Tag Archives: Pacifism

Fight: Book Review and Response

fightA 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.[1] 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)

Response:

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.

[1] 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).

Book Recommendation
Fight: A Christian Case for Non-Violence

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Theban Legion

There is an interesting story told in John Fox’s Book of Martyrs which presents an interesting case study of how early Christians viewed the issue of military participation, self-defense, and martyrdom.

Fox tells the story this way:

“In the year of Christ 286, a most remarkable affair occurred; a legion of soldiers, consisting of 6666 men, contained none but Christians. This legion was called the Theban Legion… they were quartered in the east till the emperor Maximian ordered them to march to Gaul, to assist him against the revels of Burgundy.”

The Legion, however, met with some unexpected orders:

“Maximian, about this time, ordered a general sacrifice, at which the whole army was to assist; and likewise he commanded that they should take an oath of allegiance and swear, at the same time, to assist in the extirpation of Christianity in Gaul.”

The soldiers objected both to the pagan sacrifice and to the oath and resolutely refused. This enraged the emperor who commanded that the legion be decimated, that is, that every tenth man be executed. The men were killed but this failed to change the mind the surviving solders. The emperor then ordered a second decimation. When this also failed to persuade the remaining men, the entire legion was executed.

The historical veracity of this event has its critics. The event probably did not occur exactly as described though there are early manuscript witnesses to the event. Regardless, I find several things fascinating and instructive.

First, the soldiers apparently did not object to military service in general and, importantly, this occurred before Constantine.

Second, the soldiers did object to unjust military service. According to one interpretation “The moral of the Theban Legion was employed to condemn atrocities committed under military orders” (Wikipedia).

Third, the soldiers appeared to respond to religious persecution with non-violence. It would seem as though a legion of trained soldiers would be able to put up quite a fight, or at least go down swinging. However, none of accounts include any hint of violent resistance.

Fourth, and probably most importantly, the soldiers resolutely refused to engage in any State sponsored idolatry, even to death. In other words, while they apparently did not object to service to the State, they refused to make it their god. When the god of the State and the Living God came into conflict they decided to fear God instead of fearing the acts of men.

Pacifism through the lens of Romans 12 and 13 (Q & A)

In my last post I presented my framework for my views on pacifism (or “Christian non-violence”). The framework raised a number of questions, especially in regard to question #3, which I now intend to address.

Here’s a quick summary of my position.

First, in the face of evil, violence, and persecution, we as Christians should give up the right to vengeance, trust in God, and love our enemies as we follow the example of Jesus.

Second, one reason we can do this is because we know that God is just and he will bring about ultimate judgment. Since God will bring about perfect justice, we don’t need to.

Third, one way God has provided a means for approximate retributive justice is through the State which he has granted authority to “carry the sword” for the good of the people.

Now for the Q & A:

#1 Rome and America have drastically different political systems, how does that change our interpretation of Romans 13?

It is true that Rome and America have drastically different political systems. It is true that Paul did not have a democratic system of government in mind in Romans 13. Given the drastic change in context, should we modify our understanding of Romans 13? Does it really apply to us? If so, in what way?

For me, the whole question hinges on the concept of “authority.” The agents of the State (Rome in this case) are called the “authorities” and have been given that authority by God. In fact, “there is no authority except that which God has established” (13:1). These authorities are “God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer” (13:4). In other words, God grants the State authority in order to bring some level of justice – punishment for those who do wrong.

But, is Rome only in view here? I don’t believe that is the case. God is the one who raises up and humbles Kings and governments. I don’t think Romans 13:1 is limited to Rome only. It provides us with a general principle for understanding our relationship to the State. The key difference between Rome and America is how the government acquired its authority. In America it is conferred by the people (approximately anyway). Nevertheless, God is the one who ultimately grants authority.

So, I believe the general principle stands.

The big difference is that Paul and the early Christians (except for those who were government officials) had no say in the government. Today, we all have a say, we all have a vote, in how our government will be run.

This adds a new layer of complexity. As believers we are not only concerned with our individual lives or the life and governance of the church, but we can direct public policy. This is an ethical consideration not in view for Paul.

So how do we resolve this tension? I, as a Christian, ought to seek non-violence but I also believe the government has been granted authority to carry out violence for the cause of justice. I don’t normally like to wade into politics but, in order to be honest in answering this question it appears I must. In this regard, I think we ought to hold three principles in mind:

1)      All things considered, non-violence is better than violence. I want my government to be people who seek peace and the path of non-violence first.

