A Case for Christian Nonviolence

A few years ago I preached a sermon entitled “Jesus as Law” where my intention was to draw out some implications for how exactly Jesus “fulfills the law” as he stated he came to do in Matthew 5:17. From there I pointed to the subsequent teaching in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) to show exactly how Jesus intends to fulfill the law.

To make my case I considered Matthew 5:43-48,

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

Matthew 5:43-48

Even the most casual reader of this text will acknowledge that Jesus is requiring a unique and unprecedented ethic when it comes to how we respond to our enemies. As Craig Blomberg states,

“The true test of genuine Christianity is how believers treat those whom they are naturally inclined to hate or who mistreat or persecute them.”[1]

Craig Blomberg

Immediately after my sermon I was approached by many who were challenged with Jesus’ suggestion that we not retaliate with hatred toward those whom we would consider our enemies. I was also approached by a few who thoroughly disagreed with my assessment of the text.

Their disagreement was with my suggestion that in order to effectively love all our enemies (since Jesus gives no qualification of who our enemies may or may not be) we actively pursue an ethic of radical nonviolence against all enemies. Of course the first scenario that those who disagreed with me wanted to know was how we, as American Christians, should respond to North Korea or ISIS should they ever attack American soil? One person boldly declared, “I will pick up a gun and kill them without question. God has called me to defend my family from anything which desires to cause them harm.” While I understood exactly where this person was coming from, what was most troubling to me was the ethical framework by which this person was operating.

As Americans, we have been programmed to think nationalistically, meaning, we believe that the United States of America is the greatest and most powerful country in the world and that its ideals are worth protecting and defending at all costs. Whether this ideology is true or not, this is not what Jesus seems to be concerned about in the biblical text. Nowhere in the New Testament could one make the case that Christians are bound to defend anything at any cost, even if that means committing acts of violence. Often what American Christians have done is find creative ways to blend the spirituality involved with being a Christian with a strong sense of national pride.

Please don’t misunderstand what I am saying. I do love being an American citizen and the freedoms I have been afforded. It truly is a blessing and I do not take that for granted. Yet being grateful for something like American freedom does not necessitate unwavering support for everything that America (its citizens and government) are involved in, specifically acts of killing in any form.

Let me clarify why this is so important.

One of the titles that Jesus is referred as in the New Testament is “Lord” (e.g., Matt. 17:4; Luke. 6:46; Acts 4:33; Rom. 5:1). Yet in the ancient world, particularly under Roman rule, the term translated as “lord” is the Greek word kyrios, which was a title typically reserved for the emperor. For example, in the 60’s AD the ruthless Emperor Nero was known as Nero kyrios. In fact, Mark, writing his gospel account during the time of Nero’s reign never employed the title of kyrios to Jesus one time, probably as a way to avoid unwanted attention since persecution was heavy under Nero.[2]

But this same threat to Mark did not seem to discourage other biblical writers to attach the title kyrios to Jesus. The point is really quite simple: Jesus, not Caesar, is the true kyrios! The church was walking on some dangerous ground by applying the title kyrios to Jesus and not reserving it for Caesar. The subversive nature of this is of critical importance for those who follow Jesus. Consider Luke’s narration of Jesus and Pilate’s dialogue in Luke 23:1-3:

“Then the whole assembly rose and led him off to Pilate. And they began to accuse him, saying, ‘We have found this man subverting our nation. He opposes payment of taxes to Caesar and claims to be Messiah, a king.’ So Pilate asked Jesus, ‘Are you the king of the Jews?’ ‘You have said so,’ Jesus replied.”

Luke 23:1-3

Jesus, in an ironic fashion, affirms their words about him being king even though they really have no idea that he truly is the King of Kings. Yet, it was Jesus’ positive attestation to his coming monarchy that ultimately led to the verdict of treason resulting in his death sentence.

If we call Jesus things like “lord,” “king,” “savior,” and “messiah” we are positioning ourselves alongside a Jesus who declared that those who follow him are representatives of a Jesus’ kingdom which entails obedience to a counter-cultural way of life. Our way of life is counter-cultural because Jesus’ entire ministry and plan of redemption defied anything anyone in the ancient world would have expected from a king who desired to rescue his people: Jesus died! Therefore, since we are followers of a crucified King, one who rejected violence in his life and during his execution, we too should reject violence in all areas of life, especially as it pertains to international conflict. The citizens of Jesus’ kingdom are never called in the Bible to pick up arms in defense of opposing kingdoms. Never!

I realize that the issue of Christian participation in political affairs, especially where war and violent conflict is inevitable, is a delicate and controversial subject. I in no way shape or form have all the answers to solve global conflicts. However, my aim is to pose an important question to those who call themselves followers of Jesus yet challenge an ethic of nonviolence:

Are we called to effectiveness or faithfulness in our loyalty to Jesus as our Lord and King?

