Pacifism: A Hypothesis and a Question

pacifismI’ve been pondering the martyrdom side of the pacifism question. Many of us have been assuming that Christians are called only to non-violent resistance when confronted with possible martyrdom. Some would argue that a Christian may use necessary force for self-defense or the defense of others — but not when he is being physically assaulted for his faith in Jesus.

The question comes to the fore in the most recent post “If you don’t have a sword … buy one.” This passage creates a problem for that theory because Jesus certainly seems to be saying to his apostles: carry some swords so you don’t get killed when I’m found to be a criminal. I mean, that’s just what the passage seems to say. And if they were attacked because of their association with Jesus — being crucified for claiming to be king of the Jews — that would surely seem to qualify as martyrdom.

(Luke 22:35-38)  Then Jesus asked them, “When I sent you without purse, bag or sandals, did you lack anything?”

“Nothing,” they answered.

36 He said to them, “But now if you have a purse, take it, and also a bag; and if you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one. 37 It is written: ‘And he was numbered with the transgressors’; and I tell you that this must be fulfilled in me. Yes, what is written about me is reaching its fulfillment.”

38 The disciples said, “See, Lord, here are two swords.”

“That is enough,” he replied.

As I said in a comment yesterday, I don’t think the swords were for the purpose of setting up the saying —

(Mat 26:52)  “Put your sword back in its place,” Jesus said to him, “for all who draw the sword will die by the sword.”

First, Luke doesn’t record that saying. Rather, he writes,

(Luke 22:49-51) When Jesus’ followers saw what was going to happen, they said, “Lord, should we strike with our swords?” 50 And one of them struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his right ear. 51 But Jesus answered, “No more of this!” And he touched the man’s ear and healed him.

Second, as Luke wouldn’t have recorded the command to obtain swords for no purpose, he was at least setting up this passage, to explain why the apostles had swords — which evidently was not how Jews normally conducted themselves in Jerusalem. It wasn’t the wild West. There were Roman soldiers about.

Third, and most importantly, it’s just not the reason Jesus gave. Jesus says they should carry swords because he was about to be counted as a criminal. I think we should take his word for it.

(Luke 22:37) It is written: ‘And he was numbered with the transgressors’; and I tell you that this must be fulfilled in me. Yes, what is written about me is reaching its fulfillment.”

“Transgressors” translates anomos, meaning “lawless.”

And he also told them to have cash on hand. That hardly fits the theory that it was to make a pacifistic point at his arrest.

But it remains true that Jesus did say, “All who draw the sword will die by the sword.” That certainly sounds like an anti-sword sentiment! How do we reconcile Matthew and Luke?

So here’s my hypothesis: The Bible does not teach that we may not use force to resist martyrdom. Now, as I’m typing this, I figure one of my many well-schooled readers will immediately prove me wrong. But let me offer a preliminary defense of the theory. (And it is just a theory at this point — not even an opinion.)

1. The case for willing submission without forceable resistance is built on the examples of Jesus, Stephen, and countless early Christians who submitted to martyrdom without a fight.

2. There are any number of passages that are arguably in support. Consider —

(Mark 8:35)  For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it.

(Rev 2:10)  Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer. I tell you, the devil will put some of you in prison to test you, and you will suffer persecution for ten days. Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life.

(Rev 12:11)  They overcame him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony; they did not love their lives so much as to shrink from death.

(Rev 13:10)  If anyone is to go into captivity, into captivity he will go. If anyone is to be killed with the sword, with the sword he will be killed. This calls for patient endurance and faithfulness on the part of the saints.

So I need to expand a bit on my theory. It goes like this —

* The early Christians were part of the Roman Empire in Judea — an occupied state. Rome governed Judea — and the rest of the Empire — with an iron hand. They believed in the rule of law and had trials for those they condemned. But they always won. When the slaves rebelled under Spartacus in 73 BC, he raised an army of 100,000 slaves to fight for freedom — and they were all killed.

6,600 of Spartacus’s followers were crucified along the via Appia (or the Appian Way) from Brundisium to Rome. Crassus never gave orders for the bodies to be taken down, thus travelers were forced to see the bodies for years after the final battle.

