Christians and Violence Revisited, Part 2: Shoot the Thug?

Preston Sprinkle —  July 24, 2013 — 8 Comments
This entry is part 2 of 3 in the seriesChristians and Violence Revisited

Whenever Christians discuss the issue of violence, it’s only a matter or seconds before the question comes up: What about the guy breaking into your house trying to kill your family?

In a blog a year ago, I said that I’d “shoot the thug.” Even though I don’t believe that Christians should kill, I argued that there might be cases where an ethical dilemma forces Christians to choose between the lesser of two evils. (More accurately, I argued for a position called “Graded Absolutism,” where one chooses not the lesser of two evils but the higher moral law.)

For example, lying is wrong but there may be a case where you might lie in order to save a life (e.g., Corrie ten Boom lying to save gun in pocketJews during the Holocaust). In the case of violence, even though killing is wrong, perhaps there are cases where killing in order to save the life of an innocent person is the lesser of two evils, or the higher moral law.
This seems to make sense. It certainly resonates with my intuition. The only problem is that the gospel often counters our intuition and challenges our sense of justice. Our intuitive ways of dealing with evil often fail to magnify the counterintuitive way of the cross. After all, when Jesus conquered evil on the cross, He didn’t use violence—He absorbed it.

Back to the attacker at the door scenario. Biblically, the moral conflict could be framed as: Loving your neighbor (the innocent party) versus loving your enemy (the guy with the Glock). If you shoot the thug—the enemy—then you believe that loving your neighbor is the higher moral law (or the lesser of two evils).

Again, this is the position I took in my previous blogs and in several previous drafts of Fight. It seemed to make sense. However, I just couldn’t get around that nagging, sometimes annoying, exegetical question: Does Jesus say that loving your neighbor trumps loving your enemy?

No.

Jesus never does.

In fact, there’s little (some would say no) evidence from the New Testament to make a case that Christians should kill enemies to save innocent lives.

Even if moral conflicts are real (which is debated), it’s not altogether clear that loving your neighbor trumps loving your enemy. To shoot the intruder, you would have to argue that neighborly love is higher than enemy-love, something that is hard to justify biblically.

In fact, Jesus redefines enemies as neighbors in Matthew 5:43-44. Note the parallelism between “love your neighbor and hate your enemy” and Jesus’s improvement: “love your enemy and pray for those persecuting you.” Jesus just transformed our enemies into our neighbors, which pulls the rug out from under the belief that loving our neighbor trumps loving our enemy (props to Andrew Rillera for pointing this out to me). Jesus illustrates this in the Parable of the Good Samaritan, where an enemy (the Samaritan) became a neighbor (Luke 10:29–37).

So, killing your enemy to save the life of your neighbor has a problem: your enemy is your neighbor. Plus, enemy-love is the hallmark of Christianity, that which sets us apart from everyone else and imitates the gracious action of the Father (Matt. 5:44-47).

We’re also left with the nagging truth that Jesus never endorses take up your crossviolence as a means of loving your neighbor or protecting the innocent. Since there’s no proof that He did—and there were plenty of opportunities for Him to do so—there’s no proof that He would. Killing the attacker as the lesser of two evils seems logical, but if you seriously consider the counterintuitive ethic of Jesus, killing to save innocent lives lacks clear New Testament support.

Now, let’s say you did kill your enemy to save innocent lives. It was in the heat of the moment. You acted on impulse and passion. You were driven by love for the innocent. What now?

You should still explore how you can redeem the enemy-love command in this unfortunate situation. This may mean publicly mourning his death, paying for the attacker’s funeral, or giving his family a generous financial gift. Perhaps you could set up a college fund for his kids, who are now without a father, even if it means that you have to get an extra job to do so. None of this will bring him back to life, but we must be salt and light so that the onlooking world sees that there’s something different about us.

Killing enemies is expected. Loving them isn’t. The church that worships an enemy-loving Lord should also love its enemies because we were once God’s enemies, and He didn’t shoot us—even though we busted into His house and tortured and killed His one and only Son.

Whichever view you take on this difficult issue, you need to make sure you’re not just thinking logically but also theologically and biblically about it.

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Series Navigation<< Christians and Violence Revisited, Part 1Christians and Violence Revisited, Part 3: Should Governments Have Militaries? >>
Preston Sprinkle

Preston Sprinkle

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I'm married to a beautiful wife and we have four kids (3 girls and a boy). I've been teaching college level Bible and Theology classes for a few years now (since 2007), and enjoy hanging out with my family, running, surfing, and life in SoCal. Before I became a teacher, I was in school. Lots and lots of school. I did a B.A. and M.Div here in SoCal, and then did a Ph.D. in Scotland in NT studies. Before coming to EBC, I taught at Nottingham University for a semester, and Cedarville University for a couple of years. Along with surfing, I also love to research and write, and I've written a few things on Paul, Early Judaism, and Hell.
  • Sam Choi

    Could the argument be made that non lethal protection could be the most loving thing you could do for the enemy? You are saving them from great evil. And perhaps if you are able to disarm them, you can show love to them by giving them something and blessing them (Matt. 5)?

