June 17, 2015 a young White man named Dylan Roof opened fire at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charlestown, South Carolina. Roof killed 9 black parishioners and was clearly motivated by a desire to ignite racial violence.
September 22, 2017 a Sundanese immigrant Emanuel Kidega Samson opened fire at the Burnette Chapel Church of Christ in Antioch, Tennessee. One person was killed and a number of other people were wounded
November 5, 2017, Devin Kelley, a dishonorably discharged Air Force veteran and militant atheist, enters the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, Texas, killing over two dozen people, including a number of small children.
These are three examples of mass shootings that have occurred at churches over the last two years. I am sure there are others but these are the ones that come to mind.
Now more than ever I am seeing a lot of American Christians asking the question “Is it time for me to arm myself when gathering with the church?” and it is a perfectly understandable question and one that needs more than a simplistic response. My viewpoint on this has been maturing, I hope, over the last year.
First things first, we need to start with some definitions. There are three categories of legally legitimate lethal violence as I see it.
1. Violence in the cause of a nation or state, typically as a member of the military or law enforcement, although I would stipulate that the police often would fall into the second or third categories below.
2. Violence in the defense of one’s self, as an act of self-defense against an aggressor.
3. Violence in the defense of another, such as the shooting of Devin Kelley by a neighbor, an act which likely prevented Kelley from killing even more people.
I have been an absolutist when it comes to nonresistance, in large part as a response to the unquestioning acceptance of violence, including lethal violence, on the part of the church. The church in America has a serious issue where it comes to our love affair with the American military and that is deeply unhealthy.
In practice this means that I have generally treated all three types of lethal violence above in the same way. If it is wrong to kill as a soldier it is wrong to kill in self-defense and it is wrong to kill to defend someone else. It is simpler to look at it that way because it helps neuter some of the “Oh yeah, what about...” gotcha questions.
Looking at each in turn and treating them as distinct although closely related issues gives us a slightly different view.
State Sanctioned Violence, Especially The Military
The first category is, in my opinion, the easiest to reject from a Scriptural and practical sense. It is also one of the hardest to address in the church in America because of our unhealthy love affair with the flag and the military. While war is a reality of human existence, one that will not go away in my lifetime or prior to the return of the Lord, and while Scripture teaches that the sword is placed in the hand of the government as represented by Caesar, that doesn't mean that war is inherently noble or something Christians should engage in.
Very few wars would qualify as a truly justifiable war in American history. Not Vietnam or Korea or World War I. Not even the Civil War which was absolutely not fought to rid America of slavery but instead was fought to keep the Union together. Our wars are generally not defensive in any sense and usually were fought over territory, empire or some sense of misplaced national pride.
Even in the case of World War II, the United States both engaged in atrocities like the firebombing of Dresden and Tokyo in addition to the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki that were all designed to strike terror into the civilian population and sap the will of the government to continue the fight, as well as the complicity of the United States in allying ourselves with the brutal totalitarian government of the Soviet Union, whose forces engaged in all sorts of inhumane behavior and who enslaved and murdered millions upon millions of people in Russia and Eastern Europe for decades after Adolf Hitler was dead. Our “good war” which serves as the trump card for pro-military Christians was hardly a flawless war and was arguably the extension of our foolish intervention in World War I.
In summary, Christians should not be involved as participants nor should we support wars of aggression, wars where you are being sent at the command of Caesar to kill either fellow Christians or the people you are supposed to evangelize. While I can make a weak case for Christian involvement of a sort in defensive wars, there have been very few of those (the war of 1812?) and in general soldiers don't get to pick and choose which wars they get to fight in. The soundest policy for Christians is to not serve as soldiers for Caesar.
Violence In Self-Defense
The second category is a little harder but still for me ultimately is an area Christians should adopt a nonresistance/nonviolence position and that is using violence to defend yourself, specifically defending your life.
