Tuesday, October 14, 2008

War's Wisdom

They say there is no wisdom
They say it isn’t so,
They stir up rainy weather
But then it starts to snow.

Poor prognosticators
Pungent pundits too
They trust their own predictions
But don’t know what to do.

The politics of fear,
And self protection reign
As if killing all our foes
Was possible and sane.

We alienate our allies
We say we’ll go alone
We ignore prevailing wisdom
And enter a war zone.

And no one’s even asking
What would the Master say
We sing our patriotic songs
When things go wrong we pray.

It’s right to ask for sacrifice
Whene’er the cause is just
Whenever truth is being served
When God’s the one we trust.

Vengeance is no solution.
Observe the Holy Land
Sick cycles of destruction
Bad blood flows in the sand.

There surely is a wisdom
It’s spoken in God’s Word
It speaks of holy sacrifice
Not one that is absurd.

It calls for love of enemy
And giving lives for friends
It calls for taking up the cross
Through suffering, violence ends.

Lamech called for vengeance
Seventy-seven fold,
Jesus said forgive that much
Before the night grows cold.

“Vengeance is surely mine”
Thus speaks a sovereign Lord,
And when we try to play God’s role
We violate his Word.

An ‘eye for an eye’s myopic
Or else it leaves both blind.
Endless reciprocity
Leaves humanity behind.

Someday the lion will lie down
Next to the harmless lamb.
Someday the swords will be retooled
For plowing up the land.

Someday we’ll see that ‘just wars’
Are never just enough
Someday we’ll realize the kingdom’s for
The meek, not for the tough.

Until that day we all must pray
For forgiveness for what we’ve done
For those who live just by the sword
Lose, even when they’ve won.

Somewhere there is an endgame
Without the sound of taps
A plan to play a different role
Blessed peacemakers perhaps.


This is a poem that some Americans will have a hard time stomaching. I understand this, but I am a pacifist because I believe that is exactly what Christ demands of me in the Sermon on the Mount and what Paul says as well in Rom. 12–14. Of course I do not think that Christ was trying to make public policy when he taught his disciples to turn the other cheek and love one’s enemies, but I do think he was offering an ethic that he expected his own followers to embrace. Jesus believed in suffering for, and even at the hands of his enemies. He did not believe in killing them.

Jesus it will be remembered even stopped to heal the ear of the high priest’s slave as he was being carted off to trial, and told his disciple to stop the violence. Jesus it will be remembered even forgave his executioners who had wrongly nailed him to the cross saying with his dying breath “Father forgive them . . . ”

What this all means for me is that while I certainly pray for our troops safety and that they may come home unharmed, I find that I have a Christian duty to oppose war which overrides any patriotic duty to support it. I am well aware that other equally sincere Christians think differently about this matter, though for the life of me I don’t see how they get around the obligation for Christians to follow the example of Christ when it comes to the matter of non-violence, the obligation to embrace personally the ethic of the Sermon on the Mount.

Yes, I am well aware of Romans 13, which suggests that governments have the right to bear some kinds of arms for some sorts of defensive purposes. I do not dispute this, but what I do dispute is that Christians have any obligation to serve their country in capacities that involve violence. This means for me, that I could never be any kind of soldier, except of course the Christian sort spoken of in the familiar hymn or in Ephesians 5. I suppose it also means I could never be some kinds of law enforcement officers either.

I believe there is a place for this opinion not merely in a democracy like America, but especially in the body of Christ, though it surely is a minority opinion, I realize. Sometimes people point to the OT for justification for fighting wars. Sometimes they even talk about wars sponsored or endorsed by God. I understand this, but I think it involves a misreading of several things.

In the first place, those texts are about God’s chosen people and their taking of the Holy Land. Americans, though they may like to think otherwise, are not God’s chosen people anymore than any other modern nation state is. According to the NT God’s people at this juncture are “Jew and Gentile united in Christ” (Gal. 3.28), an ethnically and racially and nationally diverse group that comprises a world-wide fellowship of Christ. In other words, those texts provide no justification for secular governments of any sort going to war. Modern wars are not holy wars, no matter who’s fighting them.

Secondly, Christians are under the new covenant, not any forms of the old covenant, and there are decided differences between the new covenant Jesus inaugurated and the old covenants. One of the most obvious differences has to do precisely with this matter of non-violence. Jesus believed he was bringing in the Dominion of God upon the earth, the eschatological state of affairs. He believed he was bringing in the state which Isaiah spoke of when he talking about the lion lying down with the lamb. This among other things is why we have a blessing on peacemakers as one of the inaugural beatitudes.

The already-not yet nature of the coming of this kingdom of course makes our ethical situation not always clear, but what is clear to me is that if I am going to err, I should err on the side of love not hate, peace not war, forgiveness not vengeance, because at the end of the day it is those qualities which will endure and prevail one day when the kingdom has fully come on earth.

I think it is high time for all Christians, perhaps especially American ones, to have a more adequate theology of peacemaking, rather than seeking justification for participating in more wars. I may be wrong about this, but if so, I want to err on the side that I see the Savior, took for he is the one who believed that there were many things worth dying for, but nothing worth killing for. Indeed, he believed that killing violated the values that were worth dying for.


Drew Tatusko said...

Wonderful post. I think that the language of peace is what is not, and perhaps it never has, gotten a strong enough shake by many Christians, and certainly not by many if any politicians. Two words I simply have not heard are peace and the poor in this election. Those are the two words that Jesus calls us to lift up more than anything in his ministry. Struggling for peace and helping the poor are arguably the two aspects of the Christian social ethic that are simply central to the life of Jesus and his proclamations of the Kingdom.

I would recommend that more evangelicals become familiar with the work of Swartley in New Testament studies. His arguments for peace are palpable and relevant to a world that continuously rages with untold human toll.

Thanks for posting.

Anonymous said...


Dan Miller said...

Thanks for writing this!

What exactly was Jesus doing in Luke 22:36-38 when he told His disciples to acquire swords? I've read in some places that it was more of a 'daggar' and was considered standard traveling equipment. It seems the term "sword" was often used by Jesus (and others) to refer to division rather than violence. At least that's how I understand Jesus when He talked about not bringing peace, but a sword, in Matthew 10. Any thoughts on those two references?

alpoteet said...


Challenging thoughts. It does seem in the book of Revelation that the Christians "win" by their willingness to lay down their life for their faith - without physically fighting back. But I am also struck by the fact that some of the most complimented people in the Gospels and Acts were soldiers and though there was ample opportunity for John, Jesus and Peter to tell them to lay down their weapons, no such advice was given. Whay say ye?

Unknown said...


Thank you so much for this. I am a seminary student in Texas and my pacifism is not always well received in this part of the world. I have respected your scholarship for some time now and am encouraged by this post.

Blessings, Matt

ezekiel said...

Well put. You are certainly not alone.

I would suggest (and you may agree) that Jesus' advocacy of nonviolence was continuous with the trajectory of the OT witness, particularly the voice of Jeremiah.

phil said...

Dr. Witherington,

I appreciate your poem, your thoughts, and your boldness. Pacifism is an idea I was thoroughly introduced to by a college professor of mine (who was a big fan of Howard Yoder)and have observed more and more how Christ's living and teachings reflect this notion. I'm sure you will get sharp disagreement on your blog, however:
1) You usually do, no matter what the conversation is.
2) It will make for some good reading.
3) Its good to see more and more Christian leaders not letting patriotism and the scent of revenge taint their Christianity.

Keep up the good work.

Ben Witherington said...

About Lk. 22, two things. First of all the Greek is interesting there. It is perfectly possible that the silly suggestion of the disciples "look we have weapons--- two" as if that could fend off a Roman legion, is met with an ironic reply "for sure, that's plenty!" Jesus often uses irony with his disciples, and this might be another example. The other way to take it is that when they suggest having and using weapons, his response is "enough of that sort of talk!' and he ends the conversation with an exasperated reply.


Ben Witherington said...

About Lk. 22, two things. First of all the Greek is interesting there. It is perfectly possible that the silly suggestion of the disciples "look we have weapons--- two" as if that could fend off a Roman legion, is met with an ironic reply "for sure, that's plenty!" Jesus often uses irony with his disciples, and this might be another example. The other way to take it is that when they suggest having and using weapons, his response is "enough of that sort of talk!' and he ends the conversation with an exasperated reply.


Kyle Fox said...

This is a great post, I appreciate the poetry and definitely is what I needed to read. I have been struggling with how to handle Revelation 19:11-21 and how that fits with being peacemakers. Regardless of how we read Revelation, these verses are still hard for me to handle as I am trying to convert to pacifism. I was wondering if you could give just a brief thought on that passage and how you handle it so as to guide me in my thoughts.
But again, your words were exactly what I needed to read today. Thanks so much.

