Guns, Self Defense, and Enemy-Love

Guns, Self Defense, and Enemy-Love February 1, 2013

Throughout the whole gun-control debate one of the arguments against increased gun control was the need for self defense. Often the tenor of these arguments leaves me feeling a bit uneasy because I get the sense that those making the arguments put their hope for salvation (from violent intruders) in their guns. I often end up feeling that for some people guns have become idols.

I sometimes attempt to respond by affirming the obligation to defend one’s family but questioning the necessity of planning a lethal response to a would-be intruder. Often my attempts result in utter confusion on the part of my interlocutor or accusations of sacrificing my family with passivity in the name of cowardice disguised as self-righteousness.

All the same, planning ahead to kill a violent intruder seems to me be contrary to the Spirit of the Gospel. Here’s why: 

 Generally speaking, it is the mission of the Church, which is to say it is our mission, to bear witness to the salvation offered by Christ to the world. More than merely talking about Jesus, this involves enacting a performance of truth and love, of justice and mercy. This performance ought to stand in contrast to the performance of the city of man which is motivated by self-love, power-grabbing, violence, etc.

In no way do I think this performance implies that we ought not protect our loved ones, which  is Magisterially taught as an obligation and a principle of the common good, but not a right. However, I do believe Christ would have us hold this obligation in tension with the obligation to love our enemies.

If God is Creator and Father of all who wills the salvation of all, then every human being is already my brother or sister or a potential fellow adopted sibling of Christ. Suppose my biological brother was an unstable addict of some sort. (He is not.) If he stormed into my house seeking to harm and/or kill members of my family, I would absolutely have the obligation to defend my family. But would not my father mourn greatly if I killed my brother in this hour? Should I not try to love him and defend my family?

Consider also the spiritual state of an intruder and potential assailant. Is it not likely that his eternal fate is at stake? Is not likely that my killing him in defense of my family may indeed result, albeit indirectly, in his damnation? In what way can this ever be an act of love?

Should I not try to imagine a way to protect my family while also loving my enemy? This is not passivism any more than is turning the other cheek. Rather it can be an active and counter-cultural, indeed culture-evangelizing act.

Nor is this weakness or cowardice, but fortitude. As Joseph Pieper once wrote

“Power is so manifestly of the very structure of the world that endurance, not wrathful attack, is ultimately decisive test of actual fortitude, which, essentially, is nothing else than to love and to realize that which is good, in the face of injury or death, and undeterred by any spirit of compromise.”

Such fortitude, such a response does not come naturally. It requires that we begin now, in the hypothetical, to imagine ways of upholding both the obligation to defend our families and also the obligation to love our enemies. Forming our imaginations in light of the Gospel is an absolute pre-requisite to virtuous responses in such situations.

Of course there is risk involved (as there is also risk involved in planning defense with a weapon). There is no guarantee love will deter my assailant, but there are real and effective strategies for emotionally disarming a would be assailant which can be learned, just as one ought to learn to properly use a firearm. Granted the former require more time, imagination, and virtue, but are they not worth it?

One thing we can do here and now is begin disarming the hatred and violence by building community by being in relationship with those statistics show are most likely to engage in violent acts, the destitute, the addicted, the imprisoned.

Also, I can get a dog. Certainly a dog can be silenced, but it may arguably be more effective at preventing disaster for myself and my enemy than my planning to kill upon entry.

Of course there may be times, because this a fallen and broken world, where lethal self-defense may be necessary. But should we not try to make this a literal last resort? Should we not imagine how we can actually love our enemies?

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  • It’s amazing how blasé Christians today can be about the possibility of inflicting deadly injuries on someone trying to do them harm. This is out of line with not only the gospels but with the tradition that followed. Even Ambrose and Augustine, who gave us the beginnings of the “just war” theory, expressed unease about killing in personal self-defense. “I do not think that a Christian, a just and a wise man, ought to save his own life by the death of another,” declared Ambrose. I doubt we are more just and wise, much less more godly, than he.

  • I can’t imagine ever getting a gun for self-defense, but I am baffled by this argument. I know of absolutely no one who has obtained a gun for self-defense (and it’s not difficult to find such people in Texas) who has done it with the intent to kill an intruder; everyone hopes it will serve as a deterrent. Whatever the wisdom of this as an appropriate means to such an end, calling it ‘planning ahead to kill an intruder’ is like calling your dog suggestion ‘planning ahead to have intruders attacked by an animal’ (or, I suppose, ‘planning ahead to have your dog killed by an intruder’), or like saying that making sure you can call the police is (since the police always have guns) ‘planning ahead to have intruders shot by cops’.

