Most of us remember well that terrible day 8 years ago when terrorists ruthlessly attacked us. Although that day is etched deeply in most of our memories, what may have slipped away is how we experienced September 12 and the days that followed. We wondered, was this the first of many more attacks? Was another shoe about to drop? How would we protect ourselves from new attacks? There was a lot of anxiety in the days and weeks that followed. But most people agreed, this nation had to protect itself from further attack. We needed to identify our enemy and end the threat that enemy posed.
In the weeks, months and years that followed this Country undertook significant actions to end the threat posed to us by Al Qaeda. The problem was that this enemy did not live in a single region or country. The field of battle was difficult to define. The army we faced wore no uniforms and lived among non-combatants. Opinions began to differ widely as to the best way to address the threat posed to us.
Among Christians who reflected on what to do, Biblical teaching, the example and words of Jesus present definite challenges to those who proposed a strong military solution. Jesus seems so clear and unequivocal when he teaches in this regard:
You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, offer no resistance to one who is evil. When someone strikes you on (your) right cheek, turn the other one to him as well. If anyone wants to go to law with you over your tunic, hand him your cloak as well….”You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, (Matt 5:38-44)
What a text! It is so radical as it seems to exclude self-defense. What does it mean to offer no resistance to one who is evil? When you are attacked Jesus does not say “defend yourself” he says “turn the other cheek.” So radical does this text seem to most that they are overwhelmed and simply turn the page. Is this a call to radical pacifism? Does it mean that a Nation should have no police force, no judicial system, no army?
Instead of turning the page, we might do well to reflect on the message of a text like this. Perhaps some observations and clarifications are due here:
- The text seems to be more about matters of personal dignity than actual physical attack. True, the strike on the cheek seems quite physical, but in the ancient world such attacks were understood as an attack on one’s personal dignity no so much a grave physical threat. This is true even today. Being slapped on the face is not a devastating threat to our physical well-being. Rather it is an insult. In the ancient world one who wished to humiliate struck (always with the open right hand) the left cheek of the person. This was an indignity but not the worst one that could be inflicted. The worst insult was to strike the right cheek of a person with the back of your right hand. So what Jesus is describing here is a question of dignity. His basic teaching then is that if some one tries to rob you of your dignity by a slap on the cheek, realize that your dignity is not in what others think of you. Realize that your dignity is given by God and no one can take from you. Show this by offering your other cheek. Don’t stand on your precious dignity, don’t retaliate to regain your dignity. The one who struck didn’t give you your dignity and they cannot take it away.
- Hence this text is not about defending from life threatening physical attack, it is a text about personal dignity. All the getting back at others because they offended you or did not praise you, or poked fun at you, or did not give you your due, all the revenge for stuff like that ends because it no longer matters to you, at least not when Jesus starts to live his life in you.
- So this text has a cultural context that would not necessarily require us to interpret Jesus’ words as an absolute exclusion of legitimate self defense in moments of serious physical threat.
But any distinctions I have made above by way of explanation cannot remove the core of Jesus’ message which is meant to limit our retaliation and remove from it anything “personal” other than the protection of life from imminent threat or significant injustice.
This then serves as background to the Church’s very careful and thoughtful approach to necessary self-defense. The Catechsim sets forth this teaching in its exposition of the 5th Commandment (Thou Shall not Kill). Here are some excerpts:
2263 The legitimate defense of persons and societies is not an exception to the prohibition against the murder of the innocent that constitutes intentional killing. “The act of self-defense can have a double effect: the preservation of one’s own life; and the killing of the aggressor…. The one is intended, the other is not.”
2264 Love toward oneself remains a fundamental principle of morality. Therefore it is legitimate to insist on respect for one’s own right to life. Someone who defends his life is not guilty of murder even if he is forced to deal his aggressor a lethal blow: If a man in self-defense uses more than necessary violence, it will be unlawful: whereas if he repels force with moderation, his defense will be lawful….
2265 Legitimate defense can be not only a right but a grave duty for someone responsible for another’s life, the common good of the family or of the state.
2266 Preserving the common good of society requires rendering the aggressor unable to inflict harm. For this reason the traditional teaching of the Church has acknowledged as well-founded the right and duty of legitimate public authority to punish malefactors by means of penalties commensurate with the gravity of the crime, not excluding, in cases of extreme gravity, the death penalty. For analogous reasons those holding authority have the right to repel by armed force aggressors against the community in their charge.
2267 ….the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor. If however non-lethal means are sufficient…authority will limit itself to such means….the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity are very rare, if not practically non-existent.
2308 All citizens and all governments are obliged to work for the avoidance of war. However…governments cannot be denied the right of lawful self-defense, once all peace efforts have failed.”
2309 The strict conditions for legitimate defense by military force require rigorous consideration. The gravity of such a decision makes it subject to rigorous conditions of moral legitimacy. At one and the same time: 1- the damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain; 2- all other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective; 3- there must be serious prospects of success; 4- the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated. The power of modem means of destruction weighs very heavily in evaluating this condition. These are the traditional elements enumerated in what is called the “just war” doctrine.
So, some reflections on 9/11. How have we done? It seems we had a right to defend ourselves by discovering our enemy who so threatened us and removing this threat. I do not claim that we got it all right and that every action of ours was right. Indeed, if I can leave you with one “take away” from this reflection it might be this: Self defense and the ending of unjust aggression can never be something we do lightly and without reflection. The Lord and the Church require of us serious reasons for bringing lethal blows even to enemies and we should never undertake such measures without considering carefully other less lethal means. Respect for life means that it is right that I demand my enemy respect my life but also means that I must respect his. Recourse to war or other lethal means may sometimes be necessary but we do well to carefully consider our motives and means in such a serious undertaking.
Have we done this? I leave this to your prayerful consideration. Pray for also our leaders who have important decisions to make in the protection of this great nation of ours.