I was asked to write a short article promoting Christian pacifism for a friend’s magazine thing for her church thing.
Here it is … or should I say, here they are, because I actually did two articles in the end, a short one and an even shorter one. They aren’t referenced, so if you want me to actually back up my claims I recommend you read this 15-times-as-long version of essentially the same topic.
Jesus and the non-violent Kingdom
The Jews have always believed that God’s creation is meant to be peaceful, that violence is the primary manifestation of sin, and that salvation will mean genuine ‘peace on earth’. The biblical creation story describes an originally peaceful creation, to which sin and violence were unwelcome intrusions (Genesis 1-4). This is in marked contrast to the ‘creation myth’ of the modern nation-state, which says we all lived in chaos until some strong man dominated us and made us behave.
The Jews were under no illusions about the fact that we live in a fallen world, but unlike many modern people, they were also under no illusions about violence being a solution to violence. They were aware that violence naturally increases (Genesis 4:23-24) and their law tried to limit this; ‘eye for eye, tooth for tooth’. But they also hoped to eventually be saved from violence altogether. For this they put their hope in God, who would one day bring a world where all shall “sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid”; the people would be free to “beat their swords into ploughshares” and study war no more (Micah 4:1-4).
As Christians, we believe that this long-awaited transformation has begun with the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The basic message of Jesus’ ministry was that the prophets’ predictions of the kingdom of God were coming true in the here and now (Luke 4:14-21). Finally, violence can be truly overcome. Jesus goes beyond the law, saying that you may have heard “an eye for an eye”, “love your neighbour and hate your enemy”, but I tell you “love your enemies”. We can at last live truly as ‘children of God’, a God of grace who sends sun and rain on both good and evil (Matt. 5:21-48).
Jesus’ own life was the supreme example of this message. The people wanted him to be a military-political ruler, the kind of ‘strong man’ we still hope for today, who would overthrow the Romans violently and restore David’s kingdom. But Jesus resisted these temptations (Luke 4:1-13) and chose to spread his message with love, freedom, and humility.
While Jesus was a pacifist, he was certainly not passive. He actively pursued a kingdom of love, and this was extremely threatening to the existing kingdoms of coercion, who saw that if it continued to grow it would supplant them. But Jesus remained true to his non-violent revolution, which culminated in his execution by an alliance of Roman and Jewish authority. All powers who rule by violence use death as their ultimate weapon, and they used this weapon to defeat Jesus, who ‘prayed for his persecutors’ and refused retaliation up until the end.
But we know that this was not the end. Jesus’ resurrection shows that there is a force more powerful than death; a force that will ultimately defeat death and a force that will ensure the eventual victory of Jesus’ kingdom of freedom and love over all authorities of coercion (1 Cor 15:12-26). The hope in God’s resurrection and the empowerment of the Holy Spirit formed Jesus’ scared, scattered, dysfunctional disciples into radical egalitarian communities prepared to follow the way of the Cross – the way of non-violent resistance even unto death.
Mohandas Gandhi considered Jesus the best example of non-violent resistance in history, but he also observed that the only people who don’t seem to see this are Christians. Sadly many Christians have not chosen the ‘way of the Cross’ as the Way for their own lives, especially after the church aligned itself with the empire that crucified Jesus. We now put ourselves on the side of the ‘strong men’ who claim to be saving us from ‘baddies’, but mainly function to protect the status quo. This is completely opposite to the ministry of Jesus who brought good news to the poor and the oppressed, taking their side and opposing both the oppression and the weapon of oppression – violence.
In a world of horrific violence, it seems we are given a choice between two types of insanity. There is the ‘official’ insanity of the ‘strong men’ – the madness of trying to defeat violence with violence – and the revolutionary foolishness of the ‘lamb’ who is defeating violence with love.
The ‘other option’: Just War
Pacifism was the mainstream opinion for the first few hundred years of Christianity. But eventually Christianity became the state religion of the Roman empire. This brought benefits; persecution stopped, and the church had some say in government. But it also required compromises. Governments can’t survive without violence, so a ‘Christian government’ needs to be able to wage a ‘Christian war’.
The church couldn’t find anything about this in the New Testament, so they adopted the idea of a ‘just war’ from the Roman philosopher Cicero. Just war theories make rules and criteria to try and minimise the damage of wars. The most common rules involve a just cause to save lives and bring the greater common good; a last resort after all non-violent measures have been tried; a just authority following due process and with a reasonable chance of success; and waged with just means – attacking military targets not civilians, protecting prisoners of war, refraining from torture, etc.
Unfortunately there don’t seem to be any governments in history that have genuinely followed these rules. Today, wars often violate international law, are undertaken for political and economic reasons rather than moral ones, and tragically kill many civilians. If the just war rules were followed, there would be far less wars, and those that do happen would do far less harm. So whether you choose pacifism or just war, all Christians should be working together for peace and justice.
PPS: They appeared in slightly modified form (it’s complicated) in my friend Tess’ magazine ‘The Paper Crane.’