Violence was contrary to everything Jesus stood for. In fact, Jesus absorbed the violence of human beings to bring about peace.
The conclusion was from our first post was surprising: that God in the Old Testament was not a God who endorsed violence. The conclusion of this post is equally unsurprising: Jesus strongly opposed violence. But what may be surprising is how that very position by Jesus was a stumbling block for his contemporaries to see him as Messiah.
Jesus wasn’t the only one who claimed to be Messiah who walked ancient Palestinian soil. Two of those who arrived on the scene after Herod the Great died were Simon and Anthronges. Both led independent revolts against the Roman Empire, with the “principle purpose… to kill Romans” and reclaim the throne by force. The Roman Empire crushed both revolts and executed both men who claimed to be Messiah. The Zealots waited with bated breath for a Messiah who would overthrow Roman rule by force and reclaim the Promised Land with the new Davidic king on the throne.
And then on the scene arrived a Jewish peasant, who talked about the arrival of a kingdom, but a kingdom that “is not of this world.” In fact, Jesus explains to Pontius Pilate, that “if my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting… But my kingdom is not from the world.”[i]
In other words, Jesus’ pacifism was not just a quirk of his ministry, it flipped the very expectations of who the Messiah was supposed to be. In fact, as Preston Sprinkle argues in Fight: A Christian Case for Nonviolence[ii], this is why on several occasions Jesus often told his disciples not to tell others that he is the Messiah.
The Sermon on the Mount is an exhibit of the new ethic Jesus invites his people into. Jesus Old Testament law and he turns the volume up to 10. “You shall not murder” is transformed into “But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.”[iii]
It is no longer the murderous action that is forbidden, it is the murderous intent that is forbidden. Jesus continues ramping up the expectations: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist the one who is evil.”[iv]
Much has been made out of the fact that we are not told that we are not prohibited from ending another’s life in self-defense or in the service of one’s country. Much ink has been spilt clarifying that the sixth commandment should not read, “you shall not kill,” but rather, “you shall not murder.” However, what is clear in Jesus’ radical commentary on the commandment is that he has blown right past that distinction. If a heart of ill-will toward another is breaking the law of Christ, of course killing is disallowed.
Jesus continues, now almost in outrageous fashion, calling the one who takes a slap “on the right cheek, [to] turn him the other also,” and the one who has his tunic taken, to offer his cloak. Jesus presses nonviolence into all of life.
And of course, Jesus is the one who takes violence on himself. Recalling Isaiah’s prophecy, Peter says, “When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed.”[v] Jesus steps into violence that he might bear that violence for our healing. By absorbing our pain, Jesus invites us into shalom.
I think most of us would be on the same page at this point about a basic call to nonviolence in everyday situations. We would all agree that attacking someone is unchristian. However, what about when we are attacked? What about if someone you love is attacked? What about violence when does in the service of your country? These are questions that Christians trying to honor God’s Word disagree on, and in fact, we have respectful disagreement on in our pastoral staff at New Life. We will venture into these difficult issues in the final two posts.
[i] John 18:36
[ii] As I mentioned in the first post, this series of posts was inspired by Sprinkle’s remarkable book.
[iii] Matthew 5:22
[iv] Matthew 5:38-39
[v] 1 Peter 2:23-24