following Jesus in a violent world

Violence surrounds us. Its presence is everywhere—in the news, in our streets, in our homes, in our schools, in our workplaces, in our sporting events, in our entertainment, and in our nation’s international affairs. In America, we live in a culture of violence which is aided and abetted by a deep and abiding love affair with guns.

the American culture of violence

Apart from those places on the planet actively engaged in civil war, or the armed conflicts created by the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, America may be one of the most violent places to live among leading developed nations. Just look at the number of handgun homicides in the United States in 2001 compared to other major countries.

Chart of handgun homicides in 2001

The official death count in the September 11, 2001 Al Qaeda terrorist attacks in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania totaled just under 3,000 lives. That same year, however, over 11,000 Americans were shot to death in acts of domestic violence, arguments between acquaintances and strangers, and in the commission of crimes. In spite of the fears that the Bush administration raised over the dangers of terrorism in America, the real threat to our lives and well-being may very well be from our gun-toting neighbors.

violence as entertainment

From the gladiator games of ancient Rome to the one hundred and six killings graphically depicted in the movie Rambo III, violence has always played a role in mass entertainment. But there’s a growing consensus that, in recent years, something about violence in our media has changed. Television, videogames, music, and film have increased their violent content, especially that content aimed at the most impressionable among us—our children.

Almost 30 years ago, the U.S. Surgeon General warned Americans about the negative effect of television violence on the emotions and behaviors of children. One recent study shows that 61% of TV programming contains violence, with children’s programming being the most violent. Over 1,000 studies have attested to a casual connection between media violence and aggressive behavior in children. Young children are likely to imitate what they see on TV, particularly if the behavior is performed by an attractive role model and is either rewarded or goes unpunished.

the myth of redemptive violence

We are enculturated from an early age to believe that violence is a necessary and inevitable part of human life. Evil and violence often go hand in hand. These two forces have always been a part of human history since the rise of the earliest civilizations, and we believe that they will remain a part of human life forever. We believe that we can never eliminate the presence of evil and violence, but can temporarily hold their powers at bay. But the only way to do that—the only really effective tool, we believe—is more violence, stronger violence, staggering violence.

We firmly believe that in a violent world, violence is the only viable response that can save us. Nothing else will work. Biblical scholar Walter Wink calls this “the myth of redemptive violence.” Above all else, this is the fundamental myth of the American people. It helps us to make sense in understanding how the world works. Moreover, it is a fundamental belief across all civilizations and religions. It is more compelling than any religious teaching or belief in Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. We trust violence—not love—to save us. We trust violence—not God—to deliver us from evil.

the heart of the myth

At the heart of the myth is a basic story: A hero (usually male) is overcome by evil forces. They take his possessions, kill his family, and leave him for dead. The hero regains his strength and seeks out the evildoers. He takes revenge in a bloodbath of violence. And yet, in the end, we know that even more evildoers still lurk in the shadows, awaiting their next opportunity to terrorize good and decent people. It is a story told in black and white. The hero, whom we identify with, is always good, while the evil forces—our enemies—are always completely evil. There is no hope for their transformation. The only effective solution to the conflict is their inevitable violent defeat.

We’ve all seen, read, or heard a multitude of stories based on the myth of redemptive violence. This tale has been retold for thousands of years in creation myths, epic stories, poems, songs, and ballads. In our day, it is repeated over and over in novels, movies, television programs, and children’s cartoons.

Walter Wink points out Popeye the Sailor as a good example of the retelling of the myth. The dastardly Bluto beats Popeye to a pulp and captures the beautiful Olive Oyl, carrying her off screaming for help. Popeye is able to recover his strength with the aid of a can of spinach and then settles the score with Bluto, knocking him senseless. But in the next cartoon episode, the plot is repeated. Redemptive violence has accomplished its intended goal—the defeat of Bluto—but only for so long. The myth tells us that evil (in the form of Bluto) will inevitably return.

the myth in popular films

In the year 2000, two of the most popular films were clearly based on the myth. In the Ridley Scott film, Gladiator, Russell Crowe portrays General Maximus Decimus Meridius, friend of Emperor Marcus Aurelius who is betrayed and murdered by his ambitious son, Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix). Commodus orders Maximus’ execution and dispatches Praetorian Guards to murder his wife and son. Maximus narrowly escapes his execution and races home only to discover his family’s charred and crucified bodies in the smoldering ruins of his villa. After burying his wife, the exhausted Maximus is captured by slave traders who take him to North Africa. There, he is sold to the head of a local gladiator school. Maximus rises through the ranks of the gladiatorial arena to eventually avenge the murder of his family and his Emperor.

