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My friend is a Progressive Christian who argues that as Christians it is immoral for Christians to either defend themselves or their family and must be like Jesus a pacifist, he then goes on to quote a few biblical verses which support this, for example:

But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you

Matthew 5:44

And unto him that smiteth thee on the one cheek offer also the other; and him that taketh away thy cloak forbid not to take thy coat also.

Luke 6:29

Does this mean that as Christians we are forbidden to fight back when our lives are at stake or we are being attacked?

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    Christians have different views on this. You need to specify which branch of Christianity you are asking about, or ask for an overview. Commented May 4, 2022 at 15:43
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    I wonder what your friend thinks of the cleansing of the temple. It was a lot of things, but pacifist it was not. Commented May 4, 2022 at 15:46
  • @DJClayworth Are you aware of any Christian denomination which teaches that Christians have no right to defend themselves when their lives are at stake? Commented May 4, 2022 at 16:58
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    @OneGodtheFather Yes, the historic peace churches (Mennonites, Quakers, Brethren in Christ) do teach pacifism. Commented May 4, 2022 at 18:21
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    Most people are not very often in that position. And some don't follow it when push comes to shove. But then many of us don't do the right thing when put to the test, even in much lesser matters. Here's an interview to get you started on the subject: youtube.com/watch?v=YiEuWQ4dkAM Commented May 4, 2022 at 18:36

6 Answers 6

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"Turn the other cheek" is an extremely misunderstood piece of scripture. In this and surrounding verses, Jesus lists examples of humiliations that could perfectly legally be imposed on his Jewish audience by Roman citizens. To look at this specific example, to strike someone on the right cheek (Matthew renders it more specifically than Luke, and the distinction is important here) in a world where right-handedness is normal (note how the Bible always points out if someone is left-handed, because it's such a weird, different thing) implies a backhanded slap. An insult, a provocation, rather than an assault.

The rule here is, "don't let your enemies provoke you with silly insults. Turn instead the other cheek, daring them to actually punch you for real, because then they're the one breaking the law, not you."

Further context can be found in Luke 22: 35-37, where Jesus tells his disciples that in the time to come, they will be treated as fugitives and they'd do well to buy swords (for self-defense) even if they have to forego other basic necessities in order to afford them.

At first glance, these two directives may appear to contradict one another, but from a broader view, a consistent principle of protecting oneself from harm emerges: the disciples are to consistently protect themselves from harm, regardless of whether that harm comes from their own rash instincts or from external enemies.

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    While this sound plausible, do you actually know why the scripture tries to put alle the stuff in easy to misunderstand riddle type of sentences? I mean why not 'if somebody insults you, challenge them to hit you can legally defend yourself'. That would have been clear instead 'if (a right handed) person slaps you (with the back of their hand) on your cheek ... etc'
    – lalala
    Commented May 6, 2022 at 9:57
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    Because, in the context of the Roman controlled world at the time of Jesus' life and death, @lalala, that wasn't an "easy to misunderstand riddle", it was perfectly clear. Can you imagine how confounded Paul would have been if you'd said to him, "You've got a phone, just Google it."?
    – FreeMan
    Commented May 6, 2022 at 12:05
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    Precisely. Just about everything in the scriptures that doesn't make any sense to us today is due to cultural factors; the people who were around when it was written understood it just fine.
    – Mason Wheeler
    Commented May 6, 2022 at 15:00
  • @MasonWheeler would you mind if I asked for your guidance/input on this discussion? Commented Apr 18 at 3:55
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In Matthew 5:9 Jesus uses the word ῤαπίζω, rhapizo, Strong 4474 meaning to 'slap the face' or 'box the ears' as might happen in a rather mild assault.

In this case, Jesus says to turn the other cheek. It is of no consequence.

In 2 Corinthians 11:20 Paul chides the Corinthians that if someone (metaphorically) smites them on the face they appear willing to suffer it.

Here Paul uses the word δέρω, dero, Strong 1194 which means to 'flog' or 'beat' or 'thrash'. It is clear that in this case Paul does not expect people to suffer such treatment.


