Apr 3, 2016

Christianity, Self-Defense and Consent

The Wrong Way for Christians to Respond to a Knife Attack?
This post explores a generally neglected role for consent in understanding the permissibility of self defense in Christian theories of right.

Some deny that Christians may engage in harmful self-defense. These pacifists think Christians may not defend themselves by means of acts that harm those who intend to injure them. They cite passages like:
Mt 5:39 But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.
That is, they hold that a Christian may not "harm" another under any circumstances, even if the defending "harm" is intended to prevent the unlawful attacking harm. They reject the idea that there is a fundamental difference in moral character between the act of intentionally attacking another person and the act of intentionally defending oneself from such harm by causing harm.

One response against the pacifists is to put Mt 5:39 in the context of other nearby passages to show that the meaning of the passage is figurative, e.g.:
Mt 5:29 If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell. 
Unless the one-eyed, one-handed, and probably self-castrated Christian pacifist wishes to insist that every precept in the Sermon on the Mount is intended to be taken literally -- thereby recognizing a command to self-mutilation -- then he must consider whether both Mt 5:29 and 39 are hyperbolic statements whose extremity is meant not to be followed in their extremity but to give a sense of the importance of the duty. I.e., in the same way that we would understand someone who said, "I'd rather jump off a cliff than vote to reelect Georgia's governor" to mean "I really really think it is important not to reelect that corporate quisling" rather than to express a subjective preparation to jump off a cliff instead of voting for him. But, having considered this argument, the Christian pacifist might admit that some of Jesus' precepts are hyperbolic, but not 5:39. For those arguing in this way, here is another response.

First, we grant for the sake of argument that one may not "harm" another in self-defense to prevent injury. But, second, we affirm the right of self-defense because self-defense does not "harm." One way to argue this would be to define "harm" as "injury," i.e. to say that harm only occurs if an action is wrongful and then to argue that self-defense is not wrongful, e.g., because wrong flows from wrongful intent and the intent to preserve one's own life or the life of another is loving, not wrongful.

But I think there is another and perhaps stronger way to make the point that self-defense is not harmful, though it requires careful reflection. This way turns on the issue of consent, rather than the identification of harm with injury. (After all, it is not a worthless rejoinder for the pacifist to say that if I kill someone in self-defense, no matter how necessary the killing is to save my own life, still the person killed is harmed.)

Here's how it goes. Although we generally agree that physical wounds are harmful, we do not generally say that physical wounds are harmful if the recipient consents to them. For example, if my doctor recommends an amputation to stop life-threatening gangrene, then I am not harmed if I consent to the operation and he amputates my leg to prevent my death. This is true even though, if he recommended amputation and I refused to consent, I would be harmed if he waited until I was unconscious and performed the operation during my incapacity. Surgery is a good and traditional example of the strong role of consent in transforming what would be a harmful wound into a non-harmful wound. In both cases, I suffer amputation but only in the un-consented case is it harmful. (The transformative effect of consent is exemplified in the Mosaic law excepting consenting slaves from the right of release. Ex 21:5-6)

In the case of self defense, before we call it harm, we need to consider whether the attacker consents to be prevented from harming me by harm aimed at preventing his violence. Clearly, he does not desire it. But consent is not the same as desire. Two boxers frequently consent to be struck by gloved blows, even though neither desires to be struck. They know it will happen, seek to avoid it and consent to the blows they know will occur. A patient may consent to surgery even if he does not desire amputation. Clearly, an attacker does not desire to be wounded by his victim's self-defense. But this does not resolve the question of consent.

In general, one consents to all the customary harms which come from deliberately encountering a social situations where harms of that sort are known to arise. For example, if I consent to join a tackle football game, I consent to encounter a variety of intentional and unintentional contacts from the other players, which can be very harmful and even life threatening. If I consent to join a wrestling match, I consent to encounter other kinds of contacts. If I consent to join a boxing match, still others. If I am wounded in the course of these activities by contacts within the customary bounds of football, basketball or boxing, I may be wounded, but I am not harmed. My consent to encounter the risks of contacts or intended contacts transforms what would be harms into non-harms in these contexts just as in the case of surgery.

