Common Objections & Misunderstandings on Christian Nonviolence

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One of the most difficult Christian doctrines to accept is the doctrine of Christian Nonviolence. The reason why it is among the most difficult Christian beliefs to embrace is because it directly contradicts what American culture has taught us from day one.

However, the teachings of Jesus were always radical. They were in conflict with culture from the first moment he uttered them, and remain so today. This is because we all live submersed into kingdoms of men. The invitation Jesus brings is to forsake these earthly kingdoms and to begin living in the Kingdom of God… a kingdom that does things very differently than anything you’ll experience here on earth.

One of these principles is that the Kingdom of God is nonviolent, and the hallmark of the kingdom is a nonviolent love of enemies. Early Christians understood this, but ultimately violent principles of earthly kingdoms were reintroduced to the Christian community and over the course of time, Christians assimilated to this new position.

In today’s Christianity, many have grown tired and dissatisfied with the American version of Jesus’ teachings and have begun a return to the historic, orthodox faith- including original doctrines which have long since been discarded.

If you’ve never really wrestled with the doctrine of Christian nonviolence, it can be tough at first- it might sound more like hippie culture than Christian culture, even though the doctrine originated with Jesus himself. For this post, I’ve compiled a list of the most common objections or questions people have regarding this doctrine with some brief answers/explanations in response to each of those objections (or misunderstandings). Thanks for all of your comments and e-mails on the issue of nonviolence– your questions were how I formulated this list, so I hope this helps!

Objections/Misunderstandings About Christian Nonviolence

1. But isn’t the Old Testament violent?

Yes, it is. There is lots of violence all throughout the Old Testament. However, using the Old Testament to justify violence is to see the Old Testament as a rule book of sorts that was written for us to emulate.

But, that’s not what it is.

Much of the Old Testament is the genre of “historic narrative”. It tells a story of a people- Israel, and includes the good, bad, and the ugly of their history. To say that we should emulate the historic narratives of the Old Testament is to use scripture in a way it isn’t intended.

In the New Testament, Paul teaches us that we are to imitate Christ. He refers to the Old Testament as a “shadow” but argues that “reality” is found in Jesus– and that’s who we should emulate– Jesus, the nonviolent lover of enemies.

2. But didn’t Jesus beat up a bunch of people in the temple?

One of my favorite Chris Farley scenes was when he interviewed Martin Scorsese regarding the movie the Last Temptation of Christ. There’s a hilarious scene of Chris asking Martin about Jesus:

Did Jesus really “lose it on that one guy”? No, scripture doesn’t teach that. What it does teach is that he tipped over the tables, and drove everyone out of the temple. That’s it. It doesn’t say that he punched them out, or used the whip on humans– those arguments are reading into the story details which aren’t there.

Also, it is important to remember that this event was at Passover, a time when the Romans would have been extremely quick to squash someone who was being violent in the temple. Had he actually injured people, there’s little doubt he would have made it out of there in one piece. Furthermore, had he physically harmed people, Jesus would have contradicted his own teachings and become a liar– something inconceivable of God’s immutability.

Certainly, this was civil disobedience, a protest, a disruption, etc– but nothing in scripture says that Jesus hurt anyone. Think about Whale Wars– Sea Shepard may harass the whalers who are whaling illegally, but they don’t actually hurt anyone. There’s a difference between civil disobedience and physically harming another human being.

 3. But doesn’t the Bible teach an “eye for an eye”, a concept of retributive violence?

Yes, this actually was a law in the Old Testament– but see #1 for how applicable to you or I that rule is.

In fact, Jesus addressed this exact question very specifically, and overturned this archaic principle of retributive violence- replacing it with the rule of nonviolence.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.”

So, not only did Jesus abolish the practice of retributive justice (an eye for an eye), here in Matthew 5 he actually says that the children of God are those who nonviolently love their enemies. As we see above, Jesus actually takes the principle to a much more radical degree- not just commanding nonviolence, but actually commanding that we actively do good to those who harm us.

