Archives For Violence

This is the 7th (actually, the 8th) post on Christians and violence, and for better or worse, it’ll be the last. We’ve covered lots of different sub topics within the issue, including what Jesus and Paul say about violence (blog 2), how the Old Testament’s view on violence fits in with the New Testament (blog 4), and we’ve even wrestled with what to do when a killer breaks into your home and pulls a gun on your family (blog 5). For this last post, I want to do three things: 1) sum up my view, 2) sum up some of the others, and 3) point out a few areas where I’ve changed over the course of this series. (That’s why I blog, by the way. I want to sharpen my thinking, not just to show why my thinking is correct.)

So, what is my view? Again, here are the four views I listed in the first post:

View 1: Pacifism (non-resistance). Christians should not kill people, but they can join the military (or police force, etc.) as long as they serve as non-combatants (psychologist, medical doctor, etc.)

View 2: Pacifism (total non-participation). Christians should not join the military or any other institution that endorses and participates in violence.

View 3: Just War. Christians can participate in a war that is waged on a “just” basis. The seven-fold criteria for a “just” war include: (1) Just cause, (2) Just intention, (3) Last resort, (4) Formal declaration, (5) Limited objectives, (6) Proportionate means, (7) Noncombatant immunity.

View 4: Self-defense and justice. This view focuses on the individual’s encounter with evil, as opposed to his/her participation in national warfare. The view says that a Christian may use violence when defending oneself against evil (i.e. being attacked in a dark alley, etc.) or to achieve justice for someone being oppressed (i.e. executing Hitler, etc.).

In the previous posts, I defended view 1 (while allowing for view 4 in some extreme cases and with qualification; see part 5). As far as the other views go, View 2 (total non-participation) doesn’t make sense to me, since if you pay taxes, or work for a company that makes springs that go into making M-16s that go into the hands of combatants on the front lines, or if you work for a plastic company that makes water bottles, some of which are sent to our soldiers in Iraq—in other words, if you’re a citizen of America—then it’s impossible to completely divorce yourself from the military or many other societal evils. (Every bite of chocolate you take helps fund the use of slave labor in picking cocoa beans in Africa.) For this reason, I actually think that Christians can participate in the military. I only think that Christians should not serve as combatants for the reasons stated in the previous blogs. But Christians can and should, I think, serve as psychologists, doctors, and cooks in the military. Yes, you’re still part of the machine that’s waging unjust wars (see below)—but in a sense, aren’t we all? Why not serve in a capacity that can help reverse the tide of evil and show off a glimpse of the shalom that awaits us?

I’ve already considered View 4 in part 5 of this series. In some extreme cases, we may be forced to choose between killing or letting our families be killed (for example), and I’ve argued that killing the killer and thus preserving the life of your family can be considered the “higher law” since you are preserving life. But this is only as a last resort.

Now, what about the Just War theory? The problem with this view is immediately exposed when you look at their own criteria and ask the question: has there ever been a just war? Has there ever been a war that has adhered to non-combatant immunity? The answer is no, by the way. WWII, often hailed as a just war, fails by the position’s own criteria. Non-Combatant immunity was violated on a nuclear level, as America incinerated over 250,000 Japanese non-combatants at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And—we don’t often hear about this—some of these were Christians. Nagasaki had a growing Christian population, which was annihilated by Americans with a nuclear bomb, which stunted the growth of the gospel in a largely anti-Christian country. What about just intention? Would Jesus say that retaliation or a preventative strike is “just?” Or who gets to define what “just” is? (Jesus does, right?) The issue of “just” when speaking about “war” becomes very convoluted once you look into why countries go to war. Our intentions for war raise a lot of questions. Why didn’t we fight for justice when 800,000 Rwandans were being hacked to pieces with our full knowledge of what was going on?

And who are the “we,” and who are the “them?”

Think about the war in Iraq. We were the good guys taking out the bad guys, right? Well, that’s how the story goes, but the story doesn’t like to talk about the fact that Iraq also had a growing Christian population before America invaded the country. There were some 800,000 – 1.2 million Iraqi Christians during Saddam’s reign who were able to worship in relative peace, but after we invaded, Christians have been vigorously persecuted, exiled, and killed. Today, the number of Christians has radically dwindled to a(n unknown but) small number. So when we talk in terms of “us” invading “them,” which citizenship are we referring to with the pronouns?

