Blessed are the Pacifists - Island of Sanity

Island of Sanity



Defending Christianity

Blessed are the Pacifists


Jesus came to bring peace to the earth. His kingdom, the kingdom of heaven, will grow through gentleness and quietness, and the meek will be invited to join it. Of course Jesus never used violence to achieve his objectives, and he commanded all Christians to follow his example. If you own a sword, sell it. As Christians we should always live at peace with everyone.

Right? Wrong! Every statement in the above paragraph is false. And not just false, but the exact opposite of what the Bible actually says.

Don't believe it? Can't believe it? Let's try actually reading the Bible.

Did Jesus come to bring peace to the earth? In Matthew 10:34 he says, "Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword."

Will the kingdom of heaven grow though gentleness and quietness, and invitations be given to the meek? Hardly. Matthew 11:12, "From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been forcefully advancing, and forceful men lay hold of it."

Now you might say Jesus was speaking metaphorically. When he said he came to bring a sword, he meant that he would challenge people's preconceptions, not that he would bring actual violence. For if we study the life of Jesus, we see that he always acted quietly and peacefully.

It is true that Jesus usually acted quietly and peacefully, but not always. He could use harsh words when he felt it necessary. When he called the Pharisees a "brood of vipers" (Matthew 3:7), I don't think they took this as the start of a refined intellectual conversation.

Indeed, there was at least one occassion on which Jesus resorted to physical violence:

John 2:14-16, "In the temple courts he found men selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money. So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple area, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. To those who sold doves he said, "Get these out of here! How dare you turn my Father's house into a market!"

Note this was more than simply strong words. It says he knocked over their tables and threw their money on the floor. He attacked people with a whip and drove them out of the building. If he did this in modern America he would be charged with disturbing the peace, vandalism, and assault. And it wasn't something he did in a moment of anger: Note it says that he "made a whip out of cords". Even if we assume this was a hasty job, it must have taken some time. This was an act he deliberately planned and carried out.

Did Jesus command his followers to throw away their weapons? Quite the contrary, Luke 22:36, "He said to them, '... if you don't have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one.'"

I have heard numerous Christian writers try to explain away this little incident. One of two arguments is usually given.

One, they will say that Jesus was speaking of swords symbolically, and then go on to give some interpretation of what Jesus really meant. But in the text, just two verses later we read: "The disciples said, 'See, Lord, here are two swords.' 'That is enough,' he replied." If Jesus had meant his statement symbolically, he would have given them some gentle rebuke when they demonstrated such a gross misunderstanding, as he had done countless other times -- like when they thought a reference to yeast (Matthew 16:6) was meant to refer to literal bread, and he had to patiently explain that he was using yeast as an analogy. Instead he let their understanding of him as referring to literal swords stand. It cannot even be rationally argued that this is because the text is incomplete -- that his explanation was left out for some reason -- or that he did not reply to this directly because he went on to another topic. For Jesus is very specifically quoted as replying positively to their statement: He says, "That is enough".

Two, people will say that Jesus gave this command purely to allow himself to later give an object lesson. They point out that later that very night, when Jesus was arrested, Peter drew a sword and tried to fight those coming after him, and Jesus told him, "Put your sword back in it place, for all who draw the sword will die by the sword." (Matthew 26:52)

I have a big problem with this interpretation. Those who advocate it are asking us to believe that Jesus gave his disciples a command just so that he could later condemn them for obeying it! This seems pretty unfair to poor Peter. Jesus deliberately set him up just so he could make a point to others by criticizing him? Indeed, Peter literally risked his life by his actions. It's one thing to say that God might expect us to risk our lives to stand up for what is right. But to say that God commanded his disciples to risk their lives just so he could point out that they were wrong to do so?

But even more significantly, if we adopt this interpretation, how do we reply to someone who applies the same reasoning to other commands? Perhaps God forbade sexual relations outside of marriage just so that he could later condemn us for failing to be free with our love. Perhaps God forbade stealing just so that he could later condemn us for our materialism. Et cetera. If we follow this reasoning, how are we to know which commands God really wants us to obey, and which commands he does not want us to obey?

But then, why did Jesus rebuke Peter? Doesn't Jesus' rebuke support the position that violence is always wrong?

Let's turn to the last of my mis-quotes from the first paragraph. Does the Bible say that we should always live at peace with everyone? No. Romans 12:18. "If it is possible, as much as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone."

Note this verse does not say, "Always live at peace with everyone." It says, "If it is possible, as much as it depends on you ..." This is a very different thing. Of course Christians should not go out picking fights just to prove we're tough. We are commanded to love our enemies and do good to those who hurt us. We should bend over backwards to find peaceful solutions to problems. But sometimes, despite our best, most sincere efforts, all our attempts at peacemaking will fail, and the other person or group will insist on using violence or other injustice. In such a case, we are nowhere commanded to lie down and let them walk over us or others. We have a right -- indeed a duty -- to stand up for justice. And sometimes the only way to accomplish that is with force.

Jesus said, "Blessed are the peacemakers" (Matthew 5:9), not "Blessed are the pacifists". There's a big difference. A peacemaker tries to settle disputes justly and diffuse the violence. A pacifist says that we should refuse to defend ourselves or others from violence. It is a good thing to offer to mediate in a dispute. If someone can persuade two people or two nations to resolve their differences in a way that is fair and just to all without coming to blows, he deserves to be praised as a peacemaker. It is quite a different thing to stand by and do nothing while the strong beat up and kill the weak and steal their possessions, and then boast that he did this out of the highest moral principles. Of course, the fact that running away from conflict and appeasing bullies is the safe and easy way out had nothing to do with his decision.

© 2007 by Jay Johansen


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