Pacifism vs. Christology 3 (by T)

This series is by “T”. He’s developing ideas that need to be at work when we think of violent people and how to respond.

We’re continuing our discussion of some of the New Testament’s most central themes, attempting to lay a proper, Christological foundation for discussing issues of how Christ’s followers are to deal with violent people. For now, we’re talking about the typical situations of Christians who are “civilians” as far as human governments go. We will deal with Christians in human militaries and/or police forces later. One of the problems in these discussions, in my opinion, has been that we prematurely spend more time on the (possible) exceptions rather than on the general rule, so to speak, and in so doing we misunderstand both. We’re trying to look deeply at the general rule from several Christological angles.

So far we have discussed this via the lenses of Cross and Resurrection. Today I want to look at Love. Already, and as we continue this series, the interrelationships between these themes (Cross, Resurrection, Love, etc.) are so strong that it will be impossible to look at each in isolation of the others. But that is actually helpful towards our goal of laying a more holistic Christological foundation upon which we can discuss the use of force and related issues.

Given the different kinds of actions and ways that are called “love,” do you see Christ’s own understanding and teachings as especially unique? Look at some of the quotes below—how critical is this enemy-love to Christ’s understanding of God’s kind of love? How critical was that kind of love for Jesus’ mission? How critical is that kind of love to the Church’s mission? Do you see any connection between the call to love like Christ and the call to pick up our cross and follow him? Are these calls different ways of talking about the same thing, namely, the core of following this crucified King, this Good Shepherd that lays down his life for lost sheep? Is enemy-love a rare gift only for martyrs or is it to be the mark of Jesus’ disciples across the board?

Regarding the lens of love, here is a basic thesis of mine:

Love is the central substance of both God’s character and his mission; it is the truest mark of Jesus’ disciples; it is the chief fruit of his Spirit, the most excellent way to follow, the highest goal of Jesus’ disciples, the great command of Christ. It is difficult to overemphasize the importance of love in the New Testament witness.
Further, the kind of love that Christ displayed and commanded is distinct from his contemporary Jewish alternatives precisely in that it is self-sacrificing even for those who are evil and/or hostile to the lover. Indeed, loving those that that are ‘natural’ to love (those that are good to us) is a mere foil to the love God gives and commands through Christ.

Luke 6:27-36 “But I say to you who listen: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. If anyone hits you on the cheek, offer the other also. And if anyone takes away your coat, don’t hold back your shirt either. Give to everyone who asks from you, and from one who takes away your things, don’t ask for them back. Just as you want others to do for you, do the same for them. If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that. And if you lend to those from whom you expect to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners to be repaid in full. But love your enemies, do [what is] good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Then your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High. For He is gracious to the ungrateful and evil. Be merciful, just as your Father also is merciful.”

Romans 5:6-8 “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”

Romans 12:14-21 “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited. Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary: ‘If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

I Cor. 4:9-17 “For it seems to me that God has put us apostles on display at the end of the procession, like those condemned to die in the arena. We have been made a spectacle to the whole universe, to angels as well as to human beings. We are fools for Christ, but you are so wise in Christ! We are weak, but you are strong! You are honored, we are dishonored! To this very hour we go hungry and thirsty, we are in rags, we are brutally treated, we are homeless. We work hard with our own hands. When we are cursed, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure it; when we are slandered, we answer kindly. We have become the scum of the earth, the garbage of the world—right up to this moment. I am writing this not to shame you but to warn you as my dear children. Even if you had ten thousand guardians in Christ, you do not have many fathers, for in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel. Therefore I urge you to imitate me. For this reason I have sent to you Timothy, my son whom I love, who is faithful in the Lord. He will remind you of my way of life in Christ Jesus, which agrees with what I teach everywhere in every church.”

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • Rick

    I realize it is out of your control, but it is interesting to see this post while an ad for “Battlefield 3” is running next to it.

  • Peter

    Thank you very much for the time and effort that you have put into this. It is timely for me and struggles that I am facing. Very well expressed, IMO.

  • JohnM

    I guess I’ll have to wait until we deal with police and military forces, since those are normally what comes to mind first when I consider the question of pacifism. Also I don’t see a complete disconnect between government responsibility and civilian responsibility, especially in a democracy.

  • T

    Peter, thanks.

    JohnM, can you elaborate on what responsibilities you see for the Christian who is a citizen of a democracy, and how a democracy changes what might be appropriate?

  • John W Frye

    T, this is timely because yesterday a group of us were discussing forgiveness, and the evil of the holocaust was mentioned. One older person in the group saw Nazi soldiers go into 4 and 5 story apartment buildings in the Netherlands and throw infants and small children out the windows of the top floors. The Nazi soldiers on the street laughed and enjoyed the brutality as the shattered children writhed in pain and died on the streets. “I can never forgive them,” the person said, “Just as God does not forgive Satan.” For him Nazi evil was satanic evil and thus unforgivable.

