Stanton’s version of non-violent philosophy obviously has its roots in Merie’s teachings. I remember the night the Stanton congregation discussed whether to fund the publication of Merie’s book, Put Up Thy Sword, on this subject. The church’s discussion (at least the one I remember; there may have been more) took place in the living room of Dawna Graham (now Bejar), my best friend’s mom at the time.
I remember thinking at the time about the discrepancy between the church financing a book written by a fallible human while preaching and teaching against the scores of denominations built on teachings in books written by fallible humans. It seemed incongruous to me, but I wasn’t at an age where I was able to voice disagreement with my parents. So in keeping with my Stanton training, I set this discrepancy aside, and figured I’d understand it later.
I read Merie’s book in high school at my mom’s suggestion. While growing up and grappling with the philosophy of violence and self defense, my immature mind came to accept the premises of pacifism. I didn’t call it that—I just rationalized it as being Biblical. The Bible said not to kill and Jesus said to turn the other cheek, right? So I grew up believing I could not pursue a career as a police officer, join the military (although my dad had been in the Navy), or even defend myself or others using force (despite getting bullied by some gang-bangers in junior high from Stanton’s infamous Crow Village).
Don’t get me wrong—this nonviolent philosophy didn’t deter me from supporting the Second Amendment. As an avid marksman, I even paid for a lifetime membership to the NRA as a high schooler out of my own paper route earnings, and enthusiastically read the “Armed Citizen” section of my American Rifleman magazine. But I lived in two different worlds, intellectually. I acknowledge the logic, rationality, and morality of self defense and the defense of the defenseles (for non-Christians, at least) but I believed that the handful of “true” Christians in the world couldn’t use force to defend themselves or others.
This conflicted thinking continued into adulthood. I later came to realize the logical and scriptural errors in this thinking, and no longer believe it’s Biblical at all. In fact, it runs counter to Biblical principles, “natural law,” and common sense. I’ll explain.
Thou shalt not kill
For everyone who’s been indoctrinated by Stanton, I know you’re saying “But what about the sixth command ‘Thou shalt not kill?'” Well, let’s look at that. That phrase is actually a misunderstanding of the archaic wording of the King James Version of the Bible. In King James’ era, the English word “to kill” was used synonymously with the English word “to murder.” So it’s not fair to call it a “mistranslation,” but it is certainly a misunderstanding due to our changing language.
In modern usage, our verb “to murder” means very specifically the illicit or immoral killing of a human being. We don’t say “honey, will you murder that fly?” or “honey, can you murder a squash from the garden for dinner tonight?” We only use the word murder for humans, and it always includes a moral judgement. Murder is wrong, every time.
The verb “to kill,” on the other hand, could be used for any kind of killing. It can be used for hunting, whether legal or illegal. Note that even illegal hunting (off season) or immoral killing of animals (gratuitous animal torture, for instance) are never, ever called murder. That is reserved for illegal or immoral killing of humans only. But the verb “to kill” can be used in reference to any life form. Bugs, animals, fish, jellyfish (which don’t even have a brain), and plants; all these can be killed with or without any moral implication.
So what did the the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” really mean, then? If we look to the Hebrew, we find that in modern English, a more accurate translation is Do not murder.” First, here’s what Webster has to say about the English word “to kill:”
- To kill – to deprive of life : cause the death of
- To murder – the crime of unlawfully killing a person, especially with malice aforethought
- ratsach – to murder
So that’s the Old Testament treatment of the Sixth Command, but what about Jesus’ supposedly pacifist teachings?
Was Jesus a pacifist?
Those who look up to the generally non-violent teachings of Jesus, Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr. might think the ideologies of these thinkers are contradictory to the idea of self-defense. But that’s not accurate at all.
All three of these leaders made a crucial distinction between non-violence as a tool of political and social reform, and defense of self or other humans against the violent actions of criminals.
One can make a moral defense of non-violent political reform, as all three of these leaders did. But there is no moral defense for refusing, given the opportunity, to stop a criminal who is about to kill, torture, or violate innocent human life. Allowing evil to happen when it’s in our power to stop it is itself evil:
James 4:17 – Therefore, to him who knows to do good and does not do it, to him it is sin.
