This question is especially pertinent in the United States, where the Second Amendment to our nation’s constitution speaks directly to the matter, prohibiting the government from infringing upon the right of individual Americans to own and maintain (“keep”), and carry (“bear”) weapons (“arms”):
A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the People to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.
Such a constitutional provision seems rare in the world, creating a possibly unique situation in the United States. How should Christians view this, in light of Jesus’ teaching from Matthew 5:38-41? (This is the second-series Gospel lesson for tomorrow in the Evangelical Lutheran Hymnary.)
“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I tell you not to resist an evil person. But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. If anyone wants to sue you and take away your tunic, let him have your cloak also. And whoever compels you to go one mile, go with him two.”
I was doing a little reading in a treatise Luther wrote on a closely-related subject called Temporal Authority: To What Extent It Should Be Obeyed. It’s actually quite helpful. Luther highlights some important biblical distinctions, one being the distinction between the two kingdoms we find on earth. The spiritual kingdom is ruled through the Gospel and faith, and will last longer than this world. Temporal authority, on the other hand, rules through Law and the sword. The United States government is an example of the latter.
Hopefully, that’s enough context for you to read one of Luther’s points quite salient to our question. It’s quoted from LW-AE 45:95. (Please excuse any typos. I don’t have an electronic copy of Luther’s Works yet, because the Logos library software is confined to run in a Windows environment, which I stubbornly refuse to use. I’ve successfully run Logos under Wine, but would prefer to have full and native functionality in Linux.)
Sixth. You ask whether a Christian too may bear the temproal sword and punish the wicked, since Christ’s words, “Do not resist evil,” are so clear and definite that the sophists have had to make of them a “counsel.” Answer: You have now heard two propositions. One is that the sword can have no place among Christians; therefore you cannot bear it among Christians or hold it over them, for they do not need it. The question, therefore, must be referred to the other group, the non-Christians, whether you may bear it there in a Christian manner. Here the other proposition applies, that you are under obligation to serve and assist the sword by whatever means you can, with body, goods, honor, and soul. For it is something which you do not need, but which is very beneficial and essential for the whole world and for your neighbor. Therefore, if you see that there is a lack of hangmen, constables, judges, lords or princes, and you find that you are qualified, you should offer your services and seek the position, that the essential governmental authority may not be despised and become enfeebled or perish. The world cannot and dare not dispense with it.
So it seems that Luther would advise American Christians to make use of the Second Amendment as they are able. If an armed Christian finds himself in a place where he can hinder or prevent an evil and unlawful deed, and the authorities cannot do so themselves (perhaps because it takes 10 or 15 minutes for them to respond to a 911 call), then the armed Christian is free to do what is necessary for the benefit of his neighbors. This would also apply in the home, where a Christian might have to defend his family and their well-being. But what if you are the only one whose life, health, property, or honor is at risk? Luther continues, referring to the previous quotation above:
Here is the reason why you should do this: In such a case you would be entering entirely into the service and work of others, which would be of advantage neither to yourself nor your property or honor, but only to your neighbor and to others. You would be doing it not with the purpose of avenging yourself or returning evil for evil, but for the good of your neighbor and for the maintenance of the safety and peace of others. For yourself, you would abide by the gospel and govern yourself according to Christ’s word [Matt. 5:39-40], gladly turning the other cheek and letting the cloak go with the coat when the matter concerned you and your cause.
Fair enough. Thanks, Dr. Luther. There is still room for us to discuss whether a Christian parent ought to defend his own life for the sake of his young children, when only his own life is threatened. I think he should, because it’s a tragic evil when young children are deprived of their father or mother.
If you have any differing thoughts on this subject, fire away.