What do I consent to if I choose unlawfully to threaten the life or physical well-being of another person? I certainly do not expect the other person to be restrained by the ordinary limits on physical contact that would apply to strangers walking peaceably down a broad street past each other. Do I expect more restraint from him than I would someone playing against me in a tackle football game or wrestling match? More than in a boxing match? It seems far fetched to me to suppose that I do not at least consent to all the contacts that I would expect to encounter in an ordinary sporting event when I threaten someone's life.

Accordingly, unless a Christians pacifist wants to deny that consent transforms otherwise harmful contacts into non-harmful contacts, then he must admit that when someone attacks me he consents to a wide range of contacts in response. Unless he wants to argue that Christians may not participate in social situations where otherwise harmful and wrongful contacts may be appropriate because they are consented to, like football and basketball, then he must, at least, consider what one who deliberately enters into an unlawful attack on another consents to.

This, it seems to me, is a question of social fact. One who slaps me on the cheek may consent to be slapped in return or not depending on a number of social factors. If the high priest's guard slaps someone on the cheek during a trial, he may or may not consent to a return slap. If a woman slaps a man on the cheek who has just made an inappropriate and unwelcome effort to kiss her, she may not consent to a slap in return. Cheek slapping is very context dependent. But someone who backs me into an alley with a raised knife and demands my wallet seems to expect and consent to a variety of physical responses to which he has shown himself ready by his aggressive posture. On the other hand, I can imagine societies in which a kind of social contract emerged between robbers and victims in which the robber did not expect or consent to certain kinds of violent responses. The robbers do not stab victims from behind because they expect the victim to hand over their wallets simply on the basis of a more or less formal display of a knife. In such situations, there might be other reasons to limit self defense in addition to considerations of the reasonable necessity of the use of force to prevent harm to oneself.

But where I believe that I am being approached by someone intent on doing me harm, I do not see a real argument that my attacker does not consent to encounter a social situation where defensive force is appropriate. If wounds arising from my self-defense are consented to, then I do not see that they are harms.

Thus, the premise of the pacifist can be allowed. Christians may not harm others even in response to threats of violence or actual violence while affirming that self-defense which wounds the attacker is nevertheless allowed to the victim because it is not harming him, given his consent to enter the social situation of lawless melee. We can say all this while also emphasizing that the victim's right of self-defense is limited strictly to the force appropriate and reasonable to stop the attack, so that, for example, if the attacker credibly and reliably demands only money to avoid the attack, I may have an obligation to give up my wallet instead of harming him. On the other hand, even if I could give up my wallet to avoid the attack, the role of consent may also explain why I may elect between using physical force to repel the offered knife attack or give up my wallet. As long as the use of self-defense is within the socially expected range of responses, I would not harm the robber if I wounded him physically while engaged in actions that were necessary only indirectly to save myself. The modern law prohibiting the use of deadly force to defend property treats the right of self-defense as emanating only from my interest in myself rather than from the fact that the robber consents to encounter deadly or seriously injurious force in some situations when he unlawfully invades property interests. Thus, also, the Mosaic law can be understood insofar as it permits the use of deadly force to defend a home against a burglar during the night but not during the day, instead of simply teaching the use of deadly force where necessary to defend one's person. (Ex 22:2) The burglar during the night consents to encounter a different social situation by breaking in during the darkness than during the day. The dependence of the existence of consent on social customs also explains why there is no necessary rule concerning the duty to retreat before an attacker before one may exercise self-defense. The appropriate moral rule depends in part on the social expectations raised by attacks in a given society.

In other contexts, I think this argument is potentially even more useful. In the case of war, I think it is fair to say that invading soldiers consent to receive the kind of wounds that they are offering to give. But this may not be true of defending soldiers. Thus, we can distinguish the moral culpability of invading and defending soldiers. Consent may also not be presumed of any soldiers who are fighting under duress. Thus, we can explain the Bible's requirements that unwilling soldiers not be pressed into fighting. (Dt 20:1-8) This seems to me to pose important problems for modern law of war, which does not prohibit use of coerced soldiers. Additionally, if mutual consent is the basis of the Christian right to use violence against other soldiers in warfare, then we also understand the requirement that soldiers offer terms of peace before prosecuting a war. (Dt 20:10) The modern practice of demanding unconditional surrender without prior declaration of terms for peace seems to undermine the claim that the forces are joining on mutually consensual terms of social encounter.

