Sunday, January 10, 2016

ET10: Force against an offender can sometimes be justified.

This is the tenth post on Christian ethics in my ongoing series, theology in bullet points. The first unit in this series had to do with God and Creation (book here), and the second unit was on Christology and Atonement.

We are now in the third and final unit: The Holy Spirit and the Church. The first set of posts in this final unit was on the Holy Spirit. The second set was on the Church. The third set was on sacraments. This final section is on Christian ethics.
Force against an offender can sometimes be justified.

1. The prohibition against murder did not likely include what we today would call "killing in self-defense." Exodus 22:2 is often mentioned, where there is no guilt for killing someone in the night who has broken into your house. Interestingly enough, however, there is guilt if you kill the thief when it is daylight (22:3).

There is something suspicious, of course, about digging into the obscure details of the Jewish civil law in order to approach a topic today. Just a few verses earlier, there is a law about whether it is murder to kill a slave (Exod. 21:20-21). The judgment depends on how quickly the slave dies. If the slave dies immediately, it is murder. If the slave dies after a day or two, it is not.

We have no evidence that the New Testament church practiced these civil laws. Paul himself walked a fine line with his Gentile churches between, "All things are lawful to me" and "not all things are beneficial" (1 Cor. 6:12). When Jesus taught about the fulfillment of the Law in Matthew 5, the principle he applied was that of love. He filtered the Old Testament Law through the lens of "you will love your neighbor as yourself.

Some individuals go to the Bible looking for "proof-texts" to justify what they already think or want to be true. They find obscure verses that they can interpret in such a way as to support their desires. But Jesus teaches that there are "weightier" parts to the Law (Matt. 23:23) and lesser parts (e.g., Matt. 5:19). It is the "Pharisaic" approach to Scripture that uses the letter of the Law to undo the spirit of the Law (2 Cor. 3:6)

2. The basic orientation of a Christian is not to take life or to participate in violence. Jesus' fundamental standard was to love your enemy (Matt. 5:43-48). Paul says, "Do not repay anyone evil for evil" (Rom. 12:17). So when someone does you a wrong, the bias is not to seek revenge. The impulse to make sure others get their just deserts is not the Christian impulse. The thirst for law is not the impulse of Christ but the thirst for redemption.

Similarly, unjust death is no stranger to Christendom. The basic theme of 1 Peter is to submit to unjust persecution and to give no one any legitimate reason for persecution. Slaves are told to submit to unjust masters (1 Pet. 2:18). Wives are told to submit to unbelieving husbands (3:1). 1 Peter was written for a particular kind of situation when believers are out of control in a culture and are the object of hostility.

1 Peter holds up Christ as the supreme example of submitting to suffering, even death in such situations. "When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly" (1 Pet. 2:23). Similarly, Jesus told his followers, "You have heard that it was said, 'Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.' 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. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles" (Matt. 5:38-41).

We are prone to ignore these verses. "But, but, but." Force against an offender can sometimes be justified, but we should sit with Jesus' words for a while and let them sink in before we contemplate exceptions. Jesus' words are the fundamental principle. The exception is secondary. Unless we have felt the force of the principle, we cannot experience the exception correctly.

3. In what circumstances can force be justified? Let us return to the three principles of justice we have now used repeatedly: 1) justice for redemption, 2) justice for protection, 3) justice by removal.

A violent person, a bully, deserves justice. He or she deserves to experience the same violence or bullying that he or she dishes out. But how we are to engage such a person is a different matter.

It is not good for a violent person to be violent. They are working toward their own destruction. It is in their own long term interest to force them to stop their violence. A self-defeating trajectory is often hard to change on our own. "Tough love" is sometimes necessary to redirect us. Force may be necessary.

4. Protection is surely the biggest reason to force an aggressor to stop their aggression. If someone is threatening to hurt another person or to harm the innocent, force is usually appropriate to stop them. This principle also applies to oneself. It is clearly not just for someone to harm you if you have done nothing to them. While a Christian does not have to have justice, it is not unjust to protect oneself.

Again, what should the attitude of a Christian be in such situations? It should be one of reluctance. I do not want to harm you. I would much rather you change your path. Perhaps in some circumstance God would call me to let you hurt me, even to kill me. Perhaps God will use that to bring about your redemption eventually.

But it is not unjust to protect myself. It is not unjust for me to kill you to protect my family from their own impending deaths. It is undesired. It is unwanted. It is not wrong.

5. Few of us as individuals will ever face a situation where we wrestle with the task of removing a hardened evil. In the prevailing account, Dietrich Bonhoeffer faced that question with regard to the assassination of Hitler. [1] It is best for us not even to ponder it. Almost anyone who would ponder "justice by removal" would be wrong to do so. It is God's task. Indeed, even in the case of Hitler, the plot to assassinate him was aimed at protection.

The bias of a Christian is to suffer rather than to effect judgment. Nevertheless, force against an offender can sometimes be justified. This is a weighty matter, one calling for great discernment. The person who thirsts for violence or force does not have the heart of Christ.

Next Sunday: ET11: There is a time to die, although we should not play God with human life.

[1] The prevailing position can be found in Eric Metaxas' biography, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2010). A recent attempt to detach Bonhoeffer from the plot is Mark Nation, Anthony Siegrist, and Daniel Umble, Bonhoeffer the Assassin? Challenging the Myth, Recovering His Call to Peacemaking (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013).

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