I like guns.
It’s not a big secret. As a police officer I spend a lot of time around guns. I’m a life member of the National Rifle Association. I’m an advocate of concealed and open carry. In fact, I carry a firearm on my person every day, both on and off duty. I’m a student of history and have a modest collection of odd and historic firearms. I’m a constitutional conservative who recognizes that Americans have a constitutionally protected individual right to keep and bear arms.
Reading the paper a couple weeks ago, I came across an opinion piece by Rob Schenck chastising Christians who are pro-gun and pro-life, and it brought up an issue that I have struggled with for a long time – self-defense. To summarize the opinion piece, the author cites Christ’s injunction to, “bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you.” Mr. Schenck maintains that the Bible strictly limits the use of deadly force. He reminds Christians that we have an obligation to love everyone, even those who mean us harm.
The Christian gospel should quell our fears and remind us of our Christ-like obligation to love all people, even those who intend us harm. This generous view of the world calls us to demonstrate God’s love toward others, regardless of who they are, where they come from or what religion they practice. Assuming a permanently defensive posture against others, especially when it includes a willingness to kill, is inimical to a life of faith (Schenck 2015).
I can’t say that I necessarily disagree with Mr. Schenck’s broader point. Christians are certainly called to love their neighbors as themselves. I believe that Mr. Schenck however, who states in the article that he is an Evangelical, jumps to a conclusion which cannot be reached, and on which the Biblical doctrine of vocation could possibly shed some light.
The question is, is there ever a time when a Christian may use deadly force to protect themselves, or others, from the violence that would be done to them by evil men?
Our gut reaction as Americans may be a resounding yes, but this attitude of self-preservation does not seem to reconcile with the “turn the other cheek” attitude Christians are allegedly supposed to exhibit at all times and in all situations. Several Biblical passages which deal with this issue come to mind.
You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you…Do not say, “I will do to him as he has done to me; I will pay the man back for what he has done…” See now that I, even I, am he, and there is no god beside me; I kill and I make alive; I wound and I heal; and there is none that can deliver out of my hand” (Matt. 5:38-42; Prov. 24:29; Deut. 32:39).
In these passages, and in many other places, Christians are told not to resist evil. In fact, St. Paul, quoting Proverbs, tells us to heap burning coals on the heads of our enemies by doing good to them.
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight. Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.”Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good (Romans 12:14-21).
This would seem to bring the question to a close. We must consider, however, that God has ordered his creation and placed men into vocations so that this world can be governed. In fact, this is the purpose for which God has instituted government, as St. Paul describes in Romans 13.
In his explanation of the Fifth Commandment in the Small Catechism, Dr. Martin Luther explains what God requires of man when he commands, “You shall not murder.”
We should fear and love God so that we do not hurt or harm our neighbor in his body, but help and support him in every physical need (Concordia Publishing House 1991).
Indeed, speaking in terms of vocation, Dr. Luther certainly did not believe that Holy Scripture commanded the Christian to be a pacifist who refrained from violence of any kind. In his commentary on The Sermon on the Mount, Dr. Luther wrote the following:
You see, now we are talking about a Christian-in-relation: not about his being a Christian, but about this life and his obligation in it to some other person, whether under him or over him or even alongside him, like a lord or a lady, a wife or children or neighbors, whom he is obliged, if possible, to defend, guard, and protect. Here it would be a mistake to teach: “Turn the other cheek, and throw your cloak away with your coat.” That would be ridiculous, like the case of the crazy saint who let the lice nibble at him and refused to kill any of them on account of this text, maintaining that he had to suffer and could not resist evil (Luther, The Sermon on the Mount and the Magnificat 1999).
So, not only does the Christian have a duty not to harm his neighbor, he also has a duty to help and protect him in every bodily need.
