Reconsidering Pacifism – Gleanings from the New Testament

William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905) - The F...

William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905) – The Flagellation of Our Lord Jesus Christ (1880) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As we transition from the Old Testament to the New Testament we do far more than just turn a page from Malachi to Matthew. We change political, economic and cultural worldviews. The world that Jesus saw was controlled by the Pax Romana, the Roman peace, and it was bound together, however loosely, by the Greek language. “City nations” no longer existed as such, although the Romans did give a considerable degree of latitude toward local police forces, so long as the over-arching dominion of the Roman legion was maintained. All of this, at a minimum, must be clearly understood or when we start attempting to examine Jesus’ (and the apostles’) teaching on the Christian’s responsibility toward the government and toward militarism in particular we lose the overall message of the whole story of Scripture.

Let me digress just a moment because I feel this point is so important. While I believe completely that Jesus is the Christ, that he is the pinnacle of all human history, and that all Scripture must be interpreted through the lens of his life, I DO NOT believe that Jesus radically altered the message of God’s story. That is to say I DO NOT believe in a divine dualism, a bifurcation between the Old Testament God of war, hate and vengeance and the New Testament God of love, peace, and “can’t we all just get along.” I would suggest that at the core of an absolute pacifist’s understanding is a radical rupture of the fabric of Scripture. The Old Testament God of war and bloodthirstiness died on the last page of the book of Malachi, and the new God of gentleness, love, peace and kindness was born on the first page of Matthew. What occurred was a change in human culture, but not of the nature of God. If we confuse the two we lose the meaning of the Bible and all that remains is a neutered and fundamentally meaningless New Testament.

So, what DOES Jesus have to say about pacifism, (the seeking of God’s shalom) either in word or deed? Actually, surprisingly little in a direct sense, and an amazing amount in an indirect sense. I will assume, for the sake of argument, that we are all familiar with the teaching of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount concerning our need to love our enemies, his command to turn the other cheek, and to go the extra mile. I will cover these topics in my next post, but for the present I want to stress the theme of engaging evil in the New Testament, whether in a spiritual or physical manifestation.

Note first – in his “first sermon” in the gospel of Luke, Jesus read from Isaiah 61:1-2 where the evidence of the coming of the kingdom of God was “freedom for the prisoners, recovery of sight for the blind, release of the oppressed, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Now, in good Evangelical American fashion we have spiritualized each of these components to mean “prisoners of sin, those blind in sin, the oppressed in sin, and the year of the Lord’s favor in saving people from their sin.” However, this was not the way the first audience of Jesus heard these words, and it was not the way Luke intended them to be read. The entire gospel focuses on exactly those individuals who needed “redeeming” in a physical sense – the poor, the outcast, the physically infirm and, interestingly enough, women. Luke’s gospel is a gospel of liberation – from sin to be sure. But a “spiritualized” reading of the gospel is a heretical one, and I am sorry to say that we have prefered the heresy to the truth to a dangerous extent.

Second, in the Sermon on the Mount, the piece de resistance of the absolute pacifist, Jesus links peacemaking with persecution. This point should not be lost in translation. Peacemaking is hard and sometimes dangerous work. It involves putting oneself in-between two (or more) parties who are in conflict and that is never a safe or comfortable position. All too often we end up getting pasted from all sides. The ministry of Jesus bears this out – he was hated by the demons he cast out of their victims and he was hated by the religious leaders for doing so on the Sabbath. If you involve yourself in the movement for peace you will get hurt – and very likely from every side in the conflict that you are trying to heal.

Third, notice that Jesus was no opponent of conflict. The cleansing of the temple (Matt. 21:12-13 and parallels) reveals to us that physical intervention is not, in and of itself, a sin. Once again, we commit the heresy of a dualistic Christ if we hyperbolize this event into a “casting of sin from the life of the Christian” or if we excuse the event by saying, “well, yes, Jesus did this but he was the Son of God and we are not.” Each gospel  records this event – one of the few that receive attention by all four gospel writers. We must include this event, and its meaning, into the discussion.

