Reflection: Non-Violence

Beginning this week’s readings was an anomaly for what I expect to happen the rest of this course. This issue, unlike many of the others to come, is something that I have looked into previously on my own, particularly in the past two or three years as I have begun to identify myself with the Anabaptist understanding of Christianity. Part of this understanding, from which a belief in non-violence stems, is the idea of Jesus as normative (Wells and Quash, 14-21) for ecclesial ethics (180-206). The references to John Howard Yoder throughout the book have continued to resonate deeply with me, as have some of his works that I have read on my own or for other classes. I agree with Yoder in saying that “the New Testament does enjoin… the specific imitation of Jesus in relation to encounters with enmity and power” (18). From that starting point, then, it is not much of a surprise that I have already taken a fairly strong stance on this issue, again unlike many of the issues to come. My other starting caveat for this reflection is that I intend to do my research paper on this topic, so this very short reflection will barely touch on a lot of the different themes I’m already considering for a more complete discussion then.

From this normative Jesus and ecclesial ethics perspective the question becomes fairly simple: does Jesus teach, and therefore expect his followers to obey, a life of non-violence? There are many other issues involved which I’ll continue to in a moment, but at the heart of the question for those of us in this framework those are entirely secondary. For us, it is clear that Jesus commanded love of neighbour (Matthew 22:39) and enemy (Matthew 5:44), turning the other cheek (Matthew 5:39), and demonstrated non-resistance to his own unjust execution (John 18:36). While I respect my fellow interpreters who conclude that Jesus condoned violence of himself and his followers, I personally feel like it requires some very creative hermeneutics to reach that point and that a non-violent Jesus is a more obvious interpretation.

Some people have therefore presented the pacifist vs. just war question as one of Jesus vs. practicality. Those in favour of just war primarily get there by reasonable means while those in the pacifist position are usually those like me following an ethic of Jesus as normative. I recall a film-maker who was working on a documentary of this topic interviewing people of both views. When he asked those on the just war side what would be the greatest argument against their position, every single one responded with “Jesus.” I think there is some truth to this but that it is not a complete truth because I think that the pacifist position is perfectly reasonable as well – it just depends on what the goal is. At this point the two distinct kingdoms theology of the Anabaptists comes into play for me, as well as the fact I am talking about ecclesial ethics and not universal ethics. I do not claim that the state should immediately become non-violent, although of course I think that if everybody did then it would be a better world. Like Paul in Romans 13, I believe that the state bears the sword for a reason. But also like Paul in Romans 12, I believe the church is called to “live at peace with everyone” and “not repay anyone evil for evil.” I claim that the church, members and disciples of a higher Kingdom, are to serve the priorities of that Kingdom first and that Jesus made peace one of the top priorities of that Kingdom.

I appreciate the added thoughts of pragmatic pacifists as well (Wells and Quash, 231-232). It only takes a brief look through history to see that attempting to stop violence with violence rarely works. For example, the brutal restrictions on Germany after WWI was a very direct cause of WWII. Within my own lifetime, I have witnessed the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001 and all of the reaction to it. In an effort to create peace, Americans and their allies (Canada included) have waged further wars that have resulted in many more deaths than occurred in the towers. Especially on the recent 10-year anniversary, I heard many say that the world changed that day. I actually disagree – all that changed was the target, but it is the exact same cycle of nationalist violence and hatred. Sadly, in the “war on terror” all that the United States and her allies have done is shift the terror back onto their enemies. By the ways of the world, this is victory, but I believe by the ways of the Kingdom of God, it is a complete and utter failure to love our enemies and to live a life of peace. Therefore if the goal is truly peace, then a “war to end all wars” like WWI has never worked anyway – at best it postpones conflict, maybe relocates it onto our enemies instead of us, but the only way to actually break free of the cycle of violence is to stop participating in it, in the vein of Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr.

I know that the objections come quickly as well. Some point to Scriptural reasons, as I do, using the Old Testament in support of just wars or even holy wars. I believe that the entire Bible is inspired by God so I definitely do not dismiss these interpretations. I do still disagree, however, claiming that Jesus is our priority as he is “the true image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15) and therefore if we seek to understand God’s character we must look to the non-violent Jesus first. I have heard some answers for how to explain the Old Testament violence of God and his people and again I hope to develop this further in my research paper.

I have not done serious justice to any of the aspects of this debate and there are more themes of the conversation that I haven’t even touched on. For example, even if you accept church-state union and just war theory for both, then how many wars in history have actually qualified anyway? Just how much should Christians get involved with worldly politics, especially in nations where they are the majority and thus strict separation seems unreasonable? If not fight, then what do we do to contribute to establishing peace, knowing that pacifism means to pacify (actively bring peace) and not to be passive as sometimes mistakenly assumed? It is a complex issue, and these are valuable questions, but I reiterate that I believe at its core should be the question of what Jesus taught for those who call ourselves his followers.

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.