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Should Christians really only use non-violent resistance to things like war/genocide?

Question: Greg Boyd describes himself as a pacifist. I am curious to know what he thinks about wars or any other situation where genocide is happening. When such evil things are being done by force and violence, how should Christians, and other moral, loving people for that matter, respond? Are we really to use only non-violent means while more and more innocents are slaughtered? I sometimes wonder if it is easier to be a pacifist when not confronted directly by the reality of friends and family being killed.

Answer: There is no denying that it is easier to be a pacifist when your loved ones are not being slaughtered. But that doesn’t mean that only a person who is in the midst of having loved ones slaughtered can espouse pacifism – though it does mean that such a person must try, as much as possible, to imaginatively place themselves in a position where their loved ones are being slaughtered. For as I argued in God at War, theology that can’t be spoken and lived in the reality of the world’s worst nightmares is a theology we should with integrity reject.

The thing is, Jesus advocated this pacifism in a context where his loved ones’ were being abused and even slaughtered! The Romans who oppressed Israel at this time mistreated the Jews in a number of vicious ways, and they sometimes responded to any hint of rebellion by rounding up and slaughtering innocent people, just to flex their muscle and remind people who was in charge. Jesus could have brought an immediate end to this if he wanted to call on the legions of angels he had at his disposal (Mt. 26:53), but he didn’t. He chose instead to love his enemies and die while instructing his followers to do the same. In fact, most of the followers Jesus taught this to would before long find themselves and their loved ones being fed to lions or burned alive when Nero led a persecution against Christians. History bears witness that they responded to their attackers the way Jesus taught them to, and it was largely because of this that Christianity spread so quickly in the first several centuries of the church.

“Do not resist an evildoer,” Jesus said. And “if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also”(Mt 5:39). So too, he commanded us to “[l]ove your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you” (Lk 6:27-28). Never does Jesus or any New Testament author qualify this teaching or provide any exceptions to it. To the contrary, Paul reiterates it (Rom. 12:17-21). And remember, to speak of “enemies” to Jews in first century Palestine was to speak first and foremost about the oppressive Romans. These are the enemies we’re to “not resist” and to love, serve and bless.

Jesus’ teaching is perfectly straight-forward, yet this very straightforwardness presents us with a dilemma. We who confess Jesus as Lord don’t want to say that Jesus was simply off his rocker in telling us to love enemies and refrain from violence. If our confession of faith means anything, we have to take his teaching very seriously. But as your question indicates, we also have to acknowledge that most of us feel it would be immoral not to use whatever violence was necessary to protect loved ones from evil doers, whether these be enemies engaging in genocide or a rapist breaking into our home. It feels obvious to most of us that it is more loving, and thus more ethical, to protect loved ones at all costs. And in this light, it seems that our Lord is off his rocker in telling us not to do this.

How do we resolve this dilemma? It helps somewhat to understand the word Jesus uses for “resist” (anthestemi) in Matthew 5:29 doesn’t imply that we should passively allow an evil doer to do whatever he or she wants. It rather connotes resisting a forceful action with a similar forceful action. Jesus is thus forbidding responding to violent action with similar violent action. He’s teaching us not to take on the violence of the one who is acting violently toward us or a loved one. He’s teaching us to respond to evil in a way that is consistent with loving our enemies. But he’s not saying to do nothing.

Still, the teaching is admittedly problematic, for most of us would instinctively use, and feel justified using, violence to protect loved ones from attackers. The most common way people resolve this dilemma is by convincing ourselves that the “enemies” Jesus was referring to were not our enemies – e.g. people who attack our family (or our nation, or our standard of living, etc…. ). Jesus must have been referring to “other kinds” of enemies, less serious enemies, or something of the sort. We tell ourselves that when violence is justified – as in “just war” ethics – Jesus’ teachings do not apply. This approach allows us to feel justified, if not positively “Christian,” killing evil people who threaten us and our loved ones — so long as we are nice to our occasionally grumpy neighbors.

Unfortunately, this commonsensical interpretation makes complete nonsense of Jesus’ teaching. The whole point of Jesus’ teaching is to tell disciples that their attitude toward “enemies” should be radically different from others. “If you do good to those who do good to you,” Jesus added,  “what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same” (Lk 6:32). Everybody instinctively hates those who hate them and believes they are justified killing people who might kill them or their loved ones. Jesus is saying, “Be radically different.” The teaching could not be more radical and as kingdom people we have to take it seriously. At the same time, what do we do with the fact that most of us know we would not take it seriously, let alone obey it, in extreme situations when loved ones and other innocent people are being slaughtered?

Here’s what I recommend. The teachings of Jesus and Paul should not be interpreted as rules we’re supposed to adhere to when under attack. We can’t genuinely love threatening enemies because a rule tells us to! These teachings are descriptions of what life in the domain in which God is king looks like and prescriptions for how we are to cultivate this alternative form of life. In other words, Jesus isn’t saying:  “As much as you want to resist an evildoer and kill your enemy, and as unnatural and immoral as it seems, act loving toward him.”  He’s rather saying: “Cultivate the kind of life where loving your enemy becomes natural for you.” He’s not merely saying, “Act differently than others”, he’s saying, “Be different from others.” This is simply what it means to cultivate a life that looks like Jesus, dying on a cross for the people who crucified him.

