On Stand Your Ground: A Theological and Ethical Reflection

[1] This past summer, America carefully watched the 2012 trial of George Zimmerman, the Florida man accused of killing Trayvon Martin, an unarmed African American teenager in the spring of 2012. On July 14, 2013, a Florida jury found Zimmerman not guilty in the death of Trayvon Martin. The trial generated great media attention as the trial contained many of the divisive issues that continue to split America into a land of conservatives and liberals: race, violence, class. Among the many components featured in this trial was the Florida self-defense law called “Stand Your Ground.” This law permits the use of physical force without the requirement to retreat. Hence, the law allows the individual to stand his or her ground in the event of a physical altercation. There is great ambiguity on the bearing of the law on the Zimmerman case. Zimmerman’s defense team did not use the law as part of their defense. But the law was invoked during the trial and was included in the jury’s instructions.

[2] As Christians, what should we think and how should we feel about laws such as Stand Your Ground? Or, more specifically, what should we say about the law as Lutherans? When an issue as contentious as Stand Your Ground arises in our national consciousness, it becomes important to reflect on the issue theologically. In order to do so, however, it is necessary to understand Stand Your Ground on its own terms—distinct from the social, political and racial elements that the Zimmerman trial brought to the national discourse this summer. This becomes difficult because the trial was so emotionally and politically charged. The difficulty is compounded because of the politics of the case—the same people who expressed support for Zimmerman were the same people who supported the Stand Your Ground law, and vice versa. But reflection is necessary in order to consider Stand Your Ground from a theological point of view.

[3] In the days after the George Zimmerman acquittal, Attorney General Eric Holder gave a speech at a NAACP conference in which he criticized the Stand Your Ground law because it “senselessly expands the concept of self-defense.”[1] Personally, I believe that this approximation of the law is fair, the critique measured. Some analysis of the law will help bear this out. Under the law, without recourse to Stand Your Ground or a similar law, Americans have a right to self-defense. As an affirmative defense, self-defense laws allow one’s actions to be legally protected if the actions are done in self-defense. So, if I am walking alone in a park and I am attacked, I have the right to defend myself in an act of self-defense. This personal right is protected under the law and has absolutely nothing to do with the Stand Your Ground law. However, in self-defense laws, along with my right to defend myself comes my responsibility to retreat.

[4] Politics and rhetoric aside, the legal purpose of the Stand Your Ground law is that the law takes away the individual’s responsibility to retreat. Thus, Attorney General Holder’s comments are accurate: the law expands the concept of self-defense. This is one way, an objective way, to look at the law. Another way to look at the law is to see that Stand Your Ground propagates the idea of violence in our society. This is not to say that jurisdictions under Stand Your Ground are more violent. Neither is it to say that Stand Your Ground is a by-product of an increasingly violent society. To say that Stand Your Ground propagates the idea of violence is simply to recognize the fact that Stand Your Ground makes an act of violence legal that previously was illegal. The intention of Stand Your Ground is to provide legal cover for situations not covered by conventional understandings of self-defense. As such, more violence is legally justified because of the law. There is much more that can be said about the law. As seen this summer in the media coverage of the Zimmerman case, other factors such as race and class often complicate the cases involving Stand Your Ground. The common denominator of Stand Your Ground, however, is that the law makes a violent act legal that previously was illegal. As Christians who confess Christ as the Prince of Peace, how are we to respond to such a law?

[5] To reflect theologically on contemporary political and social issues is to run the risk of conflating the Good News of Jesus Christ to a political or social agenda. Lutherans, who confess Christ—and Christ alone—as the basis of all meaning and salvation in the world, must be careful when constructing a theological argument on worldly affairs. Because, for Lutherans, ethics is less the study of right and wrong, good and evil, just or unjust, than it is the reflective and evocative ongoing witness to the God who revealed God’s self in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The Gospel calls God’s baptized people into the process of moral deliberation. In this regard, the ELCA has a broad tradition of moral deliberation in the form of its social statements, social messages, and social policy resolutions to help guide theological reflection. At this juncture, I believe it is important to look at the theological affirmations of the ELCA’s 1995 social statement For Peace in God’s World in order to guide our reflection on Stand Your Ground.