    But what if this person is from the government and they have been sent to attack us? If Romans 13 is in play, would that automatically default for us to submit to their attack?

  • Yes, but the big problem is with the rest of Scripture and the book of Revelation. This is where people get the “enemy-killing” Jesus from. So we have to have an answer to those violent texts.

    • Preston

      Thanks for dropping in, Jeremy! And you raise a very good question, which is why I have a whole chapter on Revelation. Yes, people assume that Jesus runs around slaughtering his enemies in the Apocalypse, but this reading is weak when the book is actually studied. I just wrote a couple blogs about this over at Scot McKnight’s “Jesus Creed” blog. In any case, no where are Christians allowed, encouraged, or sanctioned in using violence in Revelation and they are everywhere encouraged to embrace suffering that the empire brings. Revelation presents the strongest case for Christian nonviolence.

      As for Jesus slaughtering his enemies (e.g. Rev 14, 19), “vengeance is mine saith the Lord.” We don’t avenge our enemies because God will.

  • Andy Snider

    Hi Preston – thanks for this series, I’m really looking forward to the book. You’ve already challenged me deeply on this topic. So, until I get a chance to read the book, let’s think:

    Biblically speaking, do I as parent have a responsibility to protect my child? Do I as unrelated bystander have a responsibility to intervene for the weaker person who is being mugged in an alley as I walk by? In short, how does God’s love for justice relate to his command to love my enemy in the situation where violent injustice threatens my daughter? Remember, the parable of the Good Samaritan portrays a person helping an enemy who is in need, not one who is brandishing a sword. Does that factor in somehow?

    Also, here you seem to portray the self-defense shooting as an absolute choice of 1) kill, or 2) do nothing. What about nonlethal resistance? I’ve got a can of bear spray here for hiking in the mountains — that stuff would stop any attacker without actually harming him.

    And finally, while your point about Jesus never endorsing violence gives me great pause (it really does!), I also can’t imagine him saying that loving my enemy means stepping aside so that he can rape my daughter.

    Sorry for the long comment, but take it as a compliment: I’m really thinking about this.

    • Preston

      Love the long comment, Andy! For what it’s worth, I address all of these in the book, so let me be brief.

      Non-lethal resistance? Absolutely! Defend your family aggressively, even physically, but this does not mean you have to do it violently or lethally (not all physical resistance is violent). Defend your family, but do so with the MEANS that are deemed most Christian.

      Do we stand for justice and defend the innocent? Yes. But again, the MEANS BY WHICH we pursue justice and defend the innocent must come from the New Testament and I’ve yet to see a convincing argument from the NT where such MEANS involves violence.

      (Sorry. The ALL CAPS makes me sound like I’m yelling. I’m not. I just can’t write in italics in this comment. 🙂

      Does this answer your questions? Love to dialogue further, my good friend. You ask great (or GREAT) questions 🙂

      • Andy Snider

        Thanks for your responses, they are helpful. I’ll wait for the book, and then we’ll have to get together and talk. Although, it’s been so long, we may not get around to chatting about the book! Thanks for your excellent work on this important subject, my friend. Blessings…

      • Nathan H

        So why is it that our means by which we defend the innocent *must* come from the NT? If there were sufficient evidence for it in the OT, then wouldn’t the lack of examples in the NT that overturn that be evidence that it is not necessarily wrong? I’m trying to think of a single parable where Jesus talks about how to handle a violent attacker, and I can’t come up with any. Now, I’m not saying that the OT necessarily advocates the use of violence to protect the innocent, because I’d have to study it more to say that. However, that certainly would seem characteristic to my limited understanding of it.

        Another thought on the new testament examples. There are a couple times when Jesus is able to protect the innocent with his words, and diffuse situations. That’s great, he’s God and knows exactly what to say… But if someone just kicked my door in and is charging my family with a knife or gun, there is not exactly time to try and figure out a clever way of speaking to protect them. I would want to be able to shoot them immediately. If I could disable them and still protect my family, I think that would be better, and I agree that being able to use nonviolence when possible is the better option, but I don’t know about taking it to the extreme of dropping the Biblical mandate to take care of my family in order to model a nonviolent Jesus to them (a Jesus that I’m still not convinced is accurate, given things like the temple cleansing, but I suppose that’s why I should work through your book.)

        Lastly (for now), where in scripture does it model that taking up your cross involves sacrificing the lives of your family, or people that you have a responsibility to protect? In your previous comment, that was the argument for not killing the attacker, that you should be modeling Christ by taking up your cross… I can’t reconcile that with the actual use of the term as self sacrifice.

        I’m not trying to say that you are wrong in this, but I am genuinely trying to work through this as faithfully to scripture as I can. Thanks Preston.

    • Preston

      Oh ya, one more thought. You said: “Biblically speaking, do I as parent have a responsibility to protect my child?”

      Yes. But even more: As a Christian father, you have a responsibility to model the way of Christ, the way of the cross, for your children. This, I believe, is the highest priority and in as much as defending them models the way of Christ, then defend, defend, DEFEND! But if your defense does not model Jesus to your children, then I would question whether such defense is sanctioned by Christ.