Fourth, the healings of the demoniacs often involved physical descriptions that indicate a violent releasing of the victim. There are shrieks, moans, throwing to the ground, etc. When Jesus confronted the forces of evil it was a battle. Jesus did not compromise with the demon and propose a “can’t we just all get along” method of dealing with the demon possession. Paul says that Jesus has or will destroy the forces of evil (Rom. 8:37-381 Cor. 15:24-25, 1 Tim. 1:10).

Fifth, in Jesus’ confrontations with the Pharisees, Sadducees and Scribes, the gospel writers never portray him as searching for a middle ground, a place of compromise where his message could stand alongside theirs. It was either His truth, or no teaching at all. He came to interpret God’s will, not the Pharisees’ tradition. Some truths simply cannot be negotiated away. We cannot back away and surrender truth in the name of “peace.” Peace, when it means the surrender of truth, is no peace at all.

Sixth, in James 2:14-26, the “servant of the Lord Jesus Christ” makes the explicit claim that, if a person has the power and the ability to effect the “redemption” of a person (either by food, clothing, or other form of intervention) and he or she does not do it, then he or she cannot claim to have faith! Two examples from the story of faith are given as examples – Abraham and Rahab. And, note: both examples include a form of violence – Abraham in the willingness to sacrifice Isaac, and Rahab in the protection of the spies in a time of war. Marcion and Luther were (and are) not the only people who want to erase the book of James from the canon, whether literally or just by never mentioning it. However, as a “servant of the Lord Jesus Christ” I believe James had something of value to add to the texture of the biblical story. And what he added was an admonition to use the power that we have when it is appropriate and needful that we use it.

Seventh, and finally, in Philippi Paul did NOT invoke his Roman privilege against unjust imprisonment and punishment, but in Caesarea he did. Why? Is there not a meaning to his method? Does it not mean that in some circumstances it is appropriate to “turn the other cheek” and in some circumstances it is appropriate to exert legal defences? How else can you read the text? That Paul was right in one circumstance and wrong in the other? In other words, I believe that in some circumstances I can, by the leading of Scripture, act in one way and be confident in the grace of God and in another similar circumstance I can act in a completely different manner and still rest in that same grace of God. The difference is not in the situation (I AM NOT A SITUATION ETHICIST!), but rather in my interpretation of the situation and in how I can best present the gospel at that moment.

As an all-too-brief summation, I want to stress again that I want to incorporate the entire “warp and woof” of Scripture in my understanding of pacifism and the disciple’s response to evil. It is bad theology and inappropriate hermeneutics to take one passage of Scripture (even a saying of Jesus) and build one’s entire lifestyle on that verse. I want to accept at face value what Jesus said when he said, “Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.” But I also have to accept that when Jesus was faced with evil (either spiritual or physical) he confronted it, and if necessary he defeated it. The apostles were just as forceful. Where light shines in a dark world, the darkness is defeated, not negotiated.

There can be no equivocation between the message of Christ and the power of Satan. To suggest such is to surrender that which is ultimately good to that which is evil. Now, how I have come to understand that reality in my own personal life will be the topic of my next post.

About Paul Smith

Paul was born in Santa Fe, NM. He graduated from high school in Albuquerque, NM, and has lived and worked in NM, TX, OK, and CO. He is married to Susan and father to Kylee. Paul has a BS degree in Youth Ministry, a MS degree in Biblical and Related Studies and an M.Div. degree, all from ACU. In June 2015 he received the D.Min. degree from Fuller Theological Seminary. Paul has served as a youth minister, preaching minister, hospice chaplain, and as a flight instructor and professional pilot for a freight company.

Posted on May 23, 2012, in Christ and Culture, Pacifism, Theology and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 11 Comments.

  1. Very well said – and with passion!

  2. God stayed the same for ever. He had sent His son, who is not ‘god the son’, but a man of peace and prophet. Therefore their has never to be a divine dualism, a bifurcation between the Old Testament God of war, hate and vengeance and the New Testament God of love, peace.

