“It’s easy to be pacifist in Indiana. Try Gaza!”

Non-Violence in the Early Church

*The following post is adapted from Preston Sprinkle’s forthcoming book: Fight: A Christian Case for Non-Violence (Colorado Springs: David C. Cook, 2013), 187-207. Preston’s book is due to release on August 1.

If the early church was pacifist, or close to it, would that impact your views for today?

One of the most sobering things about writing a book on violence is where I’m writing from. Here I am, locked up in the confines of a Southern Californian suburb with little real threat of violence, while millions of Christians around the globe suffer from daily perils. I’ve never awoken to a hissing air-raid siren or a crazed militia busting down my door. As one of my friends joked, “It’s easy to be a pacifist in Indiana.”—home of many Mennonite institutions—“Try living like that in Gaza.”

This is why the voice of the early church (pre-Constantine) is so important. The first Christians didn’t resort to violence, and they weren’t living in Indiana. The first three hundred years of the faith were stained with brutal persecution. Rome lacked no creativity when it came to torture: swords, torches, chains, and wild animals were unleashed upon stubborn Christians unwilling to give up their confession of faith. Crucifixion continued to be practiced, though disembowelment and dismemberment were popular too. From the second century onward, Christians were thrown into the ring with ferocious gladiators, who shed blood for an audience thirsty for violence. Such was the fate of many enemy-loving Christians.

These believers weren’t living in some monastery in a desert, nor were they shielded from violence by walls of Indianan cornfields. They were writing about warfare and violence from the terrifying trenches of the Roman world. So what did they say about violence?

While early Christian writers were divided on many issues (e.g. the mode of baptism, the role of women in leadership), when it came to killing, their voices seemed to be unanimous: believers are prohibited from taking human life.

Several writers said this explicitly. Origen, for instance, said that Christ “nowhere teaches that it is right for his own disciples to offer violence to anyone, however wicked. For he did not deem it in keeping with the laws such as His to allow killing of any individual whatever” (Against Celsus 3.7). Tertullian agreed that God prohibits “every sort of man-killing” (Spec. 2). Cyprian argued that persecuted Christians “do not in turn assail their assailants, since it is not lawful for the innocent even to kill the guilty” (Letter 56). Athenagoras went even further by saying that “we cannot endure to see someone be put to death, even justly” (Legatio 35).

All of these statements condemn every sort of killing—even of the guilty—on the principle that killing is always wrong. Or in the words of Lactantius:

When God forbids killing, he doesn’t just ban murder, which is not permitted under the law even; he is also forbidding to us to do certain things which are treated as lawful among men…no exception at all should be made: killing a human being is always wrong because it is God’s will for man to be a sacred creature. (Divine Institutes 6.20.15-17)

Every early Christian writer who discusses killing prohibits it. It’s no wonder that Jesus’s command to “love your enemies” (Matt. 5:44) was quoted by ten different writers in twenty-eight different passages, making it the most cited passage by early Christian writers before Constantine. Loving one’s enemies was the ethical heartbeat of early Christianity. It’s what separated Christians from everyone else, according to Tertullian (Scap. 1.3).

What about Christians serving in Rome’s military? Can they kill?

No. Or at least, not according to the Christian writings we possess. In fact, whenever military service was discussed, believers were never encouraged to join. There was not a single Christian writer in the first three hundred years of Christianity who said that Christians should serve in Rome’s military.

Early-church writers, living in various parts of the empire, all agreed: Christians should not kill. These writers didn’t just condemn immoral killing (abortion, murder, etc.), but all types of killing. Most of these same writers didn’t think Christians should serve in the military. But even those who allowed converted soldiers to remain in the service instructed them not to kill. This is because early Christians believed that enemy-love is the hallmark of Christianity. You can mock us. You can torture us. You can even throw us to wild beasts. But we will still love our enemies and pray for our persecutors. And the church increased. Without the sword, the church spread. With no religious freedom, the church grew—like a mustard seed—shouldered by the stiff, persistent enemy-love of martyred saints.

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.

  • residentoftartarus

    In my opinion, this is a bit of a dodge. Even if the first Christians were (mostly) pacifists, the same cannot be said for their conception of God (see Rev 19:11ff).

