Stephen, the Self-Defender & Retaliator

Stoning of Saint Stephen by Lorenzo Lotto

There is a lot of talk about guns in this nation. It feels supercharged even as of late with the combination of four recent situations: Paris, San Bernardino, the speech recently given by Liberty University’s president, and the presidential primaries. The combination of these three have left the media and American population reeling on the topic.

I recently shared some thoughts about the situation at Liberty, one I found greatly disturbing. I touched on my non-violent approach to justice in that article.

In discussing this with a close ministry friend today, we both talked through some of the things we see in Scripture – the Jesus story, the misappropriating of passages (like Luke 22:36, which I hinted at in my recent post), and the Stephen account, to name a few.

I’m just trying to think through a rewriting of Scripture with the Stephen storyline. What if it had gone something like this?

Together, they charged at him [Stephen], threw him out of the city, and began to stone him. The witnesses placed their coats in the care of a young man named Saul. As they battered him with stones, Stephen, in the name of self-defense, began to scrounge together his own stones and pummel his attackers. Then, falling to his knees, he shouted, “Lord, thank you that I was able to defend myself in your name!” Then he left the dead bodies for the local authorities and went home.

We know this, or some similar version, is not plausible……at all. Stephen responded, well, very Christlike.

The story that we see in Jesus is one that says we are to lay down our arms, for this is exactly what he did. Imagine his determination being of a different flavor in Gethsemane, one that said he was going to defend himself against the religious leaders.

Yes, there was no doubt a redemptive element to his crucifixion. A very strong one at that. Yet we cannot just ethereally spiritualize the situation of the cross. That redemptive element actually penetrates our practical lives as well, our personal “rights,” even our “right to self-defense.”

This is hard one, no doubt. It’s hard with Paris, San Bernardino, Liberty, and the GOP primaries on our mind. I don’t have all the answers, especially coming at it from a national level. But I know where to start – the Jesus story.

I’ve shared that I hold to protective justice and restorative justice, rather than retaliatory or retributive justice. Again, I’m not sure how that would work out in every situation. I’m always asked, “Are you just going to stand there while someone enters your house with a gun and starts firing at your wife and kids?” 

It’s a silly question, mind you. If anything, I believe it’s a reactionary question. It’s a reaction wrapped up in the American ideal of personal rights for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness……and self-defense. More than that, it’s a reaction enveloped in fear.

Yes, fear.

Listen, I have fear. At times I am not happy knowing I have fears. The fear of loneliness, fear of people not liking me, fear of physical pain, and more. And I wouldn’t look forward to taking a bullet, nor watching my family taken them either.

I’m still convinced there is a way of protective justice that does not entail my personal right to pull out a gun and blow the perpetrator away, all in the name of self-defense. And I’m convinced there is a whole lot of retaliatory efforts couched in self-defense rhetoric.

But the cross, the story of Stephen, the accounts of the early church tell me the Jesus way is not wrapped up in a “theology” of self-defense (though I’ve not yet heard anyone espouse a theology of self-defense).

Stephen is not known as “the retaliator” nor “the self-defender” because that wasn’t how things played out. He’s known as “the martyr.” He was simply following in the footsteps of the Jewish Messiah. Interesting how the account of Stephen closely mirrors that of Jesus on the cross. He knew the path he needed to walk.

Something tells me the personal right of self-defense that is held so dearly (possibly idolized) by many Americans is not on the radar of Jesus at all. That’s what the cross tells me. Paul said it this way: We preach Christ crucified [murdered on a cross], which is a scandal to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.

It’s foolish to many Christian Americans as well.

Let’s talk about justice; let’s talk about protection; but let’s be honest and realize that much of what we talk about doesn’t sound anything like what we find in the words and actions of Stephen, nor in the words and actions of Jesus.

Though I don’t desire to tote a gun, I know that my hold on my rights is great. So, though coming from other angles and areas, I’m in this boat with others. I desire what’s best for me. It’s disastrous in following Jesus. Could we possibly lay aside the idea not just of retaliation, but our rights in general, whether in regards to guns, self-defense, indulgence, or whatever?

I genuinely believe that’s in line with the foolish message of the cross.

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