I have previously stated that “There is no doubt Jesus taught that the nonviolent resolution of conflict is the best possible policy – for individuals as well as for governments.” To conclude otherwise would be to reject the clear, forceful teaching of my Lord and Savior. But the issue under consideration forces the following questions of extent and intention.
- When Jesus taught the primacy of peacefulness did He intend it to cover every situation in which Christians could find themselves?
- Is peacefulness a goal towards which we should strive or an absolute rule to which we must adhere?
I use the term “peacefulness” in order to differentiate Christ’s teachings from “pacifism” until a conclusion can be drawn.
The most direct means of addressing the above two questions is to explore Christ’s words. I have already conceded that there are many instances of Christ teaching the primacy of peacefulness. Thus, the real issue is the extent to which this principle is to be applied. Therefore, my focus will be on those passages that deal, either directly or indirectly with the issue of force (with violence as an understood included extreme).
“Or again, how can anyone enter a strong man’s house and carry off his possessions unless he first ties up the strong man? Then he can rob his possessions unless he first ties up the strong man? Then he can rob his house.”
Consider the implication behind this saying. A “strong man” must be tied up prior to theft because otherwise he would use that strength to defend his property. Jesus appears to take as a given the right of self-defense. As with other similar cases, a possible alternative interpretation is that Jesus is simply using a well-understood practical situation to make a spiritual point (i.e., without necessarily endorsing the underlying situation). However, it must also be admitted that Jesus could have chosen many other situations to illuminate His point that did not include the concept of self-defense. The fact that He didn’t purposefully avoid using a situation that includes self-defense suggests indifference to a pacifist point of view.
When Jesus had entered Capernaum, a centurion came to him, asking for help. “Lord,” he said,” my servant lies at home paralyzed and in terrible suffering.” Jesus said to him, “I will go and heal him.” The centurion replied, “Lord, I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. But just say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and that one, ‘Come,’ and he comes. I say to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.”
When Jesus heard this, he was astonished and said to those following him, “I tell you the truth, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith. I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. But the subjects of the kingdom will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
Then Jesus said to the centurion, “Go! It will be done just as you believed it would.” And his servant was healed at that very hour.
Jesus responds to the centurion’s faith without making so much as a comment on his occupation. And that occupation was a commander of approximately 100 men in the Roman Army. In all likelihood this man had seen action in numerous wars. Were Jesus intent on turning humankind away from any form of violence, it would be passing strange that Jesus did not add instruction about future conduct to praise in the centurion’s faith.
When Jesus had finished saying all this in the hearing of the people, he entered Capernaum. There a centurion’s servant, whom his master valued highly, was sick and about to die. The centurion heard of Jesus and sent some elders of the Jews to him, asking him to come and heal his servant.
When they came to Jesus, they pleaded earnestly with him, “This man deserves to have you do this, because he loves our nation and has built our synagogue.” So Jesus went with them. He was not far from the house when the centurion sent friends to say to him: “Lord, don’t trouble yourself, for I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. That is why I did not even consider myself worthy to come to you. But say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and that one, ‘Come,’ and he comes. I say to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.”
When Jesus heard this, he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd following him, he said, “I tell you, I have not found such great faith even in Israel.” Then the men who had been sent returned to the house and found the servant well.
The story in Luke adds information about the centurion’s relationship with the local Jewish community. Clearly, this man possessed virtues in addition to core faith in Christ. However, due to his position and responsibilities, had Rome decreed that he go to war against the very nation with whom he had made such deep connections, he would have in all likelihood obeyed. And yet, Jesus Christ chose to give this man one of the highest statements of praise found in the Gospels. Can anyone honestly imagine someone driven by pacifist ideology doing this?
Large crowds were traveling with Jesus, and turning to them he said: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters—yes, even his own life—he cannot be my disciple. And anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.
“Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Will he not first sit down and estimate the cost to see if he has enough money to complete it? For if he lays the foundation and is not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule him, saying, ‘This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.’
“Or suppose a king is about to go to war against another king. Will he not first sit down and consider whether he is able with ten thousand men to oppose the one coming against him with twenty thousand? If he is not able, he will send a delegation while the other is still a long way off and will ask for terms of peace. In the same way, any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple.
“Salt is good, but if it loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is fit neither for the soil nor for the manure pile; it is thrown out. “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”
The point of these examples is focused on the issue of counting the cost of following Christ. What’s striking is the use of war as the basis for one of them. If war is to be always shunned by Christians, why choose this as opposed to the thousands of other possibilities? Try to imagine a pacifist using war as a metaphor in making a spiritual point.
I will continue considering this issue within the context of the Gospel record in the next post.