For 16 centuries most Christians have stood within the just war tradition. For the sake of restraining evil, protecting the innocent the innocent neighbor, and promoting peace and justice in a vicious world, Christians have, reluctantly and as a last resort, taken up the sword. Both in my head and in my gut, I understand this argument. A part of me would like to embrace this position, but I simply cannot reconcile it with Jesus.
I sense that vast majority of ESA and PRISM readers stands in the just war tradition. But today, as we all ponder how best to deal with terrorist states like Iraq, I want to tell you why I am committed to nonviolence.
The bottom line for me is that the Carpenter from Nazareth was God-become flesh, and I believe he clearly taught his followers not to kill. Every statement about killing and war that we have from Christian writers from the first 300 years asserts that Jesus taught his followers never to kill.
Jesus came as the long-expected Jewish Messiah, announcing that the Messianic kingdom of God was now breaking into history and that the Holy Spirit now empowered kingdom people to live the way the Creator intended, even though unbelievers still lived in sinful rebellion. That is why Jesus reversed Moses’ easy divorce law, demanding that his followers return to the Creator’s original intention for marriage. And that is why Jesus summoned his followers to love even their enemies. Jesus’ commitment to nonviolence becomes clear at many points. Unlike the traditional warrior Messiah, Jesus made his triumphal entry into Jerusalem on a humble donkey rather than a war horse (Luke19:28-40). At his arrest he rebuked Peter for taking up the sword (Luke 2:49-50). At his trial he informed Pilate that his kingdom was not of this world in one specific regard – namely, that his followers did not use violence, even to protect their just, peaceful leader (John 18:36).
The clearest text, of course, is Matthew 5:38-48. Jesus is obviously talking not about personal private life but the public arena of law courts and Roman occupation. Rejecting “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” (the central principle of near-Eastern and Old Testament jurisprudence), Jesus says: “But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer” (v38). He also told his followers to respond nonviolently when taken to court or compelled to carry burdens by Roman soldiers (vv.39-41). Jesus was not advocating passive acceptance but rather nonviolent resistance, using words and actions that were compatible with love for the evildoer. Nor is Jesus’ call to nonviolence intended only for the millennium when Christ will reign in peace on this earth and evildoers are no more. “I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in Heaven” (vv.44-45). No, Jesus was advocating nonviolence for the present when enemies persecute, maim, and kill. Jesus is my lord. I cannot conclude, with people like Reinhold Niebuhr, that, yes, Jesus taught nonviolence but since it doesn’t work in a fallen world we must reluctantly reject Jesus’ position. His followers are called to live his kingdom ethics, by the power of the Holy Spirit, in this present broken world.
Some people think pacifists must abandon politics. I disagree. I can argue for what is just and good and appeal to fellow citizens in my democratic society to vote for better laws and policies. I can point out that very often people in the just war tradition fail to live up to its strict requirements, including the insistence that war must be a last resort. (Have we really tried all other options in the case of Iraq?) What would happen if large numbers of Christians rejected violence and war? Broad-based nonviolence movements throughout history have proven highly successful. Gandhi’s nonviolence conquered the powerful British Empire, and Martin Luther King’s nonviolence changed American history. Within our lifetime, nonviolence has won stunning victories: in the Philippines (against the dictator Marcos), in Poland (Solidarity’s peaceful resistance of Soviet communism), and elsewhere. Furthermore, the God-Man who called his followers to nonviolence in the first century is now the Risen Lord, King of Kings, “the ruler of the kings of the earth” (Rev. 1:5). Who knows how he might intervene if large communities of Christians chose to love rather than kill their enemies?
I do not pretend it would be easy. Following Jesus has been, and always will be truly costly. Undoubtedly many people would be killed, and our goods would be seized and our rights trampled. Jesus’ way – the way of the cross – has always been costly. But we should acknowledge, too, that so called “successful, just” modern wars have also seen the deaths of tens of millions of people.
I dare to pray for the courage never to kill any being made in the divine image, because I know from Jesus that death does not have the last word. Even if millions of Christians die because they believe Jesus does not want them to kill others, the final word will be resurrection.
