The Ethics of Self Defense
Are George Zimmerman or Aders Behring Breivik Justified?
By: T.M. Moore|Published: April 17, 2012 11:09 AM
Topics: DTRT Ethics News
Two noteworthy cases of “self-defense” are currently before the courts.
In Florida, George Zimmerman, appealing to Florida’s “stand your ground” law, is pleading self-defense in the slaying of Trayvon Martin.
Meanwhile, in Norway, Anders Behring Breivik admits to killing 77 people, but has pled self-defense against those he supposes to be endangering his liberties by encouraging Muslims to immigrate to Norway.
The Breivik case is patently absurd. The Zimmerman case, however, is rather more nuanced. Indeed, he appears actually to believe the law is on his side and justifies his action in taking the life of Trayvon Martin.
Both cases raise the question of whether or not, or to what extent, “self-defense” is a justifiable ground for acting in violence against another person. This is precisely the kind of ethical question Christians should be weighing-in on, and, for that reason, I want to outline some Biblical parameters for thinking about self-defense.
Several passages of Scripture come to mind. Exodus 22:2 reads, “If a thief is found breaking in and is struck so that he dies, there shall be no bloodguilt for him…” Here a property owner, acting in defense of his property and perhaps his own life, is not to be held accountable for “standing his ground” against an intruder.
In 2 Samuel 2:18-23 Abner killed Asahel, who was pursuing him with the intention of killing him. In this case Abner warned Asahel and called on him to give up the chase. Asahel refused, so Abner killed him in self-defense.
However, in an earlier situation involving Abner, David refused to kill Saul, and chided Abner for failing to guard his king against danger (1 Sam. 26:6-16). David would perhaps have been justified in killing Saul, who was pursuing him, but he chose not to, deferring to God’s timing in the matter (vv. 9, 10). Should Abner have learned from David’s earlier example, and sought some other way to deter the swifter Asahel?
Jesus taught His followers to “turn the other cheek” to those who acted in violence against them (Lk. 6:27-29) and called on them to do unto others as they would have others do unto them (v. 31). He also rebuked Peter for his use of the sword during the arrest of Jesus (Lk. 22:47-51), even though earlier He affirmed His disciples having “two swords” to take with them as they began their mission in His name (vv. 35-38).
Let’s consider each of these.
First, the example from the Law of God is just that. The Law was given to Israel as a means of ensuring the justice of God would obtain in the communities of His people. The Law can be harsh at times – “an eye for an eye” and the many transgressions for which the death penalty could be invoked. The death of an intruder can surely be justified as a right use of self-defense. At a time when Israel did not have a heart for God (Deut. 5:29) and the Spirit had not yet been given, the Law was given to bridle the hardness of men’s hearts (Matt. 19:8), and harsh penalties were meant to deter people from committing crimes (Deut. 17:8-13).
However, the New Testament, coming as it does in the age of grace, when the Spirit of God is actively at work in the Church and throughout the world, wooing and provoking people to turn from sin to seek the Lord, calls believers to move beyond the “letter” of the Law into its true “spirit” (cf. 2 Cor. 3:4-6; for an application in a capital offense, see 1 Cor. 5). The Spirit of the Law is a Spirit of truth and grace. Jesus directed His followers to think beyond the letter of the Law to its true spiritual character, and thus to keep a close watch on their inner persons and to extend grace and mercy to those against whom they might otherwise defend themselves with violence (cf. Matt. 5:21-48). Jesus instructed His followers to allow themselves to be wronged, and still to show grace to those who abused them. His strong retort to Peter in the garden of Gethsemane suggests that Peter grossly misunderstood Jesus’ affirmation about the use of the sword.
The example of Abner and Asahel, coming as it did during a time of war, does not properly fall under the “self-defense” category. Abner was acting on behalf of the lawful king against an enemy and thus was simply prosecuting an act of wielding the sword against an evil-doer, a duty which the State still bears today (Rom. 13:1-5). David chose not to defend himself against Saul, and both this situation, as well as Abner’s warning to Asahel, perhaps anticipate the age of grace that was yet to come.
The Golden Rule instructs us to do unto others as we would have them do unto us – not to do them whatever they may be trying to do to us. Thus we might argue that a man who is being attacked by another presumably does not want that attacker to kill him; he should thus consider how to fend off the attack without having to take the attacker’s life, all the while bearing in mind that taking the life of an image-bearer of God is no small matter (Gen. 9:6). Some act of self-defense, short of taking the assailant’s life, would perhaps be justified.
But if the attack is coming because of the innocent party’s faith – because he is preaching the Gospel or professing faith in Christ – then, following the example of Jesus, His followers should normally expect such persecution and prepare themselves to endure it, loving their enemies all the while.
So from this brief survey allow me to posit some principles for the practice of self-defense, and then to offer a comment on the George Zimmerman case.
First, in any application of self-defense, grace must be the guiding principle. Thus, as much as possible, anyone who resorts to self-defense must use means that come short of taking the life of the assailant. Would Trayvon Martin have been discouraged from his violence – assuming he was initiating the violence, which is not at clear at this point – through a judicious use of pepper spray?
However, should an assailant die as a result of someone’s defending himself against him, then grace in the form of acquittal should be applied to the one who was forced to defend himself, unless it can be shown that he intended to kill his assailant. In such a case other charges – short of murder – might be considered.
At the same time, all such instances should be thoroughly investigated before judgments are rendered.
Finally, Christians who are forced to endure suffering because of their faith should not appeal to violence in their defense; rather, they should follow the example of Jesus and continue entrusting themselves to God, Who knows how to care for His elect (1 Pet. 2:18-25). They may flee from their tormentors, as the Christians in Jerusalem did in Acts 8; or they may simply bear their violence as far as it goes – the example of Paul, Peter, and the early martyrs.
Concerning the case of George Zimmerman, it seems likely that Mr. Zimmerman was emboldened in his use of violence against Trayvon Martin by the Florida statute which allows victims to carry handguns and “stand their ground” against attackers. Had that statute been more carefully crafted, Mr. Martin might still be alive today. (The right to carry concealed handguns is another ethical issue, but it certainly dovetails into this situation.)
There thus appears to be an ethic of self-defense revealed in the Scriptures. However, it is carefully developed within a framework of grace, involving respect for human life and love for one’s neighbors – even if that neighbor happens to be acting in violence against one.