Podcast 15: A Theology of Nonviolence (Sean Finnegan)

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by Sean Finnegan

I presented this talk at the 18th Theological Conference held near Atlanta, GA.  In it I present a case for the radical practice of loving our enemies.  Whether you believe Christians can and should use violence to defend themselves or others or if you think more along the lines of Christian pacifism, this talk will familiarize you with the main reasons why some Christians hold to nonviolence.  Essentially, my case finds its roots in taking Jesus’ command “love your enemies” literally along with the apostles instructions to never return evil for evil.  My case is couched in proleptic ethics such that Christians are now, even before the kingdom arrives in all of its magnificent glory, embodying the kingdom in whatever ways we can.  In other words, I believe God calls us to live the way we will live then now as a testimony of what is to come.  Lastly, I tackle the issue of early Christian history and demonstrate that the writings we have from the first few centuries testify that the church was nonviolent.  Please do not judge my position on this as liberal or cowardly (the two most common charges), but realize that I’m basing my beliefs on the testimony of scripture and that it takes a heck of a lot more courage to love one’s enemy than merely reciprocate violently.

Below is the paper that went with this presentation along with a detailed set of responses to common objections.


Is it right for Christians to volunteer in the United States’ military?[1] Should followers of Jesus join the police force? Can one who has been redeemed find employment as a security guard? Should disciples keep a loaded gun in the house in case an intruder enters? Is there ever a time when violence is justified? These questions and many like them, for Christians, center on whether or not we interpret the New Testament teachings to prohibit violence or permit it. This work seeks to provide a clear biblical theology for this critical subject.[2] From the title it is clear that my perspective falls on the side of those who see Jesus and the Apostles as teaching something new—the idea of nonviolent enemy love.

Now, I realize that the moment I suggest that violence is wrong for Christians, a whole slew of questions and “what ifs” come to mind. Let me start by saying that these types of questions have good answers and we have collected a number of answers to difficult questions on our website.[3] However, it would not be prudent to handle all of the “objections” prior to laying out the case for nonviolence biblically, logically, and historically. Therefore, it is my intention to present both the clear biblical teaching on this subject and the theological framework into which this teaching fits.

Though adherents to nonviolence are still unquestionably in the minority, as of late more and more leaders from non-Anabaptist[4] traditions are beginning to speak up. As I have researched this subject, in an effort to gain answers to the tough questions that face Christian pacifism, I have been surprised to find how central kingdom of God theology is to this topic.[5] It’s as if one cannot talk about nonviolence without talking about the kingdom. But, what is it about the kingdom of God that inspires peace-making rather than war-making? In order to see how Jesus understood and applied the kingdom of God theology to his life and ministry, we need to first look at how the kingdom was understood in the Hebrew Bible.


The Kingdom of God in the Hebrew Bible

Though the biblical concept of the kingdom of God has its roots in the creation theology of Genesis and the subsequent land promise given to Abraham, it really takes shape with God’s promise to David that one of his descendants would rule on the throne forever. In fact, it would be impossible to understand Jesus’ life and ministry without first becoming familiar with the Davidic Covenant, which formed the basis of the kingdom idea:

1 Chronicles 17.11-14
11 When your days are fulfilled to go to be with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring after you, one of your own sons, and I will establish his kingdom. 12 He shall build a house for me, and I will establish his throne forever. 13 I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me. I will not take my steadfast love from him, as I took it from him who was before you, 14 but I will confirm him in my house and in my kingdom forever, and his throne shall be established forever.

David’s royal descendant will rule on David’s throne, in Jerusalem, forever. He will be God’s son and rule over God’s kingdom forever. From Solomon to Zedekiah, the story of the kings of Judah was a rollercoaster ride, mostly downhill, until the Davidic throne was at last subjugated to the scepter of Babylonia. Throughout this time, God sent prophets to call the people to repentance, warn them of coming judgment, and confirm that God’s grand vision for the future was not forgotten. One of the most vivid pictures of the future was given by both Isaiah and Micah:

Isaiah 2.2-4
2 Now it will come about that In the last days The mountain of the house of the LORD Will be established as the chief of the mountains, And will be raised above the hills; And all the nations will stream to it. 3 And many peoples will come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, To the house of the God of Jacob; That He may teach us concerning His ways And that we may walk in His paths.” For the law will go forth from Zion And the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. 4 And He will judge between the nations, And will render decisions for many peoples; And they will hammer their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not lift up sword against nation, And never again will they learn war.

The prophets spoke of an age to come which would be characterized by peace, justice, and healing. God would raise up from the felled stump of Jesse,[6] a shoot who would be empowered by the Spirit to judge righteously with wisdom and strength. He would vindicate the poor, punish the wicked, and bring about an age of restoration. The blind would see, the lame would run like the deer, the oppressed would be set free, the oppressors would be judged, and the land would finally be redeemed. Even though the prophets consistently called the people of God to repentance, they continued in their hardhearted disobedience to oppress the widows, the orphans, and the vulnerable. They worshiped other gods and committed adultery with them under every leafy tree. Finally, time ran out, and God used Babylonia, and her head of fine gold—Nebuchadnezzar—to punish his people. The Babylonian army destroyed Jerusalem, the Temple, and carried off the people into exile.

During the seventy year Babylonian exile, it would have been easy to lose hope in God’s grand covenant to David, except for exilic prophets like Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel who explained to the people that they had been judged for their sin, but that God would again act to bring about their restoration.

One of these prophets, Daniel, interpreted the dream of Nebuchadnezzar, and in so doing revealed that God still had plans to establish a kingdom. The statue in the dream represented various human kingdoms, which were destroyed by a rock cut out without hands. When the stone hit the feet of the statue, the whole image broke into a million pieces. Then the rock became a mountain that filled the whole earth.

Daniel 2.44
44 And in the days of those kings the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that shall never be destroyed, nor shall this kingdom be left to another people. It shall crush all these kingdoms and bring them to an end, and it shall stand forever;

Furthermore, at a later time, Daniel saw a vision of four beasts coming out of the watery chaos. Each of these represented a kingdom: a lion, a bear, and a leopard. Then the last in this sequence of animalistic kingdoms was a beast so terrifying that no earthly analog was available. From this last, terrifying beast, arose a little horn who waged war with the saints and overcame them. However, God himself, the Ancient of Days, passed judgment upon the last kingdom in fiery act of divine justice. Then, at last, a son of man came up to the Ancient of Days.

Daniel 7.13-14
13 As I watched in the night visions, I saw one like a human being [son of man] coming with the clouds of heaven. And he came to the Ancient One and was presented before him. 14 To him was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed.

Finally, a divinely sanctioned humane kingdom would arrive on the earth to bring lasting change. This eternal kingdom was to be given to the “people of the saints of the Highest One” who will enjoy it forever.

After the exile, the people returned to the land under Zerubbabel and Joshua to rebuild the Temple. Then Ezra arrived and taught the people how to live the Torah. Lastly, Nehemiah was commissioned as governor to rebuild the wall and establish Jerusalem again as a city-state (though they remained subjects of the Persian kingdom). Through the next four hundred years, various empires fought for control of Palestine including the Macedonian Empire, the Ptolemies, the Seleucids, and finally the Romans. By the time of the New Testament Rome had already been in power over Judea for sixty years. The people of God chafed under each empire and some even gave up hope that the Messiah would ever come.

Then, to a poor Jewish virgin, from the ignoble town of Nazareth, came the angel Gabriel, who brought hope back to life with these words:

Luke 1.31-33
31 And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32 He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. 33 He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”

Fascinating! Jesus, the virgin-born son of Mary would be the one to fulfill the promise God had made to David a millennium earlier. God had not forgotten about his covenant, and he was planning to act in a big way through this Jesus of Nazareth. As Mary’s son grew, he not only heard stories[7] of Roman brutality but he also witnessed firsthand the humiliating practice of Roman soldiers who forced peasants to carry their gear for a mile. Once he was about thirty he began his ministry by going to John for baptism.

John was an ascetic, apocalyptic preacher who conceived of the world in two categories: the people of God and everybody else. John preached with red-hot passion and used poignant agricultural imagery to get people’s attention as he prophesied of the one to come—the Messiah.

Luke 3.16-17
16 John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

As the farmer separates out the grain from the chaff so the Messiah would judge between the people of God and the wicked. In this way John cried out in the wilderness, urging the people of God to get right with God because the Messiah was soon to appear. From John’s perspective, when the Messiah came, God would act in an irreversible way to bring about his kingdom on earth as opposed to the kingdom of Rome or Parthia or whatever the current incarnation of Satan’s rule happened to be.

Of course, Jesus agreed with John’s apocalyptic message, or else he would not have gone to John for baptism and publicly associated himself with John’s ministry. In fact, to emphasize the continuity of message between John and Jesus, Matthew used the identical summary phrase, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 3.2; 4.17). Jesus did not change John’s message about the coming kingdom and the need to repent nor did he depart from the apocalyptic worldview of John. However, he did enact the kingdom in fresh ways—as would only be fit if he were, in fact, the Messiah. But, before looking at how Jesus as Messiah embodied the kingdom in his ministry, a word or two must be said about Satan, God’s archenemy and the one with whom Jesus found himself in the wilderness, just after his baptism.

Satan, that old serpent who had duped the first Adam, now with (at least) four more millennia of practice, approached the second Adam. All three temptations were ways of getting Jesus to doubt or prove that he really was the Son of God (i.e. the one destined to rule the world).[8] At one point the Devil took Jesus up to a very high mountain and showed Jesus all of the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time. He said, “I will give you all this domain and its glory; for it has been handed over to me, and I give it to whomever I wish. Therefore if you worship before me, it shall all be yours.” (Luke 4.6-7). Note the echoes of Daniel’s vision that a son of man would receive “dominion, glory, and a kingdom, that all the peoples, nations and men of every language might serve him.” (Daniel 7.14). Jesus did not challenge Satan’s claim that he was the present ruler of the kingdoms of the world. (It is clear from the rest of the New Testament[9] that Satan is the puppet master pulling the strings of the kingdoms of this age). Rather, Jesus resisted him by saying, “You shall worship the Lord your God and serve him only.” With this response, Jesus overcame the temptation to grasp for the scepter of power, and become the ruler of the world apart from God’s plan. Since he was confident in the promises of God he limited his ascension to a position of power to God’s timing. Even though, the first century Mediterranean world would have been much better off with Jesus in charge instead of Satan, Jesus still said no to the temptation to take dominion before the kingdom arrived. He did not function by the ends-justifies-the-means thought process; instead his focus was on staying faithful to his God even in the face of the temptation to take Judea back for God.


Jesus’ Ministry: Fresh Signs of the Kingdom

After three rounds with the Tempter in the desert, Jesus emerged victorious and began his Galilean ministry “in the power of the spirit” (Luke 4.14). In Nazareth, where he grew up, he preached an inaugural address of sorts. He was handed the book of Isaiah and read the following text (from chapter sixty-one):

Luke 4.18-19
18 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, 19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Then from the lips of Jesus came these astounding words, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” For Jesus, this text was the foundation of his ministry. In the context immediately preceding this quotation from Isaiah, the city of Jerusalem had been restored to glory. She had become wealthy and peaceful and the exiles had returned. The chapter concluded with an end to violence, the coming of Yahweh to give light to the city, and the permanent inheriting of the land by the righteous. The very next verse (Isaiah 61.1) was where Jesus began his reading. He saw himself as the herald of the coming restoration: the one who brought the good news (gospel), proclaimed the coming Jubilee, set free those who suffered oppression, and healed the blind. Furthermore, the context which followed the text Jesus quoted from in Isaiah sixty-one concerns itself with the reversal of fortunes to accompany the vindication of God’s people in the end. So, Jesus saw his own ministry as that of the herald, who not only proclaimed but prophetically enacted the coming of God’s kingdom.

Two more texts need to be addressed before we approach Jesus’ teaching ministry, and begin to think explicitly about nonviolence. The first is Jesus’ response to the disciples of John who asked him, in somewhat coded terminology, “Are you the expected one or do we look for someone else?” At that very moment Jesus was engaged in extensive healing and demonic exorcisms, and so he replied, in an equally cryptic manner:

Luke 7.22-23
22 And he answered them, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them. 23 And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

This obscure response gains clarity once we realize that Jesus conflated two texts from Isaiah: one from chapter thirty-five and the other from sixty-one. Since we have already considered the latter briefly, we will now turn our attention to the thirty-fifth chapter:

Isaiah 35:4-6
4 Say to those who are of a fearful heart, “Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God. He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. He will come and save you.” 5 Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; 6 then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert;

This chapter, as was sixty-one, is unquestionably a prophecy of the coming kingdom. When God’s reign is established on earth the deserts will blossom, the lame will walk, the wicked will be judged, and even the mute will shout for joy. Jesus’ answer to the emissaries of John was an emphatic, “Yes! I am the one.” Still, what should grab our attention here is the fact that Jesus’ miracles are signs of the kingdom which testified to who he was—the Expected One (i.e. the Messiah). Even so, his signs were not limited to healing people; he also performed exorcisms, which testified to the kingdom as well.

After his first recorded sermon, about which we have already commented, Jesus went to Capernaum on the northern Galilean seacoast. In the middle of his Sabbath teaching, a man erupted in a demonic shriek, saying the following:

Luke 4.34
34 “Let us alone! What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.”

Apparently, the demons interpreted Jesus’ ministry in an eschatological light. They knew who he was and thought that he was coming in judgment. However, Jesus, rather than carrying on a dialog with the demon, rebuked it, told it to be quiet, and cast it out. Later that night, a mass of sick and demonized people assembled in a line outside of Simon Peter’s house to be healed by Jesus.

Luke 4.41
Demons also came out of many, shouting, “You are the Son of God!” But he rebuked them and would not allow them to speak, because they knew that he was the Messiah.

It is important to keep in mind that up to this point the term “Messiah” would have been inseparable from the “messianic age” (i.e. the kingdom of God). No one anticipated the Messiah to come prior to the messianic age much less that he would die for the sins of the people. Rather the traditional expectation as articulated by John the baptizer was that when Messiah came, he would enact God’s final judgment and usher in the eternal age of peace, justice, and political security for Israel. So, the demons interpreted Jesus exorcism ministry as a kingdom event.

In another incident, later in his ministry, a demon-possessed man who was blind and mute was brought to Jesus for healing. The crowds in amazement mused, “This man cannot be the Son of David, can he?” However, the Pharisees, unable to deny the miraculous, crafted an accusation which acknowledged the exorcism but denied that this meant that Jesus was the king of God’s coming kingdom. They said, “This man casts out demons only by Beelzebul the ruler of demons.” Jesus defended himself against this absurd criticism with plain logic:

Matthew 12.26, 28-29
26 If Satan casts out Satan, he is divided against himself; how then will his kingdom stand?… 28 But if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come to you. 29 Or how can one enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property, without first tying up the strong man? Then indeed the house can be plundered.

Jesus associated his victory over demons in terms of the kingdom of God. Jesus had tied up the strong man (Satan) and was plundering his house (kingdom) by setting free these oppressed people who had been held captive. Thus, it is abundantly evident that Jesus interpreted his healing and exorcism activities in light of the coming kingdom.

Jesus’ ministry was thoroughly soaked with kingdom language and imagery. The gospel he was commissioned to proclaim from village to village was called “the gospel about the kingdom of God” (Matthew 4.23; 9.35; Luke 4.43). When he told parables often they would start with the phrase, “the kingdom of heaven[10] is like…” (Matthew 13.24, 31, 33, 44, 45, 47, 52; 20.1, etc.). He chose twelve disciples and promised that in the regeneration, when the Son of Man came to sit on his glorious throne, then they too would sit on twelve thrones judging[11] the twelve tribes of Israel. Furthermore, Jesus reached out to the lowly, downtrodden, and outcasts of society in outrageously counter-cultural acts of restoration. He would touch the leper, eat dinner with the prostitutes and tax collectors, and share the gospel with a Samaritan woman beside Jacob’s well. Though he did not spiritualize or dismiss the prophetic vision of the kingdom described by Isaiah, Daniel, Amos, Micah, and the others, he did pour new wine into new wineskins by embodying the kingdom in fresh and exciting ways. It was as if the kingdom was bubbling over from the future and bursting on the scene in the ministry of Jesus. Of course, from the Messiah—the agent of the coming restoration, the one anointed to rule God’s kingdom—we would expect nothing less. One of these kingdom innovations that broke in through the ministry of Jesus was the Sermon on the Mount. Due to the misconceptions about this sermon and the subject of nonviolence, we will take a good deal of time analyzing certain portions of this teaching before returning to our narrative about Jesus.


The Sermon on the Mount

In this sermon, Jesus laid out the kingdom ethic, the new way of being the people of God while waiting for and actively anticipating the coming kingdom. The Sermon on the Mount is so radical that it is often dismissed, domesticated, or else completely ignored. In my own dispensationalist heritage the Sermon on the Mount was dismissed as the ethic Jesus gave to the Jews, the lost sheep of the house of Israel, not for Christians who were to obey the writings of Paul. In the Lutheran tradition the Sermon on the Mount was viewed as an impossible ideal designed to demonstrate our pathetic capacity for moral living and our sinfulness so that we may realize that salvation has nothing to do with works, but is, alas, solely a matter of God’s grace. In other traditions the Sermon on the Mount has been domesticated and reinterpreted so that exceptions and exemptions are found each time one of Christ’s commands crossed the grain of accepted norms. Some even say that there is nothing new in the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus was merely calling Israel back to keeping the Law. Rather than responding to each of these theories in turn, we will take a more Anabaptist approach to the text—in other words, we will entertain the radical notion that Jesus actually meant for his followers to live the way he described in this teaching.

First of all, it may be beneficial to note that the overall structure of the Gospel of Matthew breaks Jesus’ teachings into five blocks, as if to say that with Jesus came a new Torah (more on this later). Furthermore, in Matthew, Jesus’ own life took a very Moses-shaped path. Jesus narrowly escaped an imperially sanctioned infanticide as a young child. After sojourning in Egypt for a time, he exited.[12] Jesus spent a time in the wilderness[13] and then he went up like a new Moses on a new Mount to deliver the new Torah. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus repeatedly said, “You have heard that it was said…but I say to you…” The shocking fact is that Jesus quoted directly from the Law and then said, “But I say to you, do this instead.” The way Jesus described in this sermon transcended the old by requiring far more of the people. In fact, Jesus’ teaching was so radical, so counter-cultural, that even to this day most of us do not even dare take it seriously.

In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus explicitly mentioned the kingdom nine times (not counting allusions), which tells us that he could not separate doctrine from ethics or belief in the kingdom from the lifestyle of its citizens.

The beatitudes wonderfully illustrate how the future makes sense of the present. For example, one aspect of the kingdom is that when it comes there will be a series of reversals: the last will be first, the poor will become rich, the afflicted will be comforted, and the powerless will be given positions of authority, and so on. Jesus puts it this way: Those who are poor in spirit now will receive the kingdom then. Those who mourn now will be comforted then. Those who are meek now will inherit the earth then. Those who desire righteousness/justice now will be filled then…and so on. On this basis, Jesus pronounced blessings on those who fit into these categories.

What may not be immediately obvious is how radical these categories are: Blessed are the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for justice, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and the persecuted. But, once we invert the list, suddenly the full force of Jesus’ blessings is felt: Cursed are the rich in spirit, those who are not mourning, those who assert their “rights” using force, those who do not care about justice, the unmerciful, the wicked in heart, the “warmakers,” and the persecutors.

Obviously some of these cursed behaviors were endorsed or at least permitted by the Law of Moses, but Jesus is doing something new. To further illustrate the newness of Jesus’ instructions, it would be helpful to see how Jesus used a series of formulas to quote the Law and then modify it.

The Law prohibited murder and brought murderers to court.

Jesus said that anger should have the same punishment, that a derogatory remark puts one in danger of the highest court, and that calling someone fool makes one guilty enough to go into the fiery hell.

The Law prohibited adultery (on pain of stoning).

Jesus said that looking with lust is equivalent to committing adultery in the heart. In fact it would be better to be maimed than to lust.

The Law permitted divorce if any “indecency” was found in one’s wife.

Jesus prohibited divorce altogether (except for fornication) and also prohibited remarriage to the one who had been divorced

The Law permitted vows made to Yahweh so long as they were fulfilled.

Jesus prohibited all oaths and instead argued for integrity of speech.

The Law required civil punishment to be equitable: an eye for an eye.

Jesus said not to resist an evil person but rather to turn the cheek, give the coat, and walk the second mile.

The Law required the love of the neighbor but permitted the hatred of the enemy.

Jesus said to love the enemy; pray for the persecutor so that they would be the children of God who provides rain for the righteous and wicked.

So, it is clear that Jesus elevated the moral standard beyond what the Torah required. Ironically, it has been our tendency as Christians to lower the standard of morality to be less than the Law of Moses. We have comforted ourselves in a blanket of justification-by-faith and used it to protect ourselves from the words of Jesus, as if the accomplishments of his death abrogate the instructions he gave during his life. To the contrary, Jesus’ death, resurrection, and subsequent outpouring of the Holy Spirit have modeled, vindicated, and made possible obedience to the Sermon-on-the-Mount lifestyle. Time would prohibit us from examining the entirety of this sermon in detail, but suffice it to say Jesus was doing something new. He was not just telling some wayward Jews to get back to Torah.

Since the aim of this work is to provide a theology of nonviolence, we will limit our attention to only the portions of the Sermon on the Mount which relate to this topic. There are two beatitudes and two commands that we need to examine before we can look at how Jesus practiced what he preached. The first is:

Matthew 5.5
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

The meek are those who “endure injury with patience and without resentment.”[14] Because they shun the use of coercive tactics to assert themselves, they are the last ones who would ever possess the earth. The meek are the ones who are oppressed by the warlords and their accomplices. But, according to Jesus, the meek are exactly the ones God intends to put in charge of his creation.

The next beatitude was addressed to the peacemakers:

Matthew 5.9
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.

The word peacemakers could be translated literally the “peace-doers.” It may be hard for us to think differently than our typical ends-justify-the-means mentality about this, but the peacemakers are not those who use violence as a means to bring about peace. In other words Jesus is commending those who “do peace,” not those who “do war” for the sake of peace. The peacemakers, not the “warmakers,” will be called the sons of God. Much more could be said about peace, especially in the context of the New Testament as a whole,[15] but for now we need to focus on the famous resist-not-evil passage.

Matthew 5.38-42
38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; 40 and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; 41 and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. 42 Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.

This instruction has to do with justice. The book of Leviticus had commanded, “If a man injures his neighbor, just as he has done, so it shall be done to him, fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth…” (Lev 24.19-20). The Israelite had the right to demand retributive justice in accordance with the injury he suffered. Jesus, however, argued for a new course of action; a strategy that involved giving up one’s personal rights.

