Was Jesus a Pacifist?

To recognize the final days of the Amazon Kindle $2.99 sale of Banned Questions About Jesus (through Wednesday, July 25th), I thought I’d post another question from the book, along with responses from the contributors who took that question on.

Question: Was Jesus a pacifist?

Jarrod McKenna: No.

Jesus did not come to bring peace but a sword. And we as disciples must wield the same sword Jesus brings, and no other.

The question is, what is this sword?

What is this sword that heals rather than harms enemies?

What is this sword that never collaborates or mirrors the Powers, thereby exposing their addiction to violence?

What is this sword that prophetically turns over tables of idolatry and injustice in a judgment that does not harm, hurt, coerce or kill anyone?

What is this fire that is ablaze with the very presence of I AM in response to the cries of the oppressed, this fire that does not destroy the bush in which it burns?

What is this power that is ablaze on the cross, sucking the oxygen of injustice and violence from creation then causes a cosmic backdraft in the resurrection, setting the world alight with the love that conquers death?

This sword of Christ is something far more dangerous and dynamic than a philosophy of an ideal, static, passive, peace read back onto the life of Christ. Martin Luther King would insist it is a peace that “is not the absence of tension but the presence of justice.” It is the Mystery our Lord Jesus embodies, enabling a new world where what we once wasted on bombs is now used to feed the hungry.

Jesus is no pacifist. He is YHWH’s nonviolent Suffering Servant whose grace calls us to share in his tears over what would make for peace, whose Spirit empowers us to take up the sword of nonviolence as our only weapon in witness to the victory Christ has won.

Chris Haw: The Temple cleansing would seem to imply, “no.” But we must careful to note here how he did not kill (or even, it seems, harm) anybody in this well-documented incident. And the early Jesus followers seem to have taken no inspiration from this story as a type of action to imitate, as we have no documentation of early Christians carrying swords or rioting after Jesus’ famous “put that away; those who live by the sword will die by it.”

In sum, I see no good reason to see that anything in the canon contradicts Jesus’ oft-ignored teaching, “love your enemies.” And seeing as he gives three concrete examples of how to do so in practice, I do not think he meant this metaphorically, or as Luther pontificated—that one can kill one’s enemy and love them at the same time.

In an etymologically strict sense, it is probably beneficial to think that Jesus’ politics indeed did involve attempts to “pacify” one’s enemy. Walking an extra mile with the demanding officer is just one attempt at pacification. Granted, his speaking truth to his accusers (“why did you hit me?”) could have perhaps enflamed their hatred—though I am inclined to think of the enflaming as the fault of the violent, not the Lamb.

R. M. Keelan Downton: It is clear that Jesus is doing something different when he tells his disciples to respond to being slapped or robbed or forced to work with a creative response that would evoke shame or other complications for the abuser. It is less clear whether Jesus ever intended this to be scaled up to the level of nation-state (which, of course, hadn’t been invented, but like empire, requires significant levels of violence to maintain).

Often discussions of whether Jesus is a pacifist get muddled by confusion about what the word “violence” means. I once heard a speaker ask, “How can we reject violence as a means of resisting capitalism? I mean, even Jesus used violence against bankers!” This misses a critical distinction.

To be pacifist means to reject the use of deadly force as a legitimate means of resolving disputes–it does not mean allowing injustice to continue without challenge. It does not mean that those who wish to do violence cannot be constrained legally, economically, or even physically.

The space between inaction and murder is precisely where we see Jesus operating in his dealings with the Roman Empire and the temple entrepreneurs. Even at the end of Revelation (which some people read as a Rambo-esque return) it is important to remember that the “sword” comes from Jesus’ mouth and the blood is Jesus’ own.

Tripp Fuller: It is perfectly clear that Jesus was against violence and war as means of setting things right. He told his disciples to turn the other cheek, not to resist an evildoer, to pray for their enemies, and then forgave his own enemies from the cross.

But does this make him a pacifist?  Would he be one today in our historical situation?  Most conversations around this topic quickly devolve into attempts to justify some act of violence (protecting an innocent child) or moral war (putting an end to genocide), yet this misses the larger point of Jesus’ embodied teaching. The reason Jesus and God’s kingdom reject violence is not because it can’t bring about a victory, but because an act of violence leads to a victor who is also a violator of their victims.

Eventually power shifts and the previous victims feel justified in becoming the new violating victors. God’s Kingdom Way, embodied by Jesus and taught to the disciples, is a way that does not reach victory by building crosses but by bearing them. The ultimate victory of God is a victory for all, because through the resurrection God becomes Victor by becoming the Victim.

In doing so God identifies and shares in the suffering of the world and charts a path for reconciliation, even for the violators. This larger perspective reframes the nature of Jesus’ ‘pacifism,’ asking his followers today not all to become passively peaceful, but active peacemakers and ambassadors of God’s reconciliation.

