I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live. (Deuteronomy 30:19)
You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also. (Matthew 5:38–39, 43–45)
The passage above from Deuteronomy is the source of the “choose life” mantra of the Pro Life Movement in the United States. It’s a movement that seems less interested in the second passage, the one from the Sermon on the Mount in which Jesus lays down one of his most famous and demanding teachings.
I’ve been thinking about both of these texts in light of the recent Zimmerman verdict. I won’t wade into the contested details of that train-wreck of a case here. Rather, I simply want to note how sad and perverse it is that vast swaths of American Christianity have no problem finding abortion to be at odds with “the gospel of life” at the same time that they actually support and encourage violence in American life in so many other ways, including the recent legislative innovation of “Stand Your Ground Laws.” I’ve heard and read many commentaries on the Zimmerman verdict; I have not noticed much of an outcry about Stand Your Ground from the usual defenders of “Christian America.”
It’s as if what Jesus had to do with and say about the taking of life doesn’t really matter all that much to the many Christian folk committed to “choosing life” in this country. Which is strange, because we don’t just have Matthew 5 to remind us of what Jesus taught about violent self-defense. We have Good Friday to remind us of what he did. Presented with the opportunity to Stand His Ground, Jesus, after telling Peter to put away his sword, said, “Do you not think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?” So that the scriptures would be fulfilled, and the love of God for the world would be made fully manifest, Jesus yielded his ground, and indeed his life, to his enemies. And so he has called us to do, lest we forget that we’re summoned by Jesus to take up our crosses and follow him. Only an evasive spiritualization of that summons can free us from the obligation to yield our ground rather than engage in violent self-defense. (In a moment of biting gallows humor, Facebook friend and standup comedian Jeremy McLellan posted a joke online about the Zimmerman verdict: “My favorite Bible story is where Peter cuts the guy’s ear off and Jesus says ‘No! Put your sword away!’ and then hands him a Glock and says ‘Swords are for pussies. Stand your ground.'”)
I suppose changing the subject can also do the trick of setting Jesus aside. Consider these neighboring paragraphs from the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
2262 In the Sermon on the Mount, the Lord recalls the commandment, “You shall not kill,”62 and adds to it the proscription of anger, hatred, and vengeance. Going further, Christ asks his disciples to turn the other cheek, to love their enemies.63 He did not defend himself and told Peter to leave his sword in its sheath.64
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.”65
Note that footnote 62 points out that Jesus is quoting Leviticus, and notes 63 and 64 point to elsewhere in Matthew’s Gospel. It seems fairly clear—if Jesus is our authority and example, and if it is him we are to follow—that self-defense is ruled out. Switch to par. 2263, however, and the footnote appealed to to justify setting aside the witness of Jesus is supported not by scripture at all but rather Thomas Aquinas, from whom I suppose we are to learn (according to the Catechism’s arrangement of paragraphs) that Matthew 5 (now glossed as prohibiting the murder of the innocent) is compatible with violent self-defense by way of the principle of double effect. But Jesus didn’t say anything in the Sermon on the Mount about “the innocent”, and if it is indeed from Jesus that we are to learn the very meaning of our humanity, Jesus either fails to teach us what Aquinas has discerned about the genuinely human obligation to defend ourselves violently if necessary, or Aquinas fails to see how Jesus radicalizes the “pro life” agenda of Leviticus by extending the Old Testament command to “choose life” even to enemies, and even in situations of imminent death.
Aquinas is in my view one of the true giants in the history of Christian theology. Yet that doesn’t render this teaching of his, or the use to which it has been put, immune from theological criticism. And just to the extent that his principle of double effect can and has been used to set aside the clear teaching and example of Christ, it should be subjected to serious criticism. Stand Your Ground laws can be defended by appeal to double effect, but not by appeal to Jesus. If Christians want to keep faith with Jesus, they should follow him, even into the bleakest regions of the Garden of Gethsemane should the situation demand it. For even there, if Christ is our guide, we can choose life over death, and love over fear.