Our culture tells us that if someone is stealing our TV, we can shoot them in the head. But Jesus? He says “Make sure you give him the remote too.”

4. But didn’t Jesus command his disciples to go and buy swords?

The case for biblical justification of violence is very hard to make, as the scripture forbidding violence is one of the clearest teachings of the New Testament. Those who use scripture to reject the practice of nonviolent love of enemies usually have only one passage in the NT they are able to go to, in hopes of supporting their claim. That passage is found in Luke 22, and is just before Jesus is arrested:

“He said to them, “But now if you have a purse, take it, and also a bag; and if you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one. It is written: ‘And he was numbered with the transgressors’; and I tell you that this must be fulfilled in me. Yes, what is written about me is reaching its fulfillment. The disciples said, “See, Lord, here are two swords.” “That’s enough!” he replied.”

Those who quote this verse to support the idea that Jesus endorses violence have to quote just the first part without the whole context. What’s neat about this passage is that it doesn’t leave you wondering what it’s about– Jesus clearly tells us. By citing an OT prophesy of being “numbered with transgressors” Jesus tells them to bring two swords to the garden. The reason, Jesus tells us, is that so he could be counted and arrested as an armed criminal. We know that Jesus didn’t intend the swords for violent reasons because (a) He tells them that 2 were plenty, which they weren’t if it were for self defense (b) when the disciples actually use them for self-defense in the garden (Peter) he rebukes him with another command for nonviolence: “No more of this! He who lives by the sword will die by the sword.”

There is nothing in this passage that indicates Jesus approved of violence, only the contrary.

5. Doesn’t Romans permit violence?

Yes and no.

Romans clearly acknowledges (without condoning) the governmental authorities right to use force (Romans 13:4), but no where do we find permission for Christians to participate in violence on behalf of the government. The early church understood this, and completely rejected the notion of Christians participating in roles which required one to be violent for the government.

Many of those who accept the doctrine of nonviolence understand that a government has the right to enforce laws, have a military, etc. We simply reject the idea that a Christian can participate in the killing of other human beings, regardless of reason.

6. Doesn’t Revelation describe Jesus violently?

On the surface, it may seem so- but we need to look a little deeper.

The passage is from Rev 19, and reads:

“He is dressed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is the Word of God. The armies of heaven were following him, riding on white horses and dressed in fine linen, white and clean. Coming out of his mouth is a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations.”

Ever seen someone go into battle already covered in blood? Me either. This isn’t the blood of his enemies… it is his own blood. Jesus is covered in his own shed blood, the same blood that spilled as he nonviolently died for his enemies- saying “forgive them.”

Further, the sword comes out of his mouth which is clearly symbolic for his words.

It’s not warfare violence and the blood of his enemies- it’s his own blood, and he stops his enemies just with his words.

It’s actually a very nonviolent picture, when you dig deep.

7. How can you just do nothing and let your family get slaughtered?

This final objection, is probably the most common- and in my opinion, the most misunderstood. This is why I do not like the term “pacifism”, because it implies that one does nothing.

This is not the spirit of nonviolence. I believe that Jesus has called us to be peacemakers– this requires action, just not violent action. There have been many peacemakers in history who did not live passively, yet were able to enact change for the vulnerable via nonviolence.

Do we just let our family get raped and slaughtered? Of course not. And, for me, I came to embrace nonviolence by actually experiencing violence- something that a lot of gun carriers can’t claim.

In the last two years, I’ve been in a situation 3-4 times where I would have been legally justified in committing homicide, as in my life was in imminent danger. However, I didn’t kill as a response.

Why? It was a family member, who I love.

As a result, I had to be more creative and find a different solution. Sometimes it was wrestling the weapon out of their hand, sometimes it was restraining them for their safety and the safety of others, and sometimes I had to lock myself in a room and call 911.

But killing was never on the table. I’m not going to kill someone I love, even if it’s justified.

