A Simple Case for Christian Nonviolence

[1] Jesus’ Direct Teaching

“Nonviolent resistance” might be a more accurate term for Jesus’ teachings: he commands a “third way” between doing nothing and responding to violence with violence, namely, returning evil with good; resisting with love.

  • Jesus clearly expects his followers to live nonviolently – rebuking them on many occasions where they stray from this expectation:
    Luke 9:51-56
    Luke 22:47-51

[2] Jesus’ Explicit Example

  • As the Incarnate God, Jesus’ nonviolent historical life is both: 

[3] Overall Narrative of the Bible – From Old Testament to the Kingdom of God

Despite the (divine and human) violence in the Old Testament, there is a promise of and clear trajectory towards a nonviolent community

  • Israel’s battles weren’t won with military prowess, but by simply obeying & trusting God
    Joshua 6:1-7
    Psalm 20:6-9
  • OT has clear promises of the Kingdom of God’s arrival calling God’s people to nonviolence
    Isaiah 2:1-5
    Micah 4:1-5

[4] The Early Church Thought It Was Obvious

  • The early church (from the time of Christ to the time of Constantine in the 4th century) was fully nonviolent. Here is a small sampling of quotes:

Justin Martyr (100-165 AD)
“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 ploughshares, 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.”

Tertullian (160-225 AD)
“Shall the son of peace take part in the battle when it does not become him even to sue at law?”
“If one attempt to provoke you by manual violence, the admonition of the Lord is at hand: To him,‟ He 
says, ‘who strikes you on the face, turn the other cheek also.’ Let outrageousness be wearied out by your patience.“
“Christ, in disarming Peter, unbelted every soldier…”
“And shall he apply the chain and the prison and the torture and the punishment, who is not the avenger even of his own wrongs?”
“Shall it be held lawful to make an occupation of the sword, when the Lord proclaims that he who uses the sword shall perish by the sword? And shall the son of peace take part in the battle when it does not become him even to sue at law? And shall he apply the chain, and the prison, and the torture, and the punishment, who is not the avenger even of his own wrongs?”

Hippolytus (170-236 AD)

“The catechumen or faithful who wants to become a soldier is to be rejected, for he has despised God.”

Origen of Alexandria (185-254 AD)

“We have come in accordance with the counsel of Jesus to cut down our arrogant swords of argument into plowshares, and we convert into sickles the spears we formerly used in fighting. For we no longer take swords against a nation, nor do we learn anymore to make war, having become sons of peace for the sake of Jesus, who is our Lord.”

Marcellus (298 AD)

“I threw down my arms for it was not seemly that a Christian man, who renders military service to the Lord Christ, should render it by earthly injuries.” “It is not lawful for a Christian to bear arms for any earthly consideration.”

Martin of Tours (316-397)

“I am a soldier of  Christ. To fight is not permissible for me.”

Romans 13 & God’s “Use” of National Violence

Far too many American evangelicals, reflecting the general ethos of our nation, have a war-shaped imagination. That is to say, those who worship the Prince of Peace seem to have a hard time imagining realistic solutions to most of today’s global problems that don’t require military action. Unfortunately, Christianity has often served as an accomplice in the formation of this imaginative deficit – serving the role of chaplain and announcing God’s blessing over our use of national violence.

Craig Hovey, in his remarkable book To Share in the Body: A Theology of Martyrdom for Today’s Church, challenges this assumption. He states:

“God does not need the might of the world in order to act in the world. Still, God chooses to make good use of evil, just as the actions of Pharaoh were made to function in the creation of a holy nation for God. God did not need Pharaoh, just as God did not need Rome. Likewise, God did not even need the cross but enlisted it for divine and good purposes. This is the meaning of Paul’s much misunderstood claim that governments wield the sword as God’s servants (Rom. 13:4). They serve God against their will. This is so because the whole universe belongs to God, even the parts of it that are in rebellion, claiming autonomy from God and sole authority over their dominions. Paul’s assertion must not be construed as congratulating the nations’ goodness and commending their power simply and straightforwardly as a necessary condition of God’s way in the world. God’s way requires no swords, no crosses, no guns, though these are enslaved and enlisted for divine purposes as an expression of God’s sovereignty over human rebellion and pride.”

Hovey’s interpretation of Romans 13:4 highlights the vexing problem of the relationship between God and national violence. The passage states that God has “instituted” (NRSV, ESV) the powers that rule and that they are his “servants.” Too often, readers have uncritically accepted these statements as indications of a positive relationship between God and the powers’ use of violence. However, as I have argued elsewhere (see links below), these statements have an Old Testament background which presents a much more nuanced relationship.

In short, God’s “use” of the powers’ violence does not mean that he grants moral legitimacy to such action. God’s rule is actualized by dying on a cross, not by putting others on them. The Church, those who belong to the Peaceable Kingdom, must never forget the call to the Jesus’ way of cruciform wisdom and power. This is perhaps one of the reasons that regular participation of the Eucharist is so important: at the table our imaginations are converted from their occupation with Egypt’s chariots and instead captivated by the cross on which Jesus’ Kingdom was inaugurated.

