Self-Defense and War

I promised below to write about self-defense and war. Well, I’m waiting for a long test program to finish, so here goes:

As you can read in my prior essay, my main objection to capital punishment is that it irrevocably denies the executee their chance of salvation. The same principle certainly applies to self-defense and war.


Often in this fallen world we are not faced with the choice between good and evil (causing a criminal to repent vs. capital punishment) or even neutral or evil (life imprisonment vs. capitalpunishment). Sometimes we are faced with the choice of two evils (being murdered — or allowing innocents to be murdered — vs. killing in self-defense). In such cases we are forced to make a choice, since inaction will result in as much evil as action.

What does Scripture say? In the Old Testament, of course, violence against non-believers (the Israelite conquest) and self-defense (numerous Psalms and stories of Israel from Abraham through Esther and the Maccabees) is clearly sanctioned, while violent oppression is frowned upon. Strangely, King David was not permitted to build a temple because of his warrior history.

The New Testament is seemingly clearer, with Jesus’ command to love your enemies and turn the other cheek to those who strike you. However, he also said things like “I come not to bring peace, but a sword” — usually interpreted metaphorically. But it’s hard to interpret metaphorically his command to buy weapons in preparation for the upheavals following his death. In addition, when asked how to live by a soldier, Jesus did not tell him to quit his occupation, merely not to use his capability of violence for opression!

So the Biblical picture isn’t really clear. Christians have developed many different opinions on the subject throughout history, from St. Augustine’s Just War theory to the pacifism of Quakers and Mennonites in recent history. What follows is my own personal code, based more on intuition than rigorous thought, but I don’t think it’s too anti-biblical.

Much of this depends on a clear analysis of the motives and capabilities of a possible adversary, which is hardly ever possible; I try to reflect this in my discussion.

  • Personal
    • I will not initiate violence for non-violent provocation, e.g. verbal abuse. And the situations described below generally assume that an attacker is roughly equivalent in height and weight to myself — male, 6′ 4″, 250 lbs, with a non-trivial amount of martial arts training. I can pretty much fend off attacks by those smaller than me without causing or sustaining too much damage.

      If I were a small woman I’d probably carry at least mace or pepper spray to even the odds a bit in a fight.

    • Defense of Others
    • I would probably intervene in what I deemed to be oppressive violence, e.g. if I saw a fight between obviously mismatched opponents, or many opponents against few. I would probably hesitate to use deadly violence unless the agression was extreme and I saw no other way to end it.

      However, if a friend or family member were attacked with obvious intent and capability to seriously harm, I would unhesitatingly use anything up to and including deadly violence to defend them. I’ve decided this beforehand because in the event I would likely be seeing red* and not capable of evaluating the proper level of violence to use.

    • Defense of Self
    • In a male dominance fight, I’d use the instinctive primate dominance technique: shoving and punching to the chest or face, or grappling. This technique is like rams’ head-butting: impressive to female onlookers but unlikely to result in serious injury.

      If I were attacked by a robber or some such, I would attempt to incapacitate but try not to kill that person, unless they initiated the use of deadly force, i.e. the use of knives or firearms.

    • Defense of Property
    • If someone was stealing my property I would attempt to: warn, and then subdue if they didn’t stop. Of course if they escalated to violence see above.

  • War
  • This is a trickier one. I am generally in favour of defensive war, even if taken to the enemy’s ground (e.g. the recent Afghanistan campaign). As you can clearly see from this site, I am also in favour of a war to stop oppression (e.g. the recent Iraq campaign and current mop-up).

    And in such cases I am in favour of war to the knife: a short sharp war may well save more lives in the end than it takes. The most famous example of this is the US atomic attack on Japan. Killing several hundred thousand Japanese civillians was considered better than killing millions of Japanese and Americans in an invasion.

    And while the American action in Iraq has been a masterpiece of the principle of least action, one wonders if a stronger action would have wrapped things up sooner. In any case, by the most conservative estimates the American war and occupation in Iraq has saved 5000-10000 lives that would have been taken by Saddam in the past year, given his past record, which makes it the lesser evil, in my book.

* Many people think this is just an expression, but it is possible to get angry enough that the blood pressure in your eyes causes the vessels in the retina to expand such that you begin to see red.