Jesus calls us to love our enemies. I realized that if I were to love a family member enough not to kill them– even when I was legally justified in doing so, there was no way that I could love an enemy differently.

How could I spare the life of family, but shoot a person stealing my TV? That’s just silly. This experience made me realize that loving my enemy needed to look the same as loving my family- and that in response to violence, I’d need to think more creatively instead of resorting to lethal violence.

I believe it is actually loving to stop someone from harming others– loving for the victim and loving for the perpetrator. It’s loving toward the potential victim for obvious reasons, but it’s loving toward the perpetrator as well because we might prevent them from doing something that would be damaging to their soul, their future, their family, etc.

But, it’s not loving to kill them. With today’s technology, we have so many non-lethal options at our disposal (mace, rubber bullets, etc) that skipping to lethal force is sheer laziness.

We’ve got to be more creative. We’ve got to finally embrace the way of Jesus.

Yes, I do realize that if we embrace nonviolence, we won’t always be able to protect our lives- but Jesus already warned us of that. He warned that following him would mean homelessness, that we’d need to be prepared to pick up a cross, and that we’d actually need to “hate our life” in order to save it.

Yes, the doctrine of nonviolence is an offense to our senses and our culture, but it is the way of Jesus.

If you’ve been considering Jesus and teaching of nonviolence, I hope that reviewing these common objections has been helpful to you, and that you might decide to embrace nonviolent love of enemies– that you may be called children of your father in heaven.

Boyd on Nonviolence

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About Benjamin L. Corey

Benjamin L. Corey, is an Anabaptist author, speaker, and blogger. His first book, Undiluted: Rediscovering the Radical Message of Jesus (Release date, August 2014), tells the story of his journey out of lifeless religion and into a fresh expression of Christianity. He is also a contributor for Sojourners, Red Letter Christians, Evangelicals for Social Action, Mennonite World Review, has been a guest on Huffington Post Live, and is one of the CANA Initiators. Ben is also a syndicated author for MennoNerds, a collective of Mennonite and Anabaptist writers. He is a two-time graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (Theology & Missiology), is currently a Doctor of Missiology/Intercultural Studies student at Fuller Seminary, and is a member of the Phi Alpha Chi Honors Society for biblical scholars. Ben lives in Auburn, Maine with his wife Tracy and his daughter Johanna.

You can also follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

  • Kevin

    Thank you for this article. I wrestled with this issue for several years. I heard someone at once that The Ressurrection not only vindicated Jesus, but also the way of Jesus.

  • Kevin

    *say (not “at”)

  • Stephen

    I understand and can get on board with a lot of what you are are saying. Your situation with a family member is a personal one and it gets tricky when you are up against family. But let me be clear — if a stranger has just broken into your home and is about to rape and murder your family, you do what you need to do..period. You are a sick person if you allow a young child to be harmed bc you are a christian and non violent. Murder should always be a last resort….but in rare occasions it’s called for. If someone chooses to do evil and bring death upon themselves…that is their choice.

  • http://faithlikeaman.blogspot.com Ryan Blanchard

    Loved this entry. As Stephen said above, the individual, life-threatening situation is the exception that keeps me from calling myself a pacifist, but that’s no excuse to endorse violence otherwise. Our philosophies should be about the broad, common issue, not the red herrings that so rarely occur.

  • http://anafalz.wordpress.com Glen McGraw

    I enjoyed your article. I found your comments on defending family on point.

    Here is the question: using Rwanda as a litmus test, would/should we advocate for non-violence to stop the genocide? Inaction allowed the genocide to go on. What it a rapid intervention was used and the killing stopped earlier? What is more evil – allowing the violence to continue or bringing violence to end violence?

    I am not looking for answers to the questions. These are the types of things I have been wrestling with for years. Not sure there are correct answers. At least not easy ones. As a combat vet, these are the questions you ask yourself.

