Following Jesus into nonviolence

October 6, 2016 — 12 Comments

The following essay was the final assignment for a college course I recently completed, and while I was limited to only five pages for the assignment, I would like to expand this content into a more comprehensive treatment of its subject: the Christian's relationship to war. I would appreciate your feedback on what direction to go from here. Leave a comment or shoot me a private email with your suggestions. Thanks!

Photo Credit: Håkan Dahlström Flickr via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Håkan Dahlström Flickr via Compfight cc

History knows him as Jesus of Nazareth, a Jewish Rabbi and figurehead of the world’s largest religion; Christians know Him as Lord of all. When once the King of kings stood before a Roman governor in question over his alleged crimes against the state, He answered, “My kingdom is not an earthly kingdom. If it were, my followers would fight to keep me from being handed over to the Jewish leaders. But my kingdom is not of this world” (NLT John 18:36, emphasis mine). Jesus then bore witness to this truth by laying down His life on a Roman cross, and in doing so He set the standard of nonviolent resistance over armed conflict for all who would come after Him.

Violence and warfare followed hard upon the heels of sin’s entrance into the world. Cain slew his brother out of envy, and men began to build walled cities in an effort to protect themselves and attack others (Gen. 4:8-17). “War is one of the constants of history,” notes historian Will Durant, “and has not diminished with civilization or democracy. In the last 3,421 years of recorded history only 268 have seen no war” (81). So where does this incessant evil originate? James writes that quarrels and fighting arise from the evil desires at war within our own selves (4:1). In other words, the root of the issue is a heart problem: War is the bitter fruit of humanity’s separation from God and from one another. By contrast, peace is the sweet fruit of the Spirit, the product of humanity’s reunion with God and with one another. The pages of early church history attest to this transformation, for once the hearts of the first disciples had been so radically changed by Christ, their position toward war changed along with it.

When faced with Edwin Starr’s iconic question: “War, what is it good for?” the majority of early Christians would have answered in unified voice: “Absolutely nothing!” According to Tertullian, a Christian apologist from the second century, Jesus established a precedent for His followers when He rebuked Peter in the garden after Peter cut off the ear of the High Priest’s servant, Malchus: “How will a Christian man war, nay, how will he serve even in peace, without a sword, which the Lord has taken away? For albeit soldiers had come unto John, and had received the formula of their rule; albeit, likewise, a centurion had believed; still the Lord afterward, in disarming Peter, unbelted every soldier” (qtd. in Sider 51, emphasis mine).

Tertullian was not alone in this conviction. Justin Martyr, another second century apologist, wrote: “We who formerly used to murder one another do not only now refrain from making war upon our enemies, but also, that we may not lie or deceive our examiners, willingly die confessing Christ” (qtd. in Sider 25). Christians of the first three centuries were widely known to refuse military service on moral grounds, though they eagerly expressed their support for the people and rulers of their country through prayer and works of mercy for the distressed. Historian John Cadoux notes that “the early Christian revulsion from and disapproval of war” was so strong that often those who engaged in war were barred from fellowship in the Christian community (57-58).

Many people scoff at the proposition of nonviolence as an alternative to armed conflict because they have been conditioned to accept such a belief as naïve and doomed to failure. However, this notion fails to account for the many examples of successful nonviolent action throughout history (Wink 1-3). Followers of Christ especially must see beyond the myth of redemptive violence, and not fail to recognize the conditioning with which they have been raised. As Walter Wink argues in his book Jesus and Nonviolence: A Third Way, “We need to be very clear that it is in the interest of the Powers [that be] to make people believe that nonviolence doesn’t work” (54). Among many convincing examples, Wink cites the liberation of Britain’s Indian colony through nonviolent means in 1946, which cost 8,000 lives, as a contrast to the liberation of France’s Algerian colony through violent revolution in 1961, which cost almost one million lives. He notes how comparative studies show that even when nonviolence fails to achieve its goal, it is still more effective at saving lives than violence (51-53).

