Saturday, August 09, 2008

Christ our Hope: Part 3 - Witness of Christ

This is Part 3 of a series entitled Christ our Hope in the Face of Violence and our Witness to Nonviolent Love. Part 1 served as an introduction and Part 2 considered God as a God of Peace in the Old Testament. Here we shall begin to consider what Christ has to say on the issue of violence and war.

At the outset we must admit that we have no evidence of an explicit teaching of Jesus or of his apostles on the issues of war.1
Nevertheless, simply because Jesus does not directly address the issue of war in the Gospels does not mean that we can claim that his silence expresses neutrality or implicit approval towards war, for many of his sayings do contain implications for violence and for peace.

It is not within the scope of this paper to pursue a complete or extensive exegetical study of the Biblical evidence on this matter. However, we shall consider a few of the key texts which have been used to support violent warfare, but first we shall look at some of the texts which have been interpreted as Jesus’ condemnation of violence.

Jesus’ Statements Which Seem to Conflict with Violent Warfare

First let us turn to the Sermon on the Mount during which Jesus is referencing traditional teachings of the Old Testament and Jewish tradition and is giving them their full and complete interpretation, as only he, the Word made flesh, can. Jesus recasts the traditional teachings, in every case, in a way which is more strict than the tradition and demands greater love and self-sacrifice. Three specific passages from the Sermon on the Mount concern us. Let us now examine the first.

Jesus begins to speak of the Fifth Commandment. He proclaims, “I say to you, whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment.”4 He condemns the act of even being angry at another, as anger is the emotion which leads to killing another. In light of this we can with some confidence say that while Jesus has not condemned violence per se he has spoken against the emotions which generally lead to violent acts, classifying the emotions themselves as unacceptable for his followers.

Jesus continues: “I say to you, offer no resistance to one who is evil. When someone strikes you on (your) right cheek, turn the other one to him as well.”5 This statement is often misinterpreted as an order to Christians to be submissive. “Turn the other cheek. Do not react violently. Submit to your master or superior.” The implications of this would be staggering and would contradict the witness of Jesus’ own dealings with evil and injustice. Jesus never sits idly allowing evil to be done. He does not react violently, but he certainly does not merely submit. This passage has been used for generations to convince Christian peasants to submit to tyrant kings and to convince Christian wives and children to submit to abusive husbands. The implications of this for modern warfare are despicable and contrary to our natural inclinations to self-defense and to defending the weak and vulnerable. This interpretation will not do.

Walter Wink, in his book The Powers that Be, offers an excellent and convincing alternative exegesis of this passage. Wink shows that in order for a Jew in that culture to be struck on his right cheek, the “superior” must have backhanded him, an action which did not intend to harm but to humiliate and degrade, to put a slave or Jew back in his or her place. Wink says,

By turning the other cheek, the servant makes it impossible for the master to use the backhand again …This act of defiance renders the master incapable of asserting his dominance in the relationship. He can have the slave beaten, but he can no longer cow him. By turning the other cheek, the inferior is saying: 'I'm a human being, just like you. I refuse to be humiliated any longer. I am your equal. I am a child of God. I won't take it anymore.6

Jesus calls for us to use, what Wink calls, Jesus’ “third way:” a way of life, of dealing with conflict, which is based neither in passivity nor in violence. This “third way” consists in active nonviolent resistance to all that is evil and inconsistent with the dignity of the human person. This resistance renders the persecutor impotent, unable to denigrate the dignity of the Christian, who, while forcing the persecutor to recognize his equality, must also, like Jesus, be willing to make sacrifices, his own sacrifices, for this truth to be made known.

Jesus is not telling his listeners to merely submit to one who does evil. Rather, he is teaching them not to respond violently, not to respond to one (an individual or a nation-state or either?) with violent warfare. At the very least, based upon the overall context, we can affirm that Jesus seems to intend for his disciples to respond, to resist, in some non-violent fashion.

Let us turn now to our third text from the Sermon on the Mount: Jesus instructs his disciples: “love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you…For if you love those who love you, what recompense will you have? …Do not the pagans do the same?”7 Again Jesus offers us another extraordinarily rich teaching. We do not here have the opportunity or the ability to fully explicate its meaning, but it does contain salience for our purpose and has a great deal to say to us. Jesus previously told us that anger, the emotion of desiring to bring harm upon another, specifically one’s “brother,” is sinful. Here, he takes it a step further, challenging his disciples to love their enemies and to pray for their persecutors. Even evildoers love those who treat them well; Christians, who share a universal call to holiness, are called to love everyone, even their enemies and persecutors, for the Father is the Father of all. God wants to bring salvation to all men, including those who are presently the enemies of Christ, including those who are persecuting his followers, his body.