Consequently, one could also infer that there is no moral defense for governments or religious sects that seek to make their citizens defenseless against those who would do violence to them. If we have the power to stop an evil act against an innocent person, I believe we are morally bound to attempt to stop it—by force, if necessary.
Are there moral exceptions? Perhaps. Just read Jesus Freaks for some examples of nonviolence used intentionally to advance the message of the gospel. In those rare instances of religious persecution, there is some moral and intellectual foundation for nonviolence. But keep in mind, this puts the subject back into the context of a social, religious, or political movement. Jesus never advocated violence to advance the gospel or reform society. He did advocate the defense of innocent life.
The teachings of Jesus, Gandhi, and King are too often portrayed to promote a radically non-violent ideology, or pacifism, when that was never what they taught. These great leaders instead rose to fame speaking about matters of political, social, and spiritual reform, not the pragmatic world of self-defense. Where they did address the use of force in self-defense, all three allowed for it. They did not prohibit self-defense; they encouraged it.
Jesus’ application of nonviolence
To understand Jesus’s teaching to “turn the other cheek,” we have to understand that he was most often addressing the Sanhedrin and Pharisees, the hypocritical political and religious leaders of the day who lived by the creed “an eye for an eye.” That is a far cry from what I advocate in defense of self defense.
Keep in mind that Jesus lived in a society that faced political turmoil. The Jewish people lived under the thumb of the Roman government, and they expected a coming Messiah to rise up in a violent overthrow (something the religious sect called the Zealots actively promoted). Jesus’ teachings were designed to exemplify a different concept of the Kingdom of God, teaching his followers to view this Kingdom as a spiritual entity rather than a political one.
The Jewish culture expected a political overthrow, and Jesus taught against that. But his teaching of nonviolence was an entirely different topic than that of self defense.
In fact, the subject of self defense went almost, but not completely untouched by Jesus. Pacifists will cite Jesus’s famous reproof of Peter to “Put your sword back in its place, for all who draw the sword will die by the sword” (Matthew 26:52). However, even this event occurred in the context of Jesus leading what amounts to a nonviolent protest against the leaders of the day who opposed his message. He was not giving any instruction against self-defense, but against violent political activism.
In fact, I don’t believe for a moment that Jesus taught individuals not to defend themselves or their families against criminals. That would be morally reprehensible. How could a loving God desire a husband to let a criminal rape his wife while simply non-violently protesting the act, when it is within his power to stop it?
And expecting the victim of a rape to simply talk the perpetrator out of it? That’s just wrong on so many levels. The Bible makes it clear that all violence is not equal; there is moral violence and immoral violence. For example, did you know that Jesus specifically instructed his disciples to sell some of their garments and buy a sword for their dangerous journey?
Luke 22:36-38 – He said to them, “But now if you have a purse, take it, and also a bag; and if you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one. 37 It is written: ‘And he was numbered with the transgressors;’ and I tell you that this must be fulfilled in me. Yes, what is written about me is reaching its fulfillment.” 38 The disciples said, “See, Lord, here are two swords.” “That’s enough!” he replied.
This may be the first Biblical advocacy of open carry of a weapon, and it’s from God himself. Paul writes about the dangers of his missionary travels, including encountering bands of robbers (2 Corinthians 11:26-28) on the road:
2 Corinthians 11:26-28 – I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers. 27 I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. 28 Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches.
Carrying their swords openly would have led to fewer conflicts with the baser sorts they might have encountered in their travels. I think it’s safe to assume, given Jesus’s instruction to his disciples to carry a sword, that Paul didn’t turn the other cheek to the bandits, but wielded his sword when necessary. If he carried it in plain view, he probably didn’t have to use it often.
What about Gandhi and MLK?
Gandhi’s teachings on nonviolence are much easier to correlate with the practical idea of self-defense, because he openly taught that non-violence was a tool that should be considered first, but not exclusively. He addressed self-defense and defense of the defenseless this way:
“I have been repeating over and over again that he who cannot protect himself or his nearest and dearest or their honour by non-violently facing death may ought to do so by violently dealing with the oppressor. He who can do neither of the two is a burden. He has no business to be the head of a family. He must either hide himself, or must rest content to live for ever in helplessness and be prepared to crawl like a worm at the bidding of a bully. …
“I must not let a coward seek shelter behind nonviolence, so-called. Not knowing the stuff of which nonviolence is made, many have honestly believed that running away from danger every time was a virtue compared to offering resistance, especially when it was fraught with danger to one’s life. As a teacher of nonviolence, I must, so far as it is possible for me, guard against such an unmanly belief.
