Was Jesus a pacifist? Does he expect his followers to be pacifists? Is it right to defend ourselves, or our loved ones, from violent attack? Is non-violent protest the only way to change the world? Should we use military means to prevent the excesses of violent dictators in the world. These are difficult questions, but if we want to follow Jesus we must take his teaching seriously.
As I look at this world, I am convinced that the only way evil will ever be overcome is by love and forgiveness. Non-violence is proactive and not cowardice. Turning the other cheek, going the extra mile, involves bravery and being convinced that in the end, love wins.
Jesus very plainly said that we were not to resist an evil person using force. There are no qualifiers to his statement, no get-out clauses and no exceptions.
So am I a pacifist? Pacifism suggests passiveness and in-action. I prefer the concept of non-violence which does involve action and is proactive. Martin Luther King achieved so much by meeting his opponents violence with love and forgiveness, but with a programme of non-violent protest. Other people tried a more violent approach but achieved very little.
Being a peacemaker does not mean sitting back peacefully! Making peace means actively seeking out a better way and is the alternative to making war.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. (Matthew 5:9)
We only have to look at history to see that war and military action never solve anything. You only have to look at the mess in Iraq to see that the people of that country are paying a terrible price for the invasion of that country by western countries. Yes, Saddam was an evil man but he did less harm to the people than has been done since.
Being a peacemaker means saying, “there must be a better way” and searching for solutions which do not involve meeting violence with violence.
Turn the other cheek
The Old Testament law was based on proportionality. If someone knocks your tooth out, do not do worse in return. When it was written it was quite radical. A human response would be to meet violence by even more severe violence. But Jesus showed us a better way.
Jesus said that if someone slaps you on the cheek, you are not to run away, and not to meet their physical action by a stream of abuse. It takes strength of character to turn the other cheek. This is a challenge to those who claim to follow Jesus. We cannot see Jesus doing anything else. If we want to be like him then we should act in the same way.
You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. (Matthew 5:38-41)
Love for Enemies
One of Jesus’ most revolutionary statements was that we should love our enemies. He took the well-known exhortation to love our neighbour one stage further. In the parable of the good Samaritan, Jesus pointed out that loving our neighbour includes strangers, people generally despised, and people of other races. Now, he extends that command to love our neighbour, to even loving our enemies,
Indeed the exhortation to turn the other cheek only makes sense if we love an evil person who is violent towards us. Without love, trying to follow Jesus’ commandments is just law, and if it is just law we are bound to fail.
Jesus links love with praying. I remember once, knowing a person who, though not an enemy, was certainly a competitor. The key was that I felt I should pray for that person. Having prayed for him, I had a vested interest in his success and I could no longer regard him as a competitor. He is now a great friend and we have a true love and respect for each other.
How can we kill a person that we love? How can we pray for them and then do them harm?
You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbour 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)
Live by the sword: die by the sword
When Jesus was arrested, before his crucifixion, Peter drew a sword to protect Jesus and violently lashed out at one of the arrest party. Jesus not only told Peter to put away his sword, but graciously healed the wound caused by Peter’s action. He then made this statement.
‘Put your sword back in its place,’ Jesus said to him, ‘for all who draw the sword will die by the sword. (Matthew 26:52)
Jesus plainly said that violence produces more violence and that if we depend upon violence for our security, then violence will produce our ultimate downfall. This has great ramifications for us personally but in particular for our governments and foreign policy.
Jesus said,My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.’
Jesus did not just talk about these things. His whole life was lived out by these principles. He was confronted by violence such as you and I will probably never face. He was mocked, slapped, whipped and suffered an awful death. He did not retaliate but courageously turned the other cheek. This was not a cowards way out, because he could have resisted and have brought awful judgement on his violators. After all, he was God!
But Jesus’ actions brought about a new kind of Kingdom. A Kingdom that will eventually hold sway over the whole earth. But this new kingdom was not founded on violence, or resisting violence but on love. The good news is that in the end, love wins!
Violence in War
There is no nation on earth where the majority of people follow Jesus Christ. Therefore we cannot expect our governments to always follow the path of peace in their relations with other countries. If we live in a democracy, then our politicians have to take notice of public opinion. If we live in a country which allows anyone to carry a gun around with them, it is hardly surprising that the government look for military solutions to world problems. But, as citizens, we should not sit back and allow our government’s actions to go unchallenged. Non-violent protest may be in order.
I am convinced that violence never solves anything – it always produces more violence. This is as true at the international level as it is in the personal level. But I have to admit that sometimes the alternatives are not clear, and are difficult.
Take for instance the second world war. Surely, people say, we had to defeat Hitler at any cost. So we went to war against the people of Germany. Right or wrong, the end result was the domination of Eastern Europe by communism for decades! It is impossible to know what would have happened if Britain and other countries had not fought a war over what we perceived as a terrible evil. But we didn’t give good forces in Germany a chance to overthrow him because we united the German people by warring against them.
History shows that evil men come, and evil men go.
- Pol Pot murdered millions of his own Cambodians, but in the end his regime fell without the help of anti-communist nations.
- Idi Amin of Uganda ruled that country with a rod of Iron, but now Uganda is free of him.
- The apartheid regime in South Africa eventually gave way to democratic rule by the majority, not by invasion or terrorism, but by non-violent international and domestic pressure.
The just war theory
An article in Wikipedia says
Just war theory is a doctrine, also referred to as a tradition, of military ethics studied by theologians, ethicists, policy makers and military leaders. The purpose of the doctrine is to ensure war is morally justifiable through a series of criteria, all of which must be met for a war to be considered just. The criteria are split into two groups: “the right to go to war’’ and‘’ right conduct in war’’. The first concerns the morality of going to war and the second with moral conduct within war. Recently there have been calls for the inclusion of a third category of just war theory dealing with the morality of post-war settlement and reconstruction.
Just War theory postulates that war, while very terrible, is not always the worst option. There may be responsibilities so important, atrocities which can be prevented or outcomes so undesirable they justify war.
Whenever I have talked or written about war and violence I have been confronted with the just war theory. The theory states an ideal where only combatants are targeted, ordinary people are not regarded as valid enemies to be killed and where the ethics of involvement are quite clear. I very much doubt if there has ever been a just war, where the high standards of the just war theory are maintained.
A critique of the idea that a war can be just is beyond the scope of this article. Perhaps a future article…
Violence: a personal response
What is our personal response to violence? We can do no better but take Jesus’ words seriously. I want to be called a child of God and I want to be a peace-maker. I do not seek a cowards way out, but I do want to actively seek out the ways of peace. I want the grace and the courage to ‘turn the other cheek’. Above all, I want to be able to love all men, even if they make themselves my enemy.
Jesus taught us to pray,:
“Your Kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven”.
Jesus came to initiate a new Kingdom. A Kingdom, not based on strength or violence, but based on love, forgiveness and real peace. That Kingdom is gradually filling the earth and ultimately love will win. Tanks will be recycled as tractors, guns will be recycled as farming tools, or as Isaiah said:
He will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore. (Isaiah 2;4)