Reflections on a Life of Nonviolent Discipleship

The case for Christian nonviolence can be summed up as follows:

i) Jesus is true God and true man, the incarnate divine life in historical operation as a true human person. Jesus is also the archetypal example of the imago dei (Col. 1:15), the definitive revelation of who God is and what God is like (Heb. 1:1-4; John 1:14-18).

ii) Conformity to Jesus is the goal of God’s redemption of the imago dei. God everywhere and at all times intends to direct the identity and behavior of the Church through the example he provided in Jesus (1 Peter 2, Romans 12, Philippians 2, et al).

iii) Jesus lived nonviolently (Matt. 26:51-53; Mark 15:16-20; Luke 23:34) and directed his followers to replicate his example, rebuking them when they failed to do so (Matt. 5:38-48; Luke 6:27-36; 9:51-56; 22:47-51).

iv) There is no intervening material (either biblical or pre-Constantinian) that might persuade us to live otherwise than how Jesus directed his first disciples. The early church (that is, the ante-Nicene church) was uniformly nonviolent in its convictions (Acts of the Apostles; Rom 12:9-21; Eph. 6:10-20; Didache 1:2-4; see Ignatius, Justin, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Hippolytus, Origen, Marcellus, Cyprian, Martin, et al).

v) Therefore, God expects disciples of Jesus, his redeemed imago dei, to live nonviolently today.

This argument is simple. To it we might also add a series of questions: How can one love their enemy while killing them? Or how does one pray for their persecutors while planning their deaths? Must one kill their enemies in order to love their neighbors?

The answer, like the argument, is also simple. The proud possession of a semi-automatic firearm is a not a way of conforming to the cross. You cannot love your enemies and kill them at the same time. Like God himself, we do not wait until our enemies are nonlethal in order to love them (Rom. 5:8). On this account of things, both our neighbor and our neighbor’s enemy are each our neighbor if we love them as Christ commanded us to (which de facto excludes killing them). Arguments to the effect that killing or war ‘may be a form of love’ are simply bizarre concessions to the NT’s teaching about enemy love. Christians defend the innocent, of course, but we do so peacefully—employing the example of sacrificial love provided for us in Christ. We are those who suffer and die on behalf of the innocent rather than injure or kill the guilty. We are, as Paul writes, to “leave room for the wrath of God” (Rom. 12:19).

We have no command, nor any New Testament basis, to treat Jesus’ commands concerning violence and peace the way that he, for example, treated the sabbath. We simply do not have this authority over our Lord’s teaching. We are not entitled to edit it according to our intuitions (that is, to prioritize pragmatism rather than embrace the painful ambiguities of nonviolence). Some may respond that competing duties require we lay aside our commitment to nonviolence. But what competing duty could dare compel the Christian to disobey Jesus? Personal security is not the priority of the Christian. And nothing is as gravely unjust as the arrest and execution of a perfectly innocent man. Yet, Jesus himself rebuked Peter for engaging in armed resistance over this very thing (Matt. 26:52). As Tertullian wrote in his Treatise on Idolatry (19), “The Lord, by taking away Peter’s sword, disarmed every solider thereafter.”

Jesus’ death on the cross is the definitive interpretation of his teaching on enemy love. We have not loved our enemies unless we have loved them as Jesus would. And it is Jesus’ life that is itself the clearest interpretation we have of his teaching. The NT material presents a comprehensive case for Christian nonviolence from the way that the Lord lived, and it his life that is the premiere and authoritative pattern for Christian discipleship today. In every concrete situation, we are obligated to live and to die the way that Jesus did—by arbitrating peace when possible, and suffering sacrificially when necessary. We are always and everywhere his disciples, and we are to integrate our lives of sacrificial love into the sad sufferings of the world, renouncing its perpetual cycles of violence, and overcoming its evil with good. In fact, the Great Commission itself involves obeying the command to replicate and recapitulate the life of Jesus, and to teach others to do likewise. Who will take our message of peace and reconciliation seriously without a principled refusal to instrumentalize the dehumanizing chaos of weaponry and warfare? What should the world think when God commissions a community of peacemakers to arbitrate cosmic healing, yet they are as violent as the world to which they are sent?