Although Paul was subjected to worse, on one occasion being beaten thoroughly for no more than preaching the gospel, after which he got up and went back into the city, Acts 14:20.

And, of course, Jesus himself was beaten around the head with a rod, Mark 15:19, he being blindfolded, but he said nothing.

In both these cases, the authorities were involved, which, of course, is a different matter from unlawful assault by fellow citizens.


Jesus himself on at least one occasion, Luke 4:30, conveyed himself out of the way, when an attempt was made on his life (to throw him off a cliff) after preaching the gospel.

He did not (at that time) submit to such treatment.

And Paul at one time was secretly conveyed away in a basket from a window, rather than risk serious consequences, Acts 9:25 and 2 Corinthians 11:33.


Different times : different circumstances : different responses.

We shall be guided by the Holy Spirit of God, and by biblical example, as to what we should do in various situations.

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    I can't make an edit <6 chars, but the transcription of the first Greek word should be r(h)apizo.
    – brianpck
    Commented May 5, 2022 at 13:31
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    @brianpck Well spotted. Thank you. I should have gone to Spec Savers. Edited to correctness.
    – Nigel J
    Commented May 5, 2022 at 15:17
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    I don't know how quickly we should relate Jesus' actions to what our own should be, since a violent death was expected, but only at the appointed time. From the moment he told Peter to drop his sword, Jesus submitted to the violence, barely even speaking, but on the other hand was clearly willing and able to be violent if it served to Father's plan (His allusion to legions of angels to destroy this world notwithstanding). That all said, it would be nice to see sources using these verses to argue their point.
    – user3961
    Commented May 5, 2022 at 15:23
  • “Turn the other cheek” and then if needed back off. (Backing off is to turn what would have been the third cheek). Like: “I may have misunderstood the situation so I will give you one more chance to prove yourself”. Commented May 7, 2022 at 10:24
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Summary

YES, Christians have the right to defend themselves. When understood correctly, the verses cited don't negate this right but to show examples of the right mindset when defending ourselves, i.e. not with equal / greater violence in retaliation, but with grace and love (when situations warrant them) so the "enemies" can see the light of the Kingdom through our interaction with them.

These verses should not be misapplied into ruling out all wars or violence. Jesus was not a Pacifist. His allowing himself to be abused, tortured, and shamed on the cross was not a teaching so Christians shouldn't defend themselves, but to fulfill certain prophecies like Isa 53. At best, Jesus applied these verses by showing us how we are the enemies (of God) and thus "stop us in our tracks" of our life of violence and rebellion to be stunned and touched deeply at how God Himself loves us (the enemies) by substituting our sin with His grace.

Danger of overgeneralization

Merely citing Bible verses, especially when citing them out of context and generalizing the application to a whole range of human situations is not responsible Bible interpretation. For example: how does any particular Bible verse directly applicable to someone (who is clearly a non-combatant civilian) defending his family from a Russian soldier barging into his home in Ukraine or to someone using a gun to protect his family when he is massively outnumbered in an armed home robbery in which the gang of assailants have shown clear intent to kill him and the police is 30 minute away?

Situations matter!! The points below should highlight several aspects to be considered when discerning whether the use of violence is justified in a particular situation:

  1. There is a time to acquiesce to be martyred for our faith, but that is not the right application of these verses, but of Matt 10:28,33. In the soldier and robber examples above, neither asks us to renounce our faith.

  2. There is a time for "ministering in the area of reconciliation, peacemaking and restorative justice" (DJClayworth's answer) which I agree that it's exactly how these verses should be applied. The question is: when your life is in imminent danger (such as in the 2 examples above), when all other options except violence are no longer "live options", is this a time for peacemaking? If, on the other hand, you manage to disarm the assailant and bind him securely (using some non-lethal violence), this can be the time to minister, showing grace by not retaliating like a mafia.

  3. We shouldn't abuse this right into justifying horrific retaliation, as I try to show below how the verses (properly interpreted) are meant to teach that retaliatory violence in itself should not be the first option to take in a personal affront. Example: when the enemy shows a clear intent to kill us, Christians have the right to use force for self-defense as a last resort.

