Essay: Christian Non-Violence
This paper was written for my Social Ethics last year as part of my Master of Divinity. I will be slowly posting the best of my work to the blog as well as more of it to my portfolio website.
A Christian Ethic of Violence
As Christians, one of the names we apply to our central figure, Jesus, is “the Prince of Peace.” Peace has always been a goal of Christianity in some sense or another. There is agreement that peace is a goal, and that violence should be avoided. How this goal is achieved, however, is not nearly as unanimous. On the one side is the peace position which contends that “peace is not merely a distant goal that we seek, but a means by which we arrive at that goal.” On the other side, there are those who see peace as a goal to be obtained by any means necessary, as with Malcolm X. This “any means necessary” could include violence, theorizing with a consequentialist argument that it is the best way to create less violence in the long run, and has become known as the Just War position.
There are some core underlying questions which affect this debate. For one, when we ask whether any violence is ethical, who is it that we are asking if it is ethical for? While the question of a universal ethic is also a valuable one, this paper is speaking about an ecclesial ethic: one for the followers of Jesus, the church. As John Howard Yoder argues, if the Christian ethic is the same as any other ethic, then “is there such a thing as a Christian ethic at all?” The ethic of the state or of humanity as a whole is not the issue at hand here, as the goals of the state and the goals of the church are not necessarily the same. While the church exists to be the body of Christ on earth, the state exists to restrain what it sees as evil and protect the majority of its citizens. While this distinction between church and state may have been a much more significant problem during the Age of Christendom, in the post-Christendom world it is more acceptable to acknowledge conflicts between the two.
To a second fundamental question, then: where does the ethic for this church come from? This paper, as with many who represent the peace position, assumes a position of the teachings of Jesus as normative. As a follower of Jesus, the church is to take his teachings seriously. As Yoder explains the problem of the source of Christian ethics:
A…question we will need to ask is what becomes of the meaning of incarnation if Jesus is not normative man? If he is a man but not normative, is this not the ancient ebionite heresy? If he be somehow authoritative but not in his humanness, is this not a new Gnosticism?
This does not dismiss other ethical sources by any means. Particularly of note here are consequentialist responses, although the standard utilitarian metric of happiness is not the most fitting as a measurement tool for the Christian who seeks deeper ends. Instead, the metric used should be the primary goal of Jesus: the “realization of the kingdom of God. The kingdom (or sovereignty) of God was a new world order of transformed human relationship; it was social, economic, and political relationships in this world made holy.” There is no doubt that defining specifically what advances the Kingdom of God is a matter of honest dispute amongst Christians on some issues. Interestingly, however, one thing that is in agreement is that the Kingdom of God is a kingdom of peace. Therefore as a second metric, using consequentialist ethics, the question of the ethics of violence can be analyzed based on what will create peace in the long term.
The Teachings of Jesus
Many who argue for the peace position do so primarily based on the teachings of Jesus. As those who claim as Christians to be followers of Christ, that should not be an abstract theological concept; rather, it should mean that Jesus is our leader in making everyday decisions, including ethical ones. Many excuses are presented for why Jesus is not normative for Christian ethics, at least on some teachings such as nonviolent resistance, which lead us to conclude that Jesus is ultimately irrelevant with conclusions such as that: “his apocalypticism and his radical monotheism may teach us to be modest; his personalism may teach us to cherish the values of face-to-face relationships, but as to the stuff of our decision-making we shall have to have other sources of help.” This simply is not the understanding of the biblical witness, however, which seems to be clear that Jesus taught with authority of moral interpretation and if we reject this we are throwing into question far bigger theological statements like biblical revelation and the meaning of the incarnation. With an assumption of a normative authority of Jesus, then, the debates turn to what Jesus actually taught.
