Resisting Evil IV

When a Christian engages in lawful homicide, either as executioner or soldier, it is the ruler and not he who is morally responsible for the killing.  The soldier or judge is merely the instrument of a ruler whose power comes from God, as Christ informs Pilate during the interrogation. [John 19.11]: "Thou couldest have no power at all against me, except it were given thee from above: therefore he that delivered me unto thee hath the greater sin.”  In Romans 13 St. Paul sums up the Christian position succinctly, “Not in vain does he [the ruler] hold the sword.”  Vengeance belongs to God, who then delegates that power to the ruler.  Christians, then, are to foreswear the right to vengeance, though in exchange the ruler must protect the innocent from violence.  The ruler must not only punish malefactors but defend his kingdom or empire against invaders.  His subjects or citizens, correspondingly, have a duty to pay their taxes, obey the laws, and defend their country.  

This, then, is the true social contract: not the fantasies of an imaginary state of nature dreamed up by utopian philosophers, but a polity in which the members are expected to treat each other as kinsmen, at least honorary kinsmen.  The Christian political reasoning depends on an important premise, that the commonwealth—whether it takes the form of city republic or kingdom or empire—is a legitimate human institution that requires the power to defend itself.  In the high Christian Age, Thomas Aquinas would make it clear that Christians owe a primary moral duty to their family and a civic duty to their commonwealth.  

Other more radical interpretations, when applied to everyday lives, can lead to pernicious consequences.  The greatest Catholic moral theologian, St. Alphonsus de Liguori, while laying down conditions for a just war, is careful to explain that a conscripted subject does not sin even by fighting in what turns out to be an unjust war.  “I was only following orders” may not be an excuse for a war criminal, but it is a justification even for the citizens of a republican government that has decided to go to war on patently unjust grounds, such as the possession of imaginary weapons of mass destruction.  It must be said, however, that soldiers who enlist or reenlist, knowing that they shall be called upon to kill civilians in an unjustified conflict, would seem to have assumed responsibility for their own unjust actions and those of their commanders.  

The permission to defend one's life is not without limits either in Christian moral theology or in pre-Christian customs and law, but certain actions were justified or even approved.  In the Pentateuch, a householder could kill a thief in the night without having to pay blood money:  “If a thief be found breaking up, and be smitten that he die, there shall be no blood shed for him.” [Ex 22,2:].  The Book of Esther [8-9] recounts approvingly a Persian decree permitting Jews to use armed force to repel attackers.  Samson, judge and hero, had few qualms about killing Philistines, a divine mission which he was born to carry out.  The Old Testament, in fact, is filled with stories of executions, wars, homicides, and even human sacrifices that were carried out, so it is claimed, in response to divine instruction.

It goes without saying that Christians interpret such passages of the Old Testament in light of the New Testament's emphasis on kindness and mercy, and they are cited here only to show that pacifistic interpretations of Scriptures are a distortion for any Christian who is not a Marcionite, that is, for anyone who respects the Old Law.   Nonetheless, as I observed above, there are limits, and anyone who interprets Old Testament violence as a justification for bombing the civilian subjects of an evil ruler or persecuting inconvenient minorities, such as Palestinian Christians and Muslims, sins against the Second Great Commandment.

If Jesus really had intended us never to resist evil and violence, He would have been repudiating the authority of the Law at its most fundamental level and writing a blank check to the powers of evil, both natural and supernatural.  Even in the context of the New Testament, the instruction to turn the other cheek is one of the many passages in which Jesus is advising Christians not to seek revenge from each other or take their brothers to court.  Elsewhere, however, in warning the disciples of his imminent departure, He instructs them to buy weapons for their protection.  In the past he had taken care of their needs, but once He is gone, they should carry luggage, and, if they do not have a sword, they should sell their cloak to buy one. [Luke 22:35-38]  Attempts to interpret this passage ironically are among the usual bad-faith efforts to cut and trim the Scriptures to fit the fashion of the day. 

Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

1 Response

  1. Josh Doggrell says:

    Thank you, sir.

    Scripture is filled with God sanctioning and executing acts of extreme violence to carry out His will. And I doubt Armageddon will be a case where the Almighty appeals to Satan’s sense of reason.

    Our Lord told Peter to put away his sword in the garden. Given the context He understood His arrest at that moment in time was a necessary event not to be impeded. At no time did He admonish Peter (or the Roman centurion, or anyone else) for being armed in the first place.

    And, as you pointed out, just prior to the arrest in the garden Jesus had advised His followers of the importance of being armed for defensive purposes.