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Saint Augustine
Jesus and Pacifism - Personal Non-retaliation, Not Pacifism
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Article Index
Jesus and Pacifism
Personal Non-retaliation, Not Pacifism
Blessed Are the Peacemakers
Turn the Other Cheek
Live by the Sword, Die by the Sword
Two Kingdoms - The Strong Man
Jesus and the Roman Centurion -- Conclusion
All Pages

Personal Non-retaliation, Not Pacifism


Jesus commanded his followers (in keeping with both the OT and NT ethic) to subordinate all desire for personal revenge to God (Lamentations  3:30; Matthew 5:39; Romans 12:19; Hebrews 10:30) against a future reckoning (Luke 21:22). The consequence of this charge is to eliminate the act of personal retaliation from the Christian life. Believers are also directed to love their neighbors (Matthew 19:19), which has an entirely different set of ethical responsibilities focused upon others, including one’s family. At no time is there a suggestion that the follower of Christ is to renounce civic or familial duties, rather Jesus taught a dual obligation.4 Christ taught a robust life of faith lived to the fullest as a citizen of God‘s Kingdom and as an involved resident of this present world.

A determined minority through the ages have made the persistent claim that Jesus the Messiah taught pacifism as the Christian lifestyle. Their emphasis is upon peace, non-violence, peace-making and radical Christian love as an alternative lifestyle. These are worthy ideals, and the rest of the Christian communion has much to learn from the pacifist point of view. However the pacifist lifestyle leaves it to the rest of the Christian communion (and others) to do the difficult work of ordering society and enforcing the peace.

It might be easy enough to believe that Jesus was a thoroughgoing pacifist if one only studies the Gospel accounts. But even when exclusively considering the Gospel narratives there must be a degree of textual selectivity to find a truly pacifistic Christ. On the other hand, if one seeks to understand Christ within the entire context of scripture we find the Messiah progressively revealed in a multitude of roles. When one integrates all of these roles the answer to the question, “was the Christ a pacifist?” must necessarily be, “No.”

Which is the authentic and true Christ? Is the Christ to be understood as the sacrificial lamb of God (Isaiah 53:7); or the confrontational prophet (Matthew 21:12; Mark 11:15); or the divine warrior (Luke 10:18; Acts 26:18); or the eternal judge (Revelation 20:11-12); or the sovereign king (Matthew 2:2; 21:5); or the final high priest (Luke 7:50; Jn. 3:16); or perhaps by some other scripturally supported interpretive scheme? In reality all of these perspectives are valid but incomplete, for the eternal Christ is revealed to us intricately, in multifaceted views. The careful interpreter will seek to comprehend and to integrate all that is disclosed about the Christ‘s person, life and work into a coherent understanding. The Christ of the Scriptures is revealed as Eternal God; who is not present in history to confirm our prejudices but to divinely transform individuals and their societies through them.

In the process of reflecting upon how we understand and interpret the person of Christ, we are confronted with the issues of accommodation with societal expectations, theological prejudices, cultural trends and personal biases. Social, philosophical and theological expectations obscure the evidence and inevitably lead to an over-emphasis upon one facet of Jesus’ character and teaching at the expense of others. For instance, believers of many ages who were weary of armed conflict focused upon Christ as peacemaker and further identified him as a pacifist. In the modern era, Christians fatigued by global wars, national jingoism, the threat of nuclear holocaust and international jihadist terror have selectively focused again upon the Jesus “meek and mild,” and rejected his nature as Divine Warrior. It is not surprising that some modern theologians, in the process of deconstructing texts, discover modern anachronisms inserted in first century accounts. In this way, some have found that Jesus was really a modern roughly inserted in the wrong milieu. This modern “Jesus” person thus teaches humanistic solutions to social conflict.

St. Anselm‘s “I believe that I may understand” becomes Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am.” Without a reference outside himself, deracinated ‘modern man’ produces a newfangled definition of ‘peace’: “an absence of war, achieved by the rational efforts of mankind.” It follows from this definition that if nobody fights, or fights back when attacked, there will be no war, and mankind will have established ‘peace’ on earth—and all without the need of the Prince of Peace.5

To understand Jesus‘ concept of spiritual and communal order, one needs to integrate the fullness of the Old Testament, which teaches the proper uses of force necessary to order civilization. Because the Gospel accounts are focused upon Jesus‘ life and teachings, one could easily ignore Messianic teaching found throughout the pages of Scripture. Without an understanding of Old Testament faith and revelation, it is far too easy to make the Savior into a modern Western liberal.6 Deconstructing Jesus outside of his Hebrew context and traditions results in a Christ created in our own image. The truth, however, is that in Jesus we find no ethical or spiritual discontinuity between the New Testament Kingdom of God and the Old Testament establishment of the Israelite kingdom.7 In fact, Jesus declared his earthly ministry to be in full accord with the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy.

Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. (Matthew 5:17)

Many Old Testament texts glorify war, warriors8 and GOD as the ultimate warrior: “Who is the King of glory? The Lord strong and mighty, The Lord mighty in battle” (Psalm 24:8, NASB). As repugnant as these themes might be to some moderns, they are essential to our understanding of the nature of God received through inspired Scripture. “It must be stressed that the theme of God the Warrior is an important one in the OT, not something peripheral to the main subject matter.”9 The Old Testament acceptance of the fact of war also carries with it severe condemnations for those illicitly and wantonly ignoring revealed morality. Craigie notes that Christians need a complete perspective on OT war passages10 to gain deep theological insight into our current world circumstance and human condition. We must study scripture to understand the just use of violent means.

God the Warrior is a central theme of the entire Old Testament literature.11 Throughout the biblical texts we find references to God as the Victorious Warrior (Exodus15:3), Conquering King (Psalm 10:16), God Mighty in Battle (Psalm 24:8), and Lord of Armies/Hosts (1 Samuel 1:11; 1 Chronicles 17:24). Craigie points out that the term “Lord of Armies”12 has more than two hundred occurrences in the Old Testament.13 “As odd as it may seem to modern sensibilities, battle in the context of God-ordained Holy War is portrayed as an act of worship in the Hebrew Bible. The armies of Israel labored in the presence of their God, accordingly they had to be spiritually prepared.14 God works out his salvific plan through fallen humanity and within their ordinary interactions with each other. “To state it another way, God employs, for his purpose of bringing salvation to the world, the very human beings who need salvation.”15

Messiah‘s work, prophetically unveiled in the Hebrew Scriptures, involves waging holy war. Isaiah [55:3-5; 61:1-3; 63:1-6] describes Messiah as “the one who is anointed by the Lord to be his conquering hero over all opposition and over all sovereignties.”16 Messiah‘s mission is one of self-sacrifice, redemption, rescue and release but also one of divine vengeance against wrong doers in the final settling of accounts. The prophet Micah labels Messiah as “One who breaks” (2:13) the roadblocks that impede the faithful from returning to God‘s presence. The Messiah is the King who will victoriously lead the faithful (Isaiah 63:1-6) against the nations. Jeremiah identifies Messiah as the Priestly King (30:9, 21). Ezekiel names Messiah as the One who unifies the nations (37:15-28). Zechariah foresees Messiah as King and Priest who rules over the nations (6:9-15).

In the New Testament, the Apostle John‘s Apocalypse is the summation of the Messiah‘s earthly work. The Christ revealed in the Apocalypse is the just and victorious leader at the head of Heaven‘s armies defeating (Revelation 19:17-21) the massed armies of a rebellious planet earth. This is hardly a pacifistic, non-violent portrayal of Christ, but is certainly in keeping with Messiah‘s role as OT prophet, priest, king and warrior.

I saw heaven standing open and there before me was a white horse, whose rider is called Faithful and True. With justice he judges and makes war. His eyes are like blazing fire, and on his head are many crowns. He has a name written on him that no one knows but he himself. He is dressed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is the Word of God. The armies of heaven were following him, riding on white horses and dressed in fine linen, white and clean. Out of his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations. “He will rule them with an iron scepter.” He treads the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God Almighty. On his robe and on his thigh he has this name written: king of kings and lord of lords. (Revelation 19:11-16, NIV)

This portrayal of Christ, even if interpreted figuratively, does not measure up to modern humanist and pacifist expectations. The only way that we could possibly deconstruct Christ into that modernist mold is to divorce him from his Hebrew antecedents and NT apocalyptic faith traditions. Moreover, the atoning work of the all-powerful, Divine Warrior who meekly submitted to a sacrificial death as the Lamb of God is as astonishing as it is powerful.17 Rather than remake Christ into our own image, we ought to recognize his divine person as self-revealed in scripture.

God and His purposes are disclosed in terms that are familiar through language, custom and form. The scriptures are given in human language, clearly expressed and understandable, and rooted in the divine-human relationship. God is neither ineffable nor unknowable but self-revealing in a time-space covenant. Our relationship to God is confined by our creaturely limitations, but this is precisely the mystery of the incarnation – that God became flesh so that we might comprehend Him. As a learned rabbi put it in the Talmud; “We describe God by terms borrowed from his creation, in order to make him intelligible to the human ear.”18

The following six of Jesus‘ teachings are interpreted through the lens of a conservative and evangelical perspective refuting the notion of Jesus as pacifist. Each of these passages, when taken out of the context of the entire scripture, may be misconstrued as supporting Christian pacifism; however, when understood within the complete scriptural tradition it requires a much different conclusion. Christ‘s teachings are fully within the inter-testamental continuity of Messiah as revealed in scripture.

Last Updated on Monday, 25 March 2013 18:17