The Biblical and Natural Right of Self Defense

In the aftermath of my rather defiant posts both here in Patheos and over on NRO, several readers have asked me to take a deeper look at the biblical justification for the right of self defense (and defense of others) outside the context of law enforcement and military operations.  It is quite clear that God has not merely sanctioned the right of self defense but has explicitly approved even the use of deadly force to protect human life.

Let’s go back — way back — to Noah.  Among God’s first words to Noah after the Flood subsided was this declaration of the importance of human life and the price paid for spilling human blood:  “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.” (Genesis 9:6)  This statement is not made to a nation-state or to a police force but instead to a small band of people who are rebuilding human society from the ground up.  The principle is clear: Human life is precious and God mandates the ultimate penalty for taking life.

While obviously not specifically addressing self-defense, by establishing that fundamental principle the biblical commands and examples that follow demonstrate how God expects us to protect life in the real world.

In Mosaic law, God obviously continued his mandate of the death penalty for murder (as well as for blasphemy and other crimes) — but not for all killing.  He specifically carved out an exception for the defense of one’s home:  “If a thief is found breaking in and is struck so that he dies, there shall be no bloodguilt for him . . .” (Exodus 22:2).  There was bloodguilt if the thief was killed during the day, however.  Note the grace that God gives the citizen in the midst of the fear and ambiguity of a nighttime invasion — even a “thief” (not a rapist, not a murderer) can be killed at night, but in the clarity of day, the “thief” (again, not a rapist, not a murderer) should not be killed.

Going forward, the morality of the right of self-defense is presumed.  Nehemiah, when he was rebuilding the Jerusalem in the face of hatred (not in wartime, but when tribal neighbors were seeking to carry out vigilante attacks on Jews) instructed his people:  “Do not be afraid of them.  Remember the Lord, who is great and awesome, and fight for your brothers, your sons, your daughters, your wives, and your homes.”  (Nehemiah 4:14).

It’s often-forgotten that the climax of the Book of Esther involves the Jews gathering together in an act of self-defense, where a despotic king was persuaded to allow them to fight against their attackers:  “. . . the king allowed the Jews who were in every city to gather and defend their lives, to destroy, to kill, and to annihilate any armed force of any people or province that might attack them, children and women included, and to plunder their goods.”  (Esther 8:11).  The Jews then “struck all their enemies with the sword, killing and destroying them, and did as they pleased to those that hated them.”  (Esther 9:5).  Before Esther’s intervention, a despotic king would have denied the Jews their right of self-defense.  After Esther’s intervention, the Jews didn’t merely look to law enforcement for salvation but took matters into their own hands.

While the New Testament certainly removes from the individual Christian any justification for vengeance (leaving vengeance to God’s agent, the state) — lex talionis was a rule of proportionate justice, not self-defense.  In fact, Jesus’s disciples carried swords and even said the unarmed should arm themselves.  The sword’s use was only specifically forbidden when Peter used violence to block Christ’s specific purpose to lay down his life.

The idea that one is required to surrender their lives — or the lives of their family, neighbors, or even strangers — in the face of armed attack is completely alien to scripture.  There are many examples of martyrs surrendering their lives in the face of evil, but such an act is highly contextual and in response to the individual call of God on a man (or woman’s) life.  I know of no precedent for the idea that we are called to surrender the lives of others (such as our spouse, children, or neighbors) in response to deadly attack.

In fact, these understandings are so ingrained in Western moral tradition that John Locke, in his Second Treatise of Civil Government, described the right of self defense as a “fundamental law of nature”:

Sec. 16. THE state of war is a state of enmity and destruction: and therefore declaring by word or action, not a passionate and hasty, but a sedate settled design upon another man’s life, puts him in a state of war with him against whom he has declared such an intention, and so has exposed his life to the other’s power to be taken away by him, or any one that joins with him in his defence, and espouses his quarrel; it being reasonable and just, I should have a right to destroy that which threatens me with destruction: for, by the fundamental law of nature, man being to be preserved as much as possible, when all cannot be preserved, the safety of the innocent is to be preferred: and one may destroy a man who makes war upon him, or has discovered an enmity to his being, for the same reason that he may kill a wolf or a lion; because such men are not under the ties of the commonlaw of reason, have no other rule, but that of force and violence, and so may be treated as beasts of prey, those dangerous and noxious creatures, that will be sure to destroy him whenever he falls into their power. . . . (emphasis added)

