Jesus, Guns, and Self-Defense: What Does the Bible Say?
The following article was written in 2016. The debate continues on how houses of worship should defend themselves. Does the Bible offer any help?
Good Christian? Bad Christian? It all depends on who’s doing the evaluating. The reaction to Jerry Falwell Jr.’s comments on encouraging students at Liberty University to be armed in case there is an ISIS attack at the school has led to a great deal of theological and political angst.
Brian D. McLaren, described as “one of the most influential Christian leaders in America and . . . recognized by Time Magazine as one of the 25 Most Influential Evangelicals in America in 2005” has written a long article condemning Falwell’s comments.
There have been others. Peter Enns has written a muddled article for the Boston Globe. I’m not sure if Enns is supporting the Bible or condemning it.
Jonathan Merritt, writing for The Atlantic, has also condemned Falwell’s comments. He at least uses the Bible in an attempt to make his case but does so selectively.
McLaren’s long article about Falwell’s gun-arming message didn’t spend much time actually quoting the Bible and arguing for his opinion based on engagement with specific passages:
“For us, authentic Christianity is the loving, peaceful, just and generous way of life embodied in Jesus. It is characterized more by self-giving than self-defense, by pre-emptive peacemaking rather than pre-emptive violence.”
“Authentic Christianity” includes the whole Bible. Being loving, peaceful, just and generous, and self-giving do not nullify our responsibility to be prepared with a good “self-defense” strategy if we are ever confronted with a San Bernardino type situation. Being armed and willing to defend ourselves, our family, and our neighbors is not being unchristian or even unloving. Self-defense can go a long way to protect the innocent from people who are intent on murder for whatever reason.
How “self-giving” should Christians in Paris or San Bernardino have been when confronted with the worst kind of human evil? Would it have been more “self-giving” by dying at the hands of murderers or would it have been more loving to stop those who were pumping bullets into people?
McLaren’s article is devoid of any actual biblical argument. Jesus tells us “Blessed are the peacemakers” (Matt. 5:9), but He doesn’t tell us what our response should be when someone, despite our best efforts to be peaceful, still wants to steal, rape, and murder. We need to look at other parts of the Bible for help since the whole Bible is God’s word and not just the words in red.
John Piper’s anti-Falwell’s comments made it all the way to the editorial pages of the Washington Post. The same is true of evangelical preacher Robert Schenck. All of a sudden the Post is interested in what the Bible says when evangelicals come out against arming for self-defense but have no use for the Bible on the subjects of abortion and same-sex sexuality.
There’s Jesus’ injunction to “turn the other cheek” (Matt. 5:38-39). Jesus does not say to keep turning your cheek. His message is about not escalating the situation. There’s quite a difference between slapping someone across the face and someone wanting to take a baseball bat to your head or the head of your wife and/or children. Self-defense is a biblical option in such cases. Consider this passage from biblical case law:
“If the thief is caught while breaking in and is struck so that he dies, there will be no bloodguiltiness on his account. But if the sun has risen on him, there will be bloodguiltiness on his account. He shall surely make restitution; if he owns nothing, then he shall be sold for his theft” (Ex. 22:2-3).
The homeowner can assume that someone breaking into his house at night has nothing but bad intentions. He may be armed or not. The homeowner does not have to ask any questions to find out. The homeowner can respond by striking the intruder “so that he dies.” If this happens, even if the attempt was only theft (unknown to the homeowner), the homeowner is cleared of all guilt in the thief’s death.
Daytime is a different story because the victim can make a better assessment of intent. If two people enter a building with AR15s and other weapons, killing these people before they kill you and others is the right thing to do. Being loving, peaceful, just and generous, and self-giving do not apply. To put it simply, there’s no time.
James B. Jordan has some helpful comments on the issue of self-defense:
“Under pagan influence, Western civilization has sometimes adopted a notion of ‘fair fighting.’ There is no such thing as a fair fight. The notion of a fair fight is Satanic and barbarous. If a child or a man finds himself in a situation where an appeal to arbitration is not possible, he should fight with all he has. If the neighborhood bully catches your child on the way home from school, and your child cannot escape by fleeing, your child should poke a hole in him with a sharp pencil, or kick him in the groin. If the bully’s parents will not restrain him, call the police.
