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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.

Mark F. (mail):
I really hate it when people use religion to defend bad law.

On the other hand, let's not be too nice to Martin Luther. The man was a well documented raving anti-Semite, even if his opinions on just war and self-defense were correct.
11.17.2005 7:14pm
Claude Dancer (mail):
It's this kind of free-wheeling, unprincipled invocation of ancient authorities that makes it so maddening to argue with liberals--especially religious liberals. I wonder what Luther would have said about the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America ordaining women as pastors. Would the Rev. Sue Moline Larson would invoke Luther in a debate about whether her church should ordain women? It is hard to take this kind of criticism seriously from someone in a church body that is not especially faithful to the historic Lutheran confessions.
11.17.2005 7:22pm
James Bell (mail):
It seemed astonishing for Rev. Larson to claim to know Luther's opinion on a bill written more than four centuries after his death


Isn't a large proportion of conservative jurisprudence based on determining the Founders' intentions several hundred years after their deaths?
11.17.2005 7:32pm
guest (mail):
There's a difference between original intent and original meaning.
11.17.2005 7:47pm
Plainsman (mail):
Nice work, Mr. Kopel. A convincing response.
11.17.2005 7:55pm
Anderson (mail) (www):
"Convincing"? Where exactly did anything Prof. Kopel quoted pertain to concealed handguns? Revolution and just war don't require packing a .38 under one's coat.
11.17.2005 8:08pm
Eugene Volokh (www):
Anderson: Several paragraphs of Dave's post had to do with defense of one's family members or neighbors generally -- not just again foreign invaders or domestic tyrants, but also against ordinary criminals (or even wild animals). The ability to carry "a .38 under one's coat" is important to that.
11.17.2005 8:12pm
Huh:
Claude:

"It's this kind of free-wheeling, unprincipled invocation of ancient authorities that makes it so maddening to argue with liberals."

Wow. Yes. Only the liberals and (especially) the religious liberals appeal to ancient authorities. I'm assuming the modifier "principled" is there to avoid implicating people on the right who invoke Mosaic law as the last word on contemporary moral issues.

I'm not endorsing an argument recasting Luther as a gun-control advocate, but I think skepticism about the invocation of the ancients to weigh in on modern issues isn't a finger that can be pointed solely at the liberals.
11.17.2005 8:16pm
Hattio (mail):
Eugene,
While I support concealed carry laws, the ability to carry a .38 under one's coat is not something you have to believe in in order to believe in the defense of neighbors which Luther was talking about. Unconcealed guns still shoot, no?
11.17.2005 8:23pm
Hattio (mail):
I would note that the closing paragraph of David's post makes the same leap of logic, that somehow believing in self-defense implies a belief in the ability to conceal your gun.
11.17.2005 8:25pm
flaime:
Ultimately, it is likely that Luther would have opposed concealed carry laws. What I remember from college leads me to believe that it is likely that he would have viewed allowing citizens to carry concealed weapons as an abbrogation of the state's right and duty to rule.

However, I don't really understand what a 400+ year dead religious reformationist's opinions have to do with the modern arguement...Luther lived in a time when the feudal state was still firmly entrenched in Germany, and he felt that the should rarely be challenged. Those opinions are the basis of many arguments about why German Lutherans didn't object to pogroms.
11.17.2005 8:57pm
Josh Jasper (mail):
None of which justifies pre-emptive wars.
11.17.2005 10:15pm
Claude Dancer (mail):
Huh wrote:

"I'm not endorsing an argument recasting Luther as a gun-control advocate, but I think skepticism about the invocation of the ancients to weigh in on modern issues isn't a finger that can be pointed solely at the liberals."

You missed my point. I think it's fine, and indeed wonderful, to invoke ancient wisdom. But do it consistently and thoughtfully. Don't take the texts out of context. As a famous Supreme Court Justice has observed, when interpreting a text, a judge shouldn't be looking over the heads of the crowd to pick out his friends. As David's post makes clear, Rev. Larson ignores the many other strands in Luther's writings that would support a right to bear arms.
11.17.2005 10:16pm
subpatre (mail):
First of all, Larson's argument isn't against concealed carry; she's arguing against firearms of any sort. "Any change in our gun laws that increases ownership endangers us all while providing a false sense of security..."

Words are misused and misappropriated all the time, witness the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. Same with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in American, which is neither evangelical nor Lutheran by doctrine.

Kopel's swipe at 'leftist originalism' is phrased poorly, but valid. Larson carefully avoided quoting Luther, falsely interjecting her own conclusions onto his name. Kopel's work to obtain actual quotes make Luther's beliefs (and changes to them) closest to this subject come to light.
11.17.2005 11:14pm
Phil Smith (mail):

None of which justifies pre-emptive wars.

Indeed, Josh, and raccoons go up a tree slowly.



What, this isn't a meeting of the non-sequitur society? This is a thread about concealed-carry laws? Oh, me an' Josh will just toddle off, then, I guess.
11.17.2005 11:18pm
Jim Rhoads (mail):
With all due respect for the pastor, as a Lutheran, I am somewhat disappointed in her use of Luther as an authority on the right to keep and bear arms in the United States. The mere idea that an early 16th Century former Monk and later church reformer would have spoken authoritatively on that issue is ridiculous on its face. Firearms weren't much in his area of expertise. Shoulder firearms like the arquebus were in their infancy while he lived, and were just starting to be used in warfare. Pistols came later. No one was packing concealed arquebuses in Luther's Germany.

As a lawyer, I am astonished that anyone would take the good pastor's arguments seriously as a legal argument.

Hers is an incredibly naive and unserious argument if you ask me.