Moreover, these fundamental laws of nature were inseparable from the will of God:

The rules that they make for other men’s actions, must, as well as their own and other men’s actions, be conformable to the law of nature, i.e. to the will of God, of which that is a declaration, and the fundamental law of nature being the preservation of mankind, no human sanction can be good, or valid against it. (emphasis added; hat tip, Eugene Volokh)

The Supreme Court has also recognized that the right of self defense was a “natural right” of man that predated the very founding of our nation:

By the time of the founding, the right to have arms had become fundamental for English subjects. See Malcolm 122–134. Blackstone, whose works, we have said, “constituted the preeminent authority on English law for the founding generation,” Alden v. Maine527 U. S. 706715 (1999) , cited the arms provision of the Bill of Rights as one of the fundamental rights of Englishmen. See 1 Blackstone 136, 139–140 (1765). His description of it cannot possibly be thought to tie it to militia or military service. It was, he said, “the natural right of resistance and self-preservation,” id., at 139, and “the right of having and using arms for self-preservation and defence,” id., at 140; see also 3 id., at 2–4 (1768). Other contemporary authorities concurred. See G. Sharp, Tracts, Concerning the Ancient and Only True Legal Means of National Defence, by a Free Militia 17–18, 27 (3d ed. 1782); 2 J. de Lolme, The Rise and Progress of the English Constitution 886–887 (1784) (A. Stephens ed. 1838); W. Blizard, Desultory Reflections on Police 59–60 (1785). Thus, the right secured in 1689 as a result of the Stuarts’ abuses was by the time of the founding understood to be an individual right protecting against both public and private violence.

What does all this mean?  Essentially that gun control represents not merely a limitation on a constitutional right but a limitation on a God-given right of man that has existed throughout the history of civil society.  All rights — of course — are subject to some limits (free speech is not unlimited, for example), and there is much room for debate on the extent of those limits, but state action against the right of self-defense is by default a violation of the natural rights of man, and the state’s political judgment about the limitations of that right should be viewed with extreme skepticism and must overcome a heavy burden of justification.

In other words, you can take my AR-15 when you pry it . . . well, you know the rest.

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  • Ryan

    Though I do appreciate the recognition of the biblical foundations for the understanding. I still think there is an absolutely weak argument from the New Testament for the use of repaying violence with violence.

    I can acknowledge the tradition that would lead to self-defense being an important facet. However, the Law of the United States is irrelevant in this case. Western moral tradition is hopelessly ambiguous biblically.

    I think its fairly obvious that only from going “outside” the Scriptures can one read into the Scriptures a comprehensive case for self-defense. (Although I am a biased Canadian prig!).

    http://reknew.org/2008/01/what-would-you-do-if-someone-attacked-your-family/

  • danielle sample

    Thank you so much for a clear and biblical explanation of self defense. In living in a new town, my husband and I have been scared at night. We did get a security system last week (door to door sales man lol), which helps, but the shot gun is still in the bedroom just in case. My husband and I have sat up late at night wondering what it is that God would think of him (or me) if a person entered our house and was shot by one of us. Let’s just say, I’m happy we got the security system.

  • Brantley Gasaway

    Fair enough, David–this is a thoughtful defense of your position. As an Anabaptist, though, I would argue that your concession that “the New Testament certainly removes from the individual Christian any justification for vengeance” points to a fatal flaw in your argument. Jesus did more than command his followers to avoid vengeance–he commanded them to practice non-resistance. Thus I interpret the rest of the biblical material (and could care less about Locke and the Supreme Court) through this lens.

    I’m a realist–most Americans (and, alas, even Christians) are not persuaded by this. So where I think that we should look for common ground is in identifying appropriate limits on self-defense and guns. And while I’m relatively sure that you represent the most responsible kind of gun owner, I am less sanguine about the population at large.

  • Sunny

    I, for one, will do whatever it takes to defend myself if an intruder breaks into my home with the intent to harm or steal. I believe God gave us the ability to defend ourselves when in harms way and we should use whatever means available to do so.


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