In Roland Emmerich’s film, The Patriot, Benjamin Martin (Mel Gibson) is a veteran of the French and Indian War and a widower raising his seven children on his farm. Gabriel (Heath Ledger), the eldest, joins the American forces fighting the British in the Revolutionary War against his father’s wishes. Two years later, he returns home wounded, carrying dispatches between commanders. That night, a skirmish between the British and the Continentals wakes the Martins and they give care to the wounded of both sides the next morning. British soldiers—the ruthless Green Dragoon cavalry—approach the house, proceed to kill the Colonial wounded, burn down the house, and take Gabriel into custody as a spy, intending to hang him. Ben’s 15-year-old son Thomas is killed trying to free Gabriel as he is taken prisoner, shot by the ruthless and cold-hearted British Col. William Tavington (Jason Isaacs). Ben and his two youngest sons free Gabriel in a daring rescue, yet Ben’s wild and savage violence with a tomahawk and knife clearly frighten the boys. Ben later leads the South Carolina militia in a guerrilla war against British troops. In response, the evil Col. Tavington burns a number of civilians alive while they are locked in a church, including Gabriel’s new wife. Eventually, Benjamin Martin kills Col. Tavington in hand-to-hand combat, finally getting the revenge he had long been seeking.

fear, aggression, and desire for revenge

Viewing violence can increase our fears about the dangers in our world. Local news programs that use violent stories to gain viewers can dramatically increase the fear of senior citizens and others about the safety of their community outside their doors, and can increase their isolation from the larger community. The fear of becoming a victim of violence results in the increased mistrust of others.

Viewing violence can also increase aggressive impulses in people. After viewing the 9/11 attacks, many Americans began looking for revenge. They wanted blood. Attacks on Muslim Americans rose dramatically as they became easy innocent scapegoats.

a century of violence

Our lives have been dominated by almost ceaseless warfare among nations. The destructive power of war continues to increase at an alarming rate. For example, more people were killed in war in the twentieth century than in all previous centuries combined.

Look at just the previous five centuries as an example:

Chart of deaths in war by century

noncombatants as targets and collateral damage

More people were killed in twentieth century wars than in the preceding ten thousand years. And the majority of those who have died were not combatants. Studies have found that since 1700, civilian deaths averaged 50 percent of all deaths in all wars. This means we can anticipate that in any modern war at least half of the people killed will be noncombatants. In the 1980s the proportion of civilian deaths jumped to 74 percent, and in the 1990s it appears to have been close to 90 percent. In the wars of the twentieth century, more than 62 million civilians were killed, compared to 43 million military combatants. For the last 100 years, an average of 500,000 civilians a year have been killed by warring nations.

where your treasure is, your heart will be there also

In the United States, 54% of our federal tax dollars are spent on the military: present, past, and future. When the US Fiscal Year 2009 budget request for military spending came out in early 2008, analysts compared it to the projected planned spending of other nations.
The analysis revealed:

  • U.S. military spending accounts for 48 percent, or almost half, of the world’s total military spending
  • U.S. military spending is more than the next 46 highest-spending countries in the world combined
  • Six potential “enemies,” including Russia and China account for about $205 billion or 29% of the U.S. military budget
  • U.S. military spending is 5.8 times more than China, 10.2 times more than Russia, and 98.6 times more than Iran.
  • U.S. military spending is almost 55 times the spending of the six “rogue” states (Cuba, Iran, Libya, North Korea, Sudan and Syria) whose spending amounts to around $13 billion, maximum.
  • The United States and its strongest allies (the NATO countries, Japan, South Korea and Australia) spend $1.1 trillion on their militaries combined, representing 72 percent of the world’s total.