  4. It also does not mean we are obligated to take the path of violence, even when it is justified. It is simply an option that a Christian can legitimately take for self defense, or for protecting your loved ones, without violating those verses. For example, let's say the Holy Spirit speaks strongly to you (the oppressed) that the armed robber (whom God knows in advance that he is one of the elect) will spare your life, and that this is an opportunity for you to present the gospel. But when this Holy Spirit assurance is not given, you are justified to use violence as a last resort.

Proper context: Sermon on the Mount, not pacifism

The 2 verses you cited are from Jesus's Sermon on the Mount (Matthew's version) or Sermon on the Plain (Luke's version), and therefore the larger context (Matt 5-7) is about the higher law of grace and love expected from people belonging to the new covenant kingdom. The more immediate context (Matt 5:38-48) is about personal ethics in dealing with difficult people who are not gracious, loving, and just to us (i.e. our "enemies"). Kingdom people need to be salt and light to show God's way of grace and love to non-Kingdom people. Thus, the proper interpretive framework is how to differentiate us from them through our response to an affront.

It is not to advocate pacifism, i.e. refusing to fight in a just war or for protecting our territory. It is also not to command us to be a doormat, nor to prevent us from demanding or pursuing our rights to be treated humanly. Thus, the 2 verses you cited need to be interpreted in the context of how to behave differently than what people usually do: revenge (equal or even more severely) or love only their friends.

Did Jesus himself ever give an example that if someone is about to kill you, you should just let him? "Do not resist an evil person" does NOT mean giving someone a blank check to rape you, torture you, or murder you. Notice that none of the 4 examples in vv. 39-42 are a matter of life and death !! At the worst case, your cheek is sore for a day, you are naked until you have money to buy another tunic, you are tired of walking the other mile, and you don't get your money back from loaning a person. In none of the 4 cases is your life in danger! You get to live to see your enemy potentially become Christian as a result of showing grace to them.

The above context hopefully makes this command to make sense, and the cultural context below will make the command even more rational as well as gives us a much better idea on how to apply it to 21st century cultures.

Cultural context of the two verses

Much has been written on the 3 examples mentioned in Matt 5:39-41 about offering the left cheek, giving the coat also, and walking the 2nd mile. Should we be surprised that the original audience understood the 3 examples very differently than us, and as 21st century Bible interpreter we should first try to find the original cultural meaning before applying them to our 21st century culture?

From a 2016 Unsystematic theology blog article Turn the Other Cheek? (Explained in Context) quoting from a well regarded Protestant textbook on Kingdom Ethics (by Glen Stassen and David Gushee):

Doesn't Jesus' teaching encourage docile passivity, easy acquiescence to injustice and violence?

The answer? No.

Understood in it’s context, this teaching should be seen as an expression of nonviolent activism. Glen Stassen and David Gushee, in Kingdom Ethics, explain:

Turning the other cheek has been misunderstood in Western culture that thought there were only two alternatives—violence or passivity. But since Gandhi and King, we can appreciate Jesus’ teaching better. In Jesus’ culture, “to be struck on the right cheek was to be given a hostile, back-handed insult” with the back of the right hand. In that culture, it was forbidden to touch or strike anyone with the left hand; the left hand was for dirty things (Stassen, Just Peacemaking, 64-65, 68-69). To turn the other cheek was to surprise the insulter, saying, nonviolently, “you are treating me as an unequal, but I need to be treated as an equal.” Jesus is saying: if you are slapped on the cheek of inferiority, turn the cheek of equal dignity (138-139).

As for very plausible cultural meanings of the 3 examples, Walter Wink's interpretation in his book Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination explained (emphasis mine):

At the time of Jesus, says Wink, striking backhand a person deemed to be of lower socioeconomic class was a means of asserting authority and dominance. If the persecuted person "turned the other cheek," the discipliner was faced with a dilemma: The left hand was used for unclean purposes, so a back-hand strike on the opposite cheek would not be performed. An alternative would be a slap with the open hand as a challenge or to punch the person, but this was seen as a statement of equality. Thus, by turning the other cheek, the persecuted was demanding equality.

