The Christian and the Sword
by Paul deparrie
There is nothing new under the sun,” said God through the pen of the writer of Ecclesiastes, and it is true. More often than not, current controversies within the church merely reflect controversies of the past which had become unnecessary to study in recent decades. Such an issue is the concept of when it is lawful (in God’s sight, not man’s) for a Christian to use force -- especially deadly force.
The events that brought the issue back to the fore was the shooting deaths of two abortionists by Michael Griffin and Paul Hill in the state of Florida a few years ago.
As with any other heated debate, the responses tended to be more visceral than scriptural -- more heat than light was generated. The terms of the debate were often taken away for the core question into the uncharted territories of speculation and subjectivity.
While, even today as you read this, the mention of these two incidents may raise those similar emotions, I propose that the issue be examined closely through the lens of Scripture. To do that, we must define the terms of the debate and narrow the scope of the inquiry to s single question. Other questions should be examined in light of those conclusion or debated as separate issues.
Also, we must ask the question without reference to the volatile emotions attached to the pro-life debate and the pressure of the current social mindset which, in knee-jerk fashion, condemns all “violence.” I will attempt to first find a scriptural “template” for the use of force, then, afterwards, to see if that template fits the modern situation.
In addition, I will try to define terminology to reduce the inflammatory nature of some of the words which have been tossed around during this debate. In that vein, I hope to use non-inflammatory terms which will reflect, as much as possible, the terms used in Scripture.
Defining the boundaries
I propose the following first question:
“Is morally justifiable before God to use force, even deadly force, to defend an innocent person from an unjust aggressor?”
I have purposely left out any consideration related to the events in Florida until this basic question can be established.
The second question will be:
“If the answer to the first question is “yes,” do the events in Florida suggest that it is possible that they might fall into scriptural parameters?”
One question that this writing in not designed to answer is whether shooting abortionists is “effective” or “hurts the movement.” Such questions are entirely subjective and completely avoid the issue of “moral justification.” Another such question is whether Paul Hill of Michael Griffin were “obeying a command from God” when they shot abortionists. This is as much beyond our ken as whether or not a particular person was obeying God’s command to become a missionary.
Removing the chaff
The heated debate over the issue of the use of force, as mentioned before, immediately brought inflammatory language and false claims to the fore. Before going further with this discussion, I would like to eliminate some of those stumbling blocks.
First of all, it is a severe disability to the debate to characterize the actions of either Michael Griffin or Paul Hill as “murder” (until the term is defined), “assassination,” “vigilante,” or “vengeance.”
Some have argued that the person doing such a thing is “acting as judge, jury, and executioner” (a God-sanctioned form of vengeance when done within the lawful government), however this is merely an extension of calling it vengeance.
These skip the first question entirely. We are trying to determine if force in the “defense of others” is moral and, if it is, do the parameters of such justification possibly fit the actions of Michael Griffin or Paul Hill. This is an entirely different question than the issue of killing in retaliation (vengeance after the fact) or assassination.
What is “killing”?<BR>
Often the first response from Christians when they heard about the shootings in Florida was, “The Bible says, ‘Thou shalt not kill.’”
While the King James Version (KJV) renders the Hebrew text this way, it is somewhat less than accurate. Newer translations render it more properly as “You shall do no murder.”
The distinction is vast -- and it is reflected in the choice of Hebrew words as well as the context. The word used in Hebrew refers to a shedding of innocent blood or an unjust taking of human life. It specifically excludes the killing of animals and the killing of people in capital punishment -- a killing which is literally commanded by God in other places. (Genesis 9: 6; Numbers 35: 33)
One of the first things we discover is that not all “killing” -- even killing of people -- is that which is prohibited in the Sixth Commandment.
The distinction in different types of “killing” is part of the precept of Scripture, but the Word also teaches by example. Since our question is related to the topics of self defense and defense of others and to avoid an unnecessarily long side trail onto to other issues, we will limit ourselves to such examples. In one case, for example, God authorized a political assassination of a legitimate ruler (Judges 3), but, since assassinations are not directly under the purview of our stated question, we will not delve into it.