Dave said...

Just some thoughts after reading you post. You seemed to talk about war and defense interchangeably at times. I am sympathetic to the justification (although I don't know if I agree with it necessarily) for Christian pacifism in regards to war, but I think defense is another matter, both nationally and personally. I don't think anything that Jesus said limits the use of force for personal self-defense. There is a difference between dying a martyr's death for your faith, or being murdered by a home-invader. When it comes to living our faith, I believe that incurs the risk of dying for your faith, but in other matters where you are randomly targeted for a violent crime, that is different. I disagree with those that would use violence to defend property, but if someone broke into my home with the intent to rape my wife or harm a child, I believe I am justified in the use of force to prevent that from happening, because we are not being targeted for our faith as Christians.

I think a good point is made by alpoteet about Jesus' interaction with soldiers. Also I think there is a foundation in the Gospels about submission to the government God has placed over you, which may entail service for a "just" war of defense such as WWII (I don't personally think any of the recent US wars qualify, except maybe Afghanistan).

William said...

Awesome poem! When I first became a pacifist one of the things that became clear to me was that my justification for self defense had really always been about SELF-myself. Now, as the love and peace of Jesus has set my heart free & illuminated my mind I now see that God defense is the better way.

The first 15 years of my life were spent on the mission field in El Higo Veracruz Mexico. An understanding that missionaries have is that they are foreigners in a foreign land. As a result, most (not all) are on good behavior, knowing that they are not citizens of the country they are in. Growing up as a white American family in Mexico has given us countless testimonies of how God will be your defense and strength if one will only lay down their own personal defense and strength.

The Western fascination with Individualism and specifically the American fascination with individual rights has certainly not been good for the message of peace of which Jesus preached. In my opinion it would be good for American Christians to leave their guns and constitution behind while going to serve as missionaries in a country that would cause them to live by prayer, love, faith, and peace. If as Christians we have truly died to this world, our flesh, and our rights, and live only for Jesus Christ then pacifism should be our natural reaction to evil in this world.

TheThinker said...

What about pacificism? The question here is not about ideals, it's about reality. We cannot always think about ourselves in these cases, because we live in a world full of others. I would agree that Christians, having a choice to serve in a voluntary military, should decline. However, I would not say that there aren't exceptions to the rule of non-violence. Thus, I agree there is a rule to act in meekness, but there seem to be instances where we ought not stand down when we have the power to thwart greater evil. No one will live perfectly...I mean, the person angry with his brother has done the equivalent of murdering him with his heart...physical violence is just another demonstration of the heart's disposition. The question comes about when we have conflicting dispositions. Which is primary and which is secondary. Is the first command to not do physical harm, or is to love your neighbor who needs protection? Are they mutually exclusive at all times? Should we err on the side of non-violence in every case? It seems that it might not be so, and thus we need greater discernment for these things.

Please examine what I have said and rip it to pieces if you think I'm wrong. I would love for you to tell me it's easier, and that I can just hold an impenetrable position without having to judge particulars. It would be a great service to me as life would become a whole lot easier. I may sound sarcastic, but I'm not. I'm serious. Such an argument would make life in society super simple (maybe not pleasant in certain crowds) but one could always know where to stand without having to parse through particularities.

God bless,

Ben Witherington said...

The conversion of the centurion is interesting of course, except that the focus of the story is not on his former profession at all, which is mentioned in passing at the outset, but on the fact that he was a God-fearing Gentile. If indeed, as the text says, he was of the Italian regiment, then he must surely have been mustered out and retired. Two reasons for this conclusion: 1) it was nowhere in the region at the time Peter would have encountered him in Caesarea; 2) he is a God-fearer, which frankly was not allowed since one had to worship the legion's pagan God; and we can add to this, he has a home in Caesarea, further evidence he has mustered out. Luke makes nothing of his former soldierly profession, except to mention it in passing. The issue raised at the end of the story and later in Jerusalem is that he is a Gentile.


Ben Witherington said...

In a fallen world there it is always possible to make a plausible case for the use of force, particularly in extreme situations. This does not mean that Christians should be involved in such actions. What I would say is that you do not make an ethic out of the occasional exceptional situation. You have a basic ethic, and you may make an exception when there is an overwhelmingly good reason to do so. Let's take some examples: 1) the life of the mother is truly endangered by a seriously problematic pregnancy; 2) someone catches Osama bin Laden who is proved to have been responsible for the deaths of large numbers of innocent persons; 3) a bellicose state run by a racist like Adolph Hitler is busily extermination millions of Jews. In each case, a good rationale can be made for intervention in these situations. In only the case of abortion are we talking about something other than governmental intervention.

The ethic I am referring to in this post is of course the ethic of a Christian individual or Christian community, not the ethic I would expect any government to abide by. My point would be that Christians have an obligation in a fallen world to show a higher and non-violent way of dealing with human problems and conflict. They provide a minority report if you will, and seek to live in such a way as to show there is another way to deal with evil and conflict.

I would add to these thoughts that I am completely unconvinced by arguments for: 1) pre-emptive war (the so-called Bush doctrine), which is a clear violation of just war theory and the Geneva accords; 2) the notion that there is such a thing as a just war. No, there may be some wars that are justifiable when compared with the alternatives, but that does not make them just, not least because too many innocent lives are always destroyed in any war. War is inherently destructive and wreaks havoc on human life. It should never be glorified. Whenever one begins to talk about persons created in God's image and of sacred worth as being "collateral damage" in a war, you realize just how injust even a so-called just war is.


Ben Witherington said...

Rev. 19.11ff. This text has sometimes been interrupted to refer to Christ walking through the fields of the martyrs and the blood on his garment being that of the martyrs. I am not completely convinced this is so. What I would say is that Rev. 19 is about God in Christ doing the judging, and the Bible including Revelation repeatedly says such actions should be left in God's hands, since vengeance is God's prerogative, not ours.


Pastor Todd said...

I apprecaiet Dave's thoughts about distinction between war and defense- specifically in dealing with protecting my family from an intruder. But I have this caveate... at 2:00 in the morning how am I to judge the motivations of a man climbing in my window? While I am not a violent person (don't think I have ever entertained even punching someone in the mouth), a midnight intruder in my home will likely find me as a "shoot first ask questions later" kind of guy.

ezekiel said...

I once appealed to the examples of soldiers in the NT accounts in my attempt to justify violence. (One might consider John the Baptist's response to the soldiers who asked him what they should do, in which he did not tell them to quit or even avoid violence.) One must bear in mind the context. I now view these instances in the same way that I view the household codes. Paul did not explicitly denounce slavery because it wouldn't have made sense in his context. Nevertheless, his teachings may be seen as liberating. Indeed, I find that this holds true for the entire Bible. So, for example, one can view "eye for an eye" as a limitation of retribution rather than an eternal edict. Furthermore, any follower of Jesus must deal with the tension between forgiveness and retribution (again, "eye for an eye").

Travis Weil said...

Dr. Witherington, I must say it is nice to know that there are other Christians in this country who would prefer to follow a path as you have described. Too often I have been nearly scolded by fellow believers on my views of war and patriotism. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

BC said...

while we may not all agree on whether to use 'just' war theory, pacifism, or another Xian approach, they all have war as a last resort. Thus we can all agree to work as peacemakers in a way that has a consistent life ethic. This is the idea behind Glen Stassen's just peacemaking (as opposed to focusing on war) program: http://www.matthew5project.org/ . This is an important effort to pragmatically implement Christ's kingdom ethics in the real world.

In this way we can encourage envangelicalism at large, and especially American evangelicals to at least start making peace, even if we cannot agree on the necessity (or acceptability) of war.

I encourage everyone to read, and sign this if you agree.

Hayne Begley said...

Thank you Ben, Thank you.

It was my Christian Ethics class, and a paper I wrote on Capital Punishment that made me actually consider the Words of Christ on the issue of violence. It changed me completely.

may peace come

Anonymous said...

i don't remember who I heard say this first, but isn't just as interesting that Jesus didn't tell the prostitute to quit her profession? It just kinda seemed apparent that she couldn't persist in that life and follow Christ. If we are called to follow Him to the cross, can we defend ourselves anymore than Christ did? Walter Wink has a fascinating example of the "midnight intruder" scenario in his book "The Powers That Be." Check it out. Why when it comes to violence our imagination is so limited that we can only see "guns" and "bullets" as the safe alternative?

Anonymous said...

