Does following Jesus mean being a pacifist?

Does following Jesus mean being a pacifist?

Ben Witherington says YES to this question in a personal account of his own committment to pacifism within an American culture that so often exalts war. Some clips from what he says,

Jesus, as it turns out was a hard core pacifist and he was serious as a heart attack about that non-resistance, turn the other cheek, take up your cross and be prepared to die at the hands of your enemies stuff. He was, to use an oxymoron, an adamant even a belligerent pacifist. ‘Those who live by the sword die by the sword’ was his warning, and when his disciples tried to take up swords for the sake of the Kingdom Jesus not only told them ‘enough of that’ but he then repaired the damage to the ear of the high priest’s slave. Jesus was in deadly earnest about being the Prince of Peace …

What makes the journey of a pacifist long and hard is because of course you are swimming upstream in America, and sometimes you are swimming against a torrential flood in the other direction. You get used to being called a coward, unpatriotic (and a few unmentionable things) …

In my book, to be truly pro-life across the board, one needs to be opposed to abortion, capital punishment, and war. Period. That is to be totally pro-life. I don’t much understand what the disconnect is for people who at the same time are adamantly pro-birth, nevertheless are some of the strongest advocates for guns, capital punishment, and war. I realize that war, capital punishment, and abortion are not the same issue, but they are very much related life issues, and one’s life ethic, one’s worldview approach to them should be broadly the same, or so it seems to me …

This much I know for sure. I am proud to be a follower of Jesus Christ, and if that puts me at odds with my country’s official policies about abortion, capital punishment, or war, well then— so be it. I want to be totally pro life until the day I die. I don’t want to be like Lady MacBeth with blood on her hands which she curses again and again saying ‘out out, damned spot’ but she never can wash herself clean.

For me, part of being holy, being pure, being clean, being like Jesus, is being a pacifist. And whatever the cost, I do not regret it….and I doubt I ever will.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

4 thoughts on “Does following Jesus mean being a pacifist?

  1. Okay, you ready for a long one? 🙂

    I’m not sure which part of 21st century America Dr. Witherington is swimming upstream in. He can only be referring to conservativism (political or religious), but neither is the popular view in our country today. And even within those circles, most folks don’t exalt war…they just don’t have an overarching moral objection to it.

    As to Jesus being a hard core pacifist, the position is grossly oversimplified. Jesus began and ended his ministry by getting rowdy in the temple. Is a bluffing Jesus with a whip for intimidation more consistent with his revealed character? I have a hard time with that. And how did he drive them out, anyway?

    36 “…whoever has no sword is to sell his coat and buy one…” 38 They said, “Lord, look, here are two swords.” And He said to them, “It is enough.”

    This is what was communicated to Peter just before the sword episode. Obviously, Jesus did not intend for the disciples to prevent his going to the cross with swords, but what was Peter supposed to think? This is hardly unambiguous.

    Jesus also said he didn’t come to bring peace, but a sword. There’s context there too, but I don’t think it fits in real well, with the whole simple, belligerent pacifist package. The Jesus of Revelation doesn’t seem particularly pacifist either.

    As to the Sermon on the Mount references, maybe Jesus was talking about just standing around watching while someone commits atrocities… To me, however, they read more like admonitions to not respond in kind when someone is an unfair jerk to you—but to reach out in audacious forgiveness and generosity instead. Neither violence in general, nor war specifically seems to be the point here.

    Interesting too, that war and soldiers are mentioned a whole lot in the Bible, and I can’t think of any passage that categorically condemns either. John the Baptist said soldiers should be content with their wages, not quit soldiering. Jesus said the Roman centurion had greater faith than anyone in Israel, and mentioned nothing about his occupation.

    Paul made no recorded objection to a military escort that would have slaughtered the Jews who were plotting to ambush him had they followed through with their plan.

    And finally, the same God who commanded “Thou shalt not kill” also commanded the Israelites to wipe out all the people in the land. God seemed to make some kind of differentiation between types of killing and violence. Jesus is God – the same yesterday, today, and forever. Perhaps he does too?

    Just to be clear, I hate violence. I hate war. I don’t know what / where the line is and I wouldn’t want to be the person making the call. It is quite possible that I have some conservative American Evangelical biases to deal with. Still, I have yet to see a Biblical case for pacifism that is strong enough to make the claim that following Jesus means being a pacifist.

  2. Hi Crystal, that was a long one 🙂 Here’s another!

    To be fair to Ben Witherington, the ‘exalt war’ was my language, I’m sure your description that most people don’t have a moral objection to it is more accurate. And it is that lack of moral objection that someone like Stanley Hauerwas objects to – that war is unproblematic for many Christians.