Two typical ways to read this are (1) to understand the text as call to passive non-resistance or (2) to pull interpretive tricks to make exceptions for self-defense, military participation, and civil service. The Amish have taken the former as their rule of life to such a degree that a man would allow his wife to be attacked without attempting to defend her. To the battered wife the passive non-resistance advocate merely advises her to “turn the cheek,” even if it means becoming a punching bag.

The second strategy is generally held to by most Christians. The reasoning works like this: In my own dealings with my wife, my children, my coworkers, and my neighbors I should turn the cheek, give up my right to sue, and walk the second mile. However, if an intruder breaks into my house I’ll blow his head off with the hand gun I keep under my pillow. Furthermore, if someone is employed by the military, the police, or a security agency, he may disregard the commands of Jesus, because he is not acting out of personal concern but out of his or her representational role for the state, society, or employer. So, the person reasons, in my personal life I will not resist an evil person, but while on the job (in the real world) I will do what is required of me, especially if my life is endangered. The basis of these interpretative tricks was pioneered by the fourth century theologian, Augustine, who conceived of a dualism between the internal and the external. Lee Camp explains:

Whereas the early church did not, for example, spend a great deal of time asking whether “Jesus really meant” what Matthew records in the Sermon on the Mount, later Christianity began to “spiritualize,” to interiorize, Christian discipleship—discipleship becomes more a matter of one’s “heart” than all of one’s life…Christ’s teachings are meant to inform our attitudes, but not our actions, it is claimed. We, for example, “love our enemies” in our hearts, while our role as emperor or hangman or soldier requires that we kill our enemies. With regard to Matthew 5:39—…Augustine, for example, commented that “what is here required is not a bodily action, but an inward disposition.”[16]

Yet, there is a third option, which stays faithful to the text, yet does not make us doormats or hypocrites. One name for this third way is confrontational non-resistance.[17] The idea is quite simple: the follower of Jesus is called to confront the oppressor nonviolently and in so doing show him how brutal he really is. Civil law cannot change the heart; it merely acts to restrict the behavior of people so that they will not harm others. So, in the old way, if an unjust offense occurred one could bring the offender to court and demand retribution. Jesus is showing a better way, a way that can actually challenge the offender in his act of oppression. Jesus’ way invokes a provocative alternative to the tired old fight or flight dichotomy. He calls us to deconstruct our oppressor’s underlying assumptions through creative acts of self-sacrificial and confrontational nonresistance. This response challenges the underlying assumptions which enable their brutality and opens the door to repentance and even reconciliation.

Before we look at the three examples Jesus gave, we need to address the command, “Do not resist evil.” What does Jesus mean by this simple phrase? Is he saying that one should never oppose evil? But, didn’t Jesus himself resist evil people? He certainly did. Remember the time that he railed against the scribes and Pharisees with seven thunderous woes (Matthew 23.1-36)? Or what about the time he fashioned a whip and drove out the animals, causing a raucous in the temple as a prophetic enactment of judgment upon a system of greed? The key to understanding this phrase lies in knowing a bit about the word translated “resist.” The word literally means to stand against, which was frequently used as a military term.[18] When two armies met in battle they would “stand against” each other. Jesus was not saying do nothing to oppose evil. That would be hypocritical because his entire life resisted evil (Jesus even stood against Satan’s temptations). No, Jesus was saying that the new way should not combat evil with evil. Rather than, “an eye for an eye,” Jesus was saying that if someone poked out an eye, the victim should not “stand against” them by poking out their eye, rather seek a creative alternative to bring resolution. Don’t fight fire with fire; fight it with water. As we will soon see, all three of the examples that Jesus gave were actually ways of confronting evil without being reduced to vengeful behavior.

In order to better understand Jesus’ response we need to work through each of the three examples in light of the cultural context of the time. Our guide for this exercise is Walter Wink, Professor of Biblical Interpretation at Auburn Theological Seminary, whose work on this subject has been quoted by both liberal (Marcus Borg) and conservative (Lee Camp) theologians alike.

Turn the Cheek – whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also

At the time Jesus spoke these words, in Jewish Palestine, there was a vast economic divide between the “haves” and the “have-nots.” Perhaps as few as three percent were wealthy, which meant that in all likelihood those people listening to him were the poor who struggled to eek out an existence in the shadow of the Roman empire and the wealthy Jewish aristocrats who partnered with Caesar. In such a society, and throughout the Mediterranean world, people were highly stratified.

Ancient Mediterranean societies tended to be very hierarchical. It was a world where everyone knew their place in relation to countless superiors and inferiors. Those who neglected or forgot this stratification of rank would be readily reminded by those around…Social convention dictated gestures of deference and respect from inferior to superior at every point along this hierarchy. In the presence of someone of high rank, low bows or prostrations were expected.[19]

Keeping all of this in mind, consider for a moment, what kind of strike is being used as an example. Probably, most of us envision a right hook, like would be common in a brawl between equals. However, this is impossible because that sort of blow would land on the left cheek. Then, maybe we should imagine a left hook, but this is impossible because the left hand was reserved for unseemly tasks. Furthermore, “to even gesture with the left hand brought shame on the one gesturing.”[20] So, what was in mind here was a slap with the back side of the right hand. Such a hit would not be used to inflict harm but instead shame. This is the sort of thing a superior would use to humiliate an inferior in order to put him in his place. So what does it mean to “turn the cheek” after such a slap?

By turning the other cheek, the person struck puts the striker in an untenable spot. He cannot repeat the backhand, because the other’s nose is now in the way. The left cheek makes a fine target, but only persons who are equals fight with fists, and the last thing the master wants is for the slave to assert equality (see the Mishnah, Baba Kamma 8:6). This is, of course, no way to avoid trouble; the master might have the slave flogged to within an inch of her life. But the point has been irrevocably made: the “inferior” is saying, in no uncertain terms, “I won’t take such treatment anymore. I am your equal. I am a child of God.” By turning the other cheek, the oppressed person is saying that she refuses to submit to further humiliation. This is not submission, as the churches have insisted. It is defiance.[21]

Suddenly the offender finds himself in an awkward position. He has only two options: (1) Stop abusing the person or (2) hit him as an equal. Either way the “inferior” person has nonviolently confronted the abuser without resorting to using the same violent tactic, which was not really an option anyhow. I imagine the most common response of a Jewish peasant humiliated in this way by a Jewish or Roman aristocrat was to endure the slap, glare at the offender, seethe internally, and curse under his breath. Due to social constraints the slapped one would have no recourse to acquire justice. He could not take the offender to court or respond in kind; rather he would have to endure the humiliation. In light of this, Jesus gave his audience a provocative new way to confront evil without becoming the very thing they hate. Perhaps another example will help to make the point.

Giving the Coat — If anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt let him have your coat also

In our culture, clothing is mass produced, relatively cheap, and diverse. We have multiple items of clothing for different parts of our body. If someone sued me for one of my twenty shirts I could easily give it to him along with one of my three or four coats. In their culture things were quite different—especially among the poor. The average person wore only one or two full length garments at a time. The tunic was worn next to the skin and the coat was used as an outer garment which doubled as a blanket for sleeping. So, if someone had no land, no crops, and no other way to pay his debt he could be sued for the clothes on his back. We are talking about someone who has suffered misfortune after misfortune, he has nothing left and he has succumbed to the economic squeeze of Romanization (i.e. becoming “civilized”). The landowning Jew or Roman suing the peasant was being absolutely ruthless; he has bought into the might-makes-right system of predatory wealth-building. He is ready to take this man’s second to last article of clothing, stopping just short of stripping him completely naked.

Furthermore, Jesus’ culture was heavily based on honor and shame. One did not seek wealth, success, and education the way we do in twenty-first century America. Rather, the single commodity worthy of pursuit was honor. To be shamed was the highest insult and to be honored was the highest compliment. Just imagine the shame one would experience as he stood before the court and was ordered to give his tunic in payment. But, what was Jesus’ command? “If anyone wants to sue you and take your cloak, let him have your coat also.” Jesus is advising the oppressed to strip naked before the court.

Nakedness was taboo in Judaism, and shame fell less on the naked party than on the person viewing or causing the nakedness (Gen 9:20-27). By stripping, the debtor has brought the creditor under the same prohibition that led to the curse of Canaan. And much as Isaiah had “walked naked and barefoot for three years” as a prophetic sign (Isa. 20:1-6), so the debtor parades his nakedness in prophetic protest against a system that has deliberately rendered him destitute. Imagine him leaving the court, naked: his friends and neighbors, aghast, inquire what happened. He explains. They join his growing procession, which now resembles a victory parade. The entire system by which debtors are oppressed has been publicly unmasked. The creditor is revealed to be not a legitimate moneylender but a party to the reduction of an entire social class to landlessness, destitution, and abasement. This unmasking is not simply punitive, therefore; it offers the creditor a chance to see, perhaps for the first time in his life, what his practices cause, and to repent.[22]

To say exactly, what would happen in that court room would be impossible, but suffice it to say that Jesus gave the financially abused man a new way to confront financial injustice without resorting to violence or similar predatory practices. He is now able to symbolically demonstrate that the system was stripping him of everything. Though they wear fine robes of dignity in fact they are brutal savages deserving of burlesque not honor.

Going the Second Mile – Whoever forces you to go one mile, go with him two

One of the most hated sights in all of Galilee was no doubt that of a Roman soldier. This was partly because their presence meant that the people were not free, but under Caesar’s thumb—a thumb which increasingly was pressing down on the people, squeezing them for taxes through the local client king Herod Antipas. A second reason why the Roman troops were despised was because of the practice called angareia. A marching infantryman customarily pressed peasants into service by ordering them to carry his heavy pack for him.[23] Due to abuses Rome had established a law that limited the maximum distance one would be required to go to one mile.

Just imagine what it would have been like to be forced to carry a conquering Gentile’s seventy pound military pack. The person only had two options: (1) resist the soldier which would immediately escalate the situation and possibly get arrested or beaten or (2) submit to the injustice and bear the burden for the required mile. At the one mile stone the peasant would drop the soldiers stuff and storm off in a rush to get home furious for being made a donkey to bear Rome’s wares.

But, what does Jesus say? “Go with him two.” Excuse me? Go a second mile with the Gentile savage? What would happen if someone actually did this? The Jew passes the mile marker and the Roman soldier says, “Halt, you’ve gone far enough. Return to me my pack.” But, the peasant responds, “No, I’d like to go a second mile.” Since it was against Roman law to force someone to carry their belongings for more than a mile, the soldier could get into serious trouble if anyone found out. It is hard to know what punishment would result, but options ranged from his superior rebuking him to being given barley instead of wheat rations to arrest or even flogging. Perhaps, even because of the uncertainty of the punishment, the soldier would have all the more reason to obey the law.

From a situation of servile impressment, the oppressed have once more seized the initiative. They have taken back the power of choice. The soldier is thrown off balance by being deprived of the predictability of his victim’s response. He has never dealt with such a problem before. Now he has been forced into making a decision for which nothing in his previous experience has prepared him. If he has enjoyed feeling superior to the vanquished, he will not enjoy it today. Imagine the situation of a Roman infantryman pleading with a Jew to give back his pack! The humor of this scene may have escaped us, but it could scarcely have been lost on Jesus’ hearers, who must have been regaled at the prospect of thus discomfiting their oppressors. Jesus does not encourage Jews to walk a second mile in order to build up merit in heaven, or to exercise a supererogatory piety, or to kill the soldier with kindness. He is helping an oppressed people find a way to protest and neutralize an onerous practice despised throughout the empire. He is not giving a non-political message of spiritual world-transcendence. He is formulating a worldly spirituality in which the people at the bottom of society or under the thumb of imperial power learn to recover their humanity.  One could easily misuse Jesus’ advice vindictively; that is why it must not be separated from the command to love enemies integrally connected with it in both Matthew and Luke. [24]

The ancient Mediterranean world was rife with injustices, especially for peasants. The question was not, whether or not an injustice occurred, but rather, when it occurred what to do about it. The Sadducean response was, “If you can’t beat ‘em join ‘em.” The Essenes pulled out of society and willingly exiled themselves in desert communities. The so-called fourth philosophy said, “This is God’s country, and we will not stand to see it dominated by these heathen one moment longer. We need an armed revolution!” But, what does Jesus say? How should a follower of this Jewish rabbi behave in the face of injustice? Firstly, don’t become what you hate—don’t enter into combat with evil on its own terms. Rather, find creative ways to confront it self-sacrificially. Incredibly, by doing so, one rediscovers his own dignity whereas the oppressor is thrown off guard and challenged to rethink his participation in the system.

I realize that this reading of Jesus command, “Resist not evil” is probably new to many, but we should also admit that for followers of Jesus there are really only two options: (1) accept the Wink interpretation of confrontational nonresistance or (2) accept the traditional Anabaptist interpretation of utter passiveness in the face of evil. Let the reader decide. Either way, violence is excluded. Now we shall turn to the most poignant text on this subject and the first mention in the Sermon on the Mount of the word love:

Matthew 5.43-48
43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Of course, the Law never explicitly taught that one should hate his enemies. One of the primary aims of the Law was to facilitate a lasting, equitable and peaceful community that reflected God’s beauty. Thus, the command to love one’s neighbor (Leviticus 19.18) was a major step forward. The people were to love each other—like a family. The original context said:

Leviticus 19.16-18 [NASB]
“You shall not go about as a slanderer among your people…you shall not hate your fellow countryman in your heart…nor bear any grudge against the sons of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself, I am the Lord”

This command prohibited internal strife and urged the people to live in solidarity with their brothers and sisters—the descendants of Abraham. Even so, it did not prohibit nationalism or the hatred of others outside of Israel. Between the time of Moses, when this command was given, and the time Jesus addressed his disciples, Israel had been oppressed by Assyria, Babylonia, Persia, Greece, the Ptolemies, the Seleucids, and the Romans. And so, the saying was known, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” Or in other words, “love your fellow Jew and hate the oppressive, uncircumcised, lawless, brutal Gentiles.” To this mentality Jesus responded by teaching the new way of loving one’s enemy, not just one’s countryman.

Jesus told his followers to pray for those who persecuted them. In the similar passage from Luke, Jesus went on to add, “Do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you” (Luke 6.27-28). Why should one follow this upside-down course of action with regard to the enemy? Jesus explained that the reason was so that the children would be like their Father. In other words, the disciple practices enemy love not because it is effective but because that is what God does. The Father does not withhold sunshine from the wicked and he sends them rain as well. The people of God should love brothers and even foreign oppressive powers because they are to be like their Father in heaven. Besides, if one merely loved those who loved him, how would that be different than the pagans? Everybody loves those who love them! No, the followers of the way of Jesus are to love even those who persecute them, and in so doing their love is perfected.[25] It is not an imperfect love—a love merely for the lovable—but a perfect love, which transcends nationalism, ethnocentrism, sexism, and every other barrier.

What is universally acknowledged by Christian and non-Christian alike, even to this day, is that Jesus was no hypocrite. He was a man who practiced what he preached. And so, when we read these staggering words in the Sermon on the Mount, we are not left without an example of what the way of Jesus looks like in full color. Jesus said, “Blessed are the meek,” and when he was given opportunity to seize the royal robes of world-rulership from the fist of Satan, Jesus refused and instead entrusted himself to God’s way. Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers,” and throughout his ministry, not least in his exorcisms, he made peace between people and through his death he made peace between humanity and God. Jesus said, “do not resist an evil person, turn the cheek, give your undergarment, and walk the second mile” and when his beard was ripped out, his garments torn off, and the cross placed upon his back, he uttered no threats, he harbored no bitterness, and yet through it all he looked them in the eye and confronted their savagery by providing for them a ready mirror which reflected back to them their own brutality. He could have called legions of angels but he did not choose that path. Jesus who said, “love your enemy,” washed Judas’ feet, spoke truth to Pilate, and in a moment that must have astounded those standing by, he prayed for those who were crucifying him, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” So, throughout his ministry, even during his trials, torture, and death, Jesus lived out the way that he taught in the Sermon on the Mount, effectively putting to rest once and for all the idea that this way of being the people of God was impossible.


The Cross as an Example for us to Emulate

Almost as fast as one can say, “Jesus showed us that another way is possible,” I can already hear the rebuttal, “But, that was Jesus. I’m not Jesus. He was the Son of God. I’m just a sinner saved by grace.” In order to see if this way of reasoning is legitimate we need to look at how other New Testament authors spoke about the cross. Firstly, here are the texts that show how Jesus’ death on the cross has opened up a new way for us to live.

Romans 8.3-4: When God’s Son was given as an offering for sin; he condemned sin in the flesh so that we would walk according to the Spirit not according to the flesh

Hebrews 2.14-15: Through death he rendered the devil powerless and freed us who were slaves under the old principalities and powers

Hebrews 9.13: The death of Christ was vastly superior to the sacrifices offered under the old covenant; his blood cleanses even our consciences from dead works and enables us to serve the living God

2 Corinthians 5.14-20: If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things have passed away and new things have come: God has now given us the very same service of reconciling that God performed through Christ. Thus, we are ambassadors for the Messiah, who continue his ministry of reconciliation

Revelation 1.5-6; 5.9-10: We have been released from our sins by his blood and made into a new priesthood who serve God now and who will reign upon the earth in the future

Secondly, here are the texts that demonstrate Jesus’ suffering and death is as an example for us to follow.

Philippians 2.5-8: Jesus’ obedience to the point of humiliation and death is our example for how we should humbly relate to one another. Paul starts with the words, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus…”

Romans 6.2-11: All who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been buried with him, so that as Christ was raised into the newness of life we too would live out a whole new way of life. In other words, we were crucified with Jesus, so that we would no longer be slaves to sin, but freed people whose members are instruments of righteousness.

Romans 8.17: We are to join him in suffering so that we may also join him in glory.

Ephesians 5.2: We are to walk in love just like Christ who loved us by giving himself up for us as an offering and a sacrifice to God

Of course, the Greek Scriptures have a lot to say about how Jesus’ death was for our sins as well. But, Jesus’ crucifixion was not only something that dealt with sin, it also opened up a new way for us to be the people of God and therefore the Bible speaks of his suffering and death as our example. Perhaps no text makes this point more clearly than the famous words of Peter when he said that we should follow Jesus “in his steps.”

1 Peter 2.21-24
21 For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps. 22 “He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.” 23 When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly. 24 He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed.

The phrase “in his steps” refers specifically to the suffering that Christ underwent. Though many think Jesus suffered only because he was the lamb of God who accomplished redemption through the cross, this text makes it clear that his suffering was an example for us to follow—in his steps. Where did his steps lead? How did he walk? He did not sin or speak deceitfully. He did not return evil for evil or even utter threats, but entrusted himself to God the righteous judge. He did all of this so that we would die to sin and live in the same right way. Furthermore, this section of Peter’s letter was specifically addressed to slaves who were being abused unjustly! Even under such deplorable and humiliating conditions, violence was not considered an option. Rather, Peter said, “to this you have been called,” to suffer like Christ. But, again, just like Jesus, Peter knew what he was talking about; for after he and John were arrested and flogged by Sanhedrin they went their way “rejoicing that they had been considered worthy to suffer shame for his name” (Acts 5.40). Indeed, Jesus himself had directed two of the beatitudes to those who suffer persecution saying, “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven” (Matthew 5.12). Even so, Christians are not to go out of their way for the sake of suffering, and our suffering does not earn salvation because Jesus has already accomplished that. Lee Camp’s words are helpful in clarifying and distinguishing our role from Christ’s.

One thing should be made clear, if it is not already: we are not called to be the Messiah, but to follow the Messiah. There is, unquestionably, a unique role given to the Son of God who is the Savior and Redeemer…In his death, Jesus as the Anointed, as Son of God, accomplished certain things in behalf of humankind that we were (and are) unable to accomplish ourselves.

But the Christendom model increasingly made Jesus’ way of effecting reconciliation irrelevant to the way of Jesus’ disciples. The cross of Jesus increasingly became a symbol of legal atonement that could be conveniently separated from our own lives. The cross is looked upon as something Jesus does for us—he dies so we don’t have to… The New Testament, however, makes very clear that the cross is not something reserved for Jesus alone.[26]

Sadly, taking up the cross has sometimes been trivialized to mean, suffer through the flu without being a grouch. However, the suffering we are called to is not merely that which is common to all who live in this fallen world. No, we are called to follow in his steps. We are given a new life, made priests, so that we would minister the kingdom gospel to a world in desperate need—just like Jesus did. Thus, while we preach the gospel Jesus proclaimed we also embody the kingdom the way he did. John Howard Yoder, put it this way:

The believer’s cross is no longer any and every kind of suffering, sickness, or tension, the bearing of which is demanded. The believer’s cross must be, like his Lord’s, the price of his social nonconformity. It is not, like sickness or catastrophe, an inexplicable, unpredictable suffering; it is the end of a path freely chosen after counting the cost. It is not…[as some contend]…an inward wrestling of the sensitive soul with self and sin; it is the social reality of representing in an unwilling world the Order to come.[27]


Apostles Confirm Jesus’ Teaching on Nonviolence

The apostles understood Jesus’ teaching and life (especially how he endured torture and execution) as their standard for what it meant to be a follower of the way. We will return to the idea of embodying the kingdom in a while, but for now we must look at other New Testament writers who mention the notion of nonviolent enemy love. We will consider two examples before moving on to discuss two more theological bombshells that Jesus unleashed: resurrection and Holy Spirit.

Though Paul is often accused of diverting from the way of Jesus, in fact, his words to the nascent Christian community at the imperial capital were remarkably reminiscent of Jesus’ own teaching in the Sermon on the Mount:

Romans 12.14, 17-21
14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them… 17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. 18 If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” 20 No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Twice in this section we encounter the word “never”: never pay back evil for evil and never take your own revenge. I suppose we could ask ourselves, what part of never is hard to understand? The disciple has a different calling than everyone else, he or she is called to overcome evil with good, to feed the enemy, to trust God with such childlike faith that space is made for God to exercise his divine prerogative of vengeance. The Apostle Peter echoed this same sentiment when he said:

1 Peter 3.8-16
8 Finally, all of you, have unity of spirit, sympathy, love for one another, a tender heart, and a humble mind. 9 Do not repay evil for evil or abuse for abuse; but, on the contrary, repay with a blessing. It is for this that you were called– that you might inherit a blessing. 10 For “Those who desire life and desire to see good days, let them keep their tongues from evil and their lips from speaking deceit; 11 let them turn away from evil and do good; let them seek peace and pursue it. 12 For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous, and his ears are open to their prayer. But the face of the Lord is against those who do evil.” 13 Now who will harm you if you are eager to do what is good? 14 But even if you do suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed. Do not fear what they fear, and do not be intimidated, 15 but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord. Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; 16 yet do it with gentleness and reverence…

The follower of Christ is to be harmonious, sympathetic, brotherly, kindhearted and humble in spirit. Surely the beatitudes are lurking somewhere behind this list of Christian virtues. Furthermore, he instructs us not to return evil for evil but give a blessing instead. The disciple must turn away from evil and be good to people. He must seek peace and pursue it. That is not to say that genuine Christians are doormats who are prohibited from defending themselves. We should always be ready to make a defense, yet with gentleness (not violence) and respect. The Christian receives suffering but does not afflict others with suffering in return. This is not an argument for passiveness but an admonition towards activism—to bless those who are doing evil to us, to make a defense, to seek peace and pursue it. Perhaps by now many “what if” statements are coming to mind,[28] but, for now, our theology is incomplete. We have come to understand the instruction of Jesus and the apostles, and the example of Jesus on the cross (which we saw is normative for Christians), but until we come to grips with the resurrection of Jesus and the subsequent outpouring of the Holy Spirit we will be left with a knowledge of correct behavior without the empowerment.