Many of us have heard of the famous “Christmas Truce” held on Dec 24-25th, 1914, in the middle of WWI. Both sides—the Germans and the Brits—decided to break from war so that they both could observe Christmas in peace. And on Christmas eve, when temporary peace was being enjoyed, the British troops broke out in unison: “Silent night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright…” only to hear an uncanny echo across “enemy” lines, “Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht, Alles schläft; einsam wacht.”

Again, how are we defining “us” and “them?” The nations will always war, but war never brings shalom. Only Jesus through His Spirit-filled, peacemaking, enemy-loving church can. We cannot confuse our mission with theirs.

So, lastly, where have I changed over the course of this series?

First, I no longer like the term pacifism. I began the series using it, but I don’t like it because it’s not a distinctively Christian label. (You can be a flag burning drag queen, who hates Jesus and America, and be a pacifist—not the crowd I want to be confused with.) I’m not fond of any labels, so labels that aren’t distinctively Christian are worse! So—I’m no longer a “pacifist,” and if rumor gets out that Preston Sprinkle is a pacifist, you’ll know that the rumor starter didn’t read the entire series. I’m not sure what else to call myself. Non-violent shalomer? Too long, and too weird. Christ-follower (Jesus acted non-violently, and so do I)? Nah, too loaded and imprecise. Anyway, I’d love to hear any suggestions.

I believe that Jesus promoted and demonstrated non-violence as a means of confronting injustice. I believe that we should love our enemies and not kill them. I believe that the church as kingdom outposts should be well-known as peacemakers and not warmongers. (And if you’ve traveled or lived overseas, by the way, you know that Christians are usually known as the latter.) There may be extraordinary circumstances that allow for the use of violence (again, see part 5 of the series), but this is not the norm, this is not our posture, and this doesn’t reflect the passion behind Jesus’s ethic and practice. I believe that Jesus established a non-violent kingdom, and his followers should be known as being against violence in the same way that they are against homosexuality, fornication, and drugs.

Second, my view on Matthew 5 has been modified a bit. I still think that Matthew 5 supports Jesus’ non-violent ethic, but I think we need to pay very close attention to the details of the text before we quote it to make sweeping (and sometimes rather aggressive) claims (as I did in a couple posts). I no longer think that Jesus was correcting Moses’ liberal allowances for violence (thanks to Adam F), since Moses himself discouraged violence more often that we realize.

Third, I think we (for those who hold the same view that I do) need to be pastorally sensitive in how we discuss this issue. (If I was too insensitive throughout the series, I genuinely am sorry and didn’t intend to be so.) Many believers, who are passionate for Jesus, have fought in wars, have had kids who have fought in wars, and have lost kids in war. It’s a delicate issue. So treat it as such. This doesn’t mean that we ignore what the Bible says about violence, but it does mean that we proclaim truth in a way that shows love to our hearers. I would say the same thing, in fact, regarding issues surrounding homosexuality—we shouldn’t make stupid, non-Christians jokes about the gay community, nor should we simplify the issue, only to slam on homosexuals. 10-15% of Evangelical Christians struggle with same-sex attraction. Making unloving and degrading comments regarding these brothers and sisters could actually push them further away from Jesus. The same goes for those who have been divorced (biblically or unbiblically), those who have tearful battles with weight, eating disorders, self-perception, or even those who make a ton of money and haven’t grown up in a culture where greed, idolatrous comfort, or radical generosity has ever been addressed.

Point being: we need to be pastorally prophetic; we need to speak truth in love; we need to work hard at figuring out when to be bold and in your face, and when to walk gently with people through tough issues.

For those on both sides of the issue, my plea is that you would look not to the view itself but to the texts which are used to support each view. At the end of the day, I would love it if Christians would stop having a knee-jerk reaction against non-violence (cough, cough, “pacifism”) and would be honest with that fact—and I do think it’s a fact—that the promotion of non-violence and peace has a good deal of New Testament support. Disagree with it you may, but considering it an absurd, weird, or unbiblical view cannot be sustained.

Let’s continue the dialogue, shall we? Set aside our presuppositions, our cultural baggage (yes, we all have some) and our anger, and let’s continue to dig into the text in a healthy, cordial, Christ-exalting dialogue about His view of violence.

We’ve been considering the relationship between Christians and violence, and in this post, I’m going to do what many people never think of doing. I’m going to list what I think are the best arguments against my position, because the best way to understand and defend your own view is to consider it from the other side. After all, it’s not about being right; it’s about being a biblical Christ-follower, and pushing back on your own “view” is a good way to make sure you’re not just seeking to win an argument.

