As we wrestle with the issue of Christians and violence, it’s interesting to note that prior to Constantine (4th Cent. A.D.), Christians were basically pacifists. Few Christians ever joined the military and rarely would a believer pursue a vocation where killing someone else would expected. (There’s no evidence of a Christian serving as a soldier of Rome until A.D. 174.) If you did happen to kill someone—say, you were already a soldier and got converted—it was viewed as a sin that required tearful confession and repentance, rather than celebration. Violence for the early Church was viewed as contrary to the cross of Christ, and there really wasn’t much of a debate about it.
This, of course, isn’t a biblical argument for pacifism, though it should cause us to question our assumptions as we approach the text. For pre-Constantine Christianity, non-violence was a fundamental Christian ethic. For post-Constantine Christianity, or more specifically in American Christianity where warfare is what brought us our religious freedom purchased by the blood of Native Americans, violence is rarely questioned except when embedded in a rated-R movie. (The contradiction between some Christians’ support for war and yet disdain for violent rated-R movies is ironic, to say the least.) All in all, we absolutely need to stick close to the biblical text in order to think Christianly through the issue of violence.
In the last post, I mentioned three passages that often head the list of biblical support for the so-called Just War position, or violence by individual Christians when it’s appropriate: Luke 22, Romans 13, and the temple cleansing (John 2, among others).
Luke 22:35-38 says:
35 And he said to them, “When I sent you out with no moneybag or knapsack or sandals, did you lack anything?” They said, “Nothing.” 36 He said to them, “But now let the one who has a moneybag take it, and likewise a knapsack. And let the one who has no sword sell his cloak and buy one. 37 For I tell you that this Scripture must be fulfilled in me: ‘And he was numbered with the transgressors.’ For what is written about me has its fulfillment.” 38 And they said, “Look, Lord, here are two swords.” And he said to them, “It is enough.”
So, Jesus tells them to go buy a sword, and low and behold, two of them (Peter and probably Simon the Zealot) already had a sword. “Look, Lord, here are two swords.” The question is: What did Jesus mean by the last phrase “It is enough?” Two swords are enough for what?
I don’t think this text can be used to support Jesus’ (new) allowance for violence. First, a few verses later Peter will wield his sword, cutting off a dude’s ear, and Jesus rebukes him: “No more of this!” (22:51). Obviously Peter (along with many later interpreters) misunderstood Jesus’ previous command to go buy a sword. The swords weren’t meant to be used for violence by Jesus’ followers. Second, Jesus’ quotation of Isaiah 53:12, that he would be “numbered with the transgressors” (Luke 22:37) reveals the point of the two swords: Jesus had to be viewed by the Roman authorities as a threat—a potential revolutionary—in order for Rome to have legal grounds to crucify him. When Jesus hung on the cross, he was placed between an insurrectionist (Barabbas) and another criminal; he was numbered among other revolutionary transgressors and was therefore crucified. Understanding Luke 22 in this way makes much better sense both of the quotation of Isaiah 53 and the flow of Jesus’ ethical teaching, which has consistently discouraged violence up until this point.
Let’s go to Romans 13:1-5:
“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. 3 For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, 4 for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience.”
This passage is often used to advocate for the use of violence by Christians. Now again, the passage isn’t a command or even a direct allowance for violence by the church, but a command that the church submit to its—can I say—evil, corrupt, anti-Christian, and immoral governing authorities. Paul is not praising the government. He’s not saying to love the government. He’s not saying that the government is inherently good. In fact, at the time of writing, Caesar Nero was on Rome’s throne and he was a pedophilic maniac who thought he was divine! In A.D. 64, the same “governing authorities,” whom God commands the church to submit to, will end up dipping Christians in tar and setting them on fire to illuminate Nero’s garden at night. So Paul isn’t saying that Nero’s Rome is on our side, so to speak.
So what is Paul saying? In the spirit of the Old Testament prophets, Paul is saying that God is the ultimate authority and He is so sovereign that He can even work through evil earthly authorities to carry out his will. We see this in Daniel (5:1-31). We see it in Isaiah (44:24-45:7). We see it in Zechariah (1:15-21). We see it all throughout the Old Testament: God works through the evil institutions on earth to carry out his will, and God’s people shouldn’t resist or revolt against those institutions that God has placed over his people. God is ultimately in charge.
But this doesn’t mean that the evil institution is morally good or “on God’s side.” God uses earthly authorities, but He will ultimately judge them. Again, we see this throughout the prophets, where God will judge the very governing institutions that he uses. And we see this in Revelation 17-18—follow me here—where God ruthlessly condemns and pronounced judgment upon the same Roman Government that he told the church to submit to in Romans 13. The apostle John would be quite shocked, I think, at the contemporary Church’s affectionate love for and unconditional allegiance to the Babylons of their day. The question of a Christian’s participation in Babylon’s governance is simply not in view in Romans 13.
I’ve got to cut this short, so for the sake of space let me just say that in all the accounts of Jesus’ cleansing of the temple (Mark 11:15-19; John 2:13-22; and others), never does the text say that he physically harmed the people he was rebuking. Yes, he made a whip and drove them out (John 2:15), but it doesn’t say that he was lacerating people with it. The temple cleansing demonstrates Jesus’ non-violent righteous indignation toward greed and corruption, and ultimately foreshadows the destruction of the temple in A.D. 70, but it doesn’t show that Jesus reversed his non-violent posture by snapping a few money changes in the butt.
For the next post, we’ll dig into violence in the Old Testament.