Christian Nonviolence – Scriptural Considerations

An argument for the argument

Do not deceive yourselves.  If you think you are wise in this age, you should become fools so that you may become wise.  The wisdom of this world is foolishness with God.
– 1 Corinthians 3:18-19a

Before even beginning a discussion about nonviolence we have to come to a place of proper humility before the scriptures.  Much discussion about what the Bible teaches on the subject is skewed before it begins because nonviolence offends our common-sense, as well as our outrage at injustice, as well as our sense of self-reliance.  For some of us, no argument or authoritative command will ever be strong enough to overcome these obstacles.

Yet, if we define ourselves as followers of Christ, we have to give primacy of place to what the scriptures teach, however much they offend our own culturally derived sensibilities.  What is more, if we truly believe that God alone is holy and human nature in some sense fallen from that standard, then we would have to expect that at some points, what God expects of us goes beyond or against our own standards of justice.  Otherwise, one begins to suspect that a god who tells us to do exactly what we would do anyway is actually a fictional god we’ve made in our own image.

Still, in cases where the teaching of scripture goes against our strong belief, the burden of proof has to be on the aggressive claim.  I understand that, and I hope to make a persuasive case that the New Testament does in fact expect the community of Christ’s followers to be dramatically and wholly committed to the way of peace.

What I am arguing for

I have often said that Christians are called to nonviolence not because we believe nonviolence is a strategy to rid the world of war – though we certainly want to rid the world of war.  Rather, as faithful followers of Christ in a world at war, we cannot imagine being anything other than nonviolent.  Of course we want to make war less likely.  But nonviolence is a sign of hope that there is an alternative to war.  And that alternative is called church.
– Stanley Hauerwas, in Living Gently in a Violent World: The Prophetic Witness of Weakness

Likewise, most discussions about nonviolence in the Christian scriptures become sidetracked in a dozen different directions.  Because of the deeply rooted resistance noted before, most people immediately object to something they understand as pacifism, but which the scriptures either do not address, or agrees with them on.  Then, having objected to something, they feel justified in disregarding future claims made in the name of Christian nonviolence.

So rather than dealing with these side discussions one at a time, I thought I would lay out my position in summary, and then get on to defending it.  While I’m at it, I will go ahead and throw out a handful of claims I’m not making.

In sum, I believe that the church has a unique task in the world.  The task of the church is to witness to the lordship of Christ; that is, to live as a people who already know that Jesus is lord.  This means that the church will live differently than everyone else.  There are many, many components to this way of life, but my claim is that one component is a refusal to use violence.

That is all that I am claiming, that one component that scripture expects of someone who is following Christ is the refusal to use violence.

  • I am not claiming that violence is inherently wrong.  It is simply not for the church.
  • I am not claiming that your father/brother/son who fought in X war is a bad person.  There is still a difference between cowardly acts of violence and heroic acts of violence.
  • I’m not claiming that the United States should disband its military and police forces.  As long as there are criminals in society, and terrorists in the world, there will be people of conscience who will take up arms to oppose them.
  • I’m not claiming that Christians should be so concerned with avoiding violence they should simply “do nothing.”  The church is still called to suffer with those who suffer, to speak out for those without a voice, to serve the poor in concrete ways, and to interpose itself between attackers and victims.  And I more or less agree with Gandhi when he said that it’s better to be violent than to be a coward.
  • I’m not claiming that Christians who believe violence and military service are justified are “not true Christians.”  There are many things we can disagree about without excommunicating one another.  I’m sure I’ve got many things wrong.  This just happens to be one I’ve got right (probably).

Again, this is my claim: the New Testament expects the discipleship community to exhibit a total commitment to nonviolence, as an aspect of its faithful witness to the Kingdom of God, found in the lordship of Jesus.

What about the Old Testament?

Then David summoned his son Solomon and instructed him to build a house for the Lord God of Israel. “My son, it was in my heart to build a house for the name of the Lord my God, but the word of the Lord came to me: ‘You have shed much blood and waged great wars. You are not to build a house for my name because you have shed so much blood on the ground before me.
– 2 Chronicles 22:7-8

It is rightly observed that I make my case entirely from the New Testament scriptures.  This may seem highly selective on my part, as the Old Testament seems to contain all of the material that would oppose my position, including God’s commandments condoning wars (even genocides), the death penalty (even human sacrifice), etc.  Without going into detail on the Old Testament scriptures, let me make four general statements about the relevance of these passages to the call for Christian nonviolence.

