Jesus said to love our enemies. How does this apply when physical violence is a reality? How can Christians practice self-defense?

woman training in self-defense against man
Image by inna mykytas from Pixabay

A Self-Defense Training

Recently, my team of social service workers and I took a mandatory self-defense course. The population we work with can be volatile, so I welcomed the training. I’ve had numerous occasions with clients where I thought that if things had gone differently, it could have been a very bad day. I have had self-defense trainings before. In addition to verbal de-escalation and situational awareness, I had a semester of Aikido in college. The wrestling units in gym class back in high school supplemented what I learned from living with an older brother. So, I felt that I was prepared for the course. In truth, I wasn’t.


Somewhere in the Middle

Before I go any further, let me say that I am not a pacifist. I’d like to be one. I’m certain that Jesus was one, and that as a Christian, I should be more like Jesus. One day, I’m sure, I will be a pacifist. But I’m just not there yet. I haven’t yet gotten to the point of allowing someone to harm me or do damage to those around me.

Don’t get me wrong—I’m not advocating for the use of deadly force. But neither am I prepared to curl up in a ball while someone beats the snot out of me. I’m not ready to make an unbending pacifist doctrine out of turning the other cheek. Yet, neither do I relish the idea of doing harm to someone else even if they’re trying to hurt me. I suppose you could say I still have a long way to go before being perfected like Christ. From a philosophical perspective, I am somewhere in the middle—between pacifism and Second Amendment people.


When De-Escalation Turns to Punching

At the beginning of the self-defense training, we focused on situational awareness—being aware of your surroundings and trying to avoid conflict. Then we discussed scenarios in which physical conflict was inevitable. “If you’re attacked, what will you do?” the instructor asked. “The body cannot achieve what the mind has not conceived,” he said. “So, you’ve got to think through these things and determine what you’re going to do.”

Our instructor demonstrated, and then we practiced, various methods of breaking out of holds. He demonstrated how to block punches. These are maneuvers that any peacemaker could get on board with. But then he turned up the dial. Our instructor demonstrated, and then we practiced punches, palm strikes, and fist strikes. The doves in our group of social service workers were becoming uncomfortable. As the instructor taught us even more violent means of self-defense, it became unbearable for more than a few of us.

My comfort level ended when the instructor began talking about stabbing assailants with pens and gouging out eyes. I believe Jesus’ teachings on nonviolence are important, and Christians should seek less-than-lethal, and less-than cruel means whenever possible. When it comes to self-defense there are plenty of humane options Christians can get on board with.


In the Debriefing

The following day, we had quite a debriefing in our team meeting. Some indicated that they would never want to think about violence regarding their clients. I have learned not to be that naïve. I have had enough worrisome occasions that it made sense to participate in self-defense training. In fact, I had even requested such training from our supervisors. Just because you treat other people well, that doesn’t mean others are going to treat you the same way. So, while I had some concerns, mine were different from those of pacifists in the group.


Dehumanizing Language

My concern wasn’t the notion that we might ever need to use force to escape or stop a dangerous situation. Certainly, I was uncomfortable with some of the methods taught. But my biggest problem was the language used by the trainer. He referred to those who might pose potential problems as “mental,” “bad guys,” and “druggies.” Our instructor sub-categorized “mental” people into the malevolent “face eaters ” and “Baby Boy Kevins.” The face eaters were a reference, of course, to Hannibal Lecter. Baby Boy Kevin was his way of referring to individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Pacifist and non-pacifist alike, everyone who attended our self-defense training was horrified to hear such insensitive terminology. The us-versus-them, good-guys-versus-bad-guys, and stigmatizing language disturbed us all.


Good Guys Vs. Bad Guys

In our debriefing, we discussed the need for trauma-informed care even in situations that may be volatile. In our culture, many of us have evolved into this kind of dehumanizing language. We label ourselves “good guys,” and call others “bad guys.” Even though the differences may be political or philosophical and not a matter of physical aggression, we employ language that depicts the other person as the enemy.

Rather than people to be loved, understood, and assisted we tend to portray oppositional people as problems, obstacles, and enemies. We use words like Trumpsters and Libtards to describe our fellow human beings. Christians refer to those outside the fold as “worldly,” “ungodly,” “heathen,” or “unsaved.” We even employ aggressive language to describe fellow believers of a different theological bent. I have been guilty of it myself.

Instead, when we show love and respect to others we open the channels of dialogue. If we understand that aggression comes from fear and trauma, then we can address those things with other people before we ever have to start thinking about self-defense. Sometimes religious, political, and other grappling may be necessary. But followers of Jesus should employ means that respect the other person and attempt to do the least amount of harm.


How We Play the Game

In life, it’s inevitable that sometimes there are going to be winners and losers. But how we play the game will reveal the heart that’s inside us. If we follow the path of Jesus, we’ll be able to say in the words of the old Dave Mason song, that says, “There ain’t no good guy, there ain’t no bad guy. There’s only you and me, and we just disagree.”

For related reading, check out my articles:

  • “Try That in a Small Town” Vs. “So Long, Dixie”–Differing Southern Views


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