This post is part of a series.
If rhetoric is protected speech, and incitement is not, is violence or use of mortal force ever ethically justified? The question of pacifism is an important subject, from both the ethical and Christian theology points of view.
From a Biblical perspective, there are at least three topics to explore – personal pacifism, political pacifism, and governmental use of force.
1. Personal Pacifism
There is no doubt that Jesus largely eschewed violence, both on a personal and political level. His well-known sayings in loving your enemies and obeying and serving those who abuse you are some of the most challenging implementations of Godly love ever written. For example:
God blesses those who work for peace, for they will be called the children of God. (Matthew 5:9)
â€œYou have heard the law that says the punishment must match the injury: â€˜An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say, do not resist an evil person! If someone slaps you on the right cheek, offer the other cheek also. If you are sued in court and your shirt is taken from you, give your coat, too. If a soldier demands that you carry his gear for a mile, carry it two miles. Give to those who ask, and don’t turn away from those who want to borrow. (Matthew 5:38-42)
â€œYou have heard the law that says, â€˜Love your neighbor’ and hate your enemy. But I say, love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you! In that way, you will be acting as true children of your Father in heaven. For he gives his sunlight to both the evil and the good, and he sends rain on the just and the unjust alike. If you love only those who love you, what reward is there for that? Even corrupt tax collectors do that much. If you are kind only to your friends, how are you different from anyone else? Even pagans do that. But you are to be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect. (Matthew 5:43-48)
a. Is “Turn the other cheek” the whole picture?
However, rather than assuming these are global rules for all types of interactions, we need to take these in the context of the entire New Testament, and with reference to the Old Testament as well. While Jesus is re-interpreting or changing the praxis of Old Testament principle, he is not abrogating it (“I did not come to abolish the law” Matthew 5:17).
Balancing principles – protecting the weak, refusing to enable evil
As I discussed at length in the series The Limits of Christian Non-violence, the passages above can not be automatically applied to situations where mortal danger is involved (maiming or killing), nor where continued submission to others (like an abusive spouse) merely enables their continued abuse.
The three possible balancing biblical principles and their employment in resisting evil with force include:
- Balancing Love with Truth: Via peaceful and communicative resistance, rebuke and reproof, we must deliver prophetic or corrective truth to offenders.
- Stewardship: Responsibility for what we are given can defense of our own person and resources, such as in the stories of the rebuilding of Jerusalem under Nehemiah.
- Protection: The use of force, even lethal force, in protecting the lives of the innocent, as well as in punishing the guilty 1
These principles indicate other more complex responses to evil than “let yourself or others be slaughtered.”
b. What do to in an active shooter situation
Recent events of domestic terror have made is necessary to train employees, teachers, and students how to respond to an active shooter situation. Surprisingly, the approach which is optimized for personal safety easily mirrors what could be called a Christian ethical approach to mortal threat.
However, this five step process is a bit complex, and some school districts have ceased the training, and replaced it with a simple three step recommendation:4
- Escape – get out, preferably through side exits away from the shooter
- Hide – making yourself less available during the typical 2 to 10 minute active shooter scenario can save your life.
- Confront – if you must, throw things, yell, and rush the attacker from many sides
c. The Christian and Self Defense
This method of flight or fight pretty much covers the sensible approach to mortal danger, and is entirely consistent with biblical ethics for the Christian. While we have the option to be martyred ourselves, we also have the choice for self defense. The following scriptures can be used in a self-defense argument:
Like a muddied spring or a polluted fountain is a righteous man who gives way before the wicked. (Proverbs 25:25)
If a thief is caught in the act of breaking into a house and is struck and killed in the process, the person who killed the thief is not guilty of murder. (Exodus 22:2)
Who were building on the wall. Those who carried burdens were loaded in such a way that each labored on the work with one hand and held his weapon with the other. And each of the builders had his sword strapped at his side while he built. The man who sounded the trumpet was beside me. (Nehemiah 4:17-18)
[Jesus] said to them, â€œBut now let the one who has a moneybag take it, and likewise a knapsack. And let the one who has no sword sell his cloak and buy one. (Luke 22:36 – note that pacifists have a strong argument that Jesus was only requesting this in order for Peter to fulfill prophecy in cutting off the soldier’s ear – read the rest of Luke 22)
d. The Christian and Revenge and Vigilante Justice
Payback is clearly prohibited by scripture. If someone does evil to you, you can not take revenge, even if they deserve it. The good news? If they don’t repent, God does the payback, and I’m sure He can kick way more butt than you or I.
Do not say, â€œI will repay evilâ€; wait for the Lord, and he will deliver you. (Proverbs 20:22)
Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, â€œVengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.â€ To the contrary, â€œif your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.â€ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:17-21)
See that no one repays anyone evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to everyone. (1 Thessalonians 5:15)
Do not repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary, bless, for to this you were called, that you may obtain a blessing. (1 Peter 3:9)
As we will see in the last section, we are also to trust in and support government in establishing and enforcing justice, and obeying that power, rather than taking it into our own hands.
