Monday, August 10, 2009
Jesus and Non-Resistance
I thought i would post some of the papers a wrote for my college courses. I have a feeling some of my thoughts have changed slightly on things, but i hope they are interesting for you. Heres the first one....
Throughout Christian history the teachings of Christ found in the four gospels of the New Testament have been dissected, as to what He was trying to say, debated, on how we should apply them to our lives, and diluted, when we feel that they are just to hard to live out. The most dramatic example of this is Jesus’ teachings on non-violence. The church’s stance on this issue has gone from one extreme to the other and everything in between. From the early church to the post-modern church, Christians have had an interesting journey wrestling with the concepts of violence and non-violence.
The foundation of the great debate starts with the words of the Messiah. His stance on non-violence is clear from passages such as Matthew 5:9,
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.”
Matthew 5:38-39, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for and eye, and tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on the right cheek, turn the other to him also,”
and Matthew 5:43-44, “You have heard that it was said, ’You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”
After reading such direct commandments it is very difficult to understand how people who call themselves followers of Christ could ever conceive of living a life as anything other than a pacifist. Not only in his words did he uphold a non-violent stance, but also in his actions, such as the time when he was arrested found in Luke 22:49-51, “When those who were around Him saw what was going to happen, they said ’Lord, shall we strike with the sword?’ And one of them struck the slave of the high priest and cut off his right ear. But Jesus answered and said, ‘Stop! No more of this.’ And he touched his ear and healed him.” The act of Jesus not resisting the arrest, and later the crucifixion makes it overwhelmingly obvious that Christ lived as a model of what Christians are to be and that His Kingdom is nothing like the kingdoms of this world. However, as time will show, it does not take very long for Jesus’ life to be misinterpreted and for the church to get way off course.
The early church understood the message of Jesus, and lived it out in spite of heavy persecution. In his book, The Secret Message of Jesus, Brian McLaren states the position of the early church to non-violence through the words of an early Christian leader, Tertullian, “Confessing ‘Jesus is Lord’ means taking Jesus seriously as Lord, as the authority for the believer: Caesar commands us to kill our enemies, and Jesus commands us to love them. Caesar makes use of torture and chains, Jesus calls us to forgiveness and holiness” (151). So how did the church get from there to here? Most put the responsibility of the change on the Roman emperor Constantine who brought Christianity mainstream in the fourth century. “The orientation quickly changed when the Roman emperor Constantine claimed to convert to Christianity in the early fourth century… Gradually, Christians felt themselves protected by Rome’s swords, not threatened by them. It grew harder and harder to criticize or distrust something that contributed to their own feeling of security. Eventually - this is hard to imagine, but the full truth of it must be faced- the church itself used the sword to force conversions and execute heretics” (McLaren 153-4).
In time the church found they needed justification for some of their unorthodox methods. What was quickly developed is known as the, “Just War Theory.” This theory was first introduced by Augustine of Hippo in The City of God and was later refined by Thomas Aquinas in his book, Summa Theologica. “The just war theory gave seven criteria for a “just war” : a just cause for the war, a legitimate authority declaring war, a formal declaration of war, the goal being a return to peace, recourse to war only as a last resort, a reasonable hope of success, and means proportional to ends” (McLaren 155). Obviously very few, if any, wars waged in the name of God have ever fit this criteria and yet Christians today still use this theory as their reason for war support.
So how have any modern day Christians come to the persuasion of non-violence? It began with a group of Reformers in Switzerland who wanted to move towards a more literal interpretation of the Bible. This group of Reformers is later known as the Anabaptists. The Anabaptists were birthed out of dissatisfaction with both the Catholics and Lutherans in their method of compromising on scripture to meet worldly wants and needs. In the beginning there were some sects of Anabaptists that were very violent, but they soon died out and what was left was a body of believers who, like anything else Christ said, took the teachings of loving your enemy literally and applied it, in an uncompromising fashion, to their lifestyle. Something that makes the Anabaptists unique in their theology is that they view scripture through the lens of Christ, not Paul or the Old Testament prophets. “For no man can lay a foundation other than the one which is laid, which is Jesus Christ” ( I Corinthians 3:11). In this they suffered immense persecution and alienation from much of Europe for centuries to come, much of the time being uprooted from their homes only to find themselves in yet another area of immense hatred that sometimes led to martyrdom.