2)      All things considered, justice is better than injustice and, sometimes, retributive justice means the exercise of violence within bounds. I want my government to be people who carry out justice for the good of the people. Therefore, I am not de facto opposed to things like capital punishment or “just war.”

3)      I know that the authority provided to the State is provisional and deeply flawed. The State will never be able to bring about perfect justice. I do not want my government to stand in the place of God. I want my government to act within limits. I do not want it to seek a Utopia. I only desire it to seek “approximate justice.”

#2 Is Paul describing the way things are or the way things should be?

This is a related question. Paul could either be just describing the way things are: “God granted authority to Rome so we must submit, even when they themselves treat us unjustly,” or he could be describing the way things should be: “God has granted authority to the State to bring about good and punish wrongdoing.” The first interpretation leads us to a limited application. The second provides us with a broad framework. It should be clear that I have chosen the second route. Several things in the text draw me to this conclusion.

1)      The description from the text does not quite match up with the historical reality. In reality, the State at the time was ambivalent and hostile to both Jews and Christians. Christians needed to apply the principles of Romans 12 (love enemies) to the agents of the State itself. Paul, on the other hand, says the agents of the State “hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong” and that if you do right “you will be commended.” How do we account for this discrepancy? First, even though Rome was flawed there was still a remnant of justice being accomplished. Second, Paul had in mind an ideal state, a general principle.

2)      Paul describes the actions of the State in positive terms. He doesn’t point to the evil carried out by the State, but to the good. The agents of the State serve justice, not personal vengeance. They are servants of God. They punish wrongdoers. They work for good.

3)      Paul doesn’t condemn their use of the sword – he grants that is has authority and commends its use to the extent that it carries out justice. Surely Paul is not justifying or commending violence by the State carte blanche. If he was doing so he would be justifying the death of Christ and the martyrdom of Jews and Christians. Instead, he is saying that when the State is acting in line with justice (ideal action of the State) its actions are commendable and justifiable.

This all leads me to believe Paul is describing a general principle and is not only describing the conditions of first century Christians. (Of course, we do well to understand this passage first within its original context.)

#3 Does this provide governments a blank check?

No. I addressed this in the previous question. Paul isn’t justifying unjust violence committed by the State. This could only be used to justify just action by the State. This kind of violence should be resisted.

All things considered peace is preferable to war, non-violence to violence. We ought to be extremely wary of any action by the State which will lead to death (death penalty, war, etc.) and should look with a critical eye when the State wants to exert its authority in this way. The same authority which can be used for justice (good) can also easily be used for injustice (evil).

#4 Should Christians serve as government officials in the carrying out of violence?

Every Christian in America is faced with the tension of how to vote. It’s even trickier to determine in what way it is permissible to serve ends of the State. The tension could be stated as follows: Christians are called to non-violence. The State is called to carry out justice, which sometimes includes the use of violence. Can Christians serve the State while staying true to their ethical commitments to Christ?

One way to solve this, as a Christian, is to forswear certain jobs where violence would be necessary: Police officer, Soldier, Executioner, etc., and possibly other jobs which enable the violence of the State.

(Personal note: I work as a software engineer for a company that works on military aircraft. In a small way I contribute to the “military industrial complex.” I have never worked on weapon systems. Everything I have worked on has use in both military and civil aircraft. However, on occasion, I have contributed to military programs. I had to ask the question before I started the job, “Can I perform this work in good conscience?” This was not a slam dunk answer for me, though obviously I decided the answer was “Yes.”)

It has not been unusual for Christians throughout the centuries to choose this path. And, to the extent they are acting within their consciences they are acting in faith. I certainly support this decision both because a Scriptural case can be made and because, historically, this has always been an option for believers. Also, there are cases where the State is so grossly unjust (Nazi Germany, for instance) that any support of the State would be sinful. If America turned down a similar road I would council believers to actively (but peacefully, don’t forget Romans 12!) resist service to the State.

I don’t think this is the only option, though, and that’s because the way the tension was stated above is too simplistic. Christians do not forswear all violence per se, but personal vengeance. That is, the Sermon on the Mount and Romans 12 deal with how we respond to personal attacks. In those cases we give up our right to “repay evil with evil.” Instead we leave justice to God.

