THE thought is a terrible one--and the act is desperate in itself--of a
man, however justified his conduct may be, slaying with his own hand a
fellow being and sending his soul, unprepared perhaps, before its
Maker. But it is a still more desperate thing, because it strikes us
nearer home, to yield up one's life into the hands of an agent of
injustice. There is here an alternative of two very great evils; it is
on of two lives, his and mine; I must slay or I must die
without having done anything to forfeit my life.
But the law of charity, founded in nature, makes my life more precious
to me than his, for charity begins at home. Then, to save his life, I
must give mine; and he risks his to take mine! I do not desire to kill
my unjust aggressor, but I do intend, as I have a perfect right, to
protect my own life. If he, without cause, places his existence as an
obstacle to my enjoyment of life, then I shall remove that obstacle,
and to do it, I shall kill. Again, a desperate remedy, but the
situation is most terribly desperate. Being given law of my being, I
can not help the inevitable result of conditions of which I am nowise
responsible. The man who attacks my life places his own beyond the
possibility of my saving it.
This, of course, supposes a man using the full measure of his rights.
But is he bound to do this, morally? Not if his charity for another be
greater than that which he bears towards himself, if he go beyond the
divine injunction to love his neighbor as himself and love him better
than himself; if he feel that he is better prepared to meet his God
than the other, if he have no one dependent on him for maintenance and
support. Even did he happen to be in the state of mortal sin, there is
every reason to believe that such charity as will sacrifice life for
another, greater than which no man has, would wash away that sin and
open the way of mercy; while great indeed must be the necessity of the
dependent ones to require absolutely the death of another.
The aggression that justifies killing must be unjust. This would not be
the case of a criminal being brought to justice or resisting arrest.
Justice cannot conflict with itself and can do nothing unjust in
carrying out its own mandates. The culprit therefore has no grounds to
stand upon for his defense.
Neither is killing justifiable, if wounding or mutilation would effect
the purpose. But here the code of morals allows much latitude on
account of the difficulty of judging to a nicety the intentions of the
aggressor, that is, whether he means to kill or not; and of so
directing the protecting blow as to inflict just enough, and no more
disability than the occasion requires.
Virtue in woman is rightly considered a boon greater than life; and for
that matter, so is the state of God's friendship in the soul of any
creature. Then, here too applies the principle of self-defense. If I
may kill to save my life, 1 may for a better reason kill to save my
soul and to avoid mortal offense. True, the loss of bodily integrity
does not necessarily imply a staining of the soul; but human nature is
such as to make the one an almost fatal consequence of the other. The
person therefore who kills to escape unjust contamination acts within
his or her rights and before God is justified in the doing.
We would venture to say the same thing of a man who resorts to this
extreme in order to protect his rightly gotten goods, on these two
conditions, however: that there be some kind of proportion between the
loss and the remedy he employs to protect himself against it; and that
he have well grounded hope that the remedy will be effective, that it
will prevent said loss, and not transform itself into revenge.
And here a last remark is in order. The killing that is permitted to
save, is not permitted to avenge loss sustained; the law sanctions
self-defense, but not vengeance. If a man, on the principle of
self-defense, has the right to kill to save his brother, and fails to
do so, his further right to kill ceases; the object is past saving and
vengeance is criminal. If a woman has been wronged, once the wrong
effected, there can be no lawful recourse to slaying, for what is lost
is beyond redemption, and no reason for such action exists except
revenge. In these cases killing is murder, pure and simple, and there
is nothing under Heaven to justify it.
Remembering the injunction to love our neighbor as ourself, we add that
we have the same right to defend our neighbor's life as we have to
defend our own, even to protect his or her innocence and virtue and
possessions. A husband may defend the honor of his wife, which is his
own, even though the wife be a party to the crime and consent to the
defilement; but the right is only to prevent, and ceases on the event
of accomplishment, even at the incipient stage.