It’s now common to see men and women armed to the teeth, open-carrying during anti-lockdown protests and even outside public officials’ homes. This is when the gun is used to menace and intimidate. It’s displayed not as a matter of defense but rather as an open act of defiance. It’s meant to make people uncomfortable. It’s meant to make them feel unsafe.
This transition from defense to defiance can destabilize our democracy. The concept of self-defense is rooted in a high view of human life. In his Second Treatise of Civil Government, John Locke described a “fundamental law of nature” (his description of the “will of God”) that man be “preserved as much as possible” yet “when all cannot be preserved, the safety of the innocent is to be preferred.”
Indeed, scripture makes multiple allowances for self-defense, in both the Old and New Testaments. While I respect Christian pacifism, I simply don’t see it required by the biblical text. My own view is that the refusal to protect innocent life can constitute a grave moral wrong. If a violent man came after my family, and I did not do everything in my power to stop his attack—even if it meant killing him to save my wife and kids—then I would have failed a profound obligation as a husband and father.
Defiance is different. It’s rooted in the will to power. It is designed to implant fear, not to save lives but to exert control. It contradicts a core value of a classically-liberal society, that change comes through courts and the ballot box, not through intimidation and fear.
It’s even more disturbing to see that spirit of armed defiance so closely correlated with the religious right. The decision of Christians to provoke their fellow citizens into feeling palpable, physical fear of armed violence is deliberately malicious and cruel.
If you’ve read me at all, you know that I’m constantly talking about the relationship between rights and responsibilities. If, as Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence, governments are “instituted among men” to secure our unalienable rights, then it is our responsibility to exercise those rights for a virtuous purpose. Otherwise, our constitutional experiment may fail.