The actions of the State are (or should be) something all together different. If a Christian is being persecuted and, let’s say, someone come over to his house while he is gone and murders his wife, it would be wrong for him to enact vengeance and kill the perpetrator. That’s vengeance and even though justice might call out for him to do it, he hasn’t been granted authority to carry it out.

Suppose, however, there is a Christian police officer on the force investigating the crime. He, not acting out of vengeance, but out of justice, could participate in the arrest and prosecution of the criminal, even if he expected the sentence to be the death penalty. In one case the Christian is acting out of vengeance. In the other case he is acting on the side of justice.

I would go so far as to say that, when the cause is just, it is not only permissible to act on the side of the State in carrying out justice (even through violence) but commendable. It’s commendable because justice is commendable and because these acts often involve commendable traits: bravery, personal sacrifice, brotherly love, etc. At the very least, these traits ought to be commended.

I am content, then, to leave this up to the conscience of the individual Christian. For those whose consciences prevent them from serving in this way, don’t serve. To do so would be to violate your conscience which would be a sin. For those whose consciences do not prevent them from serving I counsel they ask the following questions: “Is the cause just?” “Am I acting out of vengeance or for the cause of justice?” “Am I being asked to do things which are not just?” “Can I pursue a non-violent solution instead?” If you are satisfied with your answers, carry out your duty with a humble and sacrificial attitude. Act not only as a servant of God to carry out justice, but as a servant of Christ, to extend mercy.

Conclusion

Before I set out I typed out more questions which I wasn’t able to get to given time constraints (aka, my son waking up from his nap). I hope to present a third issue in a week or two.

Pacifism through the lens of Romans 12 and 13

A couple of years ago I preached through Romans 12 and 13. This has greatly shaped by view of pacifism. Specifically, it brings into focus three interlocking and essential questions about Christians and the pursuit of non-violence. (1) Should I, as a Christian, pursue non-violence? (2) Is God non-violent? (3) Should I desire my government to be non-violent?

My conclusion (hint: my answers are Yes, No, Maybe) does not answer all of the questions, especially the toughest ones. I hope, instead, that it provides a helpful lens by which to view the question of pacifism and, hopefully, resolve some tensions for those on either side of the question. It’s either a common ground on which both sides could agree or a position that gets me in trouble with everybody. What could go wrong, right?

Should I pursue non-violence?

Romans 12 begins one of Paul’s greatest sermons on Christian living. Therefore (because of God’s grace in granting us salvation through the death and resurrection of Jesus) here is how we should live. Our duty begins with offering ourselves fully to God in worship (12:1-2) and concludes with the great Christian ethic of love (12:9-21; 13:8-10), including love for our brothers (12:10) and love for our enemies (12:17-21).

In the question of non-violence, Romans 12:17-21 is instructive. We are to meet persecution with blessing and evil with good. Vengeance is forbidden. We are to aim, as far as we are possible, to live at peace with everyone. In taking a posture of peace we avoid being overcome by evil. Instead, we overcome evil with good.

Paul’s arguments here match those of Jesus on the Mount. Here, Jesus calls us to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44). Again, this is a rejection of vengeance and retribution and a call to non-violence.

The call to Christians in dealing with persecution is always a call to patient endurance. And, we have Jesus as our primary example. He endured the violence of evil men even to death on the cross. Though he could have destroyed his enemies he did not. In all of this he is our prime example of love for our enemies, not just a love for those who physically participated in his crucifixion, but for us who were his enemies in our own sin.

And so, I conclude, from Romans 12, the Sermon on the Mount, and the example of Christ, that I should pursue non-violence. I should love my enemies. I should renounce vengeance. I should aim for peace as far as I am able. I should endure persecution, if I face it, in the same way as Christ.

Is God non-violent?

That is, however, by no means the end of the discussion. God often gets dragged into the question, as well he should. After all, we are called to by holy as he is holy. We are called to be like Christ. Or are we?

It’s not quite that simple.

Notice in Romans 12 why Christians are called to abandon revenge. “Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ’It is mine to avenge; I will repay’ says the Lord” (12:19). Christians are instructed to not take revenge precisely because God will avenge. It is his right and, dare I say, obligation, and not ours. How is this possible? How can something be morally right for God and wrong for us? The answer is this: God is the only one in a position to carry out perfect justice. He is our Creator. He knows all. He is entirely fair. We are the creation. Our knowledge is limited. At best our sense of fairness only approximates his.

