Sunday, December 27, 2009


Was Jesus a Pacifist?

This is a lightly edited article that originally ran on a few years ago, but in response to an email from John Goes I dug it up. I thought some new readers might be interested. --RPM

Was Jesus a Pacifist?
By Robert P. Murphy

In a 2002 article, World Net Daily editor Joseph Farah challenges the view that Jesus was a pacifist. Inasmuch as I have asserted otherwise, I’d like to defend my opinion a bit more thoroughly. I’ll first explain the general reasons I believe Jesus was/is a pacifist, and then I’ll address Farah’s specific arguments.

Regardless of His possible divinity, Jesus was clearly a revolutionary thinker who challenged the seemingly natural idea of retribution. Rather than vengeance, Jesus commanded forgiveness (Mt. 18:22). Instead of the pagan ideals of strength and power, Jesus offered the Christian ideals of humility and meekness (Mt. 5:5). Jesus went so far as to demand that His disciples love their enemies (Mt. 5:44).

The above is not in dispute. Even most atheists would agree that Jesus’ teachings were wise precepts concerning the uselessness of hatred and revenge. But did Jesus literally require pacifism?

A straightforward reading would suggest that He did. He literally (given the translation) commanded “whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also” (Mt. 5:39). But perhaps this was just a specific rule? Well, immediately before this famous injunction, Jesus also gave the general rule, forbidding resistance to evil. It is this passage that inspired Christian pacifists such as William Lloyd Garrison and Leo Tolstoy, and I find their interpretation entirely plausible.

Of course, Jesus often spoke in metaphors; one should be very careful in deriving categorical conclusions from a few Gospel passages. When studying not merely His words, but His actions, does it seem that Jesus was a pacifist?

I for one think this is the only sensible conclusion. He rebuked Peter for drawing his sword during His arrest. And of course, the entire purpose of Jesus’ coming to Earth was to suffer unjustly at the hands of evil men, despite the fact that He obviously had the power to prevent this. Such an argument alone doesn’t prove the case for Christian pacifism, but it does show that the doctrine is consistent with Christianity.

Horrible things happen to good people all the time. The use of violence won’t ever “solve” this. Most people would agree that it is impermissible to murder someone, even if so doing would save (through a heart transplant, say) a child from death. Yet most people believe that it is permissible to kill someone in order to prevent him from killing a child. The apparent inconsistency is evaded by classifying the latter case as justifiable defense, and by classifying the dead man as a criminal, worthy of less respect and rights than “civilized” people.

Yet it is precisely this mentality, I claim, that Jesus sought to overthrow. The kingdom of God on Earth can only be realized when everyone voluntarily renounces violence against his neighbors. And isn’t it just possible that the best and surest way to reach that goal is for each of us personally to renounce violence, for whatever reason, right now? To say, “I will lay down my arms just as soon as all the evil people do first” is to guarantee that you will never see the kingdom of God in your lifetime.

* * *

We now move on to Farah’s arguments. He really has only two. First, he reminds us that Jesus came, not to overturn the Mosaic Law, but to fulfill it. He also reminds us that Jesus and God the Father are the same. Therefore, since the God of the Old Testament was clearly not a pacifist, Jesus can’t be either:

Moving to the Gospel of John, we learn that Jesus is eternal. He always was and He always will be. He made the world and the universe. He is one with the Father. So, all of the commandments of God, as we know them, in what Christians call “the Old Testament,” are likewise the commandments of Jesus. He didn't come to overturn them. He came to fulfill them.

Read the Book of Judges and you will find that God told the Jews to utterly destroy entire unrighteous nations so that they could occupy the Promised Land. When the Jews failed to do this, they paid a heavy price. In Genesis, God Himself destroys Sodom and Gomorrah because of immorality. Throughout the Old Testament, we witness God destroying unrighteous men and ordering unrighteous men destroyed. Keep in mind, also, we are told in Hebrews 13:8 that Jesus is the same yesterday and today and forever.

If Jesus is the same yesterday, today and forever, that means Jesus destroyed unrighteous men and ordered unrighteous men destroyed.

Now this is, to me, a rather strange argument. Granted, to the extent that we use the Trinity to make Jesus the same as the Old Testament God, then Jesus isn’t a pacifist. (And we can also prove that Jesus is His own grandfather. That’s part of the danger of reasoning with a doctrine that is beyond human reason.) But that’s not what Christian pacifists mean; I don’t think anybody would argue that the God of Moses was a pacifist. In any event, when I say that I think Jesus was a pacifist, I mean the living and acting man of the New Testament renounced the use of violence, and commanded His followers to do the same.