Defense of others
The Bible contains two very prominent examples of the use of force for the defense of others: 1) Abraham’s rescue of his nephew, Lot, from the five kings (Genesis 14), and 2) Moses slaying of the Egyptian (Exodus 2). We will not use the first, because a number of unknowns enter the equation: Abraham’s status as a “ruler,” the use of a personal army, etc. Of the two, the most direct example is that of Moses.
The text reads:
11 And it came to pass in those days, when Moses was grown, that he went out unto his brethren, and looked on their burdens: and he spied an Egyptian smiting an Hebrew, one of his brethren.
12 And he looked this way and that way, and when he saw that there was no man, he slew the Egyptian, and hid him in the sand. 13 And when he went out the second day, behold, two men of the Hebrews strove together: and he said to him that did the wrong, Wherefore smitest thou thy fellow?
14 And he said, Who made thee a prince and a judge over us? intendest thou to kill me, as thou killedst the Egyptian? And Moses feared, and said, Surely this thing is known.
15 Now when Pharaoh heard this thing, he sought to slay Moses. But Moses fled from the face of Pharaoh, and dwelt in the land of Midian: and he sat down by a well.
What seems obvious here is that Moses certainly killed this Egyptian in defense of another. The “other” was a slave (as were all the Israelites) and, therefore, subject to abuse or death at the whim of the Egyptians. It is entirely likely that the beating was not a criminal act for the Egyptian. If it had been, there would have been no need for Moses to have “looked this way and that” and later to have fled Egypt in fear.
These same two indicators also denote that Moses was no longer protected by his status as a “ruler” in Egypt of the Pharoah’s house. Further indication of Moses condition as an outsider from the royal house can be found in Stephen’s dissertation before the Sanhedrin (Acts 7: 22-25) and the Hall of Faith chapter in Hebrews (Hebrews 11: 24-25).
This was not a “man in authority.”
Nor does God anywhere condemn this act. The New Testament twice references the killing. Stephen’s account casts it in a distinctly favorable light.
Another objection which has been raised is that Moses was “running ahead of God” when he tried to deliver Israel by using force. There is no scriptural evidence for this claim. In fact, the description which Stephen gives seems to be in opposition to that. Stephen said:
25 For he supposed his brethren would have understood how that God by his hand would deliver them: but they understood not.
From this it appears that it was the Israelites who were behind God instead of Moses being ahead of God. The rest of this text makes that even more clear as it defines the Israelites as being stiff-necked in their response to both God and Moses.
It appears that, while the Egyptian government would probably have treated Moses as a murderer for his action, God did not.
The New Testament
Many Christians are Dispensationalists to one degree or another and would argue that these Old Testament scriptures are all under the Old Covenant and invalid for today. Aside from noting that our central example was favorably reviewed in the New Testament, there is an utter paucity in New Testament Scripture which would indicate that the principle of defense of others was negated with the advent of Christ.
Certainly, the prohibition on retaliation (e.g., turn the other cheek, a la Matthew 5: 39) is not a prohibition on ordinary self-defense. (One might wryly note here that it is all well and good to turn one’s own cheek, but turning someone else’s cheek is quite another matter.) The charge to Peter to put up his sword was not a condemnation of the use of swords, but a rebuke aimed at Peter’s interference with the specific mission of Jesus Christ -- His crucifixion, death, burial, and resurrection. This was not the first time that Peter’s zeal caused him to respond wrongly to God’s will. In fact, Jesus called Peter Satan on one such occasion.
The idea that it was a personal rebuke to Peter is further strengthened where Jesus instructs His disciples that He will send them as sheep among wolves (Luke 22: 35-36). Here He distinguishes between the former time that He had sent them and they had no need to provide anything at all for themselves. Here Jesus instructs them that they will have to provision themselves in all things -- and it is Jesus who emphasizes the need for a defensive weapon to the point of commanding them to sell otherwise necessary clothing in ordetr to buy one.
The later admonition to Peter that “he who lives by the sword will die by the sword” is not a general condemnation, but as specific point that Peter’s personal zeal had clouded his understanding of the will of God and justified a violent means to an ungodly end.
Mandate or option?
One side issue that we cannot fully explore here is whether, and to what extent, the defense of others is mandated or as an option.
Old Testament law mandated that one incur what could prove to be considerable trouble and expense to save and care for the livestock of others – even that of enemies.
