“You blow their heads off. Next question.” At least that’s how most would answer.
But for pacifists, this question poses the ultimate dilemma. Either they are exposed as being inconsistent in their stance against violence, or if they maintain their consistency and refuse to protect their loved ones, they are exposed as unloving or even immoral.
I don’t consider myself a true pacifist. My only aim is to be a faithful disciple of Jesus. But regardless of your stance on pacifism, if you are a Christian you need to think carefully about the implications of your commitment to follow Jesus even in the most extreme scenarios.
The Dilemma For a Christian
Can a disciple of Jesus kill an attacker at the door? Maybe (or maybe not). But before joining in with the masses and yelling “shoot him!” we would be wise to pause consider the implication of our answer – not as a pacifist, but as a Christian.
If a Christian has gotten to the point where “blow his head off!” is seen as the only possible response to the threat of violence, there is a deep problem. How has our love for our enemies gone so far astray that we could envision killing them without even batting an eye or even allowing for the slightest grief to enter our minds? How have we become so blind to the love of God that we would not strive to find another possible way out of the scenario? (cf. Rom. 5.7-10).
Yes, perhaps we would be completely justified in killing the attacker. But first, we need to at least pause long enough and think about how Christians are commanded to treat their enemies, and how these commands might impact our response.
“But I say to you, do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also.” – Matthew 5.39
Not only are we commanded to love our enemies, we’re specifically commanded to “do good to them” (Lk. 6.27-28).
What’s more, there’s never an exception clause. Jesus never said anything like “love your enemies, unless a loved one is threatened” or “do good to your enemies, but use some common sense too.” He simply commanded us to love them. Period. Don’t resist them. Period. Do good to them. Period.
I suppose Jesus could have assumed that there would be times when His “love your enemy” commands would not apply, and perhaps He just didn’t feel the need to spell out all the exceptions to the rule. But if there are exceptions, they are never explicitly spelled out in Scripture.
On the surface “love your enemy” seems simple enough. But when it comes to protecting innocent loved ones from death, almost all of us would instinctively feel justified in using violence if we absolutely had to.
So pacifists aren’t the only ones with a dilemma. As Christians, we are required to love our enemies and do good to them, and yet, surely we must protect innocent people when it is in our power to do so.
Don’t Settle for Bad Proof Texts
Christians have sought to resolve this dilemma in various ways. One option is to turn to various Old Testament passages, such as those which authorize the death penalty (Ex. 21.12-14) or command the destruction of enemies (Deut. 20.16-17). Others may turn to various New Testament passages, such as when Jesus used a whip in the temple (Mt. 21.12-17) or when Jesus commanded his disciples to buy a sword (Lk. 22.36), or when Paul wrote that governments “do not bear the sword in vain” (Rom. 13.4) to argue that violence is acceptable to God.
These are good points. None of these objections should be flippantly dismissed. They all deserve to be explored in depth and followed to their logical conclusions. But as we do so, we must be careful not to twist scripture away from its context or stretch scriptures beyond their intended purposes. If we aren’t careful, we can get so focused on finding justification for violence that we can overlook how many of these proof texts are actually contained within contexts which oppose violence.
My point here isn’t to answer every objection, but simply to encourage us to be careful and honest with the text. If you want to explore any of these arguments in more depth, I encourage you to consider these articles I’ve written previously.
- Violence in the Old Testament?
- Did Jesus Act Violently in the Temple?
- Did Jesus Command Us to Arm Ourselves?
- Does Romans 13 Give Christians Permission to Use Violence Against Their Enemies?
Did Jesus Really Mean “Don’t Resist an Evildoer”?
Another approach is to point out that when Jesus said “do not resist an evildoer”, the word for “resist” doesn’t refer to any and all types of resistance, but rather refers specifically to violent resistance. Therefore Jesus wasn’t implying that His disciples should just passively allow evil to take place, but only condemns responding to violence with more violence.