More serious, I simply cannot understand Farah’s argument concerning the Mosaic Law. In the very sermon in which Jesus states that He has come to fulfill it, Jesus goes on to “update” all sorts of Old Testament commands. It is true, for most of them Jesus merely increases the requirements, in the sense that a Christian must not only obey the letter of the Law but do so with the right heart.

Nonetheless, Jesus clearly overturns many literal rules of the Old Testament. The most relevant for the current article is the “eye for an eye” revision; this was not some pagan barbarism, but commanded by God (Ex. 21:24). God also told the Jews not to gather food on the Sabbath (Ex. 16:28-29). Indeed, when Jesus’ disciples did this (with His approval), the Pharisees accused Him of breaking the Mosaic Law (Mk. 2:23-24). Finally, Jesus did not endorse the Mosaic penalty of stoning for an adulteress, but rather forgave the woman and told her to sin no more (Jn. 8:3-11).

Farah’s only other argument is Jesus’ command to purchase swords (Lk. 22:36). Now this is one instance where I think Jesus is speaking metaphorically; in the context it seems to me that He is trying to prepare His disciples for the fact that their leader will soon be taken from them. (In any event, He says that two swords are “enough.” I have heard one interpretation that Jesus was exasperated that His disciples had once again misunderstood His message, and so said, in effect, “Enough of this.” But even if one takes that literally—so that two swords among all his disciples are “enough”—then this hardly seems reconcilable with Farah’s belief that Jesus believed in smiting evildoers.)

Shortly after the admittedly troublesome (from a pacifist viewpoint) verse in which Jesus tells his followers to buy swords, He is arrested. He rebukes Peter for cutting off the ear of the high priest’s servant, saying, “Put up again thy sword into his place: for all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword” (Mt. 26:52).

* * *

In conclusion, I think there is ample Biblical support for the belief that Jesus was a pacifist, and that Christianity is a pacifist creed. I realize the case is not beyond doubt; I am certainly open to counterarguments. However, I don’t think the particular claims of Farah are very convincing, as I have tried to show above.

Finally, let me end by saying that I am not claiming that someone who, say, shoots a home invader is therefore a “bad Christian.” Such a judgment on my part would itself be contrary to my interpretation of Christianity. My only purpose in writing the present article was to explain why I personally think Jesus was a pacifist, and why I try to live up to that difficult requirement in my own life.

Robert P. Murphy holds a Ph.D. in economics from New York University. He is the author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Great Depression and the New Deal (Regnery, 2009), and is the editor of the blog Free Advice.

Well¸ when it comes to Jesus, you have to differentiate between what He practised himself (and taught His believers to practice) and what he taught the society to practise).

For the Christian: pacifism! For the society: defend yourself!
That's a good point. It seems he taught pacifism for ourselves, but not that we shouldn't stand up and defend those who need us to, ie the weak.

If a kid (mine or not) is getting bullied, should we walk by, telling him to keep turning the other cheek, or intervene?

Pacifism has a lot of subtleties doesn't it? In addition to the distinction of individual practice and the practice of society and the distinction between pacifism for ourselves and others, I think there should also be noted a distinction between abstaining from any violent action and acting to reduce overall violence. e.g. Defending a child from being killed by beating up her would-be assailant would be acting violently to reduce overall violence.
A "pacifist" who wants to reduce overall violence would be opposed to defensive violence if it escalated the violence or if non-violent means could be used, or if the "defense" was more violent than the "crime" (e.g. killing a would be burglar).
Of course, this line of thinking can be a slippery slope and be used to justify a "war to end all wars" and the like.
Ola and Skyler, what did Jesus say that made you think He wanted society to use violent self-defense?
Could it not be that Jesus, as a man, had a specific mission, and that mission was to model for men how to live? As you point out, pacifism is clearly among the behaviors modeled.

Jesus as God is another story altogether, and since the gospels chronicle him as a man, we have to make the inference that as God he is not a pacifist.

Jesus taught men to be pacifists because that is how men should behave, but this does not mean that, as God, he has to be a pacifist himself in all (or really any) case.

But now I'm rambling.
Aristos, that's exactly how I interpret things. Loosely speaking, we don't need to use violence because God will take care of the bad guys.
I must disagree with a point, Robert.

