On December 4, 2015, Jerry Falwell, Jr. – the president of Liberty University – stood in front of 10,000 Christian students and faculty members during a weekly chapel service and said, “If more good people had concealed [handgun] carry permits, then we could end those Muslims before they walked in.”
Falwell was referencing the terrorist attack that had occurred two days before in which two radicalized Muslims killed fourteen people in San Bernardino, California.
He capped off his speech by letting his audience know that Liberty University – the largest Christian college in the United States – would be offering free concealed handgun license classes to all faculty and students.
60% of Americans and 57% of practicing Christians agree with the statement,
“I have the right to defend myself, even if it requires violence,”
even though only 11% of those polled thought that Jesus would agree with the statement.
While summarizing the data, the Barna Group concluded,
“Christian opinions about violence look more like that of nonbelievers than what they think are the views of Jesus.”
And that’s a problem.
We need to start talking about the disparity between what we think and what we know Jesus thinks about violence. In my experience, violence is the most off-limits topic in the Evangelical Church.
And yet, Jesus is far more clear about his stance on violence than he is on a number of other controversial issues that currently divide the Church. But why is it that many of us – despite growing up in the Church – have never a single sermon preached on violence?
The Whole World is Blind
One of the first places people go to justify Christian violence is the Old Testament.
And it’s easy to see why.
Tales of brutal warfare, bloody vengeance, and harsh legislation dot the Hebrew Scriptures.
But the Old Testament is not God’s final word on violence.
During the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says,
“You know that Hebrew Scripture sets this standard of justice and punishment: take an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. But I say this, don’t fight against the one who is working evil against you. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, you are to turn and offer him your left cheek. (The Voice Translation)”
While God may never change, his relationship with his people and expectation for their behavior certainly does. And some of these changes are connected to mankind’s evolving moral consciousness and cultural development – just look at slavery, polygamy, and animal sacrifice.
As such, Christians should interpret the Old Testament through the standards established by Jesus in the New Testament, instead of interpreting Jesus through the lens of the Old Testament.
Or, in other words, you can’t quote Moses in an effort to silence Jesus.
Using the Old Testament texts of divinely sanctioned warfare and brutality in order to justify Christian violence today represents a misreading of the Biblical narrative as a whole and, ultimately, an undermining of the Gospel itself.
In Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God, Brian Zahnd writes,
“Until we are captivated by the radical mercy of God extended to all, we will cling to the texts of vengeance as cherished texts. If we cling to vengeance, we lose Jesus. If we don’t want this to happen, we need to learn to give mercy to our enemies. If we commit to loving our enemies, Jesus will abide with us and help us learn how to do it.”
And this isn’t a lower view of Scripture,
it’s a higher view of Jesus.
Jesus wasn’t a pacifist.
Because passivity implies inaction.
And Jesus was anything but inactive.
Look at Jesus’ infamous instruction to turn the other cheek.
At first glance, it may appear that Jesus is advocating for pacifism.
But that’s not what’s going on here.
No, Jesus is doing something so much more profound and fascinating.
In his three anecdotal instructions – turn the other cheek, give up your undercloack, and walk an extra mile – Jesus is confronting injustice by subverting the aggressor’s expectation of retaliation or submission.
In The Myth of a Christian Nation, theologian Gregory Boyd says,
“When we respond to violence with violence, whether it be physical, verbal, attitudinal, we legitimize the violence of our enemy…our refusal to sink to the level of our enemy opens up the possibility that the enemy will see the injustice of his treatment and perhaps be freed from his dehumanizing mindset.”
It’s not quite pacifism,
and yet it’s not violence.
In Jesus’ Third Way, theologian Walter Wink says,
“Jesus is not telling us to submit to evil, but to refuse to oppose it on its own terms. We are not to let the opponent dictate the methods of our opposition. [Jesus] is urging us to transcend both passivity and violence by finding a third way, one that is at once assertive and yet nonviolent.”
Jesus never advocated for violence or gave his followers permission to exercise violence. Period. In fact, he (and all of the New Testament writers) explicitly did the exact opposite.
Through Jesus, we pledge devotion to a King who said, “Love your enemies, and do good to those who hate you,” “blessed are the peacemakers,” and “love your neighbor as yourself.”
As followers of Jesus, we are called to live differently than the world. And this means we strive to “overcome evil with good,” “do good and seek peace,” “be merciful and compassionate,” “pursue righteousness,” and “live in love,”
Or, to quote Biola University professor Dr. Thomas Crisp,
“When Jesus tells us to love our enemies, He probably means that we shouldn’t kill them.”
