I am in favor of Christians treating illegal immigrants humanely, hospitably, and fairly (and advocating for the same) as a witness to the future universal Kingdom, imperfectly present now in the Church, where the gates will never be shut at the end of the day (Rev. 21:25)
I am not in favor of the breaking of reasonable, just civil laws without extreme extenuating circumstances.
I am in favor of Christians voluntarily giving up their right to bear arms (and advocating for the same) as a witness to the future universal Kingdom, imperfectly present now in the Church, where swords will be beaten into plowshares (Is. 2:4)
I am not in favor of a blanket condemnation on all forms of self-defense or any penalty (ecclesiastical or civil) toward those that choose not to voluntarily give up their right to self-defense.
When it comes to the non-violent message of Jesus, many people become troubled because of the what if scenarios.
Both of these are false assumptions. Pacifism comes from “to pacify” or make peace. It is not standing passively. We have many choices in these situations like prayer, verbal witness and appeal, surprise, fleeing, hiding, non-lethal restraint, placing ourselves in front of an attacker to shield other victims, etc. Christians should always be willing to die for another person while seeking the Holy Spirit’s guidance for a creative “third way.”
You’ll notice I listed non-lethal physical restraint there…pacifism includes a spectrum of physical interference that is not necessarily black-and-white. The cutoff points are retaliating blows (per Jesus’ instruction in Matthew 5:39) and by extension intentionally lethal force.
How could a non-violent Jesus ask his disciples to buy swords, as he apparently does in Luke 22:36-39?
And he said to them, “When I sent you out with no moneybag or knapsack or sandals, did you lack anything?” They said, “Nothing.” 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. 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.” And they said, “Look, Lord, here are two swords.” And he said to them, “It is enough.” (Luke 22:35-38, ESV)It’s important to note that there were at least 11 disciples hanging out and only two swords–hardly enough for a decent self defense of the group. Yet Jesus says in that passage, “it is enough!” The question is, why swords, and why only two?
Although Judas had betrayed his whereabouts, they still could have needed some excuse to make the arrest. An assembly of radical Jews with a couple weapons could have done that, and Jesus had clearly been stirring things up for some time.
A basic principle of biblical interpretation is that we use the clear passages to shed light on the less clear passages. “Turn the other cheek” (Matt. 5:39) and “love your enemies” (Matt 5:44) are explicit and easily understood, so they must enter the discussion as we consider the meaning of this passage.
Given the general thrust of Jesus’ clear teaching and example, it seems most likely that Jesus was either deliberately provoking the authorities in order to fulfill prophecy and force a confrontation, or speaking metaphorically.
Up next: Addressing the myth of ineffective pacifism.
A common objection to Christian non-violence is often articulated as follows:
A unified view of Scripture demands we accept justified violence based on the Old Testament. It takes unnecessarily complex hermeneutics to wiggle out of the fact that God both commands war (the invasion of Canaan) and instituted laws for self defense and capital punishment in the Mosaic Law.
A close look reveals this isn’t true.
On the national front, we have in the Old Testament a defined nation-state (Israel) that is being directly used by God to punish surrounding people groups and nations. This is holy war (commanded by God) and is restricted to Israel. All other nations that go to war are basically condemned, even as God says he will use them for his purposes to accomplish justice and teach other nations. In the NT, however, Jesus reveals to us through the Apostle Paul that God’s chosen people is no longer a single nation-state, but rather a gathering people across national/ethnic boundaries whose fight is not against flesh and blood (cf. Eph. 6:12; Gal. 3:38). The battle lines and purposes have been redrawn.
This is a fairly straightforward understanding of Old Covenant/New Covenant. There is continuity (a chosen people) but a tweak toward perfection (no longer defined by human politics, ruled not by humans but by Jesus at the head via the Holy Spirit, etc). The church stands as a light to the nations by no longer waging holy war, rather living as ministers of the reconciliation (cf 2 Cor 5:18) that Jesus brought between God and man, peaceful ambassadors for Christ if you will.
On the individual level, we see Jesus recasting the OT law in the Sermon on the Mount (cf Matt. 5:38-42). “You have heard it said…but I say to you…” is the refrain. His teaching on retaliation is not confined only to being persecuted for being his follower–it is a perfection of a concept (“an eye for an eye”) that is a “rule of life.” The examples that Jesus gives of getting slapped, giving up one’s tunic, and going the extra mile are likewise not things that happen as a result of special persecution, but were daily events for Jews and others living in Roman-occupied land. Given the relation of this to the Mosaic Law, his previous statements on the blessedness of peacemakers, and his subsequent comments on loving your enemies (which for 1st century Jews meant real, dangerous enemies, not just those that weren’t nice to them), it’s tough to see these statements as anything but broadly applicable.
This isn’t writing off the Old Testament, it’s seeing the Old Covenant as fulfilled in Christ, and Christ as a clearer revelation of God’s will and character.
Next up: Why non-violent Jesus asked his disciples to buy swords in Luke 22:36.
This week’s Advent focus is peace, so I thought it would be appropriate to write about something that’s been developing in my theology for some time: the implications of Jesus as the Prince of Peace (cf. Isaiah 9:6).
Clearly, Christ came to make peace between God and man. As we follow Christ, we are called to be peacemakers ourselves by the power of the Spirit (cf. Matt 5:9; 2 Cor 5:18-19).
Looking at the plain words of Jesus in their historical context–along with the rest of New Testament–convinces me that a non-violent ethic is explicitly and consistently affirmed throughout the Scriptures. Non-violence, also called pacifism, is an essential part of living out the implications of the Gospel.
Jesus explicitly commands an ethic committed to non-retaliation, even when one is unjustly attacked. Remember that persecution isn’t just political or social marginalization; it is often marked by violent oppression.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 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.” (Matthew 5:38-39, ESV)
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 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.” (Matthew 5:43-45, ESV)
Then they came up and laid hands on Jesus and seized him. And behold, one of those who were with Jesus stretched out his hand and drew his sword and struck the servant of the high priest and cut off his ear. Then Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword. (Matthew 26:50-52, ESV)
Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.” (John 18:36, ESV)
Paul affirms and clarifies the teaching of Jesus on this point, calling us to radical, self-giving love even for our enemies:
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight. Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:14-21, ESV)
This is key for Christians: we are to imitate Christ.
Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. (Ephesians 5:1-2, ESV)
Christ loved us and died for us–his enemies–and never once responded violently to those that abused him.
For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. (1 Peter 2:21-23, ESV)
Are the Scriptures clear on this front? Given that the witness of the early church is non-violent, why do many Christians now condone violence? Is there a solid biblical case for or against violence as a God-blessed option for the Church? For individuals? Is the non-violent idea difficult for me to accept? If so, is it because it is not clear in the Scriptures, or because it does not seem like it would be effective according to my own standards?
An ethic of non-violence is actually explicit in the teachings of Jesus and is affirmed in the rest of the New Testament. It is a distinctive mark the of the New Covenant; God’s people are to be known as peacemakers. Jesus is the ultimate revelation of God, and his is a kingdom of peace.
For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. (Colossians 1:19-20, ESV)
Make sure to stay tuned for the rest of this series, where I respond to the objections that made me seriously doubt whether or not Jesus really taught non-violence.