No one will question that we live in a violent world. No one will doubt that most of the world powers assume that violence must be met by violence. And, oddly to some, many if not most Christians also assume that the great evils of our day will be resolved inevitably only by some use of violence. But it was not always so among followers of Jesus. Many today, perhaps especially among younger leaders, have grave concerns about fighting violence with violence as a matter of policy if at all. Their concerns rise from allegiance to Jesus. I have invited a younger colleague, Rev. Peter Hough, to reflect with me on this issue. Let me set it up this way.
At the time of Jesus, God’s chosen people hoped for the defeat of their Roman overlords, liberation from occupation forces, and re-establishment of the nation of Israel with a righteous King governing their people under God’s law. Many believed that king would surely be the Messiah. For them, when the kingdom of God came, it would be with force in the way of kings and kingdoms of the world at the time. Such expectation had been fueled by the people’s revolt against Syrian rule under Judas Maccabeus and his clan (167 B.C.). Their success led to a brief period of self-governance under Hasmonean priestly rule, until 63 B.C. when the armies of Rome seized the land and incorporated it into the Roman Empire.
Clearly, when Jesus began his public ministry by declaring the arrival of God’s kingdom he raised hopes for his people that were national and geo-political, as well as militaristic. Hopes that seem to provide a background for the gospel record itself (see Luke 1—2).
Yet, Jesus’ teachings and practices and eventual execution on a Roman cross all consistently counter these hopes for a kingdom on those terms. Jesus decried the use of violence, rejected retaliation, and called for such responses as loving the enemy, praying for persecutors, blessing those who curse, overcoming evil with good, and by these means “making peace.” This was not a kingdom anyone expected. This was not a kingdom anyone would have embraced easily. Still, it was the kingdom Jesus announced, invited his followers to enter, taught his followers to pursue, and empowered those same followers to declare and demonstrate throughout the world until his return.
And, as a matter of historical record, it was this kingdom and its practitioners that spread throughout the world, overturning social and cultural opposition, and forming movements within those social and cultural worlds that changed them. Like salt and leaven, kingdom presence and practices permeated wide and deep. The world has never been the same.
Of course, this brief summation is way too simple. The multiple story lines it describes move in both positive and negative ways, and include plenty of bad mingled with the good. Which is to say, it has always been complicated and complex, with “results” that are mixed. And part of the tangle of complex complications has been varying views and theories of Jesus’ controversial kingdom teachings on violence and responses to provocation and outright assault.
Over the course of 2,000 years, Jesus’ radical call to non-retaliation and non-violence has been subject to varied assessment and application. Some have concluded he mistakenly anticipated an imminent end of the world and so offered an “interim ethic” that cannot be taken seriously in “the real world.” Some reasoned that Jesus’ teachings are meant for interpersonal relationships and not for those of wider social, cultural and political spheres. Some have regarded Jesus’ radical love as a goal toward which we might helpfully strive but never realistically achieve, whether personally or otherwise. Some have concluded that Jesus’ teachings were for church relations but not necessarily for worldly relations.
Interestingly, at least some of these approaches represent alternatives that the first followers of Jesus might have taken, but didn’t. Instead, they received Jesus’ teachings on how to respond to evil as their Messiah’s calling upon their lives, which had been illumined and empowered by the presence of the same Holy Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead. In resurrection light, they understood Jesus’ person and teachings to be vindicated, and they embraced them with conviction in a world full of violence like our own. In fact, as they did the movement of Jesus spread with transforming impact upon their world, often precisely in places racked by violence.
So, in this regard I am raising a critical question for our consideration: “What about today?
Friend and Colleague Peter Hough responds: You noted that most of the world powers and even most Christians assume that violence must be met by violence. This may be an understatement. The idea that only violence can end violence is a nearly universal human intuition and one that the gospel adopts only to subvert. The first followers of Jesus made the transition from this assumed necessity of violence to a resolute commitment to nonviolence. That they did it together, all at once, and permanently should tell us something of the priority and centrality they gave to peacemaking as a marker of the children of God. Jesus told Peter one Thursday night to put away his sword, and what happened on that Friday and Sunday afterwards convinced Peter and his friends that Jesus’ command was somehow still in force.
I want suggest something at the outset that I don’t believe to be controversial, that in the New Testament peace is the ideal. In the New Testament, engaging in violence isn’t commanded, modeled, praised, or taught as an expression of kingdom principles. Therefore, violence must bear the burden of proof. It is violence that must prove itself and disciples of Jesus must stand on the side of peace, come what may, until it does so.
This is important because in conversations about violence and peacemaking it is usually peace that is viewed skeptically at best and angrily at worst. Peace must prove itself to us before we consider taking even one step in its direction. We won’t be convinced to change anything unless someone can first answer us about extreme cases of violence from both ends of a spectrum ranging from global atrocities (usually the Nazis) to personal tragedies (usually children dying in hypothetical home invasions).
This shifting of the burden of proof from violence to peace shows more than anything else how thoroughly we simply embrace the nearly universal human intuition that at some point we must become violent to stop the violent. But if the New Testament is to be our authoritative guide, we must risk reversing our starting position and insist that violence prove itself.
This “reversal” does not end reflection or discussion. It is not the conclusion of reasoning and debate on matters of peace and violence, but the beginning. We can still allow that many, if not most, Christians not only now but throughout history, have embraced the view that violence is in some cases justifiable. To my mind, the best thinking on the matter that has stayed closest to the New Testament has come to this conclusion soberly, reluctantly—even repentantly—and in humble self-awareness of the impulse to violence that lurks inside us and oftentimes keeps us from remaining unbiased in the answers we’ll allow ourselves to come to.
But starting with the New Testament and giving peacemaking its privileged default position, it must be granted that while not every disciple will become a pacifist, every disciple must make it their aim to become more peaceful, God being their helper.
dwk: Peter, you are certainly right! Clearly the NT teaches that following Jesus forms us into people of peace who participate with our Lord in making peace. “Blessed are the peacemakers!” Yet, clearly, the way the discussions and arguments about violence normally go assumes the world’s “common sense” assumption that at some point violence will be necessary.
Can you (or other readers) say more about the NT assuming the worldly starting point only to subvert the notion that violence can end violence? And, then also, what would it be like to accept the opposite notion as the default, that the way of Jesus responds to violence and seeks to overthrow violence by “peace-making?”