A Biblical View of Self-Defense

If you don’t wrestle with pacifism at some point in your Christian life, you’re probably just not thinking. The martyrdom of the prophets and apostles, to say nothing of the martyr witness of countless saints, demands attention. In considering the testimony of these amazing believers past and present, the question is bound to arise: “Is it really okay to defend yourself? Is it really okay to kill rather than be killed?”

It is a good question, and it calls for a biblically grounded, carefully articulated answer. This post is not about the answer to that question.

This post is about what happens next if the answer is “Yes.”

The debate with the pacifists has utterly dominated discussions of the ethics of self-defense. From the perspective of the pacifists, this makes perfect sense. There’s no point in discussing the details of “ethical self-defense” if it turns out to be an oxymoron. However, from the opposite perspective, spending all the time arguing with pacifists makes no sense whatsoever.

Like the poor, the pacifists will always be with us. At some point we have to give up trying to convince them and turn our attention to other aspects of the topic. Granted that there’s such a thing as godly self-defense, what does it actually look like? What would it mean to prepare for godly self-defense? How do we think about self-defense in a godly way? To read more on these and other salient questions, see Buy a Sword: Toward a Theology of Civilian Self-Defense.

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10 Responses to A Biblical View of Self-Defense

  1. Me says:

    Exodus 2:11-12

    II Kings 2:23-24

    Deuteronomy 25:11-12

    Judges 15:15-16

    2 Samuel 23:8

  2. Tim Nichols says:

    That’s an interesting list of Scriptures. What are you intending to say about it?

  3. Laney says:

    I do not believe in lethal self defense. I do carry pepper spray so that I have time to flee to safety and can be certain that I did not inflict lethal harm.

  4. Tim Nichols says:

    Laney,
    Three points.

    First, Jesus told his disciples to carry swords (Luke 22:36). Of course, they didn’t have today’s toys, but there was a less-lethal weapon system available: the stick/staff. In fact, a number of people in history have chosen the staff over a bladed weapon for exactly that reason. Jesus did not insist on it, and so neither do I.

    Second, “time to retreat” isn’t always an option, especially for the people who most need protection. If you’re a middle-aged man out alone, you can stun-and-run. If you’re a young mother trying to keep track of 3 small kids and a grocery cart, it ain’t so easy. You can leave the cart, but carrying 3 kids is going to slow the retreat a bit. Often better to make your stand where you are, and it will be a lot easier to do that if you’re carrying tools capable of definitively ending the fight.

    Third, no such certainty inheres in pepper spray. The supervising FBI agent on the original studies (Thomas W.W. Ward) wound up in prison for taking bribes from the manufacturer. The Army’s Aberdeen Proving Ground study expressed serious reservations about using OC on a varied population. Phil Messina at Modern Warrior did some key experiments on the effects of pepper spray on goal-oriented assailants (as opposed to someone just standing there and getting sprayed). Turns out if the person has a goal in mind, for the most part the spray doesn’t stop them from accomplishing it — just makes it hurt more afterwards.
    On the other hand, the ACLU and other organizations have documented a number of pepper-spray-related fatalities.
    All that to say that “nonlethal weapon” is an absolute misnomer for pepper spray. It is neither reliably nonlethal — the reason the professionals use the term “less-lethal” — nor a reliable weapon. I imagine it’s better than nothing, but reactions to pepper spray vary widely across the population and circumstances. I hope you have a backup plan.

  5. Me says:

    Just saying that it would appear from the scriptures that even God sometimes enjoys a good ruck, and not always just for self defence. Selective quotation will provide ammunition for both sides of the debate.

    As an aside: I hope Laney takes notice of your comment above. Relying on solely one answer to the chaos of a self defence situation is putting all your eggs in one basket. However it would seem that the options for non/less than lethal tools are rather limited. I wonder how you guys would feel living in the UK where you are prohibited from carrying any kind of weapon, pepper spray included.

    The response should always be commensurate with the attack, i.e. hopefully, as intent as the attacker is on harming you, you should be as intent also on removing the threat but, as a wise man said: ‘To go beyond is as wrong as to fall short.’

  6. Tim Nichols says:

    I certainly never suggested that God only allows use of force in self-defense — I delimited my topic of discussion to civilian self-defense to keep it manageable. The available revelation on use of force extends far beyond that. The legal system God set up for Israel used force in a number of penal situations, and on certain prophetically revealed, extraordinary occasions, God also sanctioned wars of conquest and genocide.

    As to the value of selective quotation, the classic example in my circles is “And Judas went out and hanged himself.” “Go thou and do likewise.” “And what you do, do quickly.” Anyone can bring quotes to the table. The argument is about what the quotes mean in context, whether they are relevant to the issue at hand, and how they should be applied to the specific situation.

    re. living in the UK, I’d feel the same way that I do now when I go into a courtroom or an airport, only worse. It involves a major shift in tactics, and survivability goes way, way down. But the whole point of self-defense from a biblical angle is that if I had another choice, I wouldn’t be fighting. (“If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men.” ) So the circumstances that would trigger a fight in an airport are not materially different from those that would trigger a fight in my living room — just different weapons. Chances of success might change the “when” and the “how” of it, but not whether I intend to fight.

    Although a response “commensurate with the attack” has a certain commonsense ethical appeal, there is another, mutually exclusive commonsense ethical standard to consider: “I didn’t ask to be attacked; he brought the fight to me. As long as he continues to try to hurt me, I don’t owe him the least consideration whatsoever. Commensurate force be hanged; I’ll use anything I can lay my hands on.” You may personally find this argument distasteful, but try arguing with it on a commonsense basis. How to choose between them? You don’t; they’re both wrong.

    The solution is to refuse to autonomously construct ‘commonsense ethical positions’ apart from God’s revelation. Rather, we must rely on what God tells us, and begin there. The biblical angle of approach to this issue is in Romans 12, among other places — as much as possible, live in peace, don’t take revenge, etc. This applies before, during, and after an attack, so my way of resolving the situation should maximize the long-term opportunities for a peaceful relationship with my attacker. It may come out looking similar in specific cases, but this approach permits a great deal more flexibility than rigid adherence to some notion of commensurability, measured on a continuum of force that hypocritically ignores some types of force while making much of others.

  7. smolder says:

    Smolder says : I absolutely agree with this !

  8. Strange that anyone would read the Bible and then associate Christianity with pacifism. Supposed Christian pacifists like Tolstoy or Thoreau did not believe in Christianity as commonly understood. They were definitely anti-church, and more akin to transcendentalists and universalists who liked some concepts in the Bible.

    I can’t really conceive of a Christianity that has any authenticity not being violent and unruly. Christians, after all, believe that they are innately evil and vile beasts: and when you believe something long enough, you make it true.

  9. Tim Nichols says:

    I’ve heard of certain perversions of Christianity that teach that, yes. But what Christianity actually says is this: human beings are made in God’s image — to be His agents and representations in the world. In order to do that properly, we are granted great power. In sinning, we misappropriate that power, warping both the creation and our own hearts, leading into a downward spiral of further sin and death. In Christ, however, humanity is being healed now, and will be resurrected and remade to be all that it was meant to be — the very image of God Himself in creation.

    And as you say, when you believe something long enough…

  10. MT says:

    You might find this related article (see link) of interest. It has about 8 pages of discussion on the Bible and self-defense.

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