  • KentonS

    Excellent point, but I would approach it from the angle that we mimic the God we worship. If we believe in a violent God, we become violent people, and if we believe in a pacifist God (read “Jesus”) we become pacifist people. The fact that these earliest Christians were peaceful tells me that their conception of God was peaceful.

    Did they reject the God of Rev 19? Did they reject the book of Revelation? (This would have been before canonization.) Did they find a non-violent way to read Revelation?

    Interesting to see this book coming from Preston Sprinkle. I know Preston has modified some views since “Erasing Hell.” I wonder how this fits with his new eschatology. (And Preston, I’m sure you’ll find your way back to the comments, so WELCOME BACK!!!)

  • Rick

    Good post.

    “What about Christians serving in Rome’s military…whenever military service was discussed, believers were never encouraged to join. There was not a single Christian writer in the first three hundred years of Christianity who said that Christians should serve in Rome’s military.”

    But are they discouraged from joining? On that point, it sounds like an argument from silence.

  • JoeyS

    What? Revelation 19? You mean the part where the “warrior” has a sword coming out of his mouth? That strikes me as more of a metaphor than an outright endorsement of violence.

    As a pacifist from Indiana I like this post. Of course it isn’t always easy to be a pacifist anywhere in our blood thirsty culture, but it is decidedly easier than living in a place that is wrecked by violence (at US tax payer’s expense).

    For more on the early church and non-violence check out Contra-Celsus, books 7 & 8. You can find them here: http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/origen.html

  • Gary Burnett

    This is well argued as well in God’s Reign and the End of Empires by Antonio Gonzalez. Well worth reading

  • EarBucket

    The Apostolic Constitutions ban soldiers (along with other occupations like gladiators and actors) from baptism. Tertullian definitely doesn’t approve of Christians serving in the military:

    “Do we believe it is lawful for a human oath to be added on top of one that is divine? . . . Shall a Christian apply the chain the prison, the torture and the punishment, when he is not the avenger of his own wrongs? Shall he stand guard for others more than for Christ? Shall he do it on the Lord’s Day, when he does not do it for even Christ Himself? Shall he stand guard before those temples he has renounced? Shall he take a meal where the apostle has forbidden him? . . . You will see by a slight survey how many other offenses there are involved in camp offices. And we must hold them to involve a transgression of God’s Law.”

    And elsewhere: “Of course, if faith comes later and finds someone already occupied with military service, their case is different. For example, there is the instance of those whom John received for baptism and of those most faithful centurions. I mean the centurion whom Christ approved, and the centurion Peter instructed. Yet at the same time, when a man has become sealed, there must be an immediate abandonment of the military office, which has been the course of many–or else all sorts of quibbling will have to be resorted to in order to avoid offending God. And such quibbling is not allowed, even outside of military service.”

  • http://davidbrush.com mrdcbrush

    It was something else too for a soldier to become a follower of Christ during that era. Roman military service was a life-long commitment with only one way out, death.

  • Rick

    Thanks

  • residentoftartarus

    Lol. Yeah, it’s a metaphor, but not for pacifism.

  • Andrew Holt

    “Early Christians believed that enemy-love is the hallmark of Christianity.”

    This is a significant point for me. I’ve never been a pacifist, and am not sure that I am one now, though I am far more open to the idea than I have been in the past. While I would not resort to violence against those who persecute me because of my faith, I do think that taking up arms against an aggressive agitator for the sake of others can be the right thing to do. It may be an extreme example, but as a parent I think about this–if someone tried to take one of my kids away, I would most certainly get violent (though not, I suspect, to the point of killing); and I would get violent in order to spare my child the violence that would be perpetrated against him/her. Perhaps I’m being inconsistent with early Christian thought, here, but I see a difference between using violence to protect others and becoming violence toward those who persecute you because of your faith.

