Some biblical bases for pacifism

Ted Grimsrud—November 4, 2017

This post follows-up my October 30 post, “Pacifism and violence in the struggle against oppression.” In that post I critiqued the openness to the use of violence on the part of many who seek social justice. At the end of the post I wrote that I would continue with several posts that develop a positive argument in favor of pacifism, beyond simply a critique of violence.

With the term “pacifism,” I have two convictions in mind. The “negative” conviction is that a pacifist is a person who would never participate in or approve of the use of lethal violence, most obviously warfare. The “positive” conviction is that a pacifist believes that our most important commitment is the commitment to love each person, friend and enemy and everyone in between. What I don’t have in mind is pacifism as a purity project or a boundary marker that separates people between the “righteous” and the “unrighteous.” I think of pacifism as an aspiration and as a way of seeing. I will elaborate on these points in the posts to come.

In this post, I will focus on the Bible. There are many entry points into a pacifist commitment. For me, the key entry point has been the Bible. However, I recognize that the vast majority of Christians, including most of those with the strongest views of biblical authority, are not pacifists. So I offer this reading of the Bible simply as one possible way of reading the Bible.

I will mention four basic biblical themes that find clarity in Jesus, but emerge throughout the biblical story. These provide my foundational rationale for Christian pacifism. They include first and most basic, the love command that Jesus gave as a summary of the biblical message. The second theme is Jesus’ vision for love-oriented politics in contrast to the tyranny of the world’s empires. The third theme is Jesus’ optimism about the human potential for living in love. And the fourth theme is the model of Jesus’ cross that embodies self-suffering love and exposes the nature of the structures of human culture as God’s rivals for the trust of human beings.

Jesus’ love command

In a famous saying, Jesus speaks of the greatest of the commandments: “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Matt 22:34-40).

I see three crucial points being made here. First, love is at the heart of everything for the believer in God. Second, love of God and love of neighbor are tied together. Jesus understood the “neighbor” to be a person in need to whom one show loves in concrete ways. Third, Jesus meant his words to be a summary of the Bible. The Law and Prophets were the entirety of Jesus’ Bible – their message may be summarized by this double love command.

In his call to love, Jesus directly links human beings loving enemies with God’s love. “I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven” (Matt 5:44-45). Jesus emphasizes a few verses earlier that his message of peace comes directly from the Bible. “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill” (Matt 5:17).

Just as the love command comes directly from the law and prophets, so too does the call to imitate God’s love for all people. From the start, the Bible presents God as willing peace for all human beings. God means for this love for “all the families of the earth” to be channeled through a community formed through God’s calling of them as a people (Gen 12:1-3). This election is pure mercy. God’s love for God’s elect is itself an expression of God’s love for enemies. Time after time, the story makes clear, the people turn from God. Yet, as the prophet Hosea reports, God ultimately does not respond with violence and wrath, but with healing love.

The original calling of Abraham and Sarah, the saving work of God to free the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt, the gift of Torah to guide their lives as the people of the promise, and many more gifts, including the gift of new life even after the fall of the Hebrew nation state (a fall that Hebrew prophets attributed directly to the people’s unfaithfulness) – all of these gifts clearly portray God’s love as unearned, even undeserved.

The basic guidance that Jesus draws from the story of God with God’s people may be summarized in Jesus’ words: “Love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:35-36). For Jesus, the love command summarizes the law and prophets and provides the way that his followers should orient their lives in the world. If we understand pacifism to be the placing the highest priority on love, Jesus here provides Christians’ central grounding for pacifism.

We find in later New Testament writers a parallel portrayal of the centrality of love. I will only mention Paul’s letter to the Romans. Chapter five tells of God’s immense love that reaches out to us “while we were enemies” (Rom 5:10). A little later, Paul echoes Jesus’ summary of the Bible: “The commandments … are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law” (Rom 13:9-10).

So, the first and most basic biblical theme grounding Christian pacifism, finding clarity in Jesus but reflecting the biblical story as a whole, is the centrality of the love command. The love command provides the central building block for Christian pacifism – both in the positive sense of establishing love as the highest ethical standard that can never be secondary to some other possibly violence-justifying ethical value and in the negative sense of providing the basis for rejecting the participation in or support for lethal violence as a morally acceptable choice.