For all the talk about how self-defense is "selfish" or "vengeful" about enemies the pacifists like to make, what about situations where an attacker goes against someone ELSE, a weak orphan, a widow, what have you? Sure, I'll love my enemies, but it's also the Christian duty to stick up for the weak and defenseless. Defending the attacked - and even oneself for that matter - is not vengeance, or murder.

A man who does not provide for his own is worse than an unbeliever...but should I let a savage rape my wife anyhow?

It amazes me how schizophrenic one can be in saying, it's okay for force to be used in some situations, but Christians shouldn't do it. So Christians can't be involved in admittedly legitimate activities? I still can't see any way around the fact that Paul calls the magistrate a minister of God.

It's one thing to criticize obsessive hawkish patriotism - that deserves a thorough rebuke - but it's another to lump in chivalry and defending the helpless as tainted with revenge and whatnot.

As for Luke 22, Dr. Witherington's response goes right along with what I said in response to a previous post. They weren't supposed to be revolting against Roman legions; the swords discussed here would obviously have been inadequate. In the context, he's equipping them to fend for themselves (note the contrast with the "Limited Commission" passage, where he tells them not to procure materials for their journey). The sword is intended for self-defense, not revolt, which is why Peter would be wise to put his sword back in its place (and not throw it away) because that kind of thing would get the zealots slaughtered.

And still not a word about how our "pacifist" Christ drove those folks from the temple with a whip...

Jake Charles said...


I agree that violence should never be first option for Christians. I also agree when you say that an ethic shouldn't be based on "occasional exceptional situations," but certainly a complete ethic needs to include such situations. That is, to be consistent there needs to be room for a Christian to act for the protection of others, even when this demands force. Rather than being one of those occasional exceptional situations though, I think this issue could arise quite often (at least as often as deciding whether or not to voluntarily join the military in a major war).

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this - some brilliant thoughts here. I have been mulling over this whole pacifism thing ever since I read my first Walter Wink book, earlier this year.

I am kind of wanting to agree with it, but I still wrestle with the practical outworkings of embracing this kind of theology.

You say, "you do not make an ethic out of the occasional exceptional situation". I like this principle but would you not agree that in many parts of the world today, violence, is not exceptional, but the norm? There are dozens of violent conflicts around the globe right now, which will involve Christians being attacked and for which they will need to respond in some way, peaceful or other. Is martyrdom the only response? How should we teach and pastor Christians in such situations?

I know you may not have a black and white answer, but it's just some thoughts that are going round my head at the moment! Thanks

Ben Witherington said...

Somehow some of you seem to think that Pacifism means standing by and watching the innocent get clobbered. We dealt with this before on this blog, and that would be a caricature of this view. I am fine with doing various things short of killing people to prevent the slaughter of the innocents, and there is a difference between the use of force and the use of deadly force anyway. I would also endorse substituting one's self for some innocent victim. Jesus' point is that when violence is done against yourself, don't resist it or respond in kind. This is another matter. Of course one would want to protect your family from an intruder. This doesn't necessarily require the use of deadly force, however. And since the Bible is explicit and Jesus reaffirms that we are not to murder people, if that outcome does happen, then there should be repentance.


Ben Witherington said...

As for including exceptions within one's ethics, I disagree. They should be closely considered on a case by case basis, because genuine exceptions that meet all the criteria are indeed rare. Let's take abortion, only on grounds of when the mother's life is in grave danger. How often does that happen--- less than 2% of all pregnancies. Clearly its rare. I would argue that the need to use capital punishment rather than life in prison is equally rare, and this is even more the case for war. I would say that the only war in the last 70 years which we committed major troops to, that probably meets the criteria for justifiable war is WWII. That's pretty rare.


Anonymous said...

Dr. Witherington,

I agree that in a case of defending the innocent, if possible one should avoid actually killing the victim.

But, even so, wouldn't killing someone in such a case fail to meet the criteria for "murder," since the the sixth commandment prohibits "murder," and yet the Torah allows other forms of killing (capital punishment, self-defense, war, etc.)?

Note: This is not necessarily a justification of violence based on the OT, merely a distinction in the way the Bible presents its terms.

Unknown said...

Thank you for this post. I live in a part of the world where every day's news includes bomb blasts, terrorist strikes, violence and killing. Dealing with violence is a constant, sad issue for so many in the world- and teaching our children the correct attitude to violence and war has always seemed to me to be a very important ingredient in getting our faith to be practical and down-to-earth - and I have been persuaded long ago that pacifism is the best option for Christians. I think, as you do, that all of us should be pacifists, with an occasional exception in extreme circumstances. It always amazes me that so many Christians don't seem to like that position and become remarkably hostile and sarcastic if one says something like that. I am so glad that a well-known scholar like you should come out on the side of pacifism.

Dave said...

Ben said:
"You have a basic ethic, and you may make an exception when there is an overwhelmingly good reason to do so. Let's take some examples: 1) the life of the mother is truly endangered by a seriously problematic pregnancy; 2) someone catches Osama bin Laden who is proved to have been responsible for the deaths of large numbers of innocent persons; 3) a bellicose state run by a racist like Adolph Hitler is busily extermination millions of Jews. In each case, a good rationale can be made for intervention in these situations. In only the case of abortion are we talking about something other than governmental intervention."

Are you saying its ok to intervene if it is government doing it and not Christians? I'm not sure I understand what you're saying. The problem with that reasoning, if that's what you're saying, is that the intervention of government in these cases would only be imperative based on Christian ethics. Therefore Christians would necessarily be involved in a sense.

As for making exceptions, the fact that they are rare doesn't mean we shouldn't take them into account. I fully agree that a justifiable war is rare, and agree with the assessment that WWII is probably the only one of the last 100 years that would truly qualify. But things such as home invasions that end in the death of the home-owner are become much more common, especially in the UK where the people have limited recourse for defense. I don't see that the Christian command to preserve innocent life stops at Christians. We need to preserve our own lives at times, in curcumstances such as these. These are different then dying as a martyr. At 2 in the morning, a criminal breaking into your home, knowing full well it is probably occupied, doesn't care about your faith. He is there to do you harm either way.

I also disagree with the statement that no war can be "just." If a person such as Hitler or Pol Pot or any of the other ruthless despots in the last century are murdering thousands or millions of innocent people and a war is waged to stop it using the latest in weapons technology to minimize civilian casualties, I believe that would qualify as just. Certainly, non-military personnel will be killed which is awful, but if it saves thousands of others it may be more worth it than doing nothing. Although, admittedly, that line of thinking runs into situational ethics, which I am usually opposed to.

My overall point is that with anything in a Christian walk, there are extremes. There is the extreme of the pre-emptive attack everyone war (the mis-named "Bush doctrine" since he certainly isn't the first to use it as policy) and the extreme, in my opinion, of complete pacifism. Lets not forget that the modern Christian pacifist movement was born as a reactionary movement to the senseless blood-bath of WWI. The reaction is understandable, but extreme, and not necessarily the stance of the historic church.

Rodney Reeves said...

It's astonishing to me how often talk of peacemaking always leads to discussion about war.

"I am for peace, but when I speak, They are for war." (Ps. 120:7)

Anonymous said...

In response to Terry, to assume the anabaptistic position that opposes Christians having public office would contradict the example of Erastus, city treasurer mentioned in Romans 16:23.

Anonymous said...

Dr. Witherington,

I'm a long-time reader and first-time commenter. Thanks so much for helping us better understand what it means to have a consistent ethic of life.

I identify myself as a pacifist, but I have to say it is difficult to be honest about how I feel around immediate and extended family members who are extremely patriotic veterans. Do you encounter such problems?



Ben Witherington said...

This is a fruitful discussion, and I trust it will go on for a while. In regard to Rom. 16.23 the office of aedile did not involve a miltary commitment nor an endorsement of violence, nor was participation in some pagan worship required. The man was the city treasurer, which is a very different matter from being a centurion. He will have collected fees from business, and perhaps indeed from that tentmaker Paul, which would explain how he got converted.


Oscar T. G. said...

Just a couple of niggling points.

First Ben, you said:
"Yes, I am well aware of Romans 13, which suggests that governments have the right to bear some kinds of arms for some sorts of defensive purposes."
I have to point out that you include modifiers to the scripture that don't seem to be there in the text, barring some Greek semantic point that I, a non scholar, cannot see. "...Yes, I am well aware of Romans 13, which suggests that governments have the right to bear some kinds of arms for some sorts of defensive purposes." (underlines mine)? No matter the translated version, I cannot find those modifiers in the text. I'm sure that you can hermanuetically discover them somehow, but just because the text is not specific on what it means, it does NOT mean that you should use a modifier that sounds almost dismissive of the subject. And yes, despite your intent, it DOES sound dismissive.