  • attytjj466

    I have not researched the early church views on this but no it does not surprise me if the early church was nonviolent but neither does it change my views because I already see Jesus as nonviolent and the New Testament as nonviolent. Pacifism is a more loaded word. On personal, non-state level, Jesus absolutely taught nonviolence. Beyond that is where it gets less clear and disagreements begin. But when early Christians were disenfranchised and mostly powerless and were either enemies of the state of at best tolerated by the state, state level nonviolence was pretty much a non issue anyway. I also know of no early church movement to resist Rome or fight against state executions etc. though on occasion maybe that did occur, though if it did it was apparently rare. And Christians saw what happened to jerusalem in 70 ad. No doubt a lesson learned, if theological reason was not enough.

  • JoeyS

    I hold to the word pacifism, but admit that often what is meant by pacifism is passive-ism, which is decidedly not Jesus’ approach. Non-violent, non-cooperation, reflects a much more cruciform way to live.

  • Phil Miller

    Greg Boyd does a good job of dealing with the portrayal of Jesus in Revelation 19.

    http://reknew.org/2010/09/revelation-and-the-violent-prize-fighting-jesus/

    For example, as a multitude of scholars have noted, it’s significant that
    the sword Jesus uses isn’t held in his hand, as Driscoll claims. It
    rather comes out of his mouth (Rev. 1.16 [cf. Heb. 4:12]; 2.16;
    19:15, 21), signifying that Jesus defeats enemies simply by speaking
    the truth. The saints also overcome not with physical weapons but by
    “the blood of the lamb and by the word of their testimony” [Rev. 12.11].
    Along the same lines, it’s significant that in the climatic battle
    scene of Revelation 19, the warrior Jesus is clothed with a blood soaked
    robe before the battle even begins (vss 13ff). The blood is
    clearly not that of his enemies, whom he has yet to fight. Rather, the
    symbolism suggests Jesus goes to battle and ultimately reigns victorious
    by shedding his own blood.

    It’s not that Jesus overcomes through violence. He turns the violence that was directed toward Him on its head.

  • http://www.coffeecuptheology.wordpress.com/ Darryl Willis

    True: it is not a metaphor of pacifism–but it does not condone violence for the individual Christian, either. The passage simply does not prove that Christians should ever resort to violence.

    God is God and no one argues that Ultimate Justice has the authority and right to execute judgment upon evil.

    The ultimate judgement of God upon the personification of evil is not an endorsement for Christians to take up the sword. In fact, because God is the ultimate judge, Christians are told not to step into God’s role (Romans 12:19).

    Whatever one’s view is about pacifism or just war, this text should be avoided because of its highly metaphorical nature and it’s focus upon the the armies of heaven led by The Word of God destroying evil. Can we claim any army on earth is part of “God’s armies of heaven” and led directly by “The Word of God”?

    That God executes justice is understood even by the early Christians. Let’s let God decide who wields the sword and who doesn’t (Romans 12:14-21; 1 Peter 3:8ff; ).

  • http://www.coffeecuptheology.wordpress.com/ Darryl Willis

    And that is the challenge, isn’t it? The question for me is Would Jesus have stood by watching a helpless child be physically abused or would he have inserted himself? Or would he allow a young woman be raped in his presence? Perhaps my understanding of Jesus is misguided and maybe someone can change my mind on this one–but I just have a hard time thinking the merciful and just Son of God would stand by when he was on Earth and allow someone to abuse someone else.

    Although it is not Christian thought, the Rabbis taught that taking a human life as the last resort in self-defense was actually a divine mitzvah-with this caveat: When you take a life, you destroy a universe.

    Does turn the other cheek refer to vengeance, protecting of an innocent victim, or personal self-defense, or all three?

  • http://www.coffeecuptheology.wordpress.com/ Darryl Willis

    Note my reply to Andrew Holt on my personal struggle with applying this to protection of the innocent or self-defense.

  • http://following-not-dreaming.blogspot.com/ Blake

    It should be remembered that there’s a reason why Mennonites are in Indiana. It’s easy to say that it’s easy to be Mennonite in Indiana, but it wasn’t easy for those Mennonites’ ancestors to be persecuted and martyred to the point that they had to leave their homelands behind (some as recently as the 1960s) and come to the US. What children of the Anabaptist tradition are in the Americas are not here because they wanted to be or because of some new economic opportunity or “American Dream” sought after, they’re here because they wouldn’t compromise their vision of the Church and what it means to be a follower of Jesus and were left with no choice but to flee.

