A right and a wrong way to Christian non-violence
I’m often less concerned with the position a Christian takes on controversial topic than I am with the way they arrive at that position. That’s the case with pacifism – or Christian non-violence. There are two paths, often taken together, that I strongly disagree with. The first of those wrong paths is to fail to take the Old Testament seriously, or to dismiss it outright. This view essentially relegates the entire Old Testament obsolete in regards to the question of violence. And, while there is discontinuity between Old and New this view fails to see that there is also an essential unity in the whole of Scripture. The second wrong path is to remove wrath, vengeance, and retributive justice from the character of God. But this fails to recognize huge chunks of Scripture, and does serious damage to the work Jesus does on the cross. Whenever I speak to a proponent of Christian non-violence, I’m often on alert to how they arrive at their position.
Preston Sprinkle (Fight: A Christian Case for Nonviolence) gets there the right way. He takes the entirety of Scriptures seriously and doesn’t begrudge God his right to execute righteous judgment. Therefore, while I disagree with some of Sprinkle’s conclusions, I find that we agree a lot more than we disagree.
The Thrust of Sprinkle’s argument
Sprinkle argues that Christians, following the teachings of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, and following His own example of nonviolent suffering should fully embrace nonviolence. He argues that it is never right for a Christian to use violence. His book is broken down into three sections: Review of the Old Testament, Review of the New Testament, Q&A.
The Old Testament: Eden represents the ideal. In Eden, there was no violence. When sin entered the world, it became exceedingly violent. God, in establishing Israel, made provisions for them to use violence to enact capital punishment and engage in warfare. Yet, Sprinkle argues, Israel by comparison was a lot less violent and militaristic both in its laws and its warfare policy than the surrounding nations. By the time we get to the prophets, we see a continued movement away from the use of violence in order to move toward the Edenic ideal. In other words, God provided for Israel to use violence in limited circumstances for specific purposes, but this was not the ideal for God’s people.
The New Testament: Sprinkle argues that in the New Testament nonviolence is fully embraced. Jesus taught it on the Sermon on the Mount. He gave an example as he bore up under the suffering of the cross. The epistles command Christians to revoke vengeance and to follow the example of Christ. What about the violence in Revelation? Sprinkle acknowledges the violent images of God’s judgment on the earth, but he doesn’t see individual Christians taking part. Instead they conquer through their faithfulness to Christ and ultimate martyrdom.
Q & A: After reviewing the biblical material Sprinkle takes on some specific questions: What about if an intruder enters your house? (A: Find some other way to save yourself and your family) Is it right to use violence to save someone else’s life? (A: Tentatively gives voice to the lesser-of-two-evils argument) What about Christian participation in the military or the police? (A: Only if you can serve in a way that doesn’t require you to kill another person)
There’s a lot I agree with in this book: God’s people should be peace-loving and work toward achieving the Edenic ideal of nonviolence. Christians should bear up patiently under persecution following the example of Christ. Christians should not be enamored with militarism or military might. Christians should pursue other ways to resolve conflict that more closely achieve ideals of enemy love.
There’s a few areas I found interesting, but will need to reserve judgment until further study can be accomplished: I wasn’t convinced by his interpretation of the Canaan conquest, or by his interpretation of Revelation.
Then, there was the 10% I disagreed with: Sprinkle argues that it is never right for a Christian to use violence, or does he? He addresses a hypothetical question later in the book. Suppose someone is about to kill an innocent person. The only way to save the innocent person would be to kill the aggressor. Would it be permissible to kill the aggressor? Through gritted teeth Sprinkles says, “probably.” That’s because saving the innocent person is the lesser of two evils. Love for that person is a “higher” love than love for the aggressor and this allows for the action to save the innocent (and kill the aggressor). On this account I agree with Sprinkle. I just argue that doing so should not necessarily be called evil.
We live in a world marred by sin and violence. We have not yet reached the Edenic ideal. So, while we pursue it, we don’t fully live there yet. This is recognized throughout Scripture. And, throughout Scripture, God makes provisions for using violence to hold back evil. He does it through Israel in the Old Testament. In the New Testament, the authority to use violence is shifted to the civil government. And it appears that it will be part of the final judgment. Violence, then, is not always evil. (Sprinkle doesn’t say that it is, only that it’s wrong for Christians to use it).
Of course, Jesus overcame evil through the cross, through non-violent action. Christians, following after Jesus, revoke vengeance and aim to love their neighbors. In this way, the Christian community embraces the Edenic ideal now even though we live in an age of not-yet. We’re the early adopters. I agree that non-violence should be a mark of the Christian community.
But what about Christians in the police and military? God has allowed for some use of violence to restrain evil through the civil government and the use of this force (if used justly) is good. If this action is good then Christians can engage in it. What would be wrong for a Christian to do as a private citizen, isn’t wrong for them to do as an agent of the State, because God has delegated to certain agents of the State a certain moral authority not available to others. Why has God done this? In order restrain evil in a violent and sinful world. Sprinkle sees this as inconsistent with the Sermon on the Mount. I do not.
So, while I agree with a lot of what Sprinkle argues for in this book, I’m not ready to fully embrace non-violence as a rule with no exceptions. The pattern throughout Scripture allows for some use of violence to restrain evil. We aim for the Edenic future and we live there as much as possible, but a love for justice and a love for our neighbor sometimes makes forceful restraint a necessary though unfortunate (but not necessarily evil) response.
I’m thankful to Sprinkle for a well constructed argument and for challenging me to live a more Christ-like life.
 Brian Zahnd is an example of a pastor who comes to a pacifist position through these two paths (at least, based on everything of his that I have read).
Fight: A Christian Case for Non-Violence