Nonviolence: In Brief

Preston Sprinkle

I want to thank Doug Wilson for the challenging and thoughtful dialogue about the issue of guns, violence, and the Christian way. I’m sure Doug’s a busy guy, so in no way do I assume that he needs to, or desires to, keep responding to my posts. My flurry of blogs on the topic began as an effort to continue our Q Denver dialogue, but over the last couple posts, I’ve moved beyond the Wilson-Sprinkle debate and have tried to shore up some thoughts on the topic in general.

In any case, this will probably be my last post for a while on the topic. So I’d love to end where we began: by looking at the scriptural and theological support for what I call a Christocentric nonviolent ethic. But first, let me state a few things in summary form about our dialogue.

  • I don’t view the gun control debate to be central to the Christian conversation about violence and nonviolence. Whether “more guns means less crime” or “more crime” is a step sideways in the discussion about Christian ethics. Even if “more guns” does “mean less crime,” this doesn’t make “more guns” the Christian way. As I’ve said before, just because something might beeffective doesn’t make it faithful to Jesus. There is a certain logic to stuffing every murderer and pedophile and thief in a gas chamber, and this might lessen crime and make society a better place. But this doesn’t mean it’s the Christian thing to do. The whole “love your enemies” nonsense pretty much throws a wrench in that engine.
  • I actually haven’t decided on what I think about gun control and gun violence. Based on the research I’ve done, I would certainly lean toward more gun control as a way to lessen gun violence, but I still have a lot more work to do. And I certainly believe that America is infected with a militaristic spirit, which is celebrated on a national level yet mourned when it blows back in our faces on an individual level. Such spirit inevitably spawns societal violence. In any case, as a gun-owner myself (I own more guns than Doug Wilson; hippee ki-yay…!), I’m certainly not against guns per se. At the same time, my values as a Christian are not shaped by the 2nd amendment, which, as a man-made law, is neither here nor there. I sort of shrug my shoulders at how earthly kingdoms try to rule the world—the Babylons and Romes and Americas of our day. King Jesus rules over all, and this will become very clear in due time.
  • As stated throughout my previous blogs, it’s a shame when the discussion of Christian ethics cites a few verses out of context and then spends the bulk of its attention drumming up theoretical scenarios to try to show the impossibility—or at least inconsistency—of the nonviolent way. To be blunt, most American Christians assume a secular narrative about how we should use lethal force to defend our families, kill the enemy if he’s trying to kill us, and support our troops as our nation fights against worldwide enemies.Then, when faced with a scripturally based nonviolent ethic, they turn to theoretical scenarios to show that this won’t work. It’s odd that I’m the one who is often ridiculed for suggesting a nonviolent ethic; ridiculed by Christians. Our whole method of going about constructing a Christian view of violence and nonviolence (and gun control) is deeply syncretistic.
  • I’ve still yet to see a compelling case, driven by Scripture, biblical theology, and early church history, for using violence as a Christian way to defeat or confront evil—that is, stopping bad guys from doing bad things. Almost every argument I’ve seen is profoundly utilitarian, secular, and almost completely (sometimes completely) ignores the nature of Jesus’s upside down kingdom. It usually comes down to cultural assumptions salted with a few (mainly Old Testament) verses taken out of context, which are then baptized in the bloody images from Revelation.

So, let me lay out my reasons for advocating for Christocentric nonviolence in the briefest way I can. The evidence for my following points can be found in my bookFight: A Christian Case for Nonviolence.

First, Jesus’s vocation as “Messiah” was loaded with militaristic expectations. The Jews expected a military conqueror who would destroy his enemies. Jesus’s posture and teaching was diametrically opposite to these militaristic expectations. In other words, Jesus constructed an intentional paradigm shift designed to create new ethical categories for how Yahweh followers are to confront evil. People who say that Jesus and his followers didn’t use violence because they were a small group and it wouldn’t have worked against the massive Roman empire should stop saying they believe in a divine Messiah. There’s nothing in the New Testament that shuns violence for utilitarian reasons.

Second, Jesus never acted violently to fight injustice or defend the innocent. And there were many innocent people suffering right under his nose in first-century Palestine. Jesus endured unjust accusations and physical attacks, and yet he never responded in kind. He was spit upon, punched, slapped (Matt 26:67), and had his head pounded with a stick (Matt 27:30), yet he never used violence to defend himself or attack his perpetrator. Jesus therefore models his own command to not “violently resist evil…but turn the other cheek.”

Jesus was tortured and crucified unjustly for treason, yet he offers only forgiveness and love toward his enemy. Jesus’s life is peppered with violent attacks, yet he never responds with violence. He embraces suffering, not because he is weak, but because suffering contains more power in defeating evil than using violence, and suffering is the pathway to resurrection glory (Rom 8). In doing so, Jesus shattered all Jewish expectations of how a Messiah should act. It’s not that Jesus just happened to act nonviolently. Rather, he directly and intentionally demilitarized the meaning of messiah and kingdom.