  • Preston

    Andrew,

    Excellent question! And yes, this is THE question: the toughest question in the debate.

    I have a long section in the book that tackles “attacker at the door” scenario, so I won’t rehearse the argument here. But here’s a few things to think through:

    1. Is the person seeking to harm your family your “enemy?” If so, does the Bible give room for killing, or acting violently toward, your enemy instead of loving him (or her!).

    2. Or, could violence toward your enemy be considered an act of love? Many theologians have said yes.

    3. Is violence the best way to stop someone from harming your family? There are other ways–more effective ways–that our “violence as a first resort” culture doesn’t oftentimes consider.

    4. Would Jesus sit around while innocent people were being harmed? Actually, I think He would–because He did. First century Palestine was no white picket fence suburb. Tons of innocent people were being oppressed, mistreated, etc. Yet Jesus never intervened violently to stop it. Yes, this is an argument from silence, so I wouldn’t build an entire case on it. But we should still acknowledge the point.

  • Preston

    I’ll address this in the next post (and much more thoroughly in the book). But EarBucket is spot on. Yes, for the most part, they were discouraged. In some cases, excommunicated if they join.

  • Preston

    I’ll have two future posts on Revelation. Stay tuned! But Darryl is correct (below). The NT is explicit: we DON’T take vengeance BECAUSE God does. And never are Jesus’s actions in Rev 19 set forth as a model for Christians to follow. But His nonviolent posture is. And often.

  • Preston

    Phil, you stole my thunder! Yes, Boyd is spot on here. I’ll have a couple posts on violence in Revelation. Honestly, the book of Revelation offers the greatest defense of Christian nonviolence…

  • Preston

    Hey Kenton,

    Thanks for the welcome! Glad to be back.

    Ya, I don’t see my view of violence as changing my view of hell. As I said above, we don’t take vengeance because God does.

    So I don’t agree with your logic: “If we believe in a violent God, we become violent people, and if we
    believe in a pacifist God (read “Jesus”) we become pacifist people.”

    That is, I don’t see the Bible agreeing with this logic. (It depends, of course, on how we define “violence.”) For instance, I believe in a God who takes vengeance (Rom 12; 2 Thess 1; Rev 19), but never is this aspect of God set forth as a model for believers to imitate. Jesus will come back as judge, but never does He say “go out and do likewise.”

    However, of all the aspects of Jesus’s life, his nonviolent posture is often viewed as something we should imitate.

  • Preston

    Ya, I’m with you. I don’t like the word pacifism. It’s too misunderstood and it’s not a distinctively Christian term. For me, non-Christian pacifism is like non-alcoholic beer. If Jesus was not crucified and raised from the dead, then I wouldn’t be an advocate for nonviolence. No way. There’s too many people I want to beat up :)

    I do think the Early Church question is important, however. They weren’t nonviolent because they had no other options. Their nonviolence was rooted in their theological view of Jesus. I think that says a lot.

  • Preston

    Good point, Blake! Well stated.

  • attytjj466

    I agree. But the approach and practice of the Church did change later when the Church did become part of the power structures. For the worse for sure.

  • Andrew Holt

    Preston, thanks for responding. Oddly enough, this sort of nightmare scenario just happened in Oklahoma City. Here’s the link:

    http://www.wfsb.com/story/22734816/man-fatally-shot-after-snatching-girl-from-walmart-cart

    A man grabbed a 2-year-old girl and held her hostage with a knife, in the middle of the afternoon, in a crowded Wal-Mart. As he began to countdown from 60, moving the knife toward the girl’s throat, a police officer shot the man dead, from point-blank range. The girl was unharmed.

    What are we to make of this situation?

    Please know that I’m not trying to challenge your position. I am genuinely seeking to understand. Thanks!

  • Rick

    This may fall under the “do unto others”, and “love your neighbor” category. The little girl was the “other”/the “neighbor”.