Later, of course, the Jews rebelled. The Wikipedia summarizes the outcome according to Josephus —

Josephus claims that 1,100,000 people were killed during the siege, of which a majority were Jewish. 97,000 were captured and enslaved, including Simon Bar Giora and John of Gischala. Many fled to areas around the Mediterranean. Titus reportedly refused to accept a wreath of victory, as there is “no merit in vanquishing people forsaken by their own God”.

Such was the fate of rebels under Roman rule.

* Paul plainly prohibits rebellion.

(Rom 13:2)  Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.

Now, it’s entirely possible that Paul had the Jews’ rebellion against Rome, prophesied by Jesus, in mind. And certainly they suffered judgment — not just the judgment of Rome but the judgment of God.

* Therefore, when a Roman ruler commanded a Christian to worship Caesar, there was no chance of prevailing by the sword. The options were to flee (as many did) or suffer torture and death (as many did). Fighting back wasn’t a possibility.

* But what if a private citizen were to attack a Christian for his faith? That would have been illegal in Rome. Assault and murder were crimes then just as they are now — unless the local authorities had asked the citizenry to kill Christians. Rome maintained exclusive authority of life and death.

And so, in the case of non-governmental persecution, what would keep a Christian from defending himself — with only so much force as is necessary? This certainly seems consistent with what Jesus told the apostles just before his crucifixion.

This means we need to take a fresh look at the verses quoted earlier. The passages from the Revelation aren’t so much saying that we are to willingly submit to persecution as that persecution is an inevitability that must be accepted. Thus, “they did not love their lives so much as to shrink from death” in Rev 12:11 seems to say that they accepted death rather than give up their faith — not that they were unwilling to flee or that they sought death.

The passage in Mark, “whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it,” is true both metaphorically and literally. If we literally die for the gospel, Jesus will reward us at the Judgment, but if we lose our lives by giving our lives for Jesus, that will be rewarded, too. He’s not telling us to seek out martyrdom opportunities. However, we are to value our fidelity to Jesus more than our lives — which may well bring martyrdom.

As Paul wrote,

(Phil 1:21)  For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.

and yet Paul chose life, preferring to remain in this life to be of service to Jesus, delaying his enjoyment of Paradise.

Jesus’ saying, “All who draw the sword will die by the sword” merit some further reflection, too, of course. It’s an allusion to —

(Gen 9:6)  “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man.”

This is one of the so-called Noahide Laws (you’d think they’d have thought of a catchier name) that God decreed immediately after the Flood. But this command does not prohibit self-defense or military action. Rather, it prohibits murder. After all, it pretty plainly permits capital punishment, and would be self-contradictory if God meant to ban all forms of killing.

Therefore, Jesus’ point was, I think, that had the apostles killed the soldiers coming to arrest him, they’d have been guilty of murder. The soldiers were officers of the state, carrying out their duties. In fact, what they did wasn’t even wrong. Rather, the wickedness of Jesus’ trial occurred when he was convicted on patently false evidence and when Pilate allowed him to be killed for political rather than legal reasons — quite contrary to law or morality. (There were, I’m sure, other errors in the trial — enough to fill a book.) It was wrong for the Jewish leaders to ask for his arrest, but the soldiers were innocents and didn’t deserve death.

As Luke 22:35-38 suggests, Jesus didn’t mean that it’s wrong to defend yourself with a sword. It is, of course, wrong to murder by the sword.

And so, am I right?

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24 Responses

  1. YES! Very well expressed too.

  2. I’m sure you’re surprised to know that I have some problems with this. 🙂 Part of it comes from spending so much time working with Revelation over the past few years. And working with the topic of Christians as citizens of another kingdom. Here are a few thoughts.

    (1) The idea that Christians couldn’t resist persecution by the state is refuted by the stories of Elijah and Elisha. Their stories show that God will protect his people from persecution when it serves his purposes and also that their is nothing ungodly about resisting official persecution.

    (2) If God had wanted Christians to resist by the sword, there would always “be a chance,” to use your phrase. Stories like that of Gideon show us that if God wants his people to resist violently, opposing numbers and might do not matter.

    (3) According to Revelation, victory lies in being a “faithful witness.” The emphasis is on being brave enough to face persecution without resorting to violence. Pacifism is not cowardice, as our brother so unlovingly stated yesterday. It is bravery equal to that of the one who fights. The victory over Rome would come about not by the sword, but “by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony; they did not love their lives so much as to shrink from death.” Would that we had such courage today!