It has been said that everybody who reads the Gospels knows Jesus is a pacifist except for Christians. Many of his teachings, understood simply, are clearly leaning toward a nonviolent position. Jesus tells Peter to put away his sword because “all who live by the sword die by the sword,” even though “from the world’s point of view, this violence was justified. Peter was simply defending himself and his master.”  This different concept of power – away from the “power-over” kingdoms which rely on force – is also evident in other situations such as his questioning from Pilate. When Pilate asks him if he is a King, Jesus responds that he is, but it is a kingdom that is from another place, and points to his followers’ refusal to fight against his unfair arrest as evidence that his kingdom is “not of this world.” As Greg Boyd puts it, “while all the kingdoms of the world use violence to fight enemies who threaten them, Jesus commands his followers to refuse violence and serve enemies – regardless of how justified the use of violence might seem by ‘normal’ standards.”
Perhaps most bluntly of all are two teachings typically considered central to Jesus’ message: “love your neighbour” which even means “love your enemy.” Jesus teaches for his followers to “love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.” When it comes down to it, how do we justify that loving our neighbour means killing them or otherwise doing physical harm to them? Augustine offered one counter-interpretation by saying that you can love somebody in your motivations or intentions even as you kill them. Looking at the text directly, however, loving your enemies is equated to doing good to them, and therefore not killing them, so when some attempt to argue that you can love while hurting somebody, “Jesus doesn’t leave open this possibility.”
On the other hand, those in favour of Just War Theory cannot and generally do not simply dismiss the teachings of Jesus, either. Typically Just War theorists find ways to argue that Jesus did not really mean it as a command for everybody, and rely on less-direct “teachings” instead. There is the argument from silence of the Roman soldier who was not told to stop fighting. There is the “I bring not peace but a sword,” which is taken wildly out of context when used to argue for Christian violence. Within its context, divisions within families are being discussed, so taken to mean literal violence Jesus would be saying that we are to kill our non-Christian family. There is also Romans 13, which claims that the state bears the sword for a reason – the state, not the church, but if the two are equated then it is easy to see how Christian violence is justified by it. There is the seemingly violent Jesus of Revelation, but there are two challenges to this. For one, there isn’t any evidence that Jesus actually is violent in Revelation. The sword is notably coming from his mouth, symbolizing the power of his words, and the blood on him is his own rather than his enemies. Even for those who insist on a violent eschatology, however, this does not bridge the gap between the acceptability of a violent omniscient and perfectly just God and the acceptability of violence in his followers who do not have such traits.  In summary, there is no case for the New Testament encouraging violence for Christians.
A much more powerful argument comes from the Old Testament where there is no doubt that at times God is violent and commands violence of his followers. There are many answers to this from the peace perspective, but the best explanation in this author’s humble opinion is that of progressive revelation. As John Piper exegetes the command to enemy love, he says this:
The most important conclusion we can draw from this incident for our purpose is this: whereas once God made concessions on account of the hardness of man’s [humanity’s] heart and thus provided a control of the evil effects of that hard heart, Jesus now abolishes such concessions.
This principle can work backward to understanding the Old Testament violence as a product of an older, now-superseded revelation even when it was commanded by God. This idea of progressive revelation is one that is widely accepted for other questions, even ethical questions, but is often rejected by Just War Theorists in order to hold onto some biblical argument for holy violence. Within Scripture, it is clear to see evolutions such as in God’s uniqueness, God’s ethics, God’s universality, God’s agency, and God’s character. The violence of God in earlier texts, then, should be understood not as an absolute rule for all time, but as one stage in the grand story of the biblical narrative.  The culmination of this progressive revelation is in the life of Jesus. As aptly explained by the Quaker scholar Elton Trueblood: “The historic Christian doctrine of the divinity of Christ does not simply mean that Jesus is like God. It is far more radical than that. It means that God is like Jesus.” Even assuming authority of the Old Testament, the peace teachings of Jesus have shown the “image of the invisible God.”