  1. Christians who support violence often appeal to the wars of the Old Testament as justification that God allows his people to go to war.  This is problematic in two regards.  First, the church is called to imitate Christ, not Israel, and (as I will show) the teaching of the New Testament is consistently against Christians engaging in violence.  But perhaps more problematic is that Israel’s wars were not just wars, they were holy wars – crusades.  They fought because their god called them to it.  And they fought without restraint, killing noncombatants as a matter of course, including women and children.  If we want to call on the Old Testament to justify Christian violence, it ends up justifying far too much.
  2. The call for Christian nonviolence is not about right and wrong or universal moral principles.  There is no fundamental disagreement in God asking one group of people to live a certain way, and another group to live another way, when it is all to fulfill the same long-term purposes.
  3. While the Old Testament contains much violence, it also contains a significant concern for peace.  Its civil laws are ostensibly structured to limit the violence individuals are entitled to, which Jesus then further limits, to none.  Many understand the concept of “eye for an eye” as a tacit approval of violence, when in fact it restricts violence to only as much as you were injured initially.  Jesus simply takes the restriction further, and says, “When injured, do not seek reprisal at all.”  What is more, it is the Old Testament that tells us that when the Messiah inaugurates his reign, “They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.”  Christians believe that Jesus was the Messiah, and nonviolent Christians further believe that the church is called to live as though his reign is already inaugurated; or rather, that his reign is already inaugurated in the life of the church.
  4. The Old Testament ethical code remains relevant for nonviolent Christians, even though it is not directly applicable to them.  It still remains a source from which we can draw to call those who insist on using violence to do so in just ways.

In summary, I have no problem admitting that the whole Bible does not advocate nonviolence.  But that in no way mitigates the call that the New Testament places on Christians to live nonviolently in the world.

The context of the gospel proclamation

“The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!”
– Mark 1:15

The situation in which Jesus lived as well as the situation in which the New Testament literature was produced is key to understanding the full scope of Jesus’ teachings.  It is important to understand that in the centuries before the New Testament, Israel had been militarily dominated and occupied by a continuous chain of imperial regimes.  At the time Jesus lived, Rome was the occupying force.

There was a small but significant segment of the population that violently resisted Rome’s rule.  The term ‘zealot’ refers collectively to the resistance, whom Rome generally dealt with as petty criminals rather than serious enemy forces.  In fact, the two ‘thieves’ executed alongside Jesus were lestai, members of some anti-Roman resistance force.  Jesus’ own band of disciples seems to have included members of similar movements, and one of his chosen twelve disciples was called Simon the Zealot (apparently to distinguish him from Simon Peter).

The Pharisees were a group of conservative religious leaders who believed that if Israel could repent of her sins and live holy enough, that Yahweh would honor his covenant with Israel, and return the land to her possession.  As such, the Pharisees tacitly approved of armed resistance (Josephus records several riotous incidents instigated by the Pharisees), seemingly waiting for the moment when Yahweh would act decisively in history to overthrow Roman oppression.

It was into this context that Jesus emerged.  What this means is that when Jesus talked about “enemies,” he had in mind something very political and military, something very concrete.  More specifically, when Jesus talked about someone forcing you to march a mile, that wasn’t a figure of speech.  One of the perks of being in the Roman military was that you could force any subjugated person, such as a Jew, to carry your heavy field pack for up to one mile.  There were punishments for forcing someone beyond a mile.

The violent messiah

From within this context, the expectation was that the Messiah would come as a warrior-king, in the tradition of King David, to overthrow the Romans and establish Israel’s political independence again.  Jesus was certainly aware of this expectation, and seems to have made a very intentional decision to follow a different route.  In the gospel of Luke, Jesus begins his public ministry by teaching in a local synagogue (a practice often open to itinerant lay preachers, as it were).  It’s unclear whether he chose the passage, or whether the synagogues were already following a lectionary by this point, but Jesus read from Isaiah:

The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to release the oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

But Jesus angered the gathered crowd by omitting what history shows us was their favorite part of the passage, which goes on to say, “to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort those who mourn.”  Luke records that they were so angered by this omission, and perhaps his self-designation as a prophet, that they attempted to put him to death.

The temptation to enthrone himself as a conquering messiah by force, rather than a suffering messiah, is always just off-camera throughout the gospels.

The temptations in the desert all have strong political overtones.  Bread is what rulers promise their supporters – and you have to realize how much supply lines affected military endeavors in this era.  A leader who could make bread from the rocks of the ground would have an unstoppable force around him.