In what seemed to be a blessing from God as relief from all their suffering, Dutch Mennonites (descendants of early Anabaptists) were invited to take up land in Prussia and Southern Russia (Ukraine) in the 18th century. This seemed to be an answer to prayer since they were promised almost complete autonomy which included religious freedom and exemption from military service. However, in the early 1900’s with the outbreak of the first World War, the situation for Russian Mennonites started to become rather complicated. They welcomed the German invasion of their villages with open arms, seeing the German soldiers as their kin ( the Russian Mennonites continued through the centuries to keep German as their primary language, with many of the villagers never bothering to learn Russian) and as saviors from the Russian government that had been oppressing them for a couple of decades. While amongst the Mennonite villages, the German soldiers provided the Mennonites with weapons and trained them in “self-defense units”. This was the first time in their history that Mennonites had compromised on their non-resistant values. Many villages refused to take up arms, staying firm in the ways of their Lord. In his memoir, A Russian Dance of Death, Dietrich Neufeld revisits that painful mistake, “For the Mennonites the blunder of abandoning pacifism for militarism was particularly incriminating. Have we not always, with justified pride, pointed to our 400-year tradition, which signified a strict pacifism? And at the very moment when, as a result of a bloody war without parallel, militarism had been exposed in all it’s worst aspects…then we abandon our noble position. A Mennonite who surrenders the fundamental idea of peace and affirms war has judged himself” ( Neufeld 79-80 ). Many may look back on that time in history and find the actions of the Russian Mennonites justified, but as it turned out all their compromising did for them was bring even more loss of life to their villages.
Many followers of Christ today would say that if you truly loved someone, then you would be willing to kill for their safety. And on a more global scale, if a cruel dictator is murdering thousands of innocent people, then it is the world’s and the church’s responsibility to stop them. But that is all going on the assumption that we are like God, and that we obtain complete control. John H. Yoder shows a powerful example of what seemed to be a justifiable violence in his book, What Would You Do?. “The plot against Adolf Hitler’s life, for example, in which the well-known Protestant theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer was implicated, is often cited as an example of the need for exceptions to the moral prohibition against violence. Yet Bonhoeffer’s effort failed…By the criterion of probable success that attempt was wrong “ ( 15-
16 ). In such dire circumstances humans often feel that they need to take the situation into their own hands. And defense for others is a natural response, but not one that Christians are called to act out if it means taking the life of another. Christians are called to obey the commands of Christ, and trust that He has not led them down the path of destruction, but the path of true life.
The call to non-resistance in a Christian context cannot be practiced without the understanding of the nature of Jesus’ Kingdom. Anyone can take the above scriptures mentioned and say they were meant to be metaphorical, or that it was just for those people in that culture. But pacifism is just one of the many facets to this upside-down Kingdom. Christ was very clear that he was coming to establish his heavenly kingdom, not an earthly one. If he had thought it beneficial to bring about justice through political means he would have done it. There was plenty of opportunity for him to do so. But God’s definition of justice is sending his son to die on the cross for the filth and depravity of the world, so that justice is served, and all have a chance for eternal life through Christ. Jesus called all believers to do things like dying to one’s flesh, being in the world but not of it, pacifism, and many more impossible tasks. But that is just the point. It is impossible to obey anything Christ taught without his grace, so that he may truly be the King of our lives.
The church has gone through so many degrees of violence and non-violence it is not difficult for any one person to look at history and judge what is the best course for Christians to take on this issue. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. expressed his opinion on this issue, “Through violence you may murder a murderer, but can’t murder murder. Through violence you may murder a liar, but you can’t establish truth. Through violence you may murder a hater, but you can’t murder hate. Darkness cannot put out darkness. Only light can do that “ (Quoted in McLaren 154). It seems very clear why Jesus commanded all who want to follow him to not lead a life of revenge and worldly justifications. But even if it all seemed better to do things the world’s way and to ignore what Jesus said, should Christians still live out the seemingly illogical option? The answer is, “Yes.” Understanding is always very helpful, but the church is not called to thorough understanding. She is called to obedience. As the living God incarnate, Jesus’ life and words come before anyone else, and proceeds all others. The whole point of being a Christian, is to follow the One who’s name is so proudly worn.
In conclusion, the church no longer has the excuse to tie itself to the patriotism of worldly kingdoms, because Christians belong to the Kingdom of Heaven and are thus aliens to this world. And as such it does not war with fleshly tools like fists and bombs, but with love and prayer. When Jesus said, “Take up your cross and follow me,” that was a big hint that this life would not be easy, and probably filled with some suffering. But everything pales next to the enduring love of God.