Understanding Just War Theory
Turning now to the second metric of the advancement of the Kingdom of God, Just War Theory has a much stronger defense. The theory lays out a wide variety of criteria which are necessary in order for a war to be justifiable. This is a notable distinction of Just War Theory in the original medieval sense: “the just war idea is a concession to the sovereign who thinks he has to fight.” Although the language is sometimes used politically as an encouragement to war because it is the just thing to do, that is not the theory properly understood in its initial theological form. In the original meaning war is only permissible – not encouraged, but permissible – if every criteria is met, always as a check against violence. War is seen as a moral concession, a lesser of the evils. Prior to the Protestant Reformation, the accountability provided by the priesthood forced earthly rulers to at least to try to follow these guidelines or they would be forced to pay penance. With the Protestant Reformation’s emphasis on the priesthood of all believers, much of the power of accountability was removed from the church and war became much more acceptable, even to the extent of Just War Theory becoming creedal in some cases, as it never had been in the Medieval Roman Catholic Church.
The criteria for Just War Theory are not easy to meet, either. The specific criteria have shifted over the years within different groups, but the general criteria have fallen within two categories: just cause for war (jus ad bellum) and just action within war (jus in bello). In the first category are requirements for a legitimate authority, which is a challenge to define and depends on the “common sense” of the era. A Just War must also have a just cause, which must be an actual and not only possible offense. A Just War must be fought with right intentions in the objective sense where “the only valid intention is the restoration of peace, the creation of a total world state of affairs better than what would be obtained without the intervention. This includes the enemy’s real best interests.” It must also have just intention in the subjective sense: the motivation of those engaging in war must be pure. Finally, all of these criteria must be applied throughout the proper process, which includes that war only occurs as a last resort after all other tactics have been attempted first. Once war has begun, there are limitations on the actions within war as well, most notably the protection of innocents (even those supporting the other side) and the law of proportionality that damage done must be in proportion to the crime committed and no more. 
The majority of the arguments in favour of Just War Theory have been consequentialist ones of some variant or another. Augustine of Hippo, often credited as the father of the Christian Just War Theory (the secular Roman version can be traced back farther, at least to Cicero), summarizes the motives of war this way:
Whoever gives even moderate attention to human affairs and to our common nature will recognize that if there is no man who does not wish to be joyful, neither is there anyone who does not wish to have peace. For even they who make war desire nothing but victory – desire, that is to say, to attain to peace with glory. For what else is victory than the conquest of those who resist us? And when this is done there is peace. It is therefore with the desire for peace that all wars are waged…
In other words, everybody desires peace. The difference is how this is achieved, where the Just War proponents argue for what John Dominic Crossan refers to as “peace through victory” and was the dominant theory behind Rome’s imperial Pax Romana.
Beginning to analyze the ethical stance of the Just War Theory, there are certain assumptions required in order for Just War Theory to be a logical position. The first of these assumptions is common sense and a common definition of terms, i.e. that everybody will know and agree what is a “legitimate authority” and what is a “humane weapon” for example. There is also an assumption of trust in “our” regime and “our” side, creating a necessary “us and them” where the “us” is inherently trustworthy and the “them” may or may not be. A third assumption is that it is good for Christians to rule the world, combining the spiritual sword with the temporal sword in the name of the Prince of Peace. A fourth assumption is that justifiable war is analogous to policing, using just enough violence to restrain evil. Fifthly, it is assumed that the good guys will win and that the good guys should win, so if somebody weighing the risks knows their side is the good guys then there is little risk. Finally, there is a presumed moral inferiority of the other side, which is essentially the opposite side of the coin of assuming trustworthiness of one’s own side. If all of these assumptions are actually true, then Just War Theory becomes a logical conclusion: “we” must restrain the evil of “them.” As Greg Boyd summarizes why the position does make sense with these assumptions:
Fallen humans tend to identify their own group as righteous and any group that opposes them as evil. If they were not evil, we tend to believe, no conflict would exist. Hence, the only way to end the conflict is to “rid the world of this evil,” as President George W. Bush said after the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. The “good” (our tribe) must extinguish the “evil” (their tribe), using all means necessary, including violence. This is the age-old “myth of redemptive violence.”