  • KentonS

    On a related note, lately I’ve been considering Luke 22:36-38 – Jesus is in the upper room, just after the Last Supper, and He says, “You know that one time you fellows went out empty handed and everything was good, but… I’m thinking… right now you should pawn off your cloak and get a sword. Yeah, that’s the ticket!”

    “Oh! Oh! We got swords already! A couple of them as a matter of fact! Let’s see, we can probably scrounge together a few more so we all can have one…”

    “No! No! Wait! Two will be plenty.”

    Was Jesus having second thoughts about the whole “love your enemy thing” this late in the game? Was He hoping to “buy some time” or some “space” while He contemplated things in Gethsemane? (That might explain why He was upset with the inner circle for sleeping on Him.) Was He playing the disciples who were all in on revolution? Ultimately He went to the cross, but was non-violence the game plan all along?

  • llrmiller

    One of the biggest detractors for my becoming a pacifist (besides being subjected to several verbal slices from Christian pacifists upon hearing I am from Texas) Is it really does come off as self righteous. And it really isn’t about living in Gaza vs Indiana, or in my case Australia. If Jesus had acted violently against the Romans he would have incited a riot given what people thought of him. Early Christians could have gone the way of revolt as the Jews did in 70 ad, but you dont have to be a pacifist to think such actions unwise.

    The question for me is, if I were in a situation where my act of violence would shield or advantage the least of these would I engage in it? Honestly, I hope so. I think Jesus’s action in the temple were calculated violence.

    I would have also had a difficult time forgiving our US government for withholding the a-bomb given the intelligence we had about the mindset of Japanese military leadership, actions within the camps, etc, if my son had been in a Japanese POW camp.

  • Travis Greene

    Why are the options “stand by and do nothing” or “take a life”?

  • KentonS

    Romans 12 – Vengeance = Feeding your hungry enemy and giving your thirsty enemy something to drink.

    Rev 19 has already been deconstructed in other comments and it sounds like you will explore in later posts.

    As for 2 Thess 1, I would point to N.T. Wright in his “For Everyone” series. He challenges the translation and understanding of this as “vengeance” as opposed to “justice”. (“Our world has become bad at distinguishing between the two.”)

    It might be middle ground we both could move to.

  • llrmiller

    I don’t think think those were the options Darryl put forward. “Inserted himself” suggests a range of options. Some might escalate to violence.

  • JoeyS

    Origin was also opposed to Christian involvement in war:

    “And to those enemies of our faith who require us to bear arms for the commonwealth, and to slay men, we can reply: “Do not those who are priests at certain shrines, and those who attend on certain gods, as you account them, keep their hands free from blood, that they may with hands unstained and free from human blood offer the appointed sacrifices to your gods; and even when war is upon you, you never enlist the priests in the army. If that, then, is a laudable custom, how much more so, that while others are engaged in battle, these too should engage as the priests and ministers of God, keeping their hands pure, and wrestling in prayers to God on behalf of those who are fighting in a righteous cause, and for the king who reigns righteously, that whatever is opposed to those who act righteously may be destroyed!” And as we by our prayers vanquish all demons who stir up war, and lead to the violation of oaths, and disturb the peace, we in this way are much more helpful to the kings than those who go into the field to fight for them. And we do take our part in public affairs, when along with righteous prayers we join self-denying exercises and meditations, which teach us to despise pleasures, and not to be led away by them. And none fight better for the king than we do. We do not indeed fight under him, although he require it; but we fight on his behalf, forming a special army–an army of piety–by offering our prayers to God.”

    http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/origen168.html

  • Preston

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I really hope I don’t come off as self-righteous, and I too have read some pacifists and talked to others who do come off as such. (Many non-pacifists come off as self-righteous as well, however.) I hope I’m not one of these. I genuinely want to foster discussion and I would be the first to acknowledge that the issue is complicated.

    Few things in response to your post. First, Jesus never discouraged violence (Matt 5; Luke 6, et al.) because it was unwise (e.g. Rome would have won). His (let me say) “seemingly” nonviolent commands are grounded in the character of God and a cruciform theology. The apostles rooted their nonviolent statements in the cruciform behavior of Christ (esp. 1 Pet 2). Faithfulness, not effectiveness, was the issue.