The command to love your enemy is not an abstract ethical entity, but a concrete way of life patterned after the example which the Lord provided us through his own life, death, and resurrection. Violence and warfare are the very antithesis of this command. Jesus’ life is itself a demonstration of what is meant by “do not resist an evil person” (Matt. 5:39). There is simply no basis for compartmentalizing Jesus’ example of nonviolence, peacemaking, and enemy-love (with the consequence that he lived a life that we are not also manifestly required to live). While others might respond with an argument to the effect that Jesus’ death was unique and not normative, the NT seems to have no issue directing us to imitate the example of Jesus in every regard, including his death—and it does so without having to raise counterexamples to create context-specific exceptions to his commands. Attempts to wrest Natural Law ethics from the natural, nonviolent meaning of the enemy love antitheses in the Sermon on the Mount are simply shallow.

Our enemies don’t cease to be objects of our love when we or others are threatened by them. If we consistently employ the example of Jesus as the paradigm for Christian faithfulness, rather than argue from counterexamples down to the text, we won’t need to retreat into the Bible’s silence in order to develop a non-pacifist ethic (as with the arguments that depend on silence toward a Centurion, or on supposed exceptions to the NT’s ethical directives). Jesus did not pause enemy love in order to engage in neighbor love. Neither should we. The innocent is protected and defended and the enemy is loved and reconciled in the same self-giving event: the cross. Christians do fight, they do protect, and they do defend, even aggressively, but they do so as Jesus commanded them to.

Violence toward the aggressor may be an attempt to love our neighbor, but it is an unscriptural (and often ineffective) attempt. It must be abandoned for the example of Jesus, who initiated nonviolent enemy love by volunteering to offer himself up in cruciform reconciliation. And unless Jesus sinned by failing to keep the second table of the law, this event was also neighbor love toward those Jews who suffered under Roman occupation. The only limitation with which the Christian is confronted in their dutiful response to evil and injustice is the Lord’s prohibition to wield the enemy’s weapon (that is, violence in macro- and micro- forms). In our confrontation with personal, structural, and systemic evil, we are inhibited only by the renunciation of violence and the limits of our imagination. All other creative options are available that have concord with the commands of Jesus.

In Matthew’s three passion predications (Matt. 16:21-23, 17:22-23, 20:17-19), Jesus is one who is persecuted for righteousness’ sake, and those who follow him will likely suffer the same fate (5:10, 16:24-26 — even if the cross in Matthew 16:24 is a metonymy, it does not carry with it symbolic freight any less demanding than the example Jesus provides). Following the NT’s material closely in this regard (Romans 12, 1 Peter 2, Philippians 2 et al), Jesus’ death saves us, but it also sends us to suffer faithfully as he did. Our faithful suffering on behalf of our neighbors and our enemies serves to recapitulate the unique death of Jesus. However we protect others from an unjust death, we do so, as Jesus did, without violence.

What about the Old Testament? As Jesus teaches in the Sermon on the Mount, specifically the six antitheses (“You have heard it said. . .but I say. .”), Torah is not being abolished, but rather its accommodations are being directed toward greater demand. This is why the antitheses climax with “You must be perfect.” The Tanakh might have accommodated Israel’s national life of violence, but it also contained a non-militarized trajectory toward a ‘perfected’ community of nonviolence (Josh 6:1-7; Ps. 20:6-9; Isa. 2:1-5; Mic. 4:1-5).

How then do the nonviolent fight? As Jesus taught:

“Our Father..” Violence is everywhere assumed to be the only effective means of confronting evil. Yet in prayer there is an alternative to warfare and weaponry that infinitely exceeds our limited human capacities. The absolute sovereignty of God insists that we be a prayerful people, a miracle people. Faith fights empty-handed. The true enemy is not the mugger, the murderer, or the maniacal fascist, for “we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” The true enemy operates on the visible front through human marionettes. He cannot be bested with bombs and bullets, and we serve his narrative when we succumb to his tactics.

“Your kingdom come..” Through cruciform love we embody the imminence of the world to come, recycling its weaponry of hatred into ploughs of redemptive peace. Christians are the presence of God’s peaceful future. True Christian love is suffering love, for violence can never be said to be a form of love if love is to look like Christ. Love is too gentle, too vulnerable to be violent. It would rather die than kill. And God will always raise this kind of love from the dead. No nonviolent death in faithful service to Jesus will go without divine vindication. 

“Your will be done..” Through endurance we gain our lives. Should bombs succeed in deconstructing the world, the church will go about her eucharistic identity in its ashes, reconstructing what was lost to bombs by offering herself up as a gift from God—a tree of life, planted at the very heart of worldly horror, in order that those ravaged by violence might taste and see that God is good, and his promised future of peace has already arrived in Jesus. Peacemakers exist to manifest the reign of God through faithful reconstruction of the human condition—a vocation that violence cannot upend.

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