  • Nora Tomlin

    I have always absolutely believed that Jesus taught non-violence and that we as Americans are completely wrong in justifying violence even in self defense. Bravo for this article. @ Stephen, if someone “broke into my house” and tried to harm my children, I would try to defend them, but NOT with a gun or with an intent to kill them. The truth is , that is a rare occurrence. More women are killed by their partner than strangers, more children are abused and assaulted by a family member ( look it up ) so in truth if we are to fear anyone, it is our own family members and loved ones. Violence is more prevalent within families than by “strangers” I always told my daughters to be more careful of who they date and marry than strangers out there. Jesus way is different, you can be wise, you can be vigilant, but violence is never an option. If we say we are pro-life, I challenge people to be pro-ALL life. Even those that deserve ” death” ( don’t we all in some ways? )

  • Justin Barringer

    Thanks for this post. In case you haven’t yet seen it, Tripp York and I put together a book, A Faith Not Worth Fighting For, addressing many of the most common questions raised about nonviolence. Greg Boyd contributed a chapter, and we were also fortunate to have other great scholars and activists respond to these various questions as well. Sorry for the self-promotion, but I thought you might enjoy the read. http://amzn.to/17nNO1M

  • http://www.formerlyfundie.com Benjamin L. Corey

    Promote away, Justin! I’ve actually been meaning to get your book. I’m aware of it, just haven’t got it yet. Thanks for posting!

  • Suzy Andrews

    Thank you.

    Shared.

  • http://reflectionsandmeditations.com/ Daniel P.

    Thank you so much for addressing these questions. It has been a period of about 3 years over which I have come to embrace the non-violent teachings of Jesus. I am the only one among my friends who embrace this. The thing I struggle with is that my acceptance of this truth doesn’t magically change my nature to fight in the moment of fear. (May all pray for me concerning this.) I am definitely sharing this. Thanks so much.. again.

  • https://theirishatheist.wordpress.com/ The Irish Atheist

    And here’s some points of my own.

    1. Characterising the entire Old Testament as a historical narrative is intellectually dishonest – at least for a Christian.

    We touched on this back when we were debating about slavery in the Old Testament, but it’s even more strongly apparent here. Setting aside the fact that I don’t believe in your god in the first place, to claim that the Old Testament includes ‘the good, the bad and the ugly,’ and that therefore the nastier parts are simply ‘bad things that happened that god doesn’t condone’ is nothing more than a willful blindness towards what the Bible is actually saying, and cherrypicking your holy book in the same way any fundamentalist does.

    To some point, the historical narrative defense is true. For example, the story of the Levite and his concubine are not advocating gang rape, and telling the tale of Lot’s daughters doesn’t advocate drunken incest (although the Bible is pretty cool with it elsewhere). However, taking examples like these and applying it to the entire Old Testament narrative is willful ignorance of the Old Testament message.

    The entire book of Joshua, for example. The previous five books make it pretty clear that God himself is giving the Hebrews the Promised Land, and that all they need to do is massacre every man, woman and child, down to the last infant, in order to obtain it. This isn’t just a ‘telling it how it is,’ this is clearly God-ordained genocide. The same with the butchery of the Amalekites by King Saul. Saul was punished for keeping ONE man alive. One act of mercy cost his dynasty the kingdom. The same with the massacre of the Midianites and the forcible rape of their virgins. The same with the whole litany of Old Testament laws that pass the death penalty on gays, heathens, and people who wear cotton-polyester blends. All of these are precluded with some sort of version of “The Lord commanded.” Commanded.

    As one pastor told me when I spoke to him on this issue, “The message of the Old Testament isn’t non-violence, it’s that the preservation of the Gospel is more important than anything else.”

    I remember the defense you gave me last time, that if it doesn’t match up with Jesus’ nonviolent message, it must have been misinterpreted and Christians should just ignore the atrocities that their god commanded. While I can respect your non-violent philosophy and even find parts of it admirable, I cannot respect your Biblical reasoning behind it since it’s based on intellectual dishonesty, nor can I respect any of your further assertions that the word of god is the highest moral code in the land due to the same reasons.

