Question: Is killing in Self-Defense okay? What about defensive wars? What if there is an intruder in your home and was going to kill you and your children – is it acceptable to defend yourself? What does the Church teach on these issues?
Let us first look at Scripture:
- Jesus Christ calls us all to be peacemakers (Matt 5:9)
- We are to turn the other cheek when struck (Matt 5:39)
- Jesus gets angry when Peter strikes the soldier cutting off his ear (Luke 22:51)
- We are commanded by Jesus to love our enemies (Matt 5:44)
- Murder is one of the Ten Commandments and is also prohibited throughout Scripture.
These Scriptural texts are to be taken very seriously. Violence and war are destructive. The sacredness of each and every human life is to always be acknowledged. Pacifism is always preferred when possible. However, the Church also acknowledges that Scripture has more to say on the topic of war and self-defense.
Scripture also says:
- After the Last Supper as Jesus and the Apostles are leaving the upper room, Jesus commands the Apostles to take up swords and Jesus even says they should sell their garment if needed in order to buy a sword (Luke 22:36). We then see that the Apostles tell Jesus they have two swords available and Jesus tells them bring to bring these swords as they travel (Luke 22:38).
Why is this? If Jesus prohibits violence of any kind why command the disciples to carry swords?
The Scripture does not tell us explicitly as to why Christ is telling the disciples to take swords. However, Scripture scholars say that Jesus had them take swords because they were going to be traveling the streets of Jerusalem at night, and the swords were for protection against robbers – a problem prevalent at that time. They would have defended themselves if needed with the swords.
- In Scripture we also meet some soldiers that are of interest to this question.
In Luke 3:14, we some soldiers approach John the Baptist. They believe in God and so they ask him what they should do. He does not tell them to stop being soldiers! John actually tells them to “rob no one by violence or by false accusation” and he tells them to be content with their wages.
Also in Acts 10 we meet Cornelius, the Roman centurion. He converts to the faith but Peter does not tell him to quit his job as a soldier!
[Now these are not explicit examples; some could argue that more was said to these soldiers than was not written down but this cannot be proved. And in fact, when we look at the writings of the early Christians, this question of whether or not Christians could be soldiers DOES come up and the Church does not say one must quit their job as a soldier. Discussed more in the next section.]
In Rom 13:4, Paul comments that the state “does not bear the sword in vain” but is “God’s servant for your own good”. (Related to this, in Luke 14:31, it seems that Jesus is saying that the king should consider all options for peace before going to war.)
(We all recognize that there are governments who do not do God’s will and practice evil and terror but this reference is to show that Scripture does not outright say that there should be no war and no fighting and here Paul is showing how the state CAN wage war for good.)
- Then in the Old Testament we see evidence throughout of God’s people fighting and often from the command of God. It is true that the ultimate goal is peace but if this peace cannot be achieved without force, then force (that is just) is at times necessary.
- In Hebrews 11:32-34, the inspired writer praises men for their actions in war and their faithfulness to God in defending people and enforcing justice.
What can we learn from some of the earliest Christians? What was their view of war?
Outside of Scripture, we can look to the earliest Christians to see how they lived and practiced the faith. They lived in a time where war was a regular occurrence in the Roman Empire and for the first 300 years, Christians were intermittently persecuted and killed for the faith. Even once the Roman Empire became Christian at the end of the 4th century, wars were still frequent as the Empire defended itself against outside barbarian invaders. How did the early Christians view war? We can look to the writings of the early Church Fathers to see how the earliest Christians understood the oral and written teachings handed down from Jesus Christ.
In the early Church, we know that there were many Romans who converted to the Christian faith and this included many Roman soldiers. There is evidence that many of the men who, once they became Christian, did not remain soldiers after conversion. Because of Christian moral teachings they chose to end their military career. In the writings of the Church Fathers we can see that soldiers who converted to Christianity were advised to not hesitate to quit their jobs if they had an unjust commander or if they were not permitted to live their Christian faith while remaining in military service. They were also advised to end their military career if they did not feel that they could uphold Christian values faithfully with this job. But there were some men who were very faithful to Christ who remained soldiers. Some of these Christian soldiers even became martyrs for the faith because at times they would not obey orders from the emperor if they felt that it was unjust or if they were commanded to worship the pagan gods.
