In the previous post, I declared myself to be a pacifist. In this post, I’m going to show why the Bible endorses pacifism. Again, I’m arguing for the so-called “non-resistance” version of Pacifism, which states that the church/Christian should not participate in War as a combatant and that violence—along with lying and intoxication—should not be the mark of a Christ-follower. Here’s why.
First, Matthew 5:38-45 says:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also…Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. (Matt 5:38-39, 44-45)
Now, I grew up in a context where taking the Bible literally was the mantra sung every Sunday, and yet I often heard that we can’t take this passage literally. But I’m pretty sure Jesus meant what he said: Don’t retaliate violence with violence; retaliate violence with love. Fundamental to the Christian faith is that we love—not kill—our enemies, since Christ loved his enemies (i.e., us) and was unjustly killed for them (Rom 5:8-11). He served his enemies, loved his enemies, died for his enemies. The point seems very clear: love, and not violence, should be the church’s posture.
But isn’t this passage just talking about retaliation, rather than violence as a whole? Yes, the context is about retaliation, but if violent retaliation is prohibited, then what other violence could Jesus possibly have endorsed? Certainly, a preemptive war strike would logically be excluded, as would be a bullet to the head of the person breaking into your house. If violence is prohibited in retaliation, then violence is probably not looked upon with approval in all (or at least most) circumstances by Jesus.
Moreover, Matthew 5 is part of the Sermon of the Mount, which is the “definitive charter for the life of the new covenant community” (Hays, Moral Vision, 321). As the law of Moses was for Israel, so also the Sermon on the Mount is for the Christian community (the parallel is not exact, but is still close for reasons we can’t get into). Moreover, the sermon is the first of five speeches in Matthew (chs. 5-7, 10, 13, 18, 23-25), which constitute the content of the phrase “teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” of the Great Commission (Matt 28:18-20). The point: non-violent love of one’s enemies is fundamental to the church’s discipleship and its mission to disciple the nations. Somehow that’s been lost in the post-Constantinian church.
Second, Jesus lived out the truth of his own command by never acting violently against those who were either attacking him (physically, verbally, etc.), or other innocent people who were being attacked. The first point is clear; the second one is a matter of speculation. And yet, as Jesus walked around Palestine in the first century, it’s nearly certain that he observed all sorts of injustices taking place and yet never are there any instances of Jesus acting violently to defend the innocent. In fact, he reached out to soldiers, tax-collectors, and suicide bombers like Simon the Zealot. Again, non-violent love of one’s enemies seems to be the pattern and effective means of confronting evil (see below). And in one instance, Peter whipped out his sword to violently defend Jesus and he was rebuked! “All who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Matt 26:52).
Third, when Jesus said “my kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36a), he explicitly means that his kingdom is not a violent kingdom. “If my kingdom were of this world,” Jesus told the violent governor, “my servants would have been fighting” (John 19:36b). But my kingdom is not a violent kingdom; it’s not of this world. A fundamental feature of Jesus’ kingdom and all who participate in it is non-violence in the face of a very violent world.
Fourth, Paul and Peter both prohibit retaliation, including, of course, violent retaliation. They commanded the same counter intuitive love of one’s enemies that Jesus announced (Rom 12:14, 17-21; 1 Pet 2:18-23). Paul’s final exhortation in Romans 12:21 is particularly noteworthy, since it says “overcome evil with good.” This would suggest that evil people should not be overcome with evil, but with good, which challenges our basic assumption that evil people (e.g., Hitler) should be overcome with evil (e.g., murder). Now, I didn’t say Romans 12:21 rules it out; I just said that it challenges it—and Bonhoeffer’s intense struggle with this very issue illustrates the tension.
Now, there are many other passages that need to be dealt with, and many questions left unanswered. What about Romans 13? Didn’t Jesus command his disciples to pick up swords (Luke 22)? What about Jesus’ violent actions in cleansing the temple? All of these will be addressed in the next post. For now, it’s fitting to end with two points that as far as I can see aren’t subject to much debate: (1) Jesus acted non-violently, which lays down a pattern for his followers, and (2) violence is everywhere prohibited and never commanded for the church in the New Testament. All arguments that support the use of violence by Christians must wiggle it out of indirect implications from the text in the face of clear, direct commands of the text. Romans 13 is case in point. Here, Paul says that God uses governments to punish evil violently, and so if we assume that Christians are serving in such governmental positions, then they would logically be allowed to act violently. Not a bad argument, and we’ll wrestle with this. But again, this argument builds on indirect implications from Romans 13 and not the explicit authorial meaning of the passage.
So, in the next post, I’ll address Romans 13, Luke 22, and the temple cleansing, along with any other juicy comments that arise from this blog.
Until then, peace!