As Pastor Robert Cook said in one of the following news stories, “[W]e live in a crazy world and people put shotguns in your face." The one right recognized almost universally [except by some totalitarian regimes] is the right to defend oneself and one’s family. This was recognized in the Mosaic Law (Ex. 22:2). Most extend this to defending innocent victims with no power to defend themselves. However, our justification and means of defense must be reasonable. Let’s look at a few cases in the news of self-defense in or involving churches.
In the News
October 12, 2013, Angier, NC – The pastor of a church in Angier, North Carolina shot and killed his son-in-law, who invaded the parsonage and threatened his estranged wife and her parents, the pastor and his wife, with a gun. The pastor was not charged, since it was ruled self defense.
January 02, 2015, Kissimmee, FL – The pastor of a large church in Osceola County, Florida met with the church’s janitor to tell him he was being terminated. The janitor pulled out a gun and fired several shots at the pastor. The pastor pulled out his handgun and wounded the janitor. Other personnel in the church evacuated the building, including a day care center. Thanks to witnesses’ testimony, the sheriff noted that the pastor acted in self defense. The former janitor is being charged with assault and battery with a deadly weapon.
July, 2015, Boulder, CO – A husband found his wife in the parking as she was leaving a church. He attacked her with a knife, stabbing her. Then he held the knife to her throat. Just then another member of the church, who happened to also be in the parking lot, pulled his gun and commanded the husband to drop his knife, which he did.
September 15, 2016, Frankford, PA – The pastor of a church had just returned with his wife and son from an event at another church. Getting out of the car at the parsonage, they were accosted by a man holding a firearm. He was demanding the pastor’s wallet. The pastor distracted the robber long enough to grab the weapon, and they struggled over it. The wife pulled her pistol from her purse and shot the robber in the leg. The man limped off, but was caught nearby.
By Reason of Self Defense
We have seen this line in news articles: “Justifiable homicide by reason of self-defense.” Assault, battery and homicide are not charged as criminal offenses when they are found to be justifiable self-defense or defense of another person. And legally, this rule holds true for persons in churches, whether parishioners, staff, visitors, or Safety Team members.
I said “legally” because for many Christians there have been qualms concerning whether it is “Christian” to defend yourself and others. There are several traditions which teach against military actions, armed security, or any other use of deadly force. They take as universally applicable Jesus’ teaching of “Turn the other cheek.”
However, most Christians accept some level of justifiable defense – not vengeance, but defense – citing the Bible’s acceptance of governing powers having the power to defend the people and punish evil. For example, in Romans 13: 4, Paul wrote, “For [the ruler] is God's servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God's wrath on the wrongdoer.”
In an article for CNS News, “Self-Defense Against Jihadist Killing Is Religious Obligation,” Rabbi Aryeh Spero holds that Christians and Jews are obligated to defend themselves and their communities against jihadists. He cites not only the Old Testament (especially the Torah), but the Just War he learned of in a Catholic college and from his Protestant clergy friends.
Among other things he says, “Those who are willing to personally die and would rather be butchered so as not to kill their butcher are free to so choose. But no one is allowed to demand or suggest that someone else allow himself to be killed so as to spare the life of the one presently doing murder.” Jihadists are hoping to die, so the only reasonable defense in that case is to kill, incapacitate or capture before they can kill their next victim.
Granted, Spero’s argument is primarily for our right as a nation and as a community to defend ourselves and others against Evil. But if we consider the application of what he is saying, we recognize that there are times – even incidents in churches – when we protect others by defending ourselves in that time and place, stopping evil from reaching the next person, then the next. The pastor in Angier protected his daughter and his wife. The pastor and his wife in Pennsylvania also protected their son.
When it comes to church safety and security, we are there to protect the flock. As such, we may become the targets and have to defend ourselves as well as the others. To draw from ancient imagery, we are to be the lions in the gate, and as we defend ourselves against attackers, we defend the city.
As with citizen’s arrest, national and state laws along with judicial decisions draw lines as to what is a reasonable cause for self defense and what defense measures are reasonable. Different states may draw the lines differently between what is and what is not reasonable self defense. Needless to say, these laws apply in the gray areas midway between unprovoked attack (such as sneaking up on someone and rushing them from behind) and obvious self defense (such as they shoot at you, then you shoot back).
