I didn’t want to be a pacifist. Sometimes I still don’t, but I am thoroughly convinced that not killing is an essential part of faithful Christian discipleship. I was first introduced to the idea of Christian nonviolence in a substantive way during college. I liked the idea for other people, but I did not think it was practical for me. Unfortunately, I eventually came to terms with the fact that following Jesus was not practical for anyone. After all, what sort of lifestyle choice or social strategy involves choosing to carry the instrument of one’s own execution? Yet, this is exactly what the God-man from Nazareth has called us to, and all we can do is follow.
One of the most helpful tools I have picked up during my brief time in a predominantly Wesleyan community is what is commonly referred to as the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. The quadrilateral suggests that Scripture, tradition, reason and experience serve as the particular sources which ought to inform our theological thinking. Wesley, of course, gave the most weight to Scripture. However, I have found that most objections to Christians nonviolence begin either with reason (most often some form of secular reasoning, the very kind that pagans used against the early Christians) or experience and then work their way through tradition and to the actual biblical text. Therefore, I thought it pertinent to frame the conversation here by first examining a few biblical texts, then addressing history, and then, perhaps in a future post to address the questions around reason and experience.
This is a vitally important matter. As Tripp York and I wrote in the introduction to our new book A Faith Not Worth Fighting For: Addressing Commonly Asked Questions About Christian Nonviolence, “We do not think nonviolence is a tangential matter… We believe that how we respond to our enemies reveals the reality of our ultimate commitments. If Jesus really is Lord, then to respond to our enemies with anything less than what he demands makes us liars (1 John 2:4).”
What then does Jesus and his Holy Scripture command? And, how do we see this in the tradition of the church?
The Wesleyan tradition emphasizes holiness and sanctification. I find it interesting that one of the biblical texts (Matt 5:48) that addresses Jesus’ own words about such perfection directly follows what is perhaps the bible’s most provocative discourse on nonviolence, particularly nonviolent enemy-love. If the truest evidence of our perfection in Christ is seen in loving our enemies and praying for those who persecute us, rather than giving into instincts of self-preservation or the seemingly more “responsible” actions of employing violent protection of others, then with sanctification in our sights, nonviolence ought to be part of our vision as well. It would seem that if one believes in entire sanctification, then they have little choice but to embrace nonviolence as well.
Often opponents of nonviolence will point to Romans 13 as a license to employ violence for righteous purposes, after all the government has that sword for some reason, right? However, I would suggest that we take a closer look at the previous chapter before we so quickly dive head on into such justification. It seems that Romans 12 serves as a sort of Pauline manifesto, which greatly mimics the Matthew 5 text above, for Christian living. In this light then, it seems that Romans 13 is Paul’s way of saying that even these rebellious and fallen authorities can be used by God for good purposes, but we who follow Christ must not conform this world’s pattern. Rather, we are transformed into the image of Christ as we love those who hate us, and do good to our enemies. We, unlike the rebellious powers, overcome evil with good, with sacrificial love and service to friend and enemy alike.
Naturally, a lot of folks point to the violent imagery in Revelation, especially the supposed violence of Jesus, as a justification for meting out violent justice for righteous causes. This approach is misguided because it, I believe, misunderstands the imagery presented, and assumes that Christians should, or even can, imitate every action of the Triune God. For all of the violent imagery presented in Revelation, it is almost surprising that the image of Jesus as a lamb, even a slaughtered lamb, is so prevalent. It occurs in over half the chapters in John’s apocalypse. Jesus, no doubt, destroys evil, but “amidst the chaos and war and destruction of our world, God has chosen to intervene in the form of a vulnerable Lamb”
Furthermore, it seems that Revelation continues a theme found throughout the New Testament (eg. Eph. 6:12), in which Jesus and his followers battle not against human enemies, but against the powers and principalities. It follows then, that this war, which John Howard Yoder calls “the war of the Lamb,” is won by Jesus’ death on the cross (eg. Col. 2:15), and therefore does not involve violence, but rather sacrificial love. Richard Hays writes in The Moral Vision of the New Testament, “[Revelation] seeks to inculcate in its readers precisely the same character qualities that we have seen extolled through the rest of the New Testament canon: faithful endurance in suffering, trust in God’s eschatological vindication of his people, and a response to adversity modeled on the paradigm of ‘the lamb who was slaughtered.’ The saints conquer the power of evil through ‘the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony’ (Rev. 12:11), not through recourse to violence.”
