Thursday, October 05, 2017

Machine Gun Preacher

1. The actions of this Marine are receiving widespread praise:

On Facebook, a Christian wondered if we could analogize from his actions to a prolifer "stealing" the car of an abortionist to prevent him from getting to work, or would that violate the Biblical prohibition against theft? That's a very interesting question with many moral complexities. The question could spin off in many directions. I've discussed variations on that question on multiple occasions, so I will try to avoid getting too bogged in response to this question.

2. I'll begin with some general preliminary observations: some biblical commands and prohibitions represent intrinsically right or wrong actions. Inherently obligatory or prohibitory. 

But other biblical commands and prohibitions represent prima facie duties. These are not an end in themselves, but means to an end. Instrumental rather than intrinsic goods. In case of conflict between higher and lower obligations, the higher obligation temporarily supersedes the lower obligation. A classic example is the Sabbath controversies in the Gospels.

3. Apropos (2), there's a pro tanto or prima facie obligation to obey the law (e.g. Rom 13). But under special circumstances, that can be overridden (e.g. Acts 5:29). The most general exception is when the state forbids you to do right or commands you to do wrong. 

4. Apropos (2-3), we must often balance social obligations. In general, social obligations are concentric. We have greater obligations to relatives or fellow believers than we have to neighbors or strangers. 

5. Apropos (4), some Christians have prior obligations. Take a Christian husband and father. He's not at liberty to take the same risks as a Christian bachelor. 

Likewise, if a Christian bachelor is an only child, he may need to avoid taking certain risks in case his parents will need him to care for them in their dotage. If, on the other hand, he has several siblings, then he can assume a greater risk. 

6. Apropos (4), Christians don't have a duty to, say, buy a ticket to some third world hellhole, purchase a machine gun when when they arrive, and become self-appointed avengers. This is ultimately God's world. In his providence, God has often put us in situations where we can't rectify evil. In many cases, we must commit miscarriages of justice to eschatological judgment to right the scales. God is the ultimate avenger. There's only so much we can and should do on our own, in this life. 

7. That said, vigilantism is not inherently wrong. If civil authorities are hopelessly corrupt, vigilantism may be necessary to some degree, but that's in dire circumstances. Depends on the availability of legal remedies. 

A modern example is Christians who illegally sheltered Jews from Nazis. A secular example is the French and Italian Resistance. And although I disagree with this example, consider sanctuary cities, championed by the liberal establishment (as well as the church of Rome). 

8. A vigilante action might save a few innocent lives, but it won't change the policy. So there's a cost/benefit analysis. What can we do to do the most good?  

9. Few Christians are professional ethicists. God doesn't expect garden-variety Christians to have a sophisticated rationale for their actions. For that matter, even Christian ethicists disagree with each other on some issues. Even Christian ethicists are stumped by some ethical dilemmas. 

So there are cases where, even if an action is objectively wrong (from God's viewpoint), godly intentions can attenuate or exculpate what would otherwise be blameworthy. We must often make snap decisions. We must often make morally important decisions based on inadequate information. We lack divine wisdom. 

In that respect, I think it's possible to do good even when you're not doing right. It's possible for conscientious Christians to make innocent mistakes. There's a margin for error. 

10. Machine Gun Preacher presents an extreme case. Christian reviewers were conflicted:

I haven't seen the movie, but to judge by reviews, I'd be rooting for the protagonist. I sympathize with his actions. What he did was admirable. But I don't think that makes it obligatory–or even permissible–although there were powerful mitigating factors. 

11. Moses was a vigilante (Exod 2:11-15). Most commentators classify his action as murder. But I don't see it that way. I don't assume he intended to kill the assailant. That wasn't his aim. And it was commendable that he intervened to spare the victim from further harm. 

If, however, you interpose in a situation like that, you must be prepared to use lethal force, for even though the motivation is to protect a second party from harm, once you insert yourself into that situation, it instantly becomes a matter of self-defense. You've drawn the assailant's fire from the original target to you. Depending on the tenacity of the assailant, that may be a battle to the death. That's why many people don't get involved. They know the risk. You must take the potential for lethal force into consideration, for once you intervene, you're committed to do pretty much whatever it takes. If you're not prepared to do whatever is necessary to protect the victim or protect yourself, once you insert yourself into that situation, then it would be foolhardy to intervene. At that point it's too late to back out. 

Admittedly, this example is descriptive rather than prescriptive. So it doesn't prove that vigilantism is ever warranted. But in the larger context of the Mosaic law, where there's an obligation to protect the defenseless (e.g. orphans, widows), I think the reader is meant to view the action of Moses as brave, honorable and even exemplary. 

12. Although the Marine may technically be guilty of theft, it isn't theft in the usual sense. He didn't intend to keep the car or use it for recreation (joyriding). He intended to return the car. To be more accurate, he commandeered the car in an emergency situation.

13. I doubt biblical prohibitions against theft are absolute. Many biblical commands and prohibitions have an implied context. They were not designed to be universally applicable to every conceivable situation. Rather, they apply to typical situations. And when we apply them today, we should apply them to comparable situations. That's a class apart from the subset of biblical commands or prohibitions that represent moral absolutes. 

14. However, the issue doesn't turn on that particular example. Suppose we vary the example. Would it be permissible for a prolifer to deflate the tires of the abortionist? I doubt there's anything inherently wrong with that. But, of course, that's not a long-term solution. That's not something he can get away with on a regular basis. After the first two or three times, the abortionists will be on the alert. The prolifer will be arrested. And business as usual will resume. 

I don't know the legalities. If this is a misdemeanor offense, and you had a series of prolifers doing it, that would be more disruptive. Still, it's a piecemeal approach. 

15. Take a more creative example. Suppose a prolife hacktivist infiltrates the computer system of abortion clinic to shut it down. Suppose he can cover his tracks so that his repeated actions are indetectable. Technically, that's cyberterrorism, but depending on your viewpoint, that's more analogous to actions of the French and Italian Resistance. From what I've read, they used to sabotage power lines and railway tracks. Most of us wouldn't classify them as terrorists. For that matter, liberals don't object to hacktivism in principle. 

Do I think it would be morally licit for a prolifer to do that? I think that might be justifiable. Direct, nonviolent action. 

16. Suppose, though, I don't think that's justifiable. Suppose the hacktivist is my roommate, and I discover what he's up to. Do I have a duty to notify the police? No. Our abortion laws are a miscarriage of justice. I have no obligation to facilitate that injustice by collaborating with the authorities. Moreover, my roommate is doing good even if he's not doing right. So I wouldn't report him to the authorities. And if I happened to know the authorities were on to him, I might warn him. 


  1. That was a well thought out and humble response, Steve. Thanks.

  2. Good food for thought Steve