If these assumptions begin to be rejected, however – and particularly the “us and them” attitudes which are typically rejected, at least in principle, in the postmodern world – then the logic of Just War Theory begins to dissolve.
Another important question arises: how many wars even qualify for these criteria? In a world where a warhead can wipe out a city with pressing a button, it is virtually impossible to guarantee no civilian casualties in modern warfare. Almost all wars are eliminated on that requirement alone. It is left up to the individual soldier to determine whether a war is justified enough for them to fight, which is unlikely to happen as their training engrains obedience to the hierarchy. As just two examples, it is clear that the Just War Theory may make sense as a theory, but has trouble transitioning into reality.
In reality, Just War Theory for the church’s goal of advancing the Kingdom of God is not nearly as practical as its proponents tend to assume. On the other hand, as this paper will now explore, non-violent resistance is much more effective in this goal than Just War Theorists tend to assume. The question left to the ethicist is, in Crossan’s words, “whether peace on earth [is] to be established as Augustus’s peace through victory or Jesus’s peace through justice.”
The Practicality of Non-Violent Resistance
It is one thing to say that Christians should be non-violent because Jesus commanded it. In one sense as Christians, this should be enough, but there is also always the question of what good comes from those commands being followed. Here is where many reject the nonviolent position based on a misunderstanding that sees Jesus’ tactics of nonviolence as ineffective. There is no doubt that it is a radically different method for peace, one which can be described as “peace through justice, peace through the forgiveness of enemies, peace through reconciliation, peace through embrace and grace.” This, however, is not the same thing as saying it is ineffective, and can be argued to be the only tactics that truly do advance the Kingdom of God.
A common misunderstanding is that pacifism is equivalent to passivity, as many Just War Theorists respond to the arguments for non-violence with the question “well, are we just supposed to do nothing about evil in the world?” This is a false dichotomy, as to be a pacifist does not mean to be passive; rather, it means to pacify. To pacify is an active word, so technically speaking, Just War Theorists could even argue that the best way to pacify in some circumstances is to be violent. This linguistic confusion is the reason that I have chosen to refer to “the peace position” or “the non-violence position” rather than “the pacifist position,” although there is no doubt that many still assume that the non-violent position is equivalent to doing nothing. Even scholars fall into this trap, such as Dr. Victor Shepherd, who told film-maker John Campea:
I myself want to be a pacifist with all my heart, and I’m almost there until I see once again film footage of a 5-year-old, an 8-year-old, a 9-year-old, Jewish children huddled on a railway platform in Eastern Europe three days away from their execution… [he continues with the graphic details of the Holocaust]… At this point I have to tell you my pacifism evaporates. I fail to understand how anybody could not intervene for the sake of those children, regardless of what that intervention entailed, in situations like that.
This leads into an important note of language. It is true that Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:39 are typically translated as “do not resist an evil-doer.” Upon linguistic hermeneutics of this text, however, the Greek word in use for “resistance” has embedded within it the concept of violence. In fact, this is accompanied by the teachings of turning the other cheek, giving up your cloak, and going the extra mile. These are not commands to be passively non-resistant as some are inclined to interpret without understanding the context. For example, in order for somebody to strike you on your right cheek in a society where left-handedness was not recognized, it had to be a backhand slap as would be given to a slave or some other inferior. It was not painful nearly as much as it was degrading. By turning the other cheek, it is true that you are accepting physical pain, but that physical pain is accepted on your own terms with a slap as would be given from a man to his equal. Similar contextual cues give away the same meanings with going the extra mile and giving away your cloak. They are not passive commands; they are commands to be actively but non-violently standing up for yourself and others. Jesus’ message in this teaching can be summarized this way:
What Jesus taught his followers was that they should not resist evil by resorting to violence. In other words, they should not fight evil with evil, violence with violence; they should not diminish their own humanity by mimicking their oppressors’ inhumanity. Telling his followers not to resist at all in the same context in which he prescribes resistance strategies makes no sense.
