God hates certain kinds of people. Among those are people who love violence (Ps. 11:5). In fact, God once destroyed the world because it was full of violence (Gen. 6:11-13).
While most Christians rightly reject pacifism, we should remember that violence always comes with a cost. Scripture clearly indicates that some instances of violence are necessary. On certain occasions, God Himself commanded the destruction of both property and life (1 Sam. 15:1-3). On occasion, God pronounced judgment over someone’s failure to destroy property and people according to His command (1 Sam. 15:10-23). A righteous person may even discover a kind of joy in the skillful prosecution of justified violence (2 Sam. 22:35; Ps. 144:1). Even when it is justified, however, violence alters the way that God perceives people who employ it, even to the point of restricting their freedom to serve Him (1 Chr. 22:7-8, 28:2-3).
Consequently, Christians who live in violent times and places are forced to confront an unfortunate dilemma. On the one hand, sometimes violence can be contained only by opposing it with violence. Most Christians have argued that the state may rightly employ violence in response to crime, most have supported some form of just-war theory, and most have accepted that self defense is a right or even a duty. To cite only one example, the Westminster Larger Catechism, commenting on the Sixth Commandment, prescribes the duty to “preserve the life of ourselves and others by . . . just defense thereof against violence. . . .” While it recognizes that the commandment forbids all taking of life, it makes exception “in case of public justice, lawful war, or necessary defense,” and it forbids “neglecting or withdrawing the lawful and necessary means of preservation of life,” which would include weapons necessary for public justice, just war, and self defense.
If the catechism is correct, then magistrates sometimes have a duty to employ violence against criminals. Nations sometimes have a duty to go to war. Individuals sometimes have a duty to defend their own lives and the lives of others. Duties always imply the necessity of preparation to fulfill them. Magistrates cannot bear the sword if they are unskilled in its use. A nation cannot pursue just war if it has no army. Individuals cannot defend themselves or others if they lack either the weapons or the skill. A duty to engage in certain forms of violence implies a duty to prepare for that engagement. In those times and places where violence is rife, God’s people may find themselves devoting considerable attention to becoming proficient in asserting violence against violence. Christian police officers and Christian soldiers will become skilled in the use of arms. In times and places where magistrates fail to contain civil destruction, even private Christians may be forced to become proficient in arms.
All of the foregoing is one side of the dilemma. The other side of the dilemma is that God still hates those who love violence. That being the case, the question is whether Christians can become skilled in the techniques of violence without loving violence and bringing blood-guiltiness upon themselves.
Thomas Aquinas considered this question in his Summa Theologiae, Secunda Secundae Partis, Q. 64, where he asked about the legitimacy of killing in self defense. Thomas based his answer upon Exodus 22:2, a verse that authorizes the taking of life in defense of property. In considering the application of this verse, he noted that a single action may result in more than one effect, and that the legitimacy of the action depends upon the legitimacy of the intention. Violence (such as the taking of a life) may proceed from more than one intention. If the intention is to kill, then the act constitutes a violation of the Sixth Commandment. If the intention is legitimate, however (such as the intention to preserve innocent life, including one’s own), then the killing may actually be unintended (though of course it is not unforeseen). Nevertheless, Thomas qualified this assessment by noting that the act must be proportioned to the intention—if one can safely preserve innocent life without killing, then killing is immoral.
Of course, Thomas was talking about ultimate intentions. It would be ridiculous to deny that, at one level, a soldier’s immediate intention is to kill the enemy when he pulls the trigger. His intention to kill, however, is wrapped within the larger intention of the just war, and it is the just war that legitimizes the act of killing. In the same way, people who defend themselves know that when they pull the trigger someone is likely to die, though what they intend is not the death of the assailant, but the removal of the assault. The same considerations would apply to mastering skill with weapons: what does the individual intend to use those skills for?
In other words, if the majority of Christians are correct, then preparing to meet violence with violence does not by itself constitute love of violence. The use of violence against violence does not bring guilt as long as it is proportioned to the righteous intention of halting aggression against the innocent. A Christian can, in principle, become a highly skilled police officer or soldier without in any sense betraying his faith.
Even granting all this, it is possible for Christians to foster an inordinate love of violence. This occurs when their authorization or use of violence is disproportionate. It occurs when they take delight in violence as a spectacle, as when Hollywood employs a veneer of injustice to legitimate a two-hour rampage by some action hero. It occurs when for pleasure Christians immerse themselves in the mindset of violence (as in first-person shooter simulations, whether electronic or on a playing field). It may also occur in the form of fascination with the use of force, whether police, military, or personal. Christians may lawfully employ violence under some circumstances. They may also rightly prepare for skillful use of the techniques of violence. Nevertheless, it is not clear that they should ever love violence for its own sake, or that they should delight in either the depiction or the experience of violence.
Dear Lord and Father of mankind,
Forgive our foolish ways;
Reclothe us in our rightful mind,
In purer lives Thy service find,
In deeper reverence, praise.
In simple trust like theirs who heard,
Beside the Syrian sea,
The gracious calling of the Lord,
Let us, like them, without a word,
Rise up and follow Thee.
O Sabbath rest by Galilee,
O calm of hills above,
Where Jesus knelt to share with Thee
The silence of eternity,
Interpreted by love!
With that deep hush subduing all
Our words and works that drown
The tender whisper of Thy call,
As noiseless let Thy blessing fall
As fell Thy manna down.
Drop Thy still dews of quietness,
Till all our strivings cease;
Take from our souls the strain and stress,
And let our ordered lives confess
The beauty of Thy peace.
Breathe through the heats of our desire
Thy coolness and Thy balm;
Let sense be dumb, let flesh retire;
Speak through the earthquake, wind, and fire,
O still, small voice of calm.
Occasional Essays and Other Stuff for Christian Students Presented by the Research Professor of Systematic Theology of Central Baptist Theological Seminary of Minneapolis American Christianity needs leaders. American Christianity needs Christian leaders. Christian leaders explain the Scriptures, bringing them to bear upon life’s urgent questions. Christian leaders exemplify the life of faith, finding their ultimate satisfaction in God alone. They unite intellectual discipline with ordinate affection, turning their entire being toward the love of God. These essays are dedicated to the task of inviting Christian students to become tomorrow’s Christian leaders.
—Kevin T. Bauder
“…Be instant in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine.”