If she were my pastor, I would suject her to unmerciful kidding, all in the spirit of love, of course. I hope her sermons are better informed that her political advocacy.
11.18.2005 12:42am
Huh:
No Claude, I didn't miss your point. I realize you think some people are quite a bit more thoughtful and capable when invoking the old wisdom than others. But I think you're mistaken if you believe the right is more principled or consistent. When they parse through the old and new testaments for instance, they are, generally speaking, just as prone to cherry picking as your average leftists christians.

My point is that no section of the political spectrum has yet cornered the market on ill-considered appropriation of the great fathers.
11.18.2005 12:43am
Steph (mail):
Did not Christ say, "I bring not peace, but a sword." Not that he was talking about self defence, but the idea that Christ was all love, peace, and Jerry(sp) is a little silly.
11.18.2005 8:24am
Henry Schaffer (mail):
Hattio writes, "While I support concealed carry laws, the ability to carry a .38 under one's coat is not something you have to believe in in order to believe in the defense of neighbors which Luther was talking about. Unconcealed guns still shoot, no?"

North Carolina has an RKBA provision in its Constitution (Article I,Section 30: A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed; and, as standing armies in time of peace are dangerous to liberty, they shall not be maintained, and the military shall be kept under strict subordination to, and governed by, the civil power. Nothing herein shall justify the practice of carrying concealed weapons, or prevent the General Assembly from enacting penal statutes against that practice.) which specifically separates the RKBA from "concealed carry".

For many years (mid 19th century until a few years ago) concealed carry was mostly illegal.

Open carry was legal (but subject to restrictions) but was rare in the urban areas - and became subject to the pressures of hysterical citizens calling 911 - "I saw a person with a holstered gun and feel threatened! Help!" NC has laws against threatening the peace (I forget the language) so the police would investigate - which could make it a major hassle for the open-bearer of a firearm, even if the police didn't do anything more than check.

This led to a situation in which there were barriers against both open and concealed carry.

This was one of the forces which helped the recent passage of NC's concealed carry law.
11.18.2005 10:49am
DK:
What I find wierd here is the invocation of Luther. I'm an Episcopalian, and our left-wing sermons invoke Jesus or the Bible, not Henry VIII or Thomas Cranmer. Do Lutherans reguarly invoke What Would Luther Do? as a rule for behavior today?

BTW when Jesus talking about bringing not peace but a sword, he was NOT talking about a literal sword but a metaphoric one! Luther certainly advocated violent resistance to the enemies of the Reformation. But it is a major, major distortion to bring Jesus in as a fan of violence or carrying weapons. Several of his followers carried swords, but, there is no sign of anyone using them or being encouraged by Jesus to do so.
11.18.2005 11:11am
Houston Lawyer:
Much of what Luther wrote must be put into context. He was attempting at various times to avoid picking a fight with the Holy Roman Empire. At these times, he was very deferential to authority, not wanting to be seen as fomenting armed rebellion. At other times, the fight was obviously "on" and he had to respond to that.

Lutherans often refer to Luther's writings to explain difficult issues of faith. He had a lot to say about a lot of issues. However, he was a man of his times and had his share of foibles. Lutherans also recognize that he too was capable of error, and that if he and scripture are ever in conflict, scripture must be followed.
11.18.2005 11:40am
Hattio (mail):
Henry,
I'm going to guess that the hysterical citizens calling 911 didn't also occur in the mid-19th century, right?
11.18.2005 11:43am
KevinM:
DK wrote <>
At least 3 of the Gospels recount that, as Jesus was about to be arrested in Gethsemane, Simon Peter drew his sword and cut off the ear of one of the servants of the high priest. Fairly typical hotheaded behavior for him. Jesus told him to lay off, and did not resist. As I recall it, only Luke states that Jesus healed the servant -- being, according to tradition, a physician, Luke might have placed more emphasis on that aspect.


As for not peace but a sword, I, too, always took that to be metaphorical. It is a vexed question, see , but the overall sense seems to be that following Jesus would bring division, especially among family members, and/or that followers would encounter, as opposed to perpetrate, violence.
11.18.2005 11:59am
jon walser (mail):
DK:... but, there is no sign of anyone using them or being encouraged by Jesus to do so.

Perhaps, from the King James version:
Luke 22:36
Then said he unto them, But now, he that hath a purse, let him take it, and likewise his scrip: and he that hath no sword, let him sell his garment, and buy one.
11.18.2005 1:04pm
Neil (www):
And then there is this scene:

"In the temple courts he found men selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money. So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple area, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables." John 2:12-17 (NIV)
11.18.2005 4:54pm
t king (mail):
It's true enough that Luther endorsed self-defense against the 'bloody hounds,' but he also endorsed the antichrist of state power against that of the unruly mob.

It's right there in the passage you quoted:

"This small lack of peace called war or the sword must set limit to the universal, worldwide lack of peace which would destroy everyone."
11.18.2005 8:08pm
Henry Schaffer (mail):
Hattio writes, "I'm going to guess that the hysterical citizens calling 911 didn't also occur in the mid-19th century, right?"

Right. My own experience suggests that urbanization (and there has been a lot of that since mid-19th century) leads to changes in the public's reactions. In the rural communities I've been in, a person openly carrying a firearm would not likely result in hysteria.
11.18.2005 10:29pm
juris imprudent (mail):

My own experience suggests that urbanization (and there has been a lot of that since mid-19th century) leads to changes in the public's reactions. In the rural communities I've been in, a person openly carrying a firearm would not likely result in hysteria.

Reminds me of a story told by a game warden about a police officer doing a ride-along with the warden. Seems the cop just couldn't get the hang of approaching people with guns (i.e. hunters).
11.21.2005 1:36am