Situational Ethics: “What would you do if…”
“What would you do if someone broke into your house and threatened the lives of your spouse, children, parents, and what if they were going to rape them…what would you do??”
This question gets asked a lot. It is an understandable, and important question. Our natural tendency is to fight or flee a violent scenario, and when flight is not an option, we desire to defend ourselves and the ones we love, at whatever cost.
I am a married man, and I love my wife more than I love myself, and I would gladly lay down my life for her. We do not have any kids yet, but I am sure that if we did, I would love them and desire to protect them from harm as well. So when the question is asked, “What would you do if…”, it is a hard question to answer, but I will go over my general thought process when thinking about it:
- I love my wife, and I would love my kids when I have them
- I have no fear of dying if it meant saving their lives
- Jesus would desire for me to spare the life of the attacker (Link)
- On instinct, I cannot guarantee that I would be faithful to my religious beliefs
- If I take another life to protect my loved ones, that does not mean that I would be justified to do so under the Lord’s Will for my life, and even after being forgiven, I would still have to deal with the physiological effects of taking another life.
- I have a moral responsibility to advocate for nonviolence in all scenarios; hoping that that advocacy could translate into further commitment to nonviolence when a situation arises.
As you can see, I do not have a crystal clear answer to this question, and while I do not doubt that there are some pacifist-like folks who could answer clearly and honestly, I think that for those of us who know that we cannot guarantee our actions in the moment, it is better to be honest about our true struggles with this question. We can avoid entering the military, we can avoid taking a job that may contradict our convictions, but we cannot avoid an intruder/attacker if they break into our house.
That is why I put the sixth thinking point in there. Even if I do not know what I would do in a real life scenario, I have a moral obligation to advocate for nonviolence so that hopefully I could remain committed to what I see as a commandment of Christ. But advocating for nonviolence in this scenario not only could help my response in the moment, it could also help the way that myself and others think about those who we perceive to be a threat.
In other words, how much would I be thinking of a nonviolent way to address an intruder, when I keep a loaded pistol in my nightstand? How could I possibly see their life as having value when I’ve already set up the booby traps before they would even break in? I realise that many would respond to these questions with “I am only preparing for something in case it happens”, but in reality, by doing that, they have cut out the option for nonviolent solutions before giving them a chance. And while some may have the strength to not pull the trigger, many will react in fear and instinct and kill an intruder, even if that intruder has not violently threatened them.
However, many people say that protecting your family is a biblical principle to follow. I wanted to give this view justice because a fair amount of people believe it, but not many can provide a reference. Based on what I could gather, the main passage that is used to support this idea is found in Exodus 22. Let’s study it.
Exodus 22:2-3 – When an intruder breaks in
“If a thief is found breaking in and is struck so that he dies, there shall be no bloodguilt for him, but if the sun has risen on him, there shall be bloodguilt for him. He shall surely pay. If he has nothing, then he shall be sold for his theft.” (ESV)
These verses are often used to justify lethal home defense, as well as the biblical right to keep a weapon ready to defend your family. But I really don’t think it’s that simple. These two verses describe two different scenarios.
The first scenario:
It’s dark, someone is found breaking into your house, and if you strike them fatally, you are not guilty of murder.
Let’s imagine this scenario for a second: You are laying in your bed, or on your mat, and you are startled awake by an unusual sound. Someone is in your house, and your family is all asleep, and you did not invite anyone. Still drowsy, you stumble out of sleep, and as you meet the intruder, you have a confrontation, which ends up with you striking them in some way, or pushing them, or maybe they tripped, and that causes their death.
The second scenario:
It’s daylight, someone is found breaking into your house, and if you strike them fatally, you ARE guilty of murder. If the thief is alive, they will surely have to give back what they stole, or if they don’t have it, they will be sold as a slave.
Now let’s imagine this scenario for a second: It’s daylight, and you are up and about; possibly doing some household chores. You hear someone break in, you rush toward them, and you strike them, and kill them. You are now guilty of the blood you have shed.
So what’s the difference?
In both scenarios, the homeowner spilt the blood of the attacker, but they are only guilty of that if they did so when it is daylight. That distinction is extremely important in talking about this passage. Why is this?
I believe it comes down to a difference of consciousness. In the daylight, you are alert, and aware of your surroundings. You know exactly where your bat, bullet, sword point/edge, or other weapon, is going to land, and you have complete control over the force of that blow if you are not using a projectile weapon. You are also thinking clearer than at night, and possibly could have found another means to make them leave. In short, killing them in the daylight would be intentional.