I believe it is impossible to construe God as a pacifist. The arguments against a pacifist God are many and varied. We see, among other things, God’s dealings in the Old Testament with the nation of Israel. He saved them out of Egypt through plagues. He granted them the Promised Land through war. He sustained their faltering nation through military conquest. When the people sinned, he exiled them from the land by calling out foreign armies.

God’s laws in the Old Testament permitted the capital punishment and established the pattern for proportionate retributive justice.

The prophetic hope, the hope of God coming to reign with justice, is a hope for both salvation and for judgment. God’s salvation of his people sits alongside the judgment of his enemies.

When Jesus came and inaugurated his Kingdom we see a decided shift, but not a reversal. As seen before, the ethics of the Kingdom, outlined in the Sermon on the Mount, demand that followers of Jesus themselves give up the right to enact retributive justice but the concept of retributive justice doesn’t go away, it simply moves to the person of God.

That justice is, in fact, met on the cross. Stunningly, the cross is both the greatest argument violence and also evidence that God himself is not a pacifist. His mercy on us is won through the violent and willing death of Jesus. Truly, this is a profound mystery. On the cross mercy meets judgment and together they bring us all the offer of peace and salvation.

Finally, although I am by no means an authority on Revelation. At a minimum we see the judgment of God, and Christ, on full display. By this point in history justice has failed for the early Christians and they are the recipients of intense persecution. This is a scenario which plays out throughout the world and will only intensify as the end nears. God’s people in the end times do not strike back with violence but they do call out for God’s justice, and that justice means judgment for their oppressors. The songs of praise in Revelation give thanks to God both for his salvation in Christ and for his judgment on the earth (Revelation 11:18, 16:4-7).

Even if you adopt a symbolic view of Revelation (really it’s not a question of symbolic or not, but on what is symbolic) the overall theme of God’s judgment clearly comes through. And, it is difficult to construe God’s judgment in non-violent terms.

And so, I conclude from Romans 12, the cross, the Old Testament, and Revelation that one of the main reasons why I should reject personal vengeance, is because I can trust God who will bring about perfect justice – a justice that includes retributive justice.

Should the government be strictly non-violent?

Romans 12:9-21 and Romans 13:1-7 are closely linked. Paul’s instructions in Romans 13 give Christians yet another reason to avoid vengeance. It also convinced me not to be a strict pacifist.

Christians can “repay evil with good” both because God will ultimately bring about his perfect justice in the end and because he has provided a means, albeit limited and subject to failure, to bring about some semblance of (retributive) justice on earth in the intervening time: the civil government.

According to Romans 13 the governing authorities (by which I take to mean civil authorities, in the case of Paul, the Roman government) are granted authority by God himself (13:1). Therefore, Christians are commanded to submit to that authority (13:2-3, 5). This is an authority established for the purpose of doing good, which includes “bearing the sword” and being “agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer” (12:4).

No doubt, this presents an ideal picture of the purpose of civil government. Real governments are seriously flawed. This is not doubt true for us – but it was even more true for Paul. At that time the government was complicit in some persecution of Christians, a trend which would only worsen over time (see Revelation). And yet, while Paul presents an ideal, his call is very concrete. Honor your governing authorities, even fallen ones, even ones who themselves might be your enemies.

What is interesting to me, though, is that in the picture of the ideal we see a civil government specifically tasked with bringing about God’s wrath – the exact thing we as believers were told not to do and something that was supposed to be left to God (12:9). I’m aware this position opens me up to the charge of moral relativism. Am I saying that something could be right for one person and wrong for another? Yes, in fact I am, and the reason is one of authority. Those in civil government have been tasked with both the authority and the responsibility to bring about justice. I have not. If I try kill the person who murdered a member of my family, it is vengeance. If the civil government, approximating the justice of God, working through fair means, “bears the sword” and commits him to the death penalty, there’s a chance that proper justice is being served.

I conclude then, from Romans 13, that while it is inappropriate for me to seek violence, it is appropriate for the “governing authorities” to seek justice – which may mean the violent punishment of wrongdoers.

Conclusion

Much more could be said. I have left many questions unanswered. In a subsequent post I would like to address the question of the Kingdom of God and my position on non-violence which I alluded to before. However, the basic framework can be summed up in this way.

I should seek non-violence because God will ultimate bring about perfect justice and he has provided a means for us fallen creatures to experience approximate justice in the meantime, namely, the civil government.

Update: I have another post which answers some questions which Q3 of this post raises.