There is an area of theology that I have wrestled with in new ways for the past four years or so: war and peace. I have a friend who pushed back on areas of nationalism and just-war theory for quite some time, and it seems that we have found consensus in the last year and a half or so... Through much reading, reflection, and prayer; I now hold to the view of nonviolence.
Nonviolence is a word that has more benefits than using the term pacifism. Pacifism often communicates inaction or helplessness. A useful observation that was made by my professor recently was differentiating between the language of – nonresistance, pacifism, and nonviolence. Pacifism’s weakness is that it seems to relate to withdrawal from conflict. The other terms (“non_____”) are also a bit frustrating because they define themselves around what they are not, rather than what they are. The difference here (which is a key difference for me) is that nonresistance is just as much of a “withdrawal” word as pacifism. Traditionally, the Mennonites (my tradition) have preferred this term, but I am not sure that I am fully against “resisting” someone if justice is threatened; I am however against doing violence to them. Now this is where the dialogue gets a bit interesting for me because this logic begs a question: what qualifies as violence?
The above question can surely become one that is relativistic because it depends on how one perceives violence. Some would be against violence to the point that football is too aggressive of a sport (this doesn’t work for this former team captain ). Others would say that killing is the line that must be drawn, but everything up to that point for the protection of the innocent is justifiable. I am not comfortable with either of these extremes on this spectrum... As I continue to wrestle with this tension in light of Scripture, I have found that it is helpful to think of violence as anything that dehumanizes the ‘other.’ Using some forms of restraint to hold back a person who is violent does not have to be dehumanizing. Force and restraint, when done for justice without the use of actual dehumanizing techniques seem to be consistent with the Sermon on the Mount’s nonviolent witness. This is very much a circumstantial approach, but always within the parameters of avoiding anything that would treat a person as less than a human created in God’s image. But, this also leaves the passage in Matthew 5.39 as seemingly “resisted” as it says, “do not resist an evildoer.” This would be problematic if we did not look at the context a bit closer. Jesus follows this saying by adding that someone who is slapped on the right cheek is to show them the left cheek as well. As Walter Wink and others have demonstrated, this was an act of subversive resistance. Not through violence, but through demanding to be treated as a human equal. The first backhand slap to the face on the right side would be the way a master would hit a slave (superior to inferior), and Jesus says to turn the other cheek in a way that makes the attacker have to choose to punch you with a closed fist as a man would strike another of equal status. This is a new kind of resistance, not with the fist or sword, but with creativity that causes your attacker to consider his actions once more. For this reason, I am more comfortable with placing myself on the nonviolent part of the larger spectrum of war and peace from a Christian perspective. I believe in resistance without violence.
It should also be noted that Mark Baker’s insight in his article about his own journey towards embracing pacifism (his language) also allows for there to be the restraint of evil through violence, but that this is to come from the state. Taking the lead from Ellul, he separates the role of the governments to carry out justice through the sword from the role of the church in the midst of conflict. The church must not expect the state to operate as though it were ‘Christian.’ To impose such makes this position illogical in light of the broken relationships the world has at the present. All this is the say that the church is invited to resist violence in all its forms, while recognizing that in a fallen world, God allows for a “plan b” (nations) in order to restrain this planet from becoming completely chaotic. Mark’s perspective raises important questions about the level to which a Christian ought to be involved in military/police force. Perhaps at times it may be appropriate to live in the “gray” on this question rather than create solid black-white boundaries of a bounded-set ethic (although my personal conviction is against all military service, but not necessarily police).
Finally, I was really helped by Richard Hays’ chapter on violence in The Moral Vision of the New Testament. I do not think that there is a single moment in which I found myself disagreeing with him (except his choice word of pacifism, which is mostly semantics). His exposition was insightful and clarifying for me. The section that helped me the most was the one that dealt with the questions of the Roman soldiers in the New Testament. Just-war folks always bring up: when soldiers became Jesus followers, they were not told to quit their job. Hays took this on in a section of his chapter and made the following observation: “…precisely as Roman soldiers, they serve to dramatize the power of the Word of God to reach even the unlikeliest people” (335). God reaches to unlikely places and peoples to reveal his grace, which serves to illuminate that military participation is similar to tax collectors and other sinners. It would be an argument from silence to claim that the rest of the NT texts about peacemaking are revitalized because soldiers are not specifically told (in the text) to quit their jobs. I think, as faithful readers and ethicists of the NT, we must listen to where Scripture speaks and not give a louder voice to the silence.
Kurt Willems is a pastor in the Mennonite Brethren movement and is currently working towards a Master of Divinity degree at Fresno Pacific University. He is considers himself an: Anabaptist, lower-case evangelical, fairly charismatic, sometimes contemplative, follower of Jesus. Kurt’s passions include theology, spirituality, social justice, creation care, ethics, ministry, and leaving behind the right answers. He blogs at: Groans From Within and is also on Twitter and Facebook .