You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for an eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. –Jesus
Nonviolence is a powerful and just weapon which cuts without wounding and ennobles the man who wields it. It is a sword that heals. –Martin Luther King Jr.
I want to state at the outset that I believe strongly in self-defense. I would defend myself, another and my family meeting force with force, including deadly force. I believe to do otherwise would be immoral, unjust and yes, ungodly. So the discussion and criticism this past week over Florida’s, and other states’, ‘Stand Your Ground’ laws moved me to think. I was taught to always do primary source research, so I took to the actual text. I quote the salient part here:
A person who is not engaged in an unlawful activity and who is attacked in any other place where he or she has a right to be has no duty to retreat and has the right to stand his or her ground and meet force with force, including deadly force if he or she reasonably believes it is necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony. (Bold mine)
Florida’s Stand Your Ground law (FSYGL) strikes me as irresponsibly moving discretion out of the courts’ and law enforcement officials’ (LEOs) hands and placing it in the hands of citizens. Lawful intent is not properly addressed and opens the door to vigilantism. Lastly, while not critiquing the general aim of the FSYGL, I believe it lacks the elements necessary to square it with a Christian perspective.
The law irresponsibly gives carte blanche for vigilantism. It is not an “unlawful activity” for me to take a walk. I have every “right to be” on the sidewalk, maybe on my neighbor’s lawn walking my dog, in an alleyway, wherever it would seem reasonable for me to be, it wouldn’t be unlawful. Combined with a conceal/carry law, I could walk the streets of my city, town or neighborhood, looking for signs of trouble and use force, even deadly force, if I deem it necessary. FSYGL doesn’t say I can, but it does give me license to do so.
Christians commonly have this debate. It would seem reasonable for me hug an attractive woman. She’s crying and we’re friends so I can hug her, maybe I even should. But if do this because I intend to feel her close to me, gain her confidence and seduce her, my actions are neither reasonable nor ‘lawful’. Other examples abound, but the intentions of the heart are critical to judge the righteousness of certain actions. Jesus frequently criticized the Pharisees for violating the spirit of the law even as he said they followed it to the letter.
FSYGL misses an opportunity to define lawful intent, yet I argue that courts are where we ought to argue and determine intent, not in legislation. Tension between judicial discretion and legislation seems to be at an all-time high in America. Stand Your Ground, Three Strikes, mandatory minimums and other laws are examples of legislators moving judicial and law enforcement discretion out of their hands and codifying it. When people clash, argue, fight, kill, steal or do all the sinful things people do, it can become complex. Taking away discretion sets it into such stone that true justice becomes elusive.
LEOs have discretion whether or not to put a kid in juvie for shoplifting or letting them off with the warning that could be just the grace he needs to set his life straight. Judges can lighten sentences for the drug offender who is just mixed up with wrong crowd, has a good head on his shoulders, and simply needs a second or third chance, not 5 years in prison.Paul taught us that the law kills, but the grace of God can be revealed in our discretion to execute justice in the spirit of the law and not the letter.
The Pharisees always tried to trap Jesus with their legalism. Consider Jesus and the sinful woman; He used his discretion in judgment to forgive and restore her and didn’t cow to the mandatory death sentence requirement the teachers of the law wanted to impose upon Him. He stood his ground and drew a line in the sand, not for violence but for love, forgiveness and restoration.
The Citizen Judge
LEOs are extensively trained and entrusted with the responsibility to protect and serve. It is a sacred duty, that’s why we give them badges and make it a crime to harm or impersonate them. Law enforcement and lawyers know how to define such weighty Constitutional matters as due process, unlawful search and seizure and probable cause. Cops and lawyers have trouble with these sometimes and they’re trained in these matters—how do we reasonably expect the average citizen to rightly and reasonably judge whether probable cause has been established? I am at best wary of giving citizens the authority to exercise force, even deadly force, to prevent the commission of a forcible felony. Assuming the citizen even knows the difference between a misdemeanor and a felony.
Right Intent, Necessity, and Proportionality
We return at last to meeting force with force—an eye for an eye, tooth for tooth. How do we as Christians respond? I am not convinced we have all come to agreement yet, but on the whole, just war theory might be the most common thread we have.
As the Roman Empire crumbled, pagans turned on Christians, saying it was their tendency to turn the other cheek that caused Rome to fall several times in the early 5th century. Saint Augustine responded with thoughts on the virtue of Christian soldiery, a contentious issue for the first few centuries of the Church. The principles he laid out were expanded upon by Saint Thomas Aquinas, and have eventually made it into international law governing use of force. Some of the principles they devised may help us properly examine FSYGL.
At its most basic Christian just war theory prescribes right intent, necessity, proportionality and last resort as considerations for use of force. Unfortunately the FSYGL doesn’t give proper guidance for how to evaluate these principles and leaves loopholes for abuse. As stated previously about intent, the loophole is large and encourages vigilantism at worse, carelessness about the sanctity of life at worst. The average citizen should be made to question his or her intentions, weighing them to see if they have properly considered the implications of their violent actions.
FSYGL fails to guide the average citizen in determining necessary and proportional force, vaguely saying “meeting force with force”. Citizens are not trained like LEOs to instinctually use proportional force; a citizen in a normal situation for which they are untrained is to overreact or act rashly. Nevertheless, this can be changed with the right guidance. If a person is hitting me, and he is of equal or lesser size and power, I would also meet him with proportional force. If he uses his fists, I will use mine. I will meet a gun with a gun. But I will not meet his fists with a gun. I would consider such an action dishonorable.
Last Resort & Sanctity of Life
All force, particularly of the deadly type, should be used as a last resort because a Christian loves life and respects its sanctity. Love of the sanctity of life has been a central Christian social ethic since we first opposed abortion in the Roman era. Like God, a Christian does not show favoritism, believing one person has lost his right to life over any one action. Life is sacred for the unborn baby, the toddler, the criminal, the rapist, the murderer. If I must take a person’s life, I need to be able to answer to God. I want to be able to answer Him that I did all I could to preserve the sanctity of life even as I killed. May He never find that I was so comfortable with my violence or cavalier with the life I robbed of ever knowing the Life.
At Jesus’ arrest in Gethsemane, to defend Him Peter unsheathes his knife and attacks a guard. Jesus defuses a volatile situation by stepping between them, healing the guard, and then issues a warning that ought to echo loudly today, “He who lives by the sword will die by the sword.” At the beginning of this article, I quoted Jesus and Martin Luther King, Jr. These two kings challenge me to not be so cavalier in my comfort with violence. I hope our nation revisits these Stand Your Ground laws and seriously questions itself on its comfort and cavalier attitude toward violence.