    The temple cleansing wasn’t a violent act. John 2 says that he drove out the sheep and oxen with the whip (in the Greek, but not in some English translations).

    The a-bomb is a very difficult question, of course. But what if your son was one of the (100,000+) citizens fried BY the bombs? My question, however, is always theological. Was the kingdom of God advanced by the bomb? Was the kingdom of Satan beating back by it? As a Christian, I’m never satisfied by looking at these questions through a purely political lens.

  • Preston

    Certainly! Though the shift in thinking was not as uniform as is often thought.

  • Preston

    Haha! It always comes back to 2 Thess 1, doesn’t it? Ya, I would have to look at Wright’s commentary, because I would need a very good argument to show that ekdikesin (“vengeance”) coupled with olethron aionion (“everlasting destruction”) don’t have some sort of “punishment” in mind.

    But perhaps we would need to talk about what we mean by “vengeance.” I guess I’m only thinking of “punishment for sin,” not sadistic torture or something. But, we’re venturing off into another hell discussion…!

  • Preston

    Good question, Kenton! Whatever you do, don’t read Wayne Grudem’s treatment of this passage. It’s bizarre.

    I hate to keep advertising my book; I feel like a used car salesperson. However, I do have a couple pages devoted to Luke 22 in ch. 12 of Fight. The interpretation lies, I think, in the quote from Isaiah. But I won’t spoil it. In any case, Jesus says “it is enough.” What are 2 swords (among 11 people) enough for?

  • Preston

    Oh my word! Wow. That just happened?

    My first response is to pray and mourn over the broken world we live in. A world where 2 year old girls are held at gun point. And, yes, a world where image bearing humans have to be shot and killed (and sent to hell?) for their sin.

    Was violence the only option? Maybe. But logically, we can never say for sure (we’re not God). I could mention tons of other similar stories where it SEEMED like violence was the only way to stop evil, though the victim chose a nonviolent response and both the victim AND the enemy was saved.

    So, I would say that this is a horrifying situation. I mourn it. I pray it would never happen to my child (I have 4). But I would also say that we can’t build an ethic on perceived effectiveness.

    Babies go to heaven when they die.
    Abortion sends them to heaven.
    Abortion is the best evangelistic tool we have–100% effective.

    We could come up with all sorts of strange or inconsistent ethical strategies by simply analyzing situations as we perceive them as humans. We need a moral code. So we would need to develop a Scriptural argument for why the guy should have been shot and killed.

    Please don’t hear me saying that “we should have let him slit her throat.” I honestly believe that this is a VERY tough situation. Do we love our neighbor (the girl) or love our enemy (the attacker)?

  • Preston

    Perhaps your right, Rick. But does the NT say that “neighbor-love” trumps “enemy-love?” I used to say this. In fact, in previous drafts of my book I tried to argue this, because every fabric of my body wants to blow the heads off of guys who hold little girls at gunpoint. Blow their heads off and reload for more.

    But I am shocked, genuinely astounded and somewhat offended, at how high of a value the NT places on loving our enemies.

  • KentonS

    I’ll check it out. Fight, that is, not Wayne Grudem. I wouldn’t be inclined to read WG, but now you’ve forbidden the fruit so of course it looks absolutely delicious! :)

  • Andrew Holt

    I, too, was shocked to see this, and am heartbroken and angry that someone would dare to do this. I don’t envy the police officer who made the decision to pull the trigger and save the girl. I also have 4 kids, and though I would want the officer to act to save my child, I would not rejoice or desire that the criminal be killed. The thought that comes back to me is this: When forced to choose, I must choose the one that is innocent, helpless, or victimized.

  • KentonS

    “Never trust a man who doesn’t walk with a limp.” That was pithy advice I once heard. It sounds like you’ve been doing some wrestling, Preston. Props.

  • Phil Miller

    I don’t know what Preston’s take on that passage in Luke 22 is, but it seems like Jesus isn’t really telling the disciples to buy swords for the purpose of defending themselves. It seems like he wanting them to have them on their person as evidence that will lead toward his eventually arrest and execution. Two swords certainly wouldn’t be enough for the disciples to put up a serious fight against many people.

