The first time I heard about Christian nonviolence, I thought it was ridiculous.
My struggle with Christian nonviolence was a result of the multitude of questions the stance generates. I gradually came to learn that these questions were normal. It’s what happens when you’re entire paradigm shifts on such a comprehensive issue.
I grew up in the Church, and yet I never once heard a sermon preached about violence, nonviolence or the expectations of a believer. It was just assumed that “it’s okay for Christians to kill bad guys, especially if it’s in defense of their family or country.”
But now I’m not so sure. In fact, I’m pretty sure that Jesus doesn’t want his followers to kill people – no matter the context.
I’ve created this article as a resource for those who – like me – were initially put off by the idea of Christian nonviolence because no one could explain it well enough and answer my questions.
But take note – these are not ‘answers.’ They’re ‘responses.’ I don’t have all the answers on this topic (no one does and if anyone says that they do, you should immediately be suspicious of that person), but I want to dialogue about this issue honestly and without losing sight of the radical, self-sacrificial enemy love of Jesus in the process.
Note: This post is an extended supplement to my article A Biblical Case for Christian Nonviolence. I highly recommend you read through that piece before tackling this Question+Response article, because it establishes the ethic and lens through I approach each question.
What about all the warriors and battles in the Old Testament?
Rape. Murder. Genocide.
The Old Testament is filled with horrific atrocities and brutal violence.
So, this means God approves of violence against our enemies, right?
If our stance on violence hinges solely Old Testament passages and pragmatic logic, while simultaneously ignoring what Jesus specifically said about the topic, then we probably need to recalibrate our approach to the grand narrative of Scripture.
With their Game-of-Thrones-esque backstabbings, murder, and brutal violence, the Old Testament books of Judges, 1 & 2 Samuel, and 1 & 2 Kings, should be viewed as scathing indictments against the myth of redemptive violence rather than an endorsement. They do not revel in the bloodshed, and neither should we. They are a warning.
Just because God may use (and sanction) violence in the Old Testament, that doesn’t mean He sanctions violence for all of his followers for all time, or that militaristic violence is tantamount to God’s perfect will on Earth (embodied in Jesus). Because it clearly is not.
Let’s look at David as a case study.
Alongside Abraham and Moses, David is one of the most important figures in the Hebrew Scriptures. Military commander and King of the people of God, the reign of David represents the epitome of theocratic militaristic rule. The Messiah, it was prophesied, would come from the line of David.
And yet David, considered a “man after God’s own heart,” is so blinded by his hubris and power that he commits adultery, sanctions the murder of her innocent husband, and brings about the downfall of his kingdom (re: the entirety of 1st and 2nd Kings).
And after King David’s empire falls, the people of Israel separate into two warring nations are subsequently conquered by the Persians, Babylonians, Assyrians, Greeks, and the Romans.
Through David, God is revealing to His people why militarized nationalism doesn’t work. Remember, when the Israelites demanded a king back in Samuel, God told them it would not end well. And it doesn’t. God warned them they would be embroiled in warfare. And they are.
In critiquing nationalistic violence, God is setting the stage for Jesus. One of the major narrative arcs of the Hebrew Scriptures that was (perhaps willfully) ignored by the Jewish people in Jesus’ time is that violence doesn’t result in restorative peace.
In 2nd Samuel, God promises David a “kingdom that will last forever.” But God isn’t talking about a kingdom in the way the world understands a kingdom. In the Old Testament, God is working through one particular tribe and nation. But in the New Testament, God expands our cultural understanding of a ‘nation’ to include people from “every nation, tribe, people, and tongue.”
What about the death penalty?
The death penalty disproportionately targets the African-American community and has not been proven to deter violent crime. At least 4.1% of those death row have (or would have) been exonerated – meaning the death penalty has undoubtedly been used to kill innocent people. Additionally, the cost associated with the death penalty – trials, appeals, death row housing, and the execution – are considerably more expensive than a life sentence.
In the book of John, a group of religious leaders drag a woman into the streets caught in the act of adultery. They drop her in front of Jesus, and him what they should do with her. According to the Law established in the Old Testament, she deserves the death penalty.
But does Jesus affirm the Mosaic Law and start pitching stones? No, of course not. Instead, to the men gathered around the half-naked women he says, “Let the first stone be thrown by the one among you who has not sinned.” The men drop their stones and walk away.
Based on the statistical evidence and the Jesus’ explicit words on the issue, I believe Christians should oppose the death penalty. It appears clear to me where Jesus stands on this issue.
I highly recommend Shane Claiborne’s Executing Grace: How the Death Penalty Killed Jesus and Why It’s Killing Us for a comprehensive look at this topic.