See Also:

The 5 Most Common Myths About Romans 13:1-7
A [Just] War for Romans 13: Toward a Nonviolent Reading

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Peacemaking: An Exercise in Faith and Imagination

One of the goals in my classroom is to create an atmosphere where the students want to dig deeper into their faith and wrestle with critical issues.  As the year progresses my students learn of a few of my positions that are relatively new to them.  Now most of the students who either have me as a teacher or will have me next year know that I am a Christian pacifist (the adjective is necessary because my reasons for being a pacifist rely on Jesus being who the Bible says he is).  The fact that this reputation has started to precede me has led to some interesting conversations.  I have explained my reasons for being a pacifist and why I think Christians are called to a nonviolent lifestyle, but it is clear from some of their questions that much is still misunderstood about Christian nonviolence.  I am going to list some of the most common questions I get from students once they learn that I am a pacifist and craft a response for each.

1) Do you hate soldiers?

I recently had a student discover that a “Christian” group has made a habit of protesting soldiers funerals (Westboro Baptist).  She then asked me if I approved of what they were doing since I was a pacifist.  I was horrified by the question.  While I don’t think that Christians should participate in the military, I do believe that the act of waving a sign that says “God hates you” at a funeral is an inhumane and deeply anti-Christian act.  My call to Christian nonviolence puts me in direct opposition to the folks at Westboro precisely because I believe that they are committing verbal violence.  I think many pacifists often get accused of dishonoring soldiers and veterans, and it is hard for the discussion to not become personal with so many of us having family in the military.  So let me be clear, the church is called to love soldiers and veterans even if it stands against war.  In fact, the church needs to be proactive in the care of the soldiers who are now starting to come back from Iraq and Afghanistan. There needs to be a safe place where soldiers can talk about their experiences and start to heal from both visible and invisible wounds.  The church must be that place.

2) What would your husband do if you were punched in the face?

This question has actually become a running joke in one of my classes.  Now whenever I ask this class if they have any questions during a lecture, this is usually the first one asked in jest.  It started as a serious question when they found out that both my husband and I are pacifists.  They then created a ridiculous scenario where someone randomly comes up to me and knocks me out (I find Yoder’s response to hypothetical scenarios to be especially helpful here).[1]  The correct response, according to them, was for my husband to beat up the other guy.  He would do this to defend my honor, and if he did nothing that meant he clearly did not care about me.

There are several problems underlying this question.  First, they assume that the role of a man is to protect “their woman” and be willing to use violence if necessary.  This is endemic of our southern culture that identifies males as the proverbial “protector” and females as the “damsel” in need of rescue.  If this is true, the measure of a man is evaluated by the lengths he will go to defend those he loves.  I see this trope all over the place in Hollywood movies but not really in the Bible.  The second problem is that a nonviolent response is viewed as not a response at all.  I told them that my husband would probably not engage with the guy who hit me, but would immediately check to see if I was okay.  They felt this response did not really address the issue, which was equally concerning to me.  Are we so thirsty for blood that we forget about the very person we’re claiming to defend?

3) So as a pacifist are you just supposed to stand back and do nothing?

This question has been asked to me in many different ways.  It usually comes up when there has been a violent uprising in a country or a school shooting (both of which seem to be happening a lot these days).  My students often think that since I am a pacifist, my response to these situations is to not get involved.  According to them, pacifism means you stand back and do nothing in the face of injustice.  Pacifism is often mistakenly associated with being passive.  This is why I prefer the term nonviolent resistance or peacemaking instead of pacifism.  Both of these terms are active and more clearly convey the heart of Christian pacifism.

I think this question reveals both a lack of faith and imagination on the part of many Christians in America.  We say that we trust God, but when it comes to defending our families or our nation, we’re more likely going to trust our guns.  Because we automatically reach for the gun, it is hard to try and think of any other way to stand against evil and injustice.  And we as Christians are called to have a more robust imagination than that.  Our very name points back to the one who did not respond back with violence, but overcame evil with good.  If the God whom we worship was able to overcome all the powers of darkness through “obedience unto death on a cross” what does that mean for his followers?  Are we willing to take up that cross and follow him?  How can we take an active stand against violence without responding in kind?

Christian peacemaking is a virtue that exercises the spiritual muscles of faith and imagination.  Now with any virtue, we are not going to start off as masters of it.  The place where I get the best practice in peacemaking is in rush hour traffic!  If I can get in the habit of always seeing people as Jesus sees people, maybe when it counts, when my life is on the line, I won’t simply be thinking about my survival.  Maybe I’ll be thinking about Jesus and the cross and how that’s changed everything.  I’m certainly not there yet, but I can start by trusting in the Triune God, who brings peace into the violence of our own hearts.

So what is the next step? How can we start to exercise these muscles?

Here are two suggestions for moving forward:

1) Look for examples and imitate

A great example of nonviolent resistance in practice is a local anti-trafficking organization called Elijah Rising.  This organization has some warriors who never lift a sword!  They’re primary focus is to end human trafficking through prayer, worship, and awareness (they also strategically seek contact with the women who are being trafficked).  This group exemplifies a nonviolent pursuit of justice and a faith that believes in the power of intercession.

2) Start doing some reading on the subject

For an excellent place to begin see our fellow blogger Mike Skinner’s posts:

Jesus is Cruciform not Octagonal (A Response to Mark Driscoll)

The 5 Most Common Myths about Romans 13:1-7

Other recommended reading:

War and the American Difference – by Stanley Hauerwas

A Faith Not Worth Fighting For: Addressing Commonly Asked Questions About Christian Nonviolence – by Trip York and Justin Bronson Barringer

[1]  Yoder, John H.. What Would You Do?  Scottsdale: Herald Press. 1983