    (4) Again, where do we see this lived out? Thumb through the book of Acts and find where Christians resisted official or non-official persecution either by sword or by fist. You won’t find it.

    Grace and peace,
    Tim Archer

  3. Does Paul’s escape from Damascus (over the wall in a basket at night) inform this discussion at all? Some would have believers in peril simply stand with open arms eagerly awaiting the sword (or bullet). If that were to be the standard, wouldn’t Paul have said, “Sorry, boys, no sneaking away for me!” I’d suggest that his example offers support for the notion of avoiding martyrdom until you can’t.

  4. Very good post Jay.

  5. Jay,

    i think you’re using less clear passages as an axis to arrange the clearer ones. There are plenty of bits in the gospels that are vague and enigmatic largely due to brevity (as you have pointed out about the Sermon on the Mount).

    Nevertheless, my larger concern as i read this is the likely consequences. It seems like you’ve created a lovely haven for our American middle-class suburban culture of fear. People who think they should never have to follow Jesus into dangerous situations, who think they should never have to minister to sketchy looking characters, who think they’re entirely justified in never stepping foot into “bad” neighborhoods, who secretly prefer not to have impoverished or ethnic-minorities sitting beside them in the pew, who at bottom value their earthly lives far above Christ’s kingdom–well, they can always fall back on your theory now. i’m not saying you mean to cater to such people. i’m just saying i see how such people would be greatly comforted by and appreciative of your theory.

    Last February or so, one of our elders got up right at the start of the service and announced that the annual mission trip to Mexico had been cancelled. Mexico was riddled with drug-related violence. Despite the fact that Casa de la Esperanza is our main missionary work and we go every year, the elders decided that our safety was more important than our mission. The very first song we sang following the announcement was “Anywhere With Jesus I Can Safely Go.” i have never felt so angry in church before.

    i fully admit that my “guilt by association” and/or “slippery slope” tactics do not demonstrate any logical fallacy in your theory. But i’m nonetheless too disturbed by the fact that your theory provides refuge for so many things i find very wrong with our culture.

    –Guy

  6. It seems like you’ve created a lovely haven for our American middle-class suburban culture of fear. People who think they should never have to follow Jesus into dangerous situations, who think they should never have to minister to sketchy looking characters, who think they’re entirely justified in never stepping foot into “bad” neighborhoods, who secretly prefer not to have impoverished or ethnic-minorities sitting beside them in the pew, who at bottom value their earthly lives far above Christ’s kingdom – Guy

    Where did Jay say any of that? I don’t see any of that coming from Jay’s post.

  7. Tim, sorry that you feel my calling pasivism cowardice offends you and to you is unkind of me to say so. I do believe that is exactly what it is and my opinion is no more offensive to you than yours is to me.

    Guy, the very Christians that will go into those “bad” areas are those that will carry a bigger stick than the bad folks. The stick I refer to is not always physical, although on this earth it sure wouldn’t hurt. Bad people don’t care for your beliefs, only whether they can take advantage of you, Doesn’t matter how strong you are inside, its the outside they are afraid of and concerned with.

    I think of the words of our song ‘He could of called 10,000 angels”, If He had called, they would of come and done what?

  8. John,

    i really don’t understand what you mean by carrying a bigger stick than the bad folks.

    “Bad people don’t care for your beliefs” — John, last time i checked, we were all bad folks according to scripture. Good Guys vs. Bad Guys? No. Only people who are forgiven and people who aren’t. But none who are worthy, none who can boast.

    “Its the outside they are afraid of and concerned with” — Exactly who are you deeming as “bad people,” John? Have you asked each and every one those people what they care about? What grants you the right to blanketly judge their hearts? Furthermore, even if it’s true they are only “concerned with” the “outside,” does that make me better than them? Does it make you better than them?

    Of course, Jesus *could* have called 10,000 angels, but *did* He? That’s the point.