Blogger and author, Benjamin Corey, writes the following on these verses:
“When people are scared in the dark and try to get away, bad things can happen even though the individual doesn’t intend it. For example, if you’re grabbed while walking on a dark path and shove the attacker to get away, but the attacker falls and dies, it would be disingenuous to say that lethality was an actual intent. This verse made room for those kinds of incidents when lethality was clearly not the intention.
However, the verse then switched to daylight– when you can actually see the intruder in your home. In this scenario, any kind of violent response that would lead to death is not only condemned, but considered murder. In these cases, the one who used lethal violence against a day-time intruder would themselves be put to death.
While often used by gun-slingers to justify shooting a home intruder, verse 3 actually backfires (see what I did there?) on the one making the argument.”
Therefore, being able to aim a gun and pull the trigger at night would not be justified. Keeping a loaded gun near you, ready for a break in, and then using it, gives little to no room for a possible nonviolent solution to enter your mind. A human life could be taken by your hands because a thief wanted your $200-1000 TV. I don’t think that that is worth it.
So…what am I to do?
It’s easy to say that you will stay committed to your nonviolent commitments, and it’s another thing to actually do it. In the heat of the moment, no one knows for certain what they will do. But one thing we can know is that if we don’t talk and think about nonviolence NOW in all circumstances, we likely won’t practice it later where it counts. John Howard Yoder says the following in “What would you do?”:
I am less likely to look for another way out if I have told myself beforehand that there can be none or if I have made advance provision for an easy brutal defense. I am more likely to find a creative way out if I have already forbidden myself the easy violent answer. I am still more likely to find it if I have disciplined my impulsiveness and fostered my creativity by the study and practice of a nonviolent lifestyle”. (Kindle Locations 293-296)
Thinking about this stuff is a needed discipline for Christians. Do you remember that story about the Amish forgiving the man and comforting the family of the man, who killed several amish school children? Do you know how much that story has impacted the world? If people see that our underserved grace is given to those at inconvenient times for us, the world would be absolutely Stunned by the Power and Love of Jesus in our lives. Their images of hateful Christians would SHATTER at our feet as we are able to show them the God who loves, forgives, and serves, unconditionally. It would show them that this love of God is so Extreme, so REAL, that it caused us to put the life of an enemy above our own.
Right now, the thing for us to do in times of peace is to pray, and to be active in our nonviolent commitment. Pray for a change of your own heart towards those who are your “enemies”, pray for the hearts of your enemies, and pray that God shows them the transformative love that envelops you. Pray for God to show you a nonviolent solution. Advocate for nonviolence, defend it, and live it out in order to show this component of the Will of God for us to others.
My Biggest Frustration
In talking about this issue with my brothers and sisters in Christ, my biggest frustration is not that I get asked the question, “What would you do if…”; my biggest frustration is that when I explain to them my position, and that I hold my position because for my commitment to Jesus and His words…it’s not enough.
Direct quotes from Jesus, the one we claim as God, are not enough to make some of my brothers and sisters in Christ even consider this teaching of His. When Jesus said, “Love your enemies”, there was no “But not if…” attached to that statement. When Jesus said “Pray for your persecutors..”, there was no “that they may all die” attached to that statement. When Jesus said “Turn the other cheek…”, there was no “as long as it matches what the Old Testament says” attached to it.
I get it. A Hippie God doesn’t seem to jive either, but please see my writings on the Old Testament in chapter two. What God does is up to God. He is the one who will carry out vengeance. He is the one who will make the wrong right. But WE are called to “not repay evil for evil”. WE are called to be PeaceMakers.
My biggest frustration is that we let politics, anger, pride, and revenge, get in the way of following the way of the Cross, of BEING PeaceMakers. A way that looks like a radical commitment to God, for the betterment of others, even if it costs us our life.
If an intruder intended harm, or was committing harm, upon my family, I cannot promise to you that I would remain faithful to my religious convictions. But I pray that God would give me the ability to be able to if that time truly came, God forbid.
So…what would you do?
Corey, Benjamin L. “Why Exodus 22:2 Doesn’t Work To Justify Armed Self-Defense.” The Official Blog of Benjamin L Corey. Patheos.com, 15 Jan. 2016. Web. 11 July 2016.
John Howard Yoder. What Would You Do? (John Howard Yoder Series) (Kindle Locations 293-296). Herald Press. Kindle Edition.