The Biblical and Natural Right of Self-Defense: Responding to Critics

The Biblical and Natural Right of Self-Defense: Responding to Critics February 5, 2013

It seems that neither Andrew Sullivan nor Zack Beauchamp at ThinkProgress much liked my post outlining a Biblical and natural-law argument for self-defense. The both raise a point a should have addressed in my initial post, but then they both go on to miss some rather critical distinctions between self-defense and martyrdom and criminal justice.

Sullivan rightly takes me to task for not dealing head-on with the following passage from the Sermon on the Mount (this section is from Matthew 5):

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. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

This challenging passage comes in the context of a host of extraordinarily challenging passages in perhaps Jesus’s most famous sermon, including, for example:

If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.

These words — like all of Jesus’s words — are to be read in the light of His other words as revealed throughout scripture. Otherwise, one can easily be led astray. For example, Jesus also said, “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn ‘a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law—a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.’” Yet does anyone realistically think this passage calls for unrelenting holy war on God’s behalf? Or that true Christians must necessarily be alienated from their families?

Even on its own terms the famous “turn the other cheek” passage refers not to deadly violence but to a slap on the face (an affront to personal dignity), a demand for a shirt (a claim on your property), and forced work (an imposition on your time and liberty). It does not say that one must consent to rape, or consent to be murdered. It does not mandate that we — by our inaction — force others to turn their cheeks in the face of violence. Should my inaction condemn my family? Or others around me? Nor does it abrogate other scriptures. In fact, just above the famous “turn the other cheek” passage, Christ said the following:

Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.

Sullivan’s use of this passage illustrates the danger of a style of Biblical argument called “proof-texting,” which often results in reading passages in isolation, divorced from context, and then using them to justify sweeping theological conclusions. In my initial post (short as it was), the reason I went back to Noah, then to Mosaic Law, then to Old Testament examples, then finally to the New Testament was to show that the Bible is remarkably consistent in its view of human life and the right — indeed occasional obligation — to defend oneself against violent attack.

The Sermon on the Mount’s call to radical holiness and self-denial is meant to change the paradigm of our lives, from our fallen, default posture of self-seeking to one of sacrifice and service. In that manner, it is entirely consistent with Old and New Testament norms. Simply put, we are to “seek ye first” the Kingdom of God. But Christ hardly outlined what that means in all contexts of life — His disciples undeniably carried swords, and Jesus undeniably once urged his followers to arm themselves, but Peter’s sword also undeniably should not have been used to hinder His purpose of offering Himself on the cross. In other words, the wisdom and propriety of the use of force depends greatly on context. Or to put it in Biblical terms, there are times for peace and times for war.

There is, however, a consistent Biblical approach of not only revering life but also using force on occasion to protect against its unjustified taking. At the same time, the Biblical examples of martyrdom show that taking up the sword to advance your faith is hardly the New Testament model. Yet Sir Thomas More would still be a great saint if he defended himself from a highway robber on his way to peacefully confront a despotic king. Or because Steven didn’t resist when he was stoned for the sake of the Gospel, does that mean a contemporary Steven shouldn’t resist if a gunman entered a cafeteria where he was eating? Not all acts of violence are the same, and we shouldn’t believe that every act of violence should receive the same response (or non-response). While our right of self-defense may be the default, an obligation of self-sacrifice also exists alongside our rights. We can choose not to exercise a right for a higher purpose, but such a choice does not nullify the right.

In his ThinkProgress piece, Beauchamp says I “radically misinterpret Locke.” He quotes Ari Kohen, a University of Nebraska professor of political theory:

But for people to establish a political community, Locke asserts that people must give up to the government their natural right to punish criminal behavior and agree to have the government settle grievances. This is why we have standing laws that are meant to be applied equally by independent officers of the law and by the courts.

Yet Kohen’s quote pertains to vigilante justice, not to self-defense. Of course we give up the right to settle our own grievances, but we don’t give up the right to protect ourselves and our families before the police can arrive. Defending oneself from a home intruder or mugger is not the same thing as exercising a “right to punish criminal behavior.” You are not being punitive; you are being protective.

The bottom line, however, is that neither Sullivan (who says he “can see David French’s point about defending one’s family”) or Beauchamp (who noted that “. . . the government may not be able to legitimately ban you from say, killing a home invader who’s brandishing a gun . . .”) are truly contesting whether we have the right of self-defense. They are contesting, it seems, the source and strength of the right, not necessarily its existence.

A right of self-defense located in Biblical principles and natural law is a stronger right — and held more dear — than the kind of regulatory “rights” that our modern bureaucratic states excel at creating (and removing). And it is this understanding of the right of self-defense that helps explain the intensity of the debate on the part of those of us who value the Second Amendment. Simply put, before the government attempts to describe what, exactly, we “need” (I love it when politicians who know virtually nothing about firearms purport to tell us what we “need”) for self-defense, it should bear a heavy legal burden of justification.

As I said before, no right is unlimited, and there are times when the government can, in fact, carry its heavy burden and justify sensible and prudent legislation (to take one easy example, I favor broad background checks), but the burden is the government’s, not the citizen’s. We do not bear the burden of justifying the exercise of our rights.

This post first ran on National Review Online

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