This connection is made explicit in John 6, after Jesus fed the 5000 and they intended to “make him king by force.”  This doesn’t mean they intend to force him to wear a crown against his will, but they intend to overthrow the false king placed by the Romans, Herod, believing Yahweh will fight on their behalf in the person of the Messiah.

Likewise, the temptation to make a public display of his God-nature by jumping from the Temple mount in the center of Jerusalem would set off a firespark of revolutionary fervor.

The overtones become explicit in the final temptation, when Satan offers Jesus “all the kingdoms of the world” if he will bow down and worship him.  This was the eventual goal of Jesus, to be lord over all the earth, but here was a way offered to attain that without suffering.  In the context of his life, the way to do that was to embrace the idea of a conquering messiah.

This connection also is made explicit, when Jesus predicts his suffering, and Peter says that he would never let Jesus suffer or die, he would fight for his king.  Jesus responds, “Get behind me, Satan.”  The suggestion Peter made was the same one the enemy made in the desert: there is a way to be a messiah without suffering – you simply have to make it happen.

Jesus refers to this possibility himself at the time of his arrest and trial.  Peter was true to his word (for a moment, at least), and before Jesus was arrested, attacked the high priest’s slave, cutting off his ear.  Jesus healed the high priest’s slave, and again rebuked Peter, pointing out that if he wanted to resist arrest, he had more forces at his disposal than Rome and Israel combined could fight against.  Also, during his trial under Pilate Jesus made an incidental reference to the possibility of violent uprising.  When asked if he was claimed to be king, Jesus replied, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my followers would fight to keep me from being brought here.”

Now, the case for Christian commitment to nonviolence doesn’t stand or fall with this reading of the gospels, but if this reading is accepted (and I don’t see how it can be denied as a consistent theme of the gospels), it adds a layer of meaning to all the teachings of Jesus that address the use of force or a lifestyle of intentional suffering and service.  What exactly that layer is we’ll get into in the next section, where we’ll actually begin looking at what Jesus and the New Testament authors taught about the use of force by Christians.

Jesus’ ethical discourse

As maladjusted as Jesus of Nazareth who dreamed a dream of the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man. God grant that we will be so maladjusted that we will be able to go out and change our world and our civilization.
– Martin Luther King, Jr., The Power of Non-violence

Ethical teachings were certainly not the core of Jesus’ proclamation.  The core of his proclamation was that God was acting decisively in history, and that he himself was that action: God’s full self-disclosure to mankind.  In no way can any truth claim or social action be divorced from this central kerygma and be called Christian.  As Richard Niebuhr put it, Jesus was a “radical monotheist,” which for Niebuhr made the Jesus of history useless for constructing social ethics.

But while Niebuhr was right that nothing useful can be abstracted from the gospel proclamation, it is at the same time the case that a good deal of Jesus’ teachings dealt specifically with the way the discipleship community, or church, was to live in the truth of God’s reign.  To generalize, Jesus described the task of the church as being to exhibit in its life what the Kingdom of God looks like.

Jesus describes this as accomplishing two interrelated functions.  First, it is a witness to the world, showing them in a concrete way who God is.  Jesus spoke of the discipleship community as a city on a hill, which can’t be hidden, and admonished those who follow him to let their “light” shine for people to see, “so that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.”  Elsewhere, Jesus says that “This is how the world will know you are my disciples: if you love one another.”  Secondly, as the discipleship community is formed into “Kingdom people,” they will change the world from the bottom up.  Jesus described Kingdom people as acting like salt, which remains chemically distinct from the food it flavors, but preserves the food from spoilage, keeping what is good about it intact.  Pastor and theologian Greg Boyd has described this principle as having power under others, rather than power over them.

Some examples of this power under that the discipleship community has shown in the past have been public schools, public hospitals, national peace corps groups, all of which began as ministries of the church before nation-states realized how indispensable they were, as well as nonviolent civil rights movements and protests of unjust wars.

Nonviolence in Kingdom living

Matthew 5:38-42
“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 an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. If anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, let him have your coat also. Whoever forces you to go one mile, go with him two.”

This is perhaps the most famous saying of Jesus when it comes to non-retaliation.  There is a lot to be said about the three actions Jesus describes, which aren’t simply examples of letting someone railroad you, but are very complex and creative way of simultaneously asserting your own personhood.  But I have to save that  for another post (link).  For now, three things are important to note about this.

