By Anwuchie Augustine
People have always been bothered by the question, should a Christian defend himself when his life is threatened since Jesus taught that we should not retaliate but forgive our enemies and pray for them? Is it Christ-like to position armed men around and inside the church during celebration of masses especially in Northern Nigeria, where many churches have been decimated and thousands of Christians killed? Was Jesus permitting self-defense when he said that if we receive a slap on the left cheek, we should turn the right also to our oppressors (Luke 6:29). These two instances have left many Christians confused on the limit to avoid acting against an enemy especially when their life is threatened. Yet should we allow our life to de destroyed when we have an opportunity to preserve it; since the preservation of our life and the lives of others is an intrinsic ingredient of our God given right and dignity?
Self-defense is not only a right and a duty but an intrinsic right of man because everybody is given the gift of love and the right to exist. The fundamental principle of morality is love and preservation of life. When Jesus told us to love our neighbor as we love ourselves, we see that our neighbors love proceed from the love of the life which God gave us, hence it is legitimate to insist on the respect for one’s own life. This means that nobody has the right to take his life except when we decide to lay it for the sake of kingdom or others, like the martyrs. This right is drawn from the nature of man as a being that has dignity and rights to exist. As early as Graeco-Roman era, there was already a systemized rule for self-defense and preservation of life, masterly championed by the Roman state men and scholar Cicero. In the scripture God frowns at the destruction of another’s life because he alone is the author of life. This is why he severely punished Cain for killing Abel (Gen 4:1-18)
It is important to note that while Jesus talked about forgiving our enemies, it is also our divine and natural right to protect our lives and the lives of those entrusted to us against aggressors especially when these aggressors threatens to take our lives and the lives of those entrusted to us. The right to live and exist is ingrained in the divine and natural right of man whom we are told is created in the image and likeness of God. This is why God severely punished Cain for killing Abel.
In the history of mankind, many positive laws deriving from this divine and natural right has been made to protect life. The mosaic rule on self-defense stipulates that “if a thief is found breaking in and is struck so that he dies, there shall be no blood guilt for him” (Exodus 22:2); it goes on to say that there was blood guilt if he was killed during the day. Thus, even though self-defense is recommended, imputing blood guilt on killing the thief during the day is a kind of check and balance because the light of the day is an advantage that may render the killing of the thief unnecessary. One who is attacked during the day can identify the thief or call on his neighbor for help.
Again, perhaps in the time of Moses, daily robbery may not be deadly as night robbery. The prophet, Nehemiah encouraged the Israelite who returned from exile to defend themselves from the hostilities of the neighboring enemies who wanted to interfere in their rebuilding of the Jerusalem temple and threatened the lives of the returnees (Nehemiah 4:14).
While Jesus condemned the act of vengeance, he may not however totally rule out self-defense except when it threatened to block his mission of salvation. For instance, when he commanded Peter to put back his sword after cutting of the ear of the servant of the high priest, he ensured that the soldiers who came to arrest him allowed his apostles to go scot-free. However, the apostles carried their sword for protection and self-defense as is the customary for male Jews in the Roman Palestine which was riddled with insecurity, rebellion and banditry. There was even at a point before his arrest and execution when Jesus told his disciple that he who does not have a sword should sell his cloak and get one (Luke 22:). However, the disciple were never to use this sword and even when Peter struck of the ear of the servant of the chief priest Jesus rebuked him and by this reminded him how their physical need is taken care by God’s providence. While this might be ironical and didactical and meant to drive a point in his teaching, we should note that this is not far removed from the daily lives of ordinary Jews from which Jesus borrows to teach.
In the Catholic Church, the theology of self-defense well developed by Thomas Aquinas. According to this great doctor of the church, “killing one’s assailant is justified provided one does not intend to kill him”. This position is also called the principle of double effect. What this means is that the one defending himself had no intention of killing his assailant. His primary concern is to defend himself, if in the process the Christian kills the person who attacked him, the act of killing the person who attacked him is not intended since his primary intention is to defend himself but justified as the outcome or consequence of defending himself. For instance, if a security man attached to a church shoots to death a terrorist who had the intention of carrying out a suicide bombing, the killing is justified because the security man acted with the intention of safeguarding his life and the lives of the faithful. Thus, the act of self-defense has double effects. The first is the preservation of life while the other might result in the harming or killing of the aggressors only as a consequence. The first is intended while the second is not intended but is a consequence of the first.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church elaborated further thus, “Legitimate self-defense can be not only a right but a grave duty for one who is responsible for the lives of others. The defense of common good requires that an unjust aggressor be rendered unable to cause harm” (CCC 2265). Here the catechism sees the defense and preservation of life as a common good that should not only be upheld but defended even if it is at the expense or injury of the aggressor. We should know that self-defense is not an outright declaration of war on the aggressor.
There are conditions where self-defense might require the use of lethal force. The Church has always applied common sense; the catechism states that lethal force can be justified if one is left with no other choice. This means that killing should be the last resort after every other means has been tried. Thus “Someone who defends his life is not guilty of murder even if he is forced to deal his aggressor a lethal blow: if a man in self-defense uses more than necessary violence, it will be unlawful: whereas if he repels force with moderation, his defense will be unlawful…. Nor is it necessary for salvation that a man omit the act of moderate self-defense to avoid killing the other man, since one is bound to take more care of one’s own life than another’s” (ccc2264). The point here is that in self-defense our response should be moderate in likeness to that of the aggressor. Hence it will be wrong to shoot someone who stole a bag from me in the church without a corresponding threat of weapon or harm to my life.
In the midst of the insecurity ravaging the country, Christians are called to prayer and commitment to bearing witness in this challenging moment. However, it is wrong to frown at situation where the worshipping community organizes a security outfit or takes necessary precaution to preserve and protect the lives of the members of the worshipping community. Those communities are not only expressing their right but their duties as Christians. According to Nigeria report by the Nigerian based International Societies’ for Civil Liberties and Rule of Law(intersociety) 620 Nigerian Christians were killed in the first six months of 2020 while a further 2,400 Christians where killed between the actions of Boko-haram in north-eastern Nigeria and Fulani herdsmen in the middle belt. This report is obtained from an article on “La Crux” dated July 14 2020. It is also unfortunate that the government of Muhammed Buhari has shown an unwillingness to tackle this insecurity. With Nigeria becoming the world biggest target against Christians attempt at self-defense to protect churches and worshipping communities is not only a right but a duty.