Wink continues with an interpretation of handing over one's cloak in addition to one's tunic. The debtor has given the shirt off his back, a situation forbidden by Hebrew law as stated in Deuteronomy (24:10–13). By giving the lender the cloak as well, the debtor was reduced to nakedness. Wink notes that public nudity was viewed as bringing shame on the viewer, and not just the naked, as seen in Noah's case (Genesis 9:20–23).

Wink interprets the succeeding verse from the Sermon on the Mount as a method for making the oppressor break the law. The commonly invoked Roman law of Angaria allowed the Roman authorities to demand that inhabitants of occupied territories carry messages and equipment the distance of one mile post, but prohibited forcing an individual to go further than a single mile, at the risk of suffering disciplinary actions.[3] In this example, the nonviolent interpretation sees Jesus as placing criticism on an unjust and hated Roman law, as well as clarifying the teaching to extend beyond Jewish law.[4]

OT Precedent

It is also plausible that Jesus had Prov 25:21-22 in mind:

21 If your enemies are hungry, give them food to eat.
      If they are thirsty, give them water to drink.
22 You will heap burning coals of shame on their heads,
      and the Lord will reward you.

But who are our "enemies" in this verse? Does it apply to everyone? Very plausible real life example: how about when you found yourself to be a kindergarten teacher (who has a license to carry) in a mass-murder situation where the killer has been shown to be on a rampage to indiscriminately kill as many students as possible and who is now opening the door of your classroom full of 15 cowering 5 year old when the police has not come? Clearly, this is not the "enemy" Prov 25:21-22 is talking about, and neither is the "enemy" Jesus refers to in Matt 5:43. In killing a terrorist / mass murderer (as a last resort) you don't hate him, but you love the ones you are called to protect.

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    +1 A bit of moral jiu jitsu? Commented May 4, 2022 at 17:54
  • @OneGodtheFather Something like that. In Wink's interpretation is to challenge the oppressor to the point of breaking decorum, shaming, or even breaking the law. Especially when a lot of third parties are standing by to watch. An evangelist once told me a personal story of how a mistreated Christian college student roommate withstood insults for a whole year but when the Moslem roommate moves out, she helps her carry her stuff with sincerity and well wishes until the Moslem roommate cried and converted. He was the one who cited Prov 25:21-22 to me (see my edited answer). Commented May 4, 2022 at 18:06
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Your friend has a point and while the majority of Christians teach that it is acceptable to use violence to defend yourself, this is not true of all churches.

The historic Peace Churches teach that Jesus was a pacifist, and since we are to follow his example we are not to kill, even in self defence or defence of others. In the words of one Anabaptist pastor "I am willing to die for my faith, I am not willing to kill for it".

The exact teachings vary, but in most cases you are allowed to use lesser forms of force. If someone is swinging an axe at you then you are allowed to put something in the way, or push the perpetrator away from you, or call the police. But not to shoot them, even if you have a gun.

Note that the teaching is not "Nobody should fight back" it's that "Christians should not fight back". Military can exist, but Christians should not be part of it. Christians are to be an example to the ret of the world.

Historically, before Christianity came to be the official religion of a state in the 4th century, pacifism was normal for Christians. For example the third-century Roman Presbyter Hippolytus wrote The Apostolic Tradition, Canon 16, (ca. 215 A.D.) which opposed serving in the military as a matter of church discipline:

"A soldier in the lower ranks shall kill no one. If ordered to do so, he shall not obey, and he shall not take an oath. If he does not want to comply with this directive, let him be dismissed [from the church]."

Incidentally a very much larger subset of Christians today take the view that violence should absolutely be only an option of last resort, and that "it's OK to fight in self defense" is used far too frequently when other options are available. Such Christians are often found ministering in the area of reconciliation, peacemaking and restorative justice.

It's worth pointing out that historically Christians have used "self defense" to justify some really horrific acts of violence.