In other words, most of the resistance to nonviolence comes from a position of supposed effectiveness. People think nonviolence “doesn’t work” so violence in certain situations must be the answer. First, this is ideologically flawed (and historically untrue), but even if it were true do we only follow Jesus because “it works?” Americans are pragmatists, I get it, but Paul calls the cross “foolishness” (1 Cor. 1:18) because it does not make sense to man, in other words it doesn’t “work.” Lord-willing our faithfulness will lead to conflict resolution. But this does not mean we are not faithful in following Jesus in this broken world. As kingdom citizens, it is my view that those who follow Jesus long to see an answer to the prayer “your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6:10).

So if violence is not the posture of kingdom people, how should kingdom impact occur in a world that is saturated with violence?

The answer is nonviolence resistance, specifically Jesus-centered nonviolent resistance. While I do not have a personal issue with the title “pacifist” for those who reject all forms of violence, I find that it can be inadequate in explaining the intentions of using nonviolent means of resistance for kingdom people. Furthermore, pacifism is commonly confused with “passive-ism,” assuming that pacifists are to merely sit back and watch as evil finds its place in the world.

While I believe it is true that there is nowhere in the New Testament that one can make a compelling claim for the use of violence in any situation, it is equally true that there is nowhere in the Bible where Jesus’ followers are commissioned to ignore injustice in the world. In fact this is a prevalent theme in the Old Testament in particular (e.g., Isa. 58:6; Amos 2:6-8). Jesus himself declares that his messianic-mission was to bring good news to the poor and the oppressed (Luke 4:18-19) and invites his disciples to continue the same proclamation of hope in Jesus by the power of his Spirit (Acts 1:8).

So what does nonviolent resistance actually look like?

Time and space won’t allow us to capture the countless examples of faithful followers of Jesus (and non-Christians as well) who have used nonviolent means of resistance in seeing systemic change across the world. But one key and important example in American history was the Civil Rights movement under the leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during the 1950’s and 1960’s.

Nonviolent Resistance of Martin Luther King Jr.

In November of 1955, Dr. King led a boycott against the city buses of Montgomery, Alabama in response to the injustice against Rosa Parks; a black woman who refused to give up her seat to a white man under the South’s Jim Crow era. Dr. King’s boycott was met with massive violent resistance from the white population of the community. There were death threats, harassments and arrests against those who participated in the boycott. Soon Dr. King began feeling distressed and prayed that he needed help from the Lord because on his own he was growing weary and scared. Three nights after this prayer a bomb exploded in his house while his family was asleep.

The black community responded with anger and was ready to meet violence with more violence but Dr. King relented: “King pleaded for nonviolence: ‘Don’t get your weapons…. We are not advocating violence. We want to love our enemies…. We must meet hate with love.”[3]

The boycott was successful and on June 4, 1956 a federal court ruled that the segregation of buses was unconstitutional.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. maintained his nonviolent resistance until his untimely assassination in 1968. Though the Civil Rights movement had different factions that advocated for violence, and though after Dr. King’s death much of the resistance took on various changes, the accomplishment of Dr. King and those who followed him in this type of approach can never be denied as being faithful to the words of Jesus while equally being effective in seeing the Jim Crow era come to an end.

Much more could and should be said about why one should pursue a nonviolent ethic. There are many more biblical passages that need to be discussed and clarified, as well as discussions concerning Christian ethicists and philosophies that still advocate for “just war” and other theories which defend Christian violence. Wherever you land on this issue I implore you not to make it a secondary issue. If we are not compelled by anything else, let us be compelled by the response of Jesus himself against those who falsely accused him of treason and handed over to be brutally tortured and killed. For as Richard Hays adequately concludes,

“Jesus’ death is fully consistent with his teaching [non-violence]: he refuses to lift a finger in his own defense, scolds those who do try to defend him with the sword, and rejects calling down “legions of angels” to fight a holy war against his enemies (Matt. 26:53).”[4]

Richard Hays

For Further Reading

An outstanding book that narrates examples of nonviolent resistance which created or aided in systemic change.

[1] Craig L. Blomberg, Matthew, NAC vol. 22 (Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 1992), 114-15.

[2] See Judith A. Diehl, “Anti-Imperial Rhetoric in the New Testament,” in Jesus is Lord, Caesar is Not, ed. Scot McKnight and Joseph B. Modica (Downers Grove: IVP, 2013), 41.

[3] See quote citation in Ronald J. Sider, Nonviolent Action (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2015), 29.

[4] Richard B. Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament (New York: HarperOne, 1996), 330.

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