    Yes, at the Sermon on the Mount Jesus wasn’t setting out general public policies, but he was speaking to his disciples of the ethic demanded within his kingdom – an ethic of non-violence, of loving enemies, of turning the other cheek. Yes, Jesus (and Paul) lived within the realities of Roman Empire, but I’m not sure that mere recognition of that reality (engagement with the centurion, Paul with soldiers) can be pushed very far towards affirmation of military power. The shock factor is Jesus’ (and later Peter in Acts 10) acceptance of even a Gentile enforcer of a pagan Empire within the kingdom of God.

    Jesus embodied that ethic of non-violence in his self-sacrifice, in his explicit rejection of violent resistance against Rome and Peter’s use of the sword. He ‘took on’ and defeated the political and spiritual forces arrayed against him by the ‘upside down’ apparently crazy idea of a crucified Messiah.

    Seems to me that that kingdom of God ethic is a foretaste of the fulfilled kingdom to come. If we pray ‘your kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven’ it seems to me that this rules out violence for followers of Jesus, since violence and war will not be part of the new age.

    On the OT texts – God’s commands to israel to engage in war are there and are difficult texts. But I don’t see those texts as justifying or supporting war by modern nation states today.So often war and God and nationalism get all wrapped up in a flag – and we in Ireland (and many other places) have been excellent at that, not just America.

    If we read in light of the new covenant, we are no longer ethnic Israel, God’s holy nation battling to survive within the ANE, but we are the multi-ethnic people of God, who are called to be peacemakers and reconcilers, followers of the lamb who was slain. Yes that lamb is victorious and enacts judgement in Revelation, but that is the judgement of God. A victory won through self-giving death, and is precisely NOT ours. In other words, if God is the judge, then we are to leave judgement to him and not take revenge or take others’ lives.

    It seems from early church history that Christians took this seriously – they were willing to die for their Lord and did so, but they were not ready to kill in his name in order to defend themselves.

    All this makes me pretty uncomfortable, it seems unworkable – but isn’t that exactly what Jesus does?

  3. Well, it looks like we could go ‘round and ‘round a bit on this one. How do you understand Romans 13:1-5? This is an exhortation to believers to submit to governing authorities, but it seems like Paul is definitely saying that governmental authority wields the sword as a minister of judgment and order for God (to the benefit of society). This authority is often horrifically abused, but it is there, isn’t it?

    I appreciate what you said about Kingdom ethic. Jesus was definitely priming the pump, offering a small sampling of scenarios to show the high bar of what following him looks like. And, it is true that an argument from silence by no means stands on its own. But given that I see grounds elsewhere for a distinction between exacting personal vengeance and defending what is precious and good, I think it could be significant that Jesus didn’t say, “Do not resist and evil person. Let him murder you, and offer him your wife and children as well.”

    This type of scenario wouldn’t have anything to do with whether a person was willing to stand up for their faith in the face of death either. If Rome (or the secret service) comes to my door to take my life or my family’s because we won’t stop professing Christ, what am I gonna do? Well…take what comes because they have the power and I won’t deny my Lord. But if a couple of guys show up, intending to hurt my family so they can take something from my house, I think it is my duty to prevent harm from coming to my kids.

    God is fiercely passionate about what he loves (to the point of getting a bit rowdy if you read the temple account the way I do). I believe if we have his heart we will be fiercely passionate about those things as well. He makes it very clear that he is passionate about the oppressed—and that defending them is close to his heart. How does one do that without violence when the oppressor is willing to use force? And how is violence defined? Is it Christ-like to refuse to stop a man from abusing a child because it would require force? Don’t you have to draw arbitrary lines?

    And isn’t there more than one way to die a sacrificial death?

    Oops, another long one. I’m not trying to obligate you to respond to all that. These are just some of the questions this discussion poses for me. I’ve appreciated the dialogue you have offered, though. It does help me think. 🙂

  4. I see Romans 13 as saying all human governing authority (even Empires like Rome) is under (and accountable to) God’s ultimate authority. But that is distinct from the calling of Christians to be members of an alternative kingdom of God.

    I think there is significant difference between nonviolence and passive non resistence. Jesus ‘called out’, engaged and ultimately defeated the falsehoods, illegitimacy and injustice of the powers arrayed against him, but refused to engage them on their own terms – that of physical force. I just can’t reconcile this with Christians engaging in the weapons of this world – that of power, control and violence.

    Christians have tried to articulate a Just War tradition. But history shows that once you go down the route of war there is no keeping pure boundaries around ‘just’ killing. Every group / nation / individual will come up with moral justifications for ‘legitimate violence’.

    I grew up in such an Ireland. And even today, years into a Peace Process, few if any groups have said they were wrong for decades of killing. Everyone is justified in their own eyes.

    One of the most powerful expressions of this ethic I’ve read is Hauerwas – here for example on 9/11. And what he says here is I’m sure seen as treachery by many Americans.

    Thanks in return Crystal for being such a great conversation partner!

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