Jesus was praying in the garden of Gethsemane, when a group of temple guards showed up to arrest him. Peter immediately drew his sword and started swinging it, cutting off a guard’s ear.
From the world’s point of view, this violence was justified. Peter was simply defending himself and his master. Yet Jesus rebuked him, reminding him that “all who draw the sword will die by the sword.” Jesus then pointed out to Peter that if he was interested in force, Jesus himself could have called on more than twelve legions of warring angels. But this, clearly, was not the kind of power Jesus was interested in employing.
Jesus then proceeded to demonstrate the kind of power he was interested in—by revealing God’s love for his aggressor and healing the man’s severed ear. Through his actions, Jesus showed that the kingdom of God relies not on the power of the sword, but the power of love that seeks to serve and heal enemies. It’s the same power he demonstrated several hours earlier when he washed the feet of his disciples.
After this, Jesus was questioned by Pilate, who asked him if he was the king of the Jews. Jesus responded, “My kingdom is not of this world.” And then he pointed to his followers’ refusal to fight as proof that his kingdom “is from another place” (John 18:36). While all the kingdoms of the world use violence to fight enemies who threaten them, Jesus commands his followers to refuse violence and serve enemies—regardless of how justified the use of violence might seem by “normal” standards.
After his encounter with Pilate, Jesus was tortured, mocked, and crucified. He had the power to avoid all this, but he chose not to use it. Why? Because he knew that using violence to protect himself, while justified by worldly standards, would not have benefited his enemies, nor would it have manifested God’s universal and unconditional love. It would not have manifested what it looks like when God reigns in someone’s life.
Had Jesus defeated his foes by asking his followers to fight for him or by calling on legions of angels, he would have manifested a high-powered version of the kingdom of the world, but he would not have manifested the kingdom of God. Had Jesus conquered his foes by force, he would have locked them into their rebellious stance against him and his Father instead of offering them the possibility of reconciliation. Had Jesus engaged in a “just war” against his foes, he would have legitimized violence rather than defeating it.
By voluntarily giving his life for his enemies—which includes you and me—Jesus made it possible for us to be transformed by the beauty of his love and to be reconciled to God. And the clearest evidence that we are being transformed by God’s love and participating in the kingdom that is not “of this world” is that we adopt the same nonviolent, self-sacrificial stance toward enemies that Jesus had.
—Adapted from The Myth of a Christian Religion, pages 94-95