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?
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