The Resurrection of Jesus Explodes on the Scene

Without exaggeration, the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth was the most significant event in human history. What this event did to the theology of the fledgling Jesus community was like a comet hitting the earth. The initial impact shocked everyone and called for fresh faith in the crucified one, and the residual shockwaves continuously reshaped everything they believed about Jesus, themselves, and the eschaton. A kingdom event had erupted on the scene. Something that was prophesied to happen in the end to everyone had happened early to one man. No one had seen it coming.[29]

The resurrection of Jesus the Nazarene meant that he had been vindicated by God. Even though he had been publicly disgraced, which brought intense shame on himself, his family, and his followers, now through a fresh act of God, this Jesus had been set free from the power of death and honored with God’s unique seal of approval. Furthermore, since the resurrection was often connected with the age to come in their Scriptures,[30] it had a distinct kingdom flavor to it when Jesus, who claimed to be the Messiah, rose from the dead. Resurrection was not, as I used think, merely a necessity following his death for our sins (which was what really mattered). No, the resurrection was God’s vindicating seal upon his Son as the one anointed to rule the coming kingdom—the Messiah.[31]

Furthermore, the resurrection of Jesus made a mockery of the ruling powers. This is because the cross already had a theological meaning at the time. It symbolized Caesar’s right to rule the world through the raw brutality of violence. “If you buck the system, this is what happens to you,” is the message people got as they walked by crucified insurrectionists and brigands. The meaning was clear enough: “Don’t mess with Caesar.” In fact, crucifixion, in contrast to modern execution tactics, was intended to be public, humiliating, excruciating, and long lasting. The Roman cross was a perennial reminder that Rome was in charge and that resistance was futile. So, because the cross already had deep imperial overtones, and because Jesus’ accusation was for claiming to be “the King of the Jews” (a title that only Rome could give to someone), Jesus’ death was doubly political. For example, Jesus’ opponents, while pushing for a state execution cowed Pilate with the declaration, “If you release this man, you are no friend of Caesar; everyone who makes himself out to be a king opposes Caesar” (John 19.12). There was no question in anyone’s mind, Jesus was being crucified as a political criminal—someone who had the audacity to claim kingship without the approval of Caesar. So, what did it mean when Jesus was resurrected? What sort of message did it send to the principalities and powers incarnate in the Roman Empire?

The resurrection meant that the power of Caesar—Satan’s puppet du jour—had been broken. Naturally, the foundations of imperial power rested in its ability to torture and kill its enemies. That very power was unleashed on Jesus in full measure. He drank the cup to the dregs and it killed him. But, then a resurrection happened, and suddenly something new dawned. Rome did not have the final word; God did (and still does). Jesus is not a false Messiah, he is the real thing. Caesar was the parody; Jesus was marked out as the rightful ruler of the world. Caesar is not Lord, Jesus is. One can almost hear the exuberance every time the apostles tell the story about how the wicked humans crucified Jesus, but God raised him from the dead (Acts 2.23-24; 3.14-15; 4.10; 5.30; 10.39-40; 13.29-30).

A dead man lives! A dead man lives! He was put to death by wicked conspiring humans cooperating with the Roman system of “justice” but God raised him from the dead. The resurrection of Jesus was big news. It was something that changed everything. It was worth traipsing about the Mediterranean world proclaiming from city to city. God had acted decisively, in the middle of history, to make it clear to all that this Jesus of Nazareth was the true Lord of the world, the genuine Son of God, whose kingship is superior to even Caesar. Thus, the resurrection ultimately brought up the question of allegiance. If Jesus was the true Lord of the world and not Caesar, then of course anyone who has faith in this gospel would revoke his or her allegiance from the imperial imposter and pledge it to the real Son of God who had been vindicated by God and authorized to rule all kingdoms.

We are sojourners who reside as aliens in the kingdoms of this world until finally God’s kingdom is established on the last day. When that happens all nations will be subdued, like in Nebuchadnezzar’s vision, and God’s Messiah will set the world aright. Until then, we are sojourners like our spiritual ancestors who have come before us.[32] We are the resurrection people who believe God has already acted in history in anticipation of his coming age of justice and peace. Thus, our role is not the same as the pagans among whom we reside. But, before we can describe in particular how this all works out we need to focus our attention on the third kingdom event that gushed onto the historical scene: the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.


The Spirit of the Kingdom Poured out Early

Just before he ascended our Lord commanded his disciples to stay in Jerusalem because they were soon to be baptized in the Holy Spirit as John the Baptizer had prophesied. Isn’t it strange that their immediate response to this was, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1.6). Amazingly, most commentators totally miss the connection between spirit and kingdom. The disciples were not stubbornly holding on to some nationalistic dream that Jesus had dispelled, rather they were holding fast to the promise Jesus had given them at the last supper. He told them that they would sit on twelve thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel (Luke 22.29-30).

Furthermore, Jesus had just spent the last forty days after his resurrection speaking to them about the kingdom of God (Acts 1.3). So, the disciples did not ask an off-the-wall question here. But, still, why would Jesus’ promise about the coming immersion in Spirit cause them to ask about the kingdom? This question finds a ready answer the moment we observe that the prophecies about the outpouring of the Spirit in the Hebrew Bible predominately occur in the context of the coming kingdom. [33]

Isaiah 32.14-18
14 For the palace will be forsaken, the populous city deserted; the hill and the watchtower will become dens forever, the joy of wild asses, a pasture for flocks; 15 until a spirit from on high is poured out on us, and the wilderness becomes a fruitful field, and the fruitful field is deemed a forest. 16 Then justice will dwell in the wilderness, and righteousness abide in the fruitful field. 17 The effect of righteousness will be peace, and the result of righteousness, quietness and trust forever. 18 My people will abide in a peaceful habitation, in secure dwellings, and in quiet resting places.

This text and others like it clearly link the outpouring of the spirit to the coming judgment and restoration (i.e. the kingdom). Furthermore, John the Baptist’s prophecy linked the baptism of the spirit to the final judgment to be executed by the Messiah when he comes (Luke 3.16-17). From John’s perspective, there was no timing distinction between the pouring out (immersion) of the Holy Spirit and the eschatological fiery judgment. So, when Jesus quoted John and told the disciples that they would be baptized in the spirit in only a few days, their minds linked his statement to the spirit prophecies in their Bible and John’s prophecy in particular. Since these spirit passages are in the context of God’s final act to bring about lasting justice and peace to Israel, their question made perfect sense. “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” Note that Jesus’ reply did not contain a rebuke, but rather a clarification of timing:

Acts 1.7-8
7 He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. 8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

Jesus explained that there was to be an interim between the arrival of the kingdom, about which only the Father knows the timing, and the advent of the Holy Spirit, which is needed now so they can fulfill their role as witnesses throughout the world. So, the spirit arrived early (i.e. in advance of the kingdom).[34] Further confirmation for this can be found by Peter’s first recorded public sermon at the Feast of Weeks. As a result of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, the apostles all began to miraculously speak foreign languages. Some who heard this criticized the apostles as being full of new wine. Peter’s spirit-inspired response took them back to the prophecy from Joel. Here are Peter’s words:

Acts 2.16-17
16 No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: 17 ‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh…

In the tongues Peter saw the fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy. Something from the age to come had broken into the present evil age. A kingdom event had burst forth onto the scene right before their eyes. Peter’s flow of thought went like this: the speaking in tongues indicated that Jesus had poured out the spirit. Although he was crucified, God raised him from the dead and ascended him into heaven. Therefore Jesus is both Lord and Messiah. The advent of the spirit, and in this case, the glossolalia in particular, strengthened their witness to the kingdom message by enabling the apostles to make the case that Jesus was the ascended Messiah.

So, there are really three eschatological events that have already taken place: (1) The Messiah has come, (2) a resurrection has occurred, and (3) the Holy Spirit has been poured out. Would we expect that the people of God would be the same after the Messiah had come? Of course not! Every Jew knew that when the Messiah came, the messianic age would dawn, God would win the decisive victory over the forces of evil, and lasting justice and peace would be established forever in the world. Jesus did not change this basic outline; but he did add a twist to the messianic stereotype when he ended up condemned on a Roman cross. Rather than defeating the hated Romans and reclaiming Israel’s sovereignty as the rightful heir to the throne of David, Jesus confronted the existing powers and was lynched for it. Or so it would seem, if God did not raise him from the dead three days later! So, really there are two great twists in the story: (1) Jesus defeated evil by absorbing it nonviolently on the cross. As the representative of Israel, he self-sacrificially endured the curse of the Law on behalf of the people. (2) God brought him back to life, vindicating him, and marking him out unequivocally as the Son of God destined to rule the world on his behalf (Acts 17.31).

The next event we would expect to occur is the coming of the kingdom (which would be accompanied by justice, peace, outpouring of the spirit, resurrection for the righteous dead, return of sovereignty to Israel, judgment upon the wicked, etc.). There can be little doubt that the disciples thought this way. As we have already seen, their first question to Jesus just before his ascension concerned whether or not this was the time for the kingdom to be restored to Israel (Acts 1.6). Jesus clarified to them that the spirit comes before the kingdom to enable them to testify to Jesus’ resurrection (and thus his messiahship) and then he ascended into heaven.

Next came the outpouring of the spirit during the Feast of Weeks. As we have already seen, the spirit prophecies in the Hebrew Bible were in the context of the kingdom. Thus, it would be wrong to divorce spirit from kingdom. Everything that flows from the spirit, all of the events that bubble up from this new experience of the presence of God testify about the kingdom. Jesus’ ministry was the paradigm that the apostles worked within as they went out to share the good news with the world. Before long, the Gentiles also had a Pentecost experience; the spirit fell upon those assembled before Peter while he preached at Cornelius’ house. Peter concluded that if God had accepted the Gentiles into the people of God, then he could not refuse them to be admitted into the community of the redeemed, so he ordered them to be baptized in Jesus’ name.


New Covenant Theology

Suddenly, a fresh set of questions emerged about whether or not Gentiles needed to keep the Law in order to be included in the people of God. The apostles correctly decided in the famous Jerusalem council (Acts 15) not to put a yoke on the Gentiles that they themselves could not bear. Before long it became apparent that Jesus’ death had ratified the new covenant, which meant that even Jews had been freed from the letter of the Law.

Jesus had already prepared the disciples for this revelation, for the night Jesus was betrayed he entered into a new blood covenant with his disciples by offering them the cup of wine: “This cup is the new covenant in my blood…which is poured out for many for forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26.28; 1 Corinthians 11.25). As time went on, the apostles (notably Paul) came to understand that Jesus’ death, resurrection, ascension, and outpouring of the spirit brought about changes in how God related to his people. A new covenant had been established.

This covenant is a better covenant because Jesus belongs to a superior priesthood (Hebrews 7.22-24) and because he entered into the real tabernacle in heaven through his own blood (Hebrews 9.11-14) as opposed to entering into Herod’s temple through the blood of animals. By one offering, Jesus accomplished permanent sanctification for the people of God (Hebrews 10.14). Furthermore, Jesus is the mediator of a better covenant than Moses because it has been enacted on better promises (Hebrews 8.6). Here is a list of new covenant promises as described in Hebrews 8.10-12:

  1. I will put my laws into their minds
    And I will write them on their hearts
  1. I will be their God
    And they shall be my people
  1. Everyone will not teach his fellow citizen, saying “Know the Lord”
    For all will know me from the least to the greatest
  1. I will be merciful to their iniquities
    And I will remember their sins no more

The law was written on our hearts by the Spirit, which stands in contrast to “the letter” (i.e. the letters engraved on stones, which stands for the whole Mosaic Law) (Romans 2.29; 7.6; 2 Corinthians 3.3, 6-8).

2 Corinthians 3.6-8
6 [God] has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant, not of letter but of spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. 7 Now if the ministry of death, chiseled in letters on stone tablets, came in glory so that the people of Israel could not gaze at Moses’ face because of the glory of his face, a glory now set aside, 8 how much more will the ministry of the Spirit come in glory?

Notice how the Holy Spirit is tied to the new covenant. We will return to this connection in a short while, but for now we need to establish that the new covenant is in effect today. It is true that in the parallel passages to Jeremiah 31.31-34, the context is eschatological. But, by now is this not what we would expect? The Messiah has come. The resurrection has occurred early to one man. The Holy Spirit has been poured out on all who are willing to submit to Jesus as Messiah through baptism. So, to think that the new covenant has already begun as well is not unreasonable. But, alas the author of Hebrews is not leaving anything up to inference; he (or she) states in no uncertain terms that the covenant has been brought into effect.

Hebrews 10.14-22
14 For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified. 15 And the Holy Spirit also testifies to us, for after saying, 16 “This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, says the Lord: I will put my laws in their hearts, and I will write them on their minds,” 17 he also adds, “I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more.” 18 Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer any offering for sin. 19 Therefore, my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, 20 by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh), 21 and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22 let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.

Note that he focuses on promise #4: forgiveness from sin. Is there any Christian who would deny that our sins have been forgiven because of the shed blood of the Lamb of God? This blood inaugurated for us a new and living way. Our hearts have been sprinkled clean and our bodies have been washed, making us fit for relationship with God. We need not instruct one another to know God, for each one of us has been given firsthand knowledge of God through the Holy Spirit within us. Through our high priest we have permission to pass beyond the veil right into the holy of holies, where God dwells.

Ephesians 2.14-19
14 For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. 15 He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, 16 and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. 17 So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; 18 for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. 19 So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God,

The people of God are one. There are not two standards: one for Jews who are bound to obey Torah and another for Gentiles who keep the Noahide laws. No, because of Jesus’ death the dividing wall has been abolished in his flesh—the Law of commandments. The new covenant makes the first obsolete (Hebrews 8.13). This cleared the way for peace between Jew and Gentile as one new humanity. Furthermore, we have not been driven farther from God because of this; rather we are now given access in one spirit to the Father. There is no loss for the Jew either because the new covenant is superior to the old.

The new covenant is in full effect now. If it is not, then that means that we are under the old covenant (which means you can’t eat bacon, mow the lawn on Saturday, or wear mixed fiber clothing). Either we relate to God through his covenant mediated by Moses or his covenant mediated by Jesus. If we are not now living under this new and living way then why does the Scripture use the present tense in referring to Jesus’ mediation of the new covenant? For it says:

Hebrews 8.6
But Jesus has now obtained a more excellent ministry, and to that degree he is the mediator of a better covenant, which has been enacted through better promises. (emphasis added)

By the blood of the Messiah our very consciences were cleansed, for we have been redeemed from the transgressions that occurred under the first covenant, so that we who have been called would receive the promise of the kingdom inheritance (Hebrews 9.14-15). We have not come to Mount Sinai with its blazing fire and blaring trumpet, rather we have come to Mount Zion, to the general assembly of the firstborn, to God the Judge of all, and to Jesus, the mediator of the new covenant (Hebrews 12.18-24). Notice how Paul speaks on the matter:

Galatians 3.23-29
23 Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. 24 Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith. 25 But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, 26 for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. 27 As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. 29 And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.

The Law brought us to Christ, but now something new has come, which erases previous distinctions. No longer are their ethnic barriers (Jew vs. Greek), class distinctions (slave vs. free man), or gender inequalities (male vs. female), for we have all been made one in the Messiah (i.e. things have changed). We have been released from the Law, since in Christ we died to it, thus we are able to serve in the newness of the Spirit rather than the oldness of the letter (Romans 7.6). In fact, the requirement of the Law is fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the spirit (Romans 8.4). Thus, the Holy Spirit does not merely empower followers of the Messiah to testify about his resurrection in word, but also by their entire lifestyle as they live out the new covenant.

Galatians 5.16-25
16 Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh. 17 For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you want. 18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not subject to the law. 19 Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, 20 idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, 21 envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. 22 By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. 24 And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. 25 If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit.

Morality under the new covenant, the way of Jesus, is intimately linked to the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. For example, once Paul cogently concluded that in light of Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection, God’s people are no longer under the Law, he immediately stressed that this does not precipitate antinomianism. The deeds of the flesh are still marked out by the Law as sinful, and pursuing those actions will block entrance into the kingdom of God. The solution is to “walk by the spirit,” which results in the fruit of the spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. He says unequivocally, “If you are led by the spirit, you are not under the Law.”

Furthermore the Holy Spirit is a pledge of what is to come (2 Corinthians 1.22; 5.4-5; Ephesians 1.13-14). For example, when one goes to buy a house he makes an offer for the house and sends with it a check, which, if accepted, seals the deal. The check is the pledge. It is the guarantee that his offer is serious, that if agreed to, he will go through the rest of the closing process to buy the house. Similarly the Holy Spirit is a pledge of the kingdom. The Spirit is what God has given his people to guarantee that the rest is coming. Thus, the pouring out the spirit not only regenerates our hearts but makes us heirs according to the hope of life in the coming age (Titus 3.5-7).


Called to Embody the Kingdom

Our tendency is to forget that the Holy Spirit really belongs to the age to come since it is already here now. The new covenant is the way of living and relating to God that belongs to the kingdom. Consider this list of Christian experiences:

Adapted from Hebrews 6.4-5

we have been enlightened
we have tasted of the heavenly gift
we have been made partakers of the Holy Spirit
we have tasted the good word of God
we have tasted the powers of the age to come

So, as new covenant people we are those who walk by the spirit, manifesting the lifestyle of the age to come, even while we live in this present age. We are the kingdom people, the future of humanity. We are privileged and commissioned to give the world a foretaste of the kingdom through our actions and words, by modeling a new way of redemption, wholeness, reconciliation, and restoration. We are to reflect the coming kingdom both individually and collectively. Our lives should be characterized by outrageous acts of self-sacrificial cross-shaped love, not by the retaliatory ends-justify-the-means mentality which has justified so much bloodshed throughout the church’s history. Once we enter into this new covenantal relationship with God through faith in the gospel, repentance by baptism, and receiving the spirit, we are changed. Our minds are no longer shaped by this age, but instead they are made new through God’s transformative power (Romans 12.2).

Even so, we are not so naïve as to think that loving our enemies will solve all the problems of violence in the world. In fact, as Dr. Stanley Hauerwas has noted, our peace witness may actually make the world more dangerous. However, our goal is not fix all the problems of the world, but merely to be faithful to what Jesus has said. Our role is prophetic rather than goal-oriented. The question we ask is, “How can I bring forth signs of the kingdom like Jesus did?” rather than, “How can I fix this problem with a minimum of collateral damage?” Thus, as followers of the slaughtered lamb, sometimes we get slaughtered too. But how do we interpret this? Do we say, “Well, that was stupid, Polycarp[35] should have escaped! What good does he do now that he has been executed by the State?” No! Rather we say, “Look at Polycarp! He was faithful until the end, and he testified (martyr means one who testifies) to the existing powers and to the people in the arena that Jesus is Lord and that nothing can cause him to betray the Messiah.” Perhaps we need to recover our theology of martyrdom?

Then again, sometimes our prophetic role as kingdom people does bring about lasting social change. As African-Americans protested nonviolently to the oppressive Jim Crow laws, the rest of society took notice, and today there are no such laws in the United States. Many other examples could be given, which describe the effectiveness of nonviolent campaigns for justice. However, as kingdom people, as sojourners, the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of a given action is not our determinative criterion, rather what matters most is whether or not we are testifying to the resurrection in word and deed through the power of the spirit. Our concern is to be like Jesus by embodying the kingdom and following his example.

We are the people of God who have a prophetic message to deliver. We announce the failure of the world’s gospel of technological, therapeutic, consumer, militarism[36] while delivering the good news of God’s coming kingdom of justice and peace. This gospel is delivered in conjunction with living out the new kingdom script (even though we still dwell in the midst of the old tattered world.) Thus, we live the age to come in the present, not as if the age to come has been spiritualized—that is, we have not domesticated the kingdom by redefining it into a few warm fuzzies in our hearts because Jesus “reigns” within us. Nor do we attest to a “spatialized” hope as if God has given up on this earth project in favor of scrapping it and moving his chosen to heaven at death. No, we live out the future in the present in the power of the spirit as an appetizer of what is to come, a sneak preview, a prophetic signpost of God’s future stamped across our entire lives, from the way we do marriage to the way we do homework to the way we do evangelism. We are to be signs of the coming kingdom like the road sign one might see for an upcoming exit on the highway. Is that sign which says “Exit 6” really exit six? No, of course not, it testifies to the fact that in a couple of miles exit six will be here and so we should move over to the right lane in preparation. In the same way we are signs of the coming kingdom. Strictly speaking we are not the kingdom but by looking at us the world should ascertain that a kingdom is coming, for that is what our whole lives, both individually and as a community, communicate.

Pulling everything together, Jesus’ teachings on nonviolence fit perfectly within this theological framework. One of the problems with other approaches to nonviolence is that by saying “violence is wrong,” we unwittingly condemn the Old Testament saints as well as God for their use of violence. How can we say that Joshua was wrong to obey God when he was commanded to use violence to conquer the Promised Land? But, if Joshua was not wrong to use violence, then how can I say that violence is wrong? The answer is that things have changed. Massive events have occurred which open up a new way that was unavailable to the saints of old. The Messiah has come, a resurrection has occurred, the spirit has been poured out, and the new covenant has been brought into effect by the bloody sacrifice of the Lamb. Since these kingdom events have exploded onto the historical scene, the people of God are given a new way to live. For us to revert to the old covenant way of thinking and being would be amount to denying that the Messiah has already come.

For example, when the Apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthian church, he had to address the issue of the Christians suing each other (1 Corinthians 6.1-9). Paul was bewildered that Christians were taking each other to court. He could barely believe that something so absurd could even happen. Of course, from an old covenant perspective, there is nothing wrong with taking one’s neighbor to court if there was a just cause. In fact, extensive provision was made for exactly such a scenario under the Mosaic Law. So, what is so shocking here? Why is Paul beside himself? There are two offenses: (1) they were taking their fellow Christians to court and (2) they were going to court before non-Christians. His motivation for thinking is found in the statement, “Do you not know that the saints will judge the world?” If the Corinthians disciples are destined to rule the world, can they not figure out how to do community without appealing to outsiders to settle matters? Is there not even one wise man among them before whom the two could go? In fact, it would be better to be defrauded than to go before unbelievers since that would testify to the opposite of the kingdom message. Besides, the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom. Notice how the people’s future role as kingdom citizens was to affect how they lived. The first question is, “How will it be in the kingdom.” The next is, “How can I incarnate kingdom living now in this situation?”