There is a writing called The Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus, from the early 200’s AD. In this it discusses the process for a person who wanted to convert to Christianity. It does emphasize that prior to being allowed to be baptized, one had to prove that they had changed their life in imitation of Christ. This document mentions that certain jobs HAD to be stopped before baptism: gladiators, idol makers, harlots, magicians/sorcery. One was also not permitted to continue attending the gladiatorial games as a spectator. In this document it does say that if not already a soldier, do not become one. BUT it does not say one absolutely must quit being a soldier; rather it says: “A soldier who is in authority must be told not to execute men; if he should be ordered to do it, he shall not do it. He must be told not to take the military oath [this is the oath taken to serve the emperor as god and to worship the gods of the empire]; if he will not agree, let him be rejected.”
There is evidence that being a soldier and fighting in wars was not absolutely forbidden for Christians though it was expected one would always put Christ and the faith first and foremost.
(Some still debate the notion that there were many Christian soldiers but there is further evidence for this: many tombstones have been found of Christian soldiers from before 300AD. Due to this, many historians believe that it is certain that the armies of the eastern empire were largely composed of Christians.)
What if Every Effort For Peace Has Failed?
Having shown these examples this does not mean that killing, fighting and war are good. Scripture emphasizes love for all, including our enemies and those that persecute us. It also emphasizes peace and that achieving this without war is ideal. We are not to take revenge. We are not to pay back evil with evil. However, Scripture calls us to love and recognizes that standing by and refusing to act while harm befalls you or your neighbor is also not good! War is a last resort but is sometimes necessary as Scripture even shows us in the Old Testament.
The Church absolutely discourages war. However, the Church has what is called the “Just War Doctrine” because it acknowledges that because we live in a fallen world with humanity having the tendency to sin, evil is around us. At times, a response to this evil is war. ANY and EVERY time war can be avoided it absolutely should, but this is not always possible.
But if every effort to achieve peace and self-defense in a non-violent way has failed, what are we to do? Does not every person and every nation have the right to defend themselves? If a person is faced with an intruder into a home attempting to kill him/her/the family, or if a nation is being faced by an aggressor with all of its innocent citizens now at risk, do they not have a right and even a duty to protect themselves?
What is the Church’s “Just War Doctrine”?
The Church reminds us as Saint Pope John Paul II wrote, “War is always a defeat for humanity”. With this, the Church teaches that one can be a pacifist and this stance is to be completely respected. However, the Church also recognizes that there may be some instances when a war is necessary BUT there are VERY strict conditions that must be met in order for the war to be considered “justified”.
(And the Church is who I can turn to in order to know if these conditions have been met – I do not ask any secular government.)
The Church’s “just war doctrine” has its origins with St. Augustine around 400AD. The Church has developed this over time and even with this teaching, the Church finds war and violence horrific. However, it is recognized that there may be times when Christian love must respond to those threatened by force and that wickedness must be restrained by force if necessary.
Criteria for a “Just War” = ALL criteria MUST be met:
- The damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave and certain;
- All other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective;
- There must be serious prospects of success; and,
- The use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated. (The power of modern means of destruction weighs very heavily in evaluating this condition.)
Note: “Just War” is war undertaken only to repel an aggressor. It is not undertaken as a “pre-emptive” measure or as a means to impose a system of government upon another nation. Such reasons cannot possibly meet the rigorous criteria of the Just War doctrine. Moreover, acts of war directed to the indiscriminate destruction of cities or vast areas with their inhabitants is a crime against God and man, which merits firm and unequivocal condemnation.