    I also worry about arguments like this in general. It is perfectly fine for explaining why one does not participate in something oneself, but when we get to anyone else at all, we also have to take into account what we seriously have a right to demand, or even expect, of others. Take the example, more common than one might expect, of a woman getting a gun because of worries about rape. Regardless of what I think about a gun in such a situation, can I really go around even suggesting she should ask herself the question, “Should I not try to protect myself while also loving my would-be rapist?”

    It’s one thing for Christ to say, “Love your enemy”; it’s another thing for me to go around demanding that people do it, or even expecting that they demand it of themselves; that, for instance, women love people who try to rape them, or parents love people who are willing to kill their children or spouses. I cannot require that people act in ways that require extraordinary grace, for the obvious reason that I can’t provide such grace. We can’t even always encourage it, because we are not in the position of being everyone’s counsellor. The most it seems we can seriously do is say, “This is what I’ve been thinking for myself as the way to love my enemies,” and let others make of it what they will.

    • Julia Smucker

      Brandon, my first thought in response to your comment was that this sounds like a rather individualistic take. The Gospel does make demands on all of us who claim it as the authoritative rule for our lives, and when many professed Christians are claiming an absolute right to lethal self-defense that trumps not only public safety but Christ’s very command to love our enemies, this rasies serious questions about what the Gospel means. With ideals that are antithetical to the Gospel being so vehemently defended in the very name of Christ and his Church, we need to be reminded what is expected of us if we profess his name.

      On the other hand, I have been convicted lately by Thomas Merton’s admonition, which Mark Gordon reflected on last month, “If you love peace, then hate injustice, hate tyranny, hate greed—but hate these things in yourself, not in another.” Having long wrestled with the hypocrisy of hating violence in others but not in myself, I am grateful that I can now go to confession when I find myself failing on that count. This is my own unfinished conversion, and I’m praying for the grace to practice more consistently the nonviolence that I preach.

    • Brandon,
      Thanks for reading and commenting. To be clear I don’t think people buy guns with the purpose of killing an intruder, but in my conversations it seems to me that many, when imagining their response to such a situation, fail to consider the possibility of loving their enemy. They fail to imagine the intruder as a person with freedom, a person who likely has (virtuous or vicious) desires which they are looking to meet. Responding to them as a person with needs, love being one of them, has the potential to literally disarm the situation. This often requires vulnerability. That is kind of what love is, right? So that makes it hard, but no less worthwhile.

      Now, to be clear, I don’t demand that any one in any given circumstance must do this. I don’t even know how I would actually respond in such a situation, but I think all serious Christians ought to examine their imaginations of such scenarios with love of enemy in mind. We should try to think of creative ways to love instead of even ways to injure.

  • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

    Very well said. I think you have put your finger on one aspect of the central problem confronting Christians in the modern age: we are often simply incapable of imagining Christian alternatives to the ways of the world, and so we accept them. Sometimes we do it uncritically because that is “the way things are”, or with some resignation and regret, and sometimes with rationalizations that are as sad as they are wrong.

  • markdefrancisis

    “Also, I can get a dog.”


    • Ha! Thanks, Mark, but I can’t take credit for it. I gained that bit of wisdom from former Vox-Novan Nate Wildermuth.

      • And I have to give credit to Saint Augustine, who wrote that if a home intruder fell off your wall, the intruder would be to blame. I think the same goes for a dog, especially if that dog is trained to disarm rather than kill.

        Great post, Josh! Really nailed that the Gospel demands we consider more options than kill or be killed.

  • Mennonites and Amish for the past nearly 500 years have lived by the belief that following Christ means giving up the right of self-defense. They have guns to protect their farm animals, but they would never consider using them against a human. Obviously they have survived despite failing to protect their families in the usual way. When a deranged man entered the Amish school in Nickel Mines PA a few years ago and killed several of their children they immediately responded by forgiving the killer, and going to his family home to share their loss. Does this make them heretics?

    • I certainly don’t think so.

  • Julia Smucker

    John Howard Yoder has also made the point that a frequent problem with the hypothetical intruder scenario is that it’s often presented in a way that assumes the person imagining oneself in that situation to be the only one with a free will capable of making choices. But what you’ve said about “forming our imaginations in light of the Gospel” makes me think the hypothetical scenario can and should be redeemed rather than discarded (this might actually be what Yoder concludes, but I’m a little fuzzy on that). None of us can predict with certainty what we would do in any given situation until it actually happens, but maybe that’s all the more reason to find gospel-transformed ways of thinking about them – alternatives, for example, to the faulty assumption that any person breaking into another person’s house is indelibly programmed to kill that person and their family (the family being reduced to passive pawns as well) and absolutely will not fail to do so unless stopped by a lethal gunshot.