A police officer, for example, serves his neighbor by serving in his vocation, by protecting life and property and keeping the peace. Sometimes this service may necessitate using deadly force. A person, however, does not simply hold one vocation. In addition to my vocation as a police officer, I am also a father, a son, and a citizen. Those vocations may also, at times, necessitate using deadly force. For example, a father, in fulfilling his vocation and obligation to protect his family, may be compelled to use deadly force. Dr. Luther, in his commentary on The Sermon on the Mount, continues:
Do you want to know what your duty is as a prince or a judge or a lord or a lady, with people under you? You do not have to ask Christ about your duty. Ask the imperial or the territorial law. It will soon tell you your duty toward your inferiors as their protector. It gives you both the power and the might to protect and to punish within the limits of your authority and commission, not as a Christian but as an imperial subject. What kind of crazy mother would it be who would refuse to defend and save her child from a dog or a wolf and who would say: “A Christian must not defend himself”? Should we not teach her a lesson with a good whipping and say: “Are you a mother? Then do your duty as a mother, as you are charged to do it. Christ did not abrogate this but rather confirmed it” (Luther, The Sermon on the Mount and the Magnificat 1999).
The laws of the state of Illinois confer upon the citizen the power to effect arrest and the right to use appropriate force in order to stop crime, just as it does for a Peace Officer. Therefore, I would urge Mr. Schenck to consider that a citizen, acting in his vocation as such, is not committing sin if he lawfully owns or carries a gun for the purpose of lawful protection. He is simply acting according to the vocation of citizen into which God has placed him, under the stewardship of the government which God has ordained.
The implication of this view is, however, that while one may be justified in using force to protect his neighbor according to his vocation, he may not be so justified to protect himself. I suppose this “good citizen” argument might be extended to include the individual protecting himself from crime, but for me the jury is still out. It seems to me that, when I meet that robber or terrorist who wishes to do me harm, as an individual Christian I am bound to turn the other cheek. Luther seems to agree with this view.
We have now [with the first four commandments] finished teaching about both the spiritual and the temporal government, that is the divine and the parental authority and obedience. But now we go forth from our house among our neighbors to learn how we should live with one another, everyone himself toward his neighbor. Therefore, God and government are not included in this commandment. Nor is the power to kill taken away, which God and government have. To punish evildoers, God has delegated His authority to the government, not parents. In earlier times, as we read in Moses, parents were required to bring their own children to judgment and even to sentence them to death (Deut. 21:18-21). Therefore, what is forbidden in this commandment is forbidden to the individual in his relationship with anyone else, but not to the government (LC 1, 180-181) (McCain, et al. 2005).
Of course, there is a difference between punishing evil-doers and defending one’s self or one’s neighbor from harm. A police officer foiling an armed robbery is not punishing the perpetrator when he uses force to stop the crime and make an arrest. The punishment comes after the criminal is tried, found guilty, and sentenced by a judge. Similarly, when a citizen uses force likely to cause great bodily harm or death to stop the same armed robbery, he is not “punishing evil-doers” outside of the bounds of his vocation. Rather, he living up to his obligation to protect and defend his neighbor.
The problem with Mr. Schenck’s statement that one cannot be pro-gun and pro-life is that it is not accurate and causes the Christian the type of cognitive dissonance Mr. Schenck exhibits in his article when considered apart from the doctrine of vocation.
Concordia Publishing House. Luther’s Small Catechism. Translated by Concordia Publishing House. Saint Louis, Missouri: Concordia Publishing House, 1991.
Luther, Martin. “The Large Catechism.” Chap. 1, 181 in The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, edited by T. G. Tappert. Philadelphia: Fortress Press.
Luther, Martin. The Sermon on the Mount and the Magnificat. Vol. 21. Edited by J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald and H. T. Lehmann. Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1999.
Schenck, Rob. “Commentary: You can’t be pro-life and pro-gun.” The Chicago Tribune, December 30, 2015.
 720 ILCS 5.0/7-6 (2015): Private Person’s Use of Force in Making Arrest (Illinois Compiled Statutes).