Following a Nonviolent Lord
It is clear from scripture that Jesus is the perfect revelation of God:
For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. (Colossians 1:19-20, ESV)
God is exactly like Jesus. There is nothing unchristlike in God. If you have seen Jesus, you have seen the Father. Jesus and the Father are one.
It is also crystal clear that we are to imitate Jesus:
For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. (1 Peter 2:21-23)
Jesus asked: “Why do you call me Lord but do not do what I command you?”
And, it is obvious that Jesus taught unconditional nonviolent love:
Do not take revenge on someone who wrongs you. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. (Matthew 5:39)
You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. (Matthew 5:43-45)
You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. (Matthew 5:38-39)
Blessed are the peacemakers… (Matthew 5:9)
When Jesus was arrested, he would not let his disciples use violence to prevent his arrest:
Then the men stepped forward, seized Jesus and arrested him. With that, one of Jesus’ companions reached for his sword, drew it out and struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his ear. ‘Put your sword back in its place,’ Jesus said to him, ‘for all who live by the sword will die by the sword.’ Enough of this, stop it!(Luke 22:49-51. See also Matthew 26:50-52)
Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jewish leaders. But my kingdom is not from the world.”(John 18:36)
His apostles reiterated Jesus’ view:
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight. Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.(Romans 12:14-21, ESV)
Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult, but with blessing…. (1 Peter 3:9)
And yet, most Christians, at least in the United States, support the military, are pro-gun, own guns, and approve of capital punishment. Many join the military; some are members of the NRA. Many churches display national flags and honor military achievements. Many celebrate the 4thof July, Memorial Day, and Veterans’ Day. Preachers and their congregations have often been the first to champion warfare causes. Many a person has been inspired to join the military by a rousing patriotic sermon. And all of this in direct opposition to the teachings of Christ.
Why the disconnect?
There are many reasons. Among them:
- A theological homogenization of empire and church that began with Augustine and has continued through the ages in virtually every mainline denomination. For the first 300 years of church history, Christians were persecuted by the State and they were adamant pacifists who forbade members from killing in any circumstance. When they were then given power by the State, theologians felt the need to justify state violence and the trajectory shifted. And so, the Bible was flattened. Old Testament scriptures were used to trump the words of Jesus, and the teachings of Christ were spiritualized away.
- The commitment, discipline, sacrifice, bravery and sacrifices of military personnel are rightly and unquestionably admirable. (I have a ton of friends who have served or are serving in the military, and I come from a long line of military patriots – my ancestor fought in the Continental army, his grandson, an abolitionist, fought in the Civil War, my great uncles were on the Western Front, my dad served throughout the entirety of World War II. I honor and respect them all.)
- Logic seems to dictate violence. How else could Hitler have been stopped or the home invader prevented from murder?
- Patriotism is seen as a virtue. In some circles, nationalism is also. Patriotism is love of one’s country. Nationalism is the belief that one’s country is the greatest there is – superior to all others.
- History is on the side of violence. In fact, history is often taught as nothing but a succession of wars and battles. Every empire in history was built on violent oppression. The United States is no exception. Native people were slaughtered, their land stolen. The economy of the young nation was built on the labor of slaves. That story is basically the same for all empires – Chinese, Egyptian, Babylonian, Medo-Persian, Greek, Roman, Ottoman, German, Japanese, British, American. Violence, since Cain killed his brother, is the way of the world.
Ultimately, the real reason why we humans embrace violence is we either can’t or won’t trust God enough to not trust the sword.
Don’t we, though, have to sometimes trust the sword, for the reasons mentioned above?
The persecution of Christians by the state ended with emperor Constantine’s Edict of Milanin 313 AD, and Christianity became the official state religion of Rome under the emperor Theodosius in 380 AD. Church and State married and climbed in bed with each other. The state protected the church; the church gave credence to the state. Empire, the kingdoms of this world, and Christianity were blended and homogenized to the point of becoming inseparable. Shortly thereafter, Augustine invented the theology of church-state sanctioned violence. Whereas for three centuries, followers of Christ were forbidden to join the military or to kill, now they were welcome to do both as long as it was in the service of Rome. Augustine even maintained you could love your enemy while killing him. And that eventually led to the Crusades, the Inquisition, and the Third Reich. During the Vietnam era, I saw a bumper sticker that read: “Kill a Commie for Christ.”
Augustine’s view became embedded in the organized church and was reinforced by all but the most radical of the Protestant reformers in the 16thcentury. Throughout history, the organized church has supported every world-dominating empire.
