The following is a research essay written by Kurt Willems. This is an introduction for those wondering why we regard the value of Peace as central to the Kingdom of God. This paper will take a solid 15 mins or so to read, but hopefully it helps those who are curious about the theology of nonviolence to have a firm grasp on this biblical teaching. It was written in 2010, so the author admits that there are a few things that could be said with greater clarity. However, the content as it stands is helpful for those who are interested. This paper is © and can only be used by permission in other publications.
Throughout my life, I have been part of a unique culture. This is a group of people who can point to several common experiences and values. Not only so, but there is a common story that unites us all. This is a story of revival in the best sense of the word. One that led to several phases of religious and social persecution, for many, even to the point of death. My relatives, on both sides of the tree, can be traced back to this radical sect that chose to leave everything they had behind in order to search for a better way of life for their kin. Rather than taking a stand in the face of injustice by clenching to the sword, they chose to find their security in the nonviolent way of Jesus. When the persecution did not relent, many boarded ships headed toward the “new world.” It was during the late nineteenth century that my great grandfather arrived in the United States as a young boy.
Three generations later, I was born to wonderful parents who both could trace their roots back to the narrative of peace in the face of persecution. But, oddly enough, now about a century removed from arriving in America, the radical nature of my ancestors had begun to fade. My people are still quite bonded by a common culture, but something is quite different. I grew up with wonderful traditions, many of which centered on food and family. Every holiday we had zwieback, which is possibly the greatest bread that strawberry jam ever had the pleasure of pairing with. Often there would be other foods from the motherland such as bierocks and varenika. In our churches, I still get forced into playing the name-game, where based on my last name, older folks can tell me all about my family history and how they are my fifth double cousin twice removed. Our tradition is wonderful, but usually is experienced outside of the theological marks that originally set us apart.
The reality of my upbringing in this wonderful family of churches is that one key distinctive, which set us apart in the old land, is no longer part of our identity (at least as a whole). Finding comfort in a home that allowed us to exercise our faith in freedom, led to a love for this country. Over time, such a love led new generations into military service to defend the nation. By the time that I was growing up, nonviolence became that silly, unpractical belief that was more likely to be the butt of a joke than a central teaching of Jesus for the church. In a very real sense, I grew up as a Mennonite Brethren but not as an Anabaptist.
It was not until I was in my twenties that this seemingly outdated perspective on the discipleship way of Jesus began to draw me in. After spending all my life with the assumptions of a Southern Baptist, by conviction I have embraced my Anabaptist roots (and now part of the Brethren in Christ Church - a sister denomination). In what follows is an exploration of the subject of nonviolence in the Bible, followed by some reflection on why many Christians dismiss it as folly.
To begin this journey into the theology of nonviolence, it will serve us well to distinguish between terminology that is often used synonymously. Pacifism is the term that is most often employed to discuss the historical view of the Anabaptists, at least in common circles. The problem with this word is that it communicates the idea of inaction or withdrawal. Pacifism is often distorted to mean passivism. Another term that is used is nonresistance. A surface reading of Matthew 5.39 states, “do not resist an evil person.” Therefore, it is easy to see why nonresistance is a choice label. Traditionally, the Mennonite Brethren have preferred this term, but the New Testament does not seem fully against resisting someone if justice is threatened. For the next few moments, we will explore why I am uneasy with both of these common ways of describing Jesus’ teachings against violence. In order to do so, it is time to explore the relevant biblical texts.
Throughout the New Testament there is a common thread of nonviolence. My goal in this section is to look at several of the key texts that present such a view. Forgive me if I do not cover every passage that deals with this subject, but hopefully the data presented will suffice to support my position on this particular discipleship issue.
Matthew 5-7 is the most famous section of teaching that we have in the Gospel accounts. The Sermon on the Mount is central for Anabaptist theology, for in it we are given a description of the demands of discipleship. This is one characteristic that makes the Anabaptists stand out from the other reformers. In his book on this passage: A Gospel for a New People, Herb Kopp makes the following observation:
The Anabaptists lived by the simple edict that if the words of Jesus in the Scriptures called for obedience, then the followers of Jesus ought to heed and obey. For them “the great word was not ‘faith,’ as it was with the reformers, but ‘following.’”
The Anabaptists chose to take the teachings of Jesus seriously, even to the point of death. Following Christ, even to the cross, is the primary summons of the Christian life.