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Ronald J. Sider is a Canadian-born American theologian and Christian activist. He is the founder of Evangelicals for Social Action, and is currently a professor at Palmer Theological Seminary, the seminary of Eastern University located in King of Prussia, Philadelphia. Sider has published over 22 books and has written over 100 articles in both religious and secular magazines on a variety of topics including the importance of caring for creation as part of biblical discipleship
In the year 1527 a former Benedictine monk stood on trial in the German town of Rottenburg. Michael Sattler (click here for his book) faced a string of charges at the hands of his accusers, ranging from civil disobedience to marrying a wife to teaching that baptism does not save infants. The crowning accusation, the one meant to reveal the depths into which a heretic could fall, was this: Sattler was reported to say that if the Muslim Turks invaded the country they should not be met with violent resistance. On top of this, his accusers announced, Sattler had stated that if it were right to participate in war, he would rather fight against the Christians than against the Turks.
Such a battle scenario was not imaginative speculation; the Islamic Ottoman Turks were pushing the boundaries of Christendom in a way that threatened the already diminishing hopes of an impenetrable Christian empire. Only decades before the Turks had taken the city of Constantinople, formerly the hub of eastern Christianity. The long conflict was characterized by brutal acts on both sides. If ever the people of towns such as Rottenburg had an enemy to fear, it was the Turks.
Sattler was granted a chance to defend himself. After appealing to Scripture on the issues of baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and oaths, he had yet to address the ultimate charge. Perhaps those who observed and those who tried him thought that even a heretic would deny having said such a thing about the hated enemy. Sattler’s words say have caught even his accusers off guard: “If the Turks should come, we ought not to resist them; for it is written: Thou shalt not kill. We must not defend ourselves against the Turks and others of our persecutors, but are to beseech God with earnest prayer to repel and resist them. But that I said, that if warring were right, I would rather take the field against the so-called Christians, who persecute, apprehend and kill pious Christians, than against the Turks, was for this reason: The Turk is a true Turk, knows nothing of the Christian faith; and is a Turk after the flesh; but you, who would be Christians, and who make your boast of Christ, persecute the pious witnesses of Christ, and are Turks after the spirit.”1
Ironically, Sattler undoubtedly would have fared better at the hands of the Turks. Four days later, the defenders of true Christian doctrine ordered him brutally tortured, his tongue cut out, his skin torn with red-hot tongs, and finally his body burned to ashes. For Sattler and thousands of others who in obedience to Christ were baptized as adults, renounced violence, and prioritized allegiance to God above obedience to human authority, the so-called “Christian” empire proved to be more of an enemy than the Muslim armies would ever be. The world in which Sattler lived, a German land saturated in Christianity for centuries, was in the end as resistant to the concept of enemy love as was the most pagan of societies. In fact, the idea of nonviolent love for the enemy was so foreign to Sattler’s accusers—themselves leaders in the church—that to their ears it sounded like heresy so pernicious it warranted execution of the cruelest nature.
Our society shapes us in powerful ways, ways that we cannot know unless they are brought to our attention. Jesus understood this, and attempted to help his listeners comprehend the radical nature of the Reign of God not as a series of principles that fits into our existing lifestyle but as a complete reorganization of our priorities, thoughts, and actions—a reorganization of our reality in often surprising ways. The Gospel is not a tame reworking of the old system, but a new Reign that is at hand (Mk. 1:14-15). This Reign is like the mystery of a growing seed (Mk. 26-29), like yeast in bread (Lu. 13:20-21), like starting life all over again (Jo. 3:3-8).