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  • +1 "If someone is swinging an axe at you then you are allowed to put something in the way, or push the perpetrator away from you, or call the police." Right, so there's a difference between 'self-defense' and 'fighting back'. But calling the police very well may lead to the person having physical violence committed upon them, so that's an interesting option. Commented May 4, 2022 at 18:40
  • Most of the peace churches see a distinction between the authorities, who are charged with the secular wellbeing of the people, and Christians. It's OK for the secular state to defend people, but Christians should not be part of that. Commented May 4, 2022 at 18:42
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    @DJClayworth I didn't -1 your answer, but relying 100% on authorities to defend us is simply not working in times of war or in a Texas ranch where the Sheriff is 30 minutes away. It's understandable for a peace church member wanting to abstain from the military, but it's mindboggling when a husband just stands aside to see his wife and children are being slaughtered or violated. Or for a teacher to do nothing when her kindergarten classroom students are helpless against a mass murderer clearly bent on a indiscriminate killing rampage. Commented May 4, 2022 at 19:24
  • @GratefulDisciple I understand your objections, and so do the Christian pacifists. But Jesus commanded us to do lots of things that are "mindboggling". Commented May 4, 2022 at 19:54
  • @DJClayworth That's why I am very persuaded with Catholicism. It's a completely rational faith (rational in the sense of Aquinas, not Kant). There is nothing mindboggling in Catholic interpretation of scriptures. All Jesus commandments make sense from that perspective. What's possibly mindboggling (in a positive way) is how great is God's grace for us to be willing to show it through dying on the cross. Commented May 4, 2022 at 19:56
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Can Christians have a right to defend themselves?

The short answer is absolutely, either on an individual basis or at a national level!

That does not mean some choose to be pacifists.

Exodus 22 gives some clues about God’s attitude toward self-defense: “If a thief is caught breaking in at night and is struck a fatal blow, the defender is not guilty of bloodshed; but if it happens after sunrise, the defender is guilty of bloodshed” (Exodus 22:2–3). Two basic principles taught in this text are the right to own private property and the right to defend that property. The full exercise of the right to self-defense, however, depends on the situation.

As far as Catholicism is concerned, self-defence is regarded as a right of a private person to employ force against any one who unjustly attacks his life or person, his property or good name. This can hold true for protecting one nation against unjust aggression of evil regimes, such as Communism or Nazism.

Would any man allow someone to rape his wife before him? I would hope not. Would one accuse a woman of murder, if she killed her assailant defending her honour?

Ethically the subject of self-defense regards the right of a private person to employ force against any one who unjustly attacks his life or person, his property or good name. While differing among themselves on some of the more subtle and less practical points comprised in this topic, our moralists may be said to be unanimous on the main principles and their application regarding the right of self-defense. The teaching may be summarized as follows:

Defence of life and person

Everyone has the right to defend his life against the attacks of an unjust aggressor. For this end he may employ whatever force is necessary and even take the life of an unjust assailant. As bodily integrity is included in the good of life, it may be defended in the same way as life itself. It must be observed however that no more injury may be inflicted on the assailant than is necessary to defeat his purpose. If, for example, he can be driven off by a call for help or by inflicting a slight wound on him, he may not lawfully be slain. Again the unjust attack must be actually begun, at least morally speaking, not merely planned or intended for some future time or occasion. generally speaking one is not bound to preserve one's own life at the expense of the assailant's; one may, out of charity, forego one's right in the matter. Sometimes, however, one may be bound to defend one's own life to the utmost on account of one's duty of state or other obligations. The life of another person may be defended on the same conditions by us as our own. For since each person has the right to defend his life unjustly attacked, what he can lawfully do through his own efforts he may also do through the agency of others. Sometimes, too, charity, natural affection, or official duty imposed the obligation of defending others. A father ought, for example, to defend the lives of his children; a husband, his wife; and all ought to defend the life of one whose death would be a serious loss to the community. Soldiers, policemen, and private guards hired for that purpose are bound in justice to safeguard the lives of those entrusted to them.

