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A Study Into Nonresistant Pacifism
At first glance, the commonly held Anabaptist belief of nonresistance appears to be an alluring concept of Biblical interpretation about the use of violence. A utopia-like aura seems to stem from the concept of absolute nonviolence in which one is to proverbially lay down and allow himself to become a doormat. The promise of blessing and reward helps one hold to true to the belief. These views are defended with quotes from Scripture, and many examples are given to attest to the very necessity of nonviolence. This brings one to a precipice of genuine Christian beliefs. One must determine: do the words of Christ really implore us to destroy our weapons, become defenseless as doves, and shower with graciousness an attacker no matter the circumstances? Or is there a more accurate definition to these words that would allow for the justified use of force?
I grew up in a Baptist home until my early teenage years. When my parents converted to the Mennonites, I first heard about nonresistant beliefs. I had learned young that pacifism was a violent antiwar position, But I learned the Anabaptist biased nonresistance is a so-called Biblical-based pacifism. I was convinced in my later teenage years that this indeed was what the Bible taught. But in recent years I began to study the verses used for this belief and found many that are taken out of context.
Old Testament Background
My starting point into my research is taken from the Old Testament passage of Exodus 20:13 (part of the Ten Commandments issued to the Children of Israel) which states “Thou shalt not kill”. However, in Exodus 22 Scripture depicts a homeowner who kills an intruder at night is doing nothing wrong: “if a thief is caught breaking in and is struck so that he dies, the defender is not guilty of bloodshed;” Numbers 35 speaks about allowing an avenger to kill a guilty party for the death of a relative. More specifically, under Mosaic law the nearest relative of a person who was murdered was obliged to kill the murderer. What now, have we uncovered a discrepancy in God’s Word? Has God issued contradicting commands? How then do we reconcile these two verses to build a Biblical directive?
As we dig a bit further into the context and meanings of these Scriptures, we find different meanings and even a justification for certain types of killing. Killing by modern definition is simply the termination or ending of life, but in the context of Exodus 20:13 the original Hebrew text is r’tzach, which would be translated as “murder.” Murder as defined in the Merriam Webster Dictionary means: “the crime of unlawfully killing a person especially with malice aforethought”. In Exodus 22:2-3 the example is of the killing of an intruder, which was most definitely permitted and naturally expected response of self-defense.
The next argument we are presented with relates to the permissions and directive of the Mosaic law as compared to Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:17 where He says: “Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill.”
While Mennonites do not take this to throw out the Old Testament, they do (correctly) take this to mean that Jesus fulfilled the Law, and thereby His words supersede the Mosaic law. Jesus during his stay on earth fulfilled the Mosaic law. The New Testament shows us in detail what has changed. This places the burden of proof for change on the New Testament, If Christ did not address it, it remains unchanged.
Defense of self and others
What about the reality of the power of God in a life or death situation? Very real, He can do any and everything. But He often leaves things to us, and if we have the ability to do something we should. I trust God to provide me with food. But if I can work for my food I should do that instead of waiting for God to drop it in my lap. Expecting peace without stopping conflict is like expecting food without work.
There are times when resistance is pointless. Many of the martyrs (in the Martyrs Mirror) couldn’t have fought back, they were overpowered. Being defiant to an oppressor seems heroic to the world, but when God comes first going out in a blaze of glory is not a priority. While defense may be justified in a circumstance, God may have other plans. If you are filled with the Holy Spirit He will make His will known to you and guide you in your actions. Without knowing the perfect will of God I cannot say if anyone should have resisted with force in a certain situation. By the same token one cannot judge someone who resisted with force.
Genesis 1:27: “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.” Humans are the images of God, regardless of what they can or cannot do. This image bearing of the Creator is a privilege extended uniquely to humans. No other “creation” of God can make this claim. This is a reason why we cannot kill to protect property, but only to protect human life.
