John Piper, Guns and Motives (Part 2)

 Eds note: this is the second part of Joey's article regarding John Piper and the little firestorm he started in the evangelical blogosphere with his article regarding guns and self-defense.  You can read Part 1 here

Yesterday, I focused on what Dr. Piper did not say in an attempt to eliminate the various strawmen others had created in lieu of what he actually did say.  Today, I want to focus on what his argument actually was.  Here is Piper’s contention, in his own words:

"My main concern in this article is with the appeal to students that stirs them up to have the mindset: Let’s all get guns and teach them a lesson if they come here. The concern is the forging of a disposition in Christians to use lethal force, not as policemen or soldiers, but as ordinary Christians in relation to harmful adversaries. The issue is not primarily about when and if a Christian may ever use force in self-defense, or the defense of one’s family or friends. There are significant situational ambiguities in the answer to that question. The issue is about the whole tenor and focus and demeanor and heart-attitude of the Christian life. Does it accord with the New Testament to encourage the attitude that says, “I have the power to kill you in my pocket, so don’t mess with me”? My answer is, No."

gun pic

So Piper’s concern isn’t with rights; his concern is that the leader of America’s most influential Christian college stirred up attitudes of ‘let’s teach our enemies a lesson’ rather than ‘how can we love our enemies?’ Following Jesus’ command to love our enemies may not be mutually exclusive to owning a gun and using it in defense of oneself or others. But Piper’s contention is that the heart motivation for owning a gun cannot be ‘let me pack some heat so I can teach my enemy a lesson if they try to mess with me’ while obeying Jesus’ command to love our enemies.

Incidentally, St. Augustine agrees.

Christian Ethics of Self-Defense: A Sampling from Scripture and History

Having established Piper is approaching this as an issue of the heart, and a concern that we are thinking about guns biblically and not simply as Americans who want to teach terrorists lessons, let’s quickly look at the issue of lethal self-defense as a sort of aside, for those folks who think this issue is so obvious that Piper is a silly anti-gun left-wing weirdo.

Several of the articles (including the article referenced yesterday) have used Exodus 22:2 to show that lethal self-defense is approved of in Scripture. “If a thief is caught breaking in at night and is struck a fatal blow, the defender is not guilty of bloodshed;..."

In the post (probably the post most popularly shared on Facebook), the author accuses Piper of taking New Testament passages out of context…and then uses that passage as the only one he cites of an individual case of self-defense.  This is hilarious because the author conveniently ignored the very next verse.
“but if it happens after sunrise, the defender is guilty of bloodshed.” Exodus 22 (you know, in context) isn’t the Scripture you are looking for if you are trying to argue deliberate lethal self-defense is a righteous reaction to having your person or property attacked. Why was it lawful if a fatal blow was struck at night, but not during the day? It is because the assumption is that in the dark of night, defending your property may incidentally lead to death, as opposed to during the light of day, where you should be able to defend yourself without resorting to lethal force.

As always, then, Scripture is interested in the motivation. Incidentally killing in the course of defense is different than deliberately killing in the course of defense, according to Exodus. Applying this passage to modern times isn’t easy, because of guns. The author of Exodus would probably agree with Martin Luther when he said “I think these things (firearms) were invented by Satan himself, for they can’t be defended with (ordinary) weapons and fists. All human strength vanishes when confronted with firearms.” At the very least, what we can take away from this Exodus passage is that incidental killing in self-defense is lawful, but deliberate killing is not lawful if there is any other way of defending oneself.

St. Augustine took that a little further and argued that lethal self-defense was the result of an inordinate self-love, and that Scripture’s command to turn the other cheek means that killing in self-defense is immoral. He would add that love for ones’ neighbor means that defending them against attack is righteous. This is because it’s unselfish service of others.

Thomas Aquinas discussion of lethal self-defense calls to mind Exodus 22:2-3. He states that lethal self-defense is lawful as long as the death was an unintentional secondary effect of defending oneself. He also says “And yet, though proceeding from a good intention, an act may be rendered unlawful if it be out of proportion to the end. Wherefore, if a man in self-defense uses more than necessary violence, it will be unlawful, whereas, if he repel force with moderation, his defense will be lawful.”

Karl Barth, in Church Dogmatics III says “This cannot mean that somewhere and somehow… the imperative reaction of self-defence and therefore the primitive instinct to protect our possessions is right after all. As forcefully as it can, the command of God tells us that this instinct is wrong and not right (p. 433) None of these theologians argue killing is always wrong. They argue that the Christian’s heart motivation should be to serve others, repel force by the most moderate means, and to not see one’s own life or property as more important than anyone else’s. This is exactly what Piper is advocating for, and he sees the ‘teach them a lesson’ and ‘we get rid of bad guys with guns’ perspective as being incompatible with the sort of selflessness described in Scripture and by some of the most influential Christian theologians.  Piper's view, in other words, is situated perfectly within both Scripture and historical Christian ethicism.  

Selfless Love and Lethal Force

If Piper had stuck to his main point, instead of addressing the tertiary question of how his perspective on guns relates to the ‘wife is being attacked’ scenario, I don’t think I would have had anything to disagree with. But he did address that question, and did so inadequately in my opinion. As St Augustine points out, everything that makes the lethal use of force in self-defense unchristian is what makes it righteous when we are defending others.

Jim Elliot and his fellow missionaries did not defend themselves with their guns out of an incredible Christlike love for the enemies they were trying to reach with the Gospel. But that same selflessness could lead someone with a gun into danger in order protect a defenseless victim, rather than running away. Piper rightly points out that every situation is different, but then doesn’t allow for some of those situations creating scenarios where selfless Christlike love means putting yourself in the line of fire, and fighting back, in order protect others. He seems to relegate this to a government function (and we rightly praise police officers for this type of heroism) but Piper fails to make a biblical case for why a civilian should not act in this selfless, loving way.

Two closing thoughts

John Piper’s critique of Falwell is not dependent on his position regarding using lethal force to defend other Christians since his critique was aimed addressing the heart motivation of Christians who want to teach our enemies a lesson. That attitude is absolutely prevalent among Americans, many of whom call themselves Christians, and it is antithetical to Jesus teaching and example the witness of the Church. You cannot be both ready to kill in protection of your own life and property and also ready to demonstrate to the self-sacrificial love of Christ to your enemies.

Falwell’s comments, and similar comments made regularly by conservative politicians going after the support of evangelicals, reflect a common perspective that guns are a solution to crime and terrorism. Piper brings up a critique based on his understanding of what the heart motivation of a Christian. However, John Piper’s critique includes a confusion over whether killing in the defense of others is permissible, which he affirms only vaguely, when protecting others without regard to one’s own safety is another way of demonstrating the selfless love of Christ and should be applauded wholeheartedly. We should consider the Bible, Augustine, and Aquinas’s instruction toward restraint in violent confrontation whenever possible, and in those very rare instances where it is impossible, we can demonstrate the self-sacrificial love of Christ by turning the other cheek in defense of ourselves, and by rushing headlong into danger to protect others, guns blazing.

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