TRANSCRIPT: Jesus of Nazareth calls all Christians to love their enemies, and this means Christians, in following Jesus, must reject violence, coercion and war. People have called this position pacifism, nonviolence, nonresistance or enemy love.
Jesus taught many things that fly in the face of our natural inclinations. He brought an upside-down kingdom with a value system that is diametrically opposed to the world’s way of doing things. One of his most counter-cultural teachings is his command to “love your enemies.”
While many Christian traditions in history have taught that it is permissible to use lethal force in certain situations, this is something that is highly problematic. It has led to the justification of horrific acts throughout history such as the Crusades and the use of nuclear weapons on civilians. The human cost of violence conducted by people bearing the name of Christ is inconsistent with Jesus Himself.
But what about just war theory, you might ask? Well, there is not one verse in the entire biblical canon that posits a just war theory. In fact, Augustine and Aquinas were the first Christians to begin to develop this theory many years after Christ and his apostles delivered us the faith. Now, there is holy war in the Old Testament, but Israel certainly did not follow the constraints of just war theory.
The Bible does not say that Christians can participate in killing based on the conditions of the just war theory, which posit that war must
- Be conducted by the government
- Be for a “just” cause
- Be more likely to be successful than not
- Be the last resort
- And use sufficient force and controlled violence – killing soldiers, not civilians
You just can’t find this in the Bible.
If we assume that “love your enemies” is a central and non-optional command of Jesus, then in order to justify a just war position, theorists will need to demonstrate that it is possible to love someone and kill them simultaneously.
Now it is possible to kill one’s enemy out of love for his neighbor, but Jesus calls us to love more than our neighbor, but also our enemy. Agape love, altruistic, love toward an image bearer of God seeks the wellbeing of that person. Killing that person does not contribute to their wellbeing, either in this life, since it ends it, or in the next life since it cuts off their opportunity to repent.
Christian love is much more than just an inward disposition that does not affect how one acts toward another. Simply put, when Jesus said “love your enemies”, he probably meant, “don’t kill them”.
In Matthew 5:39, Jesus said “do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also.” The Greek word for “resist” is a military term in classical Greek also used by Thucydides.
Jesus also told the Roman governor Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world, if it were my servants would fight…” Unlike every other nation, the political institution that Jesus brought to earth does not use coercion to enforce its moral ideal.
Furthermore, in the Garden of Gethsemane, when Peter took up the sword to defend the most innocent person on the planet with the must just act of self-defense imaginable, Jesus said, “”Put your sword back into its place; for all those who take up the sword shall perish by the sword.”—and then he went on to heal the person Peter had injured.
Finally, the most powerful testimony that Jesus left about nonviolence was the example he laid down for us through his suffering and death. Now it is certainly true that the primary reason Jesus died on the cross was to provide atonement for our sins. However, 1 Peter 2:21 makes it clear that Jesus’ death was also exemplary by stating that “Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example for you to follow in His steps” As Isaiah foretold,
He was oppressed and afflicted,
yet He did not open His mouth.
He was led like a lamb to the slaughter,
and as a sheep before her shearers is silent,
so He did not open His mouth.
In the same passage where Peter says that Jesus’ behavior on Golgotha is our supreme example he states “When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly.”
This posture toward one’s enemies is the exact opposite of our natural disposition.
But this is precisely how the powers of darkness are defeated! Paul states in Colossians that “having disarmed the powers and authorities, He made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.” This is how evil will always be defeated! We are citizens of the nation of Jesus and therefore vanquish darkness his way, not by yielding to the sub-human solutions offered by Babylon.
In Romans 12 Paul echoes the sermon on the mount by saying “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves…”
The life and example of Jesus, followed by the apostles, gives us a clear and unequivocal example to follow. However, we also have the testimony of the early church and its consistent pacifist position in the centuries before the Emperor Constantine came on the scene. This matters because these early church fathers were the direct theological descendants of the apostles and thus were more likely to correctly understand their teachings than we are.
- “The Christian does not hurt even his enemy.”
- “Only without the sword can the Christian wage war: the Lord has abolished the sword.”
- No one gives the name of “sheep” to those who fall in battle with arms in hand, or those who are killed when repelling force with force. Rather, it is given only to those who are slain, yielding themselves up in their own place of duty and with patience—rather than fighting in self-defense. Tertullian (c. 207, W), 3.415.
- “But now inquiry is being made concerning these issues. First, can any believer enlist in the military? Second, can any soldier, even those of the rank and file or lesser grades who neither engage in pagan sacrifices nor capital punishment, be admitted into the church? No on both counts.
This quote is important because many people claim that the reason Christians were discouraged from participating in the military in the early church is because of the pagan rituals, which is simply not the case. Soldiers were not always told to leave the army, but were forbidden from killing while enlisted. Tertullian also said,
“Christ, in disarming Peter, disarmed every soldier.”
“We ourselves were well conversant with war, murder and everything evil, but all of us throughout the whole wide earth have traded in our weapons of war. We have exchanged our swords for plowshares, our spears for farm tools…”
Clement of Alexandria
“The Church is an army of peace which sheds no blood.”
A soldier of the civil authority must be taught not to kill men and to refuse to do so if he is commanded, and to refuse to take an oath. If he is unwilling to comply, he must be rejected for baptism.”
“We do not go forth as soldiers with the Emperor even if he demands this.”
The hand must not be spotted with the sword and blood—not after the Eucharist is carried in it. Cyprian (c. 250, W), 5.488.
The First Council of Nicaea, AD 325, Canon 12 forbids Christian soldiers from returning to the military.f
So what happened? Why did all of this change?
One of the major turning-points in Christian history was the conversion of the Roman Emperor Constantine. As the story goes, Constantine was a ruler on a quest to secure the Roman throne for himself. Before his final battle with rival Maxentius, he reportedly had a vision in which “he saw with his own eyes the trophy of a cross of light in the heavens, above the sun, and bearing the inscription, ‘In Hog Signo Vinces’”, in this you shall conquer (Eusebius). Constantine thus emblazoned a “Christian” symbol on his soldier’s shields and used it as his banner as they slaughtered enemy soldiers.
The faith has never been the same since. Constantine began the fusing of church and state, cross and violence, which is a distorted and utterly erroneous representation of who Jesus is and what the cross stood for: which is laying down one’s life for one’s enemies. Subsequently, the Emperor Theodosius sealed the deal by making Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. Christian Empires that followed in this vein continued to kill, steal and destroy, creating untold suffering and devastation throughout the world.
God is love. God revealed his love decisively through dying for his enemies on a Roman cross 2,000 years ago. May we faithfully follow the example and teachings of the slaughtered Lamb as we conquer evil and vanquish darkness His way. May we turn from the path of violence and onto the way of the Prince of Peace.