An Evangelical Struggles with the Obvious New Testament Witness to Non-Violence

An Evangelical Struggles with the Obvious New Testament Witness to Non-Violence November 24, 2015

in a piece that ran about a month ago asking whether Jesus would wear a sidearm.

One of the many places that Evangelicalism owes a massive debt to Catholic Tradition is its blithe assumption that Just War Doctrine is easily derivable from the witness of the New Testament. That’s not because Evangelicals have done their homework and studied the NT on this. It’s because they (like many Catholics) have simply absorbed the developed teaching of the Church (as they have absorbed that developed teaching with respect to monogamy, the sanctity of life at conception, the Trinity, and the canon of Scripture) and simply assumed that all these things are, like Just War “obvious” in Scripture.

In fact, none of these things are obvious and it requires a reading of Scripture through the developed Tradition to see them in Scripture. Indeed, in a number of cases, there is no shortage of Scriptural passages that appear to the eye of the Man With One Verse to mitigate strongly *against* the developed teaching of the Church. So Luther could argue that Scripture permitted polygamy. Arius could point to “the Father is greater than I” to argue against the deity of Jesus. The abortion zealot can point to Numbers 5 and the trial by which suspected adulteresses were given “bitter water that brings a curse” and the child of adultery miscarried to “prove” that abortion is fine (one seldom finds similar arguments for stoning homosexuals and mouthy teens in contemporary exegeses of Scripture). This is why some Evangelicals (and Catholics) undergo a crisis of faith when somebody points out a Problem Verse (“Call no man Father”) and then simplistically contrasts it with something in Catholicism to declare the latter sinful. If you don’t know anything about the development of the Tradition, it’s easy peasy to just denounce it all.

Indeed, you can always find some passage in Scripture to arrive at your fore-ordained goal. When Scripture doesn’t actually say what you are pretty sure you read somewhere that it says, you can always take a bicycle pump and balloon some verse into proof for what you want, even if it says nothing of the kind. This is typically the predicament of the Evangelical who knows nothing of the Christian tradition of doctrinal development with respect to Just War and self-defense and who is just “pretty sure” the New Testament says what his American culture of two-fisted Christianity full of the second amendment, High Noon, John Wayne, Tom Hanks storming the beach at Normandy and all the rest of it assure him it must certainly say. Knowing nothing of how the Tradition actually develops, he has to find proof texts, or he has to have a crisis and conclude the development he thought was there isn’t.

This is what is happening with many an advocate of violent self-defense and gun rights. I cannot tell you how many times I have heard–both from Protestants and from Catholics gun enthusiasts who get all their talking points from them–that Luke 22:36-38 is the NT proto-second amendment. The text reads as follows:

And he said to them, “When I sent you out with no purse or bag or sandals, did you lack anything?” They said, “Nothing.” ¶ He said to them, “But now, let him who has a purse take it, and likewise a bag. And let him who has no sword sell his cloak and buy one. ¶ For I tell you that this Scripture must be fulfilled in me, ‘And he was reckoned with transgressors’; for what is written about me has its fulfilment.” And they said, “Look, Lord, here are two swords.” And he said to them, “It is enough.” (Lk 22:35–38).

Here’s the thing:  The attempt to turn this into a New Testament rationale for violent self-defense is just absolutely the crappiest eisegesis ever.  It just doesn’t mean that.  It is not Jesus pronouncing a blessing on swords and Glocks and the goodness of blowing away your enemy.

How do I know?  Because Peter, who seems to have thought exactly this, makes exactly that bone-headed, flat-footed literalist reading and is brought up short by Jesus himself:

While he was still speaking, there came a crowd, and the man called Judas, one of the Twelve, was leading them. He drew near to Jesus to kiss him; but Jesus said to him, “Judas, would you betray the Son of man with a kiss?” ¶ And when those who were about him saw what would follow, they said, “Lord, shall we strike with the sword?” And one of them struck the slave of the high priest and cut off his right ear. But Jesus said, “No more of this!” And he touched his ear and healed him. (Lk 22:47–51).

Indeed, Jesus elsewhere makes crystal clear that he will have no violence used in his defense and that he himself will employ none.

Then Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword. Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? (Mt 26:52–53).

At this point, the custom is to say that, sure, this is true for Jesus, but he still commanded Peter to have a sword, so he is obvious pronouncing a blessing on violent self-defense.

Yeah… no.  The words of Jesus are quite plainly parabolic.  The sword is not the physical sword, which Jesus rebukes and warns will only lead to death by the sword, but the “sword of the Spirit”.  Jesus is preparing his disciples for his Passion, not telling them to get out there and defend themselves with violence.  Indeed, he tells Pilate that because his kingdom is not of this world, his disciples are not out there with swords.

And Peter learns the lesson.  So we very simply do not find the apostles *ever* using violence to defend themselves.  Indeed, Peter, writing to a Church undergoing (literally) fiery persecution under Nero (who lit his gardens with Christians and will kill both Peter and Paul) says not one word about self-defense or defense of loved ones by violence.  Not one word.  Instead he tells Christians to die well.  No.  Really:

Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal which comes upon you to prove you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice in so far as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. ¶ If you are reproached for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the spirit of glory and of God rests upon you. But let none of you suffer as a murderer, or a thief, or a wrongdoer, or a mischief-maker; yet if one suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but under that name let him glorify God. For the time has come for judgment to begin with the household of God; and if it begins with us, what will be the end of those who do not obey the gospel of God? ¶ And
“If the righteous man is scarcely saved,
where will the impious and sinner appear?”
Therefore let those who suffer according to God’s will do right and entrust their souls to a faithful Creator. (1 Pe 4:12–19).

And this, following Jesus’ counsels to turn the other cheek, go the extra mile, and love enemies, continues to be the *normative* approach of Christians to persecution–including violent persecution of friends and family–for the next several centuries.  Pacifism is the norm.  Joining the army is regarded with disdain (why fight for a pagan Caesar who regularly murders you for being a Christian?).  And martyrs who go to their deaths, not merely without a struggle but eagerly.

It’s not until roughly the time of Augustine and the Christianization of the Empire that Christians begin to revisit there tradition and ask if there is wiggle room for the use of violence to defend the innocent and the Church slowly begin to admit that, yes, there is.

But (and mark this) the Church never abandons room in its tradition for non-violence:

2306 Those who renounce violence and bloodshed and, in order to safeguard human rights, make use of those means of defense available to the weakest, bear witness to evangelical charity, provided they do so without harming the rights and obligations of other men and societies. They bear legitimate witness to the gravity of the physical and moral risks of recourse to violence, with all its destruction and death.

More than this, the Church never embraces the concept of violent self-defense as anything other than a tragic concession to human sin and weakness.  It is never an ideal (however much she may hail the martial virtues that attend war), but always as testament to colossal failure  And so Just War theory is always understood to make war as hard as possible.  It is not about creating criteria by which we *get* to kill but criteria by which we might tragically *have* to kill.  The preference of the Tradition is always for life not death.

Browse Our Archives