Is this overkill, given the combined threat of any and every conceivable enemy? One would have to think so.

the radical call of Jesus

The evidence is conclusive. There is no question that we live in a very violent world. Violence is just the way things are and it is the way things have been for untold centuries. But is this the way things are meant to be?

More importantly, how does Jesus expect us to act in response to the way things are? What does he ask of us in response to the dangers that surround us? How does he want us to live our lives amidst unending violence, death and destruction?

Jesus’ response to a violent world as reported by Matthew

Matthew 5:38-46 (the sermon on the mount)

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 [violently] resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your shirt as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?

Jesus’ response to a violent world as reported by Luke

Luke 6:27-38 (the sermon on the plain)

But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.

If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same… But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be compassionate, just as your Father is compassionate. Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.

Jesus’ response to a violent world as interpreted by Paul

Romans 12:14-21

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ No, ‘if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

the way of Jesus in a violent world

In summary, here is what Jesus would have us do in a violent world:

  • Love your enemies
  • Do not resist evildoers with violence
  • Give food and drink to your enemies
  • Do good to those that hate you
  • Pray for your persecutors and abusers
  • Bless your persecutors and cursers
  • Do not avenge yourself
  • Do not repay evil for evil
  • Overcome evil with good
  • Be compassionate and merciful
  • Forgive others
  • Live in harmony with others
  • Live peaceably with all

September 11, 2001

The Rev. Robert Rimbo, former bishop of the Southeast Michigan Synod of the ELCA wrote to the congregations of his synod following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. He reflected on the words of Romans 12, verses 14 and 17:

“Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them… Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all.”

Reacting to his initial feelings that we must strike back, the words of Romans 12 changed his response.

“Because the moment you condemn them, the moment you curse them, you join them, and however good it may feel at the moment, it is still surrender. The only way to conquer evil is to absorb it, Paul says. Take it into yourself and disarm it. Neutralize its acids. Serve as a facemask for its smog. Put a straightjacket on it and turn it over to God. There is nothing sentimental or the least bit easy about this. There is not even a guarantee that it will work. But one thing is for sure: When we repay evil for evil, evil is all there is, in bigger and more toxic piles. The only way to reverse the process is to behave in totally unexpected ways, breaking the vicious cycle by refusing to participate in it. That is what love is. Not a warm feeling between like-minded friends but plain old imitation of Christ, who took all the meanness of the world and ran it through the filter of his own body, repaying evil with good, blame with pardon, death with life. It worked once and it can work again, whenever God can find people willing to give it a try.”

nonviolence, not passivity

Nonviolence is a much better term for the way of Jesus than pacifism, which is often confused with “passive-ism.” Nonviolence is active, not passive. Nonviolence has been defined in many ways. Here are some of the major characteristics:

nonviolence actively works for peace and justice

  • Nonviolence seeks to change the status quo without the use of coercive force
  • Nonviolence uses peaceful and just means
  • Nonviolence resists evil without becoming evil
  • Nonviolence understands that the ends and the means are one
  • Nonviolence rejects hatred
  • Nonviolence breaks the cycle of reciprocity
  • Nonviolence persistently seeks reconciliation
  • Nonviolence is the implementation of “love your enemies”
  • Nonviolence seeks the transformation of the enemy
  • Nonviolence requires courage and suffering
  • Nonviolence also requires anger and outrage
  • Nonviolence is a human expression of God’s unconditional love

can we / should we / must we take Jesus seriously?

Because we believe so firmly in the myth of redemptive violence, many Christians find that it is almost impossible to take Jesus seriously on this matter of nonviolence. His words often stir up feelings of resistance or defensiveness. The nonviolence of Jesus seems like impractical advice from a wide-eyed idealist—okay if you are the son of God, but not if you are merely human. It seems like a foolish path to follow if you value your own safety and the safety of those you love. What would happen if we tried to follow these words in the real world?