    Just a heads up. You might be able to find a pacifist message by doing this sort of slash and burn theology, but it’s not going to convince any of your fellows who take the Bible more seriously than you. Even an atheist can tell that you’re twisting the Bible to fit your worldview, not vice versa.

    2.”With today’s technology, we have so many non-lethal options at our disposal (mace, rubber bullets, etc) that skipping to lethal force is sheer laziness….”

    …If you’re a white, middle to upper class American, perhaps. Most people don’t have that sor of luxury. I sure didn’t, mace and rubber bullets weren’t available to children under the age of ten in remote parts of Ireland. But with Christian militias causing chaos in my home, and adding to the fact that I was ethnically half Roma, I had to be able to defend myself. I took one of the only courses available to me. I learned to throw knives, and ended up being quite good at it. Which yes, can be deadly. But I would dare you to tell me to my face just once that I should have refrained from defending my life against your own brothers and sisters in Christ because of something your god tells you, just so I can see your eyes and try to tell if you’re really serious or if it’s easier to be a pacifist behind a keyboard.

    3. The history of the Christian Church is a study in some of the worst atrocities known to mankind.

    This isn’t something that’s arguable. From the 5th Century decree that all heathens should be put to death, to the ever popular inquisition, to Manifest Destiny and the genocide of the American Indians, your holy book has been the justification for more deaths in history than any other. I merely submit that if it’s as clearly pacifistic as you claim, justification of violence shouldn’t be so easy.

    4. Your personal philosophy seems to be one of personal convenience.

    You served in the military (which I will never speak against and always respect, my own sister is USMC) but you’re a pacifist now that you’ve left.

    You devote yourself to the Bible, but casually dismiss the parts that make you uncomfortable.

    You perform detailed exegesis of words like ‘doulos’ but deliberately paint clear commands of your god as ‘historical narrative’ with no defense whatsoever.

    Something to think about.

    Footnote: I’ve been working on a post concerning violence in the Old Testament for my own blog, but maybe this is an indication that I should move it up a few posts.

  • David

    What a letdown.

    Your first six points were reasonable, supported, thoughtful.

    Your seventh point clearly stated the issue, (“Do we just let our family get raped and slaughtered?”), and then ignored the issue while telling personal stories about your family attempting to slaughter you. Those are not insignificant stories, but they miss the point: When the choice is my daughter or the bad guy – and it isn’t often, but it does happen – how do you choose? How do YOU choose?

    I also found it disappointing and confusing that in points 1 – 6, you were speaking to the issue of violence, and in point 7, you changed to approving certain violence while disapproving of other violence.

    Bottom line, it sounds like an argument in favor of, “I’m not really sure what I believe, but you need to believe like me. Don’t offend my unclear ideologies, now!”

  • gimpi1

    What I find interesting is that your point of view isn’t new. Amish, Anabaptists, and other groups were firmly nonviolent. It’s only recently, and mostly in the states, with the (in my opinion) ill-advised marriage between Christianity and conservative politics, that most Christians found themselves in the war-supporting, aggressive, firearms-advocacy positions that have become the norm.

    Kind of like the (presumably) Christians shouting, “Let him die!” during the Republican debate regarding someone without health-insurance. In the past, that would have been regarded as profoundly unchristian. Now, it’s almost a litmus test for some churches. Has anyone inside the faith noticed this change, or is it just us outsiders?

  • http://www.formerlyfundie.com Benjamin L. Corey

    I do notice it. There is a growing nonviolence movement that is now crossing into the mainstream and catching on. I think we’re going to see more and more people crossing over into the Christian nonviolence movement.

  • gimpi1

    I hope you’re right. Anything that makes people a bit kinder is welcome. Kind and Christian shouldn’t be opposites.

  • James

    Wouldn’t spraying mace in someone’s face or hitting them with painful rubber bullets be considered violent? Violence does have degrees, does it not? Does the doctrine of non-violence only prohibit the sort of violence that kills? Honest question.


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