Another example of this can be found in the way early Christians thought of themselves in light of the prophecy in Micah and Isaiah about swords turning into plowshares and spears turning into pruning hooks. Consider these quotations from the second and third centuries:

Justin Marytr (a.d. 160)
[W]e 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; [37]

Irenaeus (a.d. 180)
If any one, however, advocating the cause of the Jews, do maintain that this new covenant consisted in the rearing of that temple which was built under Zerubbabel after the emigration to Babylon, and in the departure of the people from thence after the lapse of seventy years, let him know that the temple constructed of stones was indeed then rebuilt (for as yet that law was observed which had been made upon tables of stone), yet no new covenant was given, but they used the Mosaic law until the coming of the Lord; but from the Lord’s advent, the new covenant that brings back peace and the law that gives life have gone forth over the whole earth, as the prophets said: “For out of Zion will go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem; and he will rebuke many people; and they will break down their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks, and they will no longer learn to fight”… these [Christians] did form the swords and war-lances into ploughshares, and changed them into pruning-hooks for reaping the corn, [that is], into instruments used for peaceful purposes, and that they are now unaccustomed to fighting, but when smitten, offer also the other cheek. [38]

Tertullian (a.d. 197)
Isaiah in the ensuing words announces, saying, “…and they shall join to beat their swords into ploughs, and their lances into sickles; and nations shall not take up sword against nation, and they shall no more learn to fight.” Who else, therefore, are understood but we, who, fully taught by the new law, observe these practices,—the old law being obliterated, the coming of whose abolition the action itself demonstrates? For the inclination of the old law was to avenge itself by the vengeance of the sword, and to pluck out “eye for eye,” and to inflict retaliatory revenge for injury. But the new law’s inclination was to point to mercy, and to convert to tranquility the original ferocity of “swords” and “lances,” and to remodel the original execution of “war” upon the rivals and foes of the law into the peaceable actions of “ploughing” and “tilling” the land. Therefore as we have shown above that the coming cessation of the old law and of the carnal circumcision was declared, so, too, the observance of the new law and the spiritual circumcision has shone out into the voluntary obedience of peace.[39]

Origen (a.d. 248)
And to those who inquire of us whence we come, or who is our founder, we reply that we are come, agreeably to the counsels of Jesus, to “cut down our hostile and insolent [wearisome] swords into ploughshares, and to convert into pruning-hooks the spears formerly employed in war.” For we no longer take up “sword against nation,” nor do we “learn war any more,” having become children of peace, for the sake of Jesus, who is our leader, instead of those whom our fathers followed, among whom we were “strangers to the covenant,” and having received a law, for which we give thanks to Him that rescued us from the error (of our ways)…[40]

The early Christian community applied the same thinking of Paul to the Corinthians to the subject of war and violence. One need only glance at a few of the grand portraits painted of the kingdom in Scripture to realize that the age to come will be characterized by peace: peace between individuals, families, tribes, ethnicities, nations, and even animals. The early church reasoned that if they were going to testify to the gospel of peace (that God would ultimately fix up this world and establish everlasting peace) then they should begin to live in peace already. Their prophetic witness to the world was that since the Messiah had come, since the new covenant was here, it only made sense to beat their swords into ploughshares and embark on a life of nonviolent peace. Just imagine having a dialog with a Jew and when he challenged you to prove that the Messiah had come, you say, “Just look at us Christians, we used to be violent but now we are at peace.” Such a line of thinking was normal for the first few centuries of the churches existence.


The Testimony of the Early Christians

I have selected thirteen quotations from ten authors ranging from the Didache, which may be as early as the first century (before the book of Revelation was written), to Lactantius who wrote the same year as the edict of Milan[41] in the early fourth century. The quotations are each organized by date from earliest to latest, and all dates given are approximate. (This collection was made possible by the marvelous single volume topical index to the early Christian writings (Ante-Nicene Fathers) composed by David Bercot called, A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs.)

The Didache (a.d. 120)
3 What these maxims teach is this: “Bless those who curse you,” and “pray for your enemies.” Moreover, fast “for those who persecute you.” For “what credit is it to you if you love those who love you? Is that not the way the heathen act?” But “you must love those who hate you,” and then you will make no enemies. 4 “Abstain from carnal passions.” If someone strikes you “on the right cheek, turn to him the other too, and you will be perfect.” If someone “forces you to go one mile with him, go along with him for two”; if someone robs you “of your overcoat, give him your suit as well.” If someone deprives you of “your property, do not ask for it back.” (You could not get it back anyway!)[42]

“Mathetes” (a.d. 130)
1 For the Christians are distinguished from other men neither by country, nor language, nor the customs which they observe. 2 For they neither inhabit cities of their own, nor employ a peculiar form of speech, nor lead a life which is marked out by any singularity… 4 But, inhabiting Greek as well as barbarian cities, according as the lot of each of them has determined, and following the customs of the natives in respect to clothing, food, and the rest of their ordinary conduct, they display to us their wonderful and confessedly striking method of life. 5 They dwell in their own countries, but simply as sojourners. As citizens, they share in all things with others, and yet endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers. 6 They marry, as do all others; they beget children; but they do not destroy their offspring. 7 They have a common table, but not a common bed. 8 They are in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh. 9 They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven. 10 They obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws by their lives. 11 They love all men, and are persecuted by all. 12 They are unknown and condemned; they are put to death, and restored to life. 13 They are poor, yet make many rich; they are in lack of all things, and yet abound in all; 14 they are dishonored, and yet in their very dishonor are glorified. They are evil spoken of, and yet are justified; 15 they are reviled, and bless; they are insulted, and repay the insult with honor; 16 they do good, yet are punished as evil-doers. When punished, they rejoice as if quickened into life; 17 they are assailed by the Jews as foreigners, and are persecuted by the Greeks; yet those who hate them are unable to assign any reason for their hatred.[43]

Justin Marytr (a.d.160)
[W]e who formerly used to murder one another do not only now refrain from making war upon our enemies, but also, that we may not lie nor deceive our examiners, willingly die confessing Christ.[44]

Clement of Alexandria (a.d. 195)
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.[45]

Tertullian (a.d. 200)
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 Cæsar. And yet Moses carried a rod, and Aaron wore a buckle, and John (the 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, [disarmed] every soldier.

Tertullian (a.d. 211)
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? Shall he, forsooth [indeed], either keep watch-service for others more than for Christ, or shall he do it on the Lord’s day, when he does not even do it for Christ Himself? And shall he keep guard before the temples which he has renounced? And shall he take a meal where the apostle has forbidden him? And shall he diligently protect by night those whom in the day-time he has put to flight by his exorcisms, leaning and resting on the spear the while with which Christ’s side was pierced? Shall he carry a flag, too, hostile to Christ? …Then how many other offences there are involved in the performances of camp offices, which we must hold to involve a transgression of God’s law, you may see by a slight survey. The very carrying of the name over from the camp of light to the camp of darkness is a violation of it. Of course, if faith comes later, and finds any preoccupied with military service, their case is different, as in the instance of those whom John used to receive for baptism, and of those most faithful centurions, I mean the centurion whom Christ approves, and the centurion whom Peter instructs; yet, at the same time, when a man has become a believer, and faith has been sealed, there must be either an immediate abandonment of it, which has been the course with many; or all sorts of quibbling will have to be resorted to in order to avoid offending God, and that is not allowed even outside of military service; or, last of all, for God the fate must be endured which a citizen-faith has been no less ready to accept.[47]

Hippolytus (a.d. 215)
A soldier of the civil authority must be taught not to kill men and to refuse to do so if he is commanded, and to refuse to take an oath. If he is unwilling to comply, he must be rejected for baptism. A military commander or civic magistrate who wears the purple must resign or be rejected. If an applicant or a believer seeks to become a soldier, he must be rejected, for he has despised God.” [48]

Origen (a.d. 248)
In the next place, Celsus urges us “to help the king with all our might, and to labour with him in the maintenance of justice, to fight for him; and if he requires it, to fight under him, or lead an army along with him.” To this our answer is, that we do, when occasion requires, give help to kings, and that, so to say, a divine help, “putting on the whole armour of God.” And this we do in obedience to the injunction of the apostle, “I exhort, therefore, that first of all, supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks, be made for all men; for kings, and for all that are in authority;” and the more any one excels in piety, the more effective help does he render to kings, even more than is given by soldiers, who go forth to fight and slay as many of the enemy as they can. And to those enemies of our faith who require us to bear arms for the commonwealth, and to slay men, we can reply: “Do not those who are priests at certain shrines, and those who attend on certain gods, as you account them, keep their hands free from blood, that they may with hands unstained and free from human blood offer the appointed sacrifices to your gods; and even when war is upon you, you never enlist the priests in the army. If that, then, is a laudable custom, how much more so, that while others are engaged in battle, these too should engage as the priests and ministers of God, keeping their hands pure, and wrestling in prayers to God on behalf of those who are fighting in a righteous cause, and for the king who reigns righteously, that whatever is opposed to those who act righteously may be destroyed!” And as we by our prayers vanquish all demons who stir up war, and lead to the violation of oaths, and disturb the peace, we in this way are much more helpful to the kings than those who go into the field to fight for them. And we do take our part in public affairs, when along with righteous prayers we join self-denying exercises and meditations, which teach us to despise pleasures, and not to be led away by them. And none fight better for the king than we do. We do not indeed fight under him, although he require it; but we fight on his behalf, forming a special army—an army of piety—by offering our prayers to God. [49]

Cyprian (a.d. 250)
Consider the roads blocked up by robbers, the seas beset with pirates, wars scattered all over the earth with the bloody horror of camps. The whole world is wet with mutual blood; and murder, which in the case of an individual is admitted to be a crime, is called a virtue when it is committed wholesale. Impunity is claimed for the wicked deeds, not on the plea that they are guiltless, but because the cruelty is perpetrated on a grand scale.[50]

Cyprian (a.d. 250)
Adultery, fraud, manslaughter, are mortal crimes. Let patience be strong and stedfast in the heart; and neither is the sanctified body and temple of God polluted by adultery, nor is the innocence dedicated to righteousness stained with the contagion of fraud; nor, after the Eucharist carried in it, is the hand spotted with the sword and blood.[51]

Arnobius (a.d. 305)
For since we, a numerous band of men as we are, have learned from His teaching and His laws that evil ought not to be requited with evil, that it is better to suffer wrong than to inflict it, that we should rather shed our own blood than stain our hands and our conscience with that of another, an ungrateful world is now for a long period enjoying a benefit from Christ, inasmuch as by His means the rage of savage ferocity has been softened, and has begun to withhold hostile hands from the blood of a fellow-creature. But if all without exception, who feel that they are men not in form of body but in power of reason, would lend an ear for a little to His salutary and peaceful rules, and would not, in the pride and arrogance of enlightenment, trust to their own senses rather than to His admonitions, the whole world, having turned the use of steel into more peaceful occupations, would now be living in the most placid tranquillity, and would unite in blessed harmony, maintaining inviolate the sanctity of treaties. [52]

Lactantius (a.d. 313)
Or why should he carry on war, and mix himself with the passions of others, when his mind is engaged in perpetual peace with men? Doubtless he will be delighted with foreign merchandise or with human blood, who does not know how to seek gain, who is satisfied with his mode of living, and considers it unlawful not only himself to commit slaughter, but to be present with those who do it, and to behold it![53]

Lactantius (a.d. 313)
It is not right that a worshiper of God should be injured by another worshiper of God.[54]


The Mutation of Christianity under Constantine

Reading through these quotations it is hard to envisage such a church today. Naturally, the question we ask is: What happened to the non-violent way of Jesus to which the early Christians testified? Of course the church didn’t wake up one day and suddenly become militaristic; it was a process that took time and thinking in order to produce new theology in place of the old. Surprisingly, brutal persecution by the State did not bring about Christian violence; rather, it was the invitation to imperial power that wooed the church away from her radical kingdom witness. Rome got a “Christian president,” as it were.

When, beginning with the emperor Constantine, the Christian church began receiving referential treatment by the empire that it had once so steadfastly opposed, war, which had once seemed so evil, now appeared to many to be a necessity for preserving and propagating the gospel.

Christianity’s weaponless victory over the Roman empire eventuated in the weaponless victory of the empire over the gospel. No defeat is so well-disguised as victory! In the year 303, Diocletian forbade any member of the Roman army to be a Christian. By the year 416, no one could be a member of the Roman army unless he was a Christian. [55]

John Howard Yoder identified six fundamental shifts[56] between pre and post-Constantinian ethics. Each of these resulted from the historical occurrence of Constantine’s “conversion” and subsequent promotion of Christianity as the “in” religion of Rome.

  1. The church was redefined from those committed souls who were willing to follow the way of Jesus by life or by death to a preferred society looked upon as something to join in order to win favor with the “Christian” emperor. Thus, the church flooded and it was suddenly difficult to discern between genuine and nominal Christians.
  2. The kingdom of God was no longer conceived of as a political governance to be established at the return of the Messiah, but instead it became conflated with the Christian kingdom of Rome. Now that the government was “Christian,” the kingdom had come and Jesus began to rule through his representative—Caesar.
  3. Since the emperor was Christian a new question arose in place of the old. Before people asked: What does it mean to follow the way of Jesus? Now people asked: Is it reasonable to expect the emperor to be constrained by such a radical way? Does he not have “duties” that require a certain leniency?
  4. Since many of the new Christians did not have personal commitment, regenerated hearts, the guidance of the Holy Spirit, or the encouragement and mentoring of the family of God it was now considered unreasonable to expect them to actually follow the teachings of Jesus. Besides if everyone in the empire lived a radically Christian life, who would hold off the pagans from seizing the power? Who would stop the barbarians from invading?
  5. For the first time, the measure of a given ethic became its effectiveness. What’s good for the Roman Empire (the church-State) is how ethics needed to be measured. The notion of being faithful to the instruction of Jesus and the apostles was not enough reason to insist on a given behavior.
  6. Lastly, a new dualism emerged into Christian thought. A split was made between inward attitudes and actual deeds. Thus, one could love the enemy internally while cutting his head off with an axe as the State executioner. Inner disposition became the primary place for Christian ethics over and against actual obedience (especially with respect to civic duties).

The cumulative result of these shifts is well illustrated by Yoder’s remark, “Before Constantine it took courage to be a Christian; after Constantine it took courage to be a pagan.”[57] Many men and women went off into the desert in protest to the corruptions that they witnessed all around them. They became the desert fathers and mothers from whom sprang monasticism and intense personal piety combined with irrelevance to the larger society due to their withdrawal from the world. Now, many of the true Christians who could decry the mass deception were cloistered off; they were neither in the world nor of the world. Still, the deal was not completely sealed until Augustine with his towering intellect, persuasive rhetoric, and philosophically trained mind imported pagan just war theory and baptized it Christian. Walter Wink explains:

It fell to Augustine (d. 430) to make the accommodation of Christianity to its new status as a privileged religion in support of the state. Augustine believed, on the basis of Matt. 5:38-42, that Christians had no right to defend themselves from violence. But he identified a problem which no earlier theologian had faced: what Augustine regarded as the loving obligation to use violence if necessary to defend the innocent against evil. [In other words, violence cannot be used to defend oneself but it should be used to defend others.] Drawing on Stoic just war principles, he articulated the position that was to dominate church teaching from that time right up to the present. Ever since, Christians on the left and on the right, in the East and in the West, have found it exceedingly easy to declare as “just” and divinely ordained any wars their governments desired to wage for purely national interests. As a consequence, the world regards Christians as among the most warlike factions on the face of the earth. And little wonder; two-thirds of the people killed in the last 500 years died at the hands of fellow-Christians in Europe, to say nothing of those whom Christians killed in the course of colonizing the rest of the world.”[58]


A Call to Return to Nonviolence

Before returning to the Constantinian corruption and the challenge that faces us today, allow me to summarize the major themes that form the framework for the Christian notion of nonviolent enemy love. A millennium before the birth of Jesus, God had promised that one of King David’s descendants would be his Son and would rule forever. Several hundreds of years later God gave Daniel visions about the coming son of man who would rule over all peoples and nations. These two promises converged on one man—Jesus from Nazareth who was both Son of God and Son of Man, who was destined to rule on the throne of David and come as cosmic victor. Jesus’ ministry was soaked with kingdom symbols, kingdom language, and kingdom activity. Jesus came preaching the gospel about the kingdom, teaching the way of the kingdom, and performing miraculous signs of the kingdom (through healing and exorcism). Through his death Jesus won the decisive victory against evil and dealt with sin once for all. Through the resurrection, death itself was conquered and Jesus was vindicated as God’s true Messiah. But, then rather than liberating Israel from Roman oppression and establishing the kingdom of God on the throne of David, Jesus ascended to heaven with the promise that he would return. Then, just a few days later, the Holy Spirit was poured out on both the apostles and all who repented through baptism. Then God began to call Gentiles to the faith, which caused no small stir. The consensus among the nascent Christian community was to accept Gentiles as full Christians without requiring them to keep the Law. Before long God revealed that neither Gentiles nor Jews needed to continue living the old way now that the new had come. As the writer of Hebrews explains, between Jesus’ death and the coming of the spirit a new and living way had been inaugurated, which meant the old way of being the people of God was obsolete. Sin and death have been defeated and the Holy Spirit has come for all who repent and believe. As a result, Christians are enabled to embody the kingdom like Jesus did. Now, until he returns, we are called to speak the kingdom message while living out the ethics of the kingdom in order that we would both individually and as a community be a sign of the coming kingdom.

The new reality Jesus proclaimed was nonviolent. That much is clear, not just from the Sermon on the Mount, but his entire life and teaching and, above all, the way he faced his death. His was not merely a tactical or pragmatic nonviolence seized upon because nothing else would have worked against the Roman empire’s near monopoly on violence. Rather, he saw nonviolence as a direct corollary of the nature of God and of the new reality emerging in the world from God. In a verse quoted more than any other from the New Testament during the church’s first four centuries, Jesus taught that God loves everyone, and values all, even those who make themselves God’s enemies. We are therefore to do likewise (Matt. 5:45; cf. Luke 6:35)…Thus nonviolence is not just a means to the Kingdom of God; it is a quality of the Kingdom itself. Those who live nonviolently are already manifesting the transformed reality of the divine order now, even under the conditions of what I call the Domination System.[59]

We could summarize the case for nonviolence in the following manner:

  1. Jesus, the mediator of the new covenant, commanded his followers to love their enemies.
  2. The Apostles confirmed this teaching with instructions to “never return evil for evil” and “overcome evil with good.”
  3. The early Christians for more than two hundred years were faithful to Jesus’ teaching on nonviolence.
  4. Under Constantine, who used the name of Christ on the shields of his soldiers in order to violently conquer Rome, the church was duped into thinking that a new change had occurred making the way of Jesus obsolete. Now the emperor was Christian, which meant that the empire was a Christian nation, and the church should support Rome even if it meant compromising the way of Jesus.
  5. Finally, Ambrose and then Augustine developed the necessary theology to insure Christian cooperation with the State through Just War theology

The early peace witness mutated with time, largely due to the irresistible temptation to make Rome a Christian Nation. When Constantine invited the persecuted bride of Christ into his imperial bed-chamber, he adorned her with a scarlet dress, fit for a princess, and whispered innumerable sweet promises of protection and fidelity if she would only wed herself to Rome. The bride who was already betrothed to the Jew from Nazareth exchanged her white garments adorned with the blood of the lamb and the martyrdom of the saints for the comfortable silk royal robes of imperial glory. She was beguiled by the serpent and before long switched from persecuted to persecutor, from salt to just more manure—the stinking stench that everyone accepts as normal and civilized. Her new husband and Lord, Caesar, brainwashed her to believe that spiritual warfare was not enough; the army of Christ must fight with the sword, in order to defend the kingdom of god from the “barbarians.” Before long the church’s light grew dim, faith in the kingdom was transplanted by an abstract idea for heaven, and the church merged with the State to produce Christendom.

Ironically, once Christians got into political power, the pax Romana ended and Rome began to decline rapidly. A thick river of blood reaches from that day to this, filled with the violent acts of Christendom against the heretics, the Jews, the Muslims, and whoever else got in the way.

It is time for the bride of Christ to wake up from this bloody nightmare, and call for a divorce from the Serpent and his client kings. Maybe, just maybe, the slaughtered lamb will have the slaughtering bride back if she will repent of her wicked complicity with the empire? Maybe she could put her sword down, take off the mantle of power—the royal robes of Babylon, and adorn herself once again in the wedding dress washed clean by the forgiveness available through the blood of the lamb? Then perhaps the church could begin to testify that her groom is the Prince of Peace not the Lord of War. Conservative theologian Ben Witherington summarizes the point nicely:

The issue I am raising is just this– can Christians in good conscience participate in violence. Many Christians of course will say yes. They will not interpret ‘thou shalt not murder’ in a way that prohibits such activity, nor will they interpret the Sermon on the Mount the way I and many other pacifists do.

I respect these other opinions, but I am quite convinced they are wrong. Before Constantine Christians simply refused to serve in the military, refused to co-operate with violence, and were often killed because of it. They saw this as a matter of ethical principle. So do I.

It is the job of Christians to provide the world with a window on the future eschatological kingdom, or heaven if you like. We are meant to be a preview of coming attractions, as the prophets foretold about peace on earth and goodwill to all humans. Call us the loyal opposition to the majority, in any given age. This in turn means that the ethics applicable to general persons in the culture are not the same as the ethics required of Christians who signed on to follow Jesus.[60]

As Christians we are called to embody the kingdom, to bring forth signs of God’s future, and testify that the Messiah has come, that we have been justified already in anticipation of the justification of the whole world. Our message is that there is something worth living and dying for, something lasting, something beautiful. It is time to lay down our sword, pick up our cross and follow the one who stood power on its head, who won the greatest victory by loosing his life to a State execution. Our testimony says the story didn’t end there because God raised him from the dead. Therefore, the world is not the same because Jesus, not Caesar, is Lord. The question is whether or not we take him seriously?

Luke 6.46
Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I tell you?


To read my answers to common objections, scroll down below the footnotes.


[1] This question would apply equally to any nation on earth. I am writing as an American primarily to Americans. If you are not an American, feel free to substitute your nation for the U.S. while reading.

[2] Due to space constraints we will not be able to work through the remarkable glimpses of nonviolent theology found in the Old Testament (like when God prohibited David from building the Temple because he was a man of war, Elisha’s instruction to feed and release the Syrian army, the time Jehoshaphat put the praise band in front of the military, or the other times God fought for his people using unconventional means.)

