Archives For War

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.

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.

In this post, we’ll dig into the issue that’s been lingering in the back of many of your minds, I’m sure, and one which has come up here and there in the comments thus far: What about the Old Testament? Surely the Old Testament’s clear allowance, and in many cases command, of violence would suggest that Christians are also allowed to use violence. After all, we don’t want to say that the God of the Old Testament is different from the God of the New, right?

Of course not. But the issue of the Old Testament is much more complex than that. Here’s a few things to consider.

First, the nation of Israel was a theocracy, and this relates to their command to wage wars, act violently, etc. In other words, Israel was a nation of God’s people under God’s law with God as their president, so to speak. If you wanted to “get saved” and join God’s covenant, you had to pack your bags and move to Israel (in most cases). Church and state were one. Since wars and violence are part of the fabric of a broken society, Israel as a nation would be partakers in this societal structure, but it was never the ideal (as we’ll show in our third point).

But today, God’s people are not a theocracy; we are a global community scattered among the nations. The myth that America is, or ever was, a Christian nation has been so thoroughly disproved that I won’t even get into it. Needless to say, we as the church give our allegiance to Jesus and our citizenship is in heaven—whether you’re reading this blog in Andorra, Angola, or even in America. In short, while the nation of Israel fought wars and acted with violence in the Old Testament, this does not in itself carry over as part of the mission of the church. The church is never commanded or even allowed (explicitly) to act violently, but to “love our enemies,” “turn the other cheek,” “never repay evil for evil,” “overcome evil with good,” and to “never avenge yourself” (Matt 5 and Rom 12). So the difference between Israel as a theocracy and the church as a dispersed group among many nations necessitates that we view national warfare differently.

Second, most of the wars in the Old Testament were explicitly connected to the land promise. The conquest of Canaan (Josh 6-12), wars against the Philistines (1 Sam 4), and the slaughter of the Amalekites (1 Sam 15:1-3) were all tethered to the ongoing struggle to settle in, and maintain control over, the land of Israel. The point being: the land promise was unique to Israel’s relationship to God under the Old Covenant and is not carried over into the Church’s mission; hence, one of the many reason why violence and warfare has no place in the mission of the church. Our covenant relationship with Israel’s God is not wedded to a strip of real estate in the middle east.

Third, and most importantly, the Old Testament (the entire Bible, really) is a dynamic unfolding story that progresses, and the progression culminates in Jesus—the goal of the Law and the Prophets (Luke 24:44; Rom 10:4; cf. Matt 5:17-19). Now, throughout Israel’s history, there were times when God commanded violence. The conquest of the Canaanites and the command to annihilate the Amalekites (1 Sam 15) immediately come to mind. So war and violence is part and parcel with Israel’s existence. However, war and violence are never really viewed as the ultimate goal. Peace is. The whole direction of the Old Testament, especially seen in the prophets (Isaiah 2:4; 11:1-6; Mic 4:2), is that there will come a time when God would bring healing, restoration, and the cessation of violence by means of his suffering Servant. As Isaiah and Micah both creatively proclaim: “they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore” (Mic 4:3; cf. Isa 2:4). Instruments of war will be turned into tools for agriculturally productivity; as God’s redemptive purposes unfold, we move from war to peace. This is such a consistent theme in the prophets that I hardly feel the need to belabor the point: God’s promised messianic kingdom will inaugurate a time of peace, healing, restoration, and the cessation of war. As Myron Augsburger writes:

“While the Bible is one unit, and one great covenant of grace, it is also an unfolding revelation in which God is continually saying more and more about himself. All through the Old Testament, God had something more to say about himself until he said it better in Jesus Christ. This means that the incarnation is final, the full disclosure of God” (Augsburger, “Christian Pacifism,” 61-62).

Violence was allowed and even commanded in the Old Testament, as was polygamy, divorce, slavery, stoning of children, and killing people for gathering sticks on the Sabbath. But this was not the goal of redemptive history; rather, it was part of God’s dynamic (not static) story of salvation, which climaxes in Jesus who bore a plowshare and not a sword. Jesus inaugurated that promised period of peace and healing, and therefore violence is allowed in the Old Testament but not in the New.

One more passage needs to be dealt with and that’s Genesis 9:5-6:

“5 And for your lifeblood I will require a reckoning: from every beast I will require it and from man. From his fellow man I will require a reckoning for the life of man. 6 “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.”

Here we have a pre-Old Covenant command where a death-penalty-like law is instituted. If you kill, then you shall be killed. The punishment, in other words, should fit the crime, and the Old Covenant Law is replete with similar “eye for eye, tooth for tooth” commands (Exod 21:24; Lev 24:19-22). In its own context, I would say that Gen 9:6 supports capital punishment: if somebody kills another person, he too should be killed. The question, however, is: Is this ideal? (It certainly moves away from the Edenic way of life.) Does this still apply for Christians today? Should we seek to retaliate life for life?

I say yes and no, but mostly no. Jesus clearly overturned the law of retaliation in Matt 5:38, when he said: “you have heard that it was said, ‘and eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth,’ but I say to you do not resist the one who is evil.” Don’t retaliate, Jesus says, and Paul says the same thing in Romans 12. So I think that we must read Gen 9 through the lens of the cross and in light of Jesus’ (and Paul’s) own ethical teaching, which prohibits retaliation.

So where does my “yes” come in? As most of you know, Rom 13:4 does say that God uses the government to “bear the sword” to punish evildoers, and (as Colby pointed out yesterday) this is one of God’s ways of avenging evil. (Interestingly, however, as my good friend Andrew Rillera has pointed out, the cross and not the dagger-like “sword” referred to in Rom 13 was Rome’s means of capital punishment.) But God’s vengeance of evil through the government is instead of the church’s own vengeance of evil (note the connection between Rom 12:17-19 and 13:4). Vengeance by Christians is everywhere prohibited and nowhere allowed in the New Testament. That’s God’s business, not ours.

Okay, I know that was a brief treatment of a very difficult issue. There’s going to be a lot of “what abouts” and “ya buts” that I couldn’t cover, and I’ll do my best to wrestle with your comments and concerns. But I’m really eager to get to the issue that most people race to whenever pacifism is discussed: what about the person breaking into your home to kill your family? Do pacifists believe that there’s never a place to use violence on an individual level? Stay tuned…

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!