So, what are the best arguments against Christian pacifism? Two come to mind.

First, in the New Testament (NT), whenever Roman soldiers come to Christ, they are never told to quit the military or stop using violence. Perhaps the most revealing example comes in Luke 3:10-14:

“10 And the crowds asked him, ‘What then shall we do?’ 11 And he answered them, ‘Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise’. 12 Tax collectors also came to be baptized and said to him, ‘Teacher, what shall we do?’ 13 And he said to them, ‘Collect no more than you are authorized to do.’ 14 Soldiers also asked him, ‘And we, what shall we do?’ And he said to them, ‘Do not extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusation, and be content with your wages’.”

Here, the soldiers ask John the Baptist what they should do and they are not told to retire from the military nor are they told to stop using violence. They are told simply to stop robbing people.

Now, this argument is not actually as strong as it may seem. First, it’s not altogether clear that John the Baptist had the same non-violent ethic that Jesus did. If John came from the Jewish sect of the Essenes (which isn’t clear), then he certainly would have been cool with violence, and John’s misunderstanding of Jesus’ mission in Matthew 11 may support John’s expectation of a more violent (or at least political) messianic mission. Second, the whole flow of Luke in 3:10-14 (the whole gospel, really) is focused on radical economics. All three groups of people (the crowds, tax collectors, and soldiers) are all given exhortations that have to do with the use of money. Obviously, John (and Luke) is after a particular theme here, but this doesn’t mean that money is all he cares about—the soldiers also would have worshipped pagan gods, yet John doesn’t address this. Does this mean he’d be fine with them maintaining a bit of paganism?

All that to say, I don’t think that the “soldier argument” really proves that Jesus and John would have supported the war in Iraq or would have dropped the nuk on Hiroshima.

Second, Romans 13 says that God works through governments to violently punish evil (cf. “the sword;” 13:4). So, according to Just War theorist Arthur Holmes:

“If force is divinely entrusted to governments and if the Christian should support and participate in just government in its rightful functions, then why not participate in legitimate governmental uses of force” (Holmes, “Just War Theory,” 68-69)

Now, we’ve addressed this a bit in the 3rd blog. When Paul’s writes Romans 13, he’s talking about the church’s posture toward the government. There’s nothing in the text that assumes that members of the church would actually be serving within the government. Now, contrary to some of the previous comments, I’m not saying that Paul therefore says they can’t. All I’m saying is that Paul doesn’t have this in mind in Romans 13. Holmes’s logic can only be deduced implicitly.

However, there is evidence that there were some who worked for Rome and became believers, and the text doesn’t say that they quit their jobs. The Roman centurion (Matt 8), Corinth’s city treasurer Erastus (Rom 16:23), the Philippian jailer (Acts 16:25-34), Dionysius the Areopagite (Acts 17:34), and Nero’s household who passed on their greetings to the Philippian church (Phil 4:22) all became believers and also held some sort of governmental position. Some would be required to use or enact violence (the jailer), while others probably wouldn’t (Erastus). Now, we’re not told much about their ongoing post-converted life—maybe they remained within the government, or maybe all the violence, corruption, and paganism violated their conscience to the point of forcing them to withdraw from their vocation. The text simply does not say.

So I would say that the New Testament does open the door just a crack to the possibility of a believer serving in a governmental position, including the police force and courts of law. Nick Megoran, in his great book The War on Terror, wrestles with this issue and concludes:

“[total pacifists] must either condemn the police and courts, leading to anarchy, or explain why they allow the police, but not soldiers, to use force. It is not clear that pacifists have a robust answer to this objection, and it is rarely given sufficient consideration in their writings” (Megoran, The War on Terror, 166).

And FYI, Megoran is an ardent pacifist! There’s nothing in the next that would strictly forbid Christians participating in such positions. Coupled with the view that Christians should penetrate all areas of vocation and culture—wall street, Hollywood, politics, and yes, even law firms—the New Testament cannot be taken to condemn all vocations that work for the government. But in the same way that a Christian cameraman in Hollywood will more than likely encounter some dicey situations (filming a racy nude scene for 23 different takes), so also a Christian serving in the government will be faced with situations where it’ll be tough to strictly adhere to all of Christ’s ethic, including Jesus’ stance on violence.