Third, Jesus taught his followers to follow the same rhythm of nonviolence and enemy-love. “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, and pray for those who abuse you. To one who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also” (Luke 6:27-29). Whenever violence is mentioned, it’s always shunned. There’s no biblical evidence that only some of our enemies are to be loved, or that we should love our nonviolent enemies, but kill the ones who are trying to harm our families or our nation. Jesus’s countercultural commands are unqualified and absolute. And whenever the disciples try to confront evil with violence, they are rebuked (Luke 9; 22).

Now, some will say that Jesus’s nonviolent journey to the cross was necessary for Jesus to atone for our sins. He had to suffer; he had to die. His nonviolence wastheologically necessary not practically mandatory for all. But the Bible says that it was both…

Fourth, Jesus’s nonviolent journey to the cross was both theological andethical. Yes, Jesus had to die, so he chose not to resist his death. But NT writers view his nonviolent journey to the cross as a pattern for believers to follow. 1 Peter 2, Romans 12, Philippians 2, and other passages draw upon Jesus’s nonviolent journey to the cross as a model for believers to follow.

The sheer volume of NT commands that flow out of Jesus’s teaching andposture in the face of violence is striking.

  • “Bless those who persecute you, bless and do not curse” (Rom 12:12:14)
  • “Do not repay anyone evil for evil…”
  • “Never avenge yourselves…”
  • If your enemies are hungry, feed them, if they are thirsty, give them something to drink”
  • “Overcome evil with good” (Rom 12:17-21)
  • When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; when slandered, we speak kindly” (1 Cor 4:12-13)
  • “Let your gentleness be known to everyone” (Phil 4:5)
  • “See that none of you repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to all” (1 Thess 5:15).
  • “Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten” (1 Peter 2:21-23).
  • “Do not repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary, bless” (1 Pet 3:9)
  • “strive for peace with everyone” (Heb 12:14).
  • The author of Hebrews commends believers for “joyfully accepting the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one” (Heb 10:34).

Again, all of these commands flow out of the life and teaching of Christ; what he said and what he did; what he taught and how he lived—especially in his last days as he journeyed to the cross.

By far, the most dominant WWJD moment in the entire New Testament is when later writers referred back to Jesus’s nonviolent teaching. There is no single ethical theme that garnered as much interest among our inspired authors as Jesus’s nonviolent posture. 

That’s kinda huge.

Fifth, even though injustice and evil were rampant in the first century, there’s no verse in the New Testament that commands or allows believers to use violence to confront evil or defend the innocent. Some say: using violence to defend the innocent or defend yourself is never forbidden in the New Testament, and therefore it’s okay. But given the dominant and pervasive rhythm of Jesus’s nonviolent posture and countercultural teachings on how we are to treat our enemies, I believe the burden of proof lies with those who think that violence can be used against our enemies in certain circumstances. There are many more passages which would suggest that Christians shouldn’t use violence against their enemies (Matt 5; Luke 6; Rom 12; the book of Revelation), compared to possible passages that would permit a believer to use violence.

Sixth, the pre-Constantine early church almost unanimously read the New Testament the same way I do. This is striking. Shocking, actually, and profoundly so. The early church could hardly agree on anything. They couldn’t even agree on the nature of Christ or which books should be in the Bible! But when it came to the question of killing, whenever early church theologians (whose writings we have) address the question of whether Christian should kill, they all say “no!” Origin, Tertullian, Cyprian, Athenagoras, Lactantius, Arnobius, and others always condemned killing; Christians should never kill. They even went out of their way to distinguish between unjust and just killing—that is, killing bad people who deserve it. Yet Christians aren’t ever to kill, even if they deserve it. Across the board, killing is always and everywhere forbidden. Christians should never kill. Here’s just one example from Lactantius:

When God forbids killing, he doesn’t just ban murder, which is not permitted under the law even; he is also forbidding to us to do certain things which are treated as lawful among men. No exception at all should be made: killing a human bing is always wrong because it is God’s will for man to be a sacred creature (Lactantius, Divine Institutes).

Anyway, that’s a 1,000 word summary of my 70,000 word book, and the most concise way I could sum up a very complicated topic. I fear that my non-pacifist friends have not appreciated the upside down rhythm of the New Testament’s prescribed method of dealing with evil. And, as I said before, I have yet to see a compellingChristian case made for the sanctity of using violence against evil. One that makes sense of the nonviolent posture and teaching of Christ, the New Testament’s pervasive repetition of Jesus’s nonviolent commands, and the early church’s strikingly unified celebration of this ethic. The early church would have yawned at this blog. To be honest, I tend to ho-hum all the theoretical scenarios thrown my way, in light of such rich and multilayered Christian reasons for advocating a nonviolent way of life.

Faithfulness, folks. Jesus calls us to faithfulness, not perceived effectiveness. When I face my Savior, I want him to know that I tried my hardest to live a faithful life which sought to replicate his own life on earth.

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