The Moral Side of Lethal Force

Jim Higginbotham
Jim Higginbotham

Jim Higginbotham

“To everything there is a season, and a time for every matter or purpose under heaven: A time to be born, and a time to die; ….A time to kill,……. Ecclesiastes 3: 1-8 (Amp.)

Now this may be a shock to your sensibilities and I hope you will pardon me if I take you out of your comfort zone a little here. However, brother and sister in Christ, if you will allow me, I hope to demonstrate a few things that many Christians seem to be confused about these days. Now this is not a lecture but a discussion so please do not get the idea that I am pontificating or waxing eloquent. Also in the short space I am allowed I cannot cover all aspects of the topic but I hope to hit the high points. As always, the ultimate resource is not the opinions of man however, but the Word of God.

God has a good bit to say about the use of lethal force and it readily becomes evident that there are both acceptable and unacceptable applications of it. Of course the first and most commonly known passage involving lethal force in the Bible is the Commandment, “Thou Shalt not Kill”, Ex. 20:13 so we had better deal with this first. Part of this dilemma is taken care of by the modern translations such as the NIV, the Amplified Bible and a few more. The Commandment, taken from the original Hebrew actually reads, “Thou Shalt not Murder”. If you have a concordance you will find that the word used in the original text was Ratsach for which the preferred definition is indeed “murder” and its derivations even indicates premeditated murder or assassination. Even if you don’t have a Concordance then the meaning is made clear in the very first chapter of the Bible; Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed, Gen 9:6, a clear authorization for man to end the life of an offending party if the crime be serious enough. We could develop this further but enough now, considering the constraints of space, to establish that God does not forbid using lethal force in all cases.

OK, we have established that God sanctions the use of lethal force in some cases. Just where do we draw the line. What justifies taking the life of another human being. Well it is clearly not in response to an injury to your pride. Jesus Himself advised us to: “…resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.”, Mat. 5:39. Does this mean you should allow someone to attack you? Hardly. In nearly every instance I can find in the Bible, a “smite on the cheek” is a personal affront not an physical attack (see: 1Kings 22:24, 2 Chron. 18:23, Job 16:10, and so on). It is not to be used to make a point. When Peter made what was surely a futile effort to retaliate against the armed group who came to arrest Jesus at the Garden, Jesus rebuked him with these words; “Then said Jesus unto him, Put up again thy sword into his place: for all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword.”, Mat. 26:52. I am not sure if there is any significance to the fact that this particular warning is not worded the same in the other gospels but one thing seems to come to mind and that is that Peter, impulsive as ever, was trying to alter what was clearly God’s perfect will, and impose his own, by his show of force.

However equally clear from scripture is the guidance that is given by Jesus to his disciples in Luke 22:35 –36: “And He said unto them, When I sent you without purse, and scrip, and shoes, lacked ye any thing? And they said, Nothing. Then said he unto them, But now, he that hath a purse, let him take [it], and likewise [his] scrip: and he that hath no sword, let him sell his garment, and buy one.”

More to the point Jesus, who mostly spoke in parables, confirmed an old testament treatment of the use of lethal force, using deadly weapons in Luke 11:21, “When a strong man armed keepeth his palace, his goods are in peace”. Now this parable was not about protecting one’s goods but about spiritual warfare, however the comparison confirms the correctness of the philosophy of protecting one’s property with lethal force. One can go back to the Old Testament to get the confirmation. “If a thief be found breaking up, and be smitten that he die, [there shall] no blood [be shed] for him.”, Ex. 22.2.

The Apostle Paul even has something to say about arms and lethal force when talking of the Centurion (who is part soldier and part policeman). He states; “For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to [execute] wrath upon him that doeth evil.” Now some will be quick to point out that this is referring to a government official, who, through God’s will has been appointed to a position of authority. In America, God has allowed us to appoint our own officials, through the power of the ballot box. What the armed official does with his weapon we bear some degree of responsibility for, in theory, we are self governing. As an aside, and by logical extension, there is an implication there that we share some degree (certainly not most) of the responsibility for any nefarious actions of those whom we leave in office when their misconduct becomes public knowledge and we have the legal recourse to remove them – now there’s a sobering thought.

An even more interesting, perhaps we might say perplexing passage penned by Paul is found in Hebrews 7:1-4 which refers to Melchisedec, King of Salem, priest of the Most High God and King of peace and, what many biblical scholars believe is a type of Christ, a preview from the O.T. if you will. Now it might be ironic but this King of Peace is only known for one act in the entire Bible and that is his blessing of Abraham when Abraham took his private militia – his army of men that he presumably armed and trained – and slaughtered the kings who had kidnapped members of his family. If God forbids all forms of homicide then Abraham and Paul certainly missed it.

While not on the level of the Word in authority, church history abounds with Christians who resorted to the ultimate violence in order to work for good. The Catholic Saint, Gabriel Possenti, was most noted for standing up to a band of mercenaries over 100 years ago. St. Gabriel was, among other things, one fine pistol shot. While his collar did not impress the mercenaries, the fact that he physically disarmed one of their men and then shot the head off a lizard convinced them they had best loot some other town.

In 1994 one of the documents produced by the Vatican Pontifical council for Justice and Peace states: “In a world marked by evil and sin, the right of legitimate defense by armed menace exists. This right can become a serious duty for those who are responsible for the lives of others, for the common good of the family or of the civil community”. It goes on to state that the right to armed defense is coupled with the duty to do all possible to reduce to a minimum or eliminate the causes of violence. In case you have not noticed, violence is not caused by instruments, it is caused and carried out by people.

With the current argument in the press over people carrying guns in church it might fascinate you to know that 200 years ago it was against the law for a man to come to church unarmed! Now you may point out that times have changed but how does that change God’s view – as perceived 200 years ago. What was OK with God then is OK with God now for He is “the same yesterday, today and forever”. What has changed is only social mores.

Of course we have only scratched the surface of this very complex subject but due to time and space constraints we will have to address them at a later date. If you have questions you would like to see addressed we will try to cover them so let me know by email and I will keep a file so that we might do a Word study on them.

Now before you decide that I am being rather cold hearted and bloodthirsty, let me say that I am merely discussing the Word as it applies to the restrictions – or, more to the point – devine authorization to employ lethal force. I personally would caution you to be very reluctant to use that authorization. Taking the life of another person always has serious consequences legally, socially and financially. While the Word is clear that you may use lethal force to protect your belongings, especially if they are in your house. Risking the consequences just to protect things is not a very good idea. Kentucky state law allows the use of lethal force against burglars if you happen to be in the house at the time and against the arson of your home and outbuildings but you could still end up paying a huge financial settlement. I strongly urge you to use it only if your life – or that of a loved one – is in jeopardy. It is, in other words, the second to last resort – the last would be allowing an attacker to take your life or cause you serious bodily injury or do the same to one you are responsible for.

I hope this has not been too traumatic for you. I hope you will not mistake it as an excuse for those who use weapons irresponsibly. It is sometimes very difficult to objectively assess ideas that might seem foreign or even radical. I hope I have shown you that this is not something new or radical. In fact it is the idea that personal arms and their restrained, responsible use are somehow “immoral” that is radical considering the historical position of the church. Perhaps next time we can discuss things that are really surprising – like the fairly well documented fact that the “Wild West” was much safer than many of our major cities today, and that “gun control” in Dodge City was a magnificent failure. Food for thought.

Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition

Jim Higginbotham

Comments, suggestions, contributions? Let me know