    Do you think that we comfortable American Christians mutate the powerful words of, let’s say, Romans 12 (quoted above) so that the words fit our wimpy senses of suffering and injustice? And when we do, we miss the massive power (of God’s love) inherent in Paul’s exhortations?

  • Richard

    I think enemy-love is at the heart of the Gospel, after all weren’t we considered enemies of God when he acted for our salvation?

  • T

    John & Richard,

    Yes and yes. We somehow get too much distance from, or too much romanticizing of the brutality borne by Christ–for all hostile humanity–that is at the heart of our hope, and is the definition of Christian love. God willingly subjecting himself to our brutality, our satanism, for our sakes (!) is our story, our gospel. Whenever we talk about enemy-love, or violence to the wrong-doer and we fail to see that we were that enemy and that wrong doer, I think we’ve forgotten what Christ really did.

  • T

    And John,

    That story is horrible. I think we have grown familiar with the “suffering” passages of the NT, like getting numb to the nightly news.

  • John W Frye

    I’m reminded by my friend (who saw the Nazi evil) that we’re not talking about theoretical issues, but real incarnate evil and brutality and God’s answer to it. We read the shocking acts of God in Christ to deliver us from evil and, as you mentioned, we get so familiar with them, contextualize them to our lives and unwittingly diffuse their transformative impact.

  • T

    And John (again),

    I don’t want to minimize horrible acts, but I don’t think that’s what forgiveness is or does–it’s not condoning the actions. I don’t think Jesus was minimizing evil or violence either; it’s all Satanic.

  • T

    John (last time! :D), Yes.

  • Ted M. Gossard

    It seems that unwittingly the exceptions we make can become the rule. In other words when someone wrongs us, instead of continuing to love them, we withhold love and hold a grudge, wanting justice. The world operates on that, of course. Or else Jesus’ words are mistaken when he says it’s no credit to love only those who love us.

    This is quite challenging. And radical. And Jesus-like. Loving those who hurt us inside and out. I think that takes a commitment grounded in God’s revelation in Jesus. That this is how I’m to live, how we’re to live. And that this is where we’re to continue to grow up in our salvation. In Christ-likeness. Learned in large part I’d think in our relationships with each other, when one considers the letters to the churches in the New Testament. Which is challenging enough by itself.

  • T


    Yes. I think that’s been a trend. The exception of “justice,” or protecting others (or the money God gave me to steward), or democracy or what have you, these combine to make a “Christian” culture that seems to be more like Jesus’ foil of loving those that are good to us rather than like Jesus’ father, who is (thankfully) kind to the wicked.

  • Dana Ames

    A great emphasis in the teaching of St Silouan of Mt Athos (1866-1938) was that “the presence of love for enemies [was] the criterion of true faith, of true communion with God, and a sign of the real action of grace.” (St Silouan the Athonite, p. 114) -keeping in mind the Orthodox definition of grace as the actual acting of the Holy Spirit within people, not something outside of God which God somehow bestows. “He emphatically declared that the man who loves God through the Holy Spirit must of necessity love the whole of God’s creation, too, mankind first and foremost.” (p. 115)

    T, I will never forget a very strong sense I had with reading both “Divine Conspiracy” and “Jesus & the Victory of God”: One of the things Jesus is calling us to do is to literally give up our lives for others in witness of the God whose Son Jesus is. *Martyrdom* is what it means to be a truly human human being. That is what Jesus as the Truly Human One did. And he commanded us to love one another *in the same way* that he loved us. Now, I don’t believe we should necessarily purposely go looking to be put to death because of our witness; and as persecution of Christians waned, some faithful Christians (esp “Celtic”) broadened the definition of what that death-for-witness looks like, including to live martyrically in relationships. But the realization I took away from both books really set me back on my heels and has caused me to think again about the meaning of the sufferings of the early Christian martyrs and the saints the Orthodox church calls “Confessors” – those who did not die for the faith but were persecuted/tortured for some aspect of their witness as Christians.

    And sometimes I think about what it would mean if Christians en masse went to – oh, I don’t know, Iraq or the Palestinian territory or North Korea or the Mexican border towns – and simply stood or laid down in front of the tanks, or the rocket launchers, or the stones and swords, or the drug cartel assault rifles, and were witnesses with our deaths to the faithful love and forgiveness of God toward all humanity the same way Jesus was. I say “our” but at this point I wouldn’t personally do it; let others be the ones to make that sacrifice… (Some others actually have, though.) I’ll just take my Resurrection after having died peacefully in my nice warm bed, thank you very much…

    No, I do not believe that such a mass martyric act would effect exactly the same thing as Jesus’ death. But what *would* it do? What did the deaths of the early martyrs do? What is the meaning of the deaths of persecuted Christians today? No, I don’t believe that Jesus was human *only*. But when considering Jesus’ sacrifice *as a human being* and what it could possibly mean, I come up with thoughts such as these…


  • Nathan C

    T, aren’t the bolded questions really rhetorical? I suspect the things you’re presently saying are a lot less controversial than the conclusions you’ll soon be drawing from them.

