Why Killing in Self-Defense is Still a Sin

St. George & the Dragon, detail [Wikimedia Commons]
St. George & the Dragon, detail [Wikimedia Commons]
I recently wrote that a Christian should not carry a concealed weapon because it violated the spirit of martyrdom and self-sacrifice the church tries to teach us. One common objection to this point was that to choose not to kill in the defense of another human being would be unloving. I agree. It would be unloving to the potential victim, and it would be unloving to the potential victimizer. In the Orthodox Church, killing in defense of self and country is still a sin.

I see a difference between private citizens who choose to carry a weapon and civil servants and soldiers who are trained to do the same. As I said before, I am not a pacifist. I probably would kill in order to defend the life of somebody else; just as I would kill to defend myself for the sake of those who depend on me. But I would also weep over it. In consultation with my spiritual father, I would want to remove myself from Communion for a while, because taking the life of another human being is always a tragedy.

When it comes to soldiers, Canon 13 of St. Basil prescribes that soldiers who take life on the battlefield should remove themselves from Communion for three years. In Canon 55 he extends the same penance to those who kill in self-defense. Canon 57 prescribes ten years of penance for involuntary manslaughter.

I do not read the canons in the same way as some traditionalists. The letter kills, but the Spirit gives life (2 Cor. 3:6). Thus in Canon 84 St. Basil says that he does not advocate a legalistic interpretation of the years of penance he meted out for various offenses. What matters is the sorrow of the sinner and the degree of repentance the canons facilitate. The point of Basil’s canons is to state, unequivocally, that killing is always sinful, even when it is unavoidable.

Fr. John McGuckin discusses Canon 13 in his recent book The Ascent of Christian Law, but what he says applies equally to the other cannons I just mentioned.

 Canon 13 concerns Christian men who return from wars after having spilled blood. In it Basil admits that in defending the Christians from barbarian raids…these men had done their duty; even so the spilling of blood, under whatever species of just cause, is a serious matter and those guilty of it should remove themselves from communion for three years. This adjudication, so modest in the few lines in which it appears, and seen by many, perhaps, as an example of tentative thinking, was a milestone in Eastern Orthodox reflection, refusing to allow the Orthodox to elaborate any theory of Just War, such as the Latin Church erected, via Augustine, on the basis of Cicero’s philosophy. The Byzantines regularly absolved Christian soldiers form the actual stricture (not going to communion for three years after a war had concluded) but, along with Apostolic Canon 66, they were careful to preserve the sense that the Church ought to guard, in all strictness, the principle of the sacredness of life, the enormity of shedding blood, and the unjustifiable nature of glorying in slaughter even on the pretext of national right.

– John McGuckin, Ascent of Christian Law (84-85)

Simeon Stylites [Wikimedia Commons]
Simeon Stylites [Wikimedia Commons]
I do not think it is sinful to carry a weapon; I just think that it is spiritually unhealthy. At issue is not whether or not it is okay to kill in defense. I think the teaching of the Orthodox Church is pretty clear that it is never okay to kill in defense. I have a problem with carrying a weapon because of the attitude it seems to promote. I do not think a Christian who is a private citizen should walk out the door prepared to do battle with the bad guys. Every Christian is a martyr in training. “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against…spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Eph 6:12). We must daily prepare ourselves to fight against the demons, which means that most of our battles are not fought in the streets but within ourselves, and if we daily gird ourselves to slay women and men whom Christ loves and has died for, it is a battle we have lost already.

29 thoughts on “Why Killing in Self-Defense is Still a Sin”

  1. Should a Christian carry? If you are out in bear (grizzly) country, you’d better. .357 Magnum would be my choice. BTW, I live in bear country, both kinds and mountain lions have made a comeback here.
    Seriously though, some humans act with less civility than the aforementioned predators.

    1. I guess the question is whether I want to live my life viewing other people as predatory animals.

  2. Tolstoy strikes again!

    St. Basil’s canons are not the sum total of the Church’s lived experience. As you say, even the Great Saint did not consider that his years of excommunication be carried out to the fullest extent in every situation, and the canons of St. John the Faster did away with most of the long penances for just this reason, as did the canons of the Quinisext Synod. I would caution you that heresy almost always has a kernel of truth in it– the word itself in Greek means to “choose,” that is, essentially to cherry pick the sources from which one draws so as to get a rather one-sided view of the matter.

    The inescapable fact is, the Church has sanctioned just wars through its saints. The Byzantine Empire, with its Church, cooperated in the First Crusade to cleanse the Holy Places of the Islamic yoke. St. Sergius blessed St. Dimitri Donskoy to go into battle, leading for the first time a united Russia, and even gave him two holy monks– Peresvet and Olsyabya– for the God-pleasing effort of repelling the wicked hordes of the Khan from the Christian land of Rus. Moreover, St. Sergius saw the souls of those dying for Christ on the battlefield ascending up into heaven. This, by your logic, would hardly have been possible, since those dying would have been sinning by shedding blood on the battlefield. St. Alexander Nevsky led righteous armies to repel the Teutonic knights. St. Germogen blessed and commanded the Orthodox to take up arms in defense of the Church and of the homeland during the Polish invasion and the False Dimitrii. And the list could go on. St. Athanasius the Great says as much back in the Fourth Century– that those who kill in war are not guilty of murder.