Better known is the example of Martin Luther King, Jr. and other civil rights leaders in America during the 1960-70s. George Zabelka, the Catholic chaplain who blessed the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (and later repented for doing so), shared at a Pax Christi conference in 1985 about being with King in Alabama. After being jailed for his participation in the Montgomery Bus Boycott, King said, “Blood may flow in the streets of Montgomery before we gain our freedom, but it must be our blood that flows, and not that of the white man” (qtd. in Zabelka). King was taking his cue from Mahatma Gandhi, one of the best-known advocates of nonviolence in modern history. When armed conflict broke out between Muslims and Hindus in Calcutta in 1947 following the partition of India and Pakistan, Gandhi came to the city and began a public fast unto death, stating that it was “better to die than to live in a world of violence” (qtd. in Oommen). For three days nobody seemed to care, but then as Gandhi became so weak that he could not sit up, Hindu and Muslim leaders came and promised to stop the fighting if it would save Gandhi’s life. Yet, he continued with the fast, insisting on seeing real change among the people. Eyewitness A.C. Oommen says that what happened next was nothing short of a miracle: People from both sides of the conflict began to come out of hiding and lay their weapons at Gandhi’s feet. They wept and repented over killing each other in the light of his selfless example, and in a matter of days the violence ended. Nobody could deny that Gandhi had accomplished through peaceful means what the army and police had failed to do through force.

So nonviolence is a weapon in its own right, and to advocate for it is not to “do nothing” while innocent lives hang in the balance. Rather it is to take seriously the words of Paul, who wrote to Christians in Corinth that “the weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world” (NIV 2 Cor. 10:4). Christians are not exempt from humanity’s struggles and they cannot opt out of conflict under the cowardly guise of a weak-kneed pacifism. Rather, they are called to enact the “third way” of Jesus which is neither fight (armed conflict) nor flight (do nothing). This is the way of the Cross to which all disciples are called (Wink 12-13). It is fraught with risk and demands a heroism even greater than that which compels a soldier to the battlefield, a fact that has been attested by voices from within the military like former Army Captain Paul Chappell, author of The End of War, and former Marine Corps officer Michael Snow, author of Christian Pacifism: Fruit of the Narrow Way.

Paul writes that the power of the sword has been given to the state to restrain evil (Rom. 13:4). Christians, however, belong to another Kingdom, and the Lord to which they pledge allegiance is not Caesar but Christ (Acts 17:7). As a condition of this allegiance, they refuse to take the sword and choose to bear the cross instead. This was the way of their Master, and it must be theirs as well, for He said, “The student is not above the teacher, but everyone who is fully trained will be like their teacher” (NIV Luke 6:40). At first glance it may seem unreasonable for the Lord to ask this of His followers, for there are many counter-arguments to the position of nonviolence. After all, is it not immoral to refrain from war when innocent lives hang in the balance? Do we not have an obligation to defend the weak? When did Jesus tell the soldiers who came to Him to quit their military service? And if Jesus is God, did He not command Israel to go to war in the Old Testament?

These are all fantastic questions that deserve a hearing, yet each one ultimately finds its answer in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Whatever examples there are from the past, He is the final and ultimate Word of God for humanity now, revealing the Father’s character and making clear His will. As the writer of Hebrews states, “The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of His being” (1:1). Many people may advocate, justify, or excuse killing in war as an acceptable means of solving conflict, even from a Christian standpoint, but they do so in contradiction of the simple teaching and example of the Man from Galilee. His ethic clashed unapologetically with the values and claims of the Roman Empire, and it was this opposition that got him killed in the end.

So we see that violence is the direct result of humanity’s separation from God and from one another; history as well testifies to the failure of war both to save more innocent lives than it takes and to secure lasting peace between nations. Above all others, Jesus Christ taught and modeled the life of nonviolence even unto His own death on the cross, a death that brought salvation to mankind and became the focal point of the world’s largest religion. His call–“Follow me”–continues to echo down through the corridors of time and to reach boldly into every aspect of a disciple’s life, including his or her relationship to war. While it may seem foolish to refuse the power of the sword for the weakness of the cross, it is lockstep with the teaching of Christ. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “To believe the promise of Jesus that his followers shall possess the earth, and at the same time to face our enemies unarmed and defenseless, preferring to incur injustice rather than to do wrong ourselves, is indeed a narrow way” (190). Where are the men and women who will walk this way like their Lord before them?


Works Cited

Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. The Cost of Discipleship. New York, NY: SCM Press, 1959. Print.

Cadoux, John Cecil. Early Christian Attitude to War. London, UK: Headley Brothers Publishers, 1919. The Online Library of Liberty. Web. 14   August, 2016.

Chappell, Paul. The End of War: How Waging Peace Can Save Humanity, Our Planet, and Our Future. Westport, CT: Easton Studio Press,     2010. Print.

Durant, Will. The Lessons of History. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 1968. Print.

New International Version. Nashville, TN: Biblica, Inc. 1973. Print.