In the beatitudes is the declaration: “Blessed are the peacemakers.” Following this, Jesus gives ethical teaching on various elements of life and society. In verse 38 we come to the most important section with regards to the question of nonviolence. Jesus states:
“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
In verse 38 we are given the First Testament command “eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.” It is commonly noted that such a law was a preventative measure to ensure that punishment was proportional to the crime, and no more. “Where the Torah restricts retaliation, Jesus forbids it all together.” This is clear by his exhortation that disciples are called to “not resist an evil person.” Now the issue that was alluded to earlier with the word nonresistance needs to be dealt with properly. Is Jesus saying that one must not resist at all?
Resistance is Futile?
It is interesting to note that the Greek word for not resisting is: ἀντιστῆναι (antistēnai). The way that this word is translated in this passage gives the impression that any form of resistance is unacceptable. If this is indeed the case, then nonresistance is the more faithful term to describe the New Testament position against violence. But, it seems that this word has a deeper meaning than is often attributed to it. Walter Wink helpfully points out that “antistēnai… means to resist violently, to revolt or rebel, to engage in an armed insurrection.”
Support for this translation is not unwarranted as antistēnai is the word repeatedly used in the Greek version of the Hebrew Bible as “warfare” and is also used in Ephesians 6.13 in the context of active military imagery. In the famous “armor of God” passage the rhetoric clearly indicates an offensivemilitary-like “stand” that is able to both pursue and undo the works of the powers of evil. Wink’s argument is further affirmed by N.T. Wright who translates verse 39 in the following way: “But I say to you: don’t use violence to resist evil!” Jesus “is telling us to transcend both passivity and violence by finding a third way, one that is at once assertive yet nonviolent.” Those who are outside of the nonviolence realm may want to resist this translation, but the evidence seems to stand in opposition to such detractors.
The Nonviolent Imagination
If a command to not use violent force is indeed how Jesus opens up this section of the sermon, then it provides the proper framework into which we can read the illustrations of the following verses. In what comes after Jesus’ words about resisting with violence, are three images that are meant to stimulate the imagination for resisting evil. These would be familiar to a Jewish peasant in the first century as they all pertain to their circumstance of being a subjugated people; both under the religious elitists and the Roman Empire.
Although R.T. France wrongly places this passage only in the category of “personal ethics,” he rightly understands that Christ’s teachings are not mere idealism. He says that, “instead of… dismissing Jesus’ teaching as starry-eyed utopianism, a proper response to this challenging section is to ask in what practical ways Jesus’ radical principles can be set to work in our very different world.” The following three examples will without a doubt beckon us to dream up new ways of appropriating Jesus’ call to nonviolence in our day. Notice that each example is about restoring the victim’s honor and thus, humanity, through creative subversion. Each will expose the social structures of the day as unjust and will seek to appeal to the humanity of the lowly.
Turn the Other Cheek
The call to turn the other cheek, when placed in its historical context, needs to be understood within the grid of an honor-shame society. A slap to the right cheek can only mean what our culture has often called a backhand slap. Especially if the oppressor was one of the Jewish elite, it could be almost guaranteed that the strike to the right cheek did not come from the closed fist of the left hand, for the use of such led to uncleanliness for ten days. It is therefore the logical conclusion that this was a slap with the backside of the hand. In the code of Hammurabi, it is noted that this form of shaming the other would demand a double penalty if the victim took the offender to court (m. B. Qam. 8.6). Not only is this a physical act of violence, but it is a form of dehumanization. The victim in this situation has been robbed of his or her honor, having been treated like an inferior. This is exactly how “masters backhanded slaves; husbands, wives; parents, children; Romans, Jews.”
Is there a solution to this shameful dilemma? Jesus says that the remedy in this situation is not to hit the offender back or to cower in fear; but to turn the cheek the other direction. In doing so, the victim essentially says: “hit me again if you like, but now as an equal, not as an inferior.” An equal demands to be hit with a closed fist, which could be thought of as similar to an old fashioned cowboy saying, “hit me like a man!” This may certainly lead to worse consequences than just another smack to the face, but the power of this kind of nonviolent subversion should not be taken lightly. Imagine if several lowly Jews responded with such defiance. After initially enduring floggings or worse, the power that was held over them by their oppressor has been stripped away. A small social revolution has now been made possible by appealing to a third way approach to the situation.
The Shirt of Your Back, and then Some!