    Do you think those walls around the Athonite monasteries were merely for decoration? They were a protection against the wicked Islamic pirates who would come and lay waste to the monasteries, kill the monks, defile the holy things. Many, many times, lay monks were blessed to go and do battle with these pirates. Boiling oil and all the rest being employed in the righteous defense of the innocent.

    Remember also that the God man did in fact Himself use a weapon during His most pure and sinless life upon the earth– a whip of cords, which he used to drive out the wicked money-changers and their wares from the Temple of the Most High. This, in prophecy, was spoken of as God-pleasing zeal: “Zeal for Thy house hath consumed Me.”

    And so whence comes this effete, ivory-tower academic nonsense of pacifism? It comes from none other than the secularized world of the Russian intelligentsia during the last half of the 19th, and the early 20th centuries. These folks had the money to emigrate during the revolution that they had caused, and found themselves in Europe. They started that Parisian school and began to teach all sorts of crackpot liberal ideas. This institution is the source of the so-called Orthodox Peace Fellowship and other leftist rags.

  3. I think it's also worth remembering that if we are attacked because of our faith, we should not fight back at all. The protomartyr Stephen did not fight back, in fact, he prayed that God would not hold the sin against them! To live in faith is to reject yourself. He who finds his life will lose it and he who loses it for my sake will find it.

  4. Hi, just came across this as an inquirer of Orthodoxy and I can't fault this. I mean, I was never a fan of attempting to justify war anyway, but this really makes sense. You're not saying "stand by whilst someone stabs another to death", rather that the death of a person is a horrible thing regardless of who it is (more so if your defense kills the attempting murderer their afterlife future looks quite bleak) and it is not saying "don't defend the innocent", rather that "remember that those you defend against were still people, who had families, and may have been completely duped into fighting this war, or may have been acting out of passion and the victim you defended wasn't completely innocent, or that they were not sound of mind." if that makes sense? I'm probably not articulating properly but I totally get this and I think the criticisms of the post are missing the point.

  5. "If a thief is caught in the act of breaking into a house and is killed in the process, the person who killed the thief is not guilty" (Exodus 22:2 NLT).

  6. "If a thief is caught in the act of breaking into a house and is killed in the process, the person who killed the thief is not guilty" (Exodus 22:2 NLT).

  7. Marc N Chely Marmolejo, I doubt I will convince you otherwise. My last word on this is that I think the best place to go for an "official" Orthodox view on gun control is not the Internet but your priest. Thanks for your thoughts.

  8. One of the larger issues not being talked about here is the need for an equilibrium of power between the Government and its people.. There are enemies of this country people that hate the Freedoms we as Americans enjoy.. We have to ask ourselves, Who is really behind this gun control issue and work our way from the bottom to the Top all the way to the U.N. I think we as a younger society think government has always played a role as big as it does today, because that is what we have seen.. But not so.. Our Government in this present day is closer to a Marxist Society than ever.. Its my predictions we will see our freedoms be taken away very quickly over the next decade.. The easiest way for the government to enslave a nation? Take the guns out of the public hands.. or leave them with a pea shooter to defend themselves.. Gun control is a wolf in sheep's clothing.. it looks great and a moral and a just cause to fight for on the outside but when we sign our rights away we are the mercy of already secular, baby sacrificing, homosexual promoting, nearly atheistic Government.. I don't know about you , but that doesn't sound like a government I want to trust my life with.. An equilibrium is needed, unfortunately in this fallen world we live in that equilibrium happens to be guns. Even our founding fathers quote the reasons for owning and bearing arms for this reason.. Self Defense may be debatable for ones self, but not to protect your wife and kids.. Is it a sin? I think it depends on the situation and your state of mind at the time.. We are all not St. Seraphims of Sarov.. we are all on different paths on our journey to theosis.. however I hope that you would reconsider your stance on limited rounds in clips , it is needed to keep our own government at bay.. I believe this is a legitimate argument..

  9. Yeah…the backhanded compliment was a bit offensive. Thanks for saying in smart, I guess, but I do possess common sense. Read my other stuff on gun control. I inderstand both sides of the issue pretty well. During my life I have *been* on both sides of this issue. Perhaps if someone disagrees with you it is not because he lacks common sense. Perhaps two intelligent people with common sense can come to two different conclusions.

