Is Christian Non-Violence an Essential Teaching?

Our staff is reading The Secret Message of Jesus by Brian McLaren right now. We’re blowing through it pretty fast, but today we finished with Chapter 17 – The Peaceable Kingdom, a chapter on non-violence. McLaren has a few interesting comments about Christian non-violence.

  • “Those who are committed to non-violence based on the teachings of Jesus – if they are wrong now – will someday be right.” He’s saying that one day violence will be a thing of the past, and this is part of what God is doing in the world. One day those who are committed to non-violence will be viewed not unlike early abolitionists. They are ahead of their time.
  • Every nation who goes to war calls their enemy evil. Jesus commanded us to love our enemy, instead of calling them evil.
  • This is the most interesting point he makes: “we need to realize that both our enemies and we ourselves have a common enemy… lust, greed, anger, and hate [that] thrust us into conflict and war… Every warring nation emphasizes the evil of its enemy; few resist the temptation to minimize their own evil. Fewer still realize that the same evils are at work in both ‘them’ and ‘us,’ and therefore pose a common, universal enemy – and it is this universal enemy that the kingdom of God fights with its weapons ‘not of this world.'”

So here’s my question: Is Jesus’s vision for how the kingdom of God will advance opposed to violence? And if it is, then why is Christian non-violence not an essential teaching in contemporary American Christianity? What did the tradition you grew up around teach about violence?
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  • I've wrestled with this more than anything else in the world, quite literally. What I've come to believe is that Christians must condemn killing of any kind as sinful and wrong. That being said, in the midst of a broken world, there are times when we must choose between any number of bad options. Whether its abortion to save the life of the mother or soldiers on the field of battle most every Christian I know recognizes that killing is, sadly and regrettably, sometimes our best bad option. What is essential to me is our understanding that these scenarios are always regrettable and require repentance.

    I'm reminded of Bonheoffer's lament in his participation in the attempt to assassinate Hitler – even as he was participating he recognized it as a sinful choice, albeit one he felt compelled to make. He wrote of his hope that God could forgive them for what they do. This is the proper attitude towards killing.

    I think it's also important to remember what Hauerwas and others have said – that our participation in such actions are a result of our lack of creativity and imagination. Therefore we must constantly be striving to improve our imagination and find new ways of engaging in the world that reveal good options for response and lessen the need for such regrettable actions.

    I am against killing and violence in all forms. It is a right and proper ideological position. Sadly, it is not always a possible realistic position.

  • Tim, Great question! I great up a Mennonite, in the peace church tradition. There I learned non-participation, but I was never really "trained" in nonviolence. Two very different things. One is old fashioned "purity" without real concern for the other, just for me. The second, engaged, trained, active nonviolence is precisely lived for the other. I now view nonviolence as the church's gift to the world: let's export it to the nations, rather than just keep it to ourselves.

    So, why no teaching indeed! Thanks. Keep up the good work

  • I feel like my particular church was essentially mute about violence and in so affirmed in me what was taught in the surrounding culture. That is: don't hurt people, support our country's decisions for armed conflict (much different than supporting our troops), and be prepared to defend yourself. It wasn't until later on in my life that this view was challenged and I saw it to be in direct conflict with following Jesus.

    A funny thing happens when you assert that you believe following Jesus includes a call to non-violence: people (especially Christians) get very upset and almost violent in reaction. I think such strong reactions that result from simply affirming Non-Violence as part of Christianity somewhat proves how drastically it alters what we believe.

  • Wasn't it Moltmann who said something to the effect that we prepare for the Kingdom by anticipating the justice and the peace of the Kingdom now.

    I can't remember the last time our church had a serious discussion about violence in the world and how it truly touches each and everyone's lives.

  • Funny that you wrote about that today…because I did too on my blog (in a round about way). I think the way(s) we teach, live, practice need to be more irrational:

    The Vitality of Irrational Thought: "grace, reconciliation, death, and resurrection are not rational."


  • We had a really interesting conversation with our church staff today around this issue. The father of one staff member is Mennonite & was a conscientious objector in Vietnam.

    One of the key points surrounding the idea of how you view the whole story.

    One way: the world is evil, it is only getting worse & will continue to do so until Jesus comes back & defeats them w/the sword. Violence is just part of the story until Jesus comes & wins the battle of Armageddon.

    Another way: The battle was already fought & won on the cross, evil has be defeated, God has chosen to carry out his redemption with the hands and feet of his followers; so although the world may still resort to violence, we can be the people who refuse to do so.

    Another Way:

  • Yes, another way. Always another way! A BETTER way!

  • Yes, I believe it's part of living into the Kingdom which is already breaking into this world. I've never been much for the "reality" argument because that relegates Christianity to some other sphere, which is apparently not real. Several years ago I registered within my denomination as a conscientious objector and I did so with the hope and goal that I will never use violence toward another. Also, for me, living a life of non-violence is about living at peace with others and this doesn't negate the possibility of confrontation, argument, disagreement, etc.; rather, living a life on violence means living a certain way in the midst of that conflict. Hopefully that "certain way" resembles the way of Jesus.

  • Gerard, I think my upbringing was exactly like what you describe. My experience in conversation similar as well.

  • Had some really interesting push back from my friend Steve Wiggins @wigbone if you want to follow him. He brought in the idea that he's not positive that God is non-violent. Brought in some specific OT evidence. I like what he is pushing & think it's helping me to think more clearly.

    Is God violent?

    Brent Strawn says that the Holy War theme is constrained to the period of the conquest and settlement. If he is right, there is more violence to be had, though more along the individual lines. Walter Brueggemann says that prophets like Elijah & Elisha win their battles by way of violence. However, prophets like Micah and Amos bear witness to a God comes w/out violence to save God's people. Lots of folks point out that from Amos on the prophets worked along those lines, and never again did one of Israel's prophets talk about violent internal revolution as a solution to Israel's issues and the will and plan of God.

    Nevertheless, can we say God is not a violent God? God seems to be violent at some points to be sure. At other points God seems to be against violence. Brueggemann says that God is "irascible." I tend to fall on the side who say that God's wrath & God's love are the same thing. To those who wish to bend the knee if feels like love. To those who wish to fight against God, it feels like wrath. To one it saves, to the other they are consumed (the love of God is a consuming fire as well). I think we lay the violence at the feet of those whose face is set against YHWH… Maybe you can't go against the love of God because it will consume any anger directed against YHWH. What if those who fight against God are fully consumed by their anger & self-justification Then maybe they will will be consumed by the love of God?

    Nevertheless, even if God is violent (and I think we have to at least listen to that idea if we're going to take the OT seriously), it doesn't necessarily follow that we should be violent, or even that we are permitted to be.

    Jesus did not enter into the violence narratives of Israel. Jesus resisted the readily available option of joining w/the Zealots in his own time & predicted that they would destroy Jerusalem. He seemed to think that violence is not something we know how to handle – that hate cannot consume hate, nor can violence win the peace (Shalom).

    Jesus's teaching in the Sermon on the Mount seems to subvert violence. His teaching overall was that we must take up our cross to follow him – thus bearing violence for the life of the world, not doing violence. We live in the way of the Christ hymns in Phil. 2 and Col 1; we overcome violence with love – self-sacrificial love. Paul said to love our enemies & it will feel to them like their head is on fire. In that way our love becomes like the consuming fire of God's love? Some nice symmetry there.

    Yes? No?