An alternative politics

Our second biblical theme is this. Jesus rejected power politics and created a community independent of nation states insofar as they depend upon the sword. Jesus indeed was political – he was confessed to be a king (“Messiah,” “Christ”), and he was executed by the Empire as a political criminal. However, his politics were upside-down. Jesus’ stated his political philosophy in a nutshell: “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant” (Mark 10:42-43).

When he made this contrast between his politics and the “Gentile nations,” Jesus did not say these represent two totally different realms of life. To the contrary, he said these are competing visions for the ordering of social life among human beings. Jesus accepted the title “Messiah,” spoke of the Kingdom of God as present, and organized his followers around twelve disciples (echoing ancient Israel’s political structure). He established a social movement based on the love command to witness to the entire world of the ways of God.

Jesus, however, rejected the notion that this new movement would replace Rome as the dominating Kingdom based on its military might. He scorned Satan’s offer to spearhead such a kingdom. He turned from temptations to galvanize his followers into a rival to Rome that would be based on his ability to call angels to do battle for him. Rather, Jesus spearheaded a movement meant to operate within the nations of the world as a distinct community operating according to the word of God rather than the rule of the sword. Jesus reiterated the pattern established during the ministry of the prophet Jeremiah. Jeremiah’s words helped ancient Israel survive as a distinct people. He encouraged people of the covenant to seek the wellbeing of whatever society they were part of while at the same time maintaining their distinct identity as people of Torah.

The entire Old Testament may be read as a cautionary tale of the failure of nation-state, sword-oriented politics to sustain the people of God. Their call to bless, given to Abraham, was reiterated when the prophet Isaiah foresaw a time when the nations of the world would come to Zion to learn the ways of peace, turning their swords into plowshares.

The Old Testament tells how the people’s original calling ultimately headed down a dead end. When the elders chose to imitate “the nations,” they undermined the intended blessing. The story told in 1 Samuel 8 reflects ambivalence within the tradition concerning this choice. Samuel, speaking for God, warns the elders that if they choose kingship their society will be transformed toward an Egypt-shaped society. The king would take and take, build weapons of war, centralize his power, and leave the people once more crying out in their sorrow and suffering .

What follows in the Old Testament story is an account of the Israelite nation-state heading precisely in that direction. The story does not end, though. Through the failure, the true nature of God’s promise became more clear to prophets such as Jeremiah, with his exhortation to the people of the promise to seek the peace of the city wherein they were living.

So, Jesus actually followed in close continuity with the Old Testament story when he called his hearers to embrace once again their vocation to spread the message of God’s love, making “disciples of all nations” (Matt 28:19), a vocation most decidedly not dependent upon the centralized, coercive political power of a nation-state.

So, we have two foundational themes at the heart of Jesus’ message that catch up enduring elements of the Old Testament story and find resonance in later New Testament writings, themes that provide the theological heart of Christian pacifism – (1) the double command to love God and neighbor combined with (2) the vision for an upside-down politics, an alternative to the sword-based politics of the nations and empires of the world.

Optimism about the potential for human faithfulness

The third theme from Jesus’ life and teaching that undergirds Christian pacifism may be seen in his approach to ethical exhortation. Jesus displayed a profound optimism about the potential his listeners had to follow his directives for life. Certainly, Jesus spoke to human sinfulness, the corruptions of selfishness, blind ambition, domination, and deception. However, when he said “follow me,” he clearly expected people to do so – here and now, effectively, consistently, fruitfully.

Jesus begins his Sermon on the Mount with a series of straightforward affirmations – you are genuinely humble, you genuinely seek justice, you genuinely make peace, you genuinely walk the path of faithfulness even to the point of suffering severe persecution as a consequence. So, when Jesus calls upon his followers to love their neighbors, to reject the tyrannical patterns of leadership among the kings of the earth, to share generously with those in need, to offer forgiveness seventy times seven, he actually expected that this could be done.

Jesus’ optimism about human possibilities reflects a central theme throughout the Bible – a theme sometimes not noticed amidst the continual litany of human failures and disappointments in relation to living out Torah. The human dynamic, according to the Bible, reflects a great deal of alienation. The Bible makes clear the incredible patience and mercy of God in responding to wayward human beings. Nonetheless, at the heart of Torah and at the heart of the prophets’ exhortations we see the assumption that indeed human beings are capable of walking in the paths of justice and shalom.

