Q: With the recent shooting at a Texas church, I was wondering your opinion on churches having armed security, or having congregants carry their personal weapons. This question has been on the front of many conversations across the U.S. lately. Some people I have spoken with have expressed concern that weapons in a place of worship would be against the atmosphere of peace that church should have. On the other hand, aren't we required to protect those who are unable (or unwilling) to protect themselves? Especially during a time when they are most vulnerable (when they are focusing on praising God)? I understand this is a touchy subject, and one you may not be able to publish. Hopefully you can shed some light on this sensitive area. Best wishes to you and yours during this wonderful holiday season! -- From A, a faithful reader
A: The question, dear A, is whether or not self-defense is God's will? The answer depends on where you stand on the question of whether violence is ever justified. The answer to that question depends on how you translate the sixth/fifth commandment, which in the original Hebrew is, lo tirtzach. This Hebrew phrase must be translated, "Thou shalt not murder." Unfortunately it is mistranslated as, "Thou shalt not kill." (KJV) If that translation is correct (and it is not), it would mean that all forms of killing whether killing animals for food or killing people in wartime or for capital punishment or for self-defense are sins. If, however, the commandment means what it clearly says, then it is only murder that is prohibited. All murders are killings but not all killings are murder. Murder is the morally unjustified killing of a human being.
Killing someone who has come to kill you and others is clearly an act of self-defense and not an act of murder. How could one think otherwise? By what strange, twisted logic could we come to the conclusion that when murderers come to slaughter peaceful people at prayer, those people have no legal or spiritual right to defend themselves and their fellow parishioners? They have every right to defend themselves, and in retrospect, they have every obligation to take precautions that will keep their flock safe from the wolves.
There is a pacifist tradition in Christianity that is ancient and strong. It even has biblical support from passages like Matthew 5:39: "if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn and give him the other also." I agree that the teachings of Jesus as recounted in the Gospels give some grounding for the view that violence -- even violence in self defense -- just produces more violence. However, on closer reading I believe that Jesus' teaching about violence is far more nuanced. The slapping on the cheek is an example of a mere insult that could and should be ignored by his followers, but self-defense against a murderous and unjust assault is another matter altogether. For example, there is this passage from the Gospel of Luke chapter 22:36: "Then He said to them, 'But now, he who has a money bag, let him take it, and likewise a knapsack; and he who has no sword, let him sell his garment and buy one.' " Jesus understood the need for swords to protect his disciples, and until his crucifixion, himself as well.
I have entered churches and synagogues where I had to pass through a security checkpoint manned by armed guards. I was of course saddened to confront the fact that houses of God are a special target of terrorists and other deranged killers, but I was comforted to know that those inside the houses of worship would be free and secure to study and pray.
In a strange way I actually understand why murderers attack worshipers. These murderers know that houses of worship are the places where God lives, and their monstrous anger leads them to want to kill God. These houses of worship are the places where communities of hope flourish, and in murderers' pathological loneliness they want to destroy communities of hope. These houses of worship are the places where morality is taught, and in murderers' evil they want to destroy morality.
These houses of worship are called "soft targets" because they are mostly undefended. It is time for us to make them harder on the outside so that they can remain soft on the inside.
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Let us pray for all those who were cut down here on earth but live with God now and forever.
"Rescue the weak and needy; Deliver them out of the hand of the wicked." -- Psalm 82:4
And let us also pray that God might stop those who would do us harm.
"Deliver those who are drawn toward death, and hold back those stumbling to the slaughter." -- Proverbs 24:11
(Send ALL QUESTIONS AND COMMENTS to The God Squad via email at email@example.com. Rabbi Gellman is the author of several books, including "Religion for Dummies," co-written with Fr. Tom Hartman.)(c) 2017 THE GOD SQUAD DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.