For Jesus, non-violence was not something to be done even though it doesn’t work. Put another way, “the disciple who renounces the sword and the gun does so not because they are too dangerous but because they are too weak.” Resisting evil with evil is too weak, ultimately unable to change the cyclical system of violence in the world.
What, then, was Jesus’ political strategy? It was not justifiable violence as in the Just War tradition, and it was not passivity as is sometimes mistakenly equated to the peace position. Jesus’ strategy was a “third way” which “abhors both passivity and violence,” summarized in these points by Walter Wink:
- Seize the moral initiative
- Find a creative alternative to violence
- Assert your own humanity and dignity as a person
- Meet force with ridicule or humor
- Break the cycle of humiliation
- Refuse to submit to or to accept the inferior position
- Expose the injustice of the system
- Take control of the power dynamic
- Shame the oppressor into repentance
- Stand your ground
- Force those in power to make decisions for which they have not prepared
- Recognize your own power
- Be willing to suffer rather than to retaliate
- Force the oppressor to see you in a new light
- Deprive the oppressor of a situation in which a show of force is necessary/effective
- Be willing to undergo the penalty for breaking unjust laws
- Die to fear of the old order and its rules
- Seek the oppressor’s transformation
In this strategy, the ultimate goal is to overcome injustice by “expos[ing] the depth of the inequity by showing the lengths of self-sacrifice to which people will go to oppose it. Yet because the opponents of nonviolent resistance are not crushed or humiliated, the strategy offers a basis for reconciliation.”
Following the Effective Way of Christ
Proponents of both Just War Theory and of the absolute peace position have far more in common than apart: all agree that peace is the goal, and both want to avoid violence. The question at hand is the tactics to be used to be used in reaching this goal. This paper has argued that Jesus clearly taught a nonviolent ethic meant to be normative for his followers, the church. It has also argued that Jesus’ method is ultimately more effective than Just War Theory in advancing the Kingdom of God, which relies on faulty “common sense” assumptions that circulate the system of violence. At its best when actually followed, Just War Theory is able to temporarily restrain violence, relocate violence from one side of the war to another. At its worst, it is the very violence that justified wars are supposed to be defeating. Either way, it does not end the normalcy of violence, which must be absent from the peaceful Kingdom of God. Jesus offers his followers a method that is not passive to evil but is pacifying of evil. Neither is it a method that will use evil in the name of stopping evil. In short, Christians are to “not be overcome by evil, but [to] overcome evil with good.”
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—. The Myth of a Christian Nation: How the Quest for Political Power is Destroying the Church. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005.
Prince of Peace, God of War. Directed by John Campea. Produced by John Campea. Performed by John Campea, et al. 2006.
Cavey, Bruxy. Inglorious Pastors (Series). April-May, 2010. Audio and Video Podcast. Retrieved from http://themeetinghouse.ca/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=121&Itemid=3.
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 Martin Luther King Jr., as quoted by Gregory A. Boyd, Myth of a Christian Religion: Losing Your Religion for the Beauty of a Revolution, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009), Chapter 8: The Revolt Against Violence
 This basis of comparison was borrowed from: Bruxy Cavey, Inglorious Pastors (Series), The Meeting House AudioCast [podcast], http://themeetinghouse.ca/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=121&Itemid=3 (April-May 2010)
 John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus: Vicit Agnus Noster, (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1972), 22
 This often comes up with respect to this debate using Romans 13, which states that the government “bears the sword for a reason,” and Romans 12 which calls the church to “live at peace with everyone”. Those supporting the peace position argue that this demonstrates two different ethics, while those in the just war position may combine the two sections as one ethic, arguing that this demonstrates that living at peace in the long term may mean bearing the sword in the short-term. For the sake of this paper, I am reading the texts at face-value that there are two different ethics being spoken of, not necessarily contradictory but not identical either.