If I shoot a man in the act of strangling my wife I am trying to stop irreparable damage to my wife, who I am responsible to provide for. I don't do this because I consider the aggressor less civilized or less worthy of rights, I do this because he is the intentional and immediate cause of danger to my wife and I seek to preserve her via the most effective means possible at that instant. The act of shooting him is the MEANS, not an end. That it may result in his death is an unfortunate side effect of his aggression on my wife. After the fact, if I hunt him down and kill him, that is not stopping harm to my wife and falls into the category of either justice or vengeance, depending on a number of different things. I'd say that killing him would be justice and taking out his family as well would be vengeance.

If a man slaps my cheek, my pride is hurt. This is not a permanent harm to me. If a man compels me to go a mile with him this is (most likely) not a life threatening event. In either case in Libertopia I'd have a legal cause against him should I decide to pursue it, but defending my pride isn't an act of humility.

Peter cut off the servant's ear in an attempt to keep Jesus from accomplishing His whole purpose in coming here. Obviously, Peter couldn't actually stop Jesus, but that was his intent. Peter as Rambo doesn't reflect Jesus willingly going to the cross for us.

I wholeheartedly agree that there is WAY to much violent militarism in the church (ie pride of oppressor/nation and self), but I'm not ready to go the total pacifism school yet.

Thanks for the thought provoking article.
Bob, I still think you need to come up with some plausible explanation of his ordering his apostles to buy swords. It sticks out like a sore thumb. I'd accept speculation.

To give a really good answer, I would want to first learn the original language and not rely on a translation.

But given what I have to work with, I still think that is metaphorical. I think He is basically saying: "You didn't have a care in the world when I was here with you, but now I am being taken to fulfill the Scriptures."

If you think He really wanted them to arm themselves for defense, why would 2 swords among 12 apostles be "enough"?

What about His other command to be wise as serpents and harmless as doves?

There are plenty of times when He speaks in a parable and the apostles interpret Him literally, and you can see Him rolling His eyes. I think the same thing happened here. Do you carry a purse too? :)
I think the problem's a lot tougher than the question presumes. There are many ways in which Christ's life wasn't an example for us to follow. Jesus was unmarried, but many people aren't given the gift of singleness; Christ's example of having "nowhere to lay His head" therefore isn't intended for all of us (since it would be a dereliction of duty to fail to provide shelter for those to whom we are responsible). Christ's commands are indeed important (of course), but we can't distinguish between His commands in the red letter and in the black ones -- except where one is clear and specific and the other is vague. And what Christ DID isn't always automatically what He commanded us to do.

Long story short: I note that Christ didn't call any soldiers to quit the army, nor did any of the epistles. Paul said that the authority of the state "does not bear the sword in vain", and none of them forbid government authority to anyone. (Note that Peter had something of an opportunity to do that with Cornelius, and apparently didn't take it -- or at least didn't record having taken it.)

It should be noted that when Christ rebuked the "eye for an eye" rule, he was arguing in line with a lot of solid Jewish scholarship that the Law was actually intending to set a maximum cap on damages, not to set a _minimum_ cap. What Christ did in addition was point out that what made a good rule for a judge to apply doesn't automatically make a good rule for a person to claim in their own relationships.

But the converse is also true. What makes a good rule to apply personally isn't always right for a judge to apply. The fact that I as a plaintiff can allow a person to escape a contract with me doesn't mean that I as a judge can allow them to escape a contract with someone else -- and that means the use of FORCE.

And... it should be added that many of the rules Christ gave were to His apostles for the formation of the Church. The Church wasn't supposed to bear the sword; the State was, and according to Paul, was supposed to bear it "not in vain", and was to use that power to punish evil and reward good.

More violence.

And I see a certain amount of dismissal of the OT examples and laws above. The OT Law wasn't dismissed by Christ; it was rather clarified.

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This is a really difficult subject, but I think some hermeneutic principles will help. First, one of the best principles of hermeneutics is that when the Bible is unclear on a subject, Christians should not insist on certainty and should be tolerant of differing opinions. It’s not clear that the Bible teaches against killing someone in self-defense. I can see where people would get that idea, but it’s not a certain doctrine, like say the doctrine of Christ’s divinity.