Is it okay for Christians to own guns?
I grew up in East Texas, where shooting guns, deer season, and target practice is a way of life. So I know this question is just as concerned with culture as it is faithfulness to God’s Word as revealed through Jesus.
And, to be transparent, I own a couple of guns – a pistol and shotgun. I cannot find a reason why Christians should not be able to own guns, nor would I be able to develop a Scriptural case against hunting (as long as the intent is food and/or population control).
While I do not believe gun ownership is sinful, I believe the heart and reasoning behind gun ownership can be. A gun is a tool, and it is a tool that is intimately associated with violence and death. Therefore, a responsible Christian gun owner needs to be aware and prepared to spiritually protect him/herself from the seductive allure of the myth of redemptive violence.
Because if owning a gun is going to impede your ability to love your enemies, then you probably shouldn’t own one.
The guns in my house are locked away and separated from their ammunition. They would not be able to injure or kill anyone who enters household – friend or foe – unless they are freed from their locker and used as clubs.
And if you are on the fence about purchasing a firearm, you need to be aware that it is far more likely (statistically speaking) that the gun in your home will harm or kill a family member than it is to be used in self-defense.
What about the “sell your cloak to buy swords” verse in the Luke?
One of the popular verse used to defend self-defense and gun ownership is found in the Gospel of Luke, right before Jesus and his disciples head to the Garden of Gesthame prior to his arrest.
Here’s the passage:
Jesus: It’s different now. If you have some savings, take them with you. If you have a pack, fill it and bring it. If you don’t have a sword, sell your coat and buy one. Here’s the truth: what the Hebrew Scriptures said, “And He was taken as one of the criminals,” must come to fruition in Me. These words must come true.
Disciples: Look, Lord, we have two swords here.
Jesus: That’s enough.
– The Voice Translation
I’ve heard this verse used at gun shows and seen it deployed countless times during debates on the internet. And taken in isolation, yes, this verse appears to affirm weapon ownership and self-defense.
But there are two reasons why this interpretation fails:
- Let’s assume for a moment that Jesus is endorsing retaliatory self-defense. Not only does this clash with Jesus’ other teachings about enemy love and violence, it is also at odds with the lives and deaths of the apostles following the resurrection. Because if Jesus was telling them to arm themselves, they certainly didn’t take it to heart. All but one or two of the original disciples were brutally tortured and martyred by the Roman Empire, and not one of them swung a sword in self-defense or encouraged the Church to physically defend themselves against persecution.
- Jesus actually reveals the meaning behind his statement within the instruction – “For I tell you that this Scripture must be fulfilled in me: ‘And he was numbered with the transgressors (ESV).'” We need to remember that in the first-century Israel, calling yourself the “Messiah” was a political statement that implied violent insurrection against the Roman Empire. The presence of (two) swords among Jesus’ entourage would have been used to justify his arrest and fulfill the prophecy in Isaiah 53.
Interpreting Luke 22:36-38 as an endorsement for violence is us making the same mistake the disciples made when Jesus first said it. Peter’s misunderstanding of the instruction is corrected when Jesus tells him to put his away his sword and that “those who live by the sword, die by the sword.”
But what do we do about Hitler? And ISIS?
For many Christians considering nonviolence, these types of questions are often the deal breaker. I know, for a long time, they were for me.
There is definitely room for nuance here and we’re never going to find a clean black-and-white answer to these types of questions. But we can draw some conclusions from Scripture.
We tend to forget that the original manuscripts and letters that make up the Bible didn’t come with chapter and verse numbers. And that can make it easy for people to pick out certain passages of Scripture at the expense of others.
For instance, Romans 13. For centuries, the first seven verses of this chapter have been used to justify a Christian’s role in state-sponsored violence. But Romans 13 must be read in light of Romans 12, which says (among other things) that Christians should “bless those who persecute you,” “repay no one evil for evil,” and to never seek vengeance.
And there’s also an interesting matter of pronouns to take into thoughtful consideration. When Paul is speaking to Christians, he uses the personal pronoun “You” (like in Romans 12), but when he’s referring to the governing authorities he uses the impersonal pronoun “They” (such as he does in Romans 13).
So what is the role of a Christian in a world that is tearing itself apart with injustice and violence? Especially in defense of the innocent?
Honestly, this is the question I wrestle with the most. I don’t have an easy answer and the cognitive dissonance it introduces into my worldview is very troubling. In other words, I’m not sure if I even agree with myself.
While I’m sure God uses “the sword” of world governments to execute wrath upon evil and injustice, I’m not so sure that those of us who align ourselves with the teachings of Jesus should seek to be active participants of that wrath. But I’m willing to leave this response open to the discernment of my readers.
