Christianity, Guns and Self-Defense
by Louis Williams
One of the biggest reasons people want to have a firearm is for personal protection, that is, for the defense of themselves, their families, or others for whom they have responsibility. This is no idle dream - in a typical week in the United States there are about 300 murders, 15,000 violent assaults, 1,700 rapes, and 7,800 robberies. These numbers come from FBI statistics.
Does possessing and/or carrying a firearm change the odds? This number is hard to pin down because many cases go unreported. But in a typical week 20,000 or more acts of violence are prevented because the prospective victim is protected by a firearm. In at least 90 to 95 percent of these cases the gun is not fired.
For those thousand or so cases a week where the defender has to fire his or her firearm, the typical one-on-one encounter lasts about three seconds, the defender fires three rounds, and the attacker is less than ten feet away. The defender legally can only fire to stop the threat, not to kill the attacker. However, about twenty percent of the rounds fired at a person in a violent encounter actually hit the person. In about twenty percent of the cases where the person is hit by one or more rounds, the person ultimately dies.
Because of the possibility of killing the attacker and the quickness with which a violent encounter usually happens, a Christian gun owner, especially a Concealed Handgun Licensee, should consider his moral position in advance. Are you willing to take a life to protect your own life or the life of a loved one? Can you visualize any number of violent scenarios where you emerge victorious and your attacker lies bleeding before you? Should the time come and you hesitate you will probably lose.
Can you think of yourself as a survivor rather than a victim if it means thinking of yourself as a potential killer? This question goes to the heart of our core beliefs as Christians. What is the Christian view, first, from the official denominational position, and second, from your own personal perspective?
Many people believe that to be Christian is to be pacifist. Pacifism can be based on moral principles or on pragmatism. While pacifists almost universally are against war for any reason, for personal behavior some pacifists are nonviolent and others are non-aggressive. Nonviolence rejects violence under all circumstances. Nonaggression permits the use of violence for self defense or delegated defense. Moreover, not all Christians are pacifists.
The Official Catechism of the Catholic Church says that the legitimate defense of persons and societies does not constitute intentional killing. In particular, the act of self-defense can have a double effect: the preservation of one's own life and the killing of the aggressor. The first is intended; the second is not. It is legitimate to respect one's own right to life. Someone who defends his life is not guilty of murder even if he is forced to deal his aggressor a lethal blow.
Martin Luther's Large Catechism says that "no one should harm another for any evil deed, no matter how much he deserves it." However, in What Lutherans Believe, W. E. Schramm says that "In a few exceptional cases the taking of human life is justifiable. If I am attacked, I may defend myself. If an invader enters my home, I may protect my family. If in the defense of my life or in the protection of my household I am compelled to maim or kill, neither the law of the state nor the law of God will hold me guilty of crime."
John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, reasoned that war was the result of sin. Self defense could justify the use of violence, but he generally held that Christian perfection required believers to show love and mercy to their oppressors. Today, the Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church endorses "general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control." In considering one's personal life, the Board of Church and Society of the United Methodist Church, headed by the Rev. Allen Brockway, has expressed its view on what a woman should do if she were raped. According to Rev. Brockway it is a woman's Christian duty to submit to rape rather than do anything that might imperil a rapist's life.
The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is also against its members arming themselves for self-defense. The General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church has publicly stated it is opposed to the killing of anyone for any reason.
For Baptists, the Law of God establishes the basic right of self-defense. A person has a duty to defend himself or his family whenever they are attacked or their lives are endangered. Any weapon is permissible for use in self-defense. The Law of God does not say that the homeowner is guilty if he uses a sword, but innocent if he uses a club. The issue is not one of weapons, but the right and duty of self-defense. It is common for Baptist congregations to sponsor classes in self-defense, up to and including lethal self-defense.
Many nondenominational churches look for guidance in the Bible directly rather than in church doctrine. A number of articles have been written dissecting numerous passages in the Bible and how they relate to self-defense. One of these articles is entitled "The Bible and Self-Defence," and is written by Don Walker, the pastor of Christ Covenant Church in Kansas City.
Pastor Walker maintains that the Bible does not teach pacifism or nonviolence. The Bible does not condemn the use of force, only the misuse of force. Life is a gift from God and God may require us to protect ourselves or others. Pastor Walker extends our duty to protecting our possessions, since we are stewards of these possessions for God. God is our source of protection whether He provides this protection supernaturally or whether He requires us to act on His behalf. We are not doing God's Will by allowing evil men to triumph over us.
If you think this is all a bit confusing, you are right. The Catholic Church condones violent self-defense, yet many priests are nonviolent pacifists. Martin Luther preached total nonviolence, but, at least in the early twentieth century, Lutherans believed in violent self-defense. Wesley accepted the need for violent self-defense, but modern-day Methodists and Presbyterians are nonviolent pacifists. Baptists and nondenominational Christian Churches more often than not are supportive of violent self-defense. Even within congregations, people can be as divided on this issue as they are on birth control, welfare, the death penalty, or other "political" issues.
Fortunately, while it is not true in many countries, in the United States religious freedom is a protected individual right, just as is the right to keep and bear arms. We have the right to hold different beliefs, even if we disagree with the official denominational stance of our particular church. If you disagree with your church's position, it doesn't make you a bad Catholic, or Lutheran, or Methodist, or Presbyterian, or Baptist, or whatever, at least from the government's perspective, or even, in most cases, from the Church's perspective.
Not knowing your own position, however, can increase the likelihood of you or your loved ones being killed if you are faced with a violent confrontation. In such a confrontation, you have a better chance of survival if you fight back quickly and violently. If you halfheartedly fight back, you have a poorer chance of survival. At that moment in time you cannot empathize with your attacker or have compassion for him or her.
Should the situation arise, you will not have the luxury of reasoning through your decision. You will have to react instantly and instinctively. Now is the time to think through your own morality - would you take a life to save a life? Would you take a life to save your possessions? Where do you draw the line? Most Christian concealed handgun licensees answer 'yes' to the first question and 'no' to the second, although the legally acceptable answers vary from state to state, just as the doctrinal answers vary from denomination to denomination.
While being willing to protect yourself, your family, or others for whom you have responsibility is an important step in successful self-defense, making the decision in advance can be a necessary step. A lack of resolve can be as dangerous as a lack of proficiency. There are many ways to develop the proper mental attitude, just as there are many ways to practice with a firearm. A Christian keeping a firearm for self-protection has the responsibility to do both.
Lou Williams is semi-retired and lives in Hamilton County, Ohio.