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 Jews 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?
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 violence 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.