Mark Silk: Spiritual Politics Opinion

WWJD about stand-your-ground?



Although George Zimmerman’s lawyers did not offer a formal stand-your-ground defense of their client, the jury was instructed that “he had no duty to retreat and the right to stand his ground.” Anyone who thinks that Florida’s stand-your-ground law wasn’t the essential context for Trayvon Martin’s death should ponder the fact that after the law was passed in 2006, self-defense claims tripled in the Sunshine State.

What the law did was expand the so-called Castle Doctrine, which permits home invaders to be shot with impunity, to any place anyone feels threatened. It replaced the longstanding legal “duty to retreat” in the face of danger with the idea that you carry your castle with you wherever you go.

In pondering Attorney General Holder’s denunciation of stand-your-ground laws, you may wonder how half the states of the Union  could have followed Florida’s lead so quickly, especially in the face of widespread opposition from law enforcement officials. The answer, in a word, is ALEC — the American Legislative Exchange Council. Funded by the Koch brothers and the large corporations that belong, ALEC has been the key organization in advancing right-wing policies in state legislatures for nearly 40 years.

When the NRA decided to promote stand-your-ground in 2005, ALEC embraced the cause, created a model bill, and got the GOP-controlled Florida legislature to pass it. Then ALEC took the legislation on the road.

Then, in the wake of the Martin killing, ALEC perceived a duty to retreat. Dozens of its member corporations — those like Coca-Cola and Walmart with large minority retail clienteles — resigned their memberships. The ALEC stand-your-ground task force was shut down. But that hardly absolves the organization of responsibility.

Yesterday, a coalition of liberal groups staged a protest at the opening of ALEC’s new headquarters in Arlington, Virginia. Josh Horowitz, executive director of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, put the case this way:

There is a bedrock principle of all law going back to the Jewish Bible, through Roman law, through the British Common Law, and through two centuries of American law, which is that life is precious and if you can spare a human life, you do that. In 2005, pushed by the NRA, Florida decided to change that law. All of a sudden, they have a law that says, “If you can walk away, you don’t have to. You can kill if you want to. Somehow, ALEC thought that was a great idea, and pushed this bill, with the NRA, in 25 states around the country, abrogating 3,000 years of law, legal precedent and common sense…Instead of sitting upstairs drinking wine and eating snacks and celebrating their move to Virginia, ALEC and the corporations that support it should humble themselves and work as hard as they can to repeal that stand your ground laws before one more kid is killed.

In the Sermon on the Mount, which might be characterized as the classic one-upping of Mosaic law, Jesus says that it’s not enough not to kill, you shouldn’t get angry without cause; and that rather than demand an eye for an eye when assaulted, you should turn the other cheek. I’d call that a duty to retreat, wouldn’t you?

About the author

Mark Silk

Mark Silk is Professor of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College and director of the college's Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life. He is a Contributing Editor of the Religion News Service


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  • i think its important to understand the significance of what Jesus said:

    “If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” To strike the right cheek with the fist would require using the left hand, but in that society the left hand was used only for unclean tasks. The only way one could strike the right cheek with the right hand would be with the back of the hand. A backhand slap was the normal way of admonishing inferiors.

    Why then does Jesus counsel these already humiliated people to turn the other cheek? Because this action robs the oppressor of power to humiliate them. The person who turns the other cheek is saying, in effect, “Try again. Your first blow failed to achieve its intended effect. I deny you the power to humiliate me. I am a human being just like you. Your status (gender, race, age, wealth) does not alter that. You cannot demean me.” Such a response would create enormous difficulties for the striker. Purely logistically, how can he now hit the other cheek? He cannot backhand it with his right hand. If he hits with a fist, he makes himself an equal, acknowledging the other as a peer. But the whole point of the back of the hand is to reinforce the caste system and its institutionalized inequality.

    Jesus in other words tell us to stand our ground. Now I understand this has nothing to do with the stand your ground law but Jesus’ call is not for us to continue to let someone hurt and demean us nor is it a call to pacifism.

  • So why doesn’t the Prof turn HIS check and not complain. (about a law that wasn’t even relevant to the trail.) Its turn your cheek for thee but not for ME time.

    btw just in case anyone is side track by the good prof. Jesus understood the need for laws and the benefits that civil order have for humanity in general. Jesus’ teaching in the sermon of the mount have to do with treating everyone with charity not doing away with all of the laws.

  • Frank, this is wonderful! Thanks for confirming what I have slowly and carefully come to believe. You are appreciated!

  • Thank you Mark Silk for that excellent explanation and the insightful, maybe profound, linkage to the Sermon on the Mount.

  • Somehow I don’t think the man who told Peter to put away his sword when it was raised in his defense would be a fan of the current gun culture.

  • Scholars have debated the meaning of the words of Jesus for 100’s of years. I’m glad you finally figured it all out and can speak for him Frank. Your words make no sense what-so-ever except to fit your own “I’m afraid to go out without my gun agenda”. Have fun explaining how you alone know exactly what Jesus meant to St. Peter on the day of your arrival.