When all is said and done, whether you are a cameraman working on the set of 300, or cop strolling the streets of Skid Row, Jesus’ non-retaliatory love of one’s enemy, along with his strident critique of adulterous lust, cannot be sacrificed on the alter of one’s vocation. We are Christ-followers first, and secondarily everything else.

I’m not sure how many have followed the interaction between Adam F(inlay) and I from the first blog, but I thought it would be good to follow up with some of his questions here. So this blog is a bit of an aside; hence the goofy 5.5 title. First, let me just say that Adam is a good friend of mine and one of the sharpest guys I know. He wrestles with the text like no other and is well versed in first century Judaism. As always, he’s raised some very good questions regarding my reading of Matthew 5 and the pacifistic position as a whole. In short, Adam says that Jesus was a Torah abiding Jew who never contradicted (the law of) Moses in his teaching, as Matthew 5:17-19 makes clear. Therefore, since the law of Moses has allowances for violence, Jesus must have as well. He wouldn’t and didn’t teach against Moses.

(Adam, if this is off in any way, please let me know!)

So here’s my response. I’ll try to be concise at the risk of setting out underdeveloped arguments.

First, I don’t think we should see such total continuity between Jesus and Moses, or between Jesus’ teaching and Moses’ teaching, or between the Old Covenant and New Covenant. The New Covenant doesn’t just renew the old, but takes God’s relationship with his people to a new level. Such discontinuity between the Old Covenant and the New can already be found in Jeremiah 31:31-34, where the New is “not like” the Old (not that it’s completely different, but that there will be some discontinuity). Ezekiel 16:61-63 hints at this as well, and Galatians 3, 2 Corinthians 3, and many other statements in Paul (Rom 6; 10:4; and others) suggest that there is discontinuity between the Old Covenant and the New. In short, the biblical drama unfolds as a dynamic, not a static, story; the law of Moses does not reveal God’s ideal for all people of all times under all covenants. The Mosaic law was culturally, geographically, and ethnically bound. It was God’s law for the people of Israel, in the land of Israel, while living in a particular period of time. The very nature of the shift—or progression—from a uni-ethnic, geographically bound covenant people into a multi-national, non-geographically bound covenant people, demands that the law in all its literalness cannot be sustained.

Second, there are many other things that “progress” as the biblical story unfolds. In the OT (Old Testament), God dwells behind walls in a tabernacle/temple; in the NT (New Testament), He dwells in his church without walls. In the OT, animal sacrifices expiated sin; in the NT, Jesus takes away our sins once and for all. In the OT, all ethical behavior was tethered to the land of Israel; in the NT, ethics are detached from the land promise. In the OT, holiness and purity is conceived in spatial and material terms (the alter can be defiled, along with the lamp stand, and they need to be cleansed; etc.); in the NT, the concept of holiness and purity is not the same.

Third, and related to the previous point, many ethical commands of the OT law are explicitly reversed or “brought to their intended goal” (as I like to put it) in the NT. In the OT, divorce is clearly allowed (Deut 24:1ff), while in the NT it’s not (in most cases) and Jesus “takes” Deut 24 “to its intended goal” in Matt 5:31 to prove his point. Retaliation is allowed in the court system of the OT, but for the people of God in the NT it’s strictly forbidden (e.g., Matt 5:38). (Adam had some great thoughts on this in the first blog; I hope my wording here reflects his astute correction.) Circumcision and all the dietary laws were mandated in the OT—even for Gentiles who became covenant members—but not so in the NT. (There’s a debate about whether or not Jewish believers in Jesus are still commanded to keep such laws, but it’s clearly reversed in the case of Gentiles.)

Now, fourth, what about Matthew 5:17-20? Here’s the text:

17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18 For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. 19 Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

Look up any major commentary on Matthew and you’ll find a 5-10 page discussion on this passage, which usually summarizes anywhere from 5-10 different views on what Jesus means here. All that to say, the obvious meaning of what Jesus says here is not all that obvious. Several questions are immediately apparent: What does Jesus mean by “fulfill?” What does he mean by “all is accomplished?” What is the “least of these commandments”—specifically, which ones are the “least” and which “commandments” is he thinking of? (Several interpreters suggest that “these commandments” point forward to Jesus’ own “law” in 5:21-48.) And what in the world does Jesus mean by having a righteousness that surpasses “the scribes and Pharisees,” which constitutes your entrance card into the kingdom? Needless to say, we really have to roll up our sleeves, cancel our appointments, and set aside a good deal of time to work through these issues before we can confidently quote Matthew 5 in favor of any view of Jesus and the law.