[3] www.loveyourenemies.wordpress.com

[4] Anabaptists refers broadly to those groups during the 16th century, during the reformation years, who alleged that Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin were not going far enough to restore the church to its roots. As a result, the Anabaptists formed their own fellowships and both postulated and pursued the radical idea that one should obey Jesus’ teachings literally (especially those in the Sermon on the Mount). Consequently, the Anabaptists more almost entirely comprised of pacifists. Modern descendants of these groups include the Mennonites, Hutterites, Amish, and those who live in the Bruderhof.

[5] Books that major on the kingdom while addressing the subject of nonviolence include: Leo Tolstoy: The Kingdom of God is within You; John Howard Yoder: The Politics of Jesus, Gregory Boyd: The Myth of the Christian Nation; David Bercot: The Kingdom that Turned the World Upside Down; Lee Camp: Mere Discipleship; Shane Claiborne and Chris Haw: Jesus for President.

[6] Jesse was King David’s father.

[7] One such story involved the slaughter and enslavement of thousands of people living in Sepphoris (just two miles from Nazareth) around the time Jesus was born.

[8] 1 Chronicles 17.13; Psalm 2.7; Matthew 26.63; Luke 4.41; John 1.49; 11.27; 20.31

[9] The devil is “the ruler of this world” (John 12.31) and “the god of this age” (2 Corinthians 4.4). “The whole world lies in the power of the evil one” (1 John 5.19). He deceives the whole world (Revelation 12.9).

[10] kingdom of heaven = kingdom of God (compare Matthew 19.23 to 24).

[11] Think judge in the sense of the book of Judges rather than in the sense of American court judges.

[12] In fact, Matthew specifically cites this as a fulfillment of the text from Hosea where it is said, “Out of Egypt, I have called my son.” In its original context, Hosea spoke of the exodus from Egypt under Moses.

[13] Jesus spent forty days whereas Moses spent forty years in the desert.

[14] meek. (2009). In Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. Retrieved April 3, 2009, from http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/meek

[15] John 14.27; Romans 12.17-19; 14.19; 1 Corinthians 7.15; 2 Corinthians 13.11; Galatians 5.22; Ephesians 4.1-3; 1 Thessalonians 5.12-13; 2 Thessalonians 3.16; Titus 3.1-2; Hebrews 12.14; James 3.17-18; 1 Peter 3.10-15;

[16] Lee Camp, Mere Discipleship, (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2006) p. 36.

[17] As used by Tom Lock, founder of nonresistance.org, in his fine sermon, Christianity, Violence, & War, which can be downloaded at loveyourenemies.wordpress.com under the “Audios and Videos” section.

[18] “The word here for resist (antistenai) almost attains the sense of a technical term, used by Josephus 17 times—fifteen of those times Josephus means “violently resist.”” Lee Camp, “Why the Christian Church Ought to be Pacifist,” September 2001, published in New Wineskins, p. 3.

[19] Jason David BeDuhn, Truth in Translation, (Lanham, MD: University Press of America 2003), p. 41.

[20] Walter Wink, “Can Love Save the World?” Published in Yes Magazine, winter 2002 (http://www.yesmagazine.org/article.asp?ID=485).

[21] Walter Wink, “Can Love Save the World?” Published in Yes Magazine, winter 2002 (http://www.yesmagazine.org/article.asp?ID=485).

[22] Walter Wink, “Beyond Just War and Pacifism: Jesus’ Nonviolent Way,” (http://www.cres.org/star/_wink.htm).

[23] For an example of a Roman soldier forcing a native to bear a burden, think back to when Simon of Cyrene was pressed into service (the verbal form of angareia) to carry Jesus’ cross (Matthew 27.32).

[24] Walter Wink, “Beyond Just War and Pacifism: Jesus’ Nonviolent Way,” (http://www.cres.org/star/_wink.htm).

[25] The command to be perfect as God is not an injunction to moral perfection as Wesley and others have understood. The word perfect in Greek has the connotation of completeness. Incomplete or imperfect love only loves those who reciprocate, but complete or perfect love even includes one’s enemies.

[26] Lee Camp, Mere Discipleship, (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2006), pg 74.

[27] John Howard Yoder, Politics of Jesus, (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1994) pg 96. (emphasis added)

[28] For answers to common objections, log on to our website (www.LoveYourEnemies.wordpress.com) and click “difficult questions.”

[29] Even though Jesus had told them in advance the Scripture specifically states that they did not understand. The idea that one man would be resurrected in advance of the rest of God’s people was foreign to their worldview.

[30] Is 25.6-8; Dan 12.2; Ez 37.1-14

[31] Romans 1.3; Acts 17.31

[32] Leviticus 25.23; Psalm 39.12; Hebrews 11.13; 1 Peter2.11

[33] Isaiah 44:1-5; Ezekiel 11:17-20; Ezekiel 36:24-28, 33-35; 37:12-14; 39.25-29; Joel 2.28-3.2

[34] Of course, God was active through the Spirit prior to Pentecost, but it was never available to as many as call on the name of the Lord, only to certain individuals whom God empowered for a given task (cf. Exodus 31.3).

[35] Polycarp was martyred in the second century by the Roman official who was incensed that Polycarp would not offer a pinch of incense to Caesar and curse Christ.

[36] See Dr. Walter Brueggemann’s nineteen theses.

[37] Dialogue with Trypho, chapter 110 (ANF: Vol. 1, p. 254).

[38] Against Heresies, book 4, chapter 34 (ANF: Vol. 1, p. 512).

[39] An Answer to the Jews, chapter 3 (ANF: Vol. 3, p. 154). The following Old English words were replaced: glaive -> sword; wont -> inclination; tranquillity -> tranquility; clemency -> mercy; pacific -> peaceable; pristine -> original; obediences -> obedience

[40] Origen Against Celsus, book 5, chapter 33 (ANF: Vol. 4, p. 558).

[41] The edict of Milan in a.d. 313 legalized Christianity (along with other religions) and decreed that all meeting places and other properties which had been confiscated from the Christians and sold or granted out of the government treasury were to be returned.

[42] The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles 1.3-4

[43] Letter to Diognetus 5.1-17 (ANF: Vol 1. pp. 26-27).

[44] The First Apology of Justin, chapter 39 (ANF: Vol 1. p. 176).

[45] The Instructor, book 1, chapter 12 (ANF: Vol. 2, pp. 234-235).

[46] On Idolatry, chapter 19, (ANF: Vol. 3, p. 73).

[47] Since leaving the military was illegal, a soldier who converted to Christianity was in a difficult spot. He could desert and make his escape, remain a soldier without offending God (which Tertullian thinks is impossible), or else die as a martyr in the same way as many civilians have.

[48] The Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus of Rome, 16.17-19

[49] Origen Against Celsus, book 8, chapter 73 (ANF: Vol. 4, p. 667-668).

[50] The Epistle of Cyprian: Epistle I: To Donatus, chapter 6 (ANF: Vol. 5, p. 277).

[51] The Treatises of Cyprian, Treatise 9.14 (ANF: Vol. 5, p. 488).

[52] The Seven Books of Arnobius Against the Heathen, book 1, chapter 6 (ANF: Vol. 6, p. 415).

[53] The Divine Institutes, Book 5: Of Justice, Wisdom, and Folly, chapter 8 (ANF: Vol. 7, p. 153)

[54] A Treatise on the Anger of God Addressed to Donatus, chapter 14 (ANF: Vol. 7, p. 271).

[55] Walter Wink, “Beyond Just War and Pacifism: Jesus’ Nonviolent Way,” (http://www.cres.org/star/_wink.htm).

[56] These six shifts were taken from Mark Nation’s book: John Howard Yoder, (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans 2006), pp. 65-67.

[57] John Howard Yoder as quoted by Stanley Hauerwas at The Burke Lecture, UC at San Diego delivered in April 2004, (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FPPJCkfxdTs).

[58] Walter Wink, “Beyond Just War and Pacifism: Jesus’ Nonviolent Way,” (http://www.cres.org/star/_wink.htm).

[59] ibidem

[60] Ben Witherington III, commenting on his blog post “Deck the Malls with Guns and the Gory” (benwitherington.blogspot.com/2007/12/deck-malls-with-guns-and-gory_12.html) on December, 17, 2007.


Common Objections to Jesus’ Audacious Idea to Love Our Enemies

But Doesn’t God Use Violence?

Didn’t God Authorize Violence in the OT?

What If Someone Attacks My Family?

Isn’t pacifism motivated by cowardliness?

What about When Jesus Cleansed the Temple?

Why Did Jesus Command His Disciples to Carry Swords?

But Nonviolence Would Never Work On a Large Scale!

What about One’s Duty to Serve the Country?

How Dare You Criticize the Protection Soldiers Risk their Lives to Provide?

Isn’t America a Christian Nation?

But Isn’t the Government Ordained by God (Romans 13)?

What about When Jesus Returns to Slaughter the Wicked?

Why Weren’t Centurions Told to Leave the Military?

What about Just Wars like World War II?

Isn’t Loving One’s Enemies Impractical in the Real World?

Why Didn’t Anyone Specifically Forbid Military Participation in the NT?

Should Christians Join the U.S. Military?


But Doesn’t God Use Violence?

Yes, God uses violence. In fact, precisely because God uses violence (and God is good) we should never say that violence itself is evil. Saying that would make God both good and evil at the same time, which would be a contradiction. Of course, God is the one uniquely qualified to always use violence correctly. Pacifists do not take issue with the Creator using violence as he sees fit, rather our concern is whether it is right for the people of God to use violence today. God is both a God of love and a God of vengeance. Though some believe that God never uses violence the following passage makes it crystal clear that God not only gives life but he also takes it:

Deuteronomy 32.39-43
39 See now that I, even I, am he; there is no god besides me. I kill and I make alive; I wound and I heal; and no one can deliver from my hand. 40 For I lift up my hand to heaven, and swear: As I live forever, 41 when I whet my flashing sword, and my hand takes hold on judgment; I will take vengeance on my adversaries, and will repay those who hate me. 42 I will make my arrows drunk with blood, and my sword shall devour flesh– with the blood of the slain and the captives, from the long-haired enemy. 43 Praise, O heavens, his people, worship him, all you gods! For he will avenge the blood of his children, and take vengeance on his adversaries; he will repay those who hate him, and cleanse the land for his people.

Yahweh is not a God to be trifled with; he is fully capable of executing vengeance. The issue that pacifists raise is that we should leave vengeance to God. Paul put it this way:

Romans 12.19
Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.”

Will we submit to the inspired Scripture? Will we say, “Never will I avenge myself?” or will we make exceptions, excuses, and in so doing become our own Lords?


Didn’t God Authorize Violence in the OT?

Don’t accounts of God-ordained holy wars in the OT prove that the people of God are permitted on certain occasions to use violence righteously? Yes, before the Messiah came, God ordained that his holy people should have an army. Yet, even so, over and over God made the point that they should trust in him and not their military prowess. Here are a few such examples:

  1. One of the greatest military victories of all time was won when God defeated Egypt through the ten plagues so that his chosen people would be liberated from oppressive slavery and ethnic cleansing.       How did God bring down Egypt? He used some of the least in his creation (frogs, lice, flies, locusts, etc.) to bring this powerful nation to its knees. One can hardly help from noticing the irony of how Egypt was paralyzed by these puny pests. The point made by these plagues was that Yahweh was the true God (not the gods of Egypt). In addition, once the children of Israel left the land of Goshen and began their trek, the pursuing Egyptian army hemmed them in on the coast of Red Sea. Just when all hope seemed to be lost, God split the Red Sea and allowed his people to escape but then caused the sea to drown the recalcitrant Egyptians.       This was the context for the phrase, “God is a man of war [KJV]” or “God is a warrior [NASB].” In other words, God is fully capable of fighting for his people, especially when they realize their own weakness and cry out to him for help.
  2. Several times God promised that he would fight for his people as they entered the Promised Land using hornets.[1] I’m sure people back then, as today, ran when they saw a swarm of hornets coming at them! This was not the typical military strategy used in the ancient world.       The purpose of this hornet business was to teach his people to trust in God. They could be confident to enter the Promised Land, despite the mighty nations dwelling there, because God was the one who would be fighting for them.
  3. The military strategy God ordained for the conquering of the first city in the land of Canaan was to march around the city once a day while blowing trumpets for six days. Then, on the seventh day, they were to walk around Jericho seven times, blow the ram’s horn, and shout. Now I am pretty sure that this strategy was not a common military technique (then or now). In fact, I would bet that when Joshua explained the battle plan to the army they struggled to accept it. But, they did it, and God caused the walls to fall and Israel was able to conquer the impregnable city!
  4. Several decades later Gideon became a judge in the land of Israel. The people were severely oppressed by the Midianites who had a vastly superior army of at least 135,000 men compared to Gideon’s mere 32,000.       But, Israel’s warrior was not comfortable with the numbers because the people might actually think they had won the battle on their own strength. So, Yahweh whittled Gideon’s puny army down to a paltry three hundred.       Then, he instructed them with another of his famous yet immensely impractical military strategies: surround the Midianite camp at night, blow trumpets, smash your clay pitchers, light your torches, and shout. Naturally, anyone who heard this strategy, especially considering the 450:1 ratio, would either have to seriously trust God or else laugh at the ridiculous instruction. Of course, God’s wisdom was vindicated when the spooked Midianites ended up killing each other in, which allowed Gideon and his men to route them.
  5. Centuries later, after Judah split from Israel, a league was formed between the Moabites, Ammonites, and Meunites. These nations decided to attack Judah when Jehoshaphat was king. In fear he went to God and called for a solemn assembly of the people. He prayed an incredible prayer of faith recounting what God had done in their past and asked him to help them in the present. Then the spirit of Yahweh came upon Jahaziel who prophesied that Judah would not need to fight in this battle, rather God would reveal his salvation to them when they marched to the wilderness of Jeruel.       So, what did King Jehoshaphat do?       The next day he began marching and placed the praise team at the head of his army. When they got to the overlook and saw the enemy, they were all dead corpses strewn about because the league had fallen apart and they had killed each other! So much were the spoils that it took three days for them to be gathered.
  6. Some time later, when Hezekiah was king of Judah, a massive army of Assyrians was spreading over the face of the known world like an unstoppable virus. They had licked up Israel and transplanted foreigners in her land, and Judah was next. Sennacherib, the king of Assyria, sent Rabshakeh to trash talk Yahweh the God of Judah and to intimidate the people of Judah into giving up without a fight. Hezekiah, in distress tore his clothes, put on sackcloth, and went to the house of Yahweh to pray. God sent Isaiah with the message, “I will defend this city to save it, for my own sake and for my servant David.” That night the angel of the Lord went out and killed 185,000 of the Assyrian military. Judah was the only nation to remain free from the Assyrian Empire.

There were other times when God instructed his people to do strange things in order bring about military victory, but these examples should be sufficient to illustrate that God always wanted his people to trust in him to be their warrior and deliverer rather than in their own military strength. Sadly, Israel and then Judah eventually ended up trusting in alliances made with foreign kings and which, instead of helping, ended up precipitating their destruction, because they no longer trusted in Yahweh as their savior. It is so hard to trust in God’s unrealistic methods when the enemy is approaching, but when the people of God did trust in him, he brought about incredible victories time after time.

Even though these examples vividly demonstrate the strange possibilities that open up when one trusts in Yahweh as his or her God, there are still plenty of times when God instructed his people to engage in traditional warfare. So long as Israel (or Judah) was a nation it was necessary for them to maintain an army for defensive wars. (It is interesting to note that Israel never tried to establish an empire for itself, even in the golden years.) All of Israel’s wars were to be holy wars—they were fought in defense of the holy land God had given his people.[2]
But, what happened when Israel lost its independence? By the time Jesus walked this earth; Israel no longer had an army and was part of a Roman province. Furthermore, the Jews throughout the Roman Empire were exempt from military service. As a result Jesus and his first generation of followers did not spend a lot of time discussing the ethics of participating in the evil Roman Legions. Every Jew knew the Romans were the “bad guys” and joining their unholy occupation would be tantamount to betrayal. Furthermore, even in a.d. 66 when the fires of revolution burned hot in the bosom of so many Jews, the Christians did not join in the holy war against the Romans. In stead, the Christians fled to Pella where they escaped the bloody massacre of a.d. 70. Even decades later when the church had become predominantly non-Jewish the issue still did not come up for some time. The Christians took the same posture as the Jews toward participating in the Roman war machine. With the exception of a soldier converting to Christianity, the followers of Jesus were not involved in the military, that is, until Rome became a “Christian Nation.”

The Gentiles and Jews who comprised Christianity from the early years, right up until the present day, inhabit many nations, some of which are antagonistic towards each other. Jesus has not left it up to us to sort out these matters without guidance, for he said in the Sermon on the Mount, “Love your enemies.” Things have changed. The new has replaced the old, and God’s people now have a different role to play—we are called to reflect the coming international kingdom of justice and peace in the present. How can we do that with a sword in our hands?

To use OT examples of God ordained violence to argue for modern participation in warfare is as patently false as arguing from the OT that Christian women should go outside the city each month during their menstrual cycle. We have to be careful to make distinctions between timing when we read the Bible, or else the book will become hopelessly contradictory. Larry Mattera drew the same conclusion when he said:

A biblical ethic of Christian participation in war must derive from a holistic reading of Scripture. The bare fact of warfare and warrior images of God in the OT does not legitimize war or Christian participation in war, but points beyond itself to the God active in human history. The hermeneutical key for unlocking the meaning of these motifs is Jesus Christ and the new community. Jesus is the culminator of the old aeon and the inaugurator of the era of fulfillment. The new community is the eschatological community of the Kingdom already emergent in history. In Jesus Christ, God introduces onto the horizon of human existence a New Order with a new way of living and acting in history. It is the Way authorized by Jesus of Nazareth, the way of the future exploding into the present.

In Jesus Christ, then, new possibilities, new potentialities emerge for human existence. The person who attaches himself or herself to Jesus Christ adopts a new history and a new disposition, a fundamentally changed attitude, and a wholly different scale of values. To be “in Christ” is to be “in the Spirit” and to live “by the Spirit” that is the very antithesis of war’s violence, hatred, and strife (Gal. 5:16, 17; Rom. 8:12, 13, cf. Matt. 26:52). God’s loving act in Jesus Christ is thus the final, definitive word on the Christian’s relation to war. It repudiates worldly pragmatism, defies political realism, and appeals to us to bind ourselves in faith, whatever the cost, to God’s pattern of dealing with enemies, to God’s way in the world—the way of the inbreaking new epoch of the Spirit.[3]

One more item needs to be addressed before moving on to the next question. Many people seem to be under the impression that America is the New Israel, God’s unique chosen nation. People speak of the U.S. in awe as if suddenly out of the chaos of Europe a few pious pilgrims escaped religious persecution, were led safely across the Atlantic, to inherit the new Promised Land. Sure they had to drive out the pagan natives, just like Joshua had slaughtered the Canaanites, and they enslaved millions of Africans, but they were simply carrying out God’s will, which they labeled “manifest destiny.” Right? This way of thinking has serious flaws in it. By using OT Israel as the paradigm for today we unwittingly deny the Jesus who has already come and taught us a better Way than that of Israel under the old Jesus (Joshua). America is not the new Israel. The enemies of America are not necessarily the enemies of God. The allies of America are not necessary the allies of God. From the moment Gentiles were baptized, Christianity became an international faith which accepted people from every tribe, nation, and language to be priests unto our God. America is a kingdom of this world, just like Germany, Iraq, Australia, and Zimbabwe. It is not the kingdom of God at least not until the king comes to conquer it.


What If Someone Attacks My Family?

First of all, if any man does nothing while his wife and children are attacked before his eyes he is a coward not a man of God. In a moment of crisis like this, doing nothing is simply not an option. The question is what to do. But, before we delve deeper into this hypothetical we must first remember a few things that put us in a position of advantage.

  1. God is alive. The same God who created the world, split the Red Sea, torched Mount Sinai, and defeated the entire Egyptian army is alive today. So often when this hypothetical is batted about one of the presuppositions is that God is not at hand to aid his child in the time of need. The 19th century author, David Low Dodge, put this so well when he said:

The objection, however, wholly overlooks the providence and promise of God. Assassins do not stroll out of the circle of God’s providence. Not only is their breath in his hand, but the weapons they hold are under his control. Besides, God’s children are dear to him, and he shields them by his protecting care, not suffering any event to befall them except such as shall be for his glory and their good. Whoever touches them touches the apple of his eye. He has promised to be a very present help to them in every time of need, and to deliver those who trust in him out of all their trouble. He will make even their enemies to be at peace with them. The eyes of the Lord are over the righteous and his ears are open to their prayers, but the face of the Lord is against those who do evil; and who is he who will harm you if you are followers of that which is good? But if you suffer for righteousness’ sake, you should be happy, and not be afraid of their terror, or troubled. If God thus protects his children, who can be against them? Isn’t the arm of the Lord powerful to save, and a better defense to all who trust in him than swords and guns? Whoever found him unfaithful to his promises or unable to save? Aren’t the hosts of heaven at his command? Aren’t his angels swift to do his will? “Are they not all ministering spirits sent forth to minister for them who shall be heirs of salvation?” “The angel of the Lord encampeth round about them that fear him, and delivereth them.” If the Lord is on their side, Christians have no cause to fear what man can do unto them. The blessed Savior said, “Whosoever will save his life shall lose it, and whosoever shall lose his life for my sake shall find it.”[4]

As believers, we are the ones who trust in God for our salvation, who believe he raised Jesus from the dead, who believe that ultimately he will set the world right. We believe that he knows the hairs on everyone’s heads and that no sparrow falls to the ground without him noticing. Yet, we automatically assume that he will forsake us in this type of situation. This is hypocrisy. God is either impotent or he is almighty; he simply cannot be both. So, if the God of the Bible is the one we believe in, then we have reason to take courage that he will not forsake us in our time of need.

  1. The second theological fact we must come to grips with is that Christ has broken the power of death. The world is not the same anymore. The resurrection of Jesus spelled the end to the tyranny of death. In fact, Jesus’ resurrection is not a one-off event, but the advance occurrence of the ultimate event which will happen when the kingdom comes. This is why Jesus’ resurrection is called the “first fruits” of those who sleep (1 Corinthians 15.20). So, the people of God are the resurrection people—those who live between the two great resurrection events: the resurrection of Jesus and the resurrection to come at his return. Thus, we are doubly assured that death is not the end of the story. It has already been dealt with and our leader has conquered it, paving a way for everyone who follows him. For this reason, as resurrection people, we should not be cowed by death threats as if our present life is worth saving at all costs. We are freed from that mentality and enabled to approach matters from God’s perspective.
  2. The third piece of information that affects our hypothetical is that the Holy Spirit has been poured out. Because of this, the people of God are empowered to live the kingdom way in the present evil age. In situations that were considered impossible from a natural perspective, the holy spirit opens up new creative possibilities to seek restoration rather than mere preservation. The powers of the age to come have been unleashed into the Christian’s life today to open up new possibilities to testify to the kingdom in radically cross-shaped ways. The old fight or flight dichotomy no longer need hold kingdom people in its grip. Because God lives, because Jesus was resurrected, and because of the holy spirit a new way has been opened to us: the third way.