    Sounds like a worthy application of St. Paul’s instruction, “Do not be conformed to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds.”

  • Ronald King

    Gottman from the U of WA observed and researched marital relationships. One of his observations which may apply to this discussion is the tendency for males to rehearse their strategies for defending themselves when in conflict with their spouses rather than attempting to understand the spouses’ distress and react with empathy. 90% of the time the male would respond in such a way that would escalate the distress in the relationship. Males tend to have relationships based on power which is driven by the instinctive survival mechanisms in our brains.

    • Very interesing, Ronald. Thanks for sharing this.

  • Jordan

    First, I commend Joshua B and all of the commenters who have touched about the Christian paradox of human dignity and self-defense. Yet the valence of the protection of property, and the illusions persons have about property, also enters into the discussion. I have often thought that if an armed carjacker were to approach my car with handgun in hand, I would gladly hand over the keys and also my wallet. While my ancient car has little resale value, I would surrender a car regardless of value. Certainly, material items carry a very low if no importance in the hierarchy of Christian self-defense. Shooting another person to protect a vehicle or personal goods stored on a property is debatably not self-defense but rather murder because of avarice.

    The question of self-defense against an armed assailant who threatens bodily harm is often not a matter of actual threat but rather potential threat. Similarly, the notion that gun ownership is a protection against a nebulous “tyranny” is a response to a potentiality. I warily bring Marx to this discussion, but the bourgeois who experience work autonomy are able to define their work and their lives. Many Americans do not have this ability. The potentialities of self-defense and “tyranny” are actually proxies for arms as a means of dignity for persons who have very little control over their lives. While the Christian response to the taking of life must be examined, the dignity of individuals, even if misplaced through ardent gun ownership, also requires examination.

  • Mark Gordon

    Not only was this a terrific post, but the discussion thread has been equally inspiring and illuminating. I have a friend who defines violence as “any thought, word, or action that does not honor and respect the inherent dignity and worthiness of every living being.” To me, this understanding of violence is the bridge to mysterious commands like, “love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you;” or “you have heard that it was said to your ancestors, ‘You shall not kill; and whoever kills will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you, whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment;” or “He who does not love abides in death. Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer; and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him.”

    For me, who once thought there was a violent solution to just about everything (although I didn’t apprehend it as such at the time), this understanding of violence challenges everything from my daily disposition and the secret resentments of my own heart, to my reflection on the “macro” issues, including the American gun culture.

    • Julia Smucker

      That definition has perfect breadth and depth. It’s an excellent corrective to the mistaken notion (to which I have been susceptible at times) that as long as our violence is not manifestly physical it’s not a problem.

    • Ronald King

      Mark, I agree. I have worked with this level of violence since ’73. I am burned out at this point due to the resistance of those who consciously or unconsciously are influenced by this internalized violence and connect with others who resonate with them on a spiritual level thus creating a culture of believers who cause great harm to those who are not of the same community of believers. This is the root of the culture of death.

  • Jordan

    re: Ronald King [February 6, 2013 2:50 pm]: I wholeheartedly agree with you that violence creates exclusivist attitudes over belief identity (as well as familial/communal/ethnic identity). There’s another question to ask here however. There’s no way to completely solve family or communal dysfunction. I refer to overt abuse, but also subtle forms of abuse which shape persons towards a fundamentally pessimistic or even violent outlook towards other persons. Adam Lanza committed not only an absolute moral crime but also an absolute legal crime. Few disagree on those points. Still, would Mr. Lanza act out violently even if he did not have access to an arsenal of firearms. You are right Ronald to focus not on guns but rather on the developmental issues which lead to mentally unstable persons acting out with firearms.

  • Agellius

    I bought a gun for defense against an intruder, but not with the idea of killing him. When my mom bought a gun, she took the salesman’s advice and bought one that could blow the guy’s head off, on the reasoning, I guess, that if you shot him with anything smaller it might just piss him off.

    My own thinking is more like, one shot from ANY gun, even aimed at the ceiling, is going to scare the daylights out of a burglar and he’s gonna go running. If I fire at the ceiling and he still comes at me, or my wife or kids, then he’s obviously insane or intent on grave harm, at which point all bets are off, and I’m going to do whatever it takes to defend my family.