In light of Jesus’s words, the mental gymnastics required to believe that Jesus endorses enemy killing are rather astounding. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus makes it clear that our attitude toward our enemies is one of the best indicators of a transformed heart.
Unfortunately, in our modern context, we’ve neutered the meaning of Jesus’ original message by assuming that by “enemy” Jesus surely meant “those who disagree with us politically/hurt our feelings” and not “those who physically threaten/persecute us.”
And that’s a tragedy.
The First Christians
In The Moral Vision of the New Testament, scholar Richard Hays says,
“Instead of wielding the power of violence, the community of Jesus’ disciples is to be meek, merciful, pure, devoted to peacemaking, and willing to suffer persecution – and blessed precisely in its faithfulness to this paradoxical vision.”
According to the Zondervan Handbook to the History of Christianity, the early Church fathers prohibited Roman judges and military commanders from joining the Church unless they left their posts. The early Church was almost exclusively nonviolent until Emperor Constantine declared Christianity the “official religion” of Rome in A.D. 312.
In other words, philosophical justifications for Christian violence weren’t developed until after Christians found themselves holding the hilt of the sword – instead of being the ones at the mercy of the blade.
(Funny how that works, isn’t it?)
Prior to Constantine’s decree, Christians were routinely rounded up, beaten, tortured, fed to animals, and executed by the state. And despite the ferocity of the persecution, the first generations of Christians never resorted to violence against their persecutors.
In fact, the Church’s commitment to nonviolence and enemy love was one of the primary characteristic that separated Christians from the dominant Roman Empire.
In his report on Christians to the Emperor in A.D. 137, Aristides wrote,
“They show love to their neighbors. They do not do to another what they would not wish to have done to themselves. They speak gently to those who oppress them, and in this way, they make them their friends. It has become their passion to do good to their enemies.“
Many early Church writers and theologians – such as Tertullian, Origen, Justin the Martyr, and Hippolytus – spoke and wrote extensively on Christian nonviolence. There is not a single writing or teaching from the early Church in defense of Christian participation in retaliatory violence.
Saint Martin of Tours, third-century bishop, said, “I am a soldier of Christ and it is not permissible for me to fight.”
Saint Athanasius, another third-century bishop, said, “Christians, instead of arming themselves with swords, extend their hands in prayer.”
Saint Cyprian, a third-century Bishop of Carthage, said, “Murder, considered a crime when people commit it singly, is transformed into a virtue when they do it en mass.”
And, echoing St. Cyprian’s words more than 1,500 years later, Howard Thurman, the spiritual advisor to Martin Luther King, Jr., said, “During times of war, hatred becomes quite respectable, even though it has to masquerade under the guise of patriotism.”
In Executing Grace, Shane Claiborne writes that Christians who advocate violence
“…not only have the nagging problem of Jesus, but they are sharply at odds with the first three hundred years of Christianity.”
The only figure in the New Testament that raised his sword in self-defense and in the defense of others was soundly reprimanded by Jesus.
While some people may argue that Jesus’s command for Peter to “put away his sword” was situational and dependent on the necessity of Jesus’s arrest and subsequent execution, his next words to Peter completely obliterate that argument.
“Those who live by the sword will die by the sword,” Jesus said.
Tertullian (150 – 240 A.D.), an early Christian apologist considered to be the “founder of Western theology,” believed that,
“In disarming Peter, Christ disarmed all Christians.”
During his trial, Jesus says, “My Kingdom is not of this world. If my Kingdom were of this world, my disciples would have been fighting for my freedom.”
Do you see what just happened there? Jesus singled out nonviolence as the key difference between his followers and the rest of the world.
The Lion and The Lamb
Biblical scholar and theologian Walter Wink coined the phrase “the myth of redemptive violence” to explain mankind’s obsession with retaliatory violence and vengeance.
According to the myth of redemptive violence, the only way to prevent or “solve” violence is by blotting it out with more violence.
“The myth of redemptive violence is the simplest, laziest, most exciting, uncomplicated, irrational, and primitive depiction of evil the world has ever known. Furthermore, its orientation toward evil is one in which virtually all modern children (boys especially) are socialized in the process of maturation.”
For many of us, we’ve become so desensitized to the myth of redemptive violence that we don’t even realize how entangled it’s become in our religion, politics, and culture.
In the Barna Group’s book Fighting For Peace, the authors write,
“The myth of redemptive violence is the satanic inversion of the Christian gospel. It is finally and completely incompatible with Jesus Christ crucified. If the myth of redemptive violence were the Good News of Jesus Christ, then the Messiah would have killed his enemies instead of dying for them.”
