Trayvon Martin, Self-Defense, and Christian Non-Violence: A Response to Preston Sprinkle's "Fight"

There is something wrong with the fact that Christians—including sometimes the most vocal Christians—don't act like Christ. They talk about Jesus, but their actions don't mirror those of Jesus. I'm guilty of that daily; it's the nature of Christian practice, failing to live up to what Jesus models. But nowhere is our problem more in evidence than in the way Christians are of two minds about violence, war, self-defense, and protecting themselves and those they love. They know that Jesus didn't do it.

Yet they often are in favor of doing it if they believe it will keep them safe.

There is also something wrong with the fact that as the nation wrestles with the Not Guilty verdict in the shooting of Trayvon Martin, many of the voices in support of the Florida law advocating a radically-expanded self-defense are Christians, cultural conservatives who love God but love their families and neighborhoods as well, and advocate violence in defending them.

We don't imagine that Jesus would shoot someone who was menacing him or breaking into his home.

But we support the right of others to do so, because we understand the pull of that action, the desire to protect those we love and the things we own.

I do not claim to be any better, or any different. Bono, a much more famous Christian pacifist than I, has said his commitment to pacifism would evaporate if someone attacked his family, and I would be right there with him, citing Augustine and Aquinas and talking about the Christian tradition's history of violence used to protect the weak as I took up arms against an attacker.

I believe Jesus died rather than commit violence or allow violence to be committed to save him.

Yet I would commit violence—or encourage it—to save others.

I call myself a Christian, a follower of Christ. But really, in this matter, I follow Augustine, and Aquinas, and everyone else in the Christian tradition who will let me off the very difficult hook that is Christ's commitment to the nonviolent personal transformation of others.

That conundrum is at the heart of Preston Sprinkle's new book on Christians and violence, Fight. It's acknowledged by the endorsers, by Shane Claiborne's Foreword, and by the book itself. Instead of the pragmatic questions we sometimes pose about violence or nonviolence—"Does it work?"—Shane Claiborne notes that the more important question is the one asked by Mr. Sprinkle throughout his book: "In the end, the question Preston poses is, 'Which of these looks most like Jesus?'" (17)

The book is being published by the fine evangelical publisher David C. Cook (full disclosure: I published two beautifully-produced and not particularly successful books with Cook), so one assumes that conservative Christians are the primary audience for Mr. Sprinkle's biblically-rooted and well-reasoned study of Christian nonviolence. He himself describes his long and hard journey from an evangelical who celebrated war to the stance he holds now, an evangelical who says, "I believe that the Bible advocates nonviolence. I do not believe that Jesus wants Christians to use violence." (23-24)

He also, incidentally, makes a point throughout Fight that I have made many times in these pages and in my book Faithful Citizenship: too often, we make our most important moral choices not out of the biblical record or from observing the life of Christ, but out of our secular and partisan commitments. Our pull toward America's use of violence is imperial, Mr. Sprinkle correctly observes, not Christian, which we know if we can manage to separate our American identities and our Christian identities.

But this confusion also helps explain our willingness to allow someone to shoot someone he feels is menacing him. In fact, thinking of the Trayvon Martin case, Florida's stand-your-ground statute allows even the person who provoked an encounter to use lethal force "if he can't escape and if he is in imminent danger of death or great bodily harm."

I understand what George Zimmerman did, if he believed he was in danger of losing his life.

I might have done the same, although I pray I would not have.

7/31/2013 4:00:00 AM
  • Progressive Christian
  • Faithful Citizenship
  • Violence
  • Progressive Christianity
  • Sacred Texts
  • Trayvon Martin
  • Christianity
  • Greg Garrett
    About Greg Garrett
    Greg Garrett is (according to BBC Radio) one of America's leading voices on religion and culture. He is the author or co-author of over twenty books of fiction, theology, cultural criticism, and spiritual autobiography. His most recent books are The Prodigal, written with the legendary Brennan Manning, Entertaining Judgment: The Afterlife in Popular Imagination, and My Church Is Not Dying: Episcopalians in the 21st Century. A contributor to Patheos since 2010, Greg also writes for the Huffington Post,, OnFaith, The Tablet, Reform, and other web and print publications in the US and UK.