Those who know me may find this hard to believe but I (a former U.S. Marine Infantryman that has studied Asian and- more recently- European martial arts from childhood) have been struggling intellectually with whether or not Christianity calls me to be a pacifist. I am a peace loving man and I’m not prone to fits of anger or violence. Although my father later changed his position, I was raised by a minister who was a contentious objector during Vietnam. This was not to get out of going to war. His pastor counseled him to forgo a scholarship to the University of Tennessee because they believed that even competitive sports were ungodly. Which counsel he heeded.
I understand and feel both the position of the “just war” and the “non-resistance” camps. The recent acts of violence being committed around the world in the name of Allah, have roused the issue again in my heart. Although I have always been an adherent to the notion of a “just war,” I have been ever aware of inconsistencies and unanswered questions in my position. I have felt drawn by the Sprit to reevaluate my position and find a way to answer the nagging questions and harmonize what has seemed to be incompatible truths in my soul.
I set out, therefore, to reexamine the issue of Christianity and non-resistance. I have read everything I can get my hands on from both sides and have listened to multiple debates from leading Christian thinkers on the issue. I’ve maintained an open mind and my position has changed in significant ways, I am pleased to say. I’d like to share the results of my study with you here.
Jesus The Revolutionary
It is certainly true that the teachings of Jesus were revolutionary. The great conquerer, Napoleon, once said concerning Jesus, “I know men, and I tell you Jesus is not a man. Superficial minds see a resemblance between Christ and the founders of empires and the gods of other religions. That resemblance does not exist… His empire, His march across the ages and realms, is a prodigy, a mystery insoluble… a mystery which I can neither deny or explain.”
If the teachings of Jesus were philosophy, one could philosophize against Him. If Jesus were a general, one could muster an army against Him. But he is none of these things. He was the incarnation of Love. And what can one do against Love? Therein lies the revolution of His His message- His empire. Love. Of all the revolutionary things Christ taught, perhaps the most revolutionary was His “Sermon on the Mount.” And of the things taught in that sermon, perhaps His chain of “You have heard it said… But I say unto you…” statements is the most ground breaking. In these statements he immediately distinguishes Christianity from the other Abrahamic religions of Judaism and (what would come hundreds of years after) Islam. In this sermon Jesus distinguishes His teachings from the establishment by saying (and I paraphrase),
“You’ve heard it said do not murder… do not commit adultery… if you want a divorce simply give your wife a notice of divorce… When you swear a vow don’t break it-
But I say to you, if you are mad without cause or curse someone without cause you are in danger of Hell… if you look at another man’s wife with lustful intentions you are already guilty of what you have purposed in your heart… you can’t just put your wife away without cause… you should not swear vows but that your “Yes I will” or “No I wont” should be binding enough.” We see in these teachings a pattern. That pattern is that the motive of the heart is what is being judged and not the actions alone. Of these teachings, the ones that apply most directly to our topic are when Jesus says,
“You’ve heard it said “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” but I say do not resist an evil person… when they slap your right cheek offer the other cheek as well… If you are sued for your shirt, offer your coat as well… If a soldier demands you carry his load a mile carry it two miles.” Jesus continues,
“You’ve heard it said, “love your neighbor and hate your enemy,” but I say love your enemy. Pray for those who persecute you.”
The Reverend Dean Taylor, a noted Christian pacifist, rightly asks, “What if Jesus actually meant what he said here?” The obvious answer to this rhetorical question is that He did mean what He said. He does expect His followers not to resist when they are affronted by evil people. He truly expected His disciples to pray for their enemies and to love them. What’s more, Jesus exemplified this love by not defending Himself when He was tried and crucified. Like a “lamb to the slaughter” he offered no defense of himself even though he could have called “legions of angels” to His defense. Jesus even prayed for His enemies while they mocked His nakedness as He hung dying on the cross, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.” The teachings and example set forth by Christ is to endure persecution and to sacrifice one’s self for the wellbeing of others.
“So then the case is closed?” you ask? It would be closed if this was the entirety of Christian teaching on the subject. The truth is that Christ, and His disciples demonstrated through their teachings and actions a more developed doctrine on non-resistance and when it is just to fight. Please consider with me the following points.
Cleansing the Temple
First, it is evident from Scripture that Jesus was not a pacifist. For example, all four of the Gospel narratives of Christ’s life, we are told the story of His “Cleansing of the temple.” In this story, Jesus comes into the temple and sees the money changers-those people whose job it was to exchange Roman and Greek money (at the worshiper’s expense) for Jewish money. He also sees the livestock that has been brought for sale to the “tourist” worshipers at exorbitant prices.
Jesus was angered by what He saw so He sat down and wove a whip. Using the whip, He drove the money changers and the livestock out of the temple and flipped over the money tables saying, “My Father’s house is to be a house of prayer- not a den of thieves!” The premeditated nature of His violence (taking time to make a whip) shows that this was not a “heat of the moment” action. These are clearly not the actions of a pacifist.
Jesus and the Roman Soldier
Next, consider the Roman centurion that came to Jesus to ask healing for his servant that was back at his home dying. The centurion believed in Jesus so much that he said to Jesus, “You don’t even need to come to my house. You are a man of great power and authority. Just say the word and my servant will be healed.” Instead of scolding the Roman soldier for His profession, Jesus commended him saying, “I’ve not seen one person in all Israel with as much faith as this man .” While Jesus often spent time with sinners, He always charged them to change their ways. If Jesus saw the soldier’s profession as a sinful one, he would surely have charged him in the same manner.