Secondly, and this is in no way critical of the pacifism stand, MY take on Christ's message is that we should take His words to heart individually for our own lives and NOT project them as a standard that we feel fallen society needs to heed.

Yes, if society (read: fallen mankind) decides to heed Christ's words then it will, indeed, be a good thing, but nowhere do I see that we should take part in a governmental system in order to conform unrepentant and fallen mankind to the standards that we, individually choose to follow.

I guess what I am trying to get at is this: Governments are organs of a fallen and sinful human endeavor. Christ came to save individuals first, and then, through their influence, they should be salt and light as a reproof to the world at large. Other than that we have no dictum to "change" government by social and political action. If we do so it is NOT because Christ said we should, it is because we FEEL that we should, such as in the abolition of slavery or caring for the most powerless in our midst, or changing abortion laws, etc, a long tradition in Christianity.

Well, I am getting lost in my argument so I'll leave off here.

BTW, I thought the poem was dreadful, but not because of its subject. It was just clumsy poetry.

Ben Witherington said...

Hi Bobby: Thanks for your comments. Firstly, the poem scans well and more to the point reads well outloud, so I am satisfied with that. Secondly, as I think I already pointed out, the sword in question is the short sword or dagger used for defensive purposes, and if, as most commentators now think, Paul is especially referring to the tax police, it is very clear that we are not talking about the weapons of war but the weapons of self-defensive. So the qualifications are right there in the Greek if one pays attention to the details of the diction and grammar.



Anonymous said...


I must take issue with the idea that Christians should not change government. While it is manifestly clear that ultimate and lasting change must come through the renewal of hearts and not through hammering down Christian policies via the government, it is also manifestly clear that we should be concerned with issues of justice and morality. That won't always involve voting or lobbying or whatnot, but sometimes it will.

John the Baptist rebuked Herod. Jesus echoed the old Jewish prophets and rebuked the powers of his day. The message of Acts is that Jesus is now King of Kings, and that he has been given authority on heaven and on earth. In light of these things, we can't revert to some dualistic spirituality that neglects the ills of the world. We have more potential influence than the earliest Christians did, and we should take advantage of that.

(Of course, Dr. Witherington and I would disagree on some aspects of how this would work out and agree on others.)

Dan Miller said...

Someone brought up the common argument of "what happens if someone is breaking into my house, or has a gun to the head of my family? Wouldn't it be justified to use violence?"

The whole point of John Roth's book "Choosing Against War" is the idea that our fear is stronger than our faith in God. We may say that we trust God to protect us, but when the chips are down, so to speak, and someone has a gun to our head, we see our true colors. Do we really trust that God is ultimately in control, or do we believe that we have to protect ourselves? The point of the "what would you do?" question is not whether the use of violence is scriptural, rather it's essentially asking "do you REALLY believe that God will protect you if you don't protect yourself?"

I've heard Derek Webb speak on the subject, and he mentioned that people often equate pacifism for doing nothing. You just sit there and take whatever people dish out. However, pacifism is active, not passive. It's not merely a resistance of violence, it's the pursuit of peace.

Ideally, pacifists are willing to fight for justice, fight for equality, fight for the Kingdom - they just don't believe that violence is one of the tools available to believers.

Douglas said...

Some have argued, against Christian pacifism, that violence, even death, is moral in defense of others. Others have argued for participation in just wars, such as WW2 in defense of the Jews. Perhaps we are even obligated to act in these situations to protect the innocent?

I fear your ethic is inconsistent. How many abortion clinics have you blown up lately? What violence have you employed against the doctors who are murdering the defenseless, little lives? After all, little lives in the womb are surely the most defenseless of all. And the number of abortions performed in the US alone since Roe far exceeds the number of Jews murdered in the holocaust. Do we not have a duty to protect the innocent from violence even if violence is required to protect them?

Perhaps we only find it acceptable to use violence when society will call us heroes for doing so, and cowards for not doing so.

Seriously, will someone explain to me the difference between these things?

Perhaps we can't always see the wisdom behind pacifism, but so it goes with God. If we are going to establish an ethic, there should at least be an attempt to apply it consistently. We should strive to make sure we are not bending our ethic to worldly standards and making exceptions based on worldly perceptions.


Sandalstraps said...

Dr. Witherington,

Excellent post. Sorry I'm coming to the discussion so late.

In an earlier comment you wrote:

I would say that the only war in the last 70 years which we committed major troops to, that probably meets the criteria for justifiable war is WWII. That's pretty rare.

That is a very good point. To it I would add this:

Classical Just War theory plays out on two fronts,

a.) just cause, and
b.) limited conduct.

In the case of just cause, WWII no doubt fits, for reasons too obvious to bother noting. However, on the limited conduct front, aspects of it were clearly morally flawed, and absolutely unjustifiable.

The most obvious example would be the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which clearly showed no interest in minimizing or eliminating civilian/non-combatant casualties. For this reason many (including but not limited to Yoder) have wondered allowed whether Just War theory is a useful tool in the atomic age.

But the dropping of atomic bombs was by no means the only morally unjustifiable tactic used to resist Hitler. Thus even this case - a case of just cause, if ever there was one - fails two meet the basic two-fold criteria laid out by classical Just War theory.

Anonymous said...


The difference between a soldier fighting in WWII and a rebel blowing up an abortion clinic is a fact that I have labored to point out recently - civil government is an ordained institution that bears the sword. Whether or not this is a "defensive" sword does not negate the fact that the magistrate is an "avenger" and "agent of wrath." If abortion were illegal, and a troup of police officers discovered a doctor in a back alley performing an abortion, it would not be immoral for them to use force against the doctor.

"Blowing up" an abortion clinic would be worthless anyhow, since presumably the bomber also kills the unborn fetus he was attempting to save.

I think we actually have two strands of pacifist thought going on here, one that says you can't use force whatsoever to stop a murderer as it's happening, and another that says you can, if it's not deadly. The latter seems to be Dr. Witherington's view, in which case we could even ask him if he thinks we should be using forceful, but not deadly, methods to stop abortions.

If abortions were illegal, and I stumbled across one in a back alley, I would have not a second's hesitation about physically trying to stop it (using killing only as a last resort) and I don't think Witherington would either. If we were in some lawless era with no centralized governments and I stumbled across an abortion, I would have no problem doing as Father Abraham did and rounding up a group of kinfolk to stop it.

The fact that abortion is a legalized and pretty much universally tolerated institution today makes it more difficult. What we have are not isolated cases of murder (the stopping of which by civilians would incidentally be legal.) Interfering with one murder and subduing the murderer will, in most instances, get the perp securely subdued and arrested and save the victim. Interfering with one abortion will throw you in jail and, since current law is on the doctor's side, leave him free to carry out the abortion he was going to do to begin with. Plus, it will give the leftists and the media something to harp about and possibly more leverage to support the pro-choice movement anyhow.

Which leaves, of course, the glaring question of how we deal with the institution of abortion as a whole in light of this fact. My point here is not to provide a definitive answer other than protests, political lobbying, and preaching, merely to distinguish between the prevention of a criminalized murder and the disruption of a legal abortion.

Dave said...

Doug said:
"I fear your ethic is inconsistent. How many abortion clinics have you blown up lately? What violence have you employed against the doctors who are murdering the defenseless, little lives? After all, little lives in the womb are surely the most defenseless of all. And the number of abortions performed in the US alone since Roe far exceeds the number of Jews murdered in the holocaust. Do we not have a duty to protect the innocent from violence even if violence is required to protect them?"

I think that the difference is that almost everybody in the clinic would be classified as an innocent life in some sense, excepting the doctors and nurses. Your argument is more like asking why people didn't blow up the concentration camps to save the Jews. In WWII, civilian casualties were avoided whenever there was sufficient information to make the distinction.

Dave said...

sandalstraps said:
"The most obvious example would be the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which clearly showed no interest in minimizing or eliminating civilian/non-combatant casualties. For this reason many (including but not limited to Yoder) have wondered allowed whether Just War theory is a useful tool in the atomic age."

Unfortunately there are grey areas in some things. The accepted (unless you buy into conspiracy theories) is that by using the weapons on what were industrialized towns (producing war items, which blurs the distinction of some of the non-combatants innocence) the war would be ended sooner and would therefore save an estimated 500,000 allied troops and untold numbers of Japanese soldiers AND civilians. The Japanese were in a fight to the death and were basically doing everything in their power to recruit every member of society into a kamikaze like attitude. By using these new weapons that no one had ever experienced, the goal was to break their will to fight and therefore avoid further unnecessary losses. I think that in hindsight it can be considered a grey area, but given the events at the time, length of the war, casualties already experienced, future casualties expected, and the newness (and therefore inherent unknowns) in the new nuclear weapons all have to be factored into our judgment of their actions.

