A force is an influence or a potential set into action. If you’ve ever moved your body or anything else, you have experienced a physical force to do so, originating in your muscles. A wood splitter uses hydraulic force. A lawn mower uses the force of expanding gases to spin its blade. A refrigerator uses magnetic forces produced by electricity to turn a compressor and chill the interior.
A deadly force is one that might potentially produce an injury leading to death. There are many such forces, found in many places, from wood splitters to lawn mowers to the movements of our own limbs to the voltage in our power lines. Usually, these deadly forces do not produce such injuries, because we recognize that they must be employed carefully, and under strict control. On the other hand, accidents also happen on a daily basis, and they sometimes lead to death.
You choose to use deadly force when you mow your lawn, drive your car, or shoot a firearm. They are all comparable. In matters of self defense, however, that deadly force is employed in a way that’s likely to stop an attack upon you. Coincidentally, such a use of deadly force is also likely to injure your assailant. Since it is deadly force, there is also a chance that your assailant may die from his injuries.
In order to be prepared to defend yourself when seconds count, you should take some time now to think through your willingness to apply deadly force during those seconds. In the course my wife and I attended at Front Sight, there was a lecture on moral and ethical decisions relating to the use of deadly force.
From Webster’s dictionary, the difference between a moral question and an ethical question is that ethics relies upon the social context, while a moral question is based upon principles independent of the social context. In other words, your conscience and God’s commandments define what is morally right and wrong, while the accepted norms in your society determine what is ethically right and wrong. Our Front Sight lecture focused upon ethical matters, because the public liability we may carry for defending ourselves is determined ethically, not morally.
I have posted here several times about moral questions relating to self defense. God says, “You shall not murder.” He forbids taking the life of a human being, even yourself. That including intentional murder as well as causing the death of another through negligence. Defense, on the other hand, falls into neither category. Its goal is to stop an attack, not to kill. Its application of deadly force, then, is measured according to that goal. In Israel’s civil law, there is an interesting application of the Fifth Commandment to matters of self defense (Exodus 22:1-3):
“If a man steals an ox or a sheep, and slaughters it or sells it, he shall restore five oxen for an ox and four sheep for a sheep. If the thief is found breaking in, and he is struck so that he dies, there shall be no guilt for his bloodshed. If the sun has risen on him, there shall be guilt for his bloodshed.”
The last sentence is a bit cryptic. It seems to distinguish between a thief who is found breaking in during the night hours from one found during the daylight hours. If that is the case, then it would show that the person defending his property must not try to kill the thief, yet still has the right to defend his property. Because darkness makes it exceedingly hard to measure one’s use of force, the defending property owner is not held responsible for the death of the thief. If you have a different understanding of this civil law, I’d like to know.
Another application of the Fifth Commandment to Israelite civil law is in the cities of refuge. Those who have unintentionally caused the death of another were provided a place to escape the condemnation and punishment of murder.
So morally speaking, God considers the intent of the heart when determining whether we have broken the Fifth Commandment. (I’m not even addressing cases where someone is officially empowered by the government to cause death, because a government, according to Romans 13, has the power of the sword.) If we find at some time that we have indeed committed murder in God’s sight, then we rely upon God’s mercy alone. Theologically speaking, we are all in that position, as Jesus taught in Matthew 5:21-26. By failing to keep the Fifth Commandment in our own hearts, we all become murderers in God’s sight. Morally speaking, we need a savior even before we get out of bed in the morning. Jesus is that Savior.
Ethically speaking, we are judged by the standards of conduct in our society. The judgment is rendered ultimately in the form of a criminal and/or civil trial. The best we can do is reduce our liability by conducting ourselves in a way that our society would probably consider to be acceptable. If your assailant dies, then your conduct will have to be judged on an ethical basis, perhaps even in a courtroom. So before your assailant even threatens your well-being, it is good to consider the implications of defending yourself.
When you are confronted with an immediate threat, you might decide to use deadly force in your defense. If you win, your prize in the best case is that you get to keep your life, well-being, and property. If you lose or fail to defend yourself, you will certainly lose one or more of those things. It’s also possible (even likely) that if you win, you may bear some significant loss to your well-being and property through your criminal and civil liability. Ethical judgments are not necessarily morally correct, and fairness is decided by our society as a whole. If our culture assigns a greater liability to those who unintentionally kill an assailant with a firearm than to those who unintentionally kill an assailant with bare hands and feet, then you will be subjected to that ethical standard.
There are things for which Christians are willing to die. It is good to identify those things, and ask how your willingness to die in those cases may or may not be related to your willingness to use deadly force in your own defense. Jesus could have used deadly (or nonlethal) force to defend Himself. He chose His cross instead. In what circumstances would you choose the terrible cross you may receive, rather than risk killing another person?
For me, the answer involves my vocation in this world. I am a husband, a father, and a citizen in a country where we are constitutionally free to bear arms for defense of self, family, and country. As such, I have a responsibility before my neighbors to defend them and to defend our civil society from those who would harm life, liberty, and property. That responsibility extends only across the gap where the designated law enforcement and military is unable to do this, yet the gap is surely there, and so is my responsibility. That said, if I must use deadly force, I will use the minimum that seems reasonably necessary to stop an attack, because I do not intend to kill anyone. I pray that any assailants I may have to stop are not so dedicated that I must use enough force that they are most likely to die, but even in that case, I believe that the duty of my vocation remains. Meanwhile, I am willing to die for the sake of the Gospel, if that were to become absolutely necessary.