John the Baptist and Roman Soldiers
Similarly, Roman soldiers came to John the Baptist to repent and be baptized. They asked John what they needed to do to be saved. John the Baptist gave them three charges- don’t extort money, don’t accuse people falsely and be content with your wages- nothing was said concerning leaving their military careers to please God.
The Apostles Peter and Paul on Soldiering
While we are on to other New Testament figures, let me point out that two Apostles write in the Bible that being a soldier, or other type of peace keeper, is actually a ministry.
“The one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword (or we would say, the gun) for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on wrongdoers.” -The Apostle, Paul
“Governors are sent by God to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good.” -The Apostle, Peter
In addition to this, the first non Jewish convert to Christianity was the Roman centurion, Cornelius, and his house. In his sermon, Peter did not exhort Cornelius to leave soldiering. In fact he didn’t have such an opportunity. God deemed him so fit for Christianity that Cornelius was filled with the Holy Sprit with accompanying gifts before Peter could even finish his sermon.
Can a Christian be made a sinner by the same action (serving as a Policeman or Soldier) that makes a sinner a minister of God? It should go without saying that something cannot be at once a ministry from God and a sinful profession at the same time.
Jesus and Pilate
When Jesus was being interrogated by Pilate before his execution, He was asked why his followers did not raise up in arms and fight in His defense. Jesus answered by saying, “If my Kingdom were of this world, then would my followers fight. But my Kingdom is not of this world.”
It could be well argued that there is, in this statement a justification for fighting in defense of an earthly Kingdom. For if it was never justifiable to defend a kingdom, Jesus would not have offered this reply.
Defending Your Household
Often in such discussions of pacifism, the “what if” scenarios arise. The most common “what if” posed to pacifists is akin to, “What would you do if a homicidal maniac had broken into your home and was brutally killing your family? Would you not defend them?” Did you know Jesus, himself, used this same analogy when addressing satanic possession? Only Jesus inferred the use of force to protect a man’s household goods as well.
“How can anyone enter a strong man’s house and carry off his possessions unless he first ties up the strong man. Only then can he plunder His house.” -Jesus
I think it can rightly be deduced from this illustration of Christ that a strong man would be expected to use his strength in defense of his family’s possessions.
What Is Your Motivation?
How then can we harmonize these points with the Words of Jesus in the sermon on the mount when he told us not to resist an evil man? When he told us to do good to those who do evil to us and to pray for those who use us? When he told us to turn the other cheek?
The answer comes in looking the context of these sayings and to discern the pattern. As with all of Christ’s teachings, He establishes that God does not just judge our actions, but that He looks at our hearts- the motives that drive your actions. Motives are what an all knowing God judges, not merely the black and white actions we commit. It must be understood that Christianity is not married to a secular governmental system, like Islam, because His is not an earthly kingdom. Therefore, the words Jesus spoke were directed to the individual and not to a governmental institutions. Also consider that his words here are addressing the insult, and not the assault of a Christian.
Early on in my studying I found a quote from John Stuart Mill that resonated with me and I posted it for my friends to read and respond to on social media. The quote read,
“War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things. The decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks that nothing is worth war is much worse.”
I was not surprised by the articulate debate that followed in the comments from my friends (because I try to surround myself with brilliant people). But what became immediately apparent to me is the polarizing effect this issue has on people. For example, You would have thought, by the replies, that the quote was a justification for any war that our government would set out to fight. When in fact it was decrying those who found nothing other than their personal wellbeing worth fighting for. I pointed this out by simply asking my friends straightly, “Is there anything that you would see as just cause for war?” To that, none would straightly reply.
I think their silence was due to the fact that we know there are just causes to go to war. We are just so disenfranchised by the thinly veiled economic reasons for which the wealthy drive our countries to war that we feel we must make a strong negative statement in order to counteract it.
But to hope for justice without force- threatened or applied- is a fantasy. We cannot disavow peacekeeping amongst Christians and then pray the “pagan” nonbelievers do the dirty work of defending us so that we can continue to be free.
There is a saying that “The end justifies the means.” In a sense this is true of war and violence. While there may be no “just wars,” there are certainly justly fought wars. What constitutes a justly fought war is, again, the motive. Christians do not fight wars for conquest. Christian conquest comes through sharing the grace and mercy of the Gospel of Jesus- not by the sword of war. A war against war is a justly fought war. The end goal of a justly fought war, is peace, not conquest.
Serving a Higher Cause
Many of my friends were generally against war but supported the use of violence in self defense. Before this study I would have tended to agree with them. My study has brought me to a different conclusion. Biblically, when faced with taking a life or sacrificing yourself, the noble and Chrisitan thing may well be so sacrifice yourself. Christian justified violence is not so much in the defense of ones own self but in the service of others.
This harmonizes all of what we have read. Self defense is one of the worst reasons for a Christian to resort to violence. If we understand that our goal is to serve values higher than ourself- the liberty, emancipation and defense of others, then all of the Christian teachings come into perfect harmony. Christianity is about Love. Our judgement from God will be based on our motives. Can someone kill anyone in love? I answer that killing cannot be the motive. But if you are taking a life to defend those who are defenseless and to protect those who cannot protect themselves, then the taking of that life could well be motivated by love.
I will, therefore, strive to crucify more of my own pride and be more willing, personally, to suffer injustice. But I can, and will, in love protect and defend and war against war- toward the goal of peace.
“Greater love has no man than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”