Luther and the Christian Duty to Defend Innocents

The Wisconsin legislature is currently considering adopting a concealed handgun licensing law, similar to the laws in 38 other states. The legislature is acting in part because the Wisconsin Supreme Court (as I detailed in an Albany Law Review article) ruled that Wisconsin's statutory ban on concealed carry violates the state constitution's right to arms clause. The court urged the legislature to consider statutory reform.

Opposed to reform is Rev. Sue Moline Larson, who is director of the Lutheran Office for Public Policy in Wisconsin. On a November 13, The Capital Times & Wisconsin State Journal published her op-ed "Most women here don't want it: Neither would Martin Luther."

It seemed astonishing for Rev. Larson to claim to know Luther's opinion on a bill written more than four centuries after his death. Most of Rev. Larson's op-ed was a recitation of the typical bogus statistics propounded by the gun prohibition lobby. Regarding Luther, her argument Luther was:

"Martin Luther recognized that every person is both saintly and sinful, capable of the most exalted acts of goodness and the most depraved despotic acts of criminality. Good people may have more disciplined control of their impulses, but good people can drink too much and become threatening and belligerent, fall into depression and lash out in anger and despair, or have frightening experiences that trigger hasty and harmful behaviors.
The Evangelical Lutheran Church in American [sic] is guided by a vision in which people are free from violence, justice is done and the common good is realized."

Whatever may be said about Rev. Larson's "vision in which people are free from violence," it quite plainly is not the vision that Martin Luther articulated.

In Luther's lengthly commentary The Sermon on the Mount (written in 1530, and published 1532), Luther argued that an individual Christian was forbidden to defend himself. A Christian could not defend himself with a sword, and he could not even defend himself by going to court.

In contrast to the Christian as individual, wrote Luther, there was the "Christian-in-relation" who had an "obligation" to "some other person, whether under him or over him or even alongside him, like a lord or a lady, a wife or children or neighbors, whom he is obliged, if possible, to defend, guard, and protect." For the Christian-in-relation, it was "ridiculous" to say "turn the other cheek"—like "the crazy saint who let lice nibble at him and refused to kill any of them on account of this text, maintaining that he had to suffer and could not resist evil."

A superior's duty to the people under him or her came from "the imperial or the territorial law." Only a "crazy mother" would not defend her child from a dog or a wolf. Christ "did not abrogate this duty, but rather confirmed it."

"Similarly, if a pious citizen sees violence and harm being done to his neighbor, he should help to defend and protect him. This is secular business, all of which Christ has not forbidden but confirmed."

In short, Luther did not imagine, at least in earthly world before the end of time, some utopia free of violence. To the contrary, he recognized that violence (from wolves and from human predators) existed, and he insisted that good Christians had a duty to use force to defend their neighbors against such violence.

Because of Luther's realistic understanding of human nature, he was also an advocate of the well-established Christian tradition of Just War. Directly rebutting pacifists, Luther wrote "Whether Soldiers, Too, Can Be Saved" in 1526, and answered in the affirmitive:

"But what are you going to do about the fact that people will not keep the peace, but rob, steal, kill, outrage women and children, and take away property and honor? The small lack of peace called war or the sword must set to limit, to this universal, worldwide lack of peace which would destroy everyone."
Much more reluctantly, Luther eventually endorsed the right of revolution against tyranny, in extreme circumstances. In the 1531 "Warning to His Dear German People," Luther encouraged armed resistance to the Holy Roman Emperor, who was attempting to extinguish the Reformation by armed force::

"...when the murderers and bloodhounds wish to wage war and murder, it is in truth no insurrection to rise against them and defend oneself….Likewise, I do not want to leave the conscience of the people burdened by the concern and worry that their self-defense might be rebellious…. …self-defense against the blood-hounds cannot be rebellious."
It's an interesting question whether Luther's writings on resistance in 1531--which presumed that the right of self-defense was obvious--represented a step away from his 1530 text denying that Christians could defend themselves. But what is indisputable about Luther is his belief that good Christians sometimes had an affirmtive duty to use violence--in defense of others, in just wars, and in resistance to tyranny. It is preposterous for the Religious Left of the 21st century to tell people that Luther would have been against a law which allows people, under a detailed regulatory system, to carry arms for the defense of their families and other innocent people, when attacked by animals or by criminals.