“Self-defence … is the only honourable course where there is unreadiness for self-immolation. Though violence is not lawful, when it is offered in self-defence or for the defence of the defenceless, it is an act of bravery far better than cowardly submission. The latter befits neither man nor woman. Under violence, there are many stages and varieties of bravery. Every man must judge this for himself. No other person can or has the right.” (Source: The Mind of Mahatma Gandhi)
Like Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr.’s espousal of non-violence was clearly promoted in the context of political and social reform, not personal self-defense or the defense of other defenseless people. In fact, it’s a matter of historical record that King at one point applied for a concealed carry license, and almost always traveled with armed guards. Glenn Smiley, one of his closest advisors, described King’s home as “an arsenal” for a reason. He once almost sat on a loaded gun on a chair at a meeting in his home. King wrote:
Here one must be clear that there are three different views on the subject of violence. One is the approach of pure nonviolence, which cannot readily or easily attract large masses, for it requires extraordinary discipline and courage. The second is violence exercised in self-defense, which all societies, from the most primitive to the most cultured and civilized, accept as moral and legal. The principle of self-defense, even involving weapons and bloodshed, has never been condemned, even by Gandhi, who sanctioned it for those unable to master pure nonviolence. The third is the advocacy of violence as a tool of advancement, organized as in warfare, deliberately and consciously. There are incalculable perils in this approach. (Source: The Social Organization of Non-Violence)
Those “evil” guns
We hear most about the evils of violence when there is a mass shooting, not when an armed citizen defends herself from a rapist, or her family from an attacker. These things happen every day across America, and as a result, progressives and pacifists are able to promote a sanitized view of non-violence. Liberal theologians and left-wing politicians in ivory towers don’t have to address the messy reality of a fallen world, which includes criminals who want to hurt you and your family.
The little-known truth is that civil rights era leaders like John Salter, the famous organizer of the 1963 sit-ins, travelled armed, and praised the Second Amendment for allowing him and his fellow organizers to protest and reform society while keeping some level of personal safety for themselves and their families. In fact, the oft-maligned NRA stood side-by-side with black civil rights leaders helping to ensure their legal right to arm themselves as protection against the violent KKK. But that fact is conveniently airbrushed out of the record by modern pundits.
Guns are therefore not just a quaint and nostalgic part of American culture; they have been central to its preservation of freedom, advancement of human rights, and ability to reform itself against injustices along the way.
Our culture, and certainly Stanton’s, are philosophically illiterate on the subjects of non-violence and gun ownership. It is one thing to sit in the Agora in our philosophers’ robes and discuss the theory of pacifism detached from the need to actually put it into practice. It is quite another to sit in a crowded theater and watch innocent people, unarmed by the theater chain’s policy against concealed carry, be murdered in cold blood.
The brand of non-violence that leaves the defenseless incapable of protecting innocent life is not at all what Jesus, Gandhi, or King advocated. That philosophy is a fabrication of politicians and misguided Christians and philosophers who can theorize all they want about life in their ivory towers without consequence. But the philosophy of non-violence was never meant by its most famous advocates to prohibit ownership of weapons, or to prohibit defending oneself or other innocents against evil people.
As for me, I will choose to protect my family today and worry about explaining it to the armchair philosophers tomorrow. Could there be eternal consequences? Yes, there could be eternal consequences for refusing to protect my family against aggressors just because I don’t want to hurt the aggressor. That would be neither loving to my family nor just. At least my family will still be alive to have that debate.
To be clear, I would never take any satisfaction in taking a human life. It would be with great sadness if I was forced to do so, because each human life is of value to God and therefore to me. I’d much rather love that person and make a convert of them. But I’ve been given a responsibility to love the victim, as well. So could I pull the trigger if faced with the reality of my child or wife or even a stranger being in immediate physical danger? Absolutely. I wouldn’t take joy in it, but I would sleep well at night knowing I was on the right side of God’s moral law.