Does the Bible teach total non-violence?
I wouldn’t say the whole Bible teaches non-violence, for you find Yahweh engaging in quite a bit of violence in the Old Testament. But I would say that the whole Bible clearly presents non-violence as God’s dream for humanity, and I would most certainly say this dream is realized in Jesus Christ and the Kingdom he established. So I believe that it’s incumbent upon Kingdom people to commit to refraining from violence for any reason.
If you honestly, carefully, and with an open mind study the following passages, I believe you’ll agree that the teaching against violence for Kingdom people is as clear as any teaching in the Bible could ever be. I’ll break this sampling of passages (the list isn’t at all exhaustive) into three categories. The passages in the first category express God’s dream of a non-violent humanity in the Old Testament. The passages in the second category address the teachings and example of Jesus. The third category deals with the rest of the New Testament. For each passage, I will give the verse reference (sometimes typing out relevant portions of the passage), and then will sometimes add a note afterwards.
God’s Dream for a Non-Violent Humanity in the Old Testament
I Chronicles 22:7-10 (cf. I Chr. 28:2-3)
* David was forbidden to build God’s house because he was “a man of war” and had “shed so much blood on the earth.” This shows that shedding blood was always a mark against someone and was never God’s ideal.
“The king is not saved by a mighty army;
A warrior is not delivered by great strength.
A horse is a false hope for victory;
Nor does it deliver anyone by its great strength.”
* Believers are to put their total trust in God, not in military might. Even when God had ancient Israelites fight battles, they were to place no trust in their military might, but were to rather trust God to give them the victory. (This is why the Old Testament can never be cited as authorizing “just war” today. The Bible knows nothing of a “just war” policy.)
“And He will judge between the nations,
And will render decisions for many peoples;
And they will hammer their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will not lift up sword against nation,
And never again will they learn war.”
* This is God’s vision for humanity, and it begins to be realized in the Kingdom Jesus inaugurated. We are to be in the present what the world will become in the future. We are “the eschatological community.” Since there will be no violence when the Kingdom is fully come, there should be no violence practiced by Kingdom people now.
* When Jesus, the “Prince of Peace” comes, all bloodshed will cease. While this is not yet true of the world as a whole, this truth is to be manifested among Kingdom people.
“And He will judge between many peoples
And render decisions for mighty, distant nations.
Then they will hammer their swords into plowshares
And their spears into pruning hooks;
Nation will not lift up sword against nation,
And never again will they train for war.
Each of them will sit under his vine
And under his fig tree,
With no one to make them afraid,
For the mouth of the LORD of hosts has spoken.
Though all the peoples walk
Each in the name of his god,
As for us, we will walk
In the name of the LORD our God forever and ever.
‘In that day,’ declares the LORD,
‘I will assemble the lame
And gather the outcasts,
Even those whom I have afflicted.
I will make the lame a remnant
And the outcasts a strong nation,
And the LORD will reign over them in Mount Zion
From now on and forever.'”
* A beautiful expression of God’s ultimate dream for humanity. The world is to see this dream realized in the lives of those who follow Jesus.
“Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion!
Shout in triumph, O daughter of Jerusalem!
Behold, your king is coming to you;
He is just and endowed with salvation,
Humble, and mounted on a donkey,
Even on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
I will cut off the chariot from Ephraim
And the horse from Jerusalem;
And the bow of war will be cut off.
And He will speak peace to the nations;
And His dominion will be from sea to sea,
And from the River to the ends of the earth.”
* This is a prophecy referring to Jesus Christ, the Messiah. To walk in the ways of Jesus is to manifest the truth that he came to end all violence. In this way we point to a future time when God’s dream for a non-violent humanity will be fully realized.
Non-Violence in the Teachings and Life of Jesus
* The blessed are those who are poor in spirit, those who mourn, those who are gentle, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness (= right relatedness with God and others), those who are merciful, those who are pure in heart, those who are peacemakers and those who are persecuted. Every one of these attributes is antithetical to using violence against others.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. If anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, let him have your coat also. Whoever forces you to go one mile, go with him two. Give to him who asks of you, and do not turn away from him who wants to borrow from you.”