But the laws do share many points. This is covered in several online sources, including FindLaw, as well as in the Sheepdog Church Security training bundle Protecting Yourself and the Church with Use of Force Laws v2 and the Church Security Guide chapter Use of Force and Citizen's Arrest Laws.
The first stipulation is that self defense is guarding against physical death or injury. It is not defending property. The principle is that life is worth more than property. The opposite is the view of robbers, who count your life as worth less than what you have that they want.
The second stipulation is that the threat is real (or in some cases reasonably perceived). It has to be imminent – right now. It is not self defense to attack someone who owns a gun because they might use it on you. If they said they had a gun and threatened to use it at some time, that should be reported to the authorities to investigate.
One of the gray areas is where a person’s actions would be reasonably interpreted by any normal person as an attack. For instance, running at someone with your arms in position to grab could reasonably earn you a belly punch or a black eye, since most people might see it as an attack, even if you intended a loving bear hug. In an example by FindLaw, one person swats at a bee near a second person’s head. The second person thinks the first person is swinging at him and hits the other person’s wrist.
In the Pennsylvania news story above, Robert Cook thought it was a shotgun held to his head. When the sheriff’s office examined it, it turned out to be a large nail gun disguised as a shotgun. Under the circumstances, it was reasonable for Cook to believe it was a shotgun and act accordingly.
What if you genuinely fear immediate physical harm, even when there is no objective reason? This is called “imperfect self-defense.” Depending on your reaction, it may reduce charges or penalties, but it is not a total out.
The point here for us in church safety ministries is that we must be observant enough to not only spot potential threats, but to evaluate them to perceive whether the threat is real. This is the essence of situational awareness.
How we should respond to a threat depends on the level of the threat and the available options. Here is where state laws differ the most. At the extremes are Duty to Retreat and Stand Your Ground.
Briefly, Duty to Retreat means the defender should seek to avoid violence, if possible. This reflects to a degree what Paul wrote: “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all” (Rom. 12:18). On the other hand, Stand Your Ground laws (such as the one in Florida) permit threatened persons to defend themselves on the spot without having to first back away. In either case, discretion is vital, though at the time the options might not appear very clear. Here is one place where role playing in training and drills can prepare one to make an on-the-spot decision.
Adequate defense: application of the level of force necessary to blunt a threat. I realize that blunt is a blunt word, but it covers all the desired outcomes of self defense, from the perceived attacker turning away (or turning out to not be an attacker) to neutralizing an armed person in the act of attempted murder. Again we turn to the Use of Force Continuum to see what levels of force can be used. Self defense may consist of unarmed resistance, as in the Church Security article Taking Security into Your Hands, if that is all that is needed.
The Castle Doctrine of the right to protect one’s own home (see Ex. 22:2) is a hard one to apply to a church or other institution. But as Safety Team members, it is our right and duty to protect the lives of ourselves and protect those who are present in our church or at a church event.
Find more help on the topic of Self Defense in the following pages of Sheepdog Church Security:
● Church Safety Team Academy - http://sheepdogchurchsecurity.net/safety-team-academy.html
● Use of Force and Citizen's Arrest Laws - http://sheepdogchurchsecurity.net/use-of-force-arrest-laws.html
● Decisions! Decisions! - Situational Training for Church Security - http://sheepdogchurchsecurity.net/church-security-articles/decisions-decisions
● Hitting the Mark - http://sheepdogchurchsecurity.net/church-security-articles/hitting-the-mark
● Taking Security into Your Hands: Using Force without Deadly Weapons - http://sheepdogchurchsecurity.net/church-security-articles/taking-security-into-your-hands-using-force-without-deadly-weapons
● A Reasonable Defense - Use of Force in Churches - http://sheepdogchurchsecurity.net/church-security-articles/-a-reasonable-defense-use-of-force-in-churches
● Protecting the Church in a Professional Manner - http://sheepdogchurchsecurity.net/church-security-articles/protecting-the-church-in-a-professional-manner
● Are you ready for this? - http://sheepdogchurchsecurity.net/church-security-articles/are-you-ready-for-this.
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