So what does the passage mean? Here’s a very truncated summary of my view. First, “fulfill” is not the same as “obedience,” since “the word plhrouvn, ‘to fulfill,’ is never used in Matthew to describe obedience to the law” (Hagner, Matthew, 105). I agree with Don Hagner who says that the word “fulfill” does not refer to

“establishing the law as is, nor of supplementing it, but in the sense of bringing it to its intended meaning in connection with the messianic fulfillment (together with plhrouvn, note ‘he law and the prophets’) brought by Jesus…In Matthew’s view, the teaching of Jesus by definition amounts to the true meaning of the Torah and is hence paradoxically an affirmation of Jesus’ loyalty to the OT” (Hagner, Matthew, 107).

So Jesus didn’t seek to destroy the law, but to bring the law to its intended goal. All that to say, I don’t think the passage presents the law as a static constitution for God’s people of all time, being reiterated and reaffirmed by Jesus; rather, Jesus “penetrate(s)…the divinely intended meaning of the law.”

So what does Jesus mean by “the least of these commandments” (v. 19)? I actually don’t think it refers to Jesus’ own words in vv. 21 and following, although this would support my view. The context necessitates that Jesus is talking about the law of Moses, which makes perfect sense, because Jesus said he’s not trying to “abolish” the law but to “fulfill it.” Again, I think Hagner’s interpretation is as good as any:

“What is being emphasized in this way are not the minutiae of the law that tended to captivate the Pharisees but simply a full faithfulness to the meaning of the law as it is expounded by Jesus. Thus, the phrase “the least of these commandments” refers to the final and full meaning of the law, but taken up and interpreted by Jesus, as for example in the material that begins in v 21” (Hagner, Matthew, 108).

All in all, I don’t think that Jesus was simply reinstituting the law of Moses in all its literalness for the New Testament people of God. (Had any bacon lately?) He clearly “fulfilled” several commandments in the law, including divorce (v. 31) and retaliation (v. 38), and his treatment of unclean women, lepers, and prostitutes, seems to go against a strict interpretation of Moses—or at least, it takes Moses to a new level. Again, I don’t think this means that Jesus was abolishing the law, but bringing it to its intended goal—the love of God and love of neighbor among the worldwide community of God’s New Covenant people. After all, Sinai is not the final goal; Eden is.

So unless Jesus explicitly reiterated the OT’s allowance, and command of, violence—like stoning kids who curse their parents or those who violate the Sabbath (Exod 21:17; 35:2)—I don’t think we can assume that Jesus endorsed violence simply because Moses did. We would need to find Jesus explicitly endorsing some measure of violence among God’s people. But he doesn’t.

Okay ya’ll, this is the post many of you who have been following the discussion have been waiting for. In the previous 4 posts, I’ve argued that a form of pacifism known as “non-resistance,” which says that Christians should not kill people, but they can join the military as long as they serve as non-combatants (psychologist, medical doctor, etc.). The premise behind this view is that Jesus advocated for non-violence in his life and teaching, and this was repeated by the latter New Testament writers whenever they discuss the relationship between Christians and violence (Rom 12; 1 Pet 2). But the question often comes up—and it’s come up many times in your comments thus far: What about the person who breaks into your home and tries to kill your family? You’re telling me that I just sit back and watch my family die? In other words, are there any allowances for violence by Christians as individuals?

We’ll get to that in a second, but first, please consider again the more fundamental questions: does the New Testament ever portray violence by the hands of the church in a positive light? How did Jesus say we should respond when we are mistreated? How should we treat our enemies? How does God deal with injustice and evil in the New Testament? You say, “I know, I know, you’ve already talked about that; you’re a pacifist and I’m not, and I want to see what you’re going to do when someone breaks into your home and…”

But wait.

Before we deal with hypothetical situations outside the text, we need to make sure we have a firm grasp on what the text is actually saying. Before we move on to contemporary application, we need to have a solid understanding of how God views violence through the lens of the cross of Christ. Situations regarding uncle Bob who served in Nam and was a good man who fought for our freedom must be considered after the words of the King have been considered, meditated on, and digested. If you haven’t been stunned by the radicalness of Jesus’ ethic in Matthew 5, and by Paul’s counterintuitive demands of Romans 12, and the shameful road we are to follow according to 1 Peter 2, and if you haven’t begged God for waterfalls of grace to be able to love your local rapist who is also your enemy and desperately needs Jesus just as much as you do, if you haven’t been bewildered by the outrageousness of turning the other cheek and never retaliating evil for evil—against all human logic, against all cultural norms, against our innate sense of justice—then I would dare to suggest that you have not meditated on the scandal of the cross long enough. Calvary and the Garden Tomb are the hermeneutical lenses through which followers of the slaughtered Lamb must view violence.