And that may sound like a cop-out, but I can’t lie and say I have this issue nailed down.
Because when I look at World War II, I see Jesus in the actions of those who risked their lives by hiding and protecting Jews during the Holocaust. And when I look at Syria and Iraq, I see Christ not in smart-bombs but in the Coptic Christians who provide food, water, and medical aid to captured ISIS fighters because “only light can drive out darkness.”
I will continue to wrestle with this question, and I want to encourage all of us who wish to take seriously the teachings of Jesus to wrestle with these implications as well.
Seriously, if someone broke into your house with the intent of harming your family and you had access to a gun would you kill the intruder?
You can’t have a discussion about nonviolence without the infamous “violent intruder at your door” scenario popping up. And, as a married man, I can empathize with the underlining concern raised within the question.
Many readers probably want this to be the part of the article where I tell them that Jesus is absolutely pro-violence when it comes to defending yourself and your family (and, to be honest, so do I), but looking at the words of Jesus I cannot come to that conclusion.
And for most people, this is the most difficult hurdle to overcome when wrestling with nonviolence.
But trusting in the way of the gun over the way of Jesus will always limit your options to two potential pathways:
- Do nothing and basically be complicit in the crime.
- Kill the attacker because it’s your “God-given” right to protect your family.
I believe the primary reason people reject Christian nonviolence is a direct result of the above paradigm. But remember, following the way of Jesus means believing there will always a “third way” to handle confrontation and evil. As such, I do not believe using ‘force’ to defend your family is the same as using ‘violence.’
Nonlethal force is not the same as violence. Not because I believe it is my God-given right to protect my family, but because I believe loving your enemy can sometimes mean doing everything in your power to prevent someone from committing a crime that will ruin their life.
And if you’re that worried about violent intruders, equip yourself and your household with a taser, pepper gun or nonlethal shotgun rounds like bean bags or rubber pellets. Nonlethal home defense measures are readily available and easy to obtain.
But here’s the cold, hard truth: For many of us, we’ve bought into the lie of redemptive violence so hard we don’t even want to consider nonlethal options. It’s either that, or we’re too lazy to really care.
In the depths of our corrupted hearts, we’ve convinced ourselves that killing in the name of love is more virtuous than dying in the name of Christ.
And I don’t believe we should base our entire position on violence around an extreme, hypothetical scenario that 99% of the population will (thankfully) never have to experience.
Ultimately, we have to ask ourselves, whom do we trust more? The Gospels of Colt, Glock, and Heckler & Koch, or the Gospel of Jesus?
Because until we reckon with that question, we are only paying lip service to the nonviolent teachings of Jesus, and our attitude to our enemies will reveal to us where we place our true allegiance.
How do I love my enemy?
The first step in learning to love your enemy is to understand that you are an enemy.
That sounded harsh, so let me explain.
Our brains are wired to create enemies. It protects us from ourselves. If we can believe we are morally superior or more enlightened than another person or people, we can minimize our own moral failings and minimize our insecurities.
You may not be an enemy to your tribe, community, or racial or social demographic, but you’re an enemy to someone.
Be it your income level, politics, skin color, heritage, religion, job, nationality, education, gender, sexual orientation, or privilege – there’s some aspect of you that makes you an enemy to someone else.
And once you understand why someone may perceive you as an enemy, you can begin the search for common ground and shared values. I firmly believe most of our “enemies” are simply people we haven’t taken the time to listen to yet.
If the first step of enemy love is recognizing you’re also an enemy to the person you consider an enemy, and the second step is being open to constructive dialogue, then the third step is acknowledging that you don’t know half as much as you think you do. Many of our tightly held religious beliefs and political stances are rooted in emotional triggers and tribal cues, not facts or logic.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s important to be aware that you’re just as susceptible to manipulation by your “side” as the person you’re accusing of being easily manipulated by their side.
The fourth step of enemy love is identifying and meeting the immediate needs of your enemy. Hopefully, as you’ve drawn closer to your enemy through empathetic listening, you’ve been able to develop an intimacy that humanizes your enemy in a way that inspires compassion.
This is not the place for “tough love.” Tough love requires relational capacity that you have probably not developed with your enemy yet. If your default mode of affection toward your enemies is “tough love,” then you are not loving – you’re a jerk.
The goal of enemy love isn’t to win somebody to your side – it’s to serve someone in such a way that they taste and see the self-sacrificial love of Jesus through your actions. Enemy love is not something that can be learned overnight. It has to be worked and developed like a muscle.
Only after walking through these four steps with multiple people in different scenarios (and lots of trial and error) will enemy love slowly become the default position of your heart.