Of course, Jesus is our example for what to do in impossible situations. Remember that the disciples did not only listen to Jesus’ gospel proclamation, teachings, and parables, but they also observed his whole way of life. They ate with him, they walked with him, they watched him do ministry in a thousand circumstances. When Jesus was boxed into a situation where he seemed to be trapped, he regularly found the third way and pursued it. Here are three examples from Jesus’ life of how he chose the unpredictable third way:

  1. Following his prophetic demonstration in the Temple, some chief priests and elders asked Jesus, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” (Matthew 21.23). This question put Jesus in a tight spot. Somewhere lurking behind their opposition is the idea that they could go to the authorities and report him or else discredit him before the public who were eagerly listening. So, Jesus rather than answering the question outright, asked them a question in return: “Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?”       If they would answer his question, he would answer theirs. Ironically, Jesus’ question put them in just the same sort of bind that he was in just a moment ago. Now, if they said from heaven, Jesus would ask why they were not baptized by John. If they said from human origin, then they would lose creditability among the people who all considered John to be a prophet. So they answered, “We do not know.” And Jesus replied, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.” Then Jesus went on to tell some confrontational parables.
  2. After considerable plotting with the Herodians, the Pharisees worked up another way to entrap Jesus. They asked him the simple question, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not?” If Jesus responded in the affirmative, he would be considered a traitor on par with the tax-collectors. If he said it was not lawful, the Herodians would immediately report him to the authorities as a teacher in Israel who needed to be silenced. Jesus’ response not only avoided both of these dangers but neutralized the whole situation:

Matthew 22.19-22
19 Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. 20 Then he said to them, “Whose head [Gk. Image] is this, and whose title?” 21 They answered, “The emperor’s.” Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” 22 When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.

  1. Our last example from Jesus’ life comes from the night he was betrayed. The soldiers had just appeared and Jesus was standing before them. Peter, in a moment of incredible courage took a sword and tried to cut off the head of one of Jesus’ enemies. Of course, Peter was a fisherman, and not a very good soldier, so he missed and only cut off the man’s ear. If we paused the event here, what options are available to Jesus? He could seize the moment and attempt to flee hoping that the temple police would have their hands full with Peter. He could let out the braveheart war cry, find a sword, and start hacking down the bad guys. He could do nothing. But what did Jesus do? He told Peter to put away the sword, and then he reached down, picked up the man’s ear, and like Mr. Potato Head, stuck it back on Malchus’ head. Then he declared that his disciples should be allowed to go free.

These three examples, and many like them, demonstrate that Jesus’ often responded to difficult situations in creative and unpredictable ways. If someone boxed Jesus into just two options, both of them bad, he would walk by the spirit and proceed with the third way. So when it comes to the hypothetical intruder, from a purely natural perspective people generally posit that there are only two options: use violence or do nothing. But, to limit the situation like this is to forget that followers of Jesus are not beholden to the typical restrictions of such situations. We can, like our leader, follow the third way, whatever it may be in that situation.

We need to break our faith commitments to violence and cowardliness. On the one hand we believe that violence really is more powerful and effective than love. In order to break faith with this sort of thinking we need only look at the cross. In that bloody event the love of God triumphed over the most hideous symbol of the empire’s violence—the cross. Through crucifixion, God used the momentum of violence against itself so that Satan, evil, and sin could be defeated. Thus, we as the people of God really believe that love is more powerful than violence, not only because we have seen it defeat hatred and torture on the cross, but more importantly because God endorses it. But, we must not only break faith with violence, we need to also abandon cowardliness, which is really the other side of the self-preservation coin. Since the resurrection of Jesus has broken the power of death, we need not fear death as the pagans do. Furthermore, we need to realize that when we signed on to following Jesus we also agreed to take up our cross and follow him. Doing nothing is not only cowardly it is contrary to the example of Christ. Jesus did not back down when the Pharisees criticized him. He did not cower in fear when the Sadducees brought their resurrection riddle to him. He was not found hiding away when the Herodians asked him about taxes. No. Jesus was a man of courage, and so must we be, especially in a situation such as our hypothetical intruder.

Naturally, the question comes up, “What does the third option look like in this situation?” When I first came to see that Jesus was calling me to nonviolent enemy love even in the face of extreme danger, I likewise wanted to know if anyone else had ever done such a thing, and what the turnout had been. Unfortunately, we do not have the space to include very many stories here, but I would be remiss if I did not include just a few to help build faith. So here are four examples of people choosing the third option in a situation that seemed impossible.

Example One: Getting Robbed on the Subway
In the early days of the Simple Way a young woman from Brazil named Lydia was living in the community…One day she was traveling on the train, a fellow sat down next to her and pulled a knife. “Listen carefully,” he said, “here’s what’s gonna happen. You are going to hand me your bag, get off at the next station, and not say a word.” She looked at him unflinchingly. “My name is Lydia,” she said winsomely, firmly, “and I am from Brazil.” The man stared at her blankly, taken aback. She continued, “My bag is filled with photos and addresses of my family and those mean a lot to me but will do you no good. I’d imagine what you want is money. There is no money in my bag. However, I have some money in my pocket, so here’s what we’ll do. I’ll get out my money, give you twenty dollars, you get off at the next station, and we won’t say a word.” And it worked.[5]

Example Two: When the Mob Attacks in the Ally
Kassim, a great kid who lives in our neighborhood, is eleven, and his mom doesn’t let him out a lot. He’s the sort of gentle kid you never want to see lose his innocence and trust or have his heart grow hard…One time Kassim and I (Shane) were walking to the post office, a walk I take several times a week. We were walking down a narrow side street, and some teenage guys started following us. You could just feel the mischief brewing, and the group grew from two young men to four to eight, until there was a little mob of sorts. They started calling out some names, throwing rocks and sticks, trying to stir up trouble. It’s always hard on the spot like that to know what Jesus would do. I told Kassim, “Let’s go say hi.” He looked at me skeptically. We turned back and walked toward them, knowing full well that if we had run, we probably would have made it to the post office. “Hey, I’m Shane. And this is my friend Kassim. We live around the corner,” I said with my hand out. They weren’t really sure what to do with that. A couple of them shook my hand and introduced themselves. Others snickered. One or two refused the handshake. We said, “Nice to meet you guys,” and headed back to our walk.

With the wind taken out of their sails a bit, they regrouped and continued to build momentum toward a brawl. They ran after us, throwing some rocks and bottles, and I noticed tow of them now carried broomsticks from the trash. We picked up the pace a bit, and then I looked at Kassim and said, “No, don’t run.” We turned back, and before we knew it, one of them had clocked Kassim on the side of the head with a stick. I said firmly, “Why would you do that? We haven’t done anything to hurt you.” They laughed. Then they started hitting me with a broomstick until it broke over my back. At this point I decided to bust out a can of holy anger. I looked them in the eyes and said as forcefully as I could, “You are created in the image of God…every single one of you. And you were made for something better than this. Kassim and I are followers of Jesus and we do not fight, but we will love you no matter what you do to us.” That wasn’t exactly what they expected or hoped for. They looked at each other, startled a bit. For the first time they were quiet. And then they scurried off in every direction.

I’ll never forget what Kassim said afterward. “Shane, why am I taking boxing lessons?” We laughed at the irony of it, having just experienced a prime chance to implement his mad skillz. I asked Kassim what he thought would have happened if he had chosen to fight. “It would have been ugly,” he said. “They might have been bloody, and we probably would have been real bloody.” No one would have left any nicer, that was for sure.”[6]

Example Three: 92 Year-Old Woman Held Up in Wal-Mart Parking Lot
92-year-old Pauline Jacobi reads her Bible everyday. Her strong faith keeps her going in life and may have saved it after she almost became the victim of a parking lot robbery. Jacobi had just finished putting her groceries inside her car at a Dyersburg Wal-Mart when a man jumped into the car through the passenger’s side door. He told Jacobi he had a gun and that he would shoot her if she didn’t give him money.

“I’m not going to give you my money,” Jacobi said. In fact. She told him “no” three times. Then she started to talk to him. “As quick as you kill me I’ll go to heaven and you’ll go to hell,” Jacobi said she told the man. “‘Jesus is in this car and he goes with me everywhere I go.”

“He just looked around and the tears just began coming down his eyes.” She told him to ask God for forgiveness and ministered to him for 10 minutes inside her car. “He says, ‘I think I’ll go home and pray tonight,'” Jacobi said. “I says, ‘You don’t have to wait until tonight. You can pray anytime you want to.'”

As tears were rolling down the man’s face, Jacobi voluntarily gave him $10. All the money she had.

“When I told him I was going to give him the money, I said, ‘Don’t you go spend it on whiskey either,'” Jacobi said. The man thanked her for the money and kissed her on the cheek. Then he walked away.[7]

Example Four: When Serial Killers Attack
A number of years ago, some Christian friends of mine, Decio and Olivia, were staying at a motel in Atlanta. There had been a number of armed robberies and murders in the city. In these robberies, the assailants had ordered their victims to lie face down on the floor and then shot them in the backs of their heads. So Decio was on his guard.

It was a mild October evening, and Decio and Olivia had momentarily left their motel door open for a friend. Suddenly two teenage thugs appeared in the doorway with guns. They ordered everyone down on the floor. Decio hesitated and then knelt down, praying and trying to think of a way to foil the robbery.

His wife, Olivia, thinking it was a Halloween prank, remained seated on the bed. So one of the young robbers waved his gun at her and ordered her to lie on the floor. Instead, she started singing out loud “Jesus Loves Me,” as she got up from the bed and slowly walked over to the two young men. One of them raised his pistol, pointed it at her face, and cocked it. But when she continued singing and walking toward him, he suddenly yelled to his partner, “These are a bunch of Jesus nuts! Let’s get outta here!” And with that, the two young men vanished into the dark.

Over the years, I have heard and read many other accounts of how a prayer, a hymn, or a testimony effectively disarmed a would-be burglar or assailant. There’s no point singing “Our God Is an Awesome God,” if we don’t really believe that He is.[8]

Christians are people of faith–the ones who trust in God and walk by the spirit not only in times of ease and comfort but also in times when there seems to be no way out. We need to break our faith commitment to violence on the one side and cowardliness on the other. Once we resolve to neither take revenge ourselves nor run away we suddenly find ourselves free to hear God in the time of need. Perhaps God will lead us to say a word, sing a song, call the police, restrain the intruder while our family escapes, or a million other possibilities, but we will never know so long as we limit ourselves and short-circuit God by keeping a gun under the pillow. (Besides by keeping a gun at the ready we endanger our family much more than the intruder anyhow.)[9]

Should it look different when an intruder attacks a pagan’s house compared to when he attacks the house of a Christ follower? The unique testimony of the Christian is that Messiah has come, he has died as our representative and reconciled us to God, he has been resurrected, and he has poured out the Holy Spirit. Because these eschatological (kingdom) events have already occurred, it is our privilege as Christians to reflect the coming age of peace and justice by living out lives of outrageous and radically self-sacrificial love in faith and in the power of the Holy Spirit. When we reduce our options to fight or flight, we make it look like the Messiah has not come, the resurrection was a hoax, and God is an absentee landowner.


Isn’t pacifism motivated by cowardliness?

Often times, those who endeavor to literally obey Jesus’ command to “love your enemies” are classified as pacifists.  However for some, the word “pacifist” has come to mean one who is “passive.”  The pacifist is made out to be a coward who for fear does not engage with intense and scary situations.  Pacifists are seen as pushovers who lack courage to do what’s right when times get tough.  Pacifists are those who make an over-literal interpretation of Jesus’ commands in order to justify their own spinelessness and condemn the brave who risk their lives to earn the freedoms that allow the pacifist to even question these matters.  The pacifist is a gutless, weakling who may be nice to have over for dinner but certainly should not be trusted to watch other’s children or bear any responsibility for others.

However, we contend that the command of Jesus, “to love your enemies” is the antithesis of this description.  In fact, the very wording of this command defies all notions of passiveness by its affirmative nature.  Jesus did not say, “don’t fight back;” he didn’t say, “don’t hate your enemies;” he didn’t say, “don’t stand your ground against your enemies;” he said, “love your enemies.”  He is calling for activism not “passivism.”  Which is harder: to hate one’s enemy or to love one’s enemy?  Which did Jesus do?  He is calling his followers to radical, self-sacrificial love.  He is calling his followers to do what’s right especially when it is hardest.  The command, “to love your enemies” means that we should be actively involved in extreme forms of love even at great risk to ourselves.

If there is a fight, it should be the follower of Jesus who gets involved, seeks peace, and if necessary risks his own wellbeing for the sake of others.  If there is an attack it is the follower of Jesus who should not only love his own but also seek to demonstrate love to the attacker.  If there is a war, it is the follower of Jesus who prays even for the enemies of his nation.  If there is a plague it is the follower of Jesus who risks his own health to nurse his enemy back to health.

The one who takes seriously the command of our Lord to love the unlovable is the courageous one.  He is the one who sets aside vengeance, self-preservation, and selfishness to step out in faith on the simple instruction of our Lord.  With childlike obedience and trust the disciple of Christ seeks to do the impossible, to defer vengeance to God, to love the hateful, to return blessing for cursing, to refuse to render evil for evil but instead overcome evil with good.


What about When Jesus Cleansed the Temple?

John 2.15-16
15 Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. 16 He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!”

Jesus, in a classic prophetic demonstration, caused a raucous in the Temple in order to confront the greedy systems of power. It is remarkable how often this account is used as justification for Christian participation in military, as if Jesus ever used violence on people or killed anyone. Perhaps the problem is that we think there are only two options: passiveness or violence. But, this is what I have been arguing against the whole time! The way of Christ is not passive or violent, it is confrontational and nonviolent. Jesus’ actions in the Temple are much more akin to a civil disobedience campaign than a military battle.

Furthermore, the text never says that Jesus whipped people. I imagine that once the people saw Jesus driving out their animals, they went chasing after them. Jesus cleared out the Temple to demonstrate his zeal as the only begotten son who upon coming home to his Father’s house saw people taking advantage of the innocent in rebellion to his Father’s will. In addition, the cleansing of the Temple foreshadowed its eventual destruction.

Jesus’ action in the Temple was primarily symbolic and prophetic. It did not have a lasting impact to actually cleanse it. The greedy moneylenders probably came back the next day. His actions remind me of the prophets of old. Isaiah walked naked for three years; Ezekiel cooked his food over cow poop; Hosea married a prostitute and fathered children with her. Does anyone go around saying, “Because Isaiah walked about naked, I can streak at a baseball game?” Of course not, or at least, I hope not. Prophets carry out strange and risqué acts in order to communicate God’s truth to the people. Isaiah walked about naked to symbolize that the impending doom upon Egypt and Ethiopia (Isaiah 20.3); Ezekiel ate his food over cow poop to symbolize the coming siege of Jerusalem (Ezekiel 4.15-17); and Hosea married a whore to symbolize Israel’s whoring after idols while God was faithful to her (Hosea 1.2). So, with Jesus, his behavior in the Temple should not be taken as normative but as a gesture to communicate God’s truth to the onlookers. Taking Jesus’ Temple protest as an excuse to kill our enemies is patently wrong and it contradicts the clear biblical teaching of non-retaliation.


Why Did Jesus Command His Disciples to Carry Swords?

Luke 22.35-38
35 He said to them, “When I sent you out without a purse, bag, or sandals, did you lack anything?” They said, “No, not a thing.” 36 He said to them, “But now, the one who has a purse must take it, and likewise a bag. And the one who has no sword must sell his cloak and buy one. 37 For I tell you, this scripture must be fulfilled in me, ‘And he was counted among the lawless’; and indeed what is written about me is being fulfilled.” 38 They said, “Lord, look, here are two swords.” He replied, “It is enough.”

It is often alleged that Jesus changed his teaching on nonviolence now that he was leaving. Whereas before they could travel about without defensive weapons, now they must go and buy a sword to use for self defense. Consider the words of noted Bible scholar, Ben Witherington III:

What about the famous text in Lk. 22.36-38 where Jesus seems to advise the disciples to go out and obtain a weapon? Again context is king here. Remember this is the same Jesus who: 1) advised that those who live by the sword will die by the sword and 2) who immediately put a stop to Peter’s violence against the high priest’s slave, and indeed reversed it’s effects by healing the man’s ear. So what is the meaning of this little story, taking into account the larger context of Jesus’ teaching? Vs. 37 is the key where Jesus quotes Is. 53.12—“he was numbered with the transgressors”. Jesus is saying to the disciples—you must fulfill your role as transgressors of what I have taught you!!! They must play the part of those who do exactly the opposite of what Jesus taught them in the Sermon on the Mount. The disciples become transgressors by seeking out weapons and then seeking to use them. This much is perfectly clear from the context for the disciples then go on to say “look Lord here [are] two swords”. They already have such weapons and Jesus responds in disgust to the fact that they are already transgressing his principles of non-violence by responding “that’s enough” (of this nonsense).

Clearly, Jesus knew that two swords would not be enough to hold off a Roman legion, so we must take his response as highly ironic not as straight forward. Either he says ironically “oh that will be plenty”, or more likely as I have suggested, he means “that will be enough” of this foolishness. Either way, there is absolutely no endorsement here by Jesus of his followers using weapons. Carrying weapons makes them fulfill the role of transgressors, as the citation of Is. 53.12 makes evident.[10]

Shane Claiborne and Chris Haw help fill in the details:

This is part of a larger conversation about power at the last supper. Jesus’ disciples had apparently been unable to understand the meaning of his discussions on suffering and nonviolence. Over the course of this dinner conversation, Jesus had been trying to tell them that the kingdoms of this world wield power and demand service, but his kingdom was about serving others and self-sacrifice. As in many cases where Jesus would draw out props to make a point (e.g. the coin in the fish’s mouth), Jesus here needs to draw out a dangerous prop: the sword.

To prove his point, Jesus helps his disciples remember that they don’t need anything—which they acknowledge. With that in mind, he will help them understand that they also do not need a sword.

Very explicitly, Jesus equates the carrying of a sword with being a “transgressor.” This phrase references the beautiful passage of Isaiah 53 on how God’s glory is best known through humiliation and suffering and not apparent strength or majesty. To teach one of his most radical lessons on nonviolence, Jesus will incur the embarrassing reputation of going down with terrorists and insurgents, and not the potentially meaningful status of a blameless martyr. “He will be numbered with the transgressors.” Jesus even stripped his self of the ennobling innocent appearance of nonviolence. While he could go down with his unblemished personal character intact, to teach a lesson he will risk the misguided and violent wills of his disciples marring his reputation. (His final healing miracle will then be to clean up after the mess of his disciples’ violence by healing an arrestor’s ear.) This makes radical, counter-intuitive claims about the very nature of God and even what we mean by the word “God.” Is not humiliation and suffering the very opposite of God? Now he will appear before court as being one of the insurgent terrorists who cut people’s ears off.[11]

If calling the sword the transgressor’s tool is not obvious enough, the outcome of the lesson is unequivocally clear. The very next scene is in Gethsemane where the disciple will use those swords. His disciples ask, “Lord, should we strike with our swords?” As one disciple strikes an arrestor, Jesus yells, “No more of this!” and heals the wound. This is the commonly known time when Jesus also states, (in other gospels) “put your sword away,” and “those who live by the sword die by the sword.” After healing his arrestor, Luke’s gospel shows Jesus punctuating this lesson of nonviolence with a question, “Am I leading a rebellion, that you have come with swords and clubs? Every day I was with you in the temple courts, and you did not lay a hand on me. But this is your hour—when darkness reigns” (Luke 22:53).

Nowhere in all of the New Testament is a disciple of Jesus found carrying a sword again.[12]


But Nonviolence Would Never Work On a Large Scale!

Though this objection is common, Jesus directly handled it in the Sermon on the Mount when he said:

Matthew 7.13-14
13 “Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. 14 For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his Cost of Discipleship handled this objection expertly:

How then can the precept of Jesus be justified in the light of experience? It is obvious that weakness and defenselessness only invite aggression. Is then the demand of Jesus nothing but an impractical ideal? Does he refuse to face up to realities–or shall we say, to the sin of the world? There may of course be a legitimate place for such an ideal in the inner life of the Christian community, but in the outside world such an ideal appears to wear the blinkers of perfectionism, and to take no account of sin. Living as we do in a world of sin and evil, we can have no truck with anything as impracticable as that.

Jesus, however, tells us that it is just because we live in the world, and just because the world is evil, that the precept of non-resistance must be put into practice. Surely we do not wish to accuse Jesus of ignoring the reality and power of evil! Why, the whole of his life was one long conflict with the devil. He calls evil evil, and that is the very reason why he speaks to his followers in this way. How is that possible?

If we took the precept of non-resistance as an ethical blueprint for general application, we should indeed be indulging in idealistic dreams: we should be dreaming of a utopia with laws which the world would never obey. To make non-resistance a principle for secular life is to deny God, by undermining his gracious ordinance for the preservation of the world. But Jesus is no draughtsman of political blue-prints, he is the one who vanquished evil through suffering. It looked as though evil had triumphed on the cross, but the real victory belonged to Jesus. And the cross is the only justification for the precept of non-violence, for it alone can kindle a faith in the victory over evil which will enable men to obey that precept. And only such obedience is blessed with the promise that we shall be partakers of Christ’s victory as well as of his sufferings.

So, as Christians we realize from the start that Jesus’ commands are not for society at large. Just imagine how ridiculous it would be to fine people for unforgiveness or for not loving their neighbor? No, the new covenant is in contrast to the letter of the law because it depends on a voluntary heart illuminated by the Holy Spirit not coercion. Therefore, we do not expect the non-Christian society to conform to Christianity, nor do we expect the church to conform to the society. The two must remain distinct, though they constantly interact and even learn from each other. In this way Christians are in the world but not of the world. If all the genuine Christians left the military, there would be plenty of pagans to take their place.


What about One’s Duty to Serve the Country?

Our primary duty is to follow Jesus. Our allegiance to him and the kingdom should always take priority over any duties to the kingdom of the world in which we live. The Scriptures teach us clearly the proper attitude towards the state:

1 Peter 2.11-17
11 Beloved, I urge you as aliens and exiles to abstain from the desires of the flesh that wage war against the soul. 12 Conduct yourselves honorably among the Gentiles, so that, though they malign you as evildoers, they may see your honorable deeds and glorify God when he comes to judge. 13 For the Lord’s sake accept the authority of every human institution, whether of the emperor as supreme, 14 or of governors, as sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to praise those who do right. 15 For it is God’s will that by doing right you should silence the ignorance of the foolish. 16 As servants of God, live as free people, yet do not use your freedom as a pretext for evil. 17 Honor everyone. Love the family of believers. Fear God. Honor the emperor.

