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.

"Thank you, Mark. The attitude of some Catholics about the good old days makes me ..."

Rod Bennett on his new book ..."
"The Bible influenced the entire course of Western civ after the Christian era and remains ..."

Some Reflections on the Crucifixion for ..."
"Fine with me, if you add the word "also" to the role of reliability. And ..."

Some Reflections on the Crucifixion for ..."

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!


TRENDING AT PATHEOS Catholic
What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Nick Cotta

    “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”.”

    I don’t think it’s ‘plainly’ parabolic (or firstly parabolic) but I agree that Jesus doesn’t exhort the apostles to violence. It seems to me he is urging them to actually get physical swords so that a prophecy may be fulfilled, namely that “he [Jesus] was reckoned with the transgressors.” This is why there is a literal reply on how many swords there are, and why Peter has one in which to cut off the high priest’s ear.

    • I think that “non-violent Jesus” has its biggest difficulty in Jesus making a whip, driving people out of the temples and flipping tables. Try that in any ME market in any century and you’re going to have a fight on your hands. The idea that the whip or scourge was just a display piece is just not credible.

      • chezami

        This beloved text is constantly appealed to as the excuse for ignoring everything else Jesus says and does when it comes to his very clear teaching and examples about non-violence. But the obvious moral here is that it is notable *because it is exceptional*. Morever, it obviously has nothing to do with Just War doctrine. It is not done in self-defense or in response to an act of aggression. And it occurs *only* on the Temple grounds, but not say, in tax collectors offices all over Judea (which really could be seen as agents of an occupying aggressor. it is a *ritual* act, done once (or perhaps twice–the witness is ambiguous) in the whole ministry of Jesus to make a point about the holiness of the Temple grounds. It is done to fulfill prophecy: ”
        “Behold, I send my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold, he is coming, says the LORD of hosts. ¶ But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?
        “For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, till they present right offerings to the LORD. Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the LORD as in the days of old and as in former years.
        “Then I will draw near to you for judgment; I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hireling in his wages, the widow and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the sojourner, and do not fear me, says the LORD of hosts. (Mal 3:1–5).

        It is as much a ritual act as riding into Jerusalem on a donkey. And it has nothing whatosever to do with him contradicting his own teaching on non-violence, any more tha his riding an ass is him laying down an eternal rule that all Christians must ride asses.

        • Stu

          The discussion here as it has unfolded comes across as presenting a binary choice between non-violence or violence. And while the quoted passage doesn’t carte blanche endorse violence as the ideal path, it certainly does highlight that violence is sometimes acceptable. But I agree that the totality of Scripture should prevail and in that regard there are times when violence is an acceptable choice and even required, though not ideal.

          Pacifism never made sense to me. Still doesn’t at least how I understand it. If a man refuses to raise arms against an aggressor who would do him harm, then I can certainly see that as higher path in some instances. But to refuse to render violence against an attacker on another third party because one claims to be a pacifist is wrong in my opinion. Seems like what is missing in this conversation is the notion of justice.

          Killing should never be celebrated and I would submit that of my fellow men of arms who have been a part of such actions, they don’t celebrate it. The bravado usually comes from those who have never know such an experience.

          • Artevelde

            First of all, let me stress there’s nothing in your post I disagree with. I very much share you feelings about dogmatic pacifism (though I can certainly see the efficiency of non-violent forms of resistance over violent ones under certain conditions).
            But here lies the rub: even though you and I might agree that violence is somehow acceptable, we might not agree on the when and where, and for me that’s always been the main reason to be reluctant about the use of violence. For me, an interesting exercise has always been to ask myself what level of (lethal) violence I would accept directed towards me, my group or my country. Would you allow yourself to let that decision rest in the hands of the other and his or her sense of justice? or is there a justice and a sense of right and wrong we can all agree on?

            • Stu

              We see it all the same and I would suspect our notion of justice is very close given a similar formation in the Faith and shared culture. But that is a case-by-case basis. Civilization seems to take care of that by having some manner of standards in place the defines justice. It’s not perfect and people of authority abuse it, but in general works. Absent that, I would say our laws on the use of force when it comes to indivudals attempt to find the balance between liberty and maintaining safety. That too is imperfect, I will freely admit. As a CCW holder, I have had conversations with other gun holders who do not clearly understand the use of force or more importantly the need to try and deescalate or egress from a dangerous situation before resorting to violence.