The New Testament is replete with what appear to be admonitions to not use violence to defend oneself. In Matthew 5:39 Jesus says "Do not resist the one who is evil". We are told to overcome evil by doing good to those who wrong us (Romans 12:21). Jesus Himself stated: "And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell." (Matthew 10:28). Paul saw dying for the sake of the Gospel as far better than remaining in this world:
For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. (Philippians 1:21-23)So killing someone else to preserve my own life seems counter-productive to me. There is an argument to be made that my family needs me for a variety of reasons that would support self-preservation but compared to the commands of Christ and Paul it is a pretty weak argument.
Violence to Protect Others
The third category is where my absolutist convictions waver. Protecting your friends or family or even strangers when they are in danger from an evil person is hard to argue against. It goes against our nature to stand by when someone is being hurt, especially as a man. I understand and have argued on many occasions that there are other options besides pulling a gun or standing meekly by but in some cases there are just not many options.
I have a solemn and sacred obligation to my family which includes providing for them (1 Timothy 5:8) and educating my children. It is hard to not feel that protecting them from evil doers would fall under my obligations as a father and husband. If someone was threatening my wife and kids and I have the means to stop that someone from harming them, whether that means tackling the would-be assailant or punching him in the nose or hitting him with a baseball bat or pulling a trigger, it would seem to be the lesser of two evils to stop an evil man by violence rather than let him hurt my wife and kids. The counter-argument, which again I have used, is that the lesser of two evils is still evil but then again the alternative is also evil and the greater of the two. Sometimes there just isn't a good option. I am not talking about seeking out an opportunity to shoot someone but evil men can and do seek people out, whether in homes or a school or a church.
I wouldn't want to drive people away with an absolutist position that leaves no room for discernment. There is something deeply distasteful about being in a position to protect your family and not doing so. I might be able to craft a fancy theological argument in favor of nonresistance in that situation but in real life if someone was seriously threatening my wife or kids I am pretty confident that those arguments would fly out of the window and I would do anything in my power to keep them from harm. Anything. I am just as sure that even the most dyed in the wool pacifist would do the same thing if push came to shove and claiming otherwise seems sort of dishonest to me. That isn't really a failure to trust God, I have always worked for a living so I could pay for food to feed my kids instead of sitting around the table waiting for God to provide food in a manna in the desert manner. It is the reality of living in a fallen world. Some of my kids have not professed faith in Christ yet (and may never do so). My wife deserves my protection and my kids need their mother. To let someone harm them when it is in my power to prevent that is just not something I am sure I can argue in favor of anymore.
This is not an easy position to come to. I still find myself arguing internally even as I type these words. But I also have to wrestle between an "how many angels can dance on the head of a pin" argument and what I prayerfully feel I am obliged to do in the event of a threat to my friends, family or innocent strangers. I also realize this is a largely theoretical discussion as it is extraordinarily unlikely that I or anyone reading this post will ever have to choose between two highly distasteful and disturbing options. Furthermore I am still hashing this question over and I have been for some time but the recent shootings in Texas and the chatter on social media in response prompted me to take this conversation public. So this is where I am right now. I sincerely pray that God will never allow me in a place where I have to put this to the test.
So ought Christians come to the gathering of the church tomorrow armed in case they need to stop an armed assailant bent on murder? I am not going to but I am also not going to condemn those that do. This is not an issue where one can defend the practice by pointing to the two swords conversation in Scripture or by the appeal to the "live by the sword, die by the sword" argument as both sides of that coin have specific redemptive-historical meaning that defies simple pigeon-holing into a marginally related issue. I think this is a serious question to ponder because as we see violence escalating, especially from people who have religious or political reasons to attack Christians, it is not going to diminish. I would not be surprised to see copycat attacks over the rest of this year. So it is a conversation we need to be having in humility and charity toward one another. That is a pretty tall order in this day and age but that is something the church, if nowhere else in our society, should be able to do.