1 Timothy 2.1-2  1 First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, 2 for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity.

As Christians we are not anarchists who seek to undo the governments. Rather, our duty is to pray for the country in which we find ourselves sojourning so that we may lead quiet and peaceable lives. Furthermore we are to give due honor and live under the authority of our local government. Even so, there are times when the government passes evil laws which should not be obeyed. Our example for intentional disobedience comes from the apostles themselves when they directly disobeyed the Sanhedrin’s law and took the consequences for it:

Acts 5.26-42
26 Then the captain went with the temple police and brought them, but without violence, for they were afraid of being stoned by the people. 27 When they had brought them, they had them stand before the council. The high priest questioned them, 28 saying, “We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and you are determined to bring this man’s blood on us.” 29 But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than any human authority…40 and when they had called in the apostles, they had them flogged. Then they ordered them not to speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go. 41 As they left the council, they rejoiced that they were considered worthy to suffer dishonor for the sake of the name. 42 And every day in the temple and at home they did not cease to teach and proclaim Jesus as the Messiah.

If the government asks us to do something contrary to the way of Jesus then it is our duty to disobey. If we suffer because of our stand, then we should rejoice for being considered worthy to be experience shame for the sake of Christ.


How Dare You Criticize the Protection Soldiers Risk their Lives to Provide?

I hear Jack Nicholson, from A Few Good Men speaking when I read these words. Christian pacifists are different than non-Christian pacifists, in that we recognize that government has a role to play and that there are times when there is a need for war in order to prevent tyrants from taking over the world. However, we also realize that the role of Christians is not to fight with carnal weapons (even in a just cause) but to use spiritual weapons (2 Corinthians 10.4). This is precisely the argument that Origen made to Celsus in the third century. Celsus had accused the Christians of being non-patriotic because they were unwilling to fight in wars. Origen’s response started by asking if pagan priests fought in Roman wars? The answer, of course, was no. Why shouldn’t pagan priests fight? They have a different role to play than the soldier and their effectiveness as priests would be compromised if they joined the military.

“Do not those who are priests at certain shrines, and those who attend on certain gods, as you account them, keep their hands free from blood, that they may with hands unstained and free from human blood offer the appointed sacrifices to your gods; and even when war is upon you, you never enlist the priests in the army. If that, then, is a laudable custom, how much more so, that while others are engaged in battle, these too should engage as the priests and ministers of God, keeping their hands pure, and wrestling in prayers to God on behalf of those who are fighting in a righteous cause, and for the king who reigns righteously, that whatever is opposed to those who act righteously may be destroyed!”[13]

So, in the same way that the pagan priests have a distinct role to play, so Christians (who are all priests cf. 1 Peter 2.9) are to fight in just causes in a priestly manner. In fact, by choosing the path of nonviolent godliness our prayers are unhindered:

“…The more any one excels in piety, the more effective help does he render to kings, even more than is given by soldiers, who go forth to fight and slay as many of the enemy as they can.”

As Christians, our role is different than everyone else. By not compromising the way of Jesus we are more effective than ten thousand soldiers.

And as we by our prayers vanquish all demons who stir up war, and lead to the violation of oaths, and disturb the peace, we in this way are much more helpful to the kings than those who go into the field to fight for them…And none fight better for the king than we do. We do not indeed fight under him, although he require it; but we fight on his behalf, forming a special army—an army of piety—by offering our prayers to God.

So, Christians do have a participatory role to play when America fights in a just cause. Furthermore, Christians need not criticize every war or “conflict” because we do understand that God has given the governments a distinctive role to play (see But isn’t the government ordained by God?) When it comes to the initial objection, we respond by saying that those military conflicts in which U.S. soldiers bled and died to fight off wicked armies we say “thank you” while at the same time recognizing that it would be inappropriate for Christians to participate violently. Thus, as Christians we are not critical of the U.S. having an army, nor are we critical of the just use of the military. Even so, the U.S. (at least in my lifetime) has a nasty track record for engaging in unprovoked military aggression towards strange countries in far away places. Furthermore, when the cause is not just, the Christian would do well to pray for the other side which is being attacked by America. This is because Christianity is not bound by nationalistic ties.


Isn’t America a Christian Nation?

As a Christian American I was taught the typical myths about the United States. The story goes like this. Once upon a time there was horrible religious persecution in England. So some godly men and women got into some boats and went out looking for a new start where they would be free to worship God. When the pilgrims arrived in this land they made friends with the “Indians” and had a thanksgiving dinner. Then as time went on the evil Europeans continued to oppress the colonies through their army. The colonies courageously united to sign the Declaration of Independence on the fourth of July declaring their freedom from the England. The British, who were much better armed, were miraculously defeated by the U.S. militia under the command of godly men like George Washington. Thus, the country was founded and the Constitution was drafted based on biblical principles, which is why the U.S. is so prosperous. But, then the secularists got into power and took away prayer in school, legalized abortion and pornography, and passed laws to permit all kinds of immorality. Thus, it is up to us Bible-believing Christians to take America back for God by becoming politically active (i.e. voting Republican no matter what). But, is this typical Christian telling of the story, really accurate? Gregory Boyd, evangelical pastor and author of The Myth of a Christian Nation, would disagree:

…I, for one, confess to being utterly mystified by the phrase. If we are to take America back for God, it must have once belonged to God, but it’s not at all clear when this golden Christian age was.

Were these God-glorifying years before, during, or after Europeans “discovered” America and carried out the doctrine of “manifest destiny”–the belief that God (or, for some, nature) had destined white Christians to conquer the native inhabitants and steal their land? Were the God-glorifying years the ones in which whites massacred these natives by the millions, broke just about every covenant they ever made with them, and then forced survivors onto isolated reservations? Was the golden age before, during, or after white Christians loaded five to six million Africans on cargo ships to bring them to their new found country, enslaving the three million or so who actually survived the brutal trip? Was it during the two centuries when Americans acquired remarkable wealth by the sweat and blood of their slaves? Was this the time when we were truly “one nation under God,” the blessed time that so many evangelicals seem to want to take our nation back to?

Maybe someone would suggest that the golden age occurred after the Civil War, when blacks were finally freed. That doesn’t quite work either, however, for the virtual apartheid that followed under Jim Crow laws–along with the ongoing violence, injustices, and dishonesty towards Native Americans and other nonwhites up into the early twentieth century–was hardly “God-glorifying.” (In this light, it should come as no surprise to find that few Christian Native Americans, African-Americans, or other nonwhites join in the chorus that we need to “Take America Back for God.”)

If we look at historical reality rather than pious verbiage, it’s obvious that America never really “belonged to God.”[14]

America’s founding was a complex combination of Christian and anti-Christian forces. Obviously, rebelling from the king of England was a distinctly non-Christian thing to do, considering that the Scripture specifically commands Christians to “honor the king.”[15] But, it is equally beyond dispute that the founders of the U.S. were strongly influenced by a Judeo-Christian ethic. Lee Camp helpfully summarized it this way:

Thus throughout American history, just as in the Holy Roman Empire, Christianity often became a “religion” suffused with the assumption that God has given to “us” the manifest destiny to conquer. Conservative Christians are thus not wrong to note that Christianity played a major role in the founding of the United States, a role that revisionist historians allegedly want to overlook in their storytelling because of their anti-Christian bias. Nonetheless, this Christianity—which too often justified genocide of Native Americans and the enslavement of Africans—was often a religion not worthy of the name of Christ. The early U.S. republic did indeed more publicly profess and assume a Christian veneer; abundant proof texts and quotes from founding fathers suggest that the early republic was more explicitly “Christian” than is our public square today. But this fails to raise the more important question: was that widespread Christianity of the early republic merely a variation on Eusebian[16] Christianity? Does this kind of “God and country” faith bear witness to a Good News that seeks to break down barriers, reconcile peoples, and proclaim peace? How does being discipled by the Suffering Servant fit into a storytelling that assumes, because we are conquering, because we are growing wealthy, because we have amassed power and wealth, that God must be on our side?

…Since Eusebian storytelling portrays particular nations or empires as the agents of God’s kingdom, those nations or empires are thus particularly tempted to depict all conflict as a battle between the agents of light and the agents of darkness. Imperial conquest and foreign policy are interpreted as the work of God’s chosen ones arrayed against the forces of evil. Demonizing the foe, portraying the other side as Satan and ourselves as agents of righteousness, the subjects of the light-bearing empire are forced to choose: you are either for us in our war-making, or against us. Conquering one’s enemies becomes a holy crusade, in which the destruction of evil justifies whatever means are thought necessary.[17]

America is not the new Israel. It is not the last hope for the world. It is not a Christian nation, for there is no such thing, until the kingdom comes. America is a nation, in many ways a great nation and in some ways it is a terrible nation. As Christians we would do well to rediscover our identity as an international brotherhood of Jesus followers, and in the process remember that our leader is a Jew who was crucified by the most powerful nation of his time for claiming to be the Messiah. The role of the church is to be a prophetic witness to God’s coming kingdom not to seize the mantle of power and reign over the kingdoms of this world.


But Isn’t the Government Ordained by God (Romans 13)?

Oftentimes this chapter from Romans is quoted in order to seek God’s sanction for Christian participation in government and military.

Romans 13.1-7
1 Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. 3 For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; 4 for it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore one must be subject, not only because of wrath but also because of conscience. 6 For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, busy with this very thing. 7 Pay to all what is due them– taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due.

We are to subject to the governing authorities because they are appointed by God to bear the sword and execute wrath on the wrongdoer. Does that mean that God approves of everything the government does? Gregory Boyd responds:

This doesn’t mean that worldly governments are created by God or that governments always use their God-given authority as God intended—as though Hitler and Stalin were carrying out God’s will! Paul rather says that God institutes, directs, or stations (tetagmenai) governments.

…As he did with nations in the Old Testament (for instance, in Isaiah 10), God uses governments as he finds them, in all their ungodly rebellious ways, to serve his own providential purposes. As Paul describes in Romans 13, this general purpose is to preserve as much law and order as is possible. Insofar as governments do this, they are properly exercising the authority God grants them and are, to that extent, good.

Because of this good function, disciples of Jesus are commanded to “honor the emperor” (1 Peter 2:17) and live in conformity to the laws of their land as much as possible—that is, insofar as those laws do not conflict with our calling as citizens of the kingdom of God (Rom. 13:1; Titus 3:1; 1 Peter 2:13-17; and specifically Acts 5:29). Whether we find ourselves in a democratic, socialist, or communist country, we are to pray for our leaders and seek to live in peace in that country (1 Tim. 2:1-3). We are, in a word, to be good citizens of whatever version of the kingdom of the world we find ourselves in.

But we need to know another important dimension of the biblical teaching about the kingdom of the world. While God directs governments for the good of fallen people, Scripture also teaches that another cosmic force exists, one that is hostile to God and influences governments to accomplish evil…

Along these same lines, Jesus three times refers to Satan as the “ruler of this world” (John 12:31; 14:30; 16:11). The term “ruler” (arche) was a political term used to denote the highest ruling authority in a given region—and Jesus applied it to Satan over the whole world! Functionally, Satan is the acting CEO of all earthly governments. Paul agrees, for he refers to Satan as “the god of this age” and as “the ruler of the power of the air” (2 Cor. 4:4; Eph. 2:2). We see, then, that while God ultimately gives authority to government to preserve law and order in a fallen world, and while God orders and orchestrates governments as he finds them to his own providential advantage, Satan—“the destroyer” who “deceives the nations” (Rev. 9:11; 20:3, 8; especially 13:14)—is heavily involved in all of them works at cross-purposes to God.

I know of no way to resolve the ambiguity involved in this dual analysis of the kingdom of the world—but simply recognizing that there is, at the very least, a strong demonic presence polluting all versions of the kingdom of the world has to significantly affect how followers of Jesus view earthly governments. Minimally, this recognition implies that we can never assume that any particular nation—including our own—is always, or even usually, aligned with God.[18]

So, just as Romans teaches us that governments are ordered by God, so many other places teach that Satan is influencing them in major ways also. But, regardless of how we view the government in which we live, our role as kingdom people is clearly and unambiguously defined in the verses that immediately precede the section we have been looking at:

Romans 12.9-1
10 [L]ove one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor…14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. 16 Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. 17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. 18 If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” 20 No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. 13.1 Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God.

The follower of Jesus never takes vengeance in his adversaries, but rather leaves room for the wrath of God. The governments of the world are intended to wield the sword to execute God’s wrath on the wicked, and to the degree they do that they are the servants of God. But to the degree they conquer nations unprovoked, build empire, oppress the poor, and do evil they are the servants of Satan who rules over them until the kingdom comes. Even so, as Christians, our role is clear: we are to love our enemies, be at peace, and overcome evil with good.


What about When Jesus Returns to Slaughter the Wicked?

The primary texts for discussion on this topic are Psalm 110 and Revelation 19. Rather than quoting each of these chapters in full and offering detailed commentary, perhaps the most prudent course of action is to concede the point that Jesus will slay the wicked when he returns. Though a couple of verses lean in that direction (Psalm 110.3; Revelation 19.14) it is not clear to me that the saints will be called upon to use violence on that day since the text specifically states that “the rest were killed by the sword…that came from his mouth” (Revelation 19.21). Furthermore, there is a fair amount of metaphoric language employed in the scene so it is not certain what is figurative and what is literal. But, even if Christ comes and ushers in a time for war, for now, Christ has commanded us to love our enemies and so for us it is a time for peace (Ecclesiastes 3.8).


Why Weren’t Centurions Told to Leave the Military?

In each of the three instances when soldiers were addressed in the NT they are not told to leave the military. Doesn’t this prove that early Christians were not anti-war? In order to answer this serious objection we will analyze each of the three cases one by one.

The Soldiers that Came to John the Baptist

Luke 3.14
Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”

This is undoubtedly a prime opportunity for John to tell these soldiers to get a new job. They specifically had asked him what to do. He told them to stop extorting money and be content with their pay. These issues relate to greed and not violence. I think someone can make a pretty powerful case from this text that John was not anti-war. Furthermore, it should be noted that Jews had a military exemption in the Roman Empire, so these soldiers were most likely Gentiles. Perhaps they were bystanders who were testing John out to see what his teaching was on the Roman occupation. If this was the case then their question may be taken as malicious. John’s answer confronted them and yet should not be taken as a general statement supporting the Roman occupation. Or maybe, these soldiers really wanted to know what John’s advice for them was. If this is the case, then his statement could be viewed as supporting military participation. Either way, John was the forerunner to Jesus who answered these questions prior to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. In the end, Jesus is our Lord and not John the Baptist, and so if John supports soldiering and Jesus later says, “love your enemies” then we are bound to obey the latter.

The Centurion that Came to Jesus

A centurion sent some Jewish elders to Jesus to ask him to heal his slave who was close to death. Jesus responded that he would come and heal the man. However, the centurion sent some friends who told Jesus to just say the word and the servant would be healed. The centurion knew all about authority from the military and recognized that Jesus did not need to actually be there if he had authority over sickness. This amazed Jesus who said, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith” (Luke 7.9). The friends returned to the centurion and found the slave healed. Then the narrative moves on to the next event—the healing at Nain. No remark is made to either support or denounce the military participation or the Roman occupation. The clear purpose of this pericope is to communicate the irony that a pagan had greater faith than most Israelites and how God rewards such faith with healing. C. John Cadoux reasoned it out this way:

Considering the number of things Jesus must have said of which no record has been left, we cannot be at all sure that he said nothing on this occasion about the illegitimacy of military service for his own followers. And even supposing he did not, is it reasonable to demand that his views on this point should be publicly stated every time he comes across a soldier? Allowance has also to be made for the fact that the centurion was a gentile stranger, who, according to Luke’s fuller narrative, was not even present in person, and in any case was not a candidate for discipleship. The utmost we can say is that at this particular moment the mind of Jesus was not focused on the ethical question now before us: but even that much is precarious, and moreover, if true, furnishes nothing inconsistent with our previous conclusion.[19]

So, in Jesus’ dialog with the centurion we do not find a statement in support of nor in opposition to military participation by pagans, and we will just have to leave it at that.

Cornelius the Centurion to Whom Peter Preached

Some have made a big deal about the fact that the Scripture describes Cornelius, prior to his conversion as, “a devout man who feared God with all his household; he gave alms generously to the people and prayed constantly to God” (Acts 10.2). Cornelius, was certainly not the average centurion. This man was a God-fearer, a technical term for someone who attended synagogue and followed the Jewish moral code, but who did not, for whatever reason, become a proselyte. Furthermore, since Cornelius was not stationed on a frontier, but on the Mediterranean port city, Caesarea, he was likely engaged in policing rather than conquering. Either way, it is clear that he had quite a rapport with the Jews and had come to admire them a great deal. God sent an angel to Cornelius instructing him to send for Peter. Once Peter came with a few of his own men, they preached the gospel to Cornelius and his whole household. In the midst of Peter’s sermon, the Holy Spirit fell on them symbolizing the fact that God had accepted these Gentiles into the people of God. As a result, Peter hastened to have them baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. The narrative cuts off there, with only this further explanation, “Then they asked him to stay on for a few days” (Acts 10.48).

The issue at hand throughout these events was the inclusion of Gentiles into the early Christian community. In fact, after Peter left Cornelius’ house he went to Jerusalem and was criticized for entering into the house of a Gentile and eating with him (Acts 11.2-3). Peter told them the whole story and again ended with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, and Peter’s subsequent acceptance of them into the Christian community. Thus, on the morality of military participation we are left without any information in this account. The text does not address the issue, though Peter probably did during those few days he stayed with them, but we cannot be sure. So, either way, this would be an argument from silence (the weakest type of argument). Be that as it may, Peter is not silent on the issue in his first epistle:

1 Peter 3.9-11
9 Do not repay evil for evil or abuse for abuse; but, on the contrary, repay with a blessing. It is for this that you were called– that you might inherit a blessing. 10 For “Those who desire life and desire to see good days, let them keep their tongues from evil and their lips from speaking deceit; 11 let them turn away from evil and do good; let them seek peace and pursue it.

It would be reasonable to presume that Peter instructed Cornelius in the way of Jesus following his baptism. But, we are not told for sure, and Cornelius is never mentioned again. David Low Dodge concurs:

They were first soldiers and then Christians, and we have no evidence that they continued in the profession of arms.  Nor are we warranted to say that they were not directed to renounce that profession, as the Scriptures are silent on the subject.  Peter, it appears, tarried a number of days with Cornelius, and he doubtless explained to him the spirit and precepts of the gospel.  It is very probable that neither Cornelius nor the Centurion continued as soldiers in any other sense than they were soldiers of Christ, as the idolatrous rites enjoined on the Roman soldiers were totally inconsistent with the Christian character, aside from the unlawfulness of war itself.  Besides, the Roman soldiers were as often engaged in offensive as in defensive war.  Therefore, if the argument has any force on the question, it will tolerate not only defensive but also offensive war, and also the idolatrous rites of the Roman armies.[20]

Allow me to summarize. First of all, Jesus’ teachings on enemy love are clear. Secondly, the apostles Peter and Paul also taught non-retaliation. Thirdly, it is not clear from any of the three instances we have just examined that the teachings of Jesus and the apostles were overturned. Furthermore, when we investigate the continuing history of the church we find that the Christians opted out of the holy war of a.d. 66-73 and testified to the practice of nonviolence throughout the first three centuries. Thus, the argument for violence because the centurions were not told to leave the military is both based on assumption and it directly contradicts the clear teachings of the NT and the witness of history.


What about Just Wars like World War II?

Often pacifists are asked, “What about Hitler? Do you think we should have just done nothing and let him exterminate the Jews? If it weren’t for America’s participation in the war we’d all be speaking German right now! All that is needed for evil to prevail is for good people to do nothing!” First of all, there is no question that what Hitler and the Nazis did was atrocious and it needed to be stopped. Christian pacifists do not expect nations to lay down their weapons until Christ returns, so we do not condemn the just use of violence by governments who are ordained by God for the purpose of punishing the wicked (cf. Romans 13). (Of course the Christian’s unique marching orders are clearly spelled out in Romans 12). But, before we go any further, it is necessary to inspect the statement, “Do you think we should just do nothing…” The question I want to ask is, “Who is the we?” The answer to this question exposes our primary identity. Lee Camp explains:

We might put the problem this way: the Constantinian cataract results from a very basic case of false identity. The cataract not only clouds our vision, but psychologically and culturally shapes our understanding of our most basic identity. While biblically informed discipleship requires us to give ourselves in absolute allegiance to the kingdom of God, the Constantinian cataract threatens the purity of that allegiance by mixing it with an allegiance to the empire or nation-state…

Consider a thought experiment in order to get at the difficulty. Using contemporary garb, a key question might be put this way: do we American Christians see ourselves as American Christians, or as American Christians? Do we fundamentally envision ourselves as U.S. citizens who espouse the “Christian religion,” or as disciples of Jesus who happen to live in the United States? What is our fundamental identity? Citizens of our nation-state or citizens of the kingdom of God?

Most Christians, one might conjecture, would immediately respond that our first allegiance is undoubtedly to the kingdom of God. But our debates often appear to assume that the fundamental identity, the primary lens through which we must make decisions about how to act in our world, it that of the nation-state. One might find ample evidence that we do envision our primary identity in terms of the nation-state by simply examining the question we often ask: “What should we do about terrorism?” The we in that question is most often, one may safely assume, the United States. “What should we do about Saddam Hussein?” “What should we do about inner-city poverty?” “What should we do about homelessness?” “What should we do about the threat of nuclear war?” “What should we do about peace in the Middle East?” “What should we do about welfare?” “What should we do about abortion?” And so the questions go, always assuming that the all-important we is the nation-state.

Consequently, discipleship—defined as taking seriously the way of Christ in all our affairs and concerns—gets shelved as irrelevant to the real concerns of the world. But what might happen if we took such questions seriously from a biblical viewpoint? For instance, what should we, as disciples of Jesus, do about homelessness? What should we, as the body of Christ, do about the threat of nuclear war? What should the church do about Saddam Hussein? What should we believers do about peace in the Middle East? What should we who bear the name of Jesus do about inner-city poverty and the plight of single mothers? What should we followers of the Way do about abortion?