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  • Tony

    Interesting. Also, regarding Jesus’ teaching on ‘turning the other cheek’, I have seen this interpreted somewhere as responding to insults, not violence. The justification runs like this.

    Someone strikes your right cheek first. Given that most people are right-handed (sorry, all you Southpaws! 😀 ) and that the first blow would therefore normally be struck with the right hand, this means that the blow would be a backhander – a left-to-right slap to the face with the back of the hand – which gesture is a universal insult.

    The only other way of striking the right cheek would be a good old left hook…… now that’s not outside the realms of possibility of course but I do think this is an interesting slant on a passage which appears to say – and is usually interpreted as saying – that you shouldn’t hit someone back. It’s more a response to being insulted rather than the actual hitting itself.

    • Christian Piatt

      Read “Jesus and Nonviolence: a Third Way” by Walter Wink. He’s the guru on that. As for the dilemma of violence as a lesser evil. Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes about that in his involvement in a plot to kill Hitler.

  • Tony

    And regarding the use of deadly force, do you simply allow an armed invader to overrun your country? Which is the greater evil: to shoot an invader or to passively allow him to rape your wife and daughters? Because let’s make no bones about it: that’s what invaders do; we have perhaps forgotten this in our comfort and lassitude.

    The only reason we have the freedom to ask these questions and to discuss these things is precisely because of our armed forces who protect us from those who would illegitimately rob us of our freedoms. It only takes one to start a war; the supposed axiom of ‘it takes two to make an argument’ is simply untrue.

    Of course, our armed forces do not protect us from those who would *legitimately* rob us of our freedoms – bankers, lawyers, politicians, border guards, crooked cops – but that’s another question (or is it?)

    • Leslie Mackenzie

      Tony, as a Christian you not only have the freedom to ask such questions, you have a responsibility to do so. Freedom is not given to you by any military. For the first 300 years of Christianity, none could serve in the military while still being a Christian. That changed when Christianity became the official religion – not because Jesus came back and said something different.

      Our country has most certainly not forgotten war and violence – we export it worldwide. What we have forgotten is that it was never supposed to be easy to be a Christian. It’s difficult; it’s a sacrifice.

      Few people see examples of such sacrifice today. When I was a child, I read a thought-provoking book about a Quaker deciding how to participate in the Civil War, “Friendly Persuasion,” by Jessamyn West. Perhaps you’d like to take a look at how a Christian struggled with that question.

      • Paul D.

        All good points.

        Besides, when was the last time the US was actually “invaded”? Whenever Americans talk to me about “defensive” war, what they’re really talking about is going overseas and killing thousands (or hundreds of thousands) of foreigners, women and children included, in order to fulfill the regime’s various geopolitical endeavours. 

    • Tony

       Leslie and Paul D – good points both, thank you.

      Both, I know what you mean about exporting violence. I don’t think that’s ever a good idea; all you do is to annoy people. Winning hearts and minds simply doesn’t work, when those hearts and minds are won at gunpoint, even if the gun is still in the arms locker.

      Leslie, the sacrifice is all well and good when it it I who make the choice to sacrifice. A sacrificial lifestyle is integral to the Christian Gospel.

      The problem comes when one expects someone else to go along with the sacrificial lifestyle when it isn’t their choice. So, to continue my somewhat unsavoury picture of being invaded, it’s not the wife/daughter’s choice to live the sacrificial lifestyle and be raped by the invader. Or, as happened to Holland in WWII, to have all your Jews carted off to the extermination camps.

      And I disagree; military does indeed give freedom, although not the freedom Christians think of; they also give protection from being dragged off to the camps. An invader does not simply move in and leave everything as it is, they change things and usually for the worse.

      The freedoms that the military protect are the freedom to choose, the freedom to speak our own language, within the bounds of the laws of the country we choose to live in. If we hadn’t defended against Nazi Germany, we’d all be speaking German by now (well at least, I would, I’m British!); if we hadn’t defended against other threats, perhaps Japanese or even Russian….

      These freedoms have been bought by the ultimate sacrifice of others, to whom I will always be grateful. I know personally some of the heroes of WWII. I know people who risked torture, not only of themselves but also of their relatives, to ferry escaping prisoners of war back to Allied lines. I know people who sailed, marched or flew into near-certain death – although of course in their cases they survived! – to help buy my freedom. My son’s best friend died of wounds received in Afghanistan; no doubt many people reading this know of someone who has been wounded or killed in Kosovo, Iraq, Vietnam….. I cannot, in the name of all decency, cast aside their sacrifice nor indeed their example. CS Lewis once wrote that the calling to the military is a noble calling, and I agree with him.

      And one of the things I love about how you do things in the States is the way you honour (or perhaps I should say ‘honor’) your military and their families at public gatherings. In that way, you are reminded of the sacrifices others make to keep your nation from plenty trouble. And to make more trouble, of course, as we discussed earlier, but still your boys and girls in uniform buy you freedom. Where would you be without them?