    Also, I believe the Greek word that is translated to sword here is referring to a short sword or dagger – not the type of sword one would use in warfare. It was more the type of dagger the Jewish revolutionaries, the sicaari, were known to carry out assassinations with. So it seems Jesus is making sure He will be ‘numbered with the transgressors’.

  • Samuel Burr

    I have been studying this for some time now and had several good conversations with friends about Christian resistance to evil. One thing I have found is some questions like can I protect my family or kill someone in defense of another’s life, an innocent of some kind. These are not my questions. These types of questions seem often to end the conversation instead of deepen it. The question I am working with is far simpler. I believe there is very strong evidence to conclude that early Christians until around 170 A.D. were pacifists. And for the next one hundred or so years wrote warnings to Christians who were beginning to serve in the military. It wasn’t until Christianity achieved status in the Roman government that Christian father’s began to accommodate the Greek and Roman ideas about just war into their development of a Christianize just war theory. I jump ahead to 2013 and make this observation: in my lifetime the Christians I have worshiped with in the evangelical church have supported every covert and overt war or similar policy of my country. There has been nothing like Bonhoeffer’s agonizing over whether he should participate in the plot to kill Hitler. No concern in the pews about Jesus and Paul’s teaching about enemy love and resisting evil with love. It seems to me that instead we have glorified war. I think this indicates something has gone badly wrong with western Christianity. This is the question and concern I have been looking for help with. The first book I would recommend is Roland Bainton’s book Christian Attitudes Toward War and Peace. Its subtitle is A Historical Survey and Critical Re-evaluation.

  • KentonS

    OK, just when I thought I was following you, you lost me. How do you reconcile these two comments?

    “[Jesus'] nonviolent commands are grounded in the character of God and a cruciform theology.”

    “I believe in a God who takes vengeance… but never is this aspect of God set forth as a model for believers to imitate”

    The first one seems to read “imitate God – He’s non-violent.” The second one reads “don’t imitate God – He’s supposed to be violent, but you’re not.”

    (I just finished James Warren’s “Compassion or Apocalypse?”. It begins with the words “Is God violent?” So it’s a question that’s prompted some thought from me lately.)

    And again, thanks for engaging the discussion.

  • llrmiller

    Sorry, I really was speaking only for myself in my statement about self righteousness. I did not mean to make a blanket statement and I can see why it comes across as unclear. I’m a mom. I live in a very safe community. To tout myself in these circumstances as a pacifist to someone who (such as a police officer) is going to be regularly tested in this area, seems, at best, silly. And at worst deeply ungrateful.

    I have the utmost respect for Christian communities in war torn areas who take a pacifist stances. I also believe it is usually wise to do so. Faithfulness and effectiveness are not necessarily mutually exclusive. And, I do believe we need to be able to learn from communities that have practiced non violence, but I can’t call myself a pacifist because it seems a fundamentalist position that Jesus did not have and practically plays out in the exclusion of soldiers from the Body of Christ if you believe that pacifism should be the stance of all Christians.

    I’ve spent time herding sheep and cattle, if you do it in an enclosed setting with loads of people around while wielding a whip everyone in the room will think it a violent act.

    There is no such thing as a purely political lense, and all of our questions here have been theological.

    Dallas Willard remarked once that there are extreme circumstances when the taking of another life is the most loving thing to do. I can’t imagine ever being in such circumstances. I would not hold it against Truman if he saw himself in that circumstance, if on the other side, reconciliation and forgiveness might involve such thoughts.

    Saying that I would be angry if Truman had the necessary means to end the war and did not use them is simply being honest. Being honest is being theologically correct.

  • llrmiller

    This is a good point

  • http://www.coffeecuptheology.wordpress.com/ Darryl Willis

    Indeed. My point was not necessarily killing but, does Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount demand that in every possible scenario that one must eschew physical confrontation? Which I assume “turn the other cheek” involves avoiding the use of physical violence (“if someone strikes you on the right cheek…”) for the purposes of vengeance.

    If “turn the other cheek” means I cannot protect an innocent with physical force (which may or may not include the taking of life) then I need to seriously consider and evaluate my understanding of what it means to follow Jesus and modify my attitude accordingly (i.e., repent).