TheThinker said...

Maybe it was glossed over, or maybe no one cared, but what about "pacificism," not pacifism? Dr. Witherington, what are your thoughts on this approach?

Ben Witherington said...

Thank you one and all. This is an important issue about which equally sincere Christians can differ. I have not responded to some of your points, as there are just too many, and some of them are not directly germane to the issue. What is clear to me is that there is a lot of muddled thinking about the difference between a Christian ethic that Jesus' disciples are expected to follow, and the ethic that can or should be incumbent on our government to follow. These are two different matters. Christians in a democracy have every right to voice their own views in our society, but we will differ as to whether we have the right to impose specifically Christian views on a pluralistic society through the political process.
We will have occasion to address these issues again, as they are complex.



Douglas said...

Lemuel and Dave,

I didn’t suggest blowing up an abortion clinic with all the people in it, including the unborn baby you would be trying to save. They do have off hours. Furthermore, I did state that you could exact violence against abortion doctors. Your response seems to me to be a straw man. So, how many empty abortion clinics have you demolished lately?

*I do not condone or support activities such as those I am suggesting*

Douglas said...


Falling back on the “civil government is an ordained institution” tact does not solve the problem for you unless you are willing to take on much more baggage. Yes, civil government only has authority from God, along with every entity on earth. But following your tortured ethic leads to some unacceptable conclusions. By your own reasoning Christians should not have objected to the Nuremburg laws. Christians who aided the Underground Railroad weren’t freeing oppressed people, they were stealing property. And, should the government decide to legalize the rape of women, well who are we to oppose a civil law? Is this preposterous? Is it outrageous? Is it any more outrageous than the legalized mass murder of 1.2 million unborn babies a year? Wait, I forgot, Christians only protect the least, the last, and the lost if the government allows us to do so. We are a courageous people.

It seems to me that you are suggesting that it is morally acceptable for Christians to drop bombs on villages in Iraq resulting in scores of dead children for a reason so obscure nobody can agree on it, but they cannot walk into abortion clinics across America to try and save millions of unborn babies.

Are you sure we aren’t bending an ethical system to cohere with a secular world view?

By the way, lest anyone confuse my intent, I unequivocally do not support violence against abortion clinics. I also do not believe Christians should enroll in the military.

Bethel said...

Dear Dr Witherington,

I appreciate as always your insights and find myself persuaded by the core of your argument – that Christians should be peacemakers, not warmongers.

Your treatment of the text in Luke 22 and Romans 13 shows however tendency of playing down aspects in which you are clearly not comfortable with.

You raised the possibility of the short sword as a defensive weapon - true enough. But in Luke 22, you chose a rather more 'speculative' explanation of Jesus' irony than what the text suggests – instructions for self defense.

In Romans 13, again you rely on the possibility of a 'tax' police - fair enough - but you can't completely take away the notion of a God-sanctioned government office with authority to execute justice, by force if necessary (“He is God's servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer”). The notion here implies a role of execution that goes beyond mere self-defense.

Nonetheless, you have done us an important service by bringing up these matters – and your points about a basic ethic versus exceptional/extreme situations are much appreciated.


John Fraser said...

This thread may be just about spent, but I did feel a need to make one comment. Most of the discussion has revolved around war with other nations, with less commentary on law enforcement (albeit with several comments on self-defense). However, I was somewhat intrigued by Ben's comment that "I suppose it also means I could never be some kinds of law enforcement officers either."

I have known several Christian police officers through various circumstances, and I have respected and admired them. I wish that every police officer in America was a strong Christian. In my opinion, Christian police officers should be (and I think in general are) much better able to use principled judgement in when to use force and how much force to use in enforcing laws than someone without a strong moral foundation for making such judgements. But force is absolutely necessary in law enforcement, and I don't believe anything in the NT mitigates that. Even putting a convicted criminal in prison involves the use of force (I doubt that many convicts check into prison voluntarily), and at least the implicit threat of violence for non-compliance. A logical extension of what seems to me to be an extreme pacifist stance is that criminals should not be put in prison, unless only Christians are morally obligated to be pacifists while non-Christians are morally permitted to use force. But in that case it would seem to me that pacifists should be opposed not just to war, but also to law enforcement. And in fact that seems to be the admitted extension of Ben's argument here since he says he couldn't be a soldier or a certain kind of law enforcement officer (presumably the kind that must be prepared to use force) out of his moral stance.

Did Jesus really intend for his followers to not be involved in law enforcement? Do Christian principles obligate us to turn law enforcement over to the abuses of the ungodly? And is law enforcement that uses or implies the threat of violent force morally wrong?

Ben, I wonder if you have any further thoughts on this position in regard to law enforcement.

Ben Witherington said...

John I entirely understand this position, and I see its strength as you present it. However, I have known various non-Christian law officers who were even more sticklers for sticking to the law and limiting the use of force than Christians. So I think the argument can go either way. I've also met plenty of trigger happy Christians. I suppose I could be the meter maid and write tickets on the city square, so there are some law enforcement roles I could do :)


The Militant Pacifist said...

Wow! Thanks for the post...and the poem!

Greg said...

Amen AMEN AMEN!!! brother Ben. Especially loved your insightful word on Romans 13. Coming right on the heals of Romans 12 where Paul explicitly commands us to never exact vengeance and to feed and give drink to our enemies, it amazes me so many Christians continue to think it their "duty" to "God and country" to kill rather than bless their nations enemies.

Thanks for your boldness.

Greg Boyd

Jake Charles said...

Exacting vengeance and self-(or other-)defense. I can hardly see how those two can be equated. Certainly letting God exact vengeance is required by God but it is not clear that that entails throwing off the notion of doing one's "duty" to "God and country." Pacifism, may indeed be the normative Christian ethic but not because God says to leave vengeance to Him alone.

Terry Hamblin said...

Sorry to have come late to this discussion. I have a lot of sympathy for Ben's position and I enjoyed reading his little verse (though it is flattery to call it a great poem). I agree that taking another's life is the last thing any Christian should contemplate. If I had the power to restore a cut off ear by touching it, I should be seldom absent from the world's battlefields. I also agree that while Christians should in general avoid taking part in killing, in this fallen world there are exceptions that must be considered on their merits.
On abortion, and I speak here as a physician, the proportion of preganancies where the mother's life is endangered by the continuation of the pregnancy is far fewer than 2%. I should be surprised if there are as many as 100 pregancies a year in the United States where this is truly the case. In such a case, also, the physician would try and sustain the pregnancy until teh child would have a chance of independent life - at least until 24 weeks, preferably until 28 weeks. On capital punishment it is clearly possible to survive without executing anyone (as is the case in Europe) but sometimes Justice demands the ultimate penalty (as perhaps might be said in the recent case of Richard Cooey). Failing to execute heinous murderers has subtle effects on the nature of society and it is difficult to estimate the cost/benefit of such a policy.
As to war, I agree that most wars fail the old 'just war' criteria, even World War II where the carpet bombing by the USAAF and RAF killed thousands on non-combatants. However, there are wars that are justified. I would cite the British intervention in Sierra Leone and the Australian intervention in East Timor as such.
I would not say that Christian policemen and soldiers should quit their professions. Nowhere in Scripture is such a suggestion made, and indeed Paul would hardly have clung to military metaphors had he held military service in such disdain. Besides I would rather be policed and defended by Christians than by atheists.

Ben Witherington said...

Stanford thanks for the thoughtful post.

You seem to fail to notice the difference between an ethic followed by Christians and an ethic of a non-Christian government. I am not arguing that the government doesn't have a right to use some force to enforce its laws. What I am saying is that Christians should have nothing to do with using deadly force, and I am also saying, just as clearly as I can that Rom. 13 has nothing to do with capital punishment.

The type of weapon mentioned in Rom. 13 rules that out. We are talking about a weapon used for defensive purposes by a government employee, in this case probably a tax collector, who certainly may have needed some protection in those days, especially since Emperors were given to gouging.

I'm sorry but Gen. 9.6 has nothing to say to a Christian at all. The Noachic covenant lapsed a long time ago, and neither Christians nor secular governments are bound by such a saying any more. But more to the point why would you assume Gen. 9.6 is about capital punishment-it isn't! Its about God's judgment on the murderer. It says nothing about humans executing other humans. Notice the context-- God says "I will demand an accounting for the life of a human being." This is not in any way a discussion about governments and their right to execute criminals. Sorry but that text doesn't support your case.


Ben W.

Daniel said...

