The Biblical and Natural Right of Self-Defense

The Democrats — ever vigilant for improper mixing of politics and religion — opened yesterday’s news conference announcing their proposed “assault weapons” ban with a prayer from the dean of the National Cathedral, the Canon Gary Hall. As Drudge highlighted yesterday, he made brief remarks before the prayer and said, “Everyone in this city seems to live in terror of the gun lobby . . . but I believe that the gun lobby is no match for the cross lobby.”

I have no objection to the reverend speaking his mind. In fact, I’m glad for clergy to contribute their thoughts to the gun-rights debate. My objection is to the substance of his position, not his participation in the debate. Simply put, self defense is a Biblical and natural right of man, and I fear that his words imply otherwise. There is nothing about the cross that requires me to allow someone to kill my family — or anyone else for that matter. Indeed, I have a moral imperative to come to the aid of those in distress.

Many months ago, I outlined the Christian argument for self defense at some length in my Patheos blog, and I won’t repeat it in its entirety here. There are, however, several key points to make:

First, it has always been clear that human life is precious — so precious, in fact, that throughout time God has mandated the ultimate penalty for unlawful killing. 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. 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.

Second, the morality of self-defense is not only presumed, the act of self-defense is permitted and even mandated by key Biblical figures. This principle flows of course from a moral law that reveres human life. It should be protected, not merely avenged. Nehemiah, when he was rebuilding 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, the 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 (eye for an eye) was always a rule of proportionate justice, not self-defense. In fact, Jesus’s disciples carried swords, and Jesus even said in some contexts 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 his life — or the lives of his family, neighbors, or even strangers — in the face of armed attack is 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.

Third, 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; thanks to Jim Lindgren for highlighting these excerpts in an excellent 2008 Volokh Conspiracy post)

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 (the right of 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, I don’t think Reverend Hall should be so confident that the “cross lobby” is on his side.

Editor’s Note: See David’s response to his critics here.

This article first appeared on National Review, where it created much controversy.  See it here.

  • ostrachan

    David, I find myself constantly agreeing with your (and your wife’s) perspectives. Holds true here. One text that relates here for sure: Luke 22:35-38. I have never heard any exposition of this passage in any church that I can remember, but it’s remarkable: Jesus, Pacifist-in-Chief, actually commends the bearing of weapons on the part of his disciples. He doesn’t simply allow it; he commends it!

    It’s a bit of an unusual passage, but it must be engaged on this issue.


  • Joe Canner

    Perhaps this is splitting hairs, but maybe you should refer to the “Biblical Right of Other-Defense”. I grant that the New Testament doesn’t prohibit defending others (although it doesn’t really condone it either), but self-defense seems to be discouraged by Jesus in Matt. 5, unless “turn the other cheek” means something else to you. But even if it does, as a general principle why is my life more valuable than that of my attacker? In fact, I could make a reasonable argument that just the opposite might be true.

    I also question the analogy between swords and guns. A sword can be used as a defensive weapon without mortally injuring one’s attacker. This is not true for the average person with a gun. We need to be careful about reading too much into what Jesus had to say about swords.

    • Christopher S. Brownwell

      Canner, You simply misunderstand the Scriptures. Turning the other cheek is NOT about prohibiting self-defense. It is about not taking personal offense to personal insults and not seeking retaliation.

      Comparing the worth of an attacker’s life and the victim’s life is not a logical evaluation in this context. What should be evaluated is the value of the assailant’s act. To allow an assailant to kill you when it is within your power to defend yourself is actually sin.

      Your conclusion (Jesus forbids self-defense) is wrong because your premise (turning the other cheek is about self-defense) is wrong.

    • Musterion

      Responding to Joe Canner: I suggest that “Turning the other cheek” is in regard to insults not physical violence.

  • jatheist

    I find it amazing that you cite the story of Noah here. Your claim that God thinks human life is so super and precious is negated rather strongly with the idea that God is talking to Noah right after he murdered the entire human race (save a handful of favorites) in a most horrendous manner (drowning).

    I know you’ll come back with ‘god works in mysterious ways’ or ‘they were all sinners’ – but that doesn’t cut it. How could newborn babies be sinners? How could the mentally disabled by sinners?

    It’s really difficult to take God’s words to Noah seriously when He (God) so obviously treats human life as a toy for him to play with and take (kill) on any whim.

  • SvenMagnus

    There’s on law above all others: Thou SHALL not kill. Only God gives life, only God can take life.
    And the NT tells us that Jesus says something like this:Matthew 5:43-48
    “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?

  • Craig

    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.

    Mr. French earn the prize for logic-leaping inferences. A regular theme here.

    • jatheist

      I’m not sure how anyone can infer that it’s a “God given right” when guns didn’t exist the last time God (supposedly) made an appearance or communicated with humans… and, of course, limiting a constitutional right isn’t necessarily a bad thing! Much like yelling “fire” in a crowded movie theater isn’t legal (a limit of free speech) making guns harder to get is a reasonable limitation on the constitutional right to bear arms.

  • Joshua

    I agree with the bulk of your article; however, like another user inferred, guns as a technology make it inevitably easier to kill a person, whether accidentally or purposefully, in a fit of rage or in the unfortunate hands of a mentally ill person. Therefore, with the same measure, there should be more care, even regulation, taken towards their existence.