The most common Scripture passage used as basis for the pacifistic/nonresistant belief is Matthew 5:38-39. “Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil; but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also…”
An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth clearly refers to revenge, a point which is mentioned many times in the Bible. Jesus makes a real change from Mosaic law as Hebrews 10:30 states “For we know him that hath said, Vengeance belongeth unto me, I will recompense, saith the Lord…”
A slap on the right cheek was very serious insult in the time of Jesus, Notice that Jesus referred to a slap on the “right cheek.” That slap was with the persons left hand which was used for toilet functions; this is about an insult, rather than a deadly attack. There are still places in the world today where using your left hand for some things is offensive. The point of this passage is actually about pride, and to a greater extent, the attitude of the heart. A Christian is to be humble enough to turn his other cheek as well. Also, at the time of Jesus, Jewish law imposed a much larger fine for slapping someone than for hitting (The Mishnah. Seder Nezekin, Tractate Bava Kamma (law of damages).
It is absurd to think turning the other cheek has anything to do with defending yourself. Its also worth mentioning that most Christian pacifists believe it’s okay to peacefully stop an attacker, or verbally. But if one thinks turning the other cheek means do not use force to defend yourself, then you must also standby and allow your wife and children to your attacker without objection!!! For example, let a rapist have not only your first daughter, but your second as well. Don’t call the police as that would defeat the purpose of “turning” the second daughter over to him. Human law requiring you to call the police does not supersede the word of Christ.
Matt. 5:44-45 “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you…”
Rom. 12:20 “If thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink…”
God is a God of love? “God so loved the world…” (John 3:16) There are more verses about God’s love than there are about our love. Has He ever killed? Yes. How can that be??? The logical conclusion is that God can can kill and love at the same time. There is no reason we cannot do the same. Our duty is not to kill evildoers because they are evil. God is the judge, and the executor of revenge. However there is no reason we cannot use force on a attacker if it is needed to stop him. If we are resisting attackers, we must still continue to love them. That means taking all possible means to minimize harm anyone - as if the attacker was a member of our own family.
If we cannot love an attacker and kill him to save our family, then we cannot love our family and and let them be killed when we have the capability to stop it. The logic that we cannot love and kill falls apart in practical life. Of course loving by killing is a ridiculous idea and not being implied here.
These verses do not even begin to have the proof needed to show that defense is wrong under all circumstances. An important part of bible study is reading what is there, but also noting what is not there. If Christ desired for us never to used force, he would have written it as plainly as that.
Matt. 26:52-54“Put your sword back in its place,” Jesus said to him, “for all who draw the sword will die by the sword. Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels? (54) But how then would the Scriptures be fulfilled that say it must happen in this way?”
Often pacifists stop after verse 53, but verse 54 shows why Jesus stops Peter. It seems plain that Jesus was refusing arms in a particular situation, not imposing a rule on mankind. His crucifixion was a unique situation. Jesus did not run, pray for rescue, verbally, legally, or violently resist. What logic do pacifists use to say only 1 out of those 5 sets a precedent for all mankind?
“For all who draw the sword will die by the sword.” Rather than being a foundation for pacifist beliefs, it is far more likely that he was concerned about the immediate death the disciples would face if they started defending Jesus. Also if this was about pacifist beliefs, why is Mathew the only one to record Him saying this?
John 18:11 “Jesus commanded Peter, 'Put your sword away!' Shall I not drink the cup the Father has given me?” John’s account of this event shows that Jesus was concerned about doing what He was sent to do, not advocating pacifism. And in Luke Jesus says “no more of this”, more evidence that He was not advocating pacifism here.
John 18:36 "Jesus answered, My kingdom is not of this world: if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight, that I should not be delivered to the Jews: but now is my kingdom not from hence."
This statement is not about Christ’s servants never fighting, it is about a specific event. Again Jesus was refusing arms in his crucifixion. This verse is a good example of why context is so important.
