The Common Good

Was Jesus a Pacifist?

Editor's Note: The following is a question from Christian Piatt's book Banned Questions About Jesus. It is on sale on Amazon Kindle for $2.99 through July 25. 

Crown of thorns and nails, Jill Battaglia / Shutterstock.com
Crown of thorns and nails, Jill Battaglia / Shutterstock.com

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Question: Was Jesus a pacifist?

Jarrod McKenna: No.

Jesus did not come to bring peace but a sword. And we as disciples must wield the same sword Jesus brings, and no other.

The question is, what is this sword?

What is this sword that heals rather than harms enemies?

What is this sword that never collaborates or mirrors the Powers, thereby exposing their addiction to violence?

What is this sword that prophetically turns over tables of idolatry and injustice in a judgment that does not harm, hurt, coerce or kill anyone?

What is this fire that is ablaze with the very presence of I AM in response to the cries of the oppressed, this fire that does not destroy the bush in which it burns?

What is this power that is ablaze on the cross, sucking the oxygen of injustice and violence from creation then causes a cosmic backdraft in the resurrection, setting the world alight with the love that conquers death?

This sword of Christ is something far more dangerous and dynamic than a philosophy of an ideal, static, passive, peace read back onto the life of Christ. Martin Luther King would insist it is a peace that “is not the absence of tension but the presence of justice.” It is the Mystery our Lord Jesus embodies, enabling a new world where what we once wasted on bombs is now used to feed the hungry.

Jesus is no pacifist. He is YHWH’s nonviolent Suffering Servant whose grace calls us to share in his tears over what would make for peace, whose Spirit empowers us to take up the sword of nonviolence as our only weapon in witness to the victory Christ has won.

Chris Haw: The Temple cleansing would seem to imply, “no.” But we must careful to note here how he did not kill (or even, it seems, harm) anybody in this well-documented incident. And the early Jesus followers seem to have taken no inspiration from this story as a type of action to imitate, as we have no documentation of early Christians carrying swords or rioting after Jesus’ famous “put that away; those who live by the sword will die by it.”

In sum, I see no good reason to see that anything in the canon contradicts Jesus’ oft-ignored teaching, “love your enemies.” And seeing as he gives three concrete examples of how to do so in practice, I do not think he meant this metaphorically, or as Luther pontificated—that one can kill one’s enemy and love them at the same time.

In an etymologically strict sense, it is probably beneficial to think that Jesus’ politics indeed did involve attempts to “pacify” one’s enemy. Walking an extra mile with the demanding officer is just one attempt at pacification. Granted, his speaking truth to his accusers (“why did you hit me?”) could have perhaps enflamed their hatred—though I am inclined to think of the enflaming as the fault of the violent, not the Lamb.

R. M. Keelan Downton: It is clear that Jesus is doing something different when he tells his disciples to respond to being slapped or robbed or forced to work with a creative response that would evoke shame or other complications for the abuser. It is less clear whether Jesus ever intended this to be scaled up to the level of nation-state (which, of course, hadn’t been invented, but like empire, requires significant levels of violence to maintain).

Often discussions of whether Jesus is a pacifist get muddled by confusion about what the word “violence” means. I once heard a speaker ask, “How can we reject violence as a means of resisting capitalism? I mean, even Jesus used violence against bankers!” This misses a critical distinction.

To be pacifist means to reject the use of deadly force as a legitimate means of resolving disputes–it does not mean allowing injustice to continue without challenge. It does not mean that those who wish to do violence cannot be constrained legally, economically, or even physically.

The space between inaction and murder is precisely where we see Jesus operating in his dealings with the Roman Empire and the temple entrepreneurs. Even at the end of Revelation (which some people read as a Rambo-esque return) it is important to remember that the “sword” comes from Jesus’ mouth and the blood is Jesus’ own.

Tripp Fuller: It is perfectly clear that Jesus was against violence and war as means of setting things right. He told his disciples to turn the other cheek, not to resist an evildoer, to pray for their enemies, and then forgave his own enemies from the cross.

But does this make him a pacifist?  Would he be one today in our historical situation?  Most conversations around this topic quickly devolve into attempts to justify some act of violence (protecting an innocent child) or moral war (putting an end to genocide), yet this misses the larger point of Jesus’ embodied teaching. The reason Jesus and God’s kingdom reject violence is not because it can’t bring about a victory, but because an act of violence leads to a victor who is also a violator of their victims.

Eventually power shifts and the previous victims feel justified in becoming the new violating victors. God’s Kingdom Way, embodied by Jesus and taught to the disciples, is a way that does not reach victory by building crosses but by bearing them. The ultimate victory of God is a victory for all, because through the resurrection God becomes Victor by becoming the Victim.

In doing so God identifies and shares in the suffering of the world and charts a path for reconciliation, even for the violators. This larger perspective reframes the nature of Jesus’ ‘pacifism,’ asking his followers today not all to become passively peaceful, but active peacemakers and ambassadors of God’s reconciliation.

Christian Piatt is an author, editor, speaker, musician and spoken word artist. He is Director if Church Growth and Development at First Christian Church in Portland, Ore. Christian is the creator and editor of "Banned Questions About The Bible" and "Banned Questions About Jesus." His new memoir on faith, family and parenting is called "PREGMANCY: A Dad, a Little Dude and a Due Date."

Crown of thorns and nails, Jill Battaglia / Shutterstock.com

 

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