Does the word of God incarnate in Jesus Christ not have something to say to the injustices and oppression of our world?—or are the people of God simply to accept the claim that the only appropriate response to injustice is the ethic of nations, the ethic of power checking power? Christians appear often to assume that to make significant cultural change we must approach change from the “top down”—that until we can get those who hold the mantle of power to use that power to bring about change, there can be no real change. But Jesus taught and practiced something quite different: “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all” (Mark 10:42-44). That is, Jesus called his disciples not to get hold of empire power—this is precisely what some of his disciples wanted, to get hold of the rein of command, and use it on behalf of the good guys, on behalf of righteousness, justice, and God’s purposes. Instead, he called them to an altogether different route of bringing about the radical change of the kingdom of God—that of servant

But since the time of the Reformation, it has been assumed that “religion” is “private,” and that matters of the “state” are “public.” Or, to put it differently, it begins to be assumed that the church worries about souls, and the state worries about bodies. This “privatization of religion,” this move to make religion a “private” matter, results in a profound change of thought: when we ask the “What are we going to do about…” question, we of course assume that the we is the nation or government, because we have long been trained to think of the church as having no social or political significance. To ask, “What are we Christians going to do about terrorism?” sounds ludicrous!—Nothing! That’s the government’s job.

So “What are we going to do?” Respond with the way of Christ. The world may think that way irrelevant, even foolish. But what the world takes as foolish is actually the wisdom of God and the only hope for the world. We do not need more “effective” kingdoms of men; we do not need more “responsible” kingdoms of this world; we do not need more “realism” among the kingdoms of a fallen order. We need the kingdom of God.[21]

So in the case of the next Hitler, what should Christians do? The clear biblical answer is that we are commanded by the apostle to pray that we may lead quiet and peaceable lives. So, if an evil person stirs up the passions of many to oppress and conquer others, as Christians, it is our duty to pray against such aggression. As we have already noted in the objection, How dare you criticize the protection soldiers risk their lives to provide?, we believe that our prayers combined with a kingdom lifestyle are more effective in defeating “the bad guys” than picking up guns and joining the infantry. Since we believe that Christ has already won the decisive victory over the principalities and powers of the air, and we know that there is a spiritual component behind the scenes, our role as the people of God deals more directly with the cause and sustaining power of war. By crying out to God in prayers with unstained hands we are the most effective. Even a cursory examination of the battles in the OT should inform us that God is fully capable of defeating armies when his people call upon his name in faith. But, that is not all that Christians should do when madmen carry out atrocities and genocide. No, there are a good many nonviolent actions that we could take to get in the way of evil or aid those who are being slaughtered to escape. The simple truth is that once we begin to calibrate our thinking to the way of Jesus a whole slew of exciting and creative nonviolent options open up for a given situation.


Isn’t Loving One’s Enemies Impractical in the Real World?


Isn’t it the case that violence gets results whereas love is impotent, idealistic, and merely romantic? To this common question we reply with the tightly reasoned logic of Martin Luther King Jr.; a man who did not merely hypothesize but actually used nonviolent love to accomplish a great victory.

We must hasten to say that these are not the ultimate reasons why we should love our enemies. An even more basic reason why we are commanded to love is expressed explicitly in Jesus’ words, “Love your enemies…that ye may be children of your Father which is in heaven.” We are called to this difficult task in order to realize a unique relationship with God. We are potential sons of God. Through love that potentiality becomes actuality. We must love our enemies, because only by loving them can we know God and experience the beauty of his holiness.

The relevance of what I have said to the crisis in race relations should be readily apparent. There will be no permanent solution to the race problem until oppressed men develop the capacity to love their enemies. The darkness of racial injustice will be dispelled only by the light of forgiving love. For more than three centuries American Negroes have been battered by the iron rod of oppression, frustrated by day and bewildered by night by unbearable injustice, and burdened with the ugly weight of discrimination. Forced to live with these shameful conditions, we are tempted to become bitter and to retaliate with a corresponding hate. But if this happens, the new order we seek will be little more than a duplicate of the old order. We must in strength and humility meet hate with love.

Of course, this is not practical. Life is a matter of getting even, of hitting back, of dog eat dog. Am I saying that Jesus commands us to love those who hurt and oppress us? Do I sound like most preachers–idealistic and impractical? Maybe in some distant Utopia, you say, that idea will work, but not in the hard, cold world in which we live.

My friends, we have followed the so-called practical way for too long a time now, and it has led inexorably to deeper confusion and chaos. Time is cluttered with the wreckage of communities which surrendered to hatred and violence. For the salvation of our nation and the salvation of mankind, we must follow another way. This does not mean that we abandon our righteous efforts. With every ounce of our energy we must continue to rid this nation of the incubus of segregation. But we shall not in the process relinquish our privilege and our obligation to love. While abhorring segregation, we shall love the segregationist. This is the only way to create the beloved community.

To our most bitter opponents we say: “We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We shall meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will, and we shall continue to love you. We cannot in all good conscious obey your unjust laws, because noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good. Throw us in jail, and we shall still love you. Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our community at the midnight hour and beat us and leave us half dead, and we shall still love you. But be ye assured that we will wear you down by our capacity to suffer. One day we shall win freedom, but not only for ourselves. We shall so appeal to your heart and conscience that we shall win you in the process and our victory will be a double victory.”

Love is the most durable power in the world. This creative force, so beautifully exemplified in the life of our Christ, is the most potent instrument available in mankind’s quest for peace and security…Jesus is eternally right. History is replete with the bleached bones of nations that refused to listen to him. May we in the twentieth century hear and follow his words–before it is too late. May we solemnly realize that we shall never be true sons of our heavenly Father until we love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us.[22]


Why Didn’t Anyone Specifically Forbid Military Participation in the NT?

First of all Jews had a military exemption from fighting for Rome, so the topic was a non-issue in the early years when Christianity was confined to a sect of Judaism. Perhaps a better way to get at this question would be to look at how Jesus felt about the notion of a violent revolution against Rome, which was much more of a temptation than joining the Roman legions. However, it is insightful to note that when Jesus stood before Pilate he said:

John 18.36
Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.”

Unfortunately most translations say “my kingdom is not of this world” rather than “my kingdom is not from this world.” This gives the misleading impression that Jesus’ kingdom is ethereal or heavenly but not a kingdom for this earth. But, this misses the point entirely. Jesus was saying that his kingdom did not originate the way worldly kingdoms do—from below. Rather, its origin is from heaven itself, from which the Son of Man would arrive to conquer the nations on God’s behalf. If his kingdom were just another worldly government competing for allegiance and power, his servants would be taking up the sword to fight. But, since his kingdom will be divinely established by the supreme potentate, Jesus’ followers have no need to carry out a bloody coup d’état, but instead entrust themselves to God who will bring it to pass according to his timing. When the revolution of a.d. 66 finally broke out the Jewish Christians fled for Pella instead of joining their comrades in armed resistance to Rome. Furthermore, the Christian record is clear in the second, third, and even into part of the fourth century, that Christians did not use violence to kill the infidel, fight the barbarian, protect the Republic, or even defend themselves (hence the plethora of martyrs). Even so, sometimes a soldier was converted to Christianity, perhaps by witnessing Christians die for their faith in the stadium. When this occurred, the soldier was in an extraordinary difficult position. He would have been denied baptism[23] so long as he carried the sword and participated in the idolatrous rights of the Roman military. The scenario was complicated by the fact that he could not leave the military on pain of death. So, although we do not have specific prohibition within the NT for military participation, we do have Jesus’ clear command to love our enemies coupled with the remarkable history of early Christianity.


Should Christians Join the U.S. Military?

Christians have a different role to play than national Israel, or any other nation. It is our role to embody the coming kingdom of peace in which the swords are extinct, all tanks have been converted to tractors, and military training academies are all closed. Besides this line of reasoning there are quite a few other reasons why Christians should not join the United States’ military. Here are some of those reasons:

  1. Because the U.S. is a kingdom of this world, by definition it is subject to the god of this world (2 Corinthians 4.4) who has been given authority over the nations (Luke 4.6). Therefore, pledging loyalty to support American interests by joining the military is in some sense pledging allegiance to Satan’s agenda. We know that when Jesus comes, at the last trumpet, then the kingdom of this world will become the kingdom of God and his Messiah, and then God will take his great power and begin to reign. (Please note that this does not mean that God is not also involved in the nations of the world to providentially bring about his own purposes).
  2. The military requires its members to take an oath of loyalty.But, Jesus commanded us, and James echoed it, not to make oaths. The OT permitted it so long as the person fulfilled it, but from a new covenant perspective, we are not to make oaths. Furthermore, how can we give that sort of support to any fallen kingdom of this evil age?
  3. By volunteering to join the U.S. military one willingly commits himself or herself to regarding the President as “commander and chief.”       Perhaps this point can be clarified a bit if we use another synonym for chief—Lord. If the President of the U.S. is commander of the military then soldiers are duty bound to obey his commands. But, according to the Bible it is impossible to serve two masters (Matthew 6.24). Furthermore, when these two masters disagree so much about how things should be done, it becomes apparent that we really do have to choose between Jesus and the President. Jesus says, “love your enemies,” while the President says, “kill them.”       The NT instructs us that it is an honor to suffer abuse without returning evil for evil, whereas the government teaches us that it is an honor to kill and be killed to make the world safe for democracy. Obviously there are a great many inconsistencies between Lord Jesus and Lord Obama (or whoever is in power).
  4. Jesus instructed his followers to love their enemies rather than resisting evil with evil. Though it is some times argued that we can love our enemies in our hearts (internally) we are perfectly at liberty to slay them in war.       This sort of dichotomy encourages hypocrisy rather than integrity. The definition of love is clearly spelled out in the first epistle to the Corinthians:

1 Corinthians 13.4-5
4 Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant 5 or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful;

It is patently rude and unkind to kill people, whether they are slain via a bomb or an M16, clearly these are not acts of love.

  1. Even if warring were right for followers of Jesus, the US army does not give their soldiers the option of sitting out on wars that are unjust or unprovoked. By its very nature the military does not function like a democracy where each person votes on what wars are worth fighting. This is why the President of the U.S. is not called the Suggester and Chief but the Commander and Chief. The government decides what wars to fight and the members of the military are required by law to obey.
  2. The U.S. military has and will continue to wage war against other armies containing Christians among their ranks. Isn’t it wrong for one Christian to kill another? It is not like the Christian soldier is able to interview each person to find out if he is a Christian before returning fire. If someone is dropped into the midst of a battle, the rules of engagement are simple: kill or be killed. Furthermore, in modern warfare, much of the damage is done by bombs and missiles which are dropped or launched from such distances that the enemy is not even seen directly. Thus, the potential for killing Christians, civilians, and children would be far too high even if violence were the way of the people of God.
  3. Killing non-Christians works counter to the Great Commission which instructs followers of the way to go out preaching the gospel and making disciples. However, by killing the wicked, it destroys any future possibility of them hearing and responding to the gospel.
  4. War accomplishes the opposite of what we are commanded to do. In the parable of the sheep and the goats Jesus told us to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, visit the sick and imprisoned, and show hospitality to the stranger. War makes my enemy hungry, spoils their water, strips economically devastates them, causes sickness, makes prisoners of war, alienates the stranger, and generates an incredible amount of hostility. It is easy to see how the way of Jesus and the way of warfare are at odds with each other. One simply cannot do both at the same time.
  5. We destroy our prophetic testimony of a coming kingdom of peace when we participate in pagan wars. Jesus who blessed the peacemakers, the meek, and the poor in spirit ultimately gets a black eye when his people join national armies and do the opposite of what he commanded. We must remember that we bear the name of Jesus wherever we go. How can we expect non-Christians to be willing to listen to the gospel when a U.S. missionary goes to preach it after U.S. Christians have wreaked havoc on the person’s village, kidnapped and tortured his relatives, and destroyed their ability to make money?
  6. Although there are quite a few soldiers in the U.S. armed forces who would self identify as Christian if given a survey, the lifestyle of these men and women is anything but holy. By speaking with friends who returned from the service I have discovered that binge drinking, foul speech, and even prostitution are common. It is an extraordinarily difficult environment to be in for long before one’s lifestyle begins to degrade. Furthermore, those soldiers who actively engage in killing the enemy are often scarred from the emotional trauma inherent in destroying the image of God. Often men return from combat so emotionally distorted that it takes years of therapy just to cope with the trauma. Should the people of God volunteer to participate in this?

To conclude this portion we turn to George Zabelka, a U.S. Air Force chaplain who served as a priest for the airmen who dropped the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. Since I have never served in the military, my words are easier to dismiss however Zabelka not only gave his blessing to the nuclear bombs, but he also saw what war was like up close and in person. It would only be fitting to conclude with his words.[24]

The destruction of civilians in war was always forbidden by the Church, and if a soldier came to me and asked if he could put a bullet through a child’s head, I would have told him, absolutely not. That would be mortally sinful. But in 1945 Tinian Island was the largest airfield in the world. Three planes a minute could take off from it around the clock. Many of these planes went to Japan with the express purpose of killing not one child or one civilian but of slaughtering hundreds and thousands and tens of thousands of children and civilians – and I said nothing.

As a Catholic chaplain I watched as the Boxcar, piloted by a good Irish Catholic pilot, dropped the bomb on Urakami Cathedral in Nagasaki, the center of Catholicism in Japan.

I never preached a single sermon against killing civilians to the men who were doing it. I was brainwashed! It never entered my mind to protest publicly the consequences of these massive air raids. I was told it was necessary – told openly by the military and told implicitly by my Church’s leadership. (To the best of my knowledge no American cardinals or bishops were opposing these mass air raids. Silence in such matters is a stamp of approval.)

I worked with Martin Luther King, Jr., during the Civil Rights struggle in Flint, Michigan. His example and his words of nonviolent action, choosing love instead of hate, truth instead of lies, and nonviolence instead of violence stirred me deeply. This brought me face to face with pacifism – active nonviolent resistance to evil. I recall his words after he was jailed in Montgomery, and this blew my mind. He said, “Blood may flow in the streets of Montgomery before we gain our freedom, but it must be our blood that flows, and not that of the white man. We must not harm a single hair on the head of our white brothers.”

I struggled. I argued. But yes, there it was in the Sermon on the Mount, very clear: “Love your enemies. Return good for evil.” I went through a crisis of faith. Either accept what Christ said, as unpassable and silly as it may seem, or deny him completely.

For the last 1700 years the Church has not only been making war respectable: it has been inducing people to believe it is an honorable profession, an honorable Christian profession. This is not true. We have been brainwashed. This is a lie.

War is now, always has been, and always will be bad, bad news. I was there. I saw real war. Those who have seen real war will bear me out. I assure you, it is not of Christ. It is not Christ’s way. There is no way to conduct real war in conformity with the teachings of Jesus. There is no way to train people for real war in conformity with the teachings of Jesus.

…For the 300 years immediately following Jesus’ resurrection, the Church universally saw Christ and his teaching as nonviolent. Remember that the Church taught this ethic in the face of at least three serious attempts by the state to liquidate her. It was subject to horrendous and ongoing torture and death. If ever there was an occasion for justified retaliation and defensive slaughter, whether in form of a just war or a just revolution, this was it. The economic and political elite of the Roman state and their military had turned the citizens of the state against Christians and were embarked on a murderous public policy of exterminating the Christian community.

Yet the Church, in the face of the heinous crimes committed against her members, insisted without reservation that when Christ disarmed Peter he disarmed all Christians.

Christians continued to believe that Christ was, to use the words of an ancient liturgy, their fortress, their refuge, and their strength, and that if Christ was all they needed for security and defense, then Christ was all they should have. Indeed, this was a new security ethic. Christians understood that if they would only follow Christ and his teaching, they couldn’t fail. When opportunities were given for Christians to appease the state by joining the fighting Roman army, these opportunities were rejected, because the early Church saw a complete and an obvious incompatibility between loving as Christ loved and killing. It was Christ, not Mars, who gave security and peace.

Today the world is on the brink of ruin because the Church refuses to be the Church, because we Christians have been deceiving ourselves and the non-Christian world about the truth of Christ. There is no way to follow Christ, to love as Christ loved, and simultaneously to kill other people. It is a lie to say that the spirit that moves the trigger of a flamethrower is the Holy Spirit. It is a lie to say that learning to kill is learning to be Christ-like. It is a lie to say that learning to drive a bayonet into the heart of another is motivated from having put on the mind of Christ. Militarized Christianity is a lie. It is radically out of conformity with the teaching, life, and spirit of Jesus.

Now, brothers and sisters, on the anniversary of this terrible atrocity carried out by Christians, I must be the first to say that I made a terrible mistake. I was had by the father of lies. I participated in the big ecumenical lie of the Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox churches. I wore the uniform. I was part of the system…All I can say today is that I was wrong. Christ would not be the instrument to unleash such horror on his people. Therefore no follower of Christ can legitimately unleash the horror of war on God’s people. Excuses and self-justifying explanations are without merit. All I can say is: I was wrong! But, if this is all I can say, this I must do, feeble as it is. For to do otherwise would be to bypass the first and absolutely essential step in the process of repentance and reconciliation: admission of error, admission of guilt.

…As a Catholic chaplain I watched as the Boxcar, piloted by a good Irish Catholic pilot, dropped the bomb on Urakami Cathedral in Nagasaki, the center of Catholicism in Japan. I knew that St. Francis Xavier, centuries before, had brought the Catholic faith to Japan. I knew that schools, churches, and religious orders were annihilated. And yet I said nothing.

Thank God that I’m able to stand here today and speak out against war, all war. The prophets of the Old Testament spoke out against all false gods of gold, silver, and metal. Today we are worshipping the gods of metal, the bomb. We are putting our trust in physical power, militarism, and nationalism. The bomb, not God, is our security and our strength. The prophets of the Old Testament said simply: Do not put your trust in chariots and weapons, but put your trust in God. Their message was simple, and so is mine.

We must all become prophets. I really mean that. We must all do something for peace. We must stop this insanity of worshipping the gods of metal. We must take a stand against evil and idolatry. This is our destiny at the most critical time of human history. But it’s also the greatest opportunity ever offered to any group of people in the history of our world – to save our world from complete annihilation.[25]



[1] Exodus 23.27-30; Deuternomony 7.20-22; Joshua 24.11-13

[2] Sadly later Christians who were misinformed about their theology used similar reasoning to justify the slaughter of Muslims and Jews in the crusades.

[3] Evangelical Approaches to Christian Participation in War: An Inquiry and a Proposal by Larry Mattera, M.A. (Oxon.), M.A.Th., The Journal for the Radical Reformation, Vol 3 Issue 4. Online here.

[4] David Low Dodge, War Inconsistent with the Religion of Jesus Christ (Boston: International Union Ginn & Co., 1815) p. 33.

[5] Shane Claiborne and Chris Haw, Jesus for President (Grand Rapids: Zondervan 2008), p. 269.

[6] Shane Claiborne and Chris Haw, Jesus for President (Grand Rapids: Zondervan 2008), pp. 264-266.

[7] As reported by Nick Paranjaped on Action News 5, WMC-TV Memphis (quoted from wmctv.com/Global/story.asp?S=7456846) and the YouTube video can be watched at youtube.com/watch?v=fDmp967UMds

[8] This response to is from pages 70-74 of The Kingdom that Turned the World Upside Down © David Bercot. Used by permission. Copies can be obtained from Scroll Publishing Co., P. O. Box 122, Amberson, PA 17210 or see their website at www.scrollpublishing.com.

[9] Consider the following heart-wrenching incident:

“Sadly, every year Christian families suffer death and injury from their own weapons because they didn’t put their trust in God. One of the most heartbreaking episodes occurred a few years ago when a man and his wife returned home from a trip. Their daughter was staying at a friend’s house. However, the daughter thought she would surprise her parents by coming home early and hiding in their bedroom closet. When her parents came home, they heard a noise in their closet. Thinking it was a burglar, her father got out his loaded pistol and slowly approached the closet. When the closet door suddenly burst open, her father instinctively pulled the trigger. He immediately realized it was his daughter, but it was too late. She murmured, “I love you, Daddy,” and fell over dead. This was not some rare occurrence. A gun kept in the home is 22 times more likely to kill a family member or a friend than to kill or wound and intruder. Evil can be confronted with less dangerous methods than guns.”

David Bercot, The Kingdom that Turned the World Upside Down (Tyler, TX: Scroll Publishing 2003) pp. 70-74.

[10] http://benwitherington.blogspot.com/2007/04/christians-and-gun-control-idea-whose.html “Christians And Gun Control: An Idea Whose Time Has Come?” by Ben Witherington III

[11] When the disciples find the swords that will mark their very sinfulness, Jesus says “enough.” John Yoder comments: “‘Enough,’ cannot mean that two swords would be enough for the legitimate self-defense against bandits of twelve missionaries traveling two by two. He is (in direct parallel to Deut. 3:26, where YHWH tells Moses to change the subject, LXX hikanon estin) breaking off the conversation because they don’t understand anyway” (The Politics of Jesus, p. 45).

[12] The following was excerpted from Shane Claiborne and Chris Haw’s book, Jesus for President–from their online “Appendix 3: Subordination and Revolution: What about Romans 13?” which can be downloaded in its entirety from the JesusForPresident.org website.

[13] Origen Against Celsus, book 8, chapter 73 (ANF: Vol. 4, p. 667-668).

[14] Gregory Boyd, The Myth of a Christian Nation: How the Quest for Political Power is Destroying the Church, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan 2005), pp. 98-99.

[15] In all likelihood Peter’s command to honor the king probably occurred when Nero, a particularly sadistic Caesar, was in power, which tells us that we are not merely to honor the good rulers, but even the despots.

[16] Eusebius was a church historian in the fourth century who was so enamored with Constantine that he wrote a book titled Oration in Praise of Constantine. Dr. Camp uses the phrase Eusebian Christianity to denote a way of looking at the empire as God’s nation because the emperor was Christian. Thus, what the empire wills is what God wills and who the empire fights God opposes.

[17] Lee Camp, Mere Discipleship, (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2006) pp. 49-50.

[18] Gregory Boyd, The Myth of a Christian Nation (Grand Rapids: Zondervan 2005), pp. 19-22.

[19] C. John Cadoux, The Early Christian Attitude to War (NY: Seabury 1982 [originally published London: Headley Bros. 1919]), pp. 33-34.

[20] the following is taken from  page 42 of War Inconsistent with the Religion of Jesus Christ by David Low Dodge (published in 1815).  Mr. Dodge founded the first peace society ever organized in America or in the world and was its first president (The New York Peace Society).  His book in its entirety can be read in .pdf or .html formats on the nonresistance.org website.

[21] Lee Camp, Mere Discipleship (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press 2003), pp. 43-46.

[22] Source: Strength to Love by Martin Luther King (Published by Fortress Press, 1981) pages 55-57.

[23] Hippolytus, The Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus of Rome, 16.17-19

[24] Over the next twenty years, he gradually came to believe that he had been terribly wrong, that he had denied the very foundations of his faith by lending moral and religious support to the bombing. Zabelka, who died in 1992, gave this speech on the 40th anniversary of the bombings.

[25] George Zabelka,Blessing the Bombs,” reprinted August 17, 2005 by Lew Rockwell.com (This article was originally published by Bruderhof.com. It is an excerpt of a speech Fr. Zabelka gave at a Pax Christi conference in August 1985 (tape of speech can be obtained from Notre Dame University Archives).)

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