    As a father of two daughters, this is not merely an intellectual exercise for me. I honestly want to know which is the correct response in light of Jesus’ character. And let’s not fool ourselves, when physical force is used in an encounter there is always the possibility of death. (This is the primary reason why I do not own a gun.)

  • http://www.coffeecuptheology.wordpress.com/ Darryl Willis

    When you use John 2 aren’t you picking and choosing your temple cleansing accounts? I don’t have the Greek in front of me but my English Bible says in Mark 11 that he began driving out those (people) who were buying and selling and he overturned the tables of the money changers. While Matthew and Luke are more sparse on the details, they too follow Mark’s lead in saying that Jesus began to “drive out” those who were buying and selling.

    I’m not certain how one could accomplish these actions without some form of physical confrontation and by definition a form of violence. Granted he was acting as Messiah, and I do not use his action here as a justification for our violence per se–but I find the argument that Jesus did not resort to any form of physical confrontation to be unconvincing in light of Mark 11, Luke 19, and Matthew 21.

  • http://www.coffeecuptheology.wordpress.com/ Darryl Willis

    I appreciate the point you are making. These are indeed might be two different issues–but they are related and both issues are important.

    However, I agree the one should not be used to silence the exploration of the other. I do think there is a need for much discussion regarding warfare, the so-called “just war”, and followers of Christ who seem to (dare I say?) proudly advocate war.

    Perhaps both discussions need to run on separate but parallel tracks.

  • http://www.coffeecuptheology.wordpress.com/ Darryl Willis

    And by the by, Preston, I don’t think you come off as self-righteous! 8^)

  • http://www.coffeecuptheology.wordpress.com/ Darryl Willis

    I hope I’m not looking like a troll! Last comment tonight! These are tough calls and what I was talking about in my comments–which is more down to earth and applicable for me than the war question (I have served as a volunteer police chaplain and a facilitator for Critical Incident Debriefings). Again, not to dismiss the original issue about war! That is still an important issue. But on a personal level, I will not likely fight in a war–and I have never served in the military.

    The taking of human life is traumatic–even for the person who does it. According to Lt. Colonel David Grossman (On Killing), the psychologically healthy human being has an overwhelming, subconscious aversion to the taking of human life in any circumstance, including self defense.

    The officer in question may have felt completely justified (and I think he was–these are hard decisions), but even so I can guarantee that he was traumatized by the event and probably felt remorse and a personal level of guilt.

  • http://www.coffeecuptheology.wordpress.com/ Darryl Willis

    Another question to consider on the A-bomb is this: is the active taking of innocent life ever justifiable even to save a large number of lives? And if so, where does one draw the line?

    Personally, in my view the active taking of innocent human life is wrong. If we say it is OK to bomb a city in order to stop a war and thus save hundreds and thousands of other lives, do we say it’s ok to murder a child in front of his terrorist father in order to get him to tell us where he planted the dirty bomb in a large metropolitan area? (Please forgive the horrible example).

    I would think it difficult to argue the latter is offensive if I believe the former is legitimate. The only difference I see (other than sheer numbers) is that one is very personal–you see your victim, the other is impersonal.

  • llrmiller

    And, no, you don’t come off as self righteous.

  • Klasie Kraalogies

    But doesn’t this imply that one can be a pacifist only if others are not pacifists?

  • Richard

    I just returned from time in Palestine/the occupied territories. I wasn’t in Gaza but every Christian I met was active in practicing non-violence, loving enemies and forgiving their Jewish oppressors. Signs like, “We refuse to be enemies.” To suggest violence is not only warranted but effective in places like Gaza is not only to ignore historical realities but to embrace Hamas and other terrorist actors as being wholly justified and in alignment with God’s values. It works for Allah, but not for followers of the incarnate Allah, Jesus-the crucified God. Every Christian I met, lay or clergy and across denominational/national church lines advocated for loving your enemies and non-violent resistance. I’m sure they’re understanding of the Prince of Peace has been influenced by having always been under power instead of in power: under the Romans, under the Muslims, under the Crusaders, under the French, under the British, and now under the Israelis.


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