The biblical problem is not so much that human beings are incapable of following God’s will for their lives. The biblical problem is that in spite of our capabilities for faithfulness, we nonetheless all too often turn away. And in turning away, in worshiping idols, human beings find ourselves in bondage to social dynamics of oppression, greed, and violence. However, from the start, the remedy is always at hand – simply turn back, repent and trust in God. Faithfulness may then follow.

So, again, Jesus offers not radical innovation when he begins his ministry with these words: “Repent and believe in the good news. The kingdom of God is at hand” (Mark 1:15). Everything that he said afterwards presupposed that simply turning back is all that it takes for people to enter into fellowship with God and live as people of humility, people who hunger and thirst for justice and peace, people who persevere even in the face of persecution and suffering.

When Jesus called his followers to make kindness and love, even for enemies, the kind of priority that can never be overridden by some other value (that is, when Jesus established the basis for pacifism), he expected that this indeed would be possible.

The model of the cross

The fourth theme from Jesus’ life and teaching that undergirds Christian pacifism may be seen in his willingness to persevere in the path of love even when that brought him suffering and death. Jesus’ cross serves as a model for his followers. At the heart of his teaching stands the often repeated saying, “Take up your cross and follow me.” He insisted that just as he was persecuted for his way of life, so will his followers be as well.

The powers that be, the religious and political institutions, the spiritual and human authorities, responded to Jesus’ inclusive, confrontive, barrier-shattering compassion and generosity with violence. At its heart, Jesus’ cross may be seen as embodied pacifism, a refusal to turn from the ways of peace even when they are costly. So his call to his followers to share in his cross is also a call to his followers to embody pacifism.

Jesus’ cross certainly puts the lie to the idea that consistent, lived-out pacifism is passive, safe, and withdrawn. Jesus’ way of peace led to conflict – not conflict stemming from his own belligerence, but conflict stemming from deeply entrenched characteristics in the structures of human society that resist freedom and compassion. Jesus’ cross besides pointing to pacifism in terms of his style of life, also points away from trusting in the swords and spears of empires and institutional religion – these are the very structures of human social life that killed Jesus.

Again, we see a foreshadowing of Jesus’ path in the Old Testament. The first empire we learn about there, Pharaoh’s Egypt, embodies structural violence in its enslavement of the Hebrew people. Pharaoh’s Egypt shows Empire’s pattern of response to resistance to that structural violence in its hostility toward Moses and toward the fruit of Moses’ work of empowering the Hebrews.

Tragically, the nation-state ultimately formed by the descendants of Moses imitated Egypt both in its injustices and its violent hostility toward those prophets who dared to speak out against the state’s structural injustices. The prophets’ message endured, though, even though they did not have coercive force to use to protect it or to impose it on their society.

After Jesus, we see his suffering servanthood lifted up as the basic pattern for faithfulness in Revelation – the basic pattern of Jesus is stated at the beginning of the book: “the faithful witness (or ‘martyr,’ the Greek word is martys), the first born of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth” (Rev 1:5). Jesus is portrayed as simultaneously the one who suffers violence without retaliation, the one whom God honors and exalts, and the one who serves as the true ruler of the world.

Jesus’ pattern is held up as the model for his followers – the ones who are healed by God are the ones who “follow the Lamb wherever he goes” (Rev 14:4),” the ones who refuse to kill with the sword” (Rev 13:10). Those who “conquer” in God’s way in Revelation, conquer with suffering love. Those who “conquer” in the Beast’s way, conquer with violence.

So, in reading the Bible, we may see this fourfold basis for pacifism – the love command, the calling to give loyalty to the counter-cultural community of God’s people over loyalty to the Empire, the belief that faithful human beings can be empowered to follow Jesus in the here and now, and the model of the pattern of Jesus – suffering love even to the point of death with the promise of God’s vindication.

[This post is the second in a series on Christian pacifism. The four posts are linked to below.]