When Daniel Berrigan lectured on nonviolence and the Sermon on the Mount, someone accused him of being naive and said, “Father, no one can live the way you outlined. Do you know what will happen if you try? Do you know where your advice will lead someone?” Father Berrigan responded, “Yes, I know where it leads. Before you start down this path you better make sure you look good on wood.”

a violent God

Others church teachers suggest that the nonviolence of Jesus is inconsistent with the violence of God. At least two different images of God are woven through the Bible—a God of wrath and violence and a God of compassion, justice and peace. Both images appear side-by-side in both the Hebrew Bible (our Old Testament) and in the New Testament. Contrary to commonly held opinion, the God of the Hebrew Bible is not solely a God of wrath and judgment, nor is the God of the New Testament solely a God of love, mercy and grace.

violence in the Hebrew Bible

Israel was in the middle of the most war-ravaged corridor on the globe. A repeatedly subjugated people, the people of Israel were dominated by violent empires. Not surprisingly, violence is the most-often mentioned activity in the Hebrew Bible. There are 600 passages of explicit violence; 1,000 verses of God’s violent actions of punishment; 100 passages where God commands the people of Israel to kill other people, in order to exterminate their enemies; there are even several stories where God kills for no apparent reason (i.e. Exodus 4:24-26).

The image we get of God is one in which God plays the following roles:

  • God as a violent deliverer
  • God as an executioner
  • God as an avenger
  • God as a terrorist
  • God as a genocidal killer
  • God as a demander of child sacrifice
  • God as a wrathful punisher

God as a violent deliverer

In the Exodus story, God kills the first-born children and animals of the Egyptians as the last of ten plagues he sends upon Egypt. (Exodus 11:4-6) Then, as his chosen people escape their slavery God kills the Egyptian troops and horses who pursue them. (Exodus 14)

God as an executioner

After the escape from Egypt, God kills grumbling Israelites with a plague. (Numbers 11:33) Soon after, God kills spies with a plague who bring back bad reports about the promised land. (Numbers 14:36-37) In the New Testament, God kills Ananias and Sapphira because they hold back proceeds from a land sale that should have gone into the common treasury of the post-resurrection Jerusalem community. (Acts 5)

God as an avenger

In another story from the Hebrew Bible, God sends two bears to maul 42 children who make fun of the prophet Elisha, calling him “baldhead.” (2 Kings 2:23-24) In the final book of the New Testament, we are told that God will kill one-third of humanity to avenge the people who have been persecuted for their faith. (Revelation 6:9-10, 9:13-15)

God as a terrorist

In the Hebrew Bible, after a recitation of the laws and ordinances that the chosen people are to follow, God makes this threat: “If you will not obey me, and do not observe all these commandments, if you spurn my statutes, and abhor my ordinances, so that you will not observe all my commandments, and you break my covenant, I in turn will do this to you; I will bring my terror on you.” Specifically, God says “I will punish you sevenfold. I will send pestilence among you. I will let loose wild animals among you. I will lay your cities waste. I will devastate the land and you will eat your children. I will scatter you among the nations.” (Leviticus 26:14-39)

God as a genocidal killer

In the story of Noah’s ark, an angry God destroys all of humanity and animal life on the planet with a flood—excepting only Noah’s immediate family and the animals on the ark. (Genesis 6:13, 7:23)
As the people of Israel make their approach to the promised land, God orders Moses to kill all the inhabitants of the kingdom of Bashon and take their land. (Numbers 21:31-35) Then God orders Moses to avenge the Israelites on the Midianites. When his army returns from this task Moses becomes enraged that his military officers allowed the women and children to live. (Numbers 31:1-2, 7, 9-11, 14-15, 17-18) In conquering the promised land by force, God orders the utter destruction of the Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perrizzites, Hivites and Jebusites. (Deuteronomy 7:1-2, 5-6)

God as a demander of child sacrifice

God orders Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac, who is spared at the last minute. (Genesis 22:2, 9-12)

In some theological interpretations of a possible underlying meaning for the crucifixion of Jesus, we are told that God found it necessary to sacrifice his own child in order to satisfy his unrelenting anger at human sin. It was therefore God’s plan that Jesus must be sacrificed on the cross. In this context, Jesus is seen as the “perfect sacrifice,” the “lamb of God” whose sacrificial blood pays for humanity’s sin. If this interpretation is true, this may be the ultimate example of redemptive violence, for it is through violence and death that we have been saved.

