As I said in my last blog post, I’ll be spending the next few posts providing what I hope will be a clear explanation as to why I believe that Christians should always avoid the use of violence… even violence that people often considered “justified violence.” Since I believe that the Wesleyan Quadrilateral (Scripture, Reason, Tradition, and Experience) is a great framework for doing theology, I’ll focus this particular post on Scripture.
Now, before I get too far into this, I’d like to make a point of noting that whenever I have a conversation with people about this, they almost always try to justify the use of violence by pointing to the Old Testament. I hear things like, “God commanded the Israelites to go to war,” and “What about King David? He killed lots of people.” In response to this, and any other arguments that try to use the Old Testament to justify violence, I would like to offer 3 considerations –
More to the point, what did Jesus himself say about the use of violence. There are several places where Jesus talked about peacemaking (Mt 5:9), giving up your life (Mt 16:24-26; Lk 14:26-27), and how his followers were not to use violence to protect him (Mt 26:51-52; Jn 18:36). His most comprehensive teaching on non-violence is probably 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.
But love your enemies,do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.”
Honestly, I don’t know how Christians can read this passage and still think that Jesus would be okay with some types of violence. And it’s not like this was the only record we have of him saying stuff like this (Mt 5:38-46; 7:1-12). What did Jesus mean by “do not resist an evil person” (Mt 5:39), if not that we shouldn’t respond to violence with violence? Now, the phrase “do not resist” here (me antistenai) doesn’t mean do nothing, but it does mean not responding in kind. So if someone is breaking into your home looking to do violence to your family, of course you shouldn’t just stand there! But neither should you do violence in return.
Not only did Jesus teach his followers to live without violence, but he exemplified it in his own life. In fact, his entire ministry culminated in one final act of not resisting evil people who were doing violence to him! Moreover, he died while praying for the forgiveness of the people torturing him to death (Lk 23:34)!!! If Jesus told us not to return violence with violence, and then showed what it looks like not to return violence with violence, I honestly can’t see how we can still think it’s okay to return violence with violence. You see, unlike his teachings on other issues like divorce (Mt 5:32), Jesus never once gave an exception to non-violence. This was a non-negotiable for him.
And lest I make the mistake of misinterpreting Jesus’ point here, it would seem that the rest of the New Testament authors draw the same conclusion. For example, Paul wrote to the Christians in Rome to “never pay back evil for evil to anyone” and “never take your own revenge,” “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” (Rom 12:17-21). And he reminded the Christians in Ephesus that even though we wage war against all sorts of spiritual powers, “our struggle is not against flesh and blood” (Eph 6:12). James described true wisdom with words like “peaceable, gentle,” “full of mercy,” and saying that “the seed whose fruit is righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace” (Jas 3:17-18). Peter instructed persecuted Christians, “Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult. On the contrary, repay evil with blessing” (1 Pet 3:9). Some people make the argument that Jesus’ death was for a special reason, so we can’t look at Christ allowing people to do violence to him as an example of how we should always live. However, Peter makes a point to tell his audience (who were actually being killed for their faith at the time) that “while being reviled, [Jesus] did not revile in return; while suffering, He uttered no threats, but kept entrusting Himself to Him who judges righteously.” And by doing all of this Jesus was “leaving you an example for you to follow in His footsteps” (1 Pet 2:21-23). In the debate over whether or not Christians should ever use violence, the New Testament seems pretty one-sided.
Even Bill Maher, an avid agnostic and critic of religion, notes that “Jesus lays on that hippie stuff pretty thick … non-violence was kind of Jesus’ trademark.” You see, non-violence is not just an add-on to Jesus’ teachings; it is at the very core of his entire ministry! In order to come to the conclusion that violence is permissible for Christians, even in extreme circumstances, you would have to look outside the Gospels and the rest of the New Testament, because you certainly won’t find any grounds for it there. We can only believe that Christians should ever do violence if we begin to take our eyes off of Jesus. In Matthew 5:44-45, Jesus himself taught that you should “love your enemies … so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven.” Did you catch that? That’s huge! Being a son (or daughter) of God is contingent on us loving our enemies. You might be wondering, “How on earth did we ever come to the conclusion that certain violence is permissible for Christians?” I’ll tell you … in another blog post (the one on tradition).