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