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6 thoughts on “Some biblical bases for pacifism

  1. I’m wondering why you want to define pacifism so narrowly as eschewing lethal violence. The command to love is the command to do no evil, no harm, to another, Rom 13:8-10. Paul here defines love in a legalistic manner: debts should be paid, willingly and voluntarily, but if the debtor does not pay the creditor, the creditor still owes the debtor a debt of love. So the debtor may not threaten nor do harm to the debtor to collect the debt (cf. Eph 6:9). The debt of money does not cancel the debt of love. So the creditor must collect the debt without resort to harm. Paul recognises the validity of debts, without recognising the validity of coercive debt collection. Whatever obligations we or others have, on breach we may not invoke nor carry out evil, harm, as a means of forcing compliance or restitution or payment.

    If this does not proscribe not only lethal violence, but coercion and violence of all and every kind, and for all and every reason, I don’t know what can!

    Did not Jesus not only abolish death (2 Tim 1:10), but also coercive legal remedies and the means of getting them with the sworn oath (Mat 5:33-37)? Did Jesus not teach that the coercive civil remedies were the signs of the evil times he came to end (Luke 12:54-59)? Did he not institute alternative, non-coercive civil institutions (Mat 18:15-20)?

    So, why define pacifism so narrowly as eschewing lethal violence only?

    1. I wasn’t exactly trying to define “pacifism,” David, so much as set parameters. I see pacifism essentially as a positive conviction and practice, seeking to love everyone. The negative point is just to be clear about what a pacifist will never do.

      I’ll be writing more about what I think a pacifist should do in my next post and how a pacifist should in the following one.

  2. Thanks Ted, I highly appreciate your work and thoughts.

    I look forward to reading more about your approach to broader issues and applications. I fear that many Christian pacifists of various stripes eschew war and the death penalty, but when it comes to all the myriad modern agendas that are warmly supported by many of the same (global warming hand-wringing, homosexual celebration, save the whales, anti-big-business etc.) that in effect they throw their lot in with the coercive power-machine of the state as the therapeutic wonder that, if we can just get it on-board with all the good agendas, will address those issues well, and avoid the spectre of death and war. And the means of that salvation of the coercive state is active engagement with it at the levers of power by Christians and fellow-travellers.

    My concern, exegetically, is that a lot of this is anachronistically reading our concerns back into biblical passages where those concerns did not exist, and if posed would probably have been dismissed out of hand.

    My concern, socially and legally and politically, is that it fails to take the state as a totality, and it makes it an institution that can supposedly be controlled and beneficial, one that we can cherry-pick the good bits and excise or control the bad bits. My perspective is that it is a package that is both infeasible to control to the point that it can be in net terms beneficial, and that the approach of trading off good and bad aspects is excluded by the tenants of our faith, properly understood, that specifically rejects evil means of doing good (e.g. Mat 5:48; Rom 3:8; 12:2; 1 John 4:18).

    This tenant of not doing or legitimising doing evil that good may result is effectively negated by being taken as a qualified rather than an absolute, and then they make a giant exception for the state, and interpret Romans 13:1-7 in this way. In effect they have an eschatology that puts the consummation, when the state is indeed de-legitimised and abolished, in our future. So, for now, we accept some legitimate role for the powers that be, and their sword and taxation.

    In a sense they have Romans 13:1-7 correct: it was written before the consummation and describing the role of the Roman imperial government before the consummation. But if they miss the consummation at the fall of the temple, when the rebels rebelled and were judged, and when the terrible sword was not idle but active to take vengeance against the evildoers, the persecuting power, in fulfilment of Deut 28 and 32 concerning the final judgement on Israel, in vindication of the blood of the martyrs, they misapply the teaching to somehow legitimise states and empires and their taxes today.

    I guess the issue is that many Christian pacifists are not really willing to eschew the state as an institution, they want to be Christian pacifists but not Christian anarchists. At some level there is an acceptance of the legitimacy and need for and supposedly beneficial effect of having a state. And that being the case, they want to influence and control that state almost as much as anyone else. I appreciate your work because it seems to highlight the error of this kind of thought and the real message that the state and coercive power cannot and should not be redeemed, rather abolished, and the gentle alternative be developed and grown.

  3. There’s a huge difference between “passivism” and “pacifism”. People suppose that those of us who are pacifist are passive. Jesus was a pacifist but most certainly not passive. This distinction is important. Pacifism is active and engaged.

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