    • Thanks for the comment, but I would have to disagree that Jesus was simply a man of peace and a prophet. The gospel of John especially makes it clear that Jesus himself claimed to be equal to God. The very statement, “Son of God” is a Semitic expression meaning “equal to God.” Therefore, I believe that Jesus is God, simply God in human form. In regard to my post, however, I do not believe there were two Gods, a God of the Old Testament and a God of the New Testament. God is the same, unchanging, and Jesus was the human manifestation of that God.

      • When we do have to be children of God, brothers and sisters of Christ, we do have to become like Christ. When we are brothers and sister of Christ and children of God the males are also sons of God, while the females or daughters of God, who is our Father. According your way of thinking this would make all those males being God. According to our thinking a child of the father does not make that child the same person as the father. Idem dito by God the Father. Jesus, the Son of God, is therefore not the same person as God, who is mightier than him and knows everything while Jesus is limited in his knowledge. He even does not know when he is going to come back tot the world. Jesus also told his disciples he was going to go up to his Father who is also ours and his God. (John 20:17, 14:28; 5:19,22-23; 1Peter 3:22; Philipians 2:9; 1 Corinthian 11:3; 15:28)

      • In John 8:58, Jesus said, “Before Abraham was born, I AM.” The ‘I AM’ is simply a Greek translation of the Hebrew “Tetragrammaton” or 4 letter name that God identified himself to Moses. Therefore, althought distinct from the Father, Jesus nevertheless considered himself to be equal with God. John 1:1 makes the identification explict – “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” In John 10:30 Jesus said, “I and the Father are one.” The Jewish leaders clearly understood Jesus’ point, because in v. 33 they said that through the use of this language Jesus claimed to be God.

        I cannot explain the mystery of the trinity in this small space. I accept and believe all of the passages you list pointing to the physical separation between the human Jesus and his Father in heaven. However, do you also believe Scripture when Jesus clearly claims to be God? Are you willing to accept the testimony of Jesus himself? If so, you must accept the mystery, even though you cannot explain it. If not, then our conversation is pointless.

  3. “… I DO NOT believe that Jesus radically altered the message of God’s story. That is to say I DO NOT believe in a divine dualism, a bifurcation between the Old Testament God of war, hate and vengeance and the New Testament God of love, peace…”

    Neither do I nor any Christian pacifists that I have known.

    • Michael, thanks for the comment. However, I have heard this argument all my life. When many people attempt to justify the God of the Exodus with the Christ of the cross they decide they cannot, so they resort to one of two tactics – they either suggest that there was a radical shift in God’s nature (my “divine dualism”) or they suggest that the authors of the Old Testament made God to look like their warrior nature, but the writers of the New Testament transposed their pacifism upon Jesus. In fact, in dealing with the imprecatory Psalms, C.S. Lewis comes very close to this position. He holds that the imprecations are beneath the level of Christianity, which in turn means that the Christ of Christianity must be more loving and peaceable than the God of the Old Testament.

      I simply reject this dualism. I prefer to come at the problem from another angle.

      I appreciate that you do not hold this opinion. Are you saying that you are an absolute pacifist – that every form of the use of force is forbidden to the Christian (including the use of police force)? I find that there are very, very few absolute pacifists, just as there are very, very few true atheists. Most “pacifists” either allow or demand some form of the use of force, just as most “atheists” do believe in a higher power, they are simply agnostic when it comes to the idea of a personal God.

      Once again, thanks for stopping by and for raising the issue.


  4. I don’t know why wordpress does not put the link but shows this huge cover instead…my apologies.

    • Michael, no need to apologize. It looks like a cool book and one that I need to add to my collection. However, right now I am up to my earlobes in some other academic work so unfortunately it will have to wait.

      Are you familiar with Glen Stassen and David Gushee’s work on “Kingdom Ethics”? I just finished it and I was really impressed with their work on the Sermon on the Mount and their nuanced discussion of pacifism and the just war theory.

      Hope you sell a copy or two of your book off of my blog! 🙂


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