Self Defense and Christianity, Part 2: Christian Pacifism

Don’t start here; read Part 1 of this series first (it can be found here).

If we are going to have an honest discussion of the compatibility of self defense and Christian discipleship, we must understand the opposing positions. The discussion of self defense and Christian discipleship tends to generate a lot of heat and not a lot of light. One of the greatest challenges we face with the discussion is working hard not to create “straw man” arguments that don’t really interact with the arguments of those we disagree with.

These straw man arguments are common in this discussion. Christian Pacifists are often painted as sissies or weenies who aren’t willing to get behind the Lion of Judah, and believers in just war theory are sometimes painted as hate mongering war hawks. Neither of those descriptions are accurate.

In the spirit of understanding, then, we first turn to a discussion of the biblical underpinnings of Christian pacifism.

Christian pacifism is the theological and ethical position that any form of violence is incompatible with the Christian faith. Prominent American thinkers such as the great 19th Century evangelist D.L. Moody (of Moody Bible Institute fame) and Martin Luther King, Jr. have advocated one form or another of Christian pacifism.

John Howard Yoder presents a modern adaptation to the classic Mennonite view of passive nonresistance in his book The Politics of Jesus.[1] He argues that Jesus is interested in social and political issues, but His strategy is to stay away from the game of socio-political control and instead adopt the practice of nonresistance. Yoder believes that Christians must reject the world’s system of violence and follow their Savior to the cross.

Though there is much debate on the passage, a central issue is the sixth commandment contained in Exodus 20:13: “You shall not murder.” There is some debate over whether the prohibition here is best translated “Thou shalt not kill” (as the KJV has it) or “you shall not murder” as all modern English translations render it.[2] The ESV translation notes that the Hebrew verb used here[3] refers to any unauthorized taking of human life, whether intentional or through carelessness or neglect. The taking of human life, then, is specifically disallowed by God and a violation of His command. Because of that, self defense should be avoided as a matter of obedience to the revealed will of God.

Another influential verse for pacifists is Isaiah 2:4, which says,

4 And He will judge between the nations,

And will render decisions for many peoples;

And they will hammer their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.

Nation will not lift up sword against nation,

And never again will they learn war.

This verse teaches the peace of the reign of Messiah. He will be the judge between people, and Isaiah prophecies of the tranquility that will reign when Messiah comes. His reign will be one of peace, as nations “hammer their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.” In other words, Messiah (i.e. Jesus) brings with Him peace for His people. To break that peace by means of violence, even violence toward those who are violent to us, is a breaking of the peace that He sought to bring and is sin.

Proponents of this position also point to Matthew 26:47-52 in support for the idea of Christian pacifism:

47While He was still speaking, behold, Judas, one of the twelve, came up accompanied by a large crowd with swords and clubs, who came from the chief priests and elders of the people. 48Now he who was betraying Him gave them a sign, saying, “Whomever I kiss, He is the one; seize Him.” 49Immediately Judas went to Jesus and said, “Hail, Rabbi!” and kissed Him. 50And Jesus said to him, “Friend, do what you have come for.” Then they came and laid hands on Jesus and seized Him. 51And behold, one of those who were with Jesus reached and drew out his sword, and struck the slave of the high priest and cut off his ear. 52Then Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back into its place; for all those who take up the sword shall perish by the sword. (Matthew 26:47-52)

Verse 52 is very important to advocates of nonresistance, as Jesus rebukes Peter’s violence and commands him to put his sword away. Thus within the view of nonresistance Jesus does not allow for self-defense, instead commanding Christians to suffer wrong rather than retaliate with violence against violence. The other passage that nonresistance advocates view as central to their position is Jesus’ admonition to “turn the other cheek”:

27“But I say to you who hear, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. 29“Whoever hits you on the cheek, offer him the other also; and whoever takes away your coat, do not withhold your shirt from him either. 30“Give to everyone who asks of you, and whoever takes away what is yours, do not demand it back. 31“Treat others the same way you want them to treat you. (Luke 6:27-31; cf. Matthew 5:38-42)

This is the main passage that advocates nonresistance in the eyes of Christian pacifists. Even in the face of physical assault Jesus commands his disciples to “turn the other cheek” and forego self-defense. Whether the offense is physical (a strike to the cheek) or financial (the taking of the outer garment) the response of the disciple must be nonresistance. In this way the Christian follows Christ’s example of nonresistance in the face of rejection and assault, emulating their Savior.

There are more really good discussions of Christian pacifism out there on the web. David Hoekema presents a well written article in Religion Online, and Myron Augsburger also penned a nice discussion for Intervarsity shortly after 9/11. They are worth reading if you want a more in depth presentation of Christian pacifism.

There is some biblical evidence, then, that points Christians toward an ethic of nonviolence. At the very least it is apparent that when searching the Scriptures we find that violence must not be the priority nor the desired option in dealing with conflict from a biblical perspective.

Next post we will consider the evidence for Christian self defense.

[1] John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus, 2nd Ed. (Grand Rapids, MI; Eerdmans, 1994)

[2] The author consulted the ESV, HCSB, NET, NASB, NCV, NIV, NKJV, NLT, and NRSV. RSV and ASV, both older translations, had “kill” rather than “murder.”

[3] The Hebrew verb is רָצַח (ratsach)

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