First, it deals explicitly with a person’s right to respond violently.  This is Jesus’ commentary on what is called the lex talionis, the “eye for an eye” principle.  Now, the lex talionis did not grant someone the right to respond violently, it actually limited their right to respond violently to a 1:1 ratio.  Nobody needs a law telling them to hurt someone who hurt them.  The law rather places a limit on how much injury can be returned.  Jesus takes this limit and, as he does throughout the Sermon on the Mount, tightens it up for the discipleship community.

Second, it deals with all aspects of violent actions, not just those in our personal life.  Jesus seems to be very intentional about choosing three examples that will cover the gamut of possibilities.  To turn the other cheek refers to responding to a backhand slap, which would generally come from a father, husband or employer (especially in the case of servants).  If someone sues you for your cloak, however, that’s a legal situation, and also a breach of the Old Testament legal code, which says that you can never take someone’s cloak as a legal pledge (or, if you do, you have to return it each day at sundown).  And whoever forces you to go one mile is a member of an enemy military.  Rather than responding in kind (for instance, luring a Roman soldier down an alleyway where your fellow zealots are waiting to stick a knife in his ribs), or even doing your bare minimum duty, you are to show him kindness by helping him even when he no longer has a way to force you.

Greg Boyd, in commenting on this passage, points out that “The Greek word here (anthisteimi) does not imply doing nothing. It rather forbids responding in kind to an offense. When an ‘evil person’ uses violence against us or our loved ones, we may certainly do all we can to stop him, except use violence. Refusing to use violence when it’s deemed necessary is of course contrary to common sense. And everything about this passage is contrary to common sense. Yet, this is what makes following Jesus radical, distinctive, beautiful — and profoundly difficult!”

Matthew 5:43-46
“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 do good for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?”

More or less everyone knows that Jesus said to love your enemies, but we’ve found a handful of very clever ways to claim that you can love your enemy while simultaneously killing him.  There is the military sniper who says a prayer for each person as he shoots them.  Likewise there is the claim that, “I’d want someone to kill me if I were fighting on behalf of the Commies, so I’m just showing them the same love I’d want to be shown.”  I’ve even heard the claim that you’re loving a criminal by killing him because you’re honoring his self-destructive decisions – love as permission, I suppose.

But Jesus makes all this talk of abstract love much more difficult when he goes on to say to “do good for those who persecute you.”  Suddenly, it’s not an abstract thing, it’s a very concrete thing.  Not only love your enemy, but act like you act toward those you love.  Paul makes this even more explicit in Romans 12, when he says, “If your enemy is hungry, feed him.  If he is thirsty, give him a drink.”  And let God take care of the rest.

Finally, on this point, Jesus provides the underlying logic for the instruction to love your enemies.  It is to be done in imitation of God’s lavish love.  Now, it is true that God is more than just lavish love.  In a conversation with a fellow believer recently, he reasoned that since God gives people a chance in life, but then sends them to hell when they decide ultimately make their choice, Christians are justified giving people a chance but then killing them once they make a choice that necessitates that.  Which makes sense, I suppose, except that it goes against scripture.  Jesus doesn’t say, “Since you’re children of God, feel free to make these judgments yourself.”  Instead, he says, “Love without distinction, so that you will be acting like children of God.”  There’s no room in this teaching for killing bad guys.

Matthew 26:50-53
“Jesus said to [Judas], ‘Friend, do what you are here to do.’ Then they came and laid hands on Jesus and arrested Him. Suddenly, one of those with Jesus put his hand on his sword, drew it, and struck the slave of the high priest, cutting 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. Do you think I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?”

Peter acted appropriately by the standards of common sense.  A mob was coming in the middle of the night to ‘arrest’ his teacher, who had committed no crime.  He would be right to see that there was nothing legitimate about this incident.  But Jesus rebukes Peter for defending him.

Christians seeking to justify Christian violence often make the claim that this was an exceptional situation, since Jesus’ mission was to be arrested and killed.  And there is certainly some validity to that point.  At the same time, however, we have to remain attentive to what the text actually says.  Jesus told Peter why to put the sword away: “Because all who take the sword will perish by the sword.”  In a particular sense, this means that Peter getting himself killed would be a waste – Peter, as one witnessing to the world about Jesus, has a more important mission.  And in a more general sense, this means that violence is a destructive cycle, and part of living for the Kingdom means stepping outside that, even when the cost is great.

The other part of the reason is because Peter’s resort to violence is absolutely unnecessary – God is in control, and there are legions at Jesus’ command.  If violence is what Jesus is going to fall back on, he has much better options than his followers.  Trust in God’s sovereignty is one of the overarching reasons followers of Christ are capable of living nonviolently in a violent world.