    Put simply, I don’t think self-defense is the issue of contention as much as it is about pushing back against the aggressive economic and political interests involved in making guns ubiquitous, and the flippant stubbornness and heartlessness of many gun fanatics (many who purport being Christians) to any sort of regulation and background checks despite an almost regular schedule of weekly gun-related tragedies.

  • danallison

    All I hear is more profits for gun manufacturers, and nobody cares who has to die. Some Christians, of course, actually have human feelings, and consider incidents like Sandy Hook a tragedy.

  • Kevin McKee

    I fail to see how restricting the nature of guns available to excluding assault weapons (weapons intended for the battlefield), restrictions on magazines and a requirement for all to register in anyway impacts the ability to defend one self and one’s family. Beyond thatI think your argument is more based in the philosophy of Locke than in the gospel of Christ. All of your direct references are from the Old Testament and are reflective of an age where protection by others was not possible (i.e. they had no police, no alarm systems). In addition, I believe your interpretation of Jesus response to Peter’s defensive action extremely narrow. Also there is absolutely no proof that Jesus followers were armed (Peter may have used a weapon he took from a Roman), actually at that time very few Jews were armed and were closely monitored by Roman authorities if they were armed. I also think you have not addressed the principle of sacrifice inbedded in turning the other cheek. I see more conservative libertarianism in your statements, than I see Christian theology. If you find this offensive, I apologize.

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  • Marcion

    It’s awfully strange that all your bible citations are from the Old Testament. You’re christians, remember? Old testament laws on self defence are no more relevant to you than kosher and circumcision because you’re under the new covenant! Jesus is very clear about resisting agression and violence:

    “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.

    “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.”
    -Matthew 5: 38-45
    “Put your sword back in its place,” Jesus said to him, “for all who draw the sword will die by the sword.”
    -Matthew 26:52

    “Do not resist an evil person.” All the old testament quotes in the world crumble before the clear, unambiguous commandments of the man christians believe to be God incarnate. Only death awaits those who take up arms. If christians turly believe that Jesus is lord, they should strive to follow his commandments. Love your enemies, pray for them, forgive them, don’t fantasize about scenarios where you have an excuse to murder them.

    Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.

  • Michael Snow

    “Jesus’s disciples carried swords, and Jesus even said in some contexts the unarmed should arm themselves. ”
    This shows a remarkable ignorance of the context of those Scriptures! Jesus made the opposite point.
    And you would do well to read some of the thoughts of a man who thoroughly knew Scripture:
    “The Lord’s battles, what are they? Not the garment rolled in blood, not the noise, and smoke, and din of human slaughter. These may be the devil’s battles, if you please, but not the Lord’s. They may be days of God’s vengeance but in their strife the servant of Jesus may not mingle.”

  • Richard
  • Ben

    Jesus Christ taught and practiced peace by example. He didn’t come to this world to destroy life but to give life (eternal life). It’s not wise to take one or two Bible verses and build an argument solely on that. One must search the Scripture to be fully armed. Jesus said many things. I like this one: “What king doesn’t first sit down and consider whether or not he can defeat an opposing army that has more soldiers him” (my paraphrase). The king realizes he has to defend his people. Bottom line: Jesus teaches us to live peacefully and seek peace among those around us. But He does not tell us to cower in some corner let evil people do harm to us and/or our families.

    • Gary

      Jesus also gave advice on how to effectively steal from a strong man (tie him up first, THEN rob him blind) and how to cheat your employer when you’re fired anyway (underreport the debts owed by debtors when collecting so they’ll appreciate you more after you’re fired). These analogies do not necessarily presuppose that Jesus condoned warfare, theft, or dishonesty, however, but are simply analogies. Now, keep in mind that courageous martyrdom is not “cowering in a corner”. It’s what Jesus Himself did, and that is not cowardice.

      With respect to the opening post: let’s be clear on this. Genesis 9:6 is traditionally understood to mean that one is obligated to enact the death penalty for murder. OK, fair enough. However, it the future tense (yiqtol) could also simply be a predictive future: bloodshed will lead to more bloodshed. Violence begets violence. This principle is a fact of life and is what the lex talionis seeks to limit: eye for an eye — not beheading someone for an eye, you see.

      Now, Genesis 9-11 shows that the people do indeed become fruitful and multiply. They spread out over all the earth. However: they are divided by language (depending on when Babel took place: before or within the ch 10 fast-forward?), clan, and ethnicity. Perez is so named because of the lamentable divisions. It seems that the hostility and political divisions are NOT what God wanted, but the “be fruitful and multiply” mandate is fulfilled to the letter, though not to the spirit, of what God intended.

      One need only get to chapter 14 to see significant violence, unless whatever happened in the second half of ch 9 counts as “bloodshed”, which is unlikely. My point is that prooftexts for a so-called right to self defense aren’t the slam dunk arguments people seem to think they are.

      The two swords passage: likewise. Romans 13: likewise.

      The simple fact of the matter is that Jesus calls us to imitate Him in carrying the Cross and we just don’t want to do that, because the Cross of Christ is foolishness to us today.