Of course, the New Testament isn’t the only place where we find evidence that followers of Christ ought to be nonviolent. Isaiah 11 is one of the many texts that offers a beautiful picture of the reality that Israel’s Messiah would establish with his reign. This Messiah would even cause the wolf to live peacefully with the lamb, mortal enemies would become friends. We bear witness to this reality by the way we conduct our lives here and now; we declare the truth of God’s basilea (reign) when we beat our tanks into tractors and we will know war no more (Micah 4:3).
Recently, I did some research for a new book on the wisdom of the early church, and I rediscovered that nonviolence was the overwhelming position of the first few centuries of Christians. Due to the truncated nature of blog posts, I can only supply a few representative quotes without much explanation, but let it suffice to say that for whatever their reasons (and there were many, from a short-sighted eschatology to a skeptical view of the Roman empire to serious engagement with the ethics of Jesus) early church writers waxed in near univocal eloquence on the faithfulness of nonviolence.
Irenaeus, approx. 180 A.D.
“Christians have changed their swords and their lances into instruments of peace, and they know not now how to fight.”
Tertullian, 155-230 A.D.
“But how will a Christian engage in war—indeed, how will a Christian even engage in military service during peacetime—without the sword, which the Lord has taken away? For although soldiers had approached John to receive instructions and a centurion believed, this does not change the fact that afterward, the Lord, by disarming Peter, disarmed every soldier.”
“Under no circumstances should a true Christian draw the sword.”
St. Martin of Tours 316-397 A.D.
“I am a soldier of Christ, I cannot fight.”
Of course, it wasn’t just the earliest Christians who understood the importance of rejecting violence. Advocates for the nonviolent way of Jesus can be found throughout church history. Below you will find words from just a few of these voices.
The Lollards Late 1300s
“Manslaughter in battle or by pretended law of justice for a temporal cause, without spiritual revelation, is expressly contrary to the New Testament, which is a law of grace and full of mercy. This conclusion is openly proved by the examples of Christ’s preaching here on earth, for he specially taught man to love and have mercy on his enemies and not to slay them… The law of mercy that is the New Testament forbids all manslaughter; in the Gospel, ‘it was said to them, thou shalt not kill.’ … For by meekness and patience was our faith multiplied, and Jesus Christ hates and threatens fighters and manslayers [when he says]: ‘He who lives by the sword, shall perish by the sword.’”
Desiderius Erasmus 1469-1536
“He should consider how desirable, how honorable, how wholesome a thing is peace; on the other hand, how calamitous as well as wicked a thing is war, and how even the most just of wars brings with it a train of evils – if indeed any war can really be called just.”
George Fox 1624-1691
“Therefore fighters are not of Christ’s kingdom, and are without Christ’s kingdom, for his kingdom stands for peace and righteousness.”
Shane Claiborne reminds us of the words of this cloud of witnesses in his afterword to A Faith Not Worth Fighting For—“‘For Christ we can die but we cannot kill.’ That is a truth at the heart of the Gospel: there is something worth dying for, but nothing in the world worth killing for. Jesus, give us the courage to follow you.”
[I] See Shane Claiborne and Chris Haw, Jesus for President: Politics for Ordinary Radicals (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008) for some more introductory quotes regarding Christian nonviolence. For a more comprehensive study, I encourage you to see Michael G. Long, Christian Peace and Nonviolence: A Documentary History (Maryknoll: Orbis, 2011). Read more quotes from church history at my blog here.