I’ve never been a violent person. Growing up, I never got into any fights and I never had the desire to fight or to be violent. However, I always believed that violence was justifiable, appropriate, and even necessary under certain circumstances (i.e. self-defense, war, etc). Something began to change for me though when I began to follow Jesus in college and wanted to take seriously his teachings and commands. When I began seminary in 2015, I would have still defended, from a Christian perspective, the notion that violence is appropriate and necessary under certain circumstances, as well as a Christianized version of what is called “just war theory“. However, just a year or two later, as I continued to take seriously Jesus’s teachings on enemy love and nonviolence, I changed my mind and became convinced that Christian nonviolence was correct.
In a series of blog posts, I would like to defend this position to the best of my ability. But first, I would like to provide a few caveats:
- I will unabashedly admit that I am no expert when it comes to this issue. I am not a theologian, a Biblical scholar, an ethicist, nor a philosopher. I have not read everything there is to read regarding this topic, nor is it possible for me to do so. I am only a seminary graduate who has become persuaded from the expertise of others and that Christians ought to be nonviolent.
- I have many friends and family who do not at all agree with me on these topics. I have tried my best to learn from them, and I will continue to do so. I want to be humble enough to admit that I might be wrong about this topic, and I want to ask friends and family for patience and understanding as I process my thoughts on this subject. Additionally, I believe that this is a subject where Christians may disagree and still be able to join hands in fellowship. I pray that readers share this conviction.
- I also have friends and family for whom this is an especially sensitive subject because of (1) their prior or current military experience, (2) their experience of being a victim of violence, or (3) their own experience of acting out in violence. I want to acknowledge that this could be a sore subject for many and therefore approach it with a level of sensitivity and understanding. Again, I don’t have all the answers, I just want to talk about how I have arrived at the conclusion that violence is wrong for Christians. With that said, I also want to emphasize that I believe in the abundance of God’s grace and therefore do not approach this subject from a place of moral superiority or as if I’m condemning or judging anyone. I’ll boldly declare with the Apostle Paul that “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost” (1 Timothy 1:15). I am not perfect, nor do I think my theology is perfect. I too am a sinner in need of God’s grace.
The “Pacifist” Label
Before diving into the subject, I’d also like to say a word about labels and definitions. I have a love-hate relationship with labels. I love labels because they provide classification and allow us to demarcate theological ideas, but I also hate them because there is a tendency for many to disregard the person behind the label. As Soren Kierkegaard said, “once you label me you negate me.”
I have a love-hate relationship with the label pacifist. I sometimes welcome it and embrace it, but other times I simply say that I am an advocate of Christian nonviolence. Why? The label pacifist can carry many negative connotations and is, to use Kierkegaard’s slogan, often easily negated and disregarded. For many, pacifist might as well be spelled p-a-s-s-i-v-e-i-s-t—as if pacifists were simply just passive pushovers. This is certainly not what I mean if and when I use the label. As I hope to show in these blog posts, the Christian life does not ever call us to be passive in the face of evil, but to instead overcome evil by doing good (Romans 12:21); there is a way of resisting violence through nonviolent means.
What I hope to show in future blog posts is that Jesus is the paradigm of the pacifism I am arguing for. Jesus taught his followers to love and forgive their enemies, and he never retaliated against those who acted violently against him. Jesus was never passive in the face of evil. Jesus instead shows us what it looks like to overcome evil with good.
This leads to another important consideration: the pacifism that I seek to articulate and defend is thoroughly Christocentric. What I mean by this is that Christ (in his life, death, and resurrection) provides the justification for nonviolence. Without the example of Christ or his resurrection from the dead, I find no good reason to be a pacifist. As a defender of this position, Preston Sprinkle, puts it:
If Jesus does not walk out of a grave and sit at the right hand of the Father, then we have no business loving our enemies. Unless Christ defeats evil by submitting to violence—by dying rather then killing—and rises from the dead to tell the tale, I will most certainly destroy my enemy before he destroys me. Without the death and resurrection of Jesus, all forms of nonviolence, I believe, are uncompelling.Preston Sprinkle, A Case for Christocentric Nonviolence
Is Pacifism Realistic?/What Would You Do?
