Matthew 5:38-41King James Version (KJV)
38 Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth:
39 But I say unto you, that ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.
40 And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloak also.
41 And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain.
Does the above Scripture imply that Christians should NOT resist physical attacks and surrender themselves as sitting ducks to marauders? Does being a Christian suggest a surrender of all rights accruing to the individual? Many Bible commentators see the “smite thee” in the Scripture above as an admonition to personal insult rather than an act of physical violence. I will address this interpretation in some article in future.
The more controversial question has to do with whether Christians should defend themselves with use of force (even lethal force) when in danger from crime, persecution or terrorism. Specifically, should a Christian possess (and use a gun), machete, or otherwise act to stop an attack on themselves or others? Some Christians argue that we should embrace persecution from those who are ardently opposed to the faith. While I agree that it is true that Christians are to pray for those who persecute them (Matthew 5: 44) and patiently endure persecution (1 Peter 2:19), however, not all violence against Christians can be regarded as persecution which is oppression that is directly linked to belief. Moreover, the Bible does not forbid Christians from fleeing from violent persecution (Luke 4: 29-30; John 8: 59 & 10: 39; 2 Corinthians 11: 32-33).
In a scenario where a Christian is faced with the danger that emanates from a budding crime or economic conflict between religiously polarised communities, how should he respond? I believe that self-defence is biblically permissible for Christians for the following three reasons:
- The Sanctity of Life: As Christians, we are called to value the image of God in the lives of others even as we protect the weak and vulnerable (Psalm 82: 3-4; Proverbs 31: 8-9 and 1 Timothy 5: 8). In some cases, the defence of the weak may require intervention with an attacker. The church should overtly condemn and reject blood shedding in all its ramifications, especially those of its members. After all, Jesus denounced the Pharisees who attacked Him (Matthew 23) and objected when one of the officers of the high priest struck him (John 18: 22-23). Similarly, the apostle, Paul, aggressively defended himself against his enemies, asserting his rights as a Roman citizen, and making it clear to his attackers that there could be consequences if he were unlawfully harmed (Acts 23:1-3; 25:14-27).
- Biblical Accounts of Defence: In both the Old and New Testaments, we see examples of believers taking steps to defend themselves, and even arming themselves, in the face of potential danger. In the book of Exodus 22: 2-3, we see God speak on the acceptability of defending one’s home against a thief at night, even up to the point of exonerating the homeowner who kills the thief breaking into the house. When Nehemiah was rebuilding the city of Jerusalem, the men divided the labour in such a way that some took up spears, shields, and bows while others worked. Those who carried the loads or built the wall did so with their weapon readily available (Nehemiah 4: 16-18). Furthermore, Jesus regularly used words, pictures and stories about self-defence to make a broader spiritual point (Matthew 12: 29). These biblical narratives seem to assume the right to self-defence.
- Failure of a Government to Protect its Citizens: Many Christians agree that the government has the power to use the sword to protect its citizens by Romans 13: 1-7. Most people who would hold this view would support the police and military’s right to use force (even deadly power) in the application of a passage like Romans 13. However, where a government or state consistently fails in its duties to protect its citizens from crime, terrorism or communal wars, a community or individual has no choice but seek measures to defend itself and himself respectively. Civilians are not entitled to own firearms except for gaming in Nigeria. Recent reports of conflicts indicate that assailants are armed with automatic rifles and other deadly arsenals. What steps can a Christian take to protect himself or his community vulnerable to attack without breaking the laws of the land? My suggestion is that such exposed Christians should defend themselves with whatever weapons they can lay their hands on, provided possession of same is not illegal. David killed Goliath with a sling and stone. It’s always about the presence of God in a battle than the potency of weapons employed by the enemy. Under the laws of self-defence, firearms are peak weapons in non-militarised wars, and I do not see any law court finding that any other weapon employed for self-defence is disproportionate to firearms.
A Christian who has already suffered attacks and losses, rather than getting even, needs to understand that vengeance isn’t ours, but the Lord’s (Romans 12: 19). Where criminals and culprits of the attacks or losses are identified, appropriate and prompt complaints should be made to law enforcement agencies for prosecution and punishment of such criminals. This essay is for Christians who are under the danger of an imminent attack.
I recognise that this is a sensitive issue of conscience for the church, and that grace and love must characterise decisions. I am also convinced that any such self-defence must be considered as a last resort and in response to a reasonable threat. The same principle of valuing the image of God in others that drives us to protect the weak among us should also compel us to a careful, measured and prayerful response.