Is it sinful to kill in self-defense?

This is a topic that I’ve been wanting to write about for a while now and this rant from NEA Vice President Lily Eskelsen Garcia got me thinking about the subject again. At the Netroots Nation conference,  Garcia said of gun rights supporters…

“I’m not an ordained minister; I’m not a theologian, but these guys are going to hell.”

I’m not an ordained minister or a theologian either, but what does God think of those of us who own firearms? Did He really give us a right to keep and bear arms; to have deadly weapons?

Ultimately, the right to keep and bear arms is about the People retaining the ability to use deadly force to defend themselves, as a group or as individuals, from harm. If we are endowed by our Creator with the right to life, then the it follows that we have the right as individuals to possess the means necessary to defend ourselves from those intent upon harming us and threatening our lives. That threat may come from a criminal or from a tyrant, but the concept is the same; the right to possess defensive arms is a basic human right and one that the 2nd Amendment recognizes and protects.

But the question many people of faith ask is this: Is it moral to use deadly force in self defense? Do we sin against God by killing in self defense?

As a Christian, I cannot help but look at the question from a Christian perspective. The 10 Commandments would seem, at first glance, to argue against killing in self defense. In the King James Version of the Bible, Exodus 20:13 is translated “Thou shalt not kill”. That seems pretty straightforward. But is “Kill” the correct translation? Newer translations, such as the New International Version (NIV), render Exodus 20:13 as “You shall not murder”; a very different reading.

The original Hebrew is לֹ֥֖א תִּֿרְצָֽ֖ח (Lo Ratsach), but this doesn’t necessarily refer to killing in general. In other places in Scripture, we find that the term is only used in reference to what English speakers today would call murder. There are several words in Hebrew for killing. שָׁחַט (Shachat), for example, is the word that would be used in reference to killing an animal for food. Yet another term (וַיְמֹ֣תְתֵ֔הוּ) is used to describe the killing of Goliath by David. Furthermore, we see that at times, such as the conquest of Canaan, the Israelites were commanded by God to kill in war. So killing, per se, is not what’s being prohibited in Exodus 20:13. Thus לֹ֥֖א תִּֿרְצָֽ֖ח is better translated as “Do not murder”. And self defense is not murder. Indeed, Exodus 22:2 makes it clear that killing an intruder at night is not a crime.

What does the New Testament say on the subject? Many pacifists would point to Matthew 5:38-39 and offer it as a commandment against killing in self defense. Christ taught: “38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ 39 But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.” But what kind of attack is Jesus talking about here? It’s important that we read every word in the passage; not just what we think is there.

How many of you read that passage and saw “smite thee on thy right cheek”? That’s how the King James version translates the verse. Go back and take a second look. The NIV translated the Greek word ῥαπίζει as “slap”. What Christ is talking about here is responding to a blow that’s intended as an insult, not as an attack that could cause real, physical harm. But the KJV translation so many of us are used to seeing makes it sound like Christ is talking about not resisting a more serious attack. This isn’t the case.

Jesus addressed the subject of self defense, and defensive arms, more directly the night before His arrest. In Luke 22:36 we read: “36 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.” The disciples responded by telling Him that they had two swords already. Again, it’s important that we read every word in the passage. Jesus told them that they would need swords. He didn’t mention any other type of weapon. He specifically told them to arm themselves with a lethal weapon that doesn’t have any other practical defensive use outside of killing another human being. Furthermore, He advised selling a cloak to buy a sword. A cloak was a very useful thing for a traveller at that time; something that would be used every day. And yet, Christ recommended selling it to buy a deadly weapon that might never see use.

And just as it is important that we read every word in the text, it’s also important to see what isn’t there. We read that the disciples reported that they already had two swords. They were telling this to God Incarnate, Who would have already known that they had them. Note that He never told them, in the events leading up to that night, to get rid of these swords. They had them the whole time and He never objected to that.

So what can people of faith conclude? We see that there is no prohibition against killing in self defense. We see our Lord commanding His disciples to sell something valuable in order to purchase what was the standard infantry weapon of the day. And we see Him never admonishing His disciples who already possessed deadly weapons. We can conclude that the God who gave us our lives also gave us the right to protect our lives; even if this means the death of someone trying to do us harm.