The mission of Jesus (and thus, the Church) isn’t the eradication of evil through violence, but the transformation and redemption of evil through self-sacrificial love and scandalous grace.
And this is a very hard teaching.
Jesus lost a lot of followers once people started figuring out he wasn’t going to be the Warrior Messiah that liberated them from the Roman Empire. It’s one of the reasons they chose Barabbas, a violent revolutionary, over Jesus.
God could have come as a roaring lion.
Tearing, roaring, and shredding through his enemies in righteous fury.
But God decided to come as a sacrificial lamb.
Broken, bleeding, and dying for his enemies in beautiful, beautiful love.
The twist ending of the Biblical narrative is a complete subversion of our expectations regarding violence and retribution.
Because the cross didn’t happen to Jesus.
Jesus happened to the cross.
In Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God, Brian Zahnd says,
“At the cross we discover that the God revealed in Christ would rather die in the name of love than kill in the name of freedom.”
On the cross, Jesus took a nationalistic symbol of humiliation, torture, and death, and transformed it into a symbol of love, grace, and reconciliation.
On the cross, Jesus turned the other cheek toward humanity.
On the cross, God exposed the lie of redemptive violence and ritualistic murder by absorbing the hate, anger, and fear of mankind and recycled it into mercy and forgiveness.
We should be horrified at Jesus’s crucifixion because the violence of the cross is the violence of mankind completely exposed. The cross, among many other things, is a mirror held up to the barbaric and ineffective lie of redemptive violence.
In Jesus Untangled, Keith Giles writes,
“If Jesus said we should love our enemy, the Antichrist says we should torture them. If Jesus commands us to bless those who curse us, the Antichrist urges us to make war against them.”
“Loving your enemy” and “turning the other cheek” may sound foolish, naive, and irresponsible by Kingdom-of-the-World standards, but as followers of Jesus we are called to worship and emulate a Savior who – instead of destroying his enemies – chose to be killed through an act of self-sacrificial love.
Theologian Gregory Boyd says,
“The cross didn’t look effective on Good Friday, but God raised up Jesus on the third day. And our task is to believe that, however much it looks like we may be losing, God will use our Calvary-quality acts of service to redeem the world and build his kingdom. However much we lose – even if it’s our own life – we are to believe in the resurrection. Ultimately, God wins, and each one of our acts of loving self-denial will eventually be shown to have a played a role in this victory.”
In 2nd Corinthians, Paul writes, “For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world.”
Through Jesus, God established a new Kingdom on Earth, but members of the New Kingdom don’t use weapons to fight its enemies, dehumanize their opponents, or engage in tribalistic warfare.
The Old Kingdom says kill your enemy,
but citizens of the New Kingdom are called to love their enemies.
The Old Kingdom says pursue vengeance,
but citizens of the New Kingdom are called to pursue peace.
And that’s the point.
Citizens of the New Kingdom will always experience irreconcilable tension and discomfort while living in the Old Kingdom.
For me, being a follower of Jesus means there’s far more in life worth dying for than there is anything worth killing for.
In The Irresistible Revolution, Shane Claiborne writes,
“Our world is desperately in need of imagination, for we have spent so much creativity devising ways to destroy our enemies that some folks don’t even think it’s possible (much less practical) to love them. We have placed such idolatrous faith in our ability to protect ourselves that we call it more courageous to die killing than to die loving.”
If you want a religion that protects your own self-interests, justifies retaliatory violence and promises political power, then you’re not going to find it in Christianity.
At least, not in the version of Christianity that Jesus preached.
And until we accept that reality, we’ll never be able to find the motivation or courage to love as Jesus did. We’ll make excuses, search for loopholes, and dance around Scripture.
We’ve inherited this disease.
And some of us are proud of it,
some of us celebrate it,
and some of us defend it.
And all the while, the cure abided in the life, murder, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.
If Jesus can forgive his own executioners for their bloodlust, then there must be room at the table for our redemption as well. To God, enemy love isn’t a vague theological concept or distant moral principle.
It’s the reason we’re still here.
Addendum: The Tough Questions
This is already a long article, so thanks for sticking with me this far.
If this is your first time to be exposed to these ideas, you probably have a lot of questions. I grew up in a conservative evangelical church, and when I first heard about Christian nonviolence in college, it made me angry.
For the most part, it was because I had so many questions and no one could adequately provide me with any answers. Because of this, I’ve written an additional article on this topic tackling some of the toughest objects to Christian Nonviolence:
A few of the questions included in this supplementary article include,
What do you do if someone breaks into your home and threatens your family?
What about Hitler? And ISIS?
What about all the warriors and battles in the Old Testament?
How do I love my enemy?