Thursday, January 06, 2022

Historical Theology: Pacifism and the Radical Reformation

Question: Is it permissible for Christians ever to use violence against other people?

For many of us, our initial gut instinct will be to say, “Yes, of course.” We can easily think of situations in which violent physical force has been useful in protecting the innocent from harm. But a quick glance at the Bible and at Christian history tells us that this question is not so simple. There is nothing in the New Testament that gives Christians permission to use violence; and, in fact, there are a few passages that seem to prohibit it. The history of the church also bears this out—for the first three centuries of Christianity, before it became a “state religion” of the Roman Empire, there is very little evidence of any Christian use of violence, either on their own behalf or as part of the Roman army.

“The Just War” – When it became clear that Christianity was becoming interwoven with Roman civilization, though, more and more Christians could be found using violent means: sometimes serving in the army to protect the Empire against non-Christianized nations. In this environment, some later church fathers like Augustine described the idea of the “just war” (though even he thought any war was a tragedy). A just war is one in which it would be permissible to use violence, and even to kill other human beings. Such a war would need to be: (1) only entered into to combat sure and serious evil (not for material gains nor even for warding off possible future threats); (2) the last resort, having exhausted all other means to curb the threat of evil; (3) the war must not produce evils greater than the evil to be eliminated (thus, it must be limited in its scope—never accepting high civilian casualties, for instance). Unfortunately, most modern wars fail to live up to these points.

Enter the Radicals
– During the Protestant Reformation, at the same time as Luther and Calvin, small groups of Christians began appearing in Switzerland and Germany who believed that Scripture alone should be our guide (Luther believed this too, but he also thought it good to consult with the interpretations of the early church fathers). As such, they made major changes to their Christian practice in three main areas:

- Baptism: This “Radical Reformation” threw out the centuries-old practice of infant baptism, because they could find no warrant for it in the New Testament. As such, they baptized all their adult members and earned the name “Anabaptists.”

- Simplicity: Choosing to follow Jesus’ teachings quite literally, they followed an ideal of simplicity in material things; almost poverty in some instances. Believing that, as the New Testament teaches, money and physical comforts can be a grave danger to the soul, they chose instead to practice a very simple lifestyle (this persists today in most of their spiritual descendants, such as the Amish and Mennonites).

- Pacifism: Again following Jesus’ teachings literally, they decided that it was never appropriate to use violence or physical force of any kind.

The Biblical Evidence that Might Permit Violence

- The Old Testament, from beginning to end, shows a clear willingness of the people of God (and of God himself) to use violent means toward their ends. However, such instances are always given by direct command of God himself, and only against nations that had gravely violated his laws (such as by the worship of demons, child sacrifice, and genocide). Further, Anabaptists would point out, the Old Testament represents a different stage in salvation-history, in which the people of God were an actual nation-state, and as such needed to have some physical defense from other nation-states. This situation has changed, since Christians now represent not an earthly nation but a heavenly kingdom spread throughout the earth.

- Jesus appears to use physically forceful means in clearing the Temple (Mt. 21:12).

- In Romans 13, Paul states that governments have a legitimate, God-given right to use violence and force in upholding what is right. However, in Paul’s day, there were no Christians in government or the army, so it’s not quite clear whether or not he would envision a Christian in that position being able to use force.

- In Rev. 19, Jesus is shown returning to earth with a conquering army. However, the vision may be allegorical rather than literal, and, even if it is literal, the fact that Jesus has divine prerogative to use violence tells us nothing about our right to do so.

The Biblical Evidence Against Violence

- One of the two greatest commandments for Christians is to “love your neighbor.” Can killing another person ever be construed as an act of love toward him?

- Jesus himself says, “Do not resist an evil person. If he strikes you on the one cheek, turn to him the other also.” Later, he tells us to “love our enemies” (Mt. 5:39-44).

- Jesus rebukes Peter for using violence in trying to protect him (Jn. 18:10-11).

- Jesus tells Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest” (Jn. 18:19).

- Christians are told to be peacemakers (Mt. 5:9, James 3:18), to live at peace with everyone (Rom. 12:18, Heb. 12:14), to live peaceful and quiet lives (1 Tim. 2:2), to be peaceable and considerate and always gentle to everyone (Titus 3:2), to pursue peace-loving wisdom (James 3:17), and to seek peace and pursue it (1 Pet. 3:11).

Pacifism as Active, not Passive – Unfortunately, there’s a popular misconception that those who are pacifists just want to sit back and do nothing. But in Anabaptist thought, seeking peace is a call to hard work (often much harder and more dangerous than using violence): it requires going to one’s enemies, ministering to their needs, seeking to understand and to love them, and, at times, giving up one’s own life for the sake of that love.

So where does this leave us? - (1) Nations are permitted by God to use violent force to maintain what is right and to curb evil. Each Christian must decide for themselves whether their conscience will allow them to participate in these actions. (2) Christians are not given much leeway to use violence for personal defense, but perhaps a bit more freedom if protecting the innocent from grave harm. (3) Christians are called to the active pursuit of peace, even to the point of laying down their own lives for the sake of loving their enemies.