New Living Translation. Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers. 1996. Print

Oommen, A.C. “What Gandhi Taught Me About Jesus.” Plough. Summer, 2015: 34-38. Print.

Sider, Ronald. The Early Church on Killing. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2012. Print.

Snow, Michael. Christian Pacifism: Fruit of the Narrow Way. Richmond, IN: Friends United Press, 1981. Ebook.

Wink, Walter. Jesus and Nonviolence: A Third Way. Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress Press, 2003. Print.

Zabelka, George. “Blessing the Bombs.” Plough. Excerpted from a speech given at a Pax Christi conference in 1985. Web. 14 August 2016

12 responses to Following Jesus into nonviolence

  1. Really great article, thanks. Beautiful sanity in a world of ugly insanity.

    Over the years I have had to review my own views on this subject. With shame I recall my youthful despising of those who refused to serve in our National Defence Force for ‘conscientious reasons’ in the days of the South African ‘apartheid’ (racial separation) regime. How age and a deeper reflection on Jesus and the scriptures changes one, thank God. God does have a way of turning us on our head, the right side up.

    • Right side up! Yes, I can understand where you are coming from, Erroll. How often I have held views contrary to our Lord’s, only to find them reprehensible later on down the road. I am grateful for His grace and patience.

  2. Great, clear, well-argued piece. I was grateful to see you cite the theologian, Walter Wink, in several parts of the essay. Wink has always been my source for understanding the duty of “Christians” to engage in active non-violent resistance. Like Wink, you point out that Jesus’ example and teachings make it clear that the third way is active resistance, not some passive do-nothingness. I do have one small suggestion: in the final paragraph you use the word, mankind. I suggest the more inclusive term, humankind, which does not push our buttons like the male-loaded terms in so much of “Christian” writing do. Thanks.

    • Thank you, Lorry. Wink’s book was a game-changer for me. I’ll be sure to implement your tip when I revise and expand this essay.

  3. Living in a world wher so many humans have no regard for the sanctity of life needs to enter into our thinking. Having lived with a veteran husband of 2 wars of the Middle East and a Vietnam veteran father I have seen not only in my life but the lives of others what violence does. I have also heard of first hand witness to despicable acts against women and children in these countries where the law and others do not protect them.
    There are many people with zero moral compass who have absolute disregard for life. They have no concern for anyone and lawlessness is their god. I am thankful that there are people who choose to defend lawful people from this. It would be complete breakdown of civilization without law enforcement and sometimes use of force.
    Faced with the choice to let someone harm my family, for instance rape my children, I would have no problem with defending them with force. I can’t imagine that anyone can stand by as Deitrich Bonhoeffer would suggest and allow that injustice to happen.
    I think as believers it is important to remember that our hearts are changed by God’s grace. Our mission is to spread the a gospel by living it. This does not negate our need to keep our citizens, family and friends safe from violent people and with what might be considered violent acts. It is important to note here that WE are not the aggressors.
    The idea of pacifism is lofty but does not take in account that the very reason you are able to talk about God openly ihas been defended by violent force over thousands of years. If everyone believed in pacifism I guarantee we would not be here today to discuss it.

    • Rebecca, with great respect, you have given the standard objection of the Western Church to follow carefully the life, teaching and call of Jesus.

      I also had a loved one blown to bits while serving his country. I live in a country where violence and racial hatred is endemic. Our rape statistics are among the worst in the world.

      Any serious, repeated reading of the Sermon on the Mount (Mt. 5-7) just cannot support your argument. You say, ‘We are not the agressors.’ Are you not aware of the blunders of America across the face of the earth?!

      I humbly suggest you read Bonhoeffer’s books and his autobiography. He ended up being martyred for his faith 2 weeks before WW2 armistice. His writings and example are more powerful today than ever before.

      Please forgive my dear, but I am so tired of ‘yes, ok, that’s what the Bible says BUT, after all, we have to be practical.’ I don’t buy it.

    • Thanks for taking the time to read and comment, Rebecca.

      For me, it is important to point out that I am not advocating an extreme pacifism that denies the right of self-defense in extreme cases such as you point out; ie the person breaking into your home.

      What I am talking about here is a lifestyle of peacemaking over the use of violent force to solve our problems. When Jesus says to not resist evil, he is talking about the way in which his disciples resist. They are to resist, yes, but to do so creatively and nonviolently. We lack the imagination to see how this is even possible, in part because we have bought so much into the world’s narrative of redemptive violence.