And EVEN if there is a war considered justified, it still MUST be discriminate and proportionate. War is a last resort. If there are ANY other possible solutions, these should be exhausted before war is considered.
These four criteria for a “just war” demonstrate how much the Church, out of love, is trying to protect ALL people and AVOID killing in any and all situations whenever possible. Jesus does stand for love and peace and so does the Church! The sacredness of every single human life is the highest moral principle for the Church. But there is no evidence that Jesus would say to let these defenseless people be slaughtered.
Just as the Church recognizes that as a last resort war may be justified, it is also recognized that there may be times that violence happens in self-defense. In these situations, one must always uphold the sacredness of every human life. The Church is clear that killing another human being is always a grave issue and should never be taken lightly. However, the Church has also made it clear that self-defense is not only a right but at times even a duty. If violence and killing in self-defense can be avoided then to do otherwise would be immoral. The Church also tells us that if one uses more violence than is necessary in a situation this is unlawful. However, if one’s life is in imminent danger and the only protection is to kill another person in self-defense, a person is justified in doing this (CCC #2264).
When confronted with a scenario, if there is any possible way to avoid violence the non-violent approach MUST be taken. One should also never use violence in a disproportionate way. (If someone steals your wallet, it is immoral to kill that person or even to brutally attack them. If you are punched, you do not respond with more violence – you walk away. If there are only material things at risk, it is disproportionate to take someone’s life. If someone is a threat to your life but you can runaway/escape, you must take this action rather than kill the other person.)
But what about when a life is truly is at risk and is needing to be protected – our own or another person? Do we have a duty to protect another innocent life? Absolutely. In the Catechism of the Catholic Church (#2265) it says, “Legitimate defense can be not only a right but a grave duty for one who is responsible for the lives of others. The defense of the common good requires that an unjust aggressor be rendered unable to cause harm. For this reason, those who legitimately hold authority also have the right to use arms to repel aggressors against the civil community entrusted to their responsibility.” This refers to the civil community but also to our families.
Yes, taking someone’s life is horrible and it is always to be avoided unless it is a last resort. But out of love, we have a duty to protect every human life. In most cases this means not taking someone’s life but also extends to those situations where in order to protect lives from an aggressor the only option to save lives is to take a life in defense.
I must make one final comment. Jesus does tell us, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for my sake…” (Matt 5). If our life is being threatened because of Jesus Christ and the Christian faith we hold, Jesus does not call us to necessarily fight back. Those who are persecuted, belittled, humiliated, tortured and even killed for the faith we will receive the greatest of blessings in the next life. Those who accept these persecutions without anger and who receive them with joy are doing so in imitation of Jesus Himself. We can look to the early Christians – the thousands who were brutally murdered for their faith during the first 300 years. We can read accounts of how despite being burned at the stake, mauled by animals, beheaded, beaten to death over a period of days or the many other numerous methods of execution, these Christians accepted this suffering with joy. There are accounts of how the Christians faced their death with smiling, joy, singing and praying aloud. There were many pagans who saw these acts of martyrdom and were moved to convert to Christianity! Suffering for Christ is a powerful testimony that we should not ignore.
This comment is to remind us that simply because we are attacked or persecuted – especially if it is because of Christ – our first instinct should never be to respond with violence and we should always hold each and every human life sacred. And we must recognize that sometimes God calls us to be selfless – even being selfless to the point of death, laying down our life for Christ just as He laid down His own life for us. Every human person is a creature of God. It is God and God alone who power over life and death. We should never make ourselves into gods and claim that this is our right to take a life (or create one for that matter). As discussed above there can be times when taking a life is not immoral though it is ALWAYS a grave issue. We must always keep these things in mind when we talk about war and self-defense.
Highly Recommended Reading:
- Catechism of the Catholic Church particularly sections #2263-2265
- Evangelium Vitae [The Gospel of Life] by Saint Pope John Paull II (sections 54-55).
Just War –
Early Church andWar – http://www.faithdefenders.com/articles/apologetics/early_church_war_ap.html