The Bible gives us several examples of proper Christian responses to our persecutors which may serve to evangelize a culture of violence.8 Jesus confronts Saul, asking “why are you persecuting me?”9 In doing so, Jesus not only communicated to Saul the very real unity of Christ and his disciples, but he also called him to conversion and to service of the Church. In reflecting upon this experience and on Christ’s incarnation, death, and resurrection, St. Paul tells us that while we were still sinners, enemies of his kingdom, Christ proved the love of the Triune God for us in his passion and death.10 Thus, Jesus shows us by example what it means to love one’s enemies. Wink sums up Jesus’ alternative to both passivism and to violence well: “Jesus is not advocating nonviolence merely as a technique for outwitting the enemy, but as a just means of opposing the enemy in a way that holds open the possibility of the enemy’s becoming just also.” Jesus calls us to love them which the kenotic love which leads to the cross and opens the door to conversion and salvation.

Before we move on to consider the Gospel evidence which could support violence, we should consider the witness of Jesus’ kenotic love as exemplary for all Christian love. St Paul, writing to the Philippians, tells us that Jesus emptied himself of power, becoming humble and obedient unto death. If we, following Cardinal Kasper and others, take Rahner’s Trinitarian axiom11 to be accurate, then the incarnation of the Son is a true and real self-communication or revelation of God the Father. And, if God is love,12then this Love, as revealed by Christ, is not love which covets power to subdue its enemies, rather this Love empties itself in a complete and total gift of self for the other, even the other who is enemy. This kenotic love, never fails.13

Thus we can offer a preliminary conclusion: in reflecting on the collective witness of the above passages we can say not only that Jesus personally rejected all violence, most prophetically in his passion and death, but that he also stipulated that his disciples -- all of them, not a select few -- do likewise. Nevertheless, there are a number of passages which many use to show that Jesus’ disuse of violence was either not absolute or not authoritative for modern Christians. We shall consider them in part 4 of this series.


1 John Cecil Cadoux, The Early Christian Attitude to War: A Contribution to the History of Christian Ethics,(London: Headly Bros, 1919), 36.

2 Wilma Ann Bailey, "You Shall Not Kill" or "You Shall Not Murder"? The Assault on a Biblical Text, (Liturgical Press: Collegeville, MN, 2005), 86.

3 Ibid., 24.

4 Matthew 5:21-22

5 Matthew 5:38-32.

6 Walter Wink, The Powers That Be, (New York, Doubleday, 1998), 102.

7 Matthew 5:43-48.

8 In a discussion on this topic, a colleague countered that at times killing someone can be an expression of love. He argued that, because the human person is not merely temporal, because we can eternal end, he hopes that if he were about to commit some heinous and evil crime, killing him before he committed the act would be an expression of love. However, I cannot understand how this would be consistent with love. It seems like a sort of “moral euthanasia” in which we kill someone out of mercy so that they have don’t undergo or self-inflict some moral evil or spiritual suffering. Jesus teaches us that violence is not salvific, but suffering, suffering with him, is.

9 Acts 9:4.

10 Romans 5:8.

11 “The economic is the immanent and the immanent is the economic.” quoted from Karl Rahner, The Trinity: trans. By Joseph Donceel,(NY: Herder and Herder, 1970), 22.

12 1 John 4:8.

13 1 Cor 13:8.


Henry Karlson said...


A very good series so far (and needeful; reflections like this need to be done time and again to help reawaken the implications of Christ's teachings for the Christian).

I am not sure how far in time your reflections go, but I hope you at least make your way to Nicea, or if not, you do in some future series, because I think it is in the pre-Nicene era one can see the earliest understanding of Christ's message put into action, and in it, one sees the radical assertion of non-violence, even to the point of interpreting all acts of violence in the Torah as allegories. And it was an attractive position, converting the hearts of people far more than later conversions by force.

JB said...

Thanks for the kind words Henry!

I plan on going from Christ to the recent words of JPII and Benedict.

I plan to touch on some of the Fathers (I have a little research on Origen and Tertullian, other suggestions). After Augustine I plan to just kinda skip to the more modern times.

Henry Karlson said...

For patristics, I would also recommend looking into St Basil and St John Chrysostom (and looking not only to external peace, but its relation to internal peace, as St John brings out well).

A place where you can get some idea of Eastern traditions on peace is the Orthodox Peace Fellowship; they have some good discussions on patristics and Orthodox history on peace issues. Their url is: As an example of what articles they have, you might be interested in this article: .Near the end Fr McGuckin discusses the Canonical Epistles of St Basil.