Defence of property

It is lawful to defend one's material goods even at the expense of the agressor's life; for neither justice nor charity require that one should sacrifice possessions, even though they be of less value than human life in order to preserve the life of a man who wantonly exposes it in order to do an injustice. Here, however, we must recall the principle that in extreme necessity every man has a right to appropriate whatever is necessary to preserve his life. The starving man who snatches a meal is not an unjust agressor; consequently it is not lawful to use force against him. Again, the property which may be defended at the expense of the agressor's life must be of considerable value; for charity forbids that in order to protect ourselves from a trivial loss we should deprive a neighbor of his life. Thefts or robberies, however, of small values are to be considered not in their individual, but in their cumulative, aspect. A thief may be slain in the act of carrying away stolen property provided that it cannot be recovered from him by any other means; if, for example, he can be made to abandon his spoil through fright, then it would not be lawful to shoot him. If he has carried the goods away to safety he cannot then be killed in order to recover them; but the owner may endeavor to take them from him, and if the thief resists with violence he may be killed in self-defence.

Honour

Since it is lawful to take life in the legitimate defence of one's material goods, it is evidently also lawful to do so in defense of chastity which is a good of a much higher order. With regard to honor or reputation, it is not lawful to kill one to prevent an insult or an attack upon our reputation which we believe he intends, or threatens. Nor may we take a life to avenge an insult already offered. The proceeding would not be defense of our honor or reputation, but revenge. Besides, in the general estimation honor and reputation may be sufficiently protected without taking the life of the offender. - Self-Defence (Catholic Encyclopaedia)

Even Our Lord did not tell soldiers to leave the army, but rather to be content with their wages (Luke 3:12-14)!

12 The publicans, too, came to be baptized; Master, they said to him, what are we to do? 13 He told them, Do not go beyond the scale appointed you. 14 Even the soldiers on guard asked him, What of us? What are we to do? He said to them, Do not use men roughly, do not lay false information against them; be content with your pay.

12 Venerunt autem et publicani ut baptizarentur, et dixerunt ad illum: Magister, quid faciemus? 13 At ille dixit ad eos: Nihil amplius, quam quod constitutum est vobis, faciatis. 14 Interrogabant autem eum et milites, dicentes: Quid faciemus et nos? Et ait illis: Neminem concutiatis, neque calumniam faciatis: et contenti estote stipendiis vestris.

12 ἦλθον δὲ καὶ τελῶναι βαπτισθῆναι καὶ εἶπαν πρὸς αὐτόν: διδάσκαλε, τί ποιήσωμεν; 13 ὁ δὲ εἶπεν πρὸς αὐτούς: μηδὲν πλέον παρὰ τὸ διατεταγμένον ὑμῖν πράσσετε. 14 ἐπηρώτων δὲ αὐτὸν καὶ στρατευόμενοι λέγοντες: τί ποιήσωμεν καὶ ἡμεῖς; καὶ εἶπεν αὐτοῖς: μηδένα διασείσητε, μηδὲ συκοφαντήσητε, καὶ ἀρκεῖσθε τοῖς ὀψωνίοις ὑμῶν.

Many denominations including Anglicans, Catholic Church, Eastern Orthodox Church, Lutherans and Oriental Orthodox Churches all honour various soldiers as saints, albeit for the most part as martyrs.

Let us not forget St. Joan of Arc, St. Ignatius of Loyola, The Forty Martyrs of Sebaste or even the famous St. Martin of Tours

St. Martin of Tours

Monument of Saint Martin of Tours in Odolanów, Poland.

While Martin was still a soldier at Amiens, he experienced a vision that became the most-repeated story about his life. He was at the gates of the city of Amiens with his soldiers when he met a scantily dressed beggar. He impulsively cut his own military cloak in half and shared it with the unfortunate man. That night he dreamed of Jesus wearing the half-cloak Martin had given away and heard Jesus say to the angels: "Here is Martin, the Roman soldier who is not baptized; he has clad me." In some versions of the story, when Martin woke, his cloak was restored and was later preserved among the relics collected of the Merovingian kings of the Franks. - Martin of Tours

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Hmm, while this question makes one to think relatively to the scriptures, one would also note that there are certain times that being a "pacifist" (to put it likely) would not suffice, especially when it comes to your own life, I think some Christians do not understand the difference between trials or persecution and standing up for themselves. With what I wrote before, self defense is alright according to me, so far as one does not really go as far as ending the persons life or doing something too extreme.

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    Please note that we are not looking for answers about individual Christians, but what Christian groups believe. Commented May 6, 2022 at 15:38