Exodus 23: 4-5 says:
4 If thou meet thine enemy’s ox or his ass going astray, thou shalt surely bring it back to him again.
5 If thou see the ass of him that hateth thee lying under his burden, and wouldest forbear to help him, thou shalt surely help with him.
Other places command that one pull a neighbor’s animal from a ditch and even feed it until it can be returned. If God so commanded the protection of someone’s animal, how much more that we should protect their very life?
What would the parable of the Good Samaritan read like if the scenario had the Samaritan witnessing the robbers as they first beset the pilgrim on the road?
This question may largely hinge on mitigating factors: One’s abilities (or disabilities) due to age, physical stamina, or resources, for instance, but probably cannot be explored in this writing. We are told that we should not withhold a good thing “when it is in our power” to give it (Proverbs 3: 27-28). This is not an issue to be cast off lightly, as Proverbs 24: 10-12 gives the warning it is God Himself who will judge us for inaction on behalf of those innocents being taken to their deaths:
10 If thou faint in the day of adversity, thy strength is small.
11 If thou forbear to deliver them that are drawn unto death, and those that are ready to be slain;
12 If thou sayest, Behold, we knew it not; doth not he that pondereth the heart consider it? and he that keepeth thy soul, doth not he know it? and shall not he render to every man according to his works?
The history of Israel and the Church
Throughout the 4,500 year-long history of Judeao-Christian ethics and though, the use of force for self defense and defense of others. All but a few Anabaptists and other pacifistic movements have agreed on this point.
Jewish rabbis have consistently taught that on has an obligation to self-defense in order that one might live longer to God’s glory.
The early Church was not pacifist. In their ranks were Roman soldiers.
As a direct and proximate result of this ethical heritage, British common law and the laws of every state in the United States recognizes the principle of self-defense and defense of others as a justification for injuring or killing another person.
While non-violence may have worked as a tactic for Mahatma Gandhi (Gandhi was not a prinicpled pacifist) and Martin Luther King, Jr., it is not a specific biblical mandate. Besides, we are followers, not of the Buddhist Gandhi or the adulterer King, but of Christ.
The second question
What makes the situation difficult in determining whether a principle of justifiable use of force applies to the situation with Paul Hill or Michael Griffin is that we cannot, in the end, know their hearts. The next best thing is that we must believe their words.
If the statements of both of these men are to be taken at face value, both shot the abortionists because these abortionists were on their way to murder dozens of unborn babies. If this was true, using the template of the justifiable use of force, their actions were morally justified.
The fact that these acts were viewed by the State as murder does not change the moral justifiability of these any more than it did for Moses.
The fact that it may not have “worked” (i.e., no babies were saved) would not alter its justifiability either. A man who attempts to save the life of a drowning child but fails to do so is not labeled as wrong for his attempt.
If the principle of justifiable use of force is applicable to any innocent person, it must be applicable to all innocent persons -- regardless of age, stage, or condition of dependency. God does not have different standards of justice for different groups of people (Leviticus 24: 22). Those who argue that the right to be defended with the use of force is “different” for the born than for the unborn, find themselves in the uncomfortable position of making exactly the same claim as the pro-abortion crowd -- that the born have greater rights than the unborn.
If one believe that force may be justly applied to preserve the innocent from unjust attack, then inn order to be consistent with the belief that the unborn is fully vested with all rights from the moment of conception, on must conclude that such force may be justifiable before God in saving the unborn.
Will it “work?”
While this is beyond the scope of our questions, I believe I should express my opinion here. If you want to know if it “worked,” ask Jessica Gaines in 20 years whether she would have preferred to be aborted the day that John Salvi shot up the clinic where he mother had appointed her to die. Ask any children who survived because of Paul Hill or Michael Griffin if they would prefer to be dead. Individually, it may have “worked” for some. On a larger level, it has caused scores of abortionists and their cohorts to quit.
However, I don’t think, in the end, that the use of force will bring about the end of abortion. That would require a massive, revolutionary uprising. It is next to impossible to get Christians to even come to do perfectly legal pickets in defense of these innocent children. How could we expect them to take up arms?
No, the end of abortion will probably be the result of a massive judgment of God which falls first upon the Church (for their bloody hands and their apathy) and then on the rest of the nation. When that happens, I suspect many of the detractors of Paul Hill will long for the chance to take up arms instead. It will be too late.