Dr. Witherington,

Excellent post! The issue of pacifism is something I am thinking a lot about. I struggle much with the idea of violence in the OT. Whether or not God is orchestrating or allowing the violence to take place by the hands of the Israelites, both would be troubling for me. I am Arminian so hold high to free will, but at the end of the day God is still giving the "go ahead" if not the "order".

This troubles me and I see it as a counter to the example of Christ as you pointed out. Your post here is a good starter for discussions about violence in the OT; do you have any recommended reading on the subject? Or on the subject of pacifism in general? I've read some Yoder, Craigie, and others.

Thank you, love your blog!

Unknown said...

I agree with much of what you say, but I don't agree with the following. You say you're enunciating a Christian ethic that you would not expect a secular government to abide by. I take it this means that there are cases in which an agent of the government ought to or is justified in using violent force. Let's say a drugged up belligerent is stabbing innocent people or someone barges into a school and starts shooting. These are clear cases in which a policeman should shoot the person--and there's no sense in shooting to maim or disarm, since this creates a greater risk to bystanders and lessens the chances of stopping the person. Or take a case of a belligerent, racist dictator massacring an ethnic group in his country. If I am hearing you right, you're begrudgingly admitting that these are cases in which a government should kill (not to mince words).

How can this be a morally justified action for the government if it's not for a Christian? It's going to be some person acting as an agent for the government, so how is it right for this unbeliever to kill and not right for a Christian in the same context? This doesn't make sense to me. The belligerent is not my enemy. He's the public's enemy.

What if an entire country were populated by Christians and a foreign terrorist started shooting people? Should the Christian policeman allow five more people to die while he attempts to disarm and wrestle the assailant to the ground (or die himself in the process and fail entirely in his duty)?

mattw said...

Hello all. Can I ask, instead of these highly emotive questions where the only outcome is violence/ or killing, why not use these ones:

If a Christian community (pacifist/marytr's) were invaded by a terrorist/Samaritan/bad guy who was killing little babies, and said that he would stop only if 10 Christians will renounce Jesus, and worship a statue of Baal, would it then be okay to commit idolatry?

A Christian martyr/pacifist (not passivism!) would do something like this (in my mind - I am still learning). Gather all the able bodied men you can, surround the enemy, which will hopefully give time for the children and women to flee. The men will try to preach to the man, or die praising Lord Jesus. No violence, no idolatry. We carry our cross, and will rise again if we fall.

If you believe in Just War or Just Policing; do you also believe in: Just Adultery or Just Idolatry etc, as well?

[Just to clarify, I wouldn't mind Christian's joining a totally non-violent "police force", that would sacrifice themselves before harming others.]

PS: Matt 10 is a prophecy of what OTHERS will be doing to Christians.
Luke 22:36-38, was rebuked by Jesus because the apostles misunderstood Him TWICE (the 2nd being the "ear incident" with Peter)- how long will the violent-prone Christians beat that dead horse?

wakefield said...

Mattw, doesn't your question
"If a Christian community (pacifist/marytr's) were invaded by a terrorist/Samaritan/bad guy who was killing little babies, and said that he would stop only if 10 Christians will renounce Jesus, and worship a statue of Baal, would it then be okay to commit idolatry?"
beg the question? You are assuming already that violence is wrong inherently.

Regarding comments earlier about a tension between lex talionis and forgiveness, if lex talionis is seen as a retributive principle for government and not as a personal justification for seeking vengeance, I sense no tension. The government's job isn't to forgive.

mattw said...

Hi Wakefield. I think its fairer to say that I find disobeying Christ's commands inherently wrong. I do not see in scripture that the followers of the Messiah have the authority nor sanction to kill/physically harm.

I agree with you on "The [secular] government's job isn't to forgive.", however the Messianic kingdom is one that indeed does preach forgiveness, and that is where my citizenship lies. So I believe it is the job of the Christian's to forgive as commanded to, though we cannot impose the Christ's teachings without preaching the gospel first.

wakefield said...

"I do not see in scripture that the followers of the Messiah have the authority nor sanction to kill/physically harm."

I do not see such sanctioning ruled out. Again, in your argument it appears to me that you're assuming that loving your enemies and using force are always mutually exclusive. I can't speak for everyone who isn't a pacifist, but for me to come closer to your position, I'd need more explanation of why coercion/force is inherently wrong.

I struggle to see how something that was formerly moral for a person to do in God's eyes (e.g., a cop using force to subdue a drunk disturbing the peace) becomes immoral after he becomes a Christian. I tend to see God's standard of holiness as singular, regardless of one's level of commitment to/knowledge of him.

mattw said...

Hi Wakefield. Can you describe why/where you think Jesus authorises his disciples to kill/injure? Also, do you believe God has changed His mind in regards to divorce, or do you think that the supreme interpreter, Jesus Christ, has now clarified our Father’s true view on that issue?

I would think the term ‘injurious force’ would avoid equivocation here (though we could go to more detail). E.g. a doctor using a defibrillator is different to a soldier using a taser-gun. Coercing/subduing a person can be done with non-injurious force as well remember, like when Jesus cleansed the temple.

Personally, these are a few of the scriptures that influenced me: Matt 5:38-44, 26:52, Luke 6:27-39, John 13:34, 1 Peter 2:21, Rom 12:17-21, Rev 13:9-10 + Acts 5:29. I then looked into the examples of Jesus that we are to follow, and the early Christians, and couldn’t find any injurious force against humans in their actions. We should love our enemies, the way they loved theirs (Acts 7:60). My current view is that I would do to others, what I would do to myself or my children, e.g. I would treat an enemy to the limit I would treat my own kids – I wouldn’t kill/injure/harm. That’s the plan, but I am still learning how to follow the Christ’s teachings in this field.

wakefield said...

This response is long-winded. I am okay with taking this to private messages/e-mails, but given the intention of this forum, I find it beneficial to keep it public.

I think Jesus is not exactly outspoken on the issue of self-defense or coercion.

I see him submit to the governing authorities when they are using force against him. I believe he does this because he recognizes that authority, even though he knows that it is being abused. On other occasions when there are those seeking his life, he flees. However, in those situations, those who sought to kill him were not the ones in authority (ruling council vs. angry mob; I agree that at times in the NT, those labels aren't mutually exclusive).

I believe the teachings and principles found in the OT lay out the situations in which violence/death are acceptable and are not equated with murder. I do not see Jesus’ teaching countering this. (As a related side note, for the most part I do not see Jesus correcting the OT Law but rather its misinterpretation.)

Divorce I do see Jesus being outspoken on. He is explicit. Do I think that it would have been sinful for an OT Jew to divorce his wife? I am somewhat unresolved on the issue. It does seem that the spirit of the Law would have gone against it. If Jesus had addressed killing (in general, not murder), violence, or self-defense, I would be less reluctant to see those issues as parallel.

I agree that subduing someone can be done with restrained force. If I am not mistaken, cops, for instance, are trained to use no more force than is necessary. I think there are times when less violent methods, though preferable when possible, are not the most prudent course of action to take.

Speaking to Matthew 5, when Jesus speaks of “eye for an eye,” I am under the impression that he is addressing a common misapplication of the Law in which people took a principle outlined for the governing authorities to follow and were using it at their own discretion. Instead of trusting God to avenge them (be it through government or otherwise), they are seeking vengeance themselves, taking an excerpt of the Law out of context. Regarding the slap on the cheek, I struggle to see this as referring to self-defense. It seems to me that his point is to refrain from retaliation. Those are two very different things. Also, I see “hate your enemy” as a wrongful interpolation on the part of Jesus’ contemporaries. They were going beyond what the Scripture stated. Going on, I do not think restraining someone (even if it requires using heavy, potentially lethal, force) is synonymous with not loving them. Sometimes I think loving would-be victims requires violence (not that a pacifist would not try to protect them). And I do not consider someone breaking into your house at night the same thing as persecuting you.

Lk 6-Again, I find it difficult to believe that Jesus has assaults in mind here. I should point out that considering verse 31, I am more inclined to stop someone who is assaulting me or someone else. I would hope that were I to go on a spree of violence for whatever reason that someone would stop me, even if that meant shooting me.

Jn 13:34-I think there is a place for tough love. A parent grounding a child on the surface doesn’t look very “loving.” A loving God allowing someone to go to hell (or sending them, whichever you prefer) doesn’t come across as loving (yay for cans of worms). You have the presupposition that love rules out injuring someone. I am okay with you holding that position, but to persuade me, you have to prove it, not just assume it.

1 Pet. 2.21-If a cop comes to my house and arrests me (and possibly sees fit to whack me a few times to make me comply), I would like to think that I’d put up no fight. If I am one day a slave and my master beats me, I don’t intend to attack back. Superficially Jesus letting himself be beaten by ruling authorities (though they were corrupt) has some things in common with me letting myself be beaten by a mugger. However, I do not think certain other differences should be ignored or glossed over.