The Reign of God is in radical opposition to the norms of society. For example, the Gospel that Jesus proclaimed stands in continuity with the equalizing components of the Mosaic practice of Jubilee. Jubilee consisted of a rhythmic redistribution of land (Ex. 23:10-11), freeing of slaves (Ex. 21:1-6), and erasing of debts (Deut. 15:1-6).2
The Gospels, especially Luke, portray conversion as an economic phenomenon. Jesus warns of the danger of being “choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life” (Lk. 8:14)3 and of the worries brought about by the ownership of property (Mt. 6:19-21, 25-33). The parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Lk. 16:19-31) is a particularly poignant demonstration of what is at stake in economic practices. In the Reign of God the poor and despised find paradise and the wealthy find damnation. Jesus’ descriptions of who is blessed (the poor, the hungry, the crying, and the hated) and who is cursed (the rich, the filled, the laughing, the admired) in Luke 6:20-26 stands in sharp contrast to the values of his society and ours.4
Material wealth is just one way in which human society is at odds with the in-breaking Reign of God. Clearly the argument of status quo holds no value in the Reign that Jesus came to continue, fulfill, and initiate. This is particularly true of aspects of the Reign that many Christians view as peripheral or optional (and in some cases, like that of Michael Sattler, as heretical and worthy of punishment).
One of the central themes in Jesus’ life, ministry, death and resurrection is that of love for enemies. It is explicitly taught in the Sermon on the Mount and elsewhere and interwoven in clear and subtle ways into the accounts of Jesus’ ministry. It is manifested profoundly in the crucifixion. Moreover, Paul and the other apostles align themselves in no ambiguous terms with Jesus’ self-sacrificing love as the only response to evil.
Jesus summarizes the Old Testament law and prophets into one statement: “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you” (Mt. 7:12). Elsewhere, Jesus is asked to identify the greatest commandment. He responds with not one command, but two: “’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Mt. 22:37-40, Mk. 12:28-34). Paul repeats this Christian manifesto in Galatians 5:14 and in Romans 13:9, and James does as well in 2:8.
Do the “others” and “neighbor” in these passages refer to one’s fellow citizens, those of a particular race or ethnicity, those of a particular gender, or those of whom one is capable of feeling a sense of respect and camaraderie? The parable of the Good Samaritan (Lk. 10:25-37) is probably the most well known in all of Scripture. What is often overlooked is that the parable occurred in the context of a Jewish lawyer’s question to Jesus as to how to inherit eternal life. Jesus draws on the Old Testament command to love one’s neighbor as oneself (Lev. 19:18). The dynamite of the parable is that it unequivocally addresses the question of who is one’s neighbor and extends the term to include enemies, even enemies as hateful and unworthy (in the minds of his Jewish listeners) as Samaritans. Jesus does not simply let the weight of his inclusion sink in; he tells his listeners, “Go and do likewise” (10:37).
The Sermon on the Mount similarly extends the mandate for love beyond the traditional cultural and relational borders. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy,’” Jesus tells his listeners, “But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt. 5:43-48). John Howard Yoder points out that the word “perfection” here is not the modern meaning that denotes “without mistake,” but rather should be translated “without limitations.” The call to perfection after the Divine pattern is the call to a love that does not discriminate as to who is worthy of receiving it.
In a parallel passage to Matthew’s mountaintop sermon found in Luke, Jesus describes the counter-cultural behavior of those who love their enemies: doing good to those who hate, blessing those who curse, praying for those who abuse, refusing retaliation to those who strike, giving to those who steal (6:27-36).
The clearest clue into the significance of enemy love, however, is not in the teaching of Christ but in the crucifixion. In the throes of agony Jesus pleaded to God on behalf of his enemies who mocked him,
“Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (Lk. 23:34). God incarnated chose to be crucified at the hands of cruel humanity rather than to retaliate or to take preemptive action with all the power of heaven. The possibility of violent action was neither remote nor risky. When one of Jesus’ followers struck out with a sword in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus responded, “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword. Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?” (Mt. 26:52-53). Violence,supernaturally executed or otherwise, was an option that Jesus rejected for himself and for his followers.
Ultimately, the crucifixion is the authoritative revelation of the manner in which God responds to God’s enemies. The human condition of sin is portrayed in Scripture as enmity with God, and there is no question as to who is at fault. James 4:4 says, “Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God.” Our repeated rebellion creates enmity with our Creator. Eternal circumstances are at stake; how will a God who has done no wrong respond to God’s enemies?
