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The Call To Nonviolent Discipleship

The cross wasn’t simply something God did for us. According to the NT, it was also an example God calls us to follow. Yet, as discussed in the previous post, most often the call to nonviolent discipleship has been often explained away. Therefore, in our day when violence continues to be the norm, it’s worth exploring further.

John defines love by pointing us to Jesus’ death on the cross. Then he immediately adds: “And we ought to lay down our lives for one another“ (1 Jn 3:16). This and a multitude of other passages make it evident that God’s will is for the cruciform love that defines his eternal, triune nature to be received by us and to transform us so that it might flow through us toward others, with the hope of transforming and flowing through them.

Paul makes the same point when he commands us to imitate (mimetai) the example given to us by God, in Christ, by walking “in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us” (Eph 5:1-2, emphasis added). To imitate God simply means one imitates and reflects the self-sacrificial love displayed on Calvary. According to Paul, the command to reflect this kind of love is to be placed “above” every other command (Col 3:14). Hence, everything we do is to reflect God’s cruciform, agape love (I Cor 16:14). Indeed, Paul is so bold as to claim that any activity we engage in and any character we display, however virtuous or spiritual or impressive it may appear, is altogether worthless unless it is motivated by, and characterized by, God’s other-oriented, non-violent, self-sacrificial love (I Cor 13:1-3). For Paul, therefore, what it means to be a disciple of Jesus is, most fundamentally, that one is “crucified with Christ” (Gal 2:20, cf. 5:24, 6:14), which implies that one imitates Jesus’ loving, cruciform lifestyle.

Living out this cruciform love unambiguously leaves no room for the possibility, in any circumstance, of torturing and killing enemies or of responding in violent ways to anyone for any reason. To the contrary, followers of Jesus are expressly commanded not merely to love their enemies as an inner disposition, as Augustine taught, but to express this love by how we actually treat them. We are specially instructed to “bless” them, “pray” for them and “do good” to them as an expression of love toward them (Matt 5:43-44). We are specifically told to feed our enemies if they’re hungry and to give them something to drink if they’re thirsty (Rom 12:17-21). We are specifically told to never respond to force with force, which is equivalent to responding to evil with evil (Rom 12:17), but to instead follow the example of Jesus and respond to aggression with gentleness, turning the other cheek when struck, and offering to go a second mile when coerced to carry a Roman soldier’s gear for one mile (Mt 5:38-42). Even when we are undergoing persecution and our life is on the line, we are specifically instructed to respond the way Jesus did, humbly, gently, non-violently (1 Pet 3:13-14). All of these passages, I submit, expose the artificiality of Augustine’s attempt to divorce love as an inner disposition from how we actually treat people.

To appreciate the full force of the call to nonviolence, it’s important we remember that the main group most first-century Palestinian Jews would have associated with the word “enemy” were the Roman soldiers who oppressively, and often violently, ruled their land. The “pax Romana” that was imposed throughout the Roman Empire was held in place largely through terroristic threats. Any who disturbed this “peace” by defying Rome were publically punished in ways that installed terror, and thus motivated fear-based compliance, in others. Their favorite instrument of terror, of course, was crucifixion.

Consequently, most peasant Jews loathed these unjust pagan rulers the way most Americans now loathe terrorists today—the only difference being that Romans weren’t threatening to rule the Jewish people; they were already doing it. Hence, the kind of enemies Jesus and Paul were commanding Christians to love and bless were precisely the kind of enemies we today tend to feel most justified using whatever amount of violent force is necessary to defend ourselves against.

Amazingly, there isn’t one exception clause to any of the NT’s instructions about loving and serving enemies or about the refusal to resort to violence in response to aggressors. To the contrary, far from allowing for “justified” exceptions, Jesus emphasized that his followers were to love indiscriminately—the way God loves and blesses the just and unjust by causing his sun to shine and his rain to fall on everyone, without any regard to whether they did or didn’t deserve it (Matt 5:45).

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