This second scenario envisions a situation where a creditor takes a poor person to court to sue them for their shirt. This could be kept as collateral for an unpaid debt, but the coat (cloak) was not to be taken according to Mosaic Law (Ex. 22.25-27; Deut. 24.12-13). A coat (which in a Jewish context would be the only other piece of clothing worn by most people) would not be taken away on humanitarian grounds as it could be used to keep warm, especially at night.
Debt in antiquity under Roman taxation policy was inevitable for common people. Not only did the emperor demand payment from corrupt tax collectors who would take whatever they wanted off the top, but the rich would do whatever they could to gain control of generational property – often owned by poor Galileans. Therefore, the rich charged anywhere from 25-200 percent interest on various ventures, eventually driving them out of their property and leaving the poor person with a large sum of debt.
This situation in the lawcourt presumes that the worst-case scenario has been reached; the only thing worth suing for is the shirt off one’s back! But luckily, the person being sued knows that the coat cannot be taken by force. So, what does Jesus instruct debtor do? He tells such a person to not only give the shirt as payment but to relinquish the coat as well. In doing so, it is not the debtor that would be shamed by the nakedness, but the creditor. This is because in the Hebraic culture it was shameful for the person viewing the nudity, rather than for the naked party (see Genesis 9.20-27). If a person walks out of the courtroom naked, the creditor has not only been stricken with shame because of injustice, but has transferred such to all who will see the debtor without dress. This debtor has now exposed the evils of an unjust debt and tax system, and of the creditor who sued in the first place. Rather than live powerlessly or resort to violent revolution, the oppressed can expose the cruelty of the system by shaming it publicly.
Just One Mile – and No Further
It is commonly known that in the first century Roman soldiers had the right to force a subjugated person to carry his equipment for up to one mile. Law mandated that such soldiers could not have someone carry anything beyond that measure. Imagine being such a person. What about the work that you need to get done to simply survive, and now this arrogant soldier demands that you do his work for him? Jesus’ instructions for the peasant to go the second mile is absurd by first century standards. This impoverished Jewish person who is being taken advantage of has now turned the tables. How will the soldier respond to this Jewish peasant that keeps walking? And, what is the point of going the second mile in the first place? Well, to go a second mile could potentially get the soldier into trouble with his commanding officer, the centurion. Punishment for this extra mile of injustice may include being fined, having food rationed, flogging, or a reprimand; nevertheless, the soldier would be scared of the potential consequences. In such a scenario, the powerless have seized the upper hand in the situation and forced their persecutors to recognize the inhumanity of their ways.
In the above predicament a person chooses to be creative over against retaliation. A policy that was used to remind Jews of their subjugation has been subverted to demonstrate their human dignity. Jesus offers a renewed approach to living fully human, one that refuses to join violent revolution movements, to follow a radical revolutionary on a road to the cross.
Love your Enemies
All of the above examples of nonviolent resistance must be rooted in love for enemies (v. 44). This is not a love for only God, but a love for the very people who inflict both physical and social pain. One may wonder if the above examples are actually loving, for they seem to be quite confrontational. But if Jesus is indeed our model for what love looks like, then we must recognize that “his concept of love is apparently not at the level of simply being nice to people and of allowing error to go unchallenged.” Rather, his love for his enemies, such as the scribes and Pharisees, was not without rebuke. So in the cases of the turned cheek, the naked man, and the extra mile, there is indeed the infusion of love for the enemy. This is because “Jesus is not advocating nonviolence merely as a technique for outwitting the enemy, but as a just means of opposing the enemy in a way that holds open the possibility of the enemy’s becoming just also.” In other words, this kind of love extends the possibility of an enemy discovering his or her sin, thus repenting and becoming a friend. But even if this kind of best-case scenario does not come to fruition, one will not have resorted to the pattern of violence that oppressive systems of empire employ. Rather, the one being oppressed has risen above injustice. This is nonviolent resistance.
Perhaps the most appealed to text in the New Testament to call into question any nonviolent readings of Jesus is Romans 13. When many Christians in the United States read–“…for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason”–it is common to make this a starting point for arguing “just war” principles. But, if we take the passage on its own terms, such a leap is difficult to make.
Submit to the Sword, but Do Not Carry One!
Romans 13.1-7 is a problematic text for many who want to hold to the idea of nonviolent resistance as a normative New Testament teaching. For so long it has been used to justify sanctioned violence in a society where Christians freely participate in government, that it is difficult to recognize how our experiences shape our interpretations. It was this text that many Christians appealed to after 9/11 to support an immediate military strike. The problem is that Romans 13 does not deal with the issue of war.
