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Christian Theology v. Stand Your Ground

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Credit: Wikimedia Commons /

The indictment of George Zimmerman for second-degree murder in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin brings to mind St. Augustine's classic representation of human nature in Book I, chapter 7 of the Confessions:

Nor was it good, even in that time, to strive to get by crying what, if it had been given me, would have been hurtful; or to be bitterly indignant at those who, because they were older--not slaves, either, but free--and wiser than I, would not indulge my capricious desires. Was it a good thing for me to try, by struggling as hard as I could, to harm them for not obeying me, even when it would have done me harm to have been obeyed? Thus, the infant's innocence lies in the weakness of his body and not in the infant mind. I have myself observed a baby to be jealous, though it could not speak; it was livid as it watched another infant at the breast.

Whether or not Martin was up to no good, whether or not he and Zimmerman got into a scuffle prior to the shooting, it will be up to a jury to decide whether Zimmerman, as Florida's Stand-Your-Ground law requires, "reasonably believe[d]" his action was " prevent death or great bodily harm to himself...or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony." What St. Augustine understood was that guilt or innocence depends not on a person's desire to inflict harm, but on his capacity to. Had he been unarmed, and not felt entitled to "stand his ground," George Zimmerman would not be where he is today.

Self-defense is all well and good, and St. Augustine, the first great expositor of just war theory, was no pacifist. But he, more than any other Christian thinker, recognized how deeply embedded ugly impulses are in human nature, and how inextricably entwined good and evil are in human society. For that reason, adherents of the traditional Christian idea of original sin, more than latter-day liberals, ought to be opposing laws that make it easier for citizens to use deadly force with impunity.

Topics: Faith, Doctrine & Practice, Politics, Law & Court
Tags: st. augustine, trayvon martin


  1. Saying” St. Augustine understood was that guilt or innocence depends not on a person’s desire to inflict harm, but on his capacity to.” is a gross distortion of Augustinian philosophy.  Capacity has nothing to do with guilt, it’s entirely a matter of choice.  As Augustine said, “Where there is no choice, there is no sin” and where is this more applicable than in a case of self-defense.
    Also, Augustine was very cognizant of the depravity of the juvenile mind (does the pear tree ring a bell?) and I doubt that he would agree with the representation of Trayvon Martin as an angelic innocent.

  2. I meant, of course, “innocence” in the sense that St. Augustine did in the passage cited above. Precisely because our (good) natures have been corrupted by original sin, we are not of us (in his view) innocent metaphysically. We make evil choices because of a corrupted will, which causes us to (including the infant) to choose the bad. Whoever has represented Trayvon Martin as an angelic innocent, it wasn’t me. He was, however, unarmed—which is exactly to the point.

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