“If you or your child has been trained in self-defense, of course, you may be able to dispatch your assailant with a minimum of force. Always realize, though, that the man who attacks you, or your wife, has forfeited all his rights to ‘fair’ treatment. Women should be prepared to gouge out the eyes of any man who attacks them.” (James B. Jordan, The Law and the Covenant: An Exposition of Exodus 21-23 (Tyler, Texas: Institute for Christian Economics, 1984), 111-112.))
In the 1959 film Ben Hur, there is a discussion between Balthasar and Judah Ben Hur about seeking revenge, which is another subject altogether and not a self-defense issue (Rom. 12:18-21):
Judah: I must deal with Messala in my own way.
Balthasar: And your way is to kill him. I see this terrible thing in your eyes, Judah Ben-Hur. But no matter what this man has done to you, you have no right to take his life. He will be punished inevitably.
Overhearing their conversation, Sheik Ilderim says, “Balthasar is a good man. But until all men are like him, we must keep our swords bright!” If all those in the world had the heart of Balthasar, then there would be no need to discuss what the right response is regarding self-defense. That’s why Paul writes, “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone” (Rom. 12:18)
The story of David and Goliath is helpful since “five smooth stones” and a “sling” are the closest equivalent to a handgun we can find in the Bible. David seems to have been armed with his sling at all times. There was no way he could run home to get his sling when a lion or a bear was about to attack his flock (1 Sam. 17:31-37, 41-54).
It’s possible that Jesus had the Old Testament case law in mind when offered this injunction to His disciples:
“But be sure of this, if the head of the house had known at what time of the night the thief was coming, he would have been on the alert and would not have allowed his house to be broken into” (Matt 24:43).
But of course you rarely know when someone is going to break into your house, therefore, you must be on guard all the time. The same is true in situations like Paris and San Bernardino.
But being on guard are not enough if you are unarmed and have to face an armed intruder.
In another passage, Jesus is teaching by analogy:
“When a strong man, fully armed, guards his own homestead, his possessions are undisturbed. But when someone stronger than he attacks him and overpowers him, he takes away from him all his armor on which he had relied and distributes his plunder” (Luke 11:21).
A fully armed strong man is a deterrent to a thief. It’s the fact that the strong man is armed that protects the potential thief from being harmed. Another strong man will think twice about ever trying to rob or harm someone who is armed.
The two San Bernardino Muslims who murdered 14 and injured 17 never would have gone to the community center if they had known the people had followed something like what Jerry Falwell Jr. was calling on the student body at Liberty University to do.
Here’s what Falwell’s critics miss: Armed people save lives by making evil people think twice about attacking a person or place where there might be some armed push back. One could say that it’s loving to be armed since it might stop someone who has evil intent from not following through with an evil act.
The most famous New Testament passage is a command of Jesus for His disciples to sell their garments and buy a sword (Luke 22:36-38). Personally, I do not believe this is a good proof text for being armed, but it does show that being armed was a norm for that time, and Jesus does not object.
Peter impetuously uses his sword against a servant of the high priest (John 18:10; Matt. 26:51; Luke 22:50) who had come out with a crowd armed with clubs and swords (Luke 22:52). In biblical terms, his actions were impermissible and under biblical law would have required some form of restitution of which Jesus immediately made (Ex. 21:22-25). Under normal circumstances, swords were permissible for self-defense, otherwise, why did the “chief priests and officers of the temple and elders” have them? There is, however, something else going on here of biblical theological importance that has little to do with self-defense.
However the sword passage is interpreted, at no time did Jesus condemn anyone for having a sword. The disciples lived in dangerous times (Luke 10:29-37). Furthermore, the Romans didn’t seem to have a problem with their subjects (the Jews) owning swords.