3 Bad Arguments for Christian Violence

Medieval Sword

This is a medieval sword, not Ancient Roman, but I thought it looked cool.
Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/albioneurope/7312976032/

In a comment discussion on another blog, I was given three really bad arguments in favour of Christian violence, so I’m going to take a minute to answer them here just in case others have heard similar. To be clear, I have heard better arguments. I’m not dismissing genuine proponents of Just War Theory as not really Christians or anything like that. But these particular arguments are really bad.

God Judges

The first was the parable of the tenant farmers in Matthew 21:33-45. Short version: God is landowner but rents it out. Tenants refuse to pay for the land, so God sends messengers (prophets) who they kill, until he sends his son (Jesus) who they also kill. God will “totally destroy” (CEB) those farmers.

Therefore violence is ok for all Christians, so the theory goes. One problem with that theory is that it equates all Christians with God. Since God can destroy people, so can Christians. But I have an unfortunate newsflash: we aren’t God.

More to the point, the parable’s message is precisely opposite of how this man was using it. The whole point is how the tenants (Israel) kept killing people, including God’s son, and God did not like that very much. To take that as a message that violence is good is completely missing the point. If there’s any message about violence in this text, it’s that God will totally destroy you for taking violence into your own hands.

Note: I’ll stay out of a bigger debate about what God’s judgement means, whether it is an active punishment or an allowing us to experience the negative consequences of our choices. Either way, the main point here stands.

The Argument from Selected Silence

Jesus met Roman soldiers and didn’t tell them immediately to quit. Therefore, Jesus was totally ok with everything the Romans did to the Jews and elsewhere, including and especially violence to assert their power.

This isn’t even a complete argument from silence. They need to use silence in a couple of discussions to ignore blatantly-opposed teaching elsewhere.

Imagine if we did this for every topic. Nobody ever has to share their wealth because Jesus didn’t tell everyone he met they had to, even though he did tell some that. Nobody ever has to treat women with respect, because Jesus didn’t tell everyone he met they had to, even though he modelled it and taught in empowering ways. Pick your favourite sin and find any story where Jesus doesn’t mention it and you’re home free!

It should be pretty obvious that not saying anything on the topic in one spot does not overrule saying it completely clearly in others.

Kingdom Not of This World

This may be the most confusing of the three. Jesus says to Pilate that his Kingdom is not of this world and that is why his followers don’t fight like Pilate’s followers do. Somehow that translates into it being ok for his followers to fight just like Pilate’s.

My guess is that he was thinking that sometimes your loyalty is to Jesus, sometimes to your country. When it comes to violence, and often a lot of other things, loyalty to country wins. In other words, he was focusing on Jesus’ acknowledging that Pilate and his men used violence to get their way.

It’s a problem to ignore the contrast that Jesus’ acknowledgement leads to, though: Jesus’ followers – ie Christians – don’t fight. We are different than the ways of the Roman Empire. This to me is one of the most clear statements of Christian nonviolence. We don’t fight because Jesus’ Kingdom is not one of violence. If your loyalty is to the state, not to Jesus, fair enough – don’t call yourself a Christian. You’re a [insert nationality here] with some occasional elements of Christianity sprinkled in when they don’t conflict.

Ryan Robinson

It is easiest to identify Ryan as both theologian and tech guy. By day, Ryan is a Technical Consultant work with PeaceWorks Technology Solutions. There, he works on websites, CRMs, and SharePoint implementations. Along with blogging here, Ryan is a founding member of the MennoNerds blogging network and a contributor to the book A Living Alternative.

  • Good post. Very strong ending. We are disciples of Jesus iff we follow his example.

  • Question: are you familiar with Derek Flood’s work on the subject? I’ve found him very helpful. His book, Disarming Scripture, was a game changer for me when it comes to the meaning of discipleship.

    • I’ve read a few glowing reviews of it, but haven’t had a chance to pick it up myself yet.

      • I am reading that book right now. It is very good.

  • Athanasius

    To me, the best argument for a Christian using violence as a last resort is that while you love the enemy who is killing someone, you also love the victim, and live out that love for the victim by using force to stop the enemy. For example, if a Christian was a passenger on Flight 91 on Sept. 11, 2001, should he join the other passengers in attacking the hijackers (using deadly force if necessary) in order to save the lives of all the passengers and of those in the U.S. Capitol (which was the likely target of the terrorists)? Wouldn’t this be living out love for the victims and potential victims? I would be interested in the Anabaptist response to this dilemma. Thanks, great blog!

    • I’m inclined to agree that your scenario is probably the best argument. That particular example is better than the usual home invasion one, too, since those passengers probably did have an idea of the scale of damage with a high probability of occurring.

      The point I would emphasize here is that Just War and total peace theology agree for a really long time in these kind of scenarios (unlike Holy War). You make a point of saying “if necessary,” which is the Just War imperative to still try anything else possible first. True Just War theory agrees it would still be evil to take that life, but a necessary evil. Unfortunately I’m not familiar enough with the situation to offer too many hypothetical options. With multiple passengers against the hijackers, is there no way to disarm and restrain them? Were they able to make phone calls out that could have led to evacuating likely targets? Could a sacrificial calling out their evil while not playing by their rules have provided enough of a distraction for someone to gain control? Perhaps it will require sacrificing your own life, but from Jesus’ example and teachings, I would definitely say it is better to give your life for others than to take lives from others.

      The big difference between a true Just War thinker – not a Holy War thinker in disguise – and a pacifist is that the pacifist thinks there are always other options while Just War thinks there may eventually be a scenario where there is no other option. Both still have peace as a goal. Both agree that we should be creative in finding nonviolent options and exhausting them before we even consider repaying evil with evil. I would like to see more Christians of the pacifist and Just War persuasions band together to provide more teaching on practical peacemaking strategies so that they become our first instinct instead of violence.

      While it is an interesting thought experiment, I honestly don’t know what I would do in that situation. But I do know that I don’t think Jesus would have ever killed anybody – he definitely could have made an argument to kill Romans to save Jews – and therefore as his follower I won’t either.