We must remember that Roman soldiers served as modern-day equivalents of both the local police and the national military. We also must recognize that chapters 12 and 13 belong together, as Paul’s letter is one fluid piece of work and was never intended to have such divisions. With both of these qualifiers, how is it that my position about the lack of war in this chapter is justified? Well, because it is clear that “Romans 13 is dovetailed into an argument against the taking of private vengeance (12:14-21).” What this means is that doing acts of violence in retaliation was not only against the way of Jesus, but that such would bring the punishment of the policing sword of the emperor’s soldiers and other authorities. This is an entirely different issue being raised than that of “just war.”
The correlation to statements in the previous chapter (Romans 12) cannot be overstated. In that context Christians are commanded to “bless those who persecute you” (v. 14); “do not repay anyone evil for evil” (v. 17); “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone” (v. 18); and as was already mentioned, “Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord (v. 19). The following verse goes on to talk about actions of love toward enemies. Paul clearly has in mind what he knows of Jesus’ words from the Sermon on the Mount and is giving his commentary on such to the church in Rome. The connection between Paul and Jesus helps us to see that there was continuity between the two regarding nonviolence. Commenting on this association, Hermon A. Hoyt states (using the language of nonresistance as opposed to our preferred term):
It is amazing that the doctrine of nonresistance harmonizes with various commands that Christ gave to believers which otherwise could not be carried out… [It] harmonizes with the command of Christ to love their enemies (Mt. 5:44; Lk. 6:27; Rom. 12:20; 13:8-10), to return good for evil (Rom. 12:17, 21; 1 Pet. 3:9), to do good to all people (Rom. 12:17; Gal. 6:10), to make no provision for the flesh (Rom. 13:13-14), and to follow after the things which make for peace (Rom 12:18; 14:19).
Now that we have established the connections between chapter’s 12 and 13, and have threaded the needle from Jesus to Paul; it will serve as productive to finish our exploration of this passage of Scripture. When Paul wrote Romans, Nero was emperor. He would become one of the most infamous tyrannical leaders in all of history. Even still, Paul writes: “submit to the authorities… as a matter of conscience” (13:5). This clearly not a text that gives any governmental rular a free pass so to speak. In fact, by the time this was written, the emperor cult was growing at a rapid rate. The emperor was worshipped as a son of god throughout the Roman world. Paul reminds Christians of who God actually is and of who actually has all authority. The Apostle states in a subversive fashion: “…for there is no authority except that which God has established” (v. 1). This serves as a reminder that Jesus is the world’s true Lord and that Caesar will be subject to his judgment.
Finally, we need to address the issue of government and its distinctness from the church. It seems that American readers have a tendency to blur the lines between who can “bear the sword.” Can Christians carry out the work of sword-bearing since this passage clearly justifies the need for such? My answer to this question echoes what seems to be the witness of the New Testament as a whole and this text in particular: no! This is because “it is quite plain that Paul envisages two quite distinct spheres of ‘service’ to God.” The idea that Christ-followers would also be the ones carrying the sword goes against the logic of this literary unit. John Howard Yoder describes it best:
Christians are told (12:19) never to exercise vengeance but to leave it to God and to wrath. Then the authorities are recognized (13:4) as executing the particular function which the Christian was to leave to God. It is inconceivable that these two verses, using such similar language, should be meant to be read independently of one another. This makes it clear that the function exercised by government is not the function to be exercised by Christians. However able an infinite God may be to wok at the same time through the sufferings of his believing disciples who return good for evil and through the wrathful violence of the authorities who punish evil for evil, such behavior is for men not complementary but in disjunction… it is a most likely interpretation tht the “vengeance” or “wrath” that is recognized as being within providential control is the same as that which Christians are told not to exercise.
[It needs to be added that Yoder's theology is quite helpful here, but recently it has come to light that he failed--majorly--to live out his theology in his private interactions with several women. The quote is still true, and as this article was written prior to these allegations coming to light, the quote will remain. Even so, failing to mention Yoder's own abuses of power towards women would fail in authenticity. If you are reading this, please know that many others have made this point about Romans 12-13 as well.]
Based on this reading of Romans 12-13, it is clear that Christians are called to be separate from the state and to avoid putting one’s self in a compromised scenario where violence could be employed. “There is not even a syllable in the Pauline letters that can be cited in support of Christians employing violence.”
