isn’t

My wife and I raised eight girls through their teenage years. I impressed upon more than one young man that Christianity is not an altogether non-violent religion. There are occasions where we are  permitted—even expected—to use reasonable and proportionate force when necessary to protect ourselves, our loved ones, and anyone else in our vicinity who is threatened by a strong and unjust power.

Self-preservation is an instinct in the animal kingdom, and it is an instinct common to the human. Taking the life of one who is attempting to take my life seems so reasonable that we ought to be able to turn to Scripture and find numerous passages that clearly affirm this natural right. Except that we can’t. When I first searched the Scriptures looking for affirmation of this principle which I always assumed was there I was surprised to find that it isn’t. At least, not in a form as clear and unambiguous as we like.

There is little help in turning to contemporary authors on this subject. They seem to have the same difficulty I do in finding relevant passages. The overwhelming majority of what passes as scholarly work among protestants in this area (whether the pacifist, the just war theorist, or the outright militant) constitutes some of the best examples of confirmation bias in academia. The arguments are frequently drawn from extrabiblical and even non-Christian sources. Where Scripture is cited, it can only be deemed relevant after being disassembled, redefined, and reordered, so that it fashions a new revelation of God. Similarly, they tend to argue from silence. Finding a silence in Scripture, they then fill it with many words of their own.

I would refer the reader to relevant sections of the medieval Summa Theologica or the more recent encyclical of John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae. It is a worthwhile undertaking for the younger person who may be able to fully appreciate these works by the time they retire. That is exactly the kind of work I am trying to avoid.

With a lot of help and a lot of study I have been able to locate only two passages of Scripture  that relate directly to the taking of  human life as an act of self-defense. Exodus 22 addresses the issue of a person killing an intruder who has broken into their home after dark. The community is not to impose any penalty on the homeowner. The same is not the case if the break-in occurs in daylight. Then, in Luke 22 Jesus, just before he is betrayed, reminds the disciples how before he sent them out without purse or bag. Now, he says to them, take purse and bag, and get a sword even if you must sell your cloak to buy one. The sword referred to is a self-defense weapon. Those who insist otherwise are not being deceitful (because no one would believe that foolishness unless they wanted to, and you cannot accuse someone of deceiving  person who wants to be deceived) they are just being silly.

We have one instance in the Hebrew Scripture where the community is told not to punish a person for taking a life in a specific circumstance of self-defense. We have Jesus instructing his disciples to arm themselves with defensive weapons. There is no record that they ever used them. That is about all the clarity we will get from Scripture. There are several guiding principles drawn from other passages on other subjects that can help us as we use Scripture to interpret Scripture. One must place  a lot of trust in any commentator today that does that because the protestant church in North America has tolerated far too much abuse and malpractice in that area  from our pulpits and seminaries.

The conclusion I have reached, and which I offer for your consideration, is drawn from these two passages only and such insight as I have gained from sources such as the Summa Theologica and Evangelium Vitae.

God chose not to provide us with either explicit consent or unambiguous prohibition for taking another’s life in self-defense. I believe that is a good thing for us. God is serious about, “Thou shalt not kill.” The taking of any human life is always a grave matter. People are always looking for loopholes because everyone wants the right to kill somebody. Look at how far we have come from , “Thou shalt not kill” through nuanced definitions of terms. We say, “But that is only talking about murder,” then we give softer names to our murders, so they do not apply as murder: Euthanasia, dilation and extraction, just war. How much faster and further might we have fallen if we were given a blank check for self-defense. How many more murders would we nuance into that category? We kill 600,000 people a year under the nuanced definition of life-and-health-of-the-mother. If God has consented to killing in self-defense then it is in a way that he wants us to think through carefully in advance of such situations.

In the case of the Old Testament home invader cited above if the intruder killed the homeowner then the intruder could not claim fear for life and health as a self-defense argument. The intruder is the one who acted in disregard for the sanctity of life and created the situation where life was in jeopardy. There would have been no danger if the aggressor had behaved himself. One cannot, through design or recklessness, create a situation where life is in peril and then kill a person to avoid the danger. We are not free to commit a new sin to avoid the consequences of an earlier one.

Sometimes a self-defense killing occurs where neither party is to blame. Suppose a police officer encounters a young man with a gun. This young man is of diminished mental capacity and incapable of understanding future consequences or the reality of death. He sees movie stars shot and killed in film and then reappear in another movie. He has found a prop to act in  movie. Let us allow that the officer is aware of this person’s diminished capacity. If, after the officer has made his best attempt to de-escalate  the situation, the young man raises and points the gun, the officer may protect his own life. To describe the moral implications for the young man’s action we would say that he died accidentally, because he had no intent to create a danger and was not even aware that he had done so. To describe the moral implications of the officer’s action we would say that he killed in self-defense. That is one of the legitimate responses to which God has consented, yet it is still a tragedy.

I promised to speak to the life-of-the-mother exception to abortion in this section. The illustration above where a person of diminished capacity unintentionally endangers the life of another person closely parallels that scenario, but with one caveat. If the parents acted in a way that would invite God to deliver a new soul to the world with full knowledge that this would put the mother’s life at risk, then they cannot claim self-defense as an option. One cannot, willfully or recklessly, create a situation that puts life in jeopardy and then kill the innocent party to avoid the danger.

The texts and examples cited here are enough to affirm that God has consented to self-defense killing. God’s consent, however, is not in the form of an explicit command. As the event presents itself, the Christian may choose from self-defense, a heroic death, or a martyr’s death. Two are virtues: One is an act for which the community should not punish the person.

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