The response is mind-boggling: “But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life. But more than that, we even boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation” (Rom. 5:8-11). In light of such suffering love from someone who is sinless, our own complaints against those who mistreat us—even those who commit actions we esteem to be unforgivable—pale in significance.
God’s response to God’s enemies is perverse according to the world in which we live. Yet the possibility that we sinful humans might in the same manner practice sacrificial love is strongly affirmed in Scripture. This is especially true in the letters of the Apostle Peter, who would enter eternal life as a martyr at the hands of the Roman emperor Nero. In profoundly pastoral terms Peter affirms this central truth about Christian discipleship: “For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps. ‘He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.’ When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly” (1 Pet. 2:21-23). Retaliation or violent protection is not an option for those who claim to be under the protection of the only righteous Judge. Divine love is not merely a feeling, but an action. The Apostle Paul helpfully puts some flesh onto the practice of enemy love to which Jesus had already called his disciples: “’If your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Rom. 12:20-21). The Christian response to evil is neither ignoring it nor responding in kind.
These words from the Apostles did not fall on deaf ears, nor were they on the radical fringe of Christian thought and practice in their day and through the first three centuries. The early churches had a broad range of problems—most of which can still be found in Christian communities—but this they understood well: that to follow Christ means to renounce violence, whether it is in retaliation, obedience to government, or protection of self and others.
Few Christians consider violence to be a good thing. The widespread view that Christians take, however, is that certain situations justify the use of violence because the “good” that would come about as a result outweighs the evil of the violence committed. The inevitable result of this ethical framework is that those who have power decide who lives, who dies, and why. Who of us is capable of determining all outcomes except God? And who of us has the scale that accurately weighs the value of one person’s life against the happiness/freedom of another? The path of pragmatic calculations is a slippery slope, and without a powerful confrontation and realignment of our reality (what Jesus called “repentance”) we are powerless to escape from its grasp. Unless we recognize the extent to which we are caught up in the myth of redemptive violence, we will continue to contribute to the self-centered, protective boundary-drawing that the gospel challenges at its very core.
The love that Christ exemplified and to which he calls his followers is not weak. Nor is it isolated to a particular community or situation. Like a marriage or parenthood, it demands of us more than we can possibly know at the moment when we commit to it. But Jesus’ call to bear the cross is more than an encouraging metaphor for the hardships that we face in life. It is an invitation to give up one’s own will for the will of God, to enter into the kind of love that God has demonstrated first. While we were still God’s enemies, God restored the relationship that had been broken through a decisive act of sacrificial forgiveness.
We cannot shape our nation (whichever it may be and however “Christian” we may claim it to be) around this radical ethic to which we as Christians are called. We can, however, be the kind of community—formed by committed individual believers—that practices and preaches nonviolent love. Love is not always easy to define, and may look different depending upon whether one is in Darfur, Detroit, or Baghdad. Thankfully we are not without a central defining characteristic—a prototype—of what love looks like. The Apostle John provides a definition that is both immeasurably versatile and effectively specific: “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us– and we ought to lay down our lives for one another” (1 John 3:16). Let us not consider participation in war as an option for those who have been redeemed. Let us rather seek creative ways to overcome evil with good, following the pattern of our risen Lord. Let us not underestimate with what power God may move if we are faithful to the Spirit of the crucified, resurrected Christ.
Peter Sensenig was born to U.S. American parents in the tiny African country of Swaziland. He spent his early childhood in Swaziland and Somalia before moving to the United States. He earned a B.A. in Religious Studies from Eastern Mennonite University in 2005, the Master of Divinity from Palmer Theological Seminary in 2008 and a Ph.D from Fuller Theological Seminary in 2013. As an adult he has spent time in Southern Africa and Central America, and his interests include languages, music, and theology. He is a member of the Mennonite Church.
1.Martyrs Mirror, Thieleman J. van Braght, Herald Press, 1987, pp. 416-418.
2.Donald B. Kraybill, The Upside-Down Kingdom (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1978), 98-100.
3.All scriptural quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version.
4.Kraybill, Upside-Down Kingdom,
5.John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1994), 117.
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