 The Anabaptists and some other smaller movements definitely tried to create a wider distinction, but remained fringe movements for their radical church-state theology
 Yoder, Politics of Jesus, 22
 Obery Hendricks, The Politics of Jesus: Rediscovering the True Revolutionary Nature of Jesus’ Teachings and How They Have Been Corrupted, (Toronto, ON: Doubleday, 2006), Chapter 4: Messiah and Tactician: The Political Strategies of Jesus
 Yoder, Politics of Jesus, 19
 Matthew 7:28-29 (NIV)
 Yoder, Politics of Jesus, 22
 As discussed above from Yoder, Politics of Jesus, 22
 Boyd, Christian Religion, Chapter 8: The Revolt Against Violence; speaking about Matthew 26:51-53
 “Power-over kingdoms” is a term used to mean earthly kingdoms throughout Gregory A. Boyd, Myth of a Christian Nation: How the Quest for Political Power is Destroying the Church, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005)
 John 18:36
 Boyd, Christian Religion, Chapter 8: The Revolt Against Violence
 Matthew 22:39; Mark 12:31, 33; Luke 10:27; also Romans 13:9; Galatians 5:14; James 2:8
 Matthew 5:43-48
 Luke 6:27-28
 In the words of atheist comedian Bill Maher, “for almost 2000 years, Christians have been lawyering the Bible to try and figure out ‘love thy neighbor’ can mean ‘hate thy neighbor’ and ‘turn the other cheek’ can mean ‘screw you, I’m buying space lasers.’”
From: Bill Maher, “New Rules” in Real Time with Bill Maher, 2011, retrieved from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KAvDtPz33w0
 Boyd, Christian Religion, Chapter 8: The Revolution Against Violence
 Boyd, Christian Religion, Chapter 8: The Revolution Against Violence
 Cavey, “But What About…” in Inglorious Pastor (Series) [podcast]
 John Piper, Love Your Enemies: Jesus’ Love Command in the Synoptic Gospels and in the Early Christian Paraenesis: A History of the Tradition and Interpretation of its Uses, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979), 89
 Divorce is a clear example as Jesus responds to the question of why Moses commanded divorce by saying that Moses permitted divorce. He over-rules the previous permission granted to hard hearts with a deeper principle of the two becoming one flesh. (Matthew 19:3-12)
 Brian D. McLaren, A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions That Are Transforming the Faith, Chapter 10: Is God Violent?
 As quoted by McLaren, Chapter 11: From a Violent Tribal God to a Christlike God
 Colossians 1:15
 John Howard Yoder, Christian Attitudes to War, Peace, and Revolution, (Grand Rapids: BrazosPress, 2009), 83
 Yoder, Christian Attitudes, 83-84
 Yoder, Christian Attitudes, 115-125
 In most recent memory, the Iraq War propaganda employed Just War language, and it clearly fails on this point.
 Yoder, Christian Attitudes, 90
 Yoder, Christian Attitudes, 88-94
 Augustine, Marcus Dods, trans., City of God, (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 200), 621
 John Dominic Crossan, The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant, (Toronto: HarperCollins e-Books, 1991), Chapter 2: War and Peace: A Shrine to Augustan Peace
 Yoder, Christian Attitudes, 75-82
 Boyd, Christian Nation, 26
 John Dominic Crossan, God and Empire: Jesus Against Rome, Then and Now, (Toronto: HarperCollins e-Books, 2007), Chapter 3: Jesus and the Kingdom of God
 Brian D. McLaren, Everything Must Change: Jesus, Global Crises, and a Revolution of Hope, (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2007), 159
 Prince of Peace, God of War. Internet Documentary. Directed by John Campeas. 2006. Retrieved from http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=8712962345548279316, 55:41-56:41
 Hendricks, Chapter 4
 Hendricks, Chapter 4
 Samuel Wells and Ben Quash, Introducing Christian Ethics, (Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell Publishing, 2010), 18 summarizing the work of John Howard Yoder
 McLaren, Everything Must Change, 149-185
 Shane Claiborne and Chris Haw, Jesus For President: Politics for Ordinary Radicals, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008), 94
 As cited by Hendricks, Chapter 4
 Hendricks, Chapter 4
 Romans 12:21