              Allow me to go off on a tangent to make a point. One of my priests lamented that our diocese had some many different social projects going that the priests had little time to actually minister to people, whether it be domestic abuse, feeding the hungry, gun violence, etc, All noble causes for sure but at the end of the day, there is only so much time. He thought that it would be better for priests to return the primary focus on administering the Sacraments so that people were in a state of grace which would lessen the need for these other programs. In other words, we concentrate on the symptoms and not the cure.

              Having a correct sense of justice is similar in that regard but perhaps on a higher level. We just aren’t working to convert people to the one, true Faith where they could get the formation they need. It’s not enough to tell people that violence should be avoided, we need to bring them to a life saving encounter with the Christ where such thinking will be second nature.

        • i was not asserting that it had anything to do with Just War doctrine. I was asserting that the idea that Jesus is always non-violent doesn’t really seem to be tenable without a pretty bad case of protestant style proof texting. This, of course, is funny because you seem to be saying that proof texting should be avoided by those arguing against pacifism.

          Ignoring any bit of Jesus’ teaching is not a good idea in my book. Which teaching applies at a particular moment in preference to other candidates is a bit trickier of an issue but none of it should ever be ignored. So can we agree that we both think proof texting is a bad idea to support our private prejudices and then act like it?

          Regarding just war, I think that the threat board that a US president faces is very different than the threat board that most critics of US military usage think he faces, with the critics thinking the President generally says yes to war and violence at a much higher percentage than he actually does. Outsiders, unless they get a bit obsessive about following this stuff (as I tend to do) are mainly guided by the conflicts that the mass media bring to their attention. The mass media currently can’t handle more than perhaps 3 crises at a time and even that’s a stretch.

          The US is in a very unusual position historically where we are 1. a military hegemon, 2. not viewed as so frightening that we create a balancing coalition against us immediately. I we truly were ruled or even had major political factions devoted to finding ways where we get to kill, we would immediately fall off the balance and number 2 would disappear, shortly followed by number 1.

          A good chunk of the military game is dominance displays and chest beating to frighten and deter people from doing stupid and evil acts of violence against us or our allies. Where these dominance displays fall in terms of just war theory, I honestly don’t know but when done right, nobody dies of them and the innocent are protected and that’s very much a win in my book. Occasionally, there is someone who decides the dominance displays are entirely a front and so they test, ramp up the tests when they don’t elicit the expected response, and eventually you have the world burning, something that we’re going through right now (fortunately still in the early stages where we have a prayer of reversing things).

          So I would find it interesting to know your answer to the following question. How do you determine whether you’re encountering a dominance display and when you’re encountering legitimate bloodthirstiness? Bloodthirstiness is very poor christianity but dominance displays are not.

  • Speaking of war, we read this morning that a Russian aircraft has been shot down, either over Turkey or Syria.

    No matter what may happen next, this is a sign that we should all be prepared at all times, to – as they say – meet our Maker.

  • Pete the Greek

    Which meshes pretty well with how CCW is taught in this country. Most classes spend a lion share of time on not just legal issues but of the techniques and duty to deescalate any conflict to the extent we are able.

    Interestingly, when you are legally carrying a firearm, you are required by law to retreat from many types of even NON violent conflict where you otherwise would not have been required to do so.

  • Mike Blackadder

    Jesus is non-violent, but he is the furthest thing from being non-confrontational. Just think of how he walks into the middle of a stoning to defend an adulteress and even beats money changers away from the temple with a lash. He is not interested in the quarrels of the world over mere things like territory or gold, but he consistently chooses to stand in the way of evil. The precise manner in which we do that whether as an unarmed negotiator or a good soldier is determined by circumstances, but what matters is the selfless act of standing in the way and acting to restore peace rather than to deal vengeance.

    • In what world is the Jesus of John 2:15 non-violent?

      • Ronald King

        TM, Are you using that as an example of Jesus being violent? When I read your comments usually they are presented with a lot of evidence to support your position and they are very logical. This one line does not seem to be up to your standards for comments.