Most of the time, when I mention to someone that I think the Christian life requires nonviolence, I get a look of skepticism. Assuming the impracticality and unreasonableness of nonviolence, I often get asked a couple hypothetical questions:
- “Alright Wes, so you’re telling me that if someone broke into your home at night and tried to kill your wife, you wouldn’t take them out? What would you do in that situation?”
- “Okay, what about Hitler? If you had a chance to kill Hitler and save millions of lives wouldn’t you do so?”
It seems like these questions come up in almost every discussion I have about nonviolence. And I must admit that I agree with the underlying assumption behind these questions: nonviolence is impractical; it doesn’t make sense in a world like ours. However, one of my responses to such questions is this: since when do Christians care more about what is practical than what is Christlike? What would have been more practical for Christ would have been to preserve his life and either avoid crucifixion or defend himself from it. What would have been more practical for Jesus’s disciples and many from the early church would have been to defend themselves against violence rather than suffer martyrdom. The point is that rather than focusing on what makes the most sense to us, we need to continually remind ourselves that following Jesus means denying ourselves and taking up our own crosses (Matthew 16:24-26), understanding that following Jesus might lead to our own suffering and death. We need to also remind ourselves that the Kingdom of God is not of this world (John 18:36), for if it were, Jesus wouldn’t have let himself be crucified. The Kingdom of God is not built upon what is pragmatic and what makes sense according to the world’s standards, it is instead built on other-worldly, counter-cultural, sacrificial, radical, enemy-loving grace.
Another response to such questions: in all honesty, I know what I probably would do in these hypothetical circumstances. I probably would inflict all my rage and violence and attempt to take out anyone who would seek to harm my family and I likely would attempt to take out someone like Hitler in hopes of saving millions of lives. For those of us who aim to follow Christ, however, we ought to reframe the question and ask ourselves this instead: what should we do in such circumstances? That’s where the issue gets more complicated, especially for me–because as I read the words of Jesus and as I see how he responded to evil and how he told his followers to respond to evil, I begin to realize that killing someone for the sake of self-defense (or even the defense of others) might not be the most Christlike response. Again, Preston Sprinkle, is helpful here:
The mere thought of someone harming my family stirs up something fierce. I can hardly describe it. But if the Bible is God’s Word, and if Jesus has been raised from the dead, then my response to this question demands that I strap on my biblical goggles to view this issue, even if it torments my intuition. My ultimate goal is to obey the Lord, not to kill people who threaten my family.Preston Sprinkle, Fight: A Christian Case for Nonviolence, pg. 217
My goal in this introductory post was to (1) set the stage for a series of blog posts I hope to write on the issue of Christian nonviolence and (2) address some basic questions and concerns related to this position. In future posts, I hope to look at this issue from a variety of perspectives: the New Testament, the Old Testament, and church history. I hope readers (both just warriors and pacifists) will join me in this journey, benefit from these posts, and provide feedback to help continue this conversation. Before I conclude this post, however, I’d like to provide a short list of resources that have helped me come to the position of Christian nonviolence so readers might know where I’m coming from and check out these resources themselves.
- Preston Sprinkle–Fight: A Christian Case for Nonviolence
- Gregory Boyd–The Myth of a Christian Nation: How the Quest for Political Power is Destroying the Church
- Brian Zahnd–A Farewell to Mars: An Evangelical Pastor’s Journey Toward the Biblical Gospel of Peace
- Donald Kraybill–The Upside-Down Kingdom
- John Howard Yoder–The Politics of Jesus
- Stanley Hauerwas–Resident Aliens
- Zondervan’s Five Views on the Church and Politics
- Scot McKnight–Sermon on the Mount