  • frank et al…

    i find it fascinating that it is necessary to analyze what jesus said in this case… fascinating because i regularly hear that ‘the bible is not open to interpretation’, particularly with regard to morality (eg. adultery, sodomy, etc.).

    i’m all for understanding scripture within a cultural context… to me, that’s really the only way to understand it at all… and please note that i am NOT arguing that any comment on here is hypocritical… but i regularly hear the ‘no interpretation’ argument from the same folks who support ‘stand your ground’ (and a variety of other policies set firmly in the right-wing agenda) with an ‘interpretation’ as offered above…

    and with respect to ‘turn the other cheek’, i for one don’t believe that jesus would have us kill someone if we have the opportunity to walk away… not saying you have to believe the same thing i do, but i’ve read the whole book and that’s my ‘interpretation’.

  • If you are unwilling to put the work needed to understand scripture that’s your problem. You are welcome to remain in ignorance.

    I don’t own a gun, never shot a gun and most likely never will. Thanks for profiling me.

  • If you want everyone to know that you cannot actually refute anything I said then by all means continue to post nonsense like that. Very telling.

  • Jesus teaches us never to use violence to solve our problems. That of course has nothing to do with self-defense. Your conflating two issues.

    As far as sexuality is concerned we absolutely have to take context as an interpretive tool. We still have homosexuality as sin any way you look at it.

  • you’ve misunderstood my comment… i’m not commenting on the issues themselves, but rather on the interpretation of different issues by the same person or persons… it’s the double standard that i find fascinating.

    with respect to homosexuality, i’ve seen interpretations of leviticus that pose the sin of the citizens as being inhospitable rather than homosexual… do you then agree that, since hospitality was a cultural imperative, leviticus does not in fact speak to homosexuality? that interpretation is, after all, culturally contextual…

    regardless of all of the above, to me, jesus says to walk away if you can.

  • Why then did Ezra and Nehemiah work on the wall of Jerusalem with a sword in one hand? Jesus told Peter to put up his sword because His time had come, not because He refused to defend Himself.

  • Leviticus and the NT both prohibit homosexual behavior in every form.

    If you are speaking of Sodom and Gomorrah yes the lack hospitality was the issue as evidenced by the homosexual behavior running rampant among other inhospitable things.

  • again, i’m not commenting on scripture… not leviticus or the new testament or sodomy or any other issue…. my observation was of the interpretations of various passages and the double standard that seems to exist….

    you seem to want to argue with me, and i’m not sure why…

    in any event, i’ll go back to my original observation… it fascinates me when a person insists on a literal translation in some cases and on contextual interpretation in others.

    and… to head off any argument in advance… the above is my opinion… it works for me.. i’m not saying it should work for anyone else nor am i saying that i know more or less about scripture or jesus or god or christianity… it’s just my observation… and as i find it interesting, i thought others might find it interesting too…

  • I think that’s a good question about how are we to interpret scripture. There are many types of literary forms in scripture and so when looking at passages we have to take that into account as well as the cultural context. But behind very verse is an eternal truth and that’s where we need to land.

    So in the case of homosexual behavior we have multiple instances where it is condemned which fits perfectly into the sexual morality thread all throughout scripture. So the eternal truth we land on after putting through the literary, cultural and theological lens is that God created sexuality and marriage to be between one man and one woman.

    So the claim that its a double standard shows a lack of understanding in how we should approach scripture.

  • ok… one more time….

    my observations have nothing to do with the scripture being translated….

    as i noted previously, i have heard the same person (1) insist that the bible is ‘the literal and inspired word of god’ and is therefore never open to interpretation and then (2) cite the need for cultural context with respect to a different passage… that’s the double standard to which i’ve been referring… i’m sorry if i didn’t communicate that clearly enough.

    i would like to add that your comment that “the claim that it’s a double standard shows a lack of understanding in how we should approach scripture” got under my skin… maybe that’s what you were trying to do… i don’t know… but to say that i don’t understand how to approach scripture… it just seems mean-spirited to me… if you’re truly concerned for me, you could have taken a gentle approach… suggested some things to study… offered to help me understand in a different way… in short, you could have been kind… instead, i feel like you’ve spent a lot of time saying, “nope, you’re wrong” and then tacked on “and you don’t understand how to read the bible” as a parting shot…

    the worldly part of me wants to say a lot more… the better part of me thinks i should stop writing now…

  • Listen to the better part of yourself.

    Your mentioning double standard was a judgement and accusatory so I find it ironic that you call me out.

  • from my end, my comments were neither judgement nor accusation… unfortunate that you took it that way…

    also not my intent to ‘call you out’ as you put it… i was hopeful that we could continue a discussion without being mean-spirited.. you’re obviously intelligent and well read and have put a lot of time and effort into studying scripture… thought i might be able to learn something from a different point of view… so what i was trying to do was to change the tone of things… move toward the fruits of the spirit… i thought it a better witness to “make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification”.

    this board is open to believers and non-believers alike… and if your effectively calling me wrong, ignorant, and unable to understand scripture — followed by a tacit command to ‘shut up’ and listen to the better part of myself – has gotten under my skin, the skin of a believer, i can only imagine how it will to any non-believers who read it.

  • You are welcome to continue to be accusatory and ignore your own role in this conversation,

    So when you said double standard you didn’t mean to accuse people of hypocrisy?