What is essentially wrong with this view is the central theme of the book of Revelation. Empire is evil. Empire is empowered by the forces of darkness. Empire is Satan’s creation. Juxtaposed is the Kingdom of God, which includes the refusal to serve Caesar as lord, as well as a radical commitment to follow King Jesus in a radical new way of doing life – a way of life demonstrated on the cross, where perfect, self-sacrificial, enemy-forgiving, love was demonstrated.
All empires are empowered by satanic forces, be they called Persia, Rome, Third Reich, or U.S. of A.
Is it wrong to be patriotic? That depends on our definition of patriotism. If by patriotism, we mean love of country, then, no, it is not wrong. Take the USA as an example with its vast canyons, towering mountains, fruited plains, and salt-washed shores – all beautiful where not spoiled by human greed. Principles of freedom, equality, mutual respect, toleration, opportunity, and diversity are at least acknowledged, if not always practiced, as virtues. I love all those things.
But, if we mean America is the greatest country on the earth, the last and best hope for humankind, a city set on a hill, the New Jerusalem, destined by God to rule the globe, then no, patriotism and nationalism are not only wrong, they are sinful.
As believers in Christ, we are called to be citizens of heaven. We are only guests in America, or Germany, or wherever we live. We are ambassadors. We are strangers, aliens, pilgrims. Our allegiance – our undivided allegiance – is to be to King Jesus and His Kingdom. It’s not “God and country,” it’s God. Not God first. God only. One Lord.
That’s why I do not say the Pledge of Allegiance. I pledge allegiance only to Jesus, not to anybody’s flag or republic.
That’s why I refused to join the military, filing with the draft board as a conscientious objector. If I lived, say, in France, I would try to be a good citizen and not cause trouble, but if France declared war on somebody, I would not join the French Foreign Legion. I am a citizen of the Kingdom of God. I serve King Jesus, not any earthly government, no matter how noble.
But what about Hitler? First, note that the majority of Germany was Christian and the majority of Christians supported Hitler. Had all those Christians been following King Jesus, Hitler never would have come to power. My father felt it his duty to help stop Hitler. A year before Pearl Harbor, he, having already completed college, joined the Navy, went to Officer Candidate School in Annapolis, was commissioned as an officer, and spent the entire war on three different warships in each of the three marine theaters. I understand and respect and deeply honor his commitment. The decision for me was made easier by the illegal and unjust war of my generation in Vietnam. Nevertheless, I hope, had I been of age in 1941, that I would have taken the path of my Anabaptist brethren who served bravely and diligently – often at great sacrifice in harm’s way – in noncombatant positions.
But, you may object, if everyone did that …
But, everyone didn’t, nor would there likely ever be a time when everyone would, so the very question is entirely hypothetical. But to answer it anyway: What would happen if an entire nation-state lived by the teachings of Jesus? They might very well be overrun, killed and subjugated by violent sinners, just like Christians were for the first 300 years when the Gospel spread like wildfire and martyrs welcomed death, knowing that their blood brought glory to their King.
Well, what about the home invader? Am I saying we should stand by idle while some horrible person rapes and murders our spouses and children? No, I am saying, we should love the home invader. Imagine that I’m visiting my son and his family. And imagine he goes nuts and in an insane rage is trying to kill his own son, my grandson. What would I do? I would hope I would do whatever is necessary to prevent him from hurting anyone. I would want to do that because I love him. But I wouldn’t kill him. Maybe in the process of stopping him, he might kill me. Better that than killing my grandson. I’d give my life for any of my kids or grandkids. If I could love that hypothetical home-invader like he was my own son, I would be following Jesus. Now, I really don’t know for sure what I would do or how I would react in a case like that, and the chances are extremely remote that I’ll ever have to find out. Isn’t it amazing that when we object to the teachings of Jesus, we fly to extreme hypothetical examples designed to stir up primitive fears?
Most of us are not called to confront a Hitler. Most of us will never experience a home invasion. But we are afraid. The media feeds our fears. Politicians feed our fears. Us versus them. We follow the crowd. Armed with our concealed weapons, we determine to stand our ground. We wave the flag and wipe away tears at parades. We demonize others. We insist on calling anyone who was ever in any branch of the Armed Services a hero, even though the vast majority did mundane jobs that required little in the way of courage. We call pacifists cowards and traitors.
What would happen instead, if we, who claim to follow King Jesus, displayed the courage to follow Him in a life of nonviolent, cruciform love?