[Update: Today's school shooting in Colorado occurred after I re-posted this piece from the archives. I am asking everyone who may want to comment to exercise grace and restraint out of consideration for families and friends of today's victims, and all those who have suffered similarly in other shootings. Thank you.]
[Ellen Painter Dollar writes about firearms on the fourteenth of every month in her continuing series "It Is Enough", and I repost this article in an effort to join her this month (albeit a day early).
When I first became a judge, the Sheriff's Sergeant in charge of courthouse security offered to qualify me on the shooting range for a concealed weapon permit and to help me pick out the right weapon to buy as well. He said the same went for my wife. We've never taken him up on the offer in the 18+ years I've been on the bench.
The killings in Newtown, Connecticut, occurred a year ago tomorrow. A lot of people argue for gun ownership on the basis that lawful citizens who train properly can prevent these types of tragedies. This article from the archives is not an attempt to support or refute those arguments about defense of others. This is my explanation of why I do not carry a firearm to protect myself, despite the fact that I have access to top training and have a job where there are reasons at times to fear for my safety.]
Only Kill the Bad Man?
I watched Witness the other day, the old Harrison Ford movie about the Amish boy Samuel who witnesses a brutal murder and is then himself in danger from those who carried it out. Ford is the cop who moves in with the Amish family to protect Samuel, and by living with them brings new ideas – the ways of outsiders like him – to the family. At one point Samuel finds Ford’s handgun in a drawer, and his grandfather Eli Lapp talks to him about the discovery:
Eli Lapp: This gun of the hand is for the taking of human life. We believe it is wrong to take a life. That is only for God. Many times wars have come and people have said to us: you must fight, you must kill, it is the only way to preserve the good. But Samuel, there’s never only one way. Remember that. Would you kill another man?
Samuel Lapp: I would only kill the bad man.
Eli Lapp: Only the bad man. I see. And you know these bad men by sight? You are able to look into their hearts and see this badness?
Samuel Lapp: I can see what they do. I have seen it.
Eli Lapp: And having seen, you become one of them? Don’t you understand? What you take into your hands, you take into your heart.
Grandfather Lapp’s words make me wonder: If I faced a threat to my life, would killing the other person be a proper response? How can I be assured that it is better for me to live and for the other person to die?
You are able to look into their hearts?
When I was a kid there was a local radio station that would air shows from the 1930s and ‘40s during the summer nights, including The Shadow. The title character was a crime fighter with the ability to cloud people’s minds so they could not see him. The opening announcement always included the line “Who know what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows!”
That would be the answer to Grandfather Lapp’s question, right? Just become as good at reading people as that Shadow guy and – presto – you can see into someone’s heart. But the Bible says seeing into the heart is God’s job:
A person may think their own ways are right, but the Lord weighs the heart. (Proverbs 21:2.)
I the Lord search the heart and examine the mind. (Jeremiah 17:10.)
So the right answer to Grandfather Lapp is that we do not know what is in someone’s heart, what their intentions and thoughts are. Samuel Lapp knew that too. That’s why he said he would rely on what he saw people do in order to choose whether to kill. Grandfather Lapp questioned that too.
Into your hands, into your heart
“Having seen, you become one of them,” the grandfather says. There is some truth to this since the Bible tells us, “Bad company corrupts good character.” (1 Corinthians 15:33.) But it has to be more than just seeing it, right? Just seeing someone sin does not necessarily mean that you’ll become just like them does it? Frankly, I think this question puts it backwards. The real issue is whether you are an unredeemed and unregenerate sinner, not whether they are. Paul warns people who live like this:
They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts. Having lost all sensitivity, they have given themselves over to sensuality so as to indulge in every kind of impurity, and they are full of greed. (Ephesians 4:18-19.)
God, Paul says, allows such people to continue pursuing what is in their hearts and taking into their hands whatever they like. Not so with those who belong to him, though. He heals – sanctifies – those who belong to him.
May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Thessalonians 5:23.)
God chose you as first-fruits to be saved through the sanctifying work of the Spirit and through belief in the truth. (2 Thessalonians 2:13.)
I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. (Ephesians 3:16-17.)
God has given us himself, and that is what is in our hearts.
We are in God’s hands
Jesus gave his followers (including us) a powerful promise:
I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand. I and the Father are one. (John 10:28-30.)
God “is greater than all”. That means he is certainly more powerful than “the bad man” Samuel Lapp spoke of. But Jesus’ promise is not that we’ll live forever as we do presently, avoiding death and decay. He spoke of our eternal destiny. And in this eternal sense, I don’t know what God has planned for anyone else. I don’t even know God’s temporal plan for “the bad man”.
So what would I do if my life were threatened? What I’d do if ever put to that test is just speculation. Maybe I would try to defend myself and end up killing the other person after all. I can’t say, though, that the Bible teaches me to do so. And I don’t know that I am the one to take matters into my own hands even if confronted with a threat to my life.
It’s like I said above, God gave me himself and took me for his own. I think it’s best to let him take matters into his own hands.