Rom. 12.17ff (by the way, Rom. 13 is a part of this teaching; Paul, as I read it, is saying that the government’s punishment of wrongdoers is legitimate and an avenue through which God exacts vengeance/justice, imperfect as it may be)-If you consider defending yourself from an attacker as paying back evil for evil, you’re assuming that self-defense is evil a priori.

Rev. 13.9-10 and Acts 7.60-If persecution for one’s faith is what is occurring, I recognize that distinction.

Acts 5.29-If man’s word does not go against God’s word, I see no tension.

I respect your position. I do not think it a cowardly one. I think you have considered it carefully, and I have no problem with you holding it. I regret the fact that so many Christians consider violence so lightly and nonchalantly. No compassion is felt for those on the other side of a bomb. No eyes are batted at the thought of hurting others. However, I discern underlying assumptions that are held by pacifists with which I cannot fully agree. I truly believe that I can with a clean conscience defend myself or others in certain situations, even if it requires taking someone’s life. I do not look forward to this prospect, hoping and expecting that I won’t find myself in that situation. After such an occurrence, I cannot say for certain how I will feel in retrospect, but at this moment I see no direct conflict with doing such a thing and following Christ as my Lord.

JoAnn said...

Thank you for your post, it helps me better understand my son's point of view. He is graduating from Princeton Seminary this May. He has changed quite a bit since leaving home...and I have slowly come to realize that the change is a good thing. Much of that I owe to you. A few years ago I decided to try and learn for myself some of the things my son was learning while away at school. Talking with him helped me realize I didn't even know why I believed the things I so strongly stood for. He suggested I look at some of your commentaries. Doing so, I have broken out of my baptist bubble, learning how to look at scripture on my own. The Bible has come alive and for the first time in my life I love to read. I love to search, to question and challenge myself to look at all angles.
Your commentaries have helped shine a new light on the Word, as your post helps shed light on conversations I have had with my son. Thank you for both.

mattw said...

Hello Wakefield. I want to keep it public too, as I would like to see more discussion on this subject, especially other pacifist’s input (as it is currently the minority held view in Christendom, and I am not that good at articulating the position just yet). Though I think Dr Ben will probably bring this topic up again in the near future.

Jesus did tell Peter to stop self-defense in the garden as one instance of stopping His followers using violence (or self defense) and thereafter we don’t see any of His followers ever using violence against other humans. So I would say He is outspoken on violence, by action and words of Himself and His followers.

In my view, I see that throughout the OT, Yahweh is the warrior. Sometimes He used human agency (i.e. Israel/Law, or the heathen Assyrians) or natural disasters, or by a visit from the Angel of Yahweh Himself (e.g. to the 185 thousand Assyrians). I believe Yahweh is our only warrior, and the times in the OT that violence was required of humans was on His authority. Jesus has now left us with no authority to do such things, as vengeance is the Lords’. I see a lot of “concessions” (e.g. like on divorce) made to the Israelites, but now that we have Christ, the training wheels come of the bike, so to speak. So to take vengeance and violence into our own hands without explicit authority from God is to overstep the limits Jesus has imposed on us.

Re: Matt 5. Jesus considered the strike itself on the cheek as evil, as well as any ‘revenge’ action (personal or judicial) aspect as evil. That in itself shows Christians what He thought of as an evil action. Verse 38 the judicial lex talionis is directly from the Torah. But with “private misapplication” was it really as common as you suggest. BTW I believe the lex talionis was meant to LIMIT the amount of violence (just like how the OT rule on divorce was meant to be a limiter), frankly because of their hardness of hearts. Anyways, the strike on the cheek is a violent insult, an attack. So from this, when Jesus says love, we know that ‘striking’ someone is not a good/loving action. By the action of the early church, and patristic writers on this topic, I find that harming someone is not a loving action of a suffering servant.

RE: Luke 6 - Can you show that killing/harming someone who went on a spree of violence (like Saul and the mob lynching Stephen) is allowed for a Christian? The early Christians never mounted a militia against the attacks on the saint’s, though if they did, I would have sided with your view.

RE: Rom. 12.17ff - The surrounding context is of Christ-like suffering love though, without recourse to revenge (vengeance is His). So I see it as God using the evil of the world, to perform His will, like the evil Assyrians whom YAHWEH used at times. That didn’t mean Assyria was good and it also doesn’t mean that the people of God should join in with the Assyrians (or Romans, or any other state). God merely used evil, to combat evil in the world – according to His divine will/wisdom.

Rev. 13:9-10/Acts 7:60 - Though if self defense is allowable for Christians, wouldn’t it be allowable in all situations (even in persecution of faith)?

I understand where you are coming from, especially in terms of having a cleared conscience. Hopefully, none of us are ever put into the kill or be killed situation.

wakefield said...

“Jesus did tell Peter to stop self-defense in the garden as one instance of stopping His followers using violence (or self defense).”

Peter, nor Jesus for that matter, were being attacked. Jesus was formally being arrested. His words to Peter, as I understand them, convey that the kingdom he heralded was not a violent revolution. It did not involve insurrection because it is not of this world. I do not see this speaking to self-defense in any way, shape, or form. Me defending myself is not tantamount to trying to spread the gospel at the edge of a sword.

Note that vengeance was the LORD’s in the OT too. A major difference in the execution of justice in the OT and the NT is the presence or absence of God’s connection to a physical nation. However, for us to restrict his vengeance to either his direct intervention or authorization today I think reflects an unnecessarily negative view of the government. The government (all government) exercises authority already delegated to it by God. Government serves God to do us good. It punishes wrongdoers as a tool of God in seeking vengeance. Now no government is perfect. However, when doing their job, they maintain a sense of order and help us, to varying degrees, live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. The government is not an evil enterprise God set up to do his dirty work. I’m not saying people in high places only make godly decisions, but biblically speaking the idea of government at its most basic level is a blessing from God for our benefit.

I don’t think Jesus brought a higher ethic. I think he pointed out the immutable standard of God’s holiness that the people were not recognizing. The laws he called to mind (“You have heard it said…”) were not insufficient. Rather, the application of them by his audience was. As far as concessions go, I don’t think there were many, and as I alluded to last time, I think someone who was committed to the spirit of the Law would not have needed them.

“So to take vengeance and violence into our own hands without explicit authority from God is to overstep the limits Jesus has imposed on us.”
You’re lumping vengeance and violence into the same category again, though they are not the same thing. For clarity in our discussion, that distinction must be recognized. Someone defending him/herself would not be doing so to exact revenge.

Mt. 5-“Jesus considered the strike itself on the cheek as evil, as well as any ‘revenge’ action (personal or judicial) aspect as evil.” I maintain that the motive is the main transgression here. Jesus is teaching against personal retaliation, not against “strikes on the cheek.” A strike on the cheek in this passage is merely an example of a possible retaliatory action. Drawing the conclusion that striking someone on the cheek is always wrong from this passage is unwarranted as I see it. And the jump you make to judicial “revenge” to me seems inconsistent with the beginning of Romans 13 (esp. verse 4).

Regarding lex talionis, I don’t think the problem was people getting their eyes poked out and paying their offenders back in like kind (which Jesus doesn’t seem to be suggesting either). Rather, people were getting insulted, humiliated, etc. and were “getting back” the people who had done that to them. Physical violence may often not even have been involved. I, like you, also believe lex talionis was implemented to keep violence from escalating, though I do not see that as a concession to their hardness of hearts. God seemed pretty intent on punishing wrongdoers in Israel.

With Romans 12, I agree that the main point for Christians is that they are to love people even if those people are mistreating or persecuting them. However, I don’t see defending oneself going against the spirit of that passage. Again, I make a distinction between revenge/payback and self-defense. I don’t assume ill will in someone defending him/herself.

I believe I already stated that if someone is being persecuted for their faith, I don’t think self-defense is necessarily appropriate.

I do think Christians are to put their faith in God. Their security should not come from their appraisal of their abilities to defend themselves if attacked, to earn a lot of money, etc. However, I do not see self-defense as undermining one’s trust in God. Pitting the two against one another is inappropriate. I encourage you to read Nehemiah 4.9-23. They prayed for God’s protection and they credited their safety to him, but they also carried weapons with them (and thankfully didn’t have to fight at all). Likewise, I trust God to provide for me, but I still work a job. This is not because I do not trust him to do what he says.

mattw said...