      So yes, the actions of offenders are to be accounted for. Hitler is not to be allowed to run amok in his bid for world domination. But as disciples of Jesus, we are called to the “third way” of nonviolent resistance. It is not natural in that it does not correspond to either our “fight” or “flight” instinct. But this is where the grace of God, and our training in the way of peacemaking, must come in. Most Christians have explored this option little if at all. I wrote this article in the hope of encouraging more people to do just that.

  4. Concerning Peter and the ‘unbelting of every soldier’ – In striking the high priest’s servant, Peter was, in effect, revisiting a behavior for which Jesus had previously rebuked him; i.e., when Peter said Jesus death must never be, Jesus replied “get thee behind me, Satan”. Interesting that Peter first objected verbally and Jesus replied verbally. Peter’s second objection was in action (to strike with sword), Jesus replied with action (healing). Both rebukes dealt specifically with Peter’s effort to prevent the crucifixion of Jesus and thereby the salvation of humanity.

    To expand the article, perhaps there should be some discussion of how Peter’s action translates into non-violence for all believers. As Ciaphas prophesied – “it is better the one should die for the many” wherein Christ has, indeed, died for all. Christians are called to the cross to deal with our sinful nature, but where in scripture are we called to die a martyrs death as well? And if it is plainly commanded by scripture, why aren’t Christians lining up to die?

    This I ask in light of a few other scriptures – Luke 22:36 in which Jesus instructs His followers to buy a sword, and Mark 13:14, Luke 21:20-21, in which He instructs His followers to flee to the mountains. Each of these commands are about the preservation of life, not willing martyrdom. Similarly, if Jesus message was “do not resist death”, why did He not allow the people of Nazareth to throw him off the cliff (Luke 4:29-30)?

    In the spirit of “to everything there is a season”, I believe there are seasons for living and for death. And where God has appointed each man to die once, He has indeed ordained our death. But from our birth to God’s appointed death, are we not to continue living, even to protect and defend our lives from men who would seek to take our lives prematurely – apart from the will of God? Why else tell us to buy a sword, or flee for the mountains?

    Concerning non-violence, I have reasoned “if God is not big enough to protect me from violence, what good is a gun” and conversely “if I need a gun to protect myself, what use is God”? Note that I do own them and enjoy target practice, but I never expect to use one defensively in as much as the Father has always steered us clear of such situations.


    • Thanks for the suggestions and questions, Jack! I will be mindful of them as I expand the article. Very much appreciated.

      • Hi Josh, What’s difficult in this discussion, is keeping the discussion well focused / defined; i.e., are we talking about war – where nations and governments go to war against each other and Christians enlist or are conscripted to fight in them – on behalf of the “state”? Or are we talking about self preservation / defense? My comments were intended for self preservation / defense only. Some of the comments of those you cited seem to me to go beyond war and into the realm of self preservation / defense – I feel much differently about war than self-defense.

        The war in Vietnam was coming to an end when I graduated from high school – and believe you me, I was sweating the draft as were most of my classmates. I had talked to my pastor about the war in preparation of registering as a conscientious objector. Thankfully they ended the draft and changed me to 4F status, so I didn’t have to act on my convictions. Back in that day, draft dodgers and conscientious objectors got a lot of grief for refusing to go into the service.

        In closing, while I took a non-violent approach then, my view of it these days has more to do with my inheritance in Christ; specifically, I am no longer of this world, but a citizen of Heaven, born again and a new creation. As such, I have no desire or sense of obligation to fight for the state – man. The same holds true concerning politics and elections. Unless the Father were to specifically tell me to “fight for my country” or “vote for” some candidate, I would not involve myself in war or politics.

        I have no king but Jesus. I’m neither keen on electing nor supporting a Saul. You know? 😉 😀

        Blessings! Jack

  5. Thanks for the great article which I agree with completely. Maybe you can clear up something I heard. I know Bonhoeffer died for his faith. Is it true that he was involved in an attempt to assassinate Hitler? Would that be considered like a”just war” thing?

    • Hey Joy.

      Yes, Bonhoeffer was involved in the plot to assassinate Hitler. From what I understand it was a tremendous conflict of conscience for him, and I can’t really say how he justified it as I haven’t studied it in much detail. He came to the U.S. early in the war but then felt bad about being safe over here while his people were suffering over there, so he went back. Then he became involved in the resistance movement.

      They arrested him on lesser charges and only later found out he was part of the assassination plot. He was hanged for his participation in the resistance just a few weeks before Allied forces liberated the town where he was being held. It’s a tremendous story.

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