This argument certainly helps. For example, in most real life “attacker at the door” scenarios, there would likely be other non-violent ways to protect a loved one. You could run. You could hide. You could offer to pacify the attacker by complying and giving him money or whatever he wants. You could pray that God would somehow providentially intervene and protect your family (and please, let’s not scoff at prayer as if it would never work. See James 5.16). You might even consider non-lethal resistance, such as tackling the guy to eliminate further threat.
But while this might help soften the dilemma, it doesn’t completely solve it either. Usually the “attacker at the door” question is designed as a hypothetical scenario, where “kill or be killed” are literally the only two options. To argue for another, more peaceful way out is, in a sense, dodging the true intent of the question. We are still left to wrestle with the full weight of the hypothetical worst case scenario.
Who Is My Enemy?
Another option is to convince ourselves that when Jesus wasn’t referring to our enemies. He wasn’t referring to the attacker at the door. He must have been referring to some other kind of enemy – a less serious enemy – one who isn’t threatening the lives of innocent people. Therefore we should feel completely justified in killing the attacker at the door.
The problem is that this approach ultimately reduces Jesus’s enemy-loving commands to “love your enemies when it makes sense to you.” Yet the whole point of Jesus’s command to love our enemies is to instruct His disciples to be radically different from others.
If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. – Luke 6.32-33
Everyone hates those who threaten them or want to kill their loved ones. The point of the command isn’t just to love our enemies when it makes sense to us. It is to challenge us to love them in those times when it doesn’t make common sense to love them.
What’s more, Jesus taught at a time when the Jews viewed Romans as foreign invaders – enemies who were known to crucify Jews just simply to flex their muscles and remind them who was in charge. They viewed them as enemies precisely because they felt like their loved ones were threatened. Far from being an exception to the rule, the attacker at the door is almost a perfect representation of the kind of enemy Jesus had in mind.
The Lesser of Two Evils
The “lesser of two evils” argument only works in a true worst case scenario, where choosing not to kill the attacker at the door is essentially a choice to do harm to a loved one. For example, we may agree that it is wrong to kill an enemy, but at the same time, it would be wrong to allow an innocent person to suffer when it is in our power to prevent it. We are ultimately left with only two choices: either we do good to our enemy (Lk. 6.27) or we love our neighbor (Mt. 22.39). Like a doctor faced with the choice of either amputating a leg, or allowing the patient to die, the right choice would be the lesser of two evils.
Some will argue against the lesser of two evils argument, pointing out that it puts too much confidence in our own judgments. Instead of choosing the lesser of two evils, we should simply do good to our enemies, and trust that somehow God will use our obedience for good.
Others will point to Biblical examples of faith where people chose the lesser of two evils. For example, the Hebrew midwives were willing to lie in order to protect Hebrew babies (Ex. 1.15-21), and Rahab lied to protect the Israelites spies (Josh. 2.1-21; cf. Heb. 11.31).
Does the “lesser of two evils” argument give us an exception to the rule? This is a tough one. I can see both sides of the argument. But we should at least recognize how a faithful Christian might feel justified killing an attacker at the door despite their sincere commitment to be faithful to Jesus’s teachings.
But even so, the “lesser of two evils” argument concedes that killing an enemy is, as a general rule, an evil. This argument cannot, and must not be used to dismiss or de-radicalize Jesus’s teachings.
Faithfulness not Effectiveness
However we answer the question about the attacker at the door, we must always remember that our number one goal is not common sense, not safety, not effectiveness, but faithfulness.
What if there is an exception to the rule? What if we can be fully justified in killing an attacker at the door? If so, we must recognize an exception to the rule for what it is – an exception to the rule. We must never use the exception to replace the rule itself.
As we seek to follow Jesus there may be difficult questions and difficult scenarios we have to wrestle with. But these scenarios do not change the overall tone of Jesus’ teachings, nor should they be the primary focus of our thinking when it comes to how we think about our enemies.
So let’s not lose focus. Let’s strive to love our enemies in a way that is radically different from the world around us every single day. And then, if heaven forbid, we are ever faced with an attacker at the door, let’s strive to have the courage and wisdom to love our enemy even then.