The Resort to Violence
Can it ever be justified in behalf of righteousness?
“How long will you judge unjustly? And show partiality to the wicked? Vindicate the weak and fatherless; do justice to the afflicted and destitute. Rescue the weak and needy; deliver them out of the hand of the wicked.” — Psalm 82:3-4
God is concerned about justice. His Word is filled with exhortations in behalf of justice. The Scriptures also contain many promises that when Jesus returns to reign from Jerusalem, the earth will be flooded with peace, righteousness, and justice as the waters cover the seas (Habakkuk 2:14).
Believers are commanded in both the Old and New Testaments to stand for justice and to speak out for righteousness (Psalm 94:16, Proverbs 31:8-9; and Philippians 2:15). The prophet Amos wrote: “Hate evil, love good, and establish justice” (Amos 5:15). Paul exhorted believers to “abhor what is evil” (Romans 12:9). And Jesus Himself said we are to be the “salt of the earth” and the “light of the world” (Matthew 5:13-14).
But what is a Christian to do if his stand for justice requires him to break the law? The Scriptures command believers to be respectful of ruling authorities (Romans 13:1-7; 1 Timothy 2:1-4; and 1 Peter 2:13-17). We are to pray for our political leaders. We are to respect their authority as established by God. We are to pay our taxes. In short, we are to be good, law abiding citizens, regardless of the form of government — whether it be a democracy, a monarchy, an oligarchy, or a dictatorship.
Does this mean that a Christian can never rightfully break the law, regardless of how unjust it may be? Not necessarily. When the Jewish governing authorities in the time of the early church arrested some of the apostles and ordered them to stop preaching the gospel, Peter replied, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).
Near the end of the first century this issue became critical. The Roman Emperor declared himself to be god and required everyone in the empire to go before a magistrate and proclaim, “Caesar is Lord!” Christians refused to obey this order, and the church experienced severe persecution as a result.
Down through the centuries since that time, Christians have continued to struggle with this thorny issue. When, if ever, should a law be disobeyed? And if it seems necessary, how should the disobedience be conducted?
As the issue was debated, a consensus began to emerge among Christian theologians. That consensus was articulated for modern America by Martin Luther King as he defended his violation of racial discrimination laws. He pointed out that a Christian must test laws by the Word, and if his conscience compels him to disobey what he considers to be an ungodly law, he must do so peacefully, openly, and with a willingness to suffer the consequences. Using this approach, which I belief is biblical, he awakened the conscience of the nation to the injustice of racial discrimination.
Like the early Christians who suffered terribly for their disobedience, King and his followers experienced public ridicule, police brutality, and mob lynchings. King ultimately gave his life for the cause. But the power of his moral stance proved greater than the violence that was used against him.
Resorting to Violence
Must Christian disobedience of the law always take the form of passive non-violence? Must it always be open and peaceful? Can a resort to violence ever be justified?
The question of violent protest has become a hotly debated one in America in recent months because of the killings of abortionists by professing Christians in the anti-abortion movement. How can such violence possibly be justified? Most Christians have reacted with shock, horror and condemnation. Most Christians leaders seem to have taken the position that violence can never be justified in defense of righteousness.
It appears to be an open-and-shut, black and white issue. But I’m not so sure the answer to this important issue is all that simple. Let me illustrate what I mean.
- Were the founding fathers of our nation, most of whom were Christians, wrong in resorting to violence against the injustices of Great Britain?
- Were Christian Abolitionists wrong to resort to violence, and urge war, to abolish the evil of slavery in this country?
- Were the Christians wrong who called for the United States to resort to violence in order to annihilate the Nazi regime of Hitler?
- Were Christians wrong to support the policy of Communist containment when it required the use of force?
These questions raise broader issues of just war and self-defense. But they nonetheless illustrate the fact that Christians have often felt that a resort to violence was necessary and just.
The Abortion Issue
But let’s return to the central issue — the use of force by an individual in defense of justice. How could anyone, particularly a Christian, justify the killing of an abortionist?