So before we move to hypothetical situations, I would urge you to once again consider what Jesus and the New Testament say about violence. (I’m still quite shocked when Bible believing Christians immediately dismiss Pacifism as weird and unbiblical, using only the “killer at the door” argument devoid of any scriptural backing.) As I’ve said before, the inspired Word never views the church’s relationship to violence in a positive light and oftentimes paints it in a very negative light. I’ve yet to see a convincing scriptural argument otherwise.

So what do I do when a potential killer pulls a gun on my family?

I shoot the thug, and here’s why.

Here we have a case where we are faced with two different decisions, yet both are evil. First, if I kill the killer, this is evil in light of everything I said. By killing him, I’m not loving him, I’m using preemptive violence, I’m taking the life of another man, possibly expediting his trip to hell—where we all would go, but for the grace of God. And yet, if I let him kill my family, I’m not loving my wife and kids or caring for my household. So, if I have to choose between the lesser of these two evils, I would choose the route where killing someone will actually defend and preserve the life of my family. And by doing so, I’m exposing the particular ethical framework known as “Graded Absolutism.”

Most people don’t consider it, but there are different ethical frameworks that all people operate under. Graded Absolutism (which is quite different from “Situation Ethics”) states that there are lower laws and higher laws. When a lower law conflicts with a higher law, then the Christian has a moral obligation to obey the higher law while breaking the lower law. Lying, for instance, is immoral. And yet saving a life is a higher law. And so the answer to the question: “Is it ever right to lie in order to save a life,” Graded Absolutism would say “yes,” because saving a life is a higher law than lying (Cf. loads of stories about saving Jews during the Holocaust.)

There’s quite a bit of biblical support for the idea of higher and lower laws. Jesus talks about the “weightier matters of the law” (Matt 23:23) and the “least” and “greatest” commandment (Matt 5:19; 22:36). He also said that Judas had committed the “greater sin” (Jon 19:11) and that causing someone to stumble is exceptionally bad (Matt 18). And of course, there’s the unpardonable sin (Matt 12), and Paul talks about love as the greatest virtue (1 Cor 13:13). In the Old Testament, there are intentional sins and unintentional sins, and then there’s the one who “sins with a high hand” (Numb 15:30). Point being: not all violations are considered equal. So when faced with a dilemma where two evils are the only options (killing, or letting someone kill), then killing the killer to save innocent life is the higher law.

And we see this in the Bible on several occasions. The midwives of Exodus 1 lied to Pharaoh in order to preserve life and are praised by God (see Exod 1:17 and then 1:19). So also is Rahab, who lied to the authorities of Jericho when she hid the two spies (Josh 2). The same logic is put on bold display in Acts 5:29, where Peter is commanded to stop preaching the gospel and he responds: “It’s better to obey God than man.” He deliberately went against his authorities, to whom Christians are obligated to submit (the lower law), by obeying God (the higher law). Rebelling against the state is wrong, but in some cases it may be the lesser of two evils. Lying is wrong, but in some cases it’s the lesser of two evils. Killing is wrong, but in some cases it may be the lesser of two evils.

Let me wrap things up with an important clarification: Pacifists do not advocate for letting injustice run rampant. Nothing could be further from the truth, and yet it’s often assumed to be inherent to the view. Pacifists don’t shy away from confronting injustice; rather, they argue for a different means of confronting it. The world says confront evil with evil—you bomb me and I’ll bomb you—but Jesus says that non-violent love is the means through which the church should extend the kingdom of Christ. All forms of injustice and wickedness are ultimately rooted in human rebellion against the Creator, and no amount of C-4 can fix that. Only the gospel can.

Comparing Malcolm X and Martin Luther King is a case in point. Interestingly, X was a Muslim who had an “eye for an eye” mentality and yet his movement (the Nation of Islam) was only minimally effective in accomplishing justice. King, however, was adamant that the injustice of racism must be confronted through non-violent means. Similar causes, but very different means. And while there were other factors involved, of course, sociologists often credit King’s success to his counter intuitive means of fighting injustice through non-violent means, even when every fabric of his body wanted to strike back with a sword instead of plowshare.

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.