How does this insight help address our dilemma?  A person who lived with the “normal” tit-for-tat-kingdom-of-the-world mindset would instinctively resort to violence to protect himself and his family. Loving his attacker and doing good to them would be the farthest thing from his mind. As with the Jerusalem that Jesus wept over, the “things that make for peace” are “hidden from [his] “eyes.” (Lk 19:41-42).  Indeed, from this kingdom-of-the-world perspective, Jesus’ teaching seems positively absurd.

But how might a person who cultivated a non-violent, kingdom-of-God mindset and lifestyle on a daily basis, respond differently to an attacker? How might a person who consistently lived in Christ-like love (Eph 5:1-2) operate in this situation?

For one thing, such a person would have cultivated a kind of character and wisdom that wouldn’t automatically default to self-protective violence. Because he would genuinely love his enemy, he would have the desire to look for, and the wisdom to see, any non-violent alternative to stopping his family’s attacker if one was available. He would want to do “good” to his attacker. This wouldn’t be a matter of him trying to obey an irrational rule that said, “look for an alternative in extreme situations.” In extreme situations, no one is thinking about obeying rules! Rather, it would be in the Christ-like nature of this person to see non-violent alternatives if they were present. This person’s moment-by-moment discipleship in love would have given them a Christ-like wisdom that a person whose mind was conformed to the pattern of the tit-for-tat world would not have (Rom. 12:2). Perhaps he’d see that pleading with, startling, or distracting the attacker would be enough to save himself and his family. Perhaps he’d discern a way to allow his family to escape harm by placing himself in harms way.

Not only this, but this person’s day-by-day surrender to God would have cultivated a sensitivity to God’s Spirit that would enable him to discern God’s leading in the moment, something the “normal” kingdom-of-the-world person would be oblivious to. This Christ-like person might be divinely led to say something or do something that would disarm the attacker emotionally, spiritually, or even physically.

For example, I heard of a case in which a godly woman was about to be sexually assaulted. Just as she was being pinned to the ground with a knife to her throat, she out of nowhere said to her attacker, “Your mother forgives you.” She had no conscious idea where the statement came from. What she didn’t know was that her attacker’s violent aggression toward women was rooted in a heinous thing he had done as a teenager to his now deceased mother. The statement shocked the man and quickly reduced him to a sobbing little boy.

The woman seized the opportunity to make an escape and call the police who quickly apprehended the man in the park where the attack took place. He was still there, sobbing. The man later credited the woman’s inspired statement with being instrumental in his eventually turning his life over to Christ. The point is that, in any given situation, God may see possibilities for non-violent solutions we cannot see and a person who has learned to “live by the Spirit” is open to being led by God in these directions (Gal. 5:16, 18).

Not only this, but a person who has cultivated a kingdom-of-God outlook on life would have developed the capacity to assess this situation from an eternal perspective. Having made Jesus his example on a moment-by-moment basis, he would know — not just as a “rule” but as a heart felt reality — the truth that living in love is more important than life itself. His values would not be exhaustively defined by temporal expediency. Moreover, he would have cultivated a trust in God that would free him from defining “winning” and “losing” in terms of temporal outcomes. He would have confidence in the resurrection. As such, he would be free from the “preserve my interests at all costs” mindset of the world.

Of course, it’s possible that, despite a person’s loving wisdom and openness to God, the man sees no way to save himself and his family except to harm the attacker, or even to take his life. What would such a person do in this case? I think it is clear from Jesus’ teachings, life and especially his death that Jesus would choose non-violence. So, it seems clear that a person who was totally conformed to the image of Jesus Christ, who had thoroughly cultivated a kingdom mind and heart, would do the same.

At the same time, I have to frankly confess that, while I hope I would act this way if my loved ones were attacked tonight, I’m not certain my character is there yet. Indeed, I have to admit that, like most people, I don’t yet quite see how it would be moral to do what I believe Jesus would do. Yet, I have to assume that my disagreement with Jesus is due to my not having sufficiently cultivated a kingdom heart and mind. If I felt I had to harm or take the life of another to prevent what clearly seemed to be a greater evil, I could not feel righteous or even justified about it. Like Bonhoeffer who, despite his pacifism, sought to assassinate Hitler, I could only plead for God’s mercy.

What we must never do, however, is acquiesce to our present, non-kingdom, spiritual condition by rationalizing away Jesus’ clear kingdom prescriptions. We must rather strive every moment of our life to cultivate the kind of mind and heart that increasingly sees the rightness and beauty of Jesus’ teachings and thus that would naturally respond to an extreme, threatening situation in a loving, non-violent manner.

If you’d like to do further reading on this, check out, York Tripp, ed. A Faith Not Worth Fighting For. It addresses all the major objections people raise against pacifism and includes essays by Brian McLaren, Shane Claiborne and a dozen other advocates of non-violence, including myself.


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