Okay ya’ll, this is the post many of you who have been following the discussion have been waiting for. In the previous 4 posts, I’ve argued that a form of pacifism known as “non-resistance,” which says that Christians should not kill people, but they can join the military as long as they serve as non-combatants (psychologist, medical doctor, etc.). The premise behind this view is that Jesus advocated for non-violence in his life and teaching, and this was repeated by the latter New Testament writers whenever they discuss the relationship between Christians and violence (Rom 12; 1 Pet 2). But the question often comes up—and it’s come up many times in your comments thus far: What about the person who breaks into your home and tries to kill your family? You’re telling me that I just sit back and watch my family die? In other words, are there any allowances for violence by Christians as individuals?
We’ll get to that in a second, but first, please consider again the more fundamental questions: does the New Testament ever portray violence by the hands of the church in a positive light? How did Jesus say we should respond when we are mistreated? How should we treat our enemies? How does God deal with injustice and evil in the New Testament? You say, “I know, I know, you’ve already talked about that; you’re a pacifist and I’m not, and I want to see what you’re going to do when someone breaks into your home and…”
Before we deal with hypothetical situations outside the text, we need to make sure we have a firm grasp on what the text is actually saying. Before we move on to contemporary application, we need to have a solid understanding of how God views violence through the lens of the cross of Christ. Situations regarding uncle Bob who served in Nam and was a good man who fought for our freedom must be considered after the words of the King have been considered, meditated on, and digested. If you haven’t been stunned by the radicalness of Jesus’ ethic in Matthew 5, and by Paul’s counterintuitive demands of Romans 12, and the shameful road we are to follow according to 1 Peter 2, and if you haven’t begged God for waterfalls of grace to be able to love your local rapist who is also your enemy and desperately needs Jesus just as much as you do, if you haven’t been bewildered by the outrageousness of turning the other cheek and never retaliating evil for evil—against all human logic, against all cultural norms, against our innate sense of justice—then I would dare to suggest that you have not meditated on the scandal of the cross long enough. Calvary and the Garden Tomb are the hermeneutical lenses through which followers of the slaughtered Lamb must view violence.
So before we move to hypothetical situations, I would urge you to once again consider what Jesus and the New Testament say about violence. (I’m still quite shocked when Bible believing Christians immediately dismiss Pacifism as weird and unbiblical, using only the “killer at the door” argument devoid of any scriptural backing.) As I’ve said before, the inspired Word never views the church’s relationship to violence in a positive light and oftentimes paints it in a very negative light. I’ve yet to see a convincing scriptural argument otherwise.
So what do I do when a potential killer pulls a gun on my family?
I shoot the thug, and here’s why.
Here we have a case where we are faced with two different decisions, yet both are evil. First, if I kill the killer, this is evil in light of everything I said. By killing him, I’m not loving him, I’m using preemptive violence, I’m taking the life of another man, possibly expediting his trip to hell—where we all would go, but for the grace of God. And yet, if I let him kill my family, I’m not loving my wife and kids or caring for my household. So, if I have to choose between the lesser of these two evils, I would choose the route where killing someone will actually defend and preserve the life of my family. And by doing so, I’m exposing the particular ethical framework known as “Graded Absolutism.”
Most people don’t consider it, but there are different ethical frameworks that all people operate under. Graded Absolutism (which is quite different from “Situation Ethics”) states that there are lower laws and higher laws. When a lower law conflicts with a higher law, then the Christian has a moral obligation to obey the higher law while breaking the lower law. Lying, for instance, is immoral. And yet saving a life is a higher law. And so the answer to the question: “Is it ever right to lie in order to save a life,” Graded Absolutism would say “yes,” because saving a life is a higher law than lying (Cf. loads of stories about saving Jews during the Holocaust.)
There’s quite a bit of biblical support for the idea of higher and lower laws. Jesus talks about the “weightier matters of the law” (Matt 23:23) and the “least” and “greatest” commandment (Matt 5:19; 22:36). He also said that Judas had committed the “greater sin” (Jon 19:11) and that causing someone to stumble is exceptionally bad (Matt 18). And of course, there’s the unpardonable sin (Matt 12), and Paul talks about love as the greatest virtue (1 Cor 13:13). In the Old Testament, there are intentional sins and unintentional sins, and then there’s the one who “sins with a high hand” (Numb 15:30). Point being: not all violations are considered equal. So when faced with a dilemma where two evils are the only options (killing, or letting someone kill), then killing the killer to save innocent life is the higher law.
And we see this in the Bible on several occasions. The midwives of Exodus 1 lied to Pharaoh in order to preserve life and are praised by God (see Exod 1:17 and then 1:19). So also is Rahab, who lied to the authorities of Jericho when she hid the two spies (Josh 2). The same logic is put on bold display in Acts 5:29, where Peter is commanded to stop preaching the gospel and he responds: “It’s better to obey God than man.” He deliberately went against his authorities, to whom Christians are obligated to submit (the lower law), by obeying God (the higher law). Rebelling against the state is wrong, but in some cases it may be the lesser of two evils. Lying is wrong, but in some cases it’s the lesser of two evils. Killing is wrong, but in some cases it may be the lesser of two evils.
Let me wrap things up with an important clarification: Pacifists do not advocate for letting injustice run rampant. Nothing could be further from the truth, and yet it’s often assumed to be inherent to the view. Pacifists don’t shy away from confronting injustice; rather, they argue for a different means of confronting it. The world says confront evil with evil—you bomb me and I’ll bomb you—but Jesus says that non-violent love is the means through which the church should extend the kingdom of Christ. All forms of injustice and wickedness are ultimately rooted in human rebellion against the Creator, and no amount of C-4 can fix that. Only the gospel can.
Comparing Malcolm X and Martin Luther King is a case in point. Interestingly, X was a Muslim who had an “eye for an eye” mentality and yet his movement (the Nation of Islam) was only minimally effective in accomplishing justice. King, however, was adamant that the injustice of racism must be confronted through non-violent means. Similar causes, but very different means. And while there were other factors involved, of course, sociologists often credit King’s success to his counter intuitive means of fighting injustice through non-violent means, even when every fabric of his body wanted to strike back with a sword instead of plowshare.