A second principle is to consider the mode of speech. Rabbis in Jesus day were fond of hyperbole and Jesus used that form of speech on several occasions. The “turning the other cheek” could be one of those. It’s quite a stretch to say that Jesus intended to overturn the natural right of self-defense with that statement, or that he intended to forbid Christians from taking part in war.

Jesus clearly intended to overturn human thinking about many subjects, but he made those subjects very clear; the main one being salvation. That doesn’t mean that he intended to overturn every belief humans had about everything. We have to think carefully before determining that Jesus intended to do away with the right to self-defense.

Also, consider Jesus’ audience. He almost always spoke to crowds of normal citizens and rarely to government officials. So we shouldn’t apply Jesus’ teaching to state policy. However, if we strictly applied “turn the other cheek” and “love your enemies” to state policy on crime, then we could never prosecute any criminal for any crime. Society would fall apart. I doubt that Jesus intended to ignore God’s desire for justice completely.

On the practical side, what would happen if non-Christians realized that Christians would never defend their families or property from any attack? You would have a situation like those in Muslim countries where Muslims steal, murder and rape Christians with impunity. All those Christians can do is move. Of course God will deal with those Muslims in eternity, but doesn’t he require a tiny amount of justice on earth? Also, God’s mercy is always balanced by his concern for justice. Couldn’t one consider the prevention of a horrible crime, such as rape or murder, an aspect of justice?

Finally, Jesus said turn the other cheek to a slap. Was he referring to insults, or to physical assaults such as rape and murder? Jesus and the apostles allowed themselves to be murdered by the state. On the other hand, he told Christians to flee Jerusalem when the Roman armies surrounded it so that they wouldn’t be killed. And Paul used his Roman citizenship to avoid murder by the Jews only to be murdered by Caesar later. Clearly we shouldn’t seek martyrdom.

Jesus’ situation was unique; he offered himself as a sacrifice for all mankind. Christians aren’t called to do that. The example of the apostles is clear: when the choice is death or renouncing Christ, choose death. None of the examples relates to common criminal activity, such as a person attempting to rape your daughter. When the Bible is not clear on such things, then I think God allows freedom for people to do different things. If one Christian thinks that defending his daughter from rape is the evil thing to do, then for him it is. If another thinks killing the attempted rapist is the godly thing to do, then he is free to do so. I don’t think you can argue that Christ intended to overturn every convention of human self-defense and morality with a few words that can be taken as hyperbole.

As for the example of murdering one human being in order to provide a heart transplant for a child, that is not self-defense. Since the “donor” had not committed any crime, and never intended to commit a crime, then killing that person is without a doubt murder. The “donor” was in no way responsible for the heart problems of the child. And of course the end does not justify the means. That situation is different from killing a would-be rapist because the rapist intends to commit a crime. That would not be murder in either the OT or NT, but self-defense.
PS, Another Christian was struggling with the command to love your neighbor as yourself and how far to go with it. He wondered if that meant that he should treat the children of poorer neighbors as he would his own and pay for them to go to college. But if he did that, then none of them, not even his kids, could go to college because he couldn’t afford it. He had quite a dilemma. Did Jesus intend to say that our responsibility to everyone else we know is equal to that which we have toward our own family members? If so, it’s an impossible demand to follow.

But Jesus clarified the command to love our neighbors as ourselves when another rabbi asked “who is my neighbor?” Jesus responded with the story of the Good Samaritan. The essence of the story is that we should help others in need. Notice that the Samaritan did not adopt the victim and give him a share in the inheritance of his children. Neither did the Samaritan sell everything he had and give the proceeds to the victim and let his own family starve. The Samaritans and Jews were enemies and hated each other, so the story applies to the command to love your enemies as well. The Samaritan performed a reasonable service for his enemy who was a victim of a crime. We could argue all day about whether the Samaritan should have done more or could have done less, but it would be futile. We can’t draw such fine lines. All we have is the principle that we should offer reasonable help to all people when they are victims of misfortune even if they can be considered our enemies.

Edersheim in his “Life and Times of Jesus Messiah” gives the Jewish teaching at the time on the issue. According to rabbis of Jesus’ day, Jews were obligated to help victims who were also Jews, but not obligated to help non-Jews. Jesus probably intended to counter that teaching and not create an open ended obligation for Christians toward others.
PSS, the example above of Edersheim quoting the rabbis of Jesus' day is an illustration of the hermeneutical principle to consider the historical context. It's an important principle often missed.
When the FedGov actually gets involved in a defensive war, let me know. So far, it has a terrible record.
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