Other Important Texts
Now that we have looked at the two key texts in the New Testament that address the issue of nonviolence, there are other relevant texts and theological themes that should briefly be mentioned. Each of the following could take up several pages of investigation and reflection, but for our purposes I will highlight them with brevity.
- John 18.36 – “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.’” Here we have an indication that the kingdom of God is distinct from the empires of this world. In God’s kingdom, disciples do not resort to violence.
- Luke 6.27-36 – This passage is a parallel to the section of the Sermon on the Mount we dealt with in great detail, with various nuances. It has a strong emphasis on love of enemies.
- Luke 22.35-38 – Jesus tells his disciples that if they do not have a sword to “sell their cloak and buy one.” The disciples then grab two swords, only to hear Christ respond: “That’s enough!” This is not Jesus’ warning that when he gets taken that they will need to fight the authorities, but rather (as most commentators agree) the sword serves as a metaphor for the coming strife that they will face. Jesus responds to them out of frustration because they are too dense to understand. Imagine him raising his voice to say the equivalent of “enough of this!”
- 1 Peter 2.19-24 – Here, Christians are encouraged to “bear up under the pain of unjust suffering;” to “suffer for doing good;” to endure after the patter of Christ’s suffering as “an example… [to] follow in his steps.” Following Jesus in this way remembers how when he was insulted “he did not retaliate” or make “threats.” “Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly.” This passage is a call to radical non-retaliation.
- Soldiers in the New Testament – It is commonly held that there are Roman soldiers that are commended for their faith. Some argue that it then follows that military service is acceptable for Christians for it is not condemned in these instances. On this, Richard B. Hays is quite insightful: “…precisely as Roman soldiers, they serve to dramatize the power of the Word of God to reach even the unlikeliest people.” God reaches to unlikely places and peoples to reveal his grace, which serves to illuminate that military participation is similar to tax collectors and other sinners. It would be an argument from silence to claim that the rest of the NT texts about peacemaking are revitalized simply because soldiers are not specifically told (in the text) to quit their jobs.
- Ephesians 6.10-18 & 2 Corinthians 10:3-4 – “For our battle is not against flesh and blood…” “…we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world.” Clearly, both texts utilize military language and intentionally subvert it. The empire fights against flesh and blood enemies, but kingdom of God people use God’s spiritual armor against demonic powers.
- Revelation – This book, which is widely misunderstood, is about hope in the midst of a first century persecution. The victory of the slaughtered Lamb is the victory of the people of God. Evil is defeated “by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony” (12.11). This is not accomplished through human violence, but suffering. And even the controversial rider on the white horse, Jesus, need not be cause for dismissing the NT peace witness. Michael Gorman helps us to understand that the Lamb “comes on the white horse of victory bearing his own blood, reminding us that he will defeat the powers of evil as the Lamb, not with a sword in his hand but with a sword in his mouth. Just as it was the speech-act of faithful resistance to evil incarnate—the cross—that began the process of destroying evil, so also will the Word of God, the eternal gospel, kill death and de-create evil when the same Christ returns… It is this modus operandi of faithful, nonviolent action and speech, rooted in the life and witness of the Lamb, that is the way offered to, and ultimately required of, the Lamb’s followers.”
Nonviolence is Irrational: 2 Myths and 2 “What ifs…”
Now that we have thoroughly explored a theology of nonviolence, based on the New Testament witness, we need to address the common hurdles to holding this as truth. For most of my life, nonviolence seemed so irrational that I thought: This couldn’t be what Jesus actually meant? This defies all common sense! In fact, it is foolishness! And after finally embracing my Anabaptist roots, I now realize that accepting nonviolence does not make it any less ridiculous. But, believing such may offer something to the world that it is starving to find, a counter-cultural kingdom community that operates so irrationally that it is attractive.
Reflecting back, I think that there are two myths and two “what ifs” that were roadblocks in my journey. For this reason, I want to briefly explore these and then offer a new way forward as radical bringers of peace.
There are two myths that have captured the imagination of many American Christians. The first of these is the “myth of a Christian nation.” This is the belief that the United States of America is a Christian nation. And there is some justification for why this is ingrained in many folks consciousness. Many of our founders held to some kind of belief in God (although many were deists) and claimed to found this nation on Biblical principles. Not only so, but in our day we have slogans such as “in God we trust” and have in our pledge of allegiance, “under God.” This belief is further reinforced by many conservative pastors and leaders who preach a God and country gospel. The greatest evidence of this is found in the newly published: The American Patriots Bible. Or consider this statement from Robert Jeffress from a chapter called “America is a Christian Nation:”
…Our ancestors built their dream of a new nation on the bedrock of Christianity. John Quincy Adams, sixth president of the United States… offered this assessment of the linkage between Christianity and the founding of our country: “The highest glory of the American Revolution was this; it connected, in one indissoluble bond, the principles of civil government and the principles of Christianity.”