Hi Wakefield. The scriptures state that a large armed mob approached at night, they attempt to ‘arrest’ Jesus, and Peter strikes Malchus. Peter saw that he and Jesus were under attack, and used what you consider appropriate violence, but was told “all who draw the sword will die by the sword”. Jesus’ rebuke implied that if it was God's will that He be defended, it would be done without his violence.

an evil enterprise God set up to do his dirty work I never suggested that human government was setup by God. I merely stated that God uses states to unwittingly do His purpose. It was intended for Jesus to be our (Christians) only King. We must not rebel against the secular states, as per Rom 13, but that does not mean Christians can join their institutions of violent coercion. God always intended to have Himself as our ‘head of state’, no one else [see 1Sa 8:7] however, He does set them in order for His purposes, not create them (e.g., Hosea 8:4). So Rom 13:1-7 seen in its proper light as a principle to live in subordination to the state, who are regarded as enemies that are to be loved (as per Rom 12:20-21). We are to overcome evil with good, and leave vengeance for the Lord to fulfil (sometimes it is through evil empires e.g. Assyria etc). JH Yoder says that Rom 12 & 13, act as “a call to a non-resistant attitude toward a tyrannical government. This is the immediate and concrete meaning of the text; how strange then to make it the classic proof for the duty of Christians to kill.”

“You’re lumping vengeance and violence…I did not lump them in the same category, I merely recognized two different things we are not to do. We are not to take revenge (Rom 12). We are also not to use violence/injurious force (teachings and the living example of Jesus and His disciples). The early church does disagree with your idea of revenge as they would consider someone who attacked another person back as wrong/unforgiving. In Athenagoras’ Embassy for Christians he says “have learnt not to strike back when we are flogged, nor to go to law with those who rob and despoil us. When they abuse us and strike us on one cheek, we let them strike the other…”. Irenaeus in his Proof of the Apostolic Preaching [96], re: lex talionis, he thought that Christians no longer needed a restriction on vengeance, because they harbour no thoughts of revenge in their hearts nor had considered others as enemies. Lactantius confronts Cicero’s On Duties and says “He [Cicero] said that a good man would harm if he had been harassed. Now from this very act, if he should do harm, he would of necessity lose the name of a good man. For it is no less an evil to pay back an injury than to inflict one”

I see in Matt 5:38-48, that Jesus exposes society's authorised courts of justice, not as properly punishing the offender whom the injured Christian has lovingly pardoned and then handed over to its jurisdiction, but as itself committing the wrong that has to be endured: "if anyone wishes to go to law with you, and take away thy tunic," and so on. But further than that, the lex talionis wasn’t some mere authorisation of private revenge, but a public measure designed in the interests of society as a restraint upon wrongdoing, and meant to be carried out by the public officers of the community. Yet this is the very law Jesus quotes for the sole purpose of forbidding His disciples to apply it. I can only find that our duty of loving our neighbour excludes the use of public penalties (on behalf of society), as well as any private resentment/revenge. I note that the strike to the cheek was the initial offence, not the retaliatory one – Jesus was giving an example of how to respond to someone committing an offence against you.

You claim “personal retaliation” is only in mind on Matt 5 however you don’t provide any evidence that Jesus intended any qualifier to be applied to His commands. Christ sighted a judicial law, and expounded upon/reinterpreted it, to teach His disciples how He wanted them to behave (and why). The teaching is applied to every sphere of the Christians life (not just private). So if we are struck, we do not strike back, we should take it patiently, and endure and forgive. This does not prevent us from protesting the injustice of the thing, like Jesus had done in John 18:23. For the Christ, the epitome of love for someone would be to lay down your life from them, not kill them (this also doesn’t infer “die trying to kill someone, to save another” – that is still killing). That is how we should love our enemies.

… if someone is being persecuted for their faith, I don’t think self-defense is necessarily appropriate. Why do you only apply it in this situation? Does scripture teach that you can use violence except on matters of faith? You still haven’t provided me with an early church example, of acceptable/allowable violence. I think it is quite clear that Jesus and the early Christians did believe that to strike back was to repay evil for evil. Look at their very actions - they did not strike back or harmed anyone. You haven’t actually shown me any place where they have.

wakefield said...

In my previous post I said, “Peter, nor Jesus for that matter, were being attacked.” This is bad grammar. It should read, “Neither Peter nor Jesus were being attacked.” I’m sorry if that threw you off. Peter’s swipe was not self-defense. They were not being attacked. Any reading of the text that concludes they were under attack is forced in my opinion.

“We are also not to use violence/injurious force (teachings and the living example of Jesus and His disciples).”
The whole contention here is whether Jesus’ teachings and example explicitly teach that violence/injurious force are always wrong. If I felt that they did, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.

Since I feel like it gets pushed to the side or disregarded at times, let me put this out there again. My position is that revenge/retaliation is not okay for a person to exercise. If someone hurts you and you say, “I’m going to get them back,” you need to cool your jets and get over it. In fact, beyond that, you need to show love to the offender. However, you getting someone back is different than defending yourself from an attack. Getting someone back is not the same thing as protecting yourself. All of your argumentation either is against revenge/retaliation (as is mine) or slips self-defense in with it as if they are the same thing. It feels like you’re arguing with someone else.

“Jesus exposes society's authorised courts of justice, not as properly punishing the offender whom the injured Christian has lovingly pardoned and then handed over to its jurisdiction, but as itself committing the wrong that has to be endured.”
Are you saying that when the government, through its courts, finds a criminal guilty and punishes him, it is committing a wrong? And are you also saying (later in the paragraph) that regardless of the crime, you’d never report it to the police? And you’re reasoning is that reporting a crime is a) not loving to the criminal (since he is not reported, he'll repent? and he won't go on to hurt anyone else?) and b) is seeking revenge? What is the point of Rom 13.4? In what way is the ruler God’s servant to do us good? What good is he doing us if wrongdoers shouldn’t be punished? I get this overly negative vibe about government from you that strikes me as incongruent with the biblical picture of government. Plus, I wasn’t using Rom. 12-13 as proof for the "duty of the Christian to kill." I think all human governments are imperfect, but that doesn’t mean government isn’t a blessing from God. The Roman Empire at the time was a tyrannical government that was largely responsible for the deaths of many Christians, yet it was still a blessing because of the order it provided. There are a lot of bad parents out there, but that doesn’t mean parenthood is a bad thing.

My argument isn’t that Jesus assumed that we’d take his teachings and neuter it when we saw fit, but that he thought the context would be considered. If someone tells you to always wear your seatbelt, are you disobeying when you unstrap it to get out of the car?

I don’t see any early church examples of criminals mugging Christians or breaking into their houses. I am aware of examples of recognized government authorities persecuting Christians for their faith. Plus, although I think that the early church fathers had a lot of things right, I don't consider their actions on par with the apostles.

There are as many instances of apostles resorting to self-defense as there are instances of them being attacked by muggers. It’s like arguing that all the apostles were right-handed based on the lack of evidence saying there was one who was left-handed.

I don’t restrict violence, per se, only to matters of faith. I do not think violence in and of itself is loving or unloving. How it is used is what is key. Is it used to hurt someone who has hurt you? Is it used to protect someone? oneself? Is it used to teach? Is it used out of frustration? Generally, I’m not a fan of violence. However, I think there are instances where it does not betray sinful motives. Some examples would be disciplining a child (e.g., slapping their hand before he or she touches a hot stove), defending oneself (note: this is not necessarily equivalent to beating a mugger to a pulp for trying to take your money), and defending others. Even then, each of those can be taken too far or done with the wrong motives. But maybe I'm wrong on this and there is no gray area.

mattw said...

“They were not being attacked” . Hi Wakefield. The point remains that Peter tried to violently defend and save Jesus, and was rebuked.

…. someone tells you to always wear your seatbelt...I do not accept your analogy. If Jesus told you not to harm/injure somebody, with no exceptions, would you, or would you twist His words to suit your own feelings?

You couldn’t even find an example of early Christians behaving in your favour. And you use arguments from silence (re: muggings) but overlook the overwhelming evidence of the early Christian’s behaviour against their persecutors/killers.

The ECF were much closer to the time/culture of Christ and from their writings, seemed to have followed what the apostles/Christ taught on this subject much more accurately then us. It was St Augustine’s [misguided] teaching that one can “love” an enemy while killing them that began the real change in Christian thinking.

Regarding how a Christian should act, read “What would you do” by JH Yoder. [I would be happy to discuss Chrisitian non-violent responses with you if you are committed to non-violence].

I feel this will be my final comment as I believe I have established my position adequately (and I am reiterating). From my research, Jesus/the apostles/the early church/ECF thought violence (injurious force) is unloving – and you have not provided evidence that they thought or acted otherwise. Take care matey.