God of Peace

[6] The social statement For Peace in God’s World begins with affirmations of who God is and who Jesus is. From those affirmations, the statement articulates who the church should be in terms of advocating for an earthly peace. For Peace in God’s World presents God as the God who reconciles the fallen creation to God’s self: “God created all things and gives unity, order, and purpose to a world of different creatures.”[2] In God’s plan for creation, humans were to live together in peace and harmony. But, then, humans fell into sin. Because of sin, humans no longer lived in peace and harmony with each other. “Sin, the rupture in our relation with God, profoundly disrupts creation.”[3] The statement says that humanity is turned inward because of its sinfulness. Human sinfulness gives way to violence and destruction. “In bondage to sin, we fall captive to fear. Sin entangles our social structures.”[4] The statement follows the Christian tradition in articulating that death, evil, and violence are the result of humanity turning away from God. Humans, without God, are caught up in cycles of evil and violence. Of course, this paradigm for explaining violence in the world has biblical support in terms of Cain’s murder of Abel, which occurred after humans had fallen into sin. But human sinfulness also highlights the good news of the Gospel, and likewise, the statement articulates God’s “resolve for peace” in the face of human destruction and violence.

God nonetheless preserves the world, limiting the effects of sin, bringing good even out of evil and making earthly peace possible. Through the Law, the sovereign God of the nations holds all responsible for their neighbor, protects community, and blesses creation ever anew. God works often in hidden and inscrutable ways. God’s judgment comes upon a sinful humanity for failure to live together justly and peacefully, and calls all to repentance and faith in God. God’s just wrath against all that causes chaos and destruction is in the service of the divine resolve for peace.[5]

The dialectic of law and gospel mirrors the dialectic of peace and violence. As God calls God’s creation from sin to grace in right relationship with God’s self, God also calls God’s people from violence to peace.

[7] The statement continues with an explication of the peaceful witness of Jesus Christ. As the incarnation of God, Christ preaches the message of God’s peace for God’s people. The statement enumerates four instances of Christ’s teaching and preaching of God’s peace: Christ’s preaching love for one’s enemies, Christ’s love “for the oppressed, downtrodden, and rejected,” Christ’s prayer for Christ’s enemies while he was on the cross, and his death on the cross.[6] Through its reference to these pivotal points of Christ’s life, the statement shows that Christ’s life, teaching, and death reveals a God who is for peace. The statement summarizes: “The Gospel breaks down the dividing walls of hostility among people, creates a new humanity—making Christ Jesus ‘our peace’—and promises the reconciliation of all things in Christ. The peace of the Gospel is the final peace God intends for all.”[7] The theological affirmations of For Peace in God’s World enumerate the foundations of peace as found in the identity of both who God is and who Jesus is. We move forward to examine an ecclesiology of peace. In doing so, we must envision the church as a people gathered together by the Holy Spirit to witness to the God of peace who has been revealed by Jesus Christ, the Son of God who taught us to love our enemies as ourselves.

An Ecclesiology of Peace

[8] The statement For God’s Peace in the World confesses that the biblical testimony reveals a God who is for peace. Although humanity has fallen away from God and has turned from peace and harmony to violence and destruction, God has revealed God’s self in the person of Jesus Christ. The statement emphasizes that Christ preached a gospel of peace to his disciples in Christ’s life, death and resurrection. The statement then moves onto the topic of the church and how the church is called to continue the peaceful witness of Christ.

