Eric Holder rejects ‘stand your ground.’ Does the Bible?

Jacob Langston/ Orlando Sentinel Attorney General Eric Holder is speaking out against ‘stand your ground’ laws, which exist in 30 … Continued


Jacob Langston/ Orlando Sentinel

Attorney General Eric Holder is speaking out against ‘stand your ground’ laws, which exist in 30 states including Florida, where George Zimmerman was found ‘not guilty’ in the shooting death of Treyvon Martin. And even has one who is not a big fan of the Attorney Generals’ performance while in office, I have to say that I am with him 100 percent.

In fact, one might argue that even Zimmerman’s defense team had its own reservations about both the law and the level of public support is really has having entirely avoided that line of defense in the just concluded case. At the very least, there is no doubt that these laws create a dangerous perception that violence is always an option whenever anyone feels threatened, wherever they happen to be standing, because wherever they happen to be standing is defined as “their ground.”

The controversy around these laws brings to mind two biblical traditions which can meaningfully, and more sanely, inform our thinking about what it means to “stand your ground’. First, is the story of Moses discovering the burning bush while tending his father-in-law’s sheep in the Sinai desert.

According to the story, as recorded in Exodus 3:5, God tells Moses to remove his shoes “because the place where (he) is standing is holy ground”. In this story, the awareness that one stands in a holy place, invites openness and even increased vulnerability, as symbolized by the removal of one’s shoes, not the defensive posturing that is justified under current ‘stand your ground’ laws.

To stand ones ground in Exodus means to become increasingly aware of the need to stand up on behalf of others, not simply to defend the ground upon which one stands. That’s a powerful alternative to the thinking which animates current stand your ground laws.

It’s not that there are no circumstances in which the Hebrew Bible legitimates the use of violence in defense of one’s own ground though. In fact, scripture has its own version of a stand your ground law. According to Exodus 22:2, “if a thief is discovered breaking into one’s home, and is subsequently killed while doing so, the one who kills him, bears no guilt for having done so.”

Unlike those states which have such laws, the Bible’s version of “standing your ground” is far more limited both in its definition of what counts as one’s ground, and in terms of the circumstances in which it is understood to be violated. Some may argue that even this highly constrained version of the law invites needless violence, but before making that case, I would invite them to ask how they would respond were someone actively breaking into their own home and prepared to harm those they loved.

Whatever one concludes about the Bible’s stand your ground stance, it speaks to the possibility of meaningfully respecting the need for self-defense without creating a society in which we assume that wherever we are, we are under threat, and that whatever we do to neutralize that supposed threat is justifiable because that is our ground.

Brad Hirschfield
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  • Secular1

    Let’s not bring the ignorant, superstitious and bigoted filthy bronze age tome into the discussion and muddy the waters. That book also tells that if you convince yourself tat one imaginary deity has bequeathed stuff to you, then it is alright to steal it, even though you know crystal clearly it actually belongs to others. In teh process of stealing, if one has to massacre by the thousands that is quite alright too.

  • dean-the-Less

    Secular1: In our modern, so-called, enlightened society. Everyone is so educated. Everyone is so tolerant. What you can’t see or will never see or care or believe is that you actually are bias toward anyone with a reiligious faith. In the name of Science and Enligtenment you will act like you are superior intellectually to anyone, in the huddled ignorant masses, that could stoop so low as to have a belief beyond man! You and those like yourself crack me up…your tolerance is Intolerant and you cant see it.

  • leibowde84

    I would agree, and I am not saying that you feel this way because I don’t know you, but I would argue that certain religious individuals see themselves as more enlightened than those who don’t believe in God. That, for some reason, their beliefs make them a better, more desireable person to God. Would you agree that this way of thinking is “intollerant” as well? Or would you think otherwise simply because of your belief that religious people are more enlightened?

    All I’m saying is that it is equally intollerant to think that your faith makes you better spiritually than those who don’t have it.