Luke 6:27-37
“But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt. Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. Do to others as you would have them do to you. If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that. And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full.

This is the Lukan parallel of Mt. 5:43-46, analyzed above, but notice how Luke highlights the concrete nature of enemy-love.  It’s not just a sentimental, emotional or theoretical love, but one that involves doing good for them, blessing them and praying for them.

Also notice the command that if someone steals your goods, you should not demand it back, apparently even if you are in a position to.  This is just as impractical and ridiculous an idea as not using violence in the prevention of injustice.  In either case, the disciple has to trust in God to ultimately redeem the situation, and in either situation the disciple has to realize that sometimes life is just rough.  This teaching, as much as any pacifist claim, reveals Jesus as a “radical monotheist” whose ethic is indeed useless when divorced from a Kingdom-oriented community.

Luke 14:26-27
“If anyone comes to Me, and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be My disciple. Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple.”

Jesus is fully up-front about the radical implications of living for the Kingdom of God.  When conversations turn to pacifism, the first place questions go is to defending your family, yet Jesus calls these very allegiances into question.  Jesus doesn’t even allow his followers to cling to their own lives.  Self-defense, it would seem, is no justification to deviate from the path Jesus lays out.

And it is precisely to that path that Jesus calls us in the phrase, “Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.”  Christians who attempt to justify Christian violence often say that Jesus himself was a pacifist because his unique vocation was to die for humanity.  Christians today aren’t called to die for humanity, and so are justified living differently than Jesus did.  Yet this logic seems foreign to Jesus, who explicitly calls his followers to live in anticipation of a suffering death, as he himself did.  If it is granted that Jesus would choose the way of suffering (or riddle or miraculous deliverance, etc.) rather than the way of violent self-defense, it follows his disciples should be characterized by the same.

John 18:36
“Jesus said, ‘My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.’”

I referred to this passage above, but it makes a critical point.  Christians who oppose Christian nonviolence often claim that Jesus discouraged his disciples from using force to defend the just only in his one case, because his vocation was to die for humanity.  But Jesus says very clearly why his followers do not fight.  “My Kingdom is not of this world.”  It is the nature of the Kingdom that drives the bizarre behavior of Jesus’ servants.  As witnesses today to that same other-worldly Kingdom, Christians must continue to imitate Jesus and his servants.

As Stanley Hauerwas put it, “as faithful followers of Christ in a world at war, we cannot imagine being anything other than nonviolent… [it] is a sign of hope that there is an alternative to war.  And that alternative is called church.”

The rest of the New Testament witness

Romans 12:17-13:4
Never pay back evil for evil to anyone. Respect what is right in the sight of all men. If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men. Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay,” says the Lord. But if your enemy is hungry, feed him, and if he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he will commend you. For he is God’s servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.”

Ironically, Romans 13 is often seen as a strong objection to the Christian commitment to nonviolence.  In fact, aside from the sayings of Jesus on the subject, this is possibly the clearest exposition of the relationship between Christians and the nation-state.  But it must be read in context.  Chapter, verse and even paragraph divisions did not exist in the letter Paul originally wrote.

Paul’s letter to the Romans is a massive, dense theological work.  The first eleven chapters discuss Paul’s theological claims and exposition of the gospel.  The crucial verse of the letter is Romans 12:1, with the key word therefore.  “Because of all of this,” Paul in effect says, “do these things.”  Specific to our discussion, Paul says that in light of the gospel we are not to return evil for evil, but to overcome evil with good.  We are never to take revenge, but to leave it to God’s wrath.  Paul then goes on to discuss one of the forms God’s wrath takes: the sword of the nation-state, under which we should submit.

This passage itself doesn’t necessarily preclude self-defense, but it does irrefutably call Christians from serving in sword-bearing functions in the nation.  The teaching is unmistakable.  First, Christians are to leave vengeance and wrath to God.  Second, God uses the sword of the nation-state (military, police and possibly the death penalty) to exact his vengeance and wrath and to punish evil-doers.  For Christians to leave vengeance and wrath to God, they must refrain from participating in the violence of the nation-state.

Ephesians 5:1-2.
“Be imitators of God. Live in love as Christ loved us and gave himself for us…”

The Greek term for ‘imitator’ is mimitai, which is where we get the words ‘mime’ and ‘mimic.’  In the Greek it means to shadow or copy exactly.  We’re to mimic Christ’s love for us.