[9] For Peace in God’s World develops a robust ecclesiology of peace. It argues that as Christ lived out a gospel of peace, so too the church is called to live out a gospel of peace:

When the Church fulfills the mandates of its divine calling, it helps in word and deed to create an environment conducive to peace. When the church forsakes these mandates, it also fails to serve earthly peace. Through faithfulness in its life and activities as a community for peace, the Church in the power of the Holy Spirit becomes a presence for peace that disturbs, reconciles, serves and deliberates.[8]

[10] The statement calls the church to be a “presence for peace.” There is a certain humility in calling the church a presence for peace. In 2013, our society has become so polarized as political groups often glorify in their own values and ideals, leaving no room for discussion or compromise.. Victory in this political milieu is gained by whoever is the loudest. Political groups become absolutists and the political discourse gets nowhere Instead of being the loudest, Lutherans are called to be a faithful presence, a subtle way of being-with others and being-for peace that is needed in today’s society.

[11] In the church’s vocation of being a presence for peace, the statement calls the church to disturb, reconcile, serve and deliberate. The statement notes that “the Church is a disturbing presence when it refuses to be silent and instead speaks the truth in times when people shout out ‘Peace, Peace, when there is no peace. The Church is this presence when it names and resists idols that lead to false security, injustice, and war, and calls for repentance.”[9] Luther famously wrote that a theologian of the cross sees things the way they are, over against a theologian of glory who sees the evil thing and calls it good. In fulfilling its call to be a disturbing presence, the church must tear down the idolatry of guns that operates in American culture, in American society, and on American streets. In seeing the way things are, the church must see the Stand Your Ground law for what it is—a law that propagates the use of violence in our society.

[12] The church is called to be a reconciling presence. For Peace in God’s World states “the Church creates bonds among different peoples, whether local or distant. It has special opportunities to bring conflicting parties together and to keep tenuous lines of communication open during times of crisis and war.”[10] Although this sentence was written with global peace in mind, I believe that the church must be a reconciling presence in the war that is American political life. The Holy Spirit gathers us into one body of Christ. As a reconciling presence in the body of Christ, the church is called to bring dissenting groups together. In terms of American political life, the church must work together to bring opposing political groups together. Also, in being a reconciling presence, the church must resist the tendency to become absolutist itself.

[13] The church is called to be a serving presence. The statement notes “the Church serves when it holds power accountable, advocates justice, stands with those who are poor and vulnerable, provides sanctuary, and meets human need.”[11] Gathered by the Holy Spirit, the church is to respond faithfully to the teachings of Christ, who served the poor and the vulnerable both in his life and in his death. In his life, he advocated for the poor and needy in his world. In his death, he identified with the weak and the vulnerable as he died on the cross among criminals having been rejected by his disciples. The statement continues “the Church serves when it supports efforts by governments and others to secure a peace and when it encourages public debate about what is right and good in international and domestic affairs.”[12] In continuing the mission of the crucified Christ to serve those who need it most, the church is called to serve those who are caught up in a system of poverty and oppression, a system which often leads to pain and violence. The church is called to serve those among us who believe that carrying a gun or joining a gang is their only means for protection. As Christ cried out from the cross, the church must also lament that there are those among us for whom violence is a daily reality. But as Christ’s death and resurrection serves as a protest against the harsh realities of life such as sin and death, we must also protest against this daily reality of violence. This protest includes the conviction that it is wrong to answer violence with more violence.

[14] Finally, the church is called to be a deliberating presence. The statement notes that “as a community of moral deliberation, the Church is a setting of freedom and respect where believers with different perspectives may learn from another in the unity of faith.”[13] The church’s role as a deliberating presence is pertinent to our present society. The recent debates over gun rights, immigration, and possible war have continued to divide our country.