There is this inherent belief that the United States is a Christian nation and that what is good for the country is good for God’s purposes in the world.
Pastor and Theologian Greg Boyd questions this thesis. He argues that Christian conservatives that are fighting to take this country back for God, are wasting their time, because this nation was never Christian. New Testament faith demands allegiance primarily to the kingdom of God. No nation outside of such a reign can ever be properly deemed Christian. And besides, when was America establishing itself as Christian? When the settlers and founders conquered the native peoples and used violence to steal their land? Or perhaps when these same people sent ships to Africa to enslave human beings? Maybe that was part of the Christian founding? The point is that to call any nation Christian is to miss the kingdom of God. God’s nation is beautiful, self-giving, nonviolent, and ready to suffer at the hands of enemies.
The second myth is called the “myth of redemptive violence.” As children, we grow up watching television shows that train us to believe that violence can lead to just outcomes. So, Batman beats up the Joker, GI Joe defeats Cobra, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles fight the foot-clan, and the list goes on. Walter Wink notes that all of these have in common, “an indestructible hero [who] is doggedly opposed to an irreformable and equally indestructible villain. Nothing can kill the hero, though of the first three-quarters of the comic strip or TV show he (rarely she) suffers grievously and appears hopelessly doomed, until, miraculously, the hero breaks free, vanquishes the villain, and restores order until the next episode.” Wink goes on to summarize this myth:
In short, the Myth of Redemptive Violence is the story of the victory over chaos by means of violence. It is the ideology of conquest, the original religion of the status quo. The gods must favor those who conquer. Conversely, whoever conquers must have the favor of the gods. The common people exist to perpetuate the advantage that the gods have conferred upon the king, the aristocracy, and the priesthood. Religion exists to legitimate power and privilege. Life is combat. Any form of order is preferable to chaos… Peace through war; security through strength: these are the core convictions that arise from this ancient historical religion…
In the kingdom of God, living as though the myth of redemptive violence is reality, negates the calling to be people of creative imagination, who strive to find “third way” kinds of solutions to conflict. This myth undermines God and distorts the character of the divine by using him to legitimize the civil religion of the empire.
If we take these two myths together, it is easy to see why nonviolence for Americans seems impractical and almost for some, immoral. God obviously has used violence for his greater glory. Yes, lives are lost in war, but think of how many more lives would be lost if we did not fight. The right thing to do is to defend the innocent and bring democracy to oppressed lands. And as pure as “just war” advocates’ motives may be, this does not negate the fact that we are citizens of a nation that transcends borders. The countries of this world have the right to use the sword to maintain order, but this is separate from anything having to do with being a Christian. It is only when we buy into the two myths that we allow our imagination to be overhauled and our distinct witness to be tainted.
2 “What ifs”
Without fail, there are two “what if” scenarios that always emerge when having this discussion with American friends. The first of these is: What if a Hitler-like dictator emerges? The conversation usually goes in the direction of claiming that there was no other option than to fight in WWII to stop the genocide of millions of people. It may be true that by the time the United States intervened, that there was no other foreseeable path but war. But that is exactly the problem with the question. It assumes that the war is well under way and that we peacemakers now have to go and turn the hearts of the Nazi’s through nonviolent subversion. The problem is that WWII is a product of the myths we just dealt with. Imagine if all Christians in Germany would have “turned the other cheek” and refused to take up arms? Nazism would likely have come to nothing! Robert Brimlow, in What About Hitler, takes this a bit further:
If the question is asking how a pacifistic church should have responded to the horrors of the Holocaust, the answer surely lies in being a peacemaking church long before the Halocaust ever began. The church should have preached and lived a love of the Jews for many centuries before the twentieth; the church should have formed Christians into the kind of people who do not kill Jews, or homosexuals, or gypsies, or communists, or other Christians, or Nazis, or whoever else was victimized by the war. The church should have lived and taught in such a way that the First World War would have been incomprehensible in a largely Christian Europe… The failure of the church and of Christians to be peacemakers in 1942 is horrible precisely because it was a result and culmination of centuries of failure.