There is a growing number of Christians who believe such an action can be justified, and the argument they offer is graphic, logical and powerful. It runs like this:
“If you were walking down a street and suddenly witnessed a man lean over the fence around a school play ground and start shooting the children in the yard, what would you do? Would you ignore him? Would you think only of your own safety? And if you had immediate access to a gun, would you shoot him in order to stop the slaughter? Of course you would!”
“Now, what is the difference when it comes to an abortionist? He kills 5 to 15 babies a day. He murders the most innocent life on earth — the baby in the womb. Why must the school yard shooter be killed and the abortion murderer be tolerated?”
The pro-abortion advocate would, of course, respond to this argument by saying that it does not apply because the organism in the womb is not a baby — it is, instead, a “non-human fetus” or a “blob of protoplasm.” But this argument is invalidated by both logic and Scripture.
Scripturally, the Bible makes it very clear that God considers a baby in the womb to be fully human (Psalm 139:13-16 and Jeremiah 1:4-5). And the Bible says God hates hands that shed innocent blood (Proverbs 6:17).
Logically, the pro-abortionist also has no ground to stand on because he would be the first to affirm the validity of the federal law that prohibits the destruction of an eagle egg. How can one logically argue that an eagle egg must be protected because it contains an eagle and then turn around and say a baby in the womb can be destroyed because it is “non-human”?
Another counter argument that can be offered against the pro-violence scenario is to point out that the shooting of children is illegal whereas abortion is acceptable under the law of the land. In the one case, you are intervening to stop an illegal act. In the other, you are interfering with an act that is completely legal.
Point and Counterpoint
Response: “But just because something is legal does not make it morally acceptable. In fact, something can be legal and still be morally reprehensible — as was the case with slavery.
“Or consider the treatment of Jews in Nazi Germany. Jews were executed simply because they were Jews, and this was completely legal. Was it ethical? Was it right for Christians to just stand on the sidelines and do nothing because it was ‘the law of the land’? What if they had marched against the holocaust? What if they had conducted sit-ins at the entrances of the death camps? What if they had targeted death camp commanders and guards for assassination?
“And what about Dietrich Bonhoeffer? He was a famous Christian leader who finally decided something had to be done. So, he conspired in a plot to kill Hitler — a plot that almost succeeded. Was he wrong?”
Counter: “But we here in America have a democratic society in which people have the freedom to express their views and work peacefully to change unjust laws. You anti-abortion protestors need to stop shouting and sit down at the political table and seek a compromise.”
Response: “But our society in its humanistic, secular prejudice has stacked the deck against us. The free expressions of our opinions has been cut off through the enactment of special unconstitutional laws that are aimed solely at anti-abortion protestors. The courts are also prejudiced against us, going so far in some cases as to declare ‘prayer-free zones’ around abortuaries. And the media hates us with a passion. They ignore our rallies, refuse to communicate our arguments, and portray us a crazies. You have driven us to violence by cutting off peaceful protest.
“Furthermore, regarding ‘political compromise,’ there can be no compromise on this issue because it involves the taking of human life. We are talking about the killing of babies, not the minimum wage.
“And the standard political compromise is morally reprehensible to us. It is the position taken by most politicians: ‘I don’t believe in abortion and would never urge anyone to have one, but I’m not going to limit the right of others to have one.’ That’s like saying, ‘I don’t believe in slavery, but who am I to tell others they can’t own slaves?’ Or, ‘I don’t believe in killing problem children, but…'”
Counter: “But your own Scriptures tell you to ‘love your enemy’ and to ‘turn the other cheek’” (Matthew 5:39,44).
Response: “Yes, but those same Scriptures say, ‘Rescue those who are unjustly sentenced to death; don’t stand back and let them die’” (Proverbs 24:11-12).
Counter: “But the man you call Lord rebuked one of his apostles, Peter, when he resorted to the use of a sword to stop his Master from being arrested.”
Response: “But that was because death was His divine destiny. On two other occasions, Jesus Himself resorted to violence to drive the money lenders from the Temple in Jerusalem.”
As you can see, the issue of resorting to violence in defense of righteousness is not all that simple. Still, I personally believe that violence is the wrong approach to the issue of abortion for several reasons.
