Violence is a major subject in current American culture. As we reflect back on another mass shooting this past week, the topics of guns and violence fill our minds and our conversations. Part of this discussion comes to the role of Christians in society.
Specifically, I want to ask (and answer) the question, “Can Christians ever participate in violence?” Is it immoral for Christians to be involved in owning guns, serving in the military, working as police officers, or committing violence in defense of self or others? I want to answer this question through three core statements.
Scripture is filled with examples of just violence
Many of us think of the Ten Commandments and the command not to kill (better translated “murder”). In isolation, this command would seem to say that Christians should never be involved in killing or violence. However, it is impossible to read the Old Testament and conclude that the command means that godly people can never participate in violence.
The Old Testament is filled with stories of people acting violently and being commended. This is not to say that all violence is commended (certainly not!), but that there are many times when a person who participated in violence is seen as having acted justly. This is true of Abraham when he rescued Lot (Genesis 14). This is true of David when he killed Goliath (1 Samuel 17).
This is true of Joshua when we carried out the death penalty on Achan (Joshua 7). And this is true many times when Israel participated in wars. Clearly, Scripture presents the idea that a call to godliness is not a call never to participate in violence.
But are things different now that Jesus has come? Are these simply Old Testament examples that we have outgrown? I don’t think so. While there are definitely differences between the Old Testament and the New Testament regarding how God’s people are called to live, these differences are mostly because of two realities: (1) Jesus fulfilled certain practices (food laws, sacrifices, the priesthood) and (2) God’s people are no longer an identifiable nation with borders and a military.
Therefore, there could still be godly people participating in the military and as police officers, because Jesus and the New Testament authors teach that we live in legitimate governments that can be supported (John 19:11, Romans 13:1, 1 Peter 2:13).
Non-violence is not the same as non-retaliation
In the New Testament, I fail to find a call to non-violence. Instead, we find a call to non-retaliation. Jesus calls us to non-retaliation in the Sermon on the Mount when he tells us to turn the other cheek (Matthew 5). Paul calls us to non-retaliation when he tells Christians to stop suing each other (1 Corinthians 6). Peter calls us to non-retaliation when he calls us to repay curses with blessings (1 Peter 3). Jesus did not retaliate and, because of this, we now walk in forgiveness and new life.
While Christians are called not to retaliate physically, verbally, or in any other way, this does not exclude violence. The reason for this is that a police officer is not enacting revenge when he tackles a violent suspect. A member of the military is not retaliating when he shoots an enemy combatant. They are instead acting in line with the state.
This is not to say that the government will always be just. Christians must be willing to disobey authority if we are commanded to do evil. That said, governments certainly have the potential to be just and the authors of Scripture present them as legitimate. Keeping law and order, participating in the military, and acting in self-defense do not fall into the realm of retaliatory actions. They can be just ways of participating in violence, even though violence is always a tragic path.
If something is good for someone to do, then it is good for Christians to do
There are some who say that it is fine for Christians to live in a society in which the military and police officers protect us, but that Christians should not participate in these professions. I believe that this is not a biblically defensible position. If serving as a police officer is a good thing for a non-Christian to do, then it is a good thing for a Christian to do.
Peter speaks of the Christian calling to do good in society (1 Peter 2:11-12). Sometimes the good thing to do in a horrible situation is to participate in violence in order to prevent a worse and more unjust situation. Christians are not called to keep their hands clean while others do their dirty work. We are called to do good, even when it might involve sad acts of violence because of the evil choices of other people.
Clearly, this article is not exhaustive. Feel free to give feedback or raise questions. Christians are not called to delight in evil or violence or weapons. We grieve the fact that we live in such a broken world. We live in a world that desperately needs Jesus. We live as people willing to choose blessing over retaliation. And we also live as people who are willing to call some violent actions “good” if they are courageous actions that protect others from further violence and injustice.