With the recent escalation of war between Israel and Hezbollah, the debate continues among Christians over the issues of violence and pacifism. Some Christians believe war is a viable response to injustice, while others disagree.
This raises the popular question, what would Jesus do and by extension, what should a Christian do? Does Jesus advocate a nonviolent, nonresistant pacifism, or does he allow for self-defense and military action, up to and including war?
Was Jesus a Pacifist?
Christians who hold to pacifism base their view primarily on two ideas they find in Scripture. 1 In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught not to resist an evil person and to pray for those who inflict persecution, leading pacifists to profess the principle of nonretaliation. And when Jesus said that His kingdom is not of this world, the case is made that Christians are citizens of a spiritual kingdom, not any man-made kingdom of this world. So while Christians remain in this world, they should not participate in the politics. Instead, Christians are to live such a unique lifestyle of loving nonviolence and nonresistance that it draws unbelievers to the light of God’s love and forgiveness found in the cross of Christ.
Applying a Biblical Worldview Grid
How should a biblical thinker respond to a peace-at-all-costs interpretation of Scripture? A worldview perspective aids our interpretation of Scripture not only by focusing on the immediate biblical context and cultural setting of the time, but also by incorporating a total integration of biblical worldview disciplines. A thorough study of these three areas gives the Bible student a richer understanding of the meaning of the text as well as a guide to applying that meaning to the contemporary situation.
Biblical context: At the beginning of Jesus’ sermon in Matthew 5 we read, “His disciples came to Him and he began to teach them . . . .” Jesus is speaking to those who would be His followers and describes how they should interact on a day-to-day basis with one another in community. He is not addressing the role of the state in protecting its citizens from either violence from fellow citizens or attack from outside forces.
Cultural context: When Jesus speaks about not retaliating if an “evil person” slaps you on the right cheek, he is drawing upon a common Hebrew idiom. Since most people are right handed, the back of the right hand would have to be used in order to hit another person on their right cheek. The issue is not so much physical assault as social insult. 2 Jesus’ point is simple: Don’t return insult with insult, which was expected in that day and time.
In their book, Social-Science Commentary of the Synoptic Gospels, Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh explain the significance of the honor-shame society of Jesus’ day.
[T]he pivotal value of the Mediterranean society of the first century was honor-shame . . . . Since honor of one’s family determines potential marriage partners as well as with whom one can do business, what functions one can attend, where one can live, and even what religious role one can play, family honor must be defended at all costs. The smallest slight or injury must be avenged, or honor is permanently lost. 3
Thus, Jesus puts a stop to this kind of tit-for-tat social shaming by telling his followers to absorb the insult and to stop the potential family feud in its tracks. He was not addressing the issue of physical violence or abuse, whether upon you, your family, or your neighbor. It is not as though Jesus were advocating that if a rapist attacks your wife, you should give your daughter as well. This passage lends no support in building a case for passivity to violence.
Worldview context: One thing is clear from a worldview study of politics: government is God’s idea. 4 As early as Genesis 9:6, man is given the collective responsibility to bring a murderer to justice through capital punishment, thus laying the foundation for establishing an orderly and peaceful society through the oversight of civil government.
Moving to the New Testament, in the same sermon that Jesus teaches on turning the other cheek, He also maintains that the state has the responsibility to dispense justice (see Matthew 5:25–26). Elsewhere, Jesus affirms paying taxes to the state (Matthew 22:19f), and Peter and Paul also weigh in on government’s God-given role in protecting its citizens (1 Peter 2:13–14 and Romans 13:1–7).
Living in two kingdoms
An investigation of all three contexts reveals that Christians are citizens of two kingdoms, the kingdom of Christ as well as the kingdom of this world, yet with differing responsibilities in each kingdom. On the one hand, we are to forgive and pray for those who insult us, seeking earnestly to love them into Christ’s kingdom. Yet on the other hand, we are responsible, as members of the civil body politic, to participate in and support government’s role in maintaining peace and protecting its citizens. Securing these ends, in many cases, involves violent means (self-defense, protecting the lives and property of others, physical arrest, capital punishment, and warfare).
What is concluded from this brief overview? Should a Christian go to war? First, in the final analysis, there are clear biblical reasons on a personal level to defend oneself and one’s family and neighbors from the violent actions of others. And second, the state is given the responsibility of defending the lives of its citizens, up to and including war on a national scale.
For Further Study:
- A general article on pacifism from the “Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy”: http://www.utm.edu/research/iep/p/pacifism.htm.
- Pax Christi is a Roman Catholic peace and justice movement of over 14,000 members world-wide.
On “Just War” Theory:
- Robert George, the McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University, responds to questions concerning “Just war” theory at http://www.princeton.edu/pr/pwb/01/1015/1b.shtml.
- For a review of the book, Morality and Contemporary Warfare, by James Turner Johnson: http://www.leaderu.com/ftissues/ft0005/reviews/pavlischek.html.
- An excellent article by James Turner Johnson on Jihad and Just War presents an overview of the Muslim view of war.
- See, for example, Christian Attitudes Toward War and Peace, by Roland Bainton.
- See Craig Blomberg, Jesus and the Gospels (Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1997), 250, or David R. Plaster, “The Christian and War: A Matter of Personal Conscience” Grace Theological Journal vol. 6: 437.
- Bruce J. Malina & Richard L. Rohrbaugh, Social-Science Commentary of the Synoptic Gospels, (Fortress Press, 1992) 76–77.
- For an in-depth study of biblical politics, see the chapter by that title in David Noebel’s Understanding the Times: The Collision of Today’s Competing Worldviews.