    –Guy

  9. John, I’m not a pacifist, and I find your comments extremely offensive. May God grant you the wisdom to grow up in the faith. The song you point out, by the way, makes Tim and Guy’s point for you – Christ submitted to crucifixion rather than calling those angels so that you and I could be free from the debt of our sins. That’s called MEEKNESS, not WEAKNESS, as you seem to think anyone who doesn’t automatically pick up a weapon and kill someone is exhibiting. I’m not trying to be a jerk; just trying to gently rebuke a brother in love.

  10. What gives pacifists the right to blanketly judge my heart if I want to carry something to defend myself and others with me. None are good and there are some very mean people who will try to harm people with no other reason except to be mean. And areas these things are known to occur a lot I will not avoid going to speak to people, but I do have the right to protect myself and before I go I will ask God to guide me in what I do.

    And the point is that Jesus came here to die on the cross and that is why He didn’t call down legions of angels, Matthew 26:53-54 “Or do you think I cannot now pray to My Father, and He will provide Me with more than twelve legions of angels? How then could the Scriptures be fulfilled, that it must happen thus?”

  11. Thanks for the gentle rebukes brothers.

    The bad people I was referring to are the ones causing the drug related violence that kept Guy from going to Mexico and others like them that hinder us out of fear of injury.

    No, I can’t see into their hearts, but, can judge them by their actions.

    All of Christian history is not in Acts. Read secular history, not counting the Old Testament and see the violence there to and by Gods people. What is that I hear lowing in the background?

    My point was Jesus had the ability to call 10,000 angels down if He wanted. I know He didn’t and why. The point I was making is they were there and ready to do WHAT if He had called. Kiss everyone in the mob like crowd?

    The stick I was referring to other than a physical one is the one of faith. I totally understand Guy being upset at this church not going for fear. I wouldn’t of liked that either.

    I’m not brave, but have been around some of the baddest people and understand coming across as a pascivist is the invitation to violence, not the deterrant.

    The men I admire most in Pauls escape is the men that let him down and remained to face the consequences.

  12. Guy,

    Surely you are joking or are very nieve.

    Ask each and every one of those people what they care about?

    Walk in a neighborhood in most of America’s cities and certainly in Mexico and stop and ask that question of each of those idly standing around. Tell them you are there as a good guy and see what i mean by good guys versus bad guys.

    Doesn’t make me any better than them, but, those that are sizing you up to rob you or for politicalreasons are far more interested in whether they can do it and not get hurt. Thus more attention to the outside than inside.

    Let me do a little rebuking in love. Brad, you and Guy need to get out more in the real world, There are Bad people in it.

  13. John,

    I don’t think that I have cast any aspersions on your beliefs. Some pacifism can be cowardice, just as some fighting can be cowardice. I don’t think less of you for favoring violence as a Christian response. I’m not sure how or why I’ve offended you.

    Let me share with you an example. During the “Shock and Awe” bombing of Iraq, Shane Claiborne (a Christian pacifist) went to Baghdad to be with Christians there and to assure the people that Christianity was not attacking them, that a nation was attacking them. Is that cowardice? When Gandhi and his followers stood down the British Empire, was that cowardice? When MLK and the civil rights movement held their ground against racists, was that cowardice?

    Even the timidest of animals will fight when cornered. Fighting no more demonstrates courage than shouting demonstrates intelligence.

    Grace and peace,
    Tim Archer

  14. During the 60’s black citizens were denied gun permits so some black people did not have guns to protect themselves and their families. Black people had little and sometimes no protection from the police leaving some black people with little or no other choice but to beg for their and loved one’s lives when they were being attacked. There were black people who did get access to guns and did use them to defend themselves and their families when attacked by KKK members and other people.

    Were the black people who defended their families with guns during the civil rights movement wrong to do so?

  15. Perhaps this has been addressed and I missed it. How positive can we be that the swords weren’t simply protection against wild animals? After-all, they were leaving the city walls late at night.

  16. If pacifists say the disciples never needed swords to protect them from other people why would they need them to protect them from animals?

    Acts 28:1-6 “Now when they had escaped, they then found out that the island was called Malta. And the natives showed us unusual kindness; for they kindled a fire and made us all welcome, because of the rain that was falling and because of the cold. But when Paul had gathered a bundle of sticks and laid them on the fire, a viper came out because of the heat, and fastened on his hand. So when the natives saw the creature hanging from his hand, they said to one another, “No doubt this man is a murderer, whom, though he has escaped the sea, yet justice does not allow to live.” But he shook off the creature into the fire and suffered no harm. However, they were expecting that he would swell up or suddenly fall down dead. But after they had looked for a long time and saw no harm come to him, they changed their minds and said that he was a god.