2. Political Pacifism
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. serves as one of the best examples of Christian resistance to injustice. Knowing the human penchant to return evil for evil, he constantly told his followers to be prayerful, loving towards enemies, and non-violent. But arguably, even Dr. King limited passive resistance to non-lethal threats:
â€œAn individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for the lawâ€- Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. 5
The second, violence exercised in self-defense, which all societies, from the most primitive to the most cultured and civilized, accept as moral and legal. The principle of self-defense, even involving weapons and bloodshed, has never been condemned, even by Gandhi, who sanctioned it for those unable to master pure nonviolence.6
Dr. King initially owned guns and had armed guards,7 but may have later repudiated these tools in order to be consistent:
Meanwhile I reconsidered. How could I serve as one of the leaders of a nonviolent movement and at the same time use weapons of violence for my personal protection? Coretta and I talked the matter over for several days and finally agreed that arms were no solution. We decided then to get rid of the one weapon we owned. We tried to satisfy our friends by having floodlights mounted around the house, and hiring unarmed watchmen around the clock. 8
However, many of his fellow civil rights leaders, like Robert F. Williams and Stokely Carmichael, were not comfortable with merely applying the principles of pacifism to both mortal and non-mortal attacks. While it is hard to determine when a water canon or prison sentence endangers one’s life, Williams would not support passively allowing others to kill you when you knew that was the immediate outcome.
So the question becomes, when, if ever, is it right to use force in attempting to change public policy or resist tyranny?
a. The New Testament and Government
If we venture beyond the simple words of Jesus that apply to personal pacifism, and broaden our scope to the entirety of Jesus’ and the New Testament’s teaching on government and our relationship to it, what do we discover?
In his excellent book Uneasy Neighbors: Church and State in the New Testament, Walter Pilgrim writes that there are actually at least three distinct New Testament doctrines governing the Christian approach to influencing government, not just one simplistic â€œall or nothingâ€ approach. These three approaches include:
- A critical-constructive stance, appropriate when the powers that be are attempting to achieve justice
- A critical-transformative stance, when authority errs, but can be realistically moved to salutory change
- A critically resistive stance, when the powers are responsible for demonic injustice or idolatry and refuse to be responsible to change
Regarding the last and most severe form of resistance, Pilgrim writes:
When the church understands this to be the case, it has no choice but to stand in opposition to the political powers. In these moments the church needs to take a bold stance against the idolatrous ideologies and their propaganda, refuse to compromise on essentials, and do battle against the core injustices. And if the governments refuese to change, Christians will find themselves seeking to remove them from power.9
You’ll note here that Pilgrim never supports the use of lethal force in resisting an evil government. Just as Jesus refuted the Zealot party of his day, which sought an armed rebellion, Pilgrim reflects the rest of the New Testament’s denial of violence in overturning public powers. Some of this argument is from silence, since the New Testament does not explicitly deny the validity of a just war, but it doesn’t seem to directly support the use of lethal force in affecting public policy. Pilgrim concludes:
What are the limits of Christian resistance to the date? As we have seen, the Apocalypse encourages civil disobedience, public witness and protest in defiance of the state, and acceptance of suffering and martyrdom. But it draws the line at violent resistance. Despite the cries for divine vengeance on the persecuting state, those are best grasped as calls for divine justice. Moreover, it is God alone who exercises judgment on earth, not the people of God. 10
b. Liberation Theology, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Killing Hitler
Liberation theology, born in Latin America in the 1950’s, supported the overthrow of capitalist governments that abused the poor, replacing them with Marxist states, that were argued to be more “Christian” in their concern for the poor. Under Pope John Paul II, the Vatican has been critical of liberation theology’s borrowings from Marxism and its implied endorsement of violence, however, which seemed to validated the use of armed rebellion against governments where no possible hope of changes seems evident.11 12
So while both the New Testament and perhaps the Vatican fail to support armed rebellion, the arguably Christian Liberation Theology seems to support some sort of forceful overthrow of governments.
There is also the case of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the deep and influential Christian pastor and author who, as part of the Church under Hitler, may have agreed to take part in an assassination attempt on Hitler. However, further scholarship on Bonhoeffer seems to indicate that he was not directly involved, and stuck to his principles of non-violence. 13 14
In summary, neither of these two strong historical examples indicate that Christian ethics allow for armed uprising.
c. Armed Militias and Thomas Jefferson
As mentioned in Part II of this series, it seems that esteemed US founder Thomas Jefferson recommended the bloody replacement of tyrants, perhaps on a regular basis if need be:
The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. ~ Thomas Jefferson in a letter to William Stephens Smith, Paris Nov. 13. 1787.
In American history, this sentiment has been tied to the Constitutionally defined right to form a militia. Traditionally, a militia is defined as:
An army or other fighting unit that is composed of non-professional fighters, citizens of a nation or subjects of a state or government who can be called upon to enter a combat situation, as opposed to a professional force of regular, full-time military personnel, or historically, members of the fighting nobility class. 15
Even though the need for militias has been replaced by both Federal and State armed forces (“organized militias” such as the National Guard) over the years, so-called citizen militias, or unorganized militias, have sprung up, especially in the recent century, to defend against any domestic threats like Islamism or even our own Federal government, and have paired this idea with the right to own weapons (the second amendment).