  • Adam Ericksen

    T – Thanks for the question. As much as I like it, I can’t help but think there is a problem with it. To ask, “How do we deal with violent people?” might blind us to our own violence. It might set us up to think that “we” are peaceful and innocent, whereas “they” are violent and guilty. Part of the Gospel’s prophetic power is to show us how similar we are to our enemies – that we are caught up in violent systems just like they are, and we justify our violence, just like they do. Another part of the Gospel’s power is what you point to – the revelation that God’s love embraces all, including those we call our enemies.

  • T

    Dana, thanks. I didn’t know about St. Silouan. Very interesting thoughts.

    Nathan C,

    No, the questions aren’t rhetorical. I’ve had too many folks, either implicitly or explicitly, give me very different answers to some of those questions, especially the idea of distinguishing martyrs or Jesus from other disciples when it comes to love for enemies.

    I have found that when the issue of the use of force arises, I may say something that assumes that most Christians agree that (costly) love for wicked people is the heart of (modern) Christian mission, both for Christ and his Church, but then find my assumption was not correct. So, in this series I wanted to talk about our Christological foundations and context more deeply. If we all agree that enemy-love is central to both Christ’s mission and the Church’s mission, that it is the chief thing that distinguishes God’s love from others’ love, that God’s kind of love is the core call for all disciples, then we have at least a context in which we can discuss exceptions, including how far we are willing to let them go and why. I do get the sense that many folks may be sensing a trap: “If we say, ‘It is absolutely central to love one’s enemies’ then he will say, then why do you approve violence to them?'” 😀 But I’m not laying a trap. I’m just trying to talk about the Foundation for all our thinking and acting. I’m talkin’ about the Plumb Line, and seeing if we see him the same way on the big themes, which is not a given.

    In genuine curiosity, using a scale of 1-10, with 10 being absolutely central and 1 being irrelevant, how important would you say enemy-love is to Christ’s mission? to the Church’s continuing mission? Feel free to use another means of communicating the relative level of importance if you prefer.

  • JohnM

    T – #4, You asked a question, sorry to be way late responding, but once again sometimes that’s the way it works for me.

    To elaborate it seems to me any citizen has some responsibility toward their community. That may include some degree of support, even beyond deference, for the necessary and rightful actions of governing authorities. Of course what “necessary and rightful” means or doesn’t mean I would expect to be subject to discussion.

    The more democratic a system of government the more involvement and influence the citizen has, or could have in the actions of government. The more influence the more responsibility for the actions of government. By that I mean responsibiltity for what action government takes, and some degree of responsibility to aid and abet governing authorities in those actions. Perhaps the latter is true regardless of the system of government, but more so in a democracy. Don’t confuse fundamental responsibility with absolute obligation though.

    Those governmental actions will necessarily include the use force, or at least the threat thereof. Force is what government is. If I categorically reject force I’m categorically rejecting government. I suppose that’s a postion one could take, and maybe some Christians have, but we should be clear minded and honest about what we’re rejecting.

  • Nathan C

    That’s fair, T. I *haven’t* heard many people deny those things. And though I (sincerely) hadn’t thought to accuse you of laying a trap, I have seen that trap laid.

    But since you ask – Yes, I completely agree with you that when Jesus said, “Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you” (Mt 5.44), He meant it and desires that we obey. And I genuinely appreciate the way you connect Christ’s love for us concretely to His cross and to His love for His enemies. Truly, Christ died for us while we yet sinners, and that proves God’s love for us.

    (With your indulgence, though, I refrain from a numbering which runs the risk of devaluing some other good thing.)

    If you’ve time, what do you mean by “love?” I often worry that love gets reduced to sentimental benevolence or mere squeamishness. I would propose that love involves seeking the good of another. Would you agree?

    Grace and Peace.

  • T


    I think the definition of love is critical. While yours is helpful, I think Christians need to take the whole of Christ’s life, but especially his cross, and call that “love.” “This is how we know love . . .” Of course, Jesus teaches on it as well, and I wonder if we’re letting his idea of love shape ours so that the world can see the resemblance.

  • Michael Snow

    As in some of the comments, today we see a lot of confusion about love and forgiveness. Jesus never told us to forgive our enemies. He told us to love them. (It might take a book to flesh that out. )

    As to Christian Pacifim, sufering love is the cornerstone.