The second “what if” question is no easier than the first, and gets quite personal for someone espousing nonviolence: What if your wife or child is attacked? This is where we need to go back to our main Matthew text for a moment. Remember that Jesus instructs his followers to not “use violence to resist evil!” Then, what follows are three examples of how to resist both passivity and violence, through unlocking the imagination and seeking a “third way.” The importance of each of the solutions that Jesus offers is better understood in an honor-shame culture. Each time, Jesus invites followers to restore their own honor and in doing so to shame the oppressor—perhaps, in such a way that leads to repentance. What I am getting at is that in each of these situations, not only is violence resisted, but full human dignity is being restored. Clearly, a central reason why violence is wrong in this textual context is that it is dehumanizing.
To answer the question at hand I want to reflect on the idea of dehumanization as being the definition of violence. This certainly is not a stretch based on the background of the passage. Therefore, in certain emergency scenarios, such as rescuing a loved one, the use of restraint or even force is not out of the question. If an attacker was dehumanizing my wife or child, my hope is that I would discover a “third way” out of the situation that may even include sacrificing myself for their sake. But, it is also possible that things would move so quickly that the use of force may be the only option. So, perhaps I would pull the person off of my loved one, allowing the chance to flee for safety. If need be, I suppose that tackling the attacker may be a borderline option as well. What is not an option is passive inaction. This is obviously a circumstantial approach with several shades of “gray.” Any restraint must always be within the parameters of avoiding anything that would treat a person as less than a human created in God’s image. Hitting, kicking, or the use of weapons have taken restraint into the realm of violence and out of the realm of loving our enemies.
Convinced of the theology of nonviolence, I have embraced the essence of my Anabaptist roots. It would be arrogant to assume that my tradition is the only one with a peaceful witness, as it is exciting to see how many Christians of varying denominations are choosing the dusty road of subversive discipleship. For the person who reads this and is not ready to buy into the argument presented, I have nothing but respect for you. I do not believe that the Bible sanctions any combination of Christianity and violence, but I also do not stand in judgment over-against those with whom I disagree. We serve a God who has always accommodated to incarnate his love and care for humanity, even at the expense of allowing us to live with flawed patterns of belief and practice. This side of the renewal of creation at the return of Christ–when we “will beat… swords into plowshares and… spears into pruning hooks” (Micah 4.3)–may we choose to love each other in spite of our disagreements.
Finally, I want to give a last word to those of you who have read this exposition of nonviolent resistance and are convinced of the biblical teaching. The journey ahead will be a difficult one. Choosing to be an advocate of nonviolence is not popular in our American Christian culture as the two myths are still alive in the consciousness of the majority of believers. The temptation for you is going to be to judge and condemn rather than to love and accept. My prayer is that the teaching of nonviolence will penetrate deep within our hearts, causing all forms of condemnation to fade. Not only so, but I hope that the church of Jesus Christ in the United States and beyond, will begin to break free from the captivity of our lack of imagination. As the world around us witnesses grass-roots-Jesus-followers seeking to make peace in our communities and world, my dream is that many will be drawn toward Jesus. May we become a signpost of hope for our world that a day is coming when all violence will cease (Rev. 21-22). A day when heaven will beautifully collide into earth, and the peaceful kingdom of God will emerge for all eternity.
Boyd, Gregory A. The Myth of a Christian Nation: How the Quest for Political Power Is Destroying the Church. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2005.
Brimlow, Robert W. What about Hitler?: Wrestling with Jesus's call to Nonviolence in an Evil World. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Brazos Press, 2006.
Bruce, F.F. The Epistle of Paul to the Romans: An Introduction and Commentary. Tyndale New Testament commentaries ;, edited by v, 13. Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans Pub., 1978.
France, R.T. The Gospel of Matthew. Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Pub., 2007.
Gorman, Michael J. Reading Revelation Responsibly: Uncivil Worship and Witness - Following the Lamb Into the New Creation. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2011.
Green, Joel B. The Gospel of Luke. Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans Pub., 1997.
Hays, Richard B. The Moral Vision of the New Testament: Community, Cross, New Creation: A Contemporary Introduction to New Testament Ethics. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1996.
Hoyt, Herman A. “Nonresistance.” In War: Four Christian Views, edited by Robert G. Clouse. Winona Lake, Indiana: BMH Books, 1986.
Jeffress, Robert. Hell? Yes!: And Other Outrageous Truths You Can Still Believe. Colorado Springs, Colo.: Waterbrook Press, 2004.