[15] However crudely or sophisticatedly it was articulated during the Zimmerman trial, the events of the past summer demonstrate that the issue of race is very much in American consciousness. Now is the time for freedom and respect in our country’s deliberation of the issues facing it. I have long believed that when Luther wrote that a theologian of the cross sees things the way things actually are, we ought to recognize that a theologian of the cross stands outside the politics, emotions and social unrest of the day. Instead, a theologian of the cross sees the world as the imperfect place that it is, but still yet believes deeply that God is bringing the world to God’s self through the gift of the Holy Spirit in the person of Jesus Christ. As a deliberating presence that stands outside of the politics and the partisanship that divides our country, the church must both listen authentically and speak thoughtfully in the political discourse. This allows the church be a mediating presence on these critical issues. In addition, as it stands outside the politics and partisanship of American political life, the church is freed and emboldened to stand for what it believes. And with Stand Your Ground, standing for what it believes and seeing Stand Your Ground for what it is—a law that propagates violence—the church must say no to this violence as part of its witness to God’s yes for peace.


[16] This essay has attempted to provide a faithful Lutheran response to the question of Stand Your Ground. As suggested, there is great difficulty in making a political or ethical argument on the basis of the Gospel. This essay suggested that as the Bible witnesses to the God of peace and to the Christ who preached the value of love and forgiveness, a Lutheran response to the Stand Your Ground law is a thorough critique of the law because the law seems to increase the legality of personal retribution beyond that of conventional self-defense laws. In closing, let us not forget a few things. One is that this argument is first and foremost a theological argument for peace. I have made the political argument from the theological argument and I believe I am justified in doing so. But I acknowledge that I have done so only in the belief that the situation has propelled the theological to become political. As such, the force of the argument remains theological, though it must play itself out politically. In other words, it is only as the church is called to be a church of peace—a church for peace—that the church is called to be against violence. And it is only because the church is called to be against violence that it is called to be against Stand Your Ground.

[17] The second thing we must remember is that, as Lutherans, we believe that the world remains marked by sin. The social statement For Peace in God’s World asserts that violence occurs as the result of human sinfulness. In the same way, any political structure that governs over human life is also marked by sin and finitude. Although our country has made great progress on civil rights issues over the last few decades, the structural sin of racism is still rampant, affecting many of our country’s social, economic, and civil institutions. This includes the criminal justice system in our country. The ELCA’s newest social statement on criminal justice points to the systemic sin of racism in the criminal justice system. While there is nothing inherently racial about Stand Your Ground, a recent study by the Tampa Bay Times has found that the law has been more favorable to whites than to blacks.[1] As the church advocates for peace, the church must work towards the abolition of the Stand Your Ground law. However, while the law still stands, the church must continue its deliberation and call into question other political, cultural, and legal structures that perpetuate systemic injustices, such as economic oppression, racism, homophobia, sexism and religious intolerance. In continuing to “see things as they are” as a part of the thin tradition of the theology of the cross, the church must identify such systemic injustices as sinful.

[18] The final thing we must remember is that the Stand Your Ground law became a part of our political discourse this summer because of the death of an African American teenager. As the church speaks out, the church speaks out only in the form of a plea for God’s forgiving love to come meet us where we are. As we move forward from Trayvon Martin and the trial of George Zimmerman, we must remember that as Lutherans we confess that death does not have the final word. And although our country may stand divided for the moment, we do believe in the power of the reconciling love of the cross, the power which defeats death and gathers the people of God together once more. As we continue to pray and advocate for peace, we ought to remember that our ultimate peace rests in God, the ultimate peace that passes all human understanding.


[1] Ian Lovett, “Call for Calm as Los Angeles Girds for More Unrest,” New York Times, July 16, 2013. Accessed Online September 10, 2013. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/17/us/los-angeles-protests-zimmerman.html.
[2] The Evangelical Church in America. For Peace in God’s World, 2.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid, 2-3.

[7] Ibid, 3.

[8] Ibid, 4.

[9] Ibid, 5.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

Benjamin Taylor

Benjamin Taylor is a doctoral student in Systematic Theology at The Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. He has studied and worked closely with Vítor Westhelle for the past four years.