  • Catken1

    I think you both are confusing “tolerance” with “approval”. You don’t need to approve of, agree with, or think that someone else’s beliefs are the equal of your own in order to “tolerate” them – you simply have to accept their right to hold them.
    Thinking that another person’s beliefs are foolish, stupid, or ignorant is not “intolerant” – trying to take away their civil rights and/or their liberties because of it is.
    Personally, I disapprove of those who post comments showing ignorance of decent English grammar, but I’m not trying to take away your right to post as a result.

  • 3vandrum

    You are unnecessarily bringing God, religion and biblical traditions into this discussion. America is supposed to be secular country and more over the country is now multi religious and a good number of people are agnostic or even atheistic. “Stand your ground law” should stand on its own and not entangledwith any religions.

  • Marta L.

    Rabbi, you would know better than I do, but I always thought the Exodus law you cite was built around the assumption that if someone breaks into your house the lives of the people inside are at risk. It is not about property or personal autonomy so much as an understandable preemptive defense of your family’s life.

    I can understand, even sympathize with the person who hears a strange noise downstairs in the middle of the night, fears for his safety, and (between a combination of sleepiness and adrenaline) kills someone who does not pose a real threat. But there is a world of difference between that and a public street, especially if the person standing his ground chose to approach another guy not because other lives were at risk but because he was tired of property damage in his neighborhood.

  • George Paul Wood

    It’s important to remember the qualifier to Exodus 22:2, however: “but if it happens after sunrise, bloodguilt is incurred” (NRSV). The incurrence of guilt implies after sunrise implies that being able to see one’s attacker provides non-lethal remedies.

  • Lalande21185

    Why oh why do atheists always trumpet their ignorance by referring to the Bible as a product of the Bronze Age? The Bronze Age in the Middle East is recognized as being roughly 3600-1200 BC. The Bible was written in its entirety after 800 BC at the earliest. So more than twice the amount of time that the United States has been around separates the Bible from the Bronze Age. That’s not a small span of time!

  • LarryTX

    What a distortion of scripture and SYG.

  • NPLenz

    As a service to your readers, Mr. Hirschfield, would you please supply us with the Bible verses that say when someone is doing their best to kill you, and you have the means at hand to stop them from doing so, you are bound by God’s Word to allow them to kill you? Particular case, if someone has you pinned to the ground and is beating your face to a pulp and smashing your head against the ground.

  • PhillyJimi1

    Talk about creating a Red Herring. The age of the stories of Moses and friends go back in to the bronze age. When the oral traditions were first written is a fact on to it’s self.

    Funny how the 2010 reports LA Times about atheist know more about the theist never seems to come up but theists just claim that atheist are ignorant because they want to. Understand I am an atheist today because I read and studied the bible and the arguments for and against all gods. I would assume you’re an atheist for other gods just not the one you believe in. I just include all gods.

  • PhillyJimi1

    dean-the-Less – I am an atheist. Here is an example to counter your assertions. Consider a parent who has a child with cancer. They take their child to a witch doctor for treatment. Then the witch doctor pour chicken blood over the child’s head to appease the evil spirits of the evil fowl god. Would you respect that parent’s beliefs? Or would you become “Intolerant” and speak up and dare to insult that person’s faith?

    Silly superstitious beliefs don’t deserve respect. If someone tells me their is a book about a magical Jewish zombie and his insane sky father as something I need to consider or this sky god will burn me forever because I am evil wretch for just being born.

    I am allowed to consider the claims and the charges against me being leveled for just being born. I’ll tell you it is the mafia boss shakedown. You need protection insurance. If you don’t buy it I’ll burn down your business. The same person who is selling you the protection is also the same person who is seeking to do harm if you don’t agree. Again it is a shakedown not love.

    I reject the idea of blind faith. I’ll believe in something if there is evidence to support the belief. As soon as someone presents solid evidence to counter my beliefs I’ll stop believing in it. Seems like a reasonable way to live your life?

  • Secular1

    First thing you could have done was not to get out of your car and pursued the kid, who you later find out was lot more than you could handle. You should have thought of all that, before you got out of the car.