Arguments against Violence
First, violence discredits what the anti-abortion movement stands for. The movement is essentially pro-life. As such, how can it resort to the taking of life? How can you argue for the sanctity of life while urging that abortionists be killed? It is hypocritical and self-defeating.
Incidentally, this argument does not apply to the death penalty because God commanded the death penalty for murderers in the everlasting Noahic Covenant (Genesis 9:6). And that commandment is reaffirmed in the New Testament when Paul refers to government as having been given the power of the sword (Romans 13:4). The death penalty is commanded for murder precisely because God puts such a high value on life.
Second, violence strips the anti-abortion movement of its moral ground. The power of a moral movement is to be found not in its weapons, but in the righteousness of its cause and its methods. Martin Luther King proved that, and Donald Wildmon is proving it today in his fight against pornography.
A person involved in a moral crusade must be prepared to suffer — not inflict suffering on others. Public opinion will not be swayed against abortion by the killing abortionists. It will make them heroes. But public opinion will be moved by endless scenes of anti-abortion protesters willing to be kicked, cursed, beat up and jailed for their moral stance. A moral crusade demands the willingness to receive and bear suffering, not to inflict it.
Third, the resort to violence in behalf of a moral cause is very dangerous because it nearly always results in the moral transformation of those who use it.
This point was driven home to me vividly by one of the most powerful books I have ever read, The New Class by Milovan Djilas. The author was a top official in the Communist Party of Yugoslavia when he wrote the book. He was immediately arrested when it was published in 1957.
In the book Djilas pointed out how Communism always begins as an idealistic movement devoted to high moral values — the just distribution of goods, the elimination of poverty, the full participation of all people in the government, etc. But, he argued, the movement is always perverted by its willingness to use any methods, including murder, to achieve its ideals.
It is impossible, he argued, for people who resort to lies, theft and murder not to be transformed by these methods. Thus, he concluded, it is no accident that when a Communist movement succeeds, it ends up being worse than what it overthrew because in the process of the struggle for power, the idealistic moralists are transformed into cut-throat, heartless thugs.
The ends can never justify the means.
Fourth, for anti-abortionists to resort to violence seems to me to show a lack of faith in the sovereignty of God.
God can resolve the abortion issue in America. He can do it without the resort to violence. In fact, He can do it without a resort to political action. I mention the latter point because some Christian leaders who speak out strongly against violence turn right around and give the impression that our only hope in the struggle against abortion is political action. And this often ends up meaning nothing more than the election of more Republicans.
The Key to Victory
The key to resolving the issue of abortion is not to be found in violence or politics. The key is prayer and repentance. Those of us who oppose abortion must go to our knees in prayer, repenting of our sins and the sins of our nation. We must also be willing to stand up and speak out for righteousness, even if it means persecution.
God is sovereign. He can work through the most evil of men to achieve His purposes if believers are praying and repenting. Proverbs 21:1 says that the hearts of political leaders are “like channels of water in the hand of the Lord” and He can direct them wherever He pleases. And 2 Chronicles 7:14 says that if “My people who are called by My name [that’s Christians, not everyone in America] will humble themselves and pray and seek My face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, will forgive their sin, and will heal their land.”
Abortion is a terrible evil. It must be relentlessly opposed. But in doing so, we must not put our hope in the methods of Man. There are appropriate actions we can take (writing letters, counseling, picketing, adopting children, providing for unwed mothers, supporting anti-abortion candidates, etc.). But we must keep in mind that this is a spiritual battle.
Our battle is not against flesh and blood, but against the principalities and powers of darkness (Ephesians 6:12). Our ultimate weapons must, therefore, be spiritual in nature. And our hope must be placed in God, not ourselves or our politicians.
“Throughout history there have been no ideal ends which were attained with non-ideal, inhumane means… If the end must be used to condone the means, then there is something in the end itself, in its reality, which is not worthy. That which really blesses the end, which justifies the efforts and sacrifices for it, is the means: their constant perfection, humaneness, increasing freedom.”
— Milovan Djilas in The New Class, page 162.