* Jesus here revokes the Old Testament permission to retaliate in proportion to an offense. Indeed, Kingdom people are to have an opposite mindset. We are not to “resist an evil person.” The Greek word here (anthisteimi) does not imply doing nothing. It rather forbids responding in kind to an offense. When an “evil person” uses violence against us or our loved ones, we may certainly do all we can to stop him, except use violence. Refusing to use violence when it’s deemed necessary is of course contrary to common sense. And everything about this passage is contrary to common sense. Yet, this is what makes following Jesus radical, distinctive, beautiful — and profoundly difficult!
“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 do good for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?”
* Kingdom people are to love indiscriminately — like the rain that falls from heaven. We’re thus to love our enemies and do good to them. And note, Jesus says we are to do this “so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven.” The condition to being a child of God, Jesus says, is that we’re willing to love like he loves.
“Then Jesus said to His disciples, ‘If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?'”
* We are called to follow the example of Jesus who chose to the way of the cross, even though he could have crushed his enemies with force — and would have been justified in doing so.
“Jesus said to him, ‘Friend, do what you are here to do.’ Then they came and laid hands on Jesus and arrested Him. Suddenly, one of those with Jesus put his hand on his sword, drew it, and struck the slave of the high priest, cutting off his ear. Then Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword. Do you think I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?”
* Peter’s self defense was justifiable by human standards. It would have qualified as an act of “just war.” Yet Jesus rebuked Peter. Jesus had all the power available to him that he needed if he wanted to defeat his enemies rather than suffer. But he refused to use this power, for the Kingdom of God is about manifesting God’s outrageous self-sacrificial love, not “winning” by the use of power. We are called to follow his example.
“And the soldiers likewise demanded of him, saying, And what shall we do? And he said unto them, ‘Do violence to no man, neither accuse any falsely; and be content with your wages.'”
* How these soldiers could have remained soldiers while doing “violence to no man” is not clear. But it is clear that this is what John the Baptist demanded them to do. To “repent” and turn to God is to turn from the use of all violence.
“But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt.Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. Do to others as you would have them do to you. If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that. And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full.
“But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.”
* Could anything be more straightforward than this teaching? The love of those who follow Jesus is supposed to be different from the “common sense” love typically shown by people in the world, for our love is to be extended even to our enemies. Note that Jesus includes doing good to them — lest anyone follow Augustine’s misguided teaching that one can “love” an enemy in their heart while killing him for religious or national purposes. It’s also important to note that the enemies Jesus was talking about included enemies who would, before too long, burn alive the family members of some of the people he’s talking to. And finally, it’s important to note that Jesus says that if we love like this our reward is that we’ll be children of the most high.
“If anyone comes to Me, and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be My disciple. Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple.”
* Jesus is of course speaking hyperbolically when he says we’re to “hate” our parents and family, since he elsewhere commands us to love everyone indiscriminately and to honor our father and mother. It simply means our allegiance to Christ is to never compete with our allegiance to anything else. And when we pledge our complete allegiance to Christ, we are pledging to follow his example of “carrying the cross.” We must, like him, be willing to die at the hands of our enemies, and on behalf of our enemies, rather than resist them with violence.
“Jesus said, ‘My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.'”
* Jesus cites the fact that his disciples are not fighting in his self defense as proof that his Kingdom is not of this world. Two thousand years later, Jesus’ Kingdom is still not of this world, so his disciples must still refuse to fight to bear witness to this fact.
God’s Dream Expressed in Other Teachings of the New Testament
“Never pay back evil for evil to anyone. Respect what is right in the sight of all men. If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men. Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mind, I will repay,” says the Lord. But it your enemy is hungry, feed him, and if he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.“
* Disciples are to leave all judgment to God. Our job as Kingdom people is to love and serve enemies in any way possible, not to judge them. In responding in this humble, loving way we open up the possibility that our enemies will experience conviction for what they’re doing (“burning coals on their head”). This is how we keep from being overcome by their evil and rather overcome their evil with good.
“… for the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. For he who in this way serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men. So then we pursue the things which make for peace and the building up of one another.”