Kopp, Herb. A Gospel for a New People: Studies in the Sermon on the Mount. Hillsboro, KS: Kindred Productions, 2003.
Swartley, Willard M. Covenant of Peace: The Missing Peace in New Testament Theology and Ethics. Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Pub., 2006.
Wink, Walter. The Powers That Be: Theology for a New Millennium. New York: Doubleday, 1998.
Wright, N.T. Romans. Vol. 10 of New Interpreter's Bible. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002.
Wright, Tom. Matthew for Everyone. 1. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004.
Yoder, John H. The Politics of Jesus; Vicit Agnus Noster. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1972.
Yoder-Neufeld, Thomas. Ephesians. Believers Church Bible Commentary. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 2002.
. Herb Kopp, A Gospel for a New People: Studies in the Sermon on the Mount (Hillsboro, KS: Kindred Productions, 2003), 8.
. Richard B. Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament: Community, Cross, New Creation: A Contemporary Introduction to New Testament Ethics (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1996), 324.
. Ibid., 325.
. Walter Wink, The Powers That Be: Theology for a New Millennium (New York: Doubleday, 1998), 100.
. Thomas Yoder-Neufeld, Ephesians, Believers Church Bible Commentary (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 2002), 294-95.
. Tom Wright, Matthew for Everyone, 1 (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), 49.
. Wink, The Powers That Be: Theology for a New Millennium, 101.
. Willard M. Swartley, Covenant of Peace: The Missing Peace in New Testament Theology and Ethics (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Pub., 2006), 61-62.
. R.T. France, The Gospel of Matthew (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Pub., 2007), 217ff.
. Ibid., 218.
. Ibid., 220.
. Wink, The Powers That Be: Theology for a New Millennium, 101.
. France, The Gospel of Matthew, 220-221.
. Wink, The Powers That Be: Theology for a New Millennium, 101.
. Tom Wright, Matthew for Everyone, 1 (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), 52.
. Wink, The Powers That Be: Theology for a New Millennium, 101-3.
. France, The Gospel of Matthew, 221.
. Wink, The Powers That Be: Theology for a New Millennium, 103-5.
. Ibid., 106-8.
. Tom Wright, Matthew for Everyone, 1 (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), 52.
. France, The Gospel of Matthew, 226.
. Wink, The Powers That Be: Theology for a New Millennium, 110.
. Ibid., 110-11.
. John H. Yoder, The Politics of Jesus; Vicit Agnus Noster (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1972), 197.
. N.T. Wright, Romans, vol. 10 of New Interpreter's Bible (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002), 723.
. Ibid., 721.
. Ibid., 713.
. Herman A. Hoyt, “Nonresistance,” in War: Four Christian Views, ed. Robert G. Clouse (Winona Lake, Indiana: BMH Books, 1986), 42.
. Wright, Romans, 719.
. F.F. Bruce, The Epistle of Paul to the Romans: An Introduction and Commentary, Tyndale New Testament commentaries ;, edited by v, 13 (Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans Pub., 1978), 238.
. Yoder, The Politics of Jesus; Vicit Agnus Noster, 199-200.
. Richard B. Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament: Community, Cross, New Creation: A Contemporary Introduction to New Testament Ethics (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1996), 331.
. Joel B. Green, The Gospel of Luke (Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans Pub., 1997), 774-775.
. Richard B. Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament: Community, Cross, New Creation: A Contemporary Introduction to New Testament Ethics (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1996), 335.
. Michael J. Gorman, Reading Revelation Responsibly: Uncivil Worship and Witness - Following the Lamb Into the New Creation (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2011), 183-84.
. See: Gregory A. Boyd, The Myth of a Christian Nation: How the Quest for Political Power Is Destroying the Church (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2005).
 See: Richard Lee, The American Patriot’s Bible (Nashville, TN.: Thomas Nelson, 2009).
. Robert Jeffress, Hell? Yes!: And Other Outrageous Truths You Can Still Believe (Colorado Springs, Colo.: Waterbrook Press, 2004), 174.
. Boyd, The Myth of a Christian Nation: How the Quest for Political Power Is Destroying the Church, 98-99.
. Wink, The Powers That Be: Theology for a New Millennium, 43.
. Ibid., 48.
. Robert W. Brimlow, What about Hitler?: Wrestling with Jesus's call to Nonviolence in an Evil World (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Brazos Press, 2006), 168-69.