        • Most of my dissent of Mark’s writing is on non-theological topics such as economics, ceding the rightness of his assertions on theology but arguing that it’s yielding bad policy prescriptions when applied to a fantasy world that doesn’t actually exist.

          In this case, I’m dissenting more squarely in Mark’s central expertise and outside of mine. There is a lot of room for me to go loopy on this one so instead of jumping to conclusions, I kept it short, sweet, and left it to Mark to fill in the blanks as to what he actually is trying to communicate here. I find that better than guessing and building a straw man Mark and fighting that without giving him a chance to lay out what he means.

          He’s already responded and not in a direction I entirely anticipated. We’ll see where it goes if he wants to respond further. The scope for the righteous use of violence is legitimately narrow in Christianity. I believe that there are people erring in both directions of too violent and not violent enough. Martyrdom and dying well are never per se wrong in christianity but shoving other people unwillingly into the martyr role is not such an admirable thing either.

      • Mike Blackadder

        Yes, quite right Jesus was actually violent in this situation. I think that what I said in the first place is accurate though. You would characterize Jesus as generally non-violent but also highly confrontational, though there are exceptions in both cases.

  • 3vil5triker .

    I’m paraphrasing these comic book quotes from memory, so they may not be completely accurate:

    “The only just purpose of war is to eliminate our enemy’s ability to make war. Do less and you risk falling into his hands. Do more and you risk depravity”.
    -Fables, 1000 Nights of Snowfall

    “War occurs when all other means of resolving a conflict have failed. The job of a soldier is then, to end the war as swiftly as possible, so that the conflict can come to an end without further loss of life.”
    -Jack webcomic

  • Jared B.

    Most succinct theology of gun rights I’ve heard is that it is implied in the Christian beliefs about human nature and human dignity.
    We are responsible adults made
    in the image of God, with the primary right and responsibility of
    caring for ourselves and our dependents. Truly free citizens are people who may arm ourselves to defend ourselves and our loved ones from violence when absolutely necessary. We are not the wards (read: property) of the State, who must look to our protectors in the government for food,
    protection, etc., and therefore it is not our moral duty to surrender passively and just wait to find out if the police / army is willing or able to defend us.

    I think that’s the real reason why so many ‘gun nuts’ get so zealous. I think with most of them, it is their intuition telling them that denial of gun ownership rights, taken to its furthest logical conclusion, entails a denial of their human dignity.

    Can that intuition be taken too far and lead to opposite errors? Sure; that’s what every heresy is. And yeah some people really do just love violence in itself. But the basic intuition is sound.

  • kenofken

    A sidearm? American Jesus would carry an M134 minigun one-handed, with an AR-15 as his sidearm and and a Desert Eagle as his ankle piece. The only reason the Jews lost to the Romans is that private firearm ownership was outlawed.

    Then again, if Jesus had taken on Rome with firearms, he would have ended up as just another dark-skinned guy killed by the cops, and the story would have lasted two weeks in the media cycle, not 2,000 years…

  • Sue Korlan

    The Diocletian persecution started by attacking the Christians in the Roman army and destroying the Church in Nicomedia. See New Eusebius quoting Lactantius, On the Deaths of the Persecutors 11-13 and Eusebius in the year 298. So there were both Christians in the army and Christian Churches well before Constantine.

    The Church has traditionally interpreted the 2 swords as meaning the powers of the Church, one sword, and the power of the state, the other sword. This was certainly the interpretation in the Middle Ages. I don’t know how early it is; I have only read Origen’s commentary on John and not on other Gospels.

  • catholic_citizen

    Fine, brother. If you or your family is threatened, just let me know that you are good with what is going to happen to you all. I will just mosey along.

    Not gonna happen. We live in a flawed and imperfect world, and I have faith the God will not withhold the promise of Heaven to one who is willing to use violence to protect the innocent.

    Or did my skills and talent in shooting and fighting come from some other source than God? Am I damned at birth because I can do these things and am willing to do so?

    Way to simplify an issue to kindergarden logic. If I have the choice between heeding you or following Aquinas, guess what? I am gonna go with the REAL Doctor of the Church here.