At the theological level, we also gain a new understanding of Christ and martyrs' suffering and death if we consider the issue of consent and harm in this way. If one who consents is not harmed, then Jesus and the martyrs are not conquered by those who killed them. They suffered no harm from their wounds because they consent to them. They die distinctly not in the sense that they uniquely consent to die for others have done so, but because Jesus was willing to die for the unrighteous and the martyrs out of a love for God and man that imitates Christ: Ro 5:6 You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. 7 Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. 8 But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

To die without harm at the hands of oppressors is very hard. But those who consent to die for love of God and man, whether as Christ did or as those martyrs who imitate Him do, they do not suffer harm. They suffer and are wounded, but they are not harmed. They are preserved from harm by their willingness for the sake of love to encounter death. The consent to die for love of God and man is not a minor comfort against harm.

We actually experience the transformative role of consent regularly in life in facing a variety of situations that would otherwise be intolerable. Most importantly, we all know that being ruled by a government to which we consider ourselves to consent is very different from being ruled by those who are forced upon us. There is no sense of shame or loss when we are ruled by those to whom we have given consent. By contrast, the social effect on a nation of being ruled by those who cannot claim consent is devastating. Consider the demoralizing effect on America of the loss of a sense that the most important social issues are determined by the consent of the people rather than by the machinations of insular elites. Consenting to the rule of God, to the discipline of God, to the providence of God as Jesus both exemplified for us and made possible by evidencing the goodness of God transforms the nature of life and make a new kind of life and love possible.

It is precisely in the Spirit pouring out this love that we might choose -- not be compelled by legal duty -- to lay down our own lives where self-defense was an option of right for us. The pacifists' argument is weakest against self-defense if it categorically excludes the right to self-defense and makes Jesus right to appeal to Father for the twelve legions of angels somehow a legal violation. Jesus consented to die rather than to defend Himself so that He might save us, not because He had a moral obligation to die rather than defend Himself or request His Father to defend Him. Indeed, unless He had consented to die, is it imaginable that the Father would have allowed Him to come to harm?


  1. But if there is no harm when there is consent, then does that mean the aggressors are without guilt? My own attempt to answer this question might be that though the "victim" consents and there is no harm to the victim, the act of aggression that leads to injury or death offends God (who presumingly does not consent to the harm that befalls His image-bearers), who will pursue justice as the Avenger at the end. Looking forward to hearing your thoughts.

    Revelation 6:9-11 New International Version (NIV)

    9 When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained. 10 They called out in a loud voice, “How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?” 11 Then each of them was given a white robe, and they were told to wait a little longer, until the full number of their fellow servants, their brothers and sisters, were killed just as they had been.

  2. Another way of putting your point is to focus on the meaning of Christ and Stephen's prayer that God forgive or not hold against them the sin of killing. Clearly, there is sin or there would not be need of forgiveness. I like your suggestion that though they consent to be killed, there is still an objective wrong in the shedding of blood with respect to God. How else could the martyrs under the altar cry out for their blood -- but notice not themselves -- to be avenged. One could treat their reference to their blood as metonymy for themselves. But I think the evocation is to the way that the blood has power and voice in itself and the blood of a murdered man itself cries out for response.

    Modern civil law faces this question, too. The consent of someone to a tort, even if it ends personal liability, does not necessarily prohibit the state from criminal prosecution, e.g., in an illegal boxing match, an injured boxer may not be able to sue for battery because he consented but the state could still prosecute. In some jurisdictions, the fact that someone consented to a tort which is criminally prohibited is not allowed to extinguish civil liability, but this is generally only where the criminal law is paternalistic and seeks to protect a class of persons from a harm.

  3. Fascinating. Thank you. Learning a lot from our discourse.