    Does this mean we are not to protect ourselves from animal attacks? I believe God can and does protect people supernaturally, I also believe God protects us by guiding us to protect ourselves.

  17. Anon,

    You said, “I believe God can and does protect people supernaturally, I also believe God protects us by guiding us to protect ourselves.”

    From first hand experience, this is a very dangerous attitude. Having been a victim of a violent crime, I can empathize with Jesus, Paul, Stephen and Job who were not protected from strife but were strengthened by God to help deal with the the pain and suffering.

    Believing that He protects us from problems sets us up to question His existence when the calamity comes. Yes, I did that for a while.

    I do believe that God had a hand in us moving to a fantastic church family the year before. Many of the members (who knew what happened) were tremendous help and support. I owe my sanity to the loving hands they extended a little over fifteen years ago.

  18. You don’t know me and don’t you don’t know what God has brought me through and I absolutely do not question His existence. I also know other people who have had to deal with very difficult circumstances who believe God protects as I do who do not question His existence.

  19. Tim
    Read your post of Nov.13 at 8:54 am.
    You said “Pacifism is not cowardice, as our brother so UNLOVINGLY stated yesterday”. To disagree with you obviously bothered you. Your assessment, and judgement of me due to my post bothered me.

    People are like animals, we are in many ways products of our genes. Look at a persons ancestors to see their flight or fight disposition just like a coon dog pup will tree coons when it grows up and never know why.

    I don;’t believe there are any pacifist, only in theory and talk. There are cowards. There can be pacifist (non violent) acts sure, but push a man so far and the genes will come out. That’s good, there are times when they need to come out. Jesuses sure did when He ran the money changers out of the temple. We underestimate how hard that was for one man to do. They didn’t know He was God, just a man of convicxtion and action. Remember those were Jews He drove out and we all know how hard it would be to drive out and separate a Jew from his money and merchandise!!!

    We all have held our tongue or actions when prevoked, but that was not being a pacifist or coward, simply good judgement?

    Don’t believe there are athiest either other than in theory. Seen too many so called start praying, calling on God when in bad situations and seek out christians for comfort.

    There is a spirit, soul, whatever you want to call it that God put in ALL of us humans and that spirit that is inside us that lives forever guides humans past and present more than most realize.

  20. John,

    I really have to disagree with you on this one. Yes, there likely are some who’ve used pacifism as a cover for cowardice, but it’s unfair to suggest that all who do so are cowards. And, I’m convinced, it’s untrue.

    For example, the Anabaptist pacifists in Europe often died for their convictions following the Reformation, following the cruelest tortures (by both Protestants and Catholics). They were men and women of unspeakable courage.

  21. John,

    If it was in love that you called your brothers cowards, then I was judgmental in my assessment. I have trouble conceiving of using an insult lovingly, but I also have trouble conceiving of using violence lovingly as well, so that’s probably a personal shortcoming.

    I do know that Jesus was able to use harsh terms toward people, yet I can’t question his love for them, so I guess it is possible. I also know that what you wrote was incorrect, for I have seen brave pacifists and cowardly fighters.

    Grace and peace,
    Tim Archer

  22. I will admit I was doing a lot of goading, awaiting a pacifist to lose his cool, wanting to slap my jaws thus making my point and the point of this topic. For fear of criticism, maybe I stopped to early.

    To readily go willingly to die for a cause does not make one a pacifist in my opinion. A brave martyr is what I call those and agreed they show unmeasurable courage and comitment.

    One who hides behind naming himself a pacifist in order to avoid the draft or a conflict is the coward in my opinion. This is the only example of one being a pacifist I’ve seen.

    I still don’t believe there is such a thing as a pacifist.

  23. Anon,

    I didn’t intend to attack. Based on personal experiences I cringe when I hear about God protecting us when He didn’t protect His own son from harm.

    For reference, the word protect isn’t in the NKJV NT. It is used once in the ESV but in a very generic way.

    On the other hand, there are many, many passages referring to God giving us strength.

  24. I love the crack about Jews and their money. Very impressive.

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