  10. i Am orthodox.. I think spiritual father would have different opinions.. Sorry I did not realize it was a personal post I just describing how I came across it..My take is you have always been Orthodox .. I love the faith that doesn't mean it infallible , and all knowing and again speaking to different fathers they all have said there is no official stance on it.. There are groups within orthodoxy that believe in gun control and other topics.. Which if you are advocate of gun control.. you are quite ignorant of living in the ghettos of the city.. Gang members get their hands on them no matter what.. gun control takes away guns from good sane people.. not out of the hands of the drug dealer down the street.. I always have lived in the "hood" .. Were just going to have to agree to disagree on this one.. But I think you would have a different opinion if trouble ever found you and your family.. God Bless…

  11. As for the disclaimer, I often include that when I post for broader audiences. I think every post on my personal page is a bit much, especially when I have a whole page on my site dedicated to the fact that this is only theologoumena.

    My tag line used to read "Orthodox lay theologian." I changed that because some Orthodox Christians took offense. Saying that I write on public and political theology is less problematic for them. I am guessing you are not Orthodox. So maybe I should change the tag line back to what it was for the sake if those outside my tradition. Better I irritate prickly ecclesial kin than mislead those outside the church, I think.

    If you are interested in the diversity if opinion on this topic, Google "come receive the light." I was recently interviewed for a five part series on gun control. That program is sanctioned by SCOBA (making its status as a ministry somewhat official).

    1. How come your an expert in Greek in Greek orthodox religion from Prinz Nicholas Cyril Constantine are these quotes from the bible [email protected]

  12. Interesting.

    I'm sure you know that one Bible verse does not end a disagreement. Were that so, there would not be so many different churches. As Orthodox Christians, the canonical tradition of interpretation carries a certain polyphonous gravitas. Though some would disagree with me, I think I stand on pretty firm ground when I say that Orthodoxy has always held that even killing I defense of another was sinful, even if it was the only option. Many canons repeat Basil's. None contradict it. Though the canon was not often applied (many canons are not), but it's repetition affirms that we can only lament killing that results from the web of sin in which we are ineluctably trapped.

  13. As far as Basil, it is my understanding he said we should protect the weak. As Far as war time he does explain we as Christians should not get involved (becoming soldiers unless drafted) I think we have to take scripture in context as well as not just the writing of Basil as a stand alone source for "Self Defense" We also have the scripture and exodus 21:12 it is also my understanding the Orthodox Church as a whole does make a generalized Rule of Self Defense.. I think it is the conscience and the spirit in which the killing was done.. If done is pure hatred it is obvious it is murder if done to protect the weak women and children and or own life be being the provider for my family.. I believe It justifiable.. As far as coming across your page when I searched orthodox stance on self defense your site popped up.. The title at the left hand corner "political and public theology I assumed maybe this is a legitimate source of what the church stance is on self defense.. The only reason why I realized it was not coming from someone official from the church is I saw another article you had written and some one responded kinda with the same response I had that is seems like you are speaking on behalf of the entire church that made me realize you are not anything more than a layman.. To remedy it I would make a statement before you write your articles that "that your opinion on what ever topic you are writing is not an official stance of Orthodoxy but just for discussion.. When I came across this article two days before I had 3 guys come to my house to try to start a fight with me because I would not sell them a Television I had on craigslist because I already new the customer and how he is no fun to deal with … Luckily they went to my old house I had just moved to my new place.. but that made me think what if my wife and kids were home and they tried to harm them or me.. Well I believe as a husband and provider it is also my duty to provide protection to my home and the occupants there in..

  14. Hi Marc!

    Thanks for your thoughts. I have two follow-up questions.

    1. So how do you deal with St. Basil?

    2. I definitely don't want to give you the impression I am anything but a lay person, with a lot of letters behind his name, giving his informed opinion about things. Sorry for the offense. What, specifically, gave you that impression at first, what made you realize the contrary, and how do you think I can avoid doing that in the future?

    Thanks in advance for your thoughts!

  15. One last thing I find it quiet offensive is you write as if you are some head of orthodoxy or have some legitimate authority.. you are just a layman just like I.. To not protect you home is not to be a man.. This is my stance on it… I would pray God would keep my family and I free from harm and violence that his divine providence would keep us safe so that I would never have to take a life.. However I would pray that if the time came down to that, he would give me the strength of Samson to make a stand and destroy the enemies that seek to harm my wife and kids.. The word in keep is not kill but murder.. . Exodus 22:2, "If the thief is caught while breaking in, and is struck so that he dies, there will be no blood guiltiness on his account." If you are a husband I believe you have a duty to your family as does the solider have a duty to country.. Orthodoxy teaches our homes are kingdoms well I protect my kingdom with a 12 gauge but more importantly prayer as to prevent the need to ever use my shot gun..

  16. Sorry I disagree… If someone is bashing in my front door i have a duty as a husband to protect my family, my wife and kids.. if the other guy ends up dead that is the consequence of his sin just as we pay consequences of our own sins.. and what good is it to not have a piece on you when intruders can be waiting in hiding for you to come home.. I run a business and sell from my house I have hundreds of clients in a year come through my front door.. It would be irresponsible of me to not protect my family..


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