* The kingdom is centered on “pursuing the things that make for peace.”
“[Christ] is our peace, who made both groups [Jews and Gentiles] into one and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall, by abolishing in His flesh the enmity, which is the Law of commandments contained in ordinances, so that in Himself He might make the two into one new man, thus establishing peace, and might reconcile them both in one body to God through the cross, by it having put to death the enmity. And he came and preached peace to you who were far away, and peace to those who were near, for through Him we both have our access in one Spirit to the Father.”
* In his death and resurrection Jesus created “one new humanity” and tore down the dividing walls that fragmented us and kept us hostile towards one another. This one new humanity is thus centered on peace. And it is this new humanity that is to be manifested by Kingdom people.
“Be imitators of God. Live in love as Christ loved us and gave himself for us…”
* We’re to imitate God. The Greek word here is mimetai, and it literally means to mimic. So we’re to mimic Christ’s love for us. When we were enemies of God, God didn’t use violence against us. He rather gave his life for us. This is what Kingdom people are called to mimic. And notice, we’re to live in this love, which means showing this kind of self-sacrificial love isn’t just something we’re to occasionally do. It’s to characterize every moment of our life.
“For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places.”
* If it has “flesh and blood,” it’s not our enemy and not someone we’re to be struggling against. Indeed, if it has “flesh and blood,” it’s someone we’re to be fighting for. And we do this by struggling against the spirit rulers of this oppressed world — the very rulers that are in part responsible for dividing us and inciting violence among us in the first place.
“Pursue peace with all men, and the sanctification without which no one will see the Lord.”
* Pursuing peace is part of our “sanctification,” for this sets us apart from the world (sanctification means to be “set apart”).
“But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, reasonable, full of mercy and good fruits, unwavering, without hypocrisy. And the seed whose fruit is righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace. What causes wars, and what causes fighting among you? It is not your passions that are at war in your members? You desire and do not have; so you kill. And you covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and wage war.”
* Kingdom people are commanded to rely on God’s wisdom which frees us from the need to rely on violence. We are to sow seeds of peace and thus be peacemakers.
I Peter 2:21-24
“For you have been called for this purpose, since Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example for you to follow in His steps, who committed no sin, nor was any deceit found in his mouth; and while being reviled, He did not revile in return; while suffering, He uttered no threats, but kept entrusting Himself to Him who judges righteously; and He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross, so that we might die to sin and live to righteousness; for by His wounds you were healed.”
* The way Jesus responded to his enemies as he faced crucifixion is the example we’re to follow when confronted by enemies. Peter gave this teaching to Christians facing persecution and possible death. Still, they were to imitate Jesus and abstain from all violence — even in their words. We’re to trust God who will eventually judge enemies if they need to be judged.
I Peter 3:8-17
“Finally, all of you, be like–minded, be sympathetic, love one another, be compassionate and humble. Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult. On the contrary, repay evil with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing.
‘Whoever among you would love life
and see good days
must keep your tongue from evil
and your lips from deceitful speech.
Turn from evil and do good;
seek peace and pursue it.
For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous
and his ears are attentive to their prayer,
but the face of the Lord is against those who do evil.’
“Who is going to harm you if you are eager to do good? But even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed. ‘Do not fear their threats; do not be frightened.’ But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander.
“It is better, if it is God’s will, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil. For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit.”
* Here again, disciples facing persecution are called to imitate Jesus in thought, word and deed. In responding to evil with love, the hope is that our “good behavior in Christ ” may bring conviction on those who persecute us, causing them to repent. By loving our enemies, in other words, we are serving them and possibly setting them free.
One final word about all of this teaching. We need to notice that never do we find any exception clause — any — to the uniform teaching that disciples are to refrain from violence. Never is there a hint that we are permitted to use violence when we deem it “justified.” For, as a matter of fact, we always feel justified using whatever force is necessary to protect ourselves, our loved ones, or things we care about. It is “normal” to feel this way — but the Kingdom is radical and beautiful precisely because Jesus commands us not to act in accordance with this “normal” sentiment.