Even though it doesn’t mention violence explicitly, this is a crucial passage because it does away with the claim sometimes made that Jesus chose the way of nonviolent suffering uniquely, to accomplish a unique mission, and that the church is not called to the same standard of living, but to be socially responsible.

But we’re not only to love, but to live in love, and to do so in precisely the way that Christ loved us and gave himself for us.  That means many, many things, but among them is that we are to choose the way of nonviolent suffering over the way of asserting power over some to aid others.

I Peter 2:21-24
“For you have been called for this purpose, since Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example for you to follow in His steps, who committed no sin, nor was any deceit found in his mouth; and while being reviled, He did not revile in return; while suffering, He uttered no threats, but kept entrusting Himself to Him who judges righteously; and He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross, so that we might die to sin and live to righteousness; for by His wounds you were healed.”

This passage makes more explicit the way Christ loved us and gave himself for us.  Though we know from the gospels that Jesus had access to overwhelming force, and was within his rights to use it, he chose the way of suffering.  According to Peter, that suffering is an example for us to follow.

Ephesians 6:12
“For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places.”

Christians claim to believe this, but all too often we act like in some cases our struggle is against flesh and blood.  This nation, that murderer.  But scripture clearly teaches here and elsewhere that if it has flesh and blood, it is not who we’re fighting against.  In fact, if it has flesh and blood, it is who we’re fighting for.

Early church understanding

“And we who were filled with war, and mutual slaughter, and every wickedness, have each through the whole earth changed our warlike weapons, – our swords into ploughs, and our spears into implements of tillage, – and we cultivate piety, righteousness, philanthropy, faith, and hope, which we have from the Father Himself through Him who was crucified.” – Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho

For it is not in war, but in peace, that we are trained. War needs great preparation, and luxury craves profusion; but peace and love, simple and quiet sisters, require no arms nor excessive preparation. The Word is their sustenance. – Clement of Alexandria, Instructor 1.12

For the Christians have changed their swords and their lances into instruments of peace, and they know not how to fight… Nor an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, for him who counts no man his enemy, but all his neighbors, and therefore can never stretch out his hand for vengeance.  – Irenaeus, Proof of the Apostolic Preaching 96

Nothing is more precious than peace, by which all war, both in heaven and earth, is brought to an end. Therefore have need of meekness, by which the prince of this world [Satan] is brought to nought. – Ignatius of Antioch, Epistle to the Trallians 4

But now inquiry is made about this point, whether a believer may turn himself unto military service, and whether the military may be admitted unto the faith, even the rank and file, or each inferior grade, to whom there is no necessity for taking part in sacrifices or capital punishments. There is no agreement between the divine and the human sacrament, the standard of Christ and the standard of the devil, the camp of light and the camp of darkness. One soul cannot be due to two masters–God and Caesar. And yet Moses carried a rod, and Aaron wore a buckle, and John (Baptist) is girt with leather and Joshua the son of Nun leads a line of march; and the People warred: if it pleases you to sport with the subject. But how will a Christian man war, nay, how will he serve even in peace, without a sword, which the Lord has taken away? For albeit soldiers had come unto John, and had received the formula of their rule; albeit, likewise, a centurion had believed; still the Lord afterward, in disarming Peter, unbed every soldier. – Tertullian, On Idolatry

These quotes are all from the first 300 years after Christ’s life, some of them (Ireneaus, for instance) very early on.  It is more or less accepted now that the widespread stance of the Christian church for the first three hundred years was committed to a nonviolent posture.  What is more, they did not resort to nonviolence out of political necessity, but reasoned from the example of Christ and the writings of scripture that they were called to it.


This is not an indisputable reading.  There are no indisputable readings of the scriptures, especially as the community one is brought up reading in shapes the reader and hence the understanding of the text.  I have attempted only to demonstrate one way in which Christians read the overall thrust of scripture as calling all followers of Christ to live nonviolently in a violent world.  I could be more comprehensive, but I’m not sure it would be any more compelling.  I hope I have at least shown the types of passages that shape the understanding of christological pacifists.

I believe the reading is prominent and solid, and is not a stretched reading.  Obviously, once one is reading the text in a certain way, passages that otherwise would not ordinarily be compelling carry more weight for the reader.  This is the case whatever one’s stance is.

Still, the challenge I would issue to anyone opposing the claim that Christians are called to a radical commitment to nonviolence is this: on what scriptural basis would you support the opposing claim, that the church is ever called to exercise violence.  In light of this comprehensive reading, I think the burden of proof is on the Christian who wants to appeal to scripture to justify Christian violence.


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