A Roman military commander, a centurion, asked for Jesus to come and heal one of the centurion’s servants, saying that he “neither thought I myself worthy to come unto thee: but say in a word, and my servant shall be healed.” (Luke 7:7-9) “When Jesus heard these things, he marveled at him, and turned him about, and said unto the people that followed him, ‘I say unto you, I have not found so great faith, no, not in Israel.’” The Roman centurion is an example of Christian faith. There is no suggestion that his faith required him to stop soldiering, or that Jesus had any problem with the centurion’s profession. It’s important to pay attention to what the scripture does not say, and why.
Luke 3:12-14“Then came also publicans to be baptized, and said unto him, Master, what shall we do? And he said unto them, Exact no more than that which is appointed you. And the soldiers likewise demanded of him, saying, And what shall we do? And he said unto them, Do violence to no man, neither accuse any falsely and be content with your wages.”
Do violence to no man, there’s the proof is for abstaining from military service. Wrong, lets look into this, first the context… “…and be content with your wages”. That’s interesting, if he’s not going to be a soldier anymore what do wages have to do with this? The Greek word translated to “do violence” is διασείω. The definition is 1. to shake thoroughly 2. to make to tremble 3. to terrify 4. to agitate 5. to extort from one by intimidation money or other property.
The presumption of John’s instruction to the soldiers to was that the soldiers would continue being soldiers, and that they should be content with the military salary and should not try to make extra income by bullying civilians as was common practice in the Roman army. “Be content with your wages” would not be advice that would be given to a person whose job was immoral.
So when we find evidence of Christians in the Roman army, we also find evidence that early Christianity was not necessarily a pacifist religion even though some early Christian writers were indeed pacifists.
It is true that there is not evidence of many Christians serving in the Roman army in the first hundred years of the Christian church. In the first century of Christianity, many Christians were Jews, and the Romans considered Christianity to be a Jewish sect. Roman law forbade Jewish enlistment in the military. Even after Christianity became known as something other than a Jewish sect, most Christians were members of the lowest classes; not being Roman citizens, they were not eligible to enlist in the Roman army.
Actually we have very little evidence of early Christians engaged in the world. The first century A.D. gives us very few records of Christian painters, Christian historians, Christian poets, Christian musicians, Christian carpenters, or any earthly work. The lack of records does not prove that Christians thought painting or any of the other activities were wrong. Likewise the lack of records does not prove Christians are to abstain from government.
What the early Christians did is not to be taken as Biblical truth of any actions being right or wrong, although it can be useful information.
Points to remember
*The burden of proof for change from the Old Testament is on the New Testament.
*It is crucial to pay attention what the Bible does not say, as well as what it does say.
*Revenge and defense are very different, Revenge is done after the fact, defense is done during the event.
*Jesus was refusing arms in a particular situation (His crucifixion), not imposing a rule on mankind.
*In the encounters with soldiers in the NT, there was no condemnation of their job.
*If you are filled with the Holy Spirit He will make God’s will known to you in a deadly situation.
There are few who take nonresistance this far. Many conveniently stop the method of study at taking a life and fail to embrace nonresistance in it’s entirety. Do not run or pray for rescue because God has placed you in the situation. Do not verbally or legally defend man or property. Let a rapist have not only your first daughter, but your second as well. These ideas are impractical but necessary to be consistent if applying this concept to the taking of a life.
Nonresistant pacifism is a poor interpretation of Scripture and is difficult to support Biblically or physically. It is determined by this author to be a false teaching attached to Christianity.
King James Version Bible (used primarily)
New International Version Bible (used in places for clarity. The same conclusions can be reached with the KJV and a understanding of the terminology)
Strong’s Hebrew and Greek Dictionary
Mishneh Torah Vol. 25: Seder Nezikin By Maimonides (1135-1204)
A Guide to the Jerusalem Talmud By Heshey Zelcer
Martyrs Mirror of the Defenseless Christians by Thieleman J. van Braght Translated from the original Dutch or Holland Language from the Edition of 1660 by Joseph F. Sohm
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