In many states, like Texas, belonging to such a militia is entirely legal, even encouraged by law for the protection of the US. However, when such organizations use arms to control Federal properties or attack Federal agents (two very different levels of force), are these ethical?
Arguably, if no people or property are damaged in the forceful takeover of a Federal Property, this may be ethically defensible, seen as a radical but essentially non-violent action. Many anti-government protests in the 60’s were of this sort, as well as the recent Oregon militia takeover.16
From a Biblical point of view, such forceful actions may be condemned, but from an ethical point of view, such armed resistance may be justified when a tyrannical government is in power.
3. Governmental Use of Force
Having completed arguments for the use of lethal force in self defense, but against it in terms of resisting government (except in rare situations which amount to self defense), I now turn to the ethics of government use of violent force.
a. The Bible’s Description of the Role of Government
In the aforementioned Uneasy Neighbors, Pilgrim also nicely outlines the biblical responsibilities of civil government:
The New Testament in general does not view the government as an autonomous human structure, but rather as an earthly institution ordered by God to enhance the welfare of the human community.
The divine intention for the state is to preserve the civil good. On the positive side, it does so when it promotes peace and justice and equality and freedom and community for its own people and among the nations of the world. On the negative side, it does so by preserving law and order, by deterring the aggression of the powerful, and by punishing the offenders of the public good (the power of the sword, Romans 13:3-4)â€¦. 17
Theologians and philosophers argue over whether or not this “power of the sword” includes the death penalty, but it as least involves the use of force, even if not lethal. This passage also indicates that punishment is part of the state’s role in keeping the populace safe.
While the theology and ethics of capital punishment are certainly debatable, what is not debatable is the necessity and ethical use of non-lethal force by the state, and perhaps even lethal force in protecting the innocent or weak, using the same logic as that used in Just War Theory.
b. Just War
It would be negligent to fail to mention the theology of just war, which states that wars and the use of violence are to be used only under certain conditions, and as a last resort, to whit:18
- Just Cause: The reason for going to war needs to be just and cannot therefore be solely for recapturing things taken or punishing people who have done wrong; innocent life must be in imminent danger and intervention must be to protect life.
- Comparative Justice: While there may be rights and wrongs on all sides of a conflict, to overcome the presumption against the use of force, the injustice suffered by one party must significantly outweigh that suffered by the other.
- Competent Authority: Only duly constituted public authorities may wage war.
- Right Intention: Force may be used only in a truly just cause and solely for that purposeâ€”correcting a suffered wrong is considered a right intention, while material gain or maintaining economies is not.
- Probability of Success: Arms may not be used in a futile cause or in a case where disproportionate measures are required to achieve success
- Last Resort: Force may be used only after all peaceful and viable alternatives have been seriously tried and exhausted or are clearly not practical.
- Proportionality: The anticipated benefits of waging a war must be proportionate to its expected evils or harms.
It is argued that, under these conditions, entering into the use of lethal force (war) is ethically justified. Without these, it is not.
In Part I of this series, I argued that rhetoric is not unethical, but a necessary part of living in a free society. In Part II, I argued that incitement to violence is unethical, but must be narrowly defined as a call to immanent and specific violence. Purposely offending zealots may be unwise, but it is not incitement, and may be necessary to promote proper understanding of the ills of your opponents’ views and practices.
In this article, I have argued that the use of violent or mortal force is ethically and perhaps even biblically justified in self defense against an individual or a government, but does not extend to vigilante justice or the violent overthrow of a government. I also argued that there is a just use of violence by the state under narrow conditions.
- The Limits of Christian Non-Violence 02: The Balancing Principles (wholereason.com)
- To Survive A Shooting, Students Learn To Fight Back (npr.org, 2012)
- ALICE: How to Respond to an Active Shooter Event (PDF)
- How to Survive a School or Workplace Shooting (wikihow.com)
- Letter from Birmingham Jail
- The Social Organization of Nonviolence (stanford.edu)
- MLK and His Guns (huffingtonpost.com)
- What Gun Advocates Get Wrong About Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (mediamatters.org)
- Pilgrim p. 202
- Pilgrim p. 207
- Jose Miguez-Bonino, Toward a Christian Political Ethics, 1983
- Christianity and violence: The case of liberation theology (tandfonline.com, 1991)
- No, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Didn’t Try To Kill Adolf Hitler (Benjamin Corey, 2014)
- Bonhoeffer the Assassin?: Challenging the Myth, Recovering His Call to Peacemaking (Mark Nation, 2013
- Miltia (wikipedia.com)
- Oregon militia takeover: How did we get here? (usatoday.com)
- Pilgrim, p. 208, emphasis mine
- Criteria of Just War theory (wikipedia)