God as a wrathful punisher

In 722 BCE, God sends the Assyrian army against northern kingdom of Israel and does not defend the House of Israel. King Sargon II of Assyria disperses the northern 10 tribes and resettles Samaria with foreigners. (2 Kings 17)

In 597 BCE, God sends the Babylonian army against southern kingdom of Judah and  fights on the side of the invading armies. King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon takes the people of Judah into captivity for a period of seventy-five years. (Jeremiah 21:3-6)

In the New Testament, John the Baptist warns that God will burn with unquenchable fire those who do not bear good fruit. (Matthew 3:7-12) Similarly, Jesus warns of false prophets, saying every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. (Matthew 7:15-20) Those who become a stumbling block to the faith of others will be thrown into eternal fire. (Matthew 18:6-9) Unworthy people will be cast to the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. (Matthew 8:12, 22:13, 25:30) Note that all of these last examples are from the gospel of Matthew who alone among the gospel writers spoke of this kind of divine punishment. Most likely, this was Matthew’s special little idea, a punishment he seemed to relish.

the many death sentences in the Hebrew Bible

The books of Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy in the Hebrew Bible contain long lists of capital crimes. We are led to believe that God was the author of the law codes and the one who decided the appropriate punishment.

God orders the community of Israel to kill the following “sinners” by stoning:

  • a murderer (except for killing a slave)
  • a kidnapper
  • an ox who gores a person to death along with the irresponsible owner of the ox
  • a person who is a wizard, sorcerer or medium
  • people who sacrifice their children to the god Molech
  • a man who has sex with his neighbor’s wife (kill both)
  • a man who has sex with his father’s wife (kill both)
  • a man who has sex with his daughter-in-law (kill both)
  • a man who has sex with a woman and her daughter (kill all three by burning instead of stoning)
  • a man who has sex with another man (kill both)
  • a man or woman who has sex with an animal (kill both)
  • a bride who is not a virgin and is therefore rejected by her husband
  • an engaged virgin who has sex with another man in a town where she could presumably cry for help (kill both)
  • an engaged virgin who has sex with another man in the country where no one is nearby to hear her screams (kill him)
  • a person who blasphemes the sacred name of God (YHWH)
  • a person who makes a sacrifice to another god
  • a person who persuades you to worship another god
  • a person who strikes their father or mother
  • a person who curses their father or mother
  • a son who is stubborn and rebellious
  • a son who is a glutton or a drunkard
  • a person who works on the Sabbath day

A interesting note is that among the many sexual crimes deserving death the following acts are not included: a man who has sex with his sister, his aunt, his sister-in-law, or a woman who is menstruating. In these cases the man will be punished, but not killed.

a progressive revelation

New Testament scholar Clarence Jordan believed that the Bible shows a progressively changing image of God in relation to violence. The first three phases are all found in the Hebrew Bible.

Jordan called the first phase: unconditional vengeance. In this phase God demands that the chosen people slaughter other peoples unmercifully in order to take control of the promised land. “Kill all the inhabitants,” God tells the Israelites. Do not spare any women or children.

Phase two was conditional vengeance. “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” There must now be a limit to your retribution particularly among your own kin, tribe, and nation.

Phase three introduced conditional love. The phrase “Love your neighbor as yourself” comes from the Hebrew bible. However “neighbor” generally referred to people who were within the same tribe or nation.

In the person of Jesus, we are introduced to the final phase, unconditional love. “Love your neighbor as your self”  Jesus repeats, but the phrase takes on new meaning as Jesus expands it to include people who are hated outsiders as in the parable of the Good Samaritan. The neighbor now includes everyone, especially culturally defined enemies. “Love your enemies” is the ultimate expression of unconditional love.

the conflicting testimonies

The reality is that within this collection of books we call the Bible, the biblical writers have both revealed and distorted God’s character. Some of these ancient biblical writers have created God in their own image—a God who justifies their aggression, a God who uses violence as a tool for political domination. Still, an understanding of the historical Jesus may help us decide between the between Jesus’ revelation of God and the many human distortions.

Jesus’ life and faith tell us a lot about what God is like and what God is not like. Unfortunately, the New Testament writers may also have revealed and distorted Jesus himself. We must decide which texts offer glimpses of the authentic Jesus and which do not.

will God get even for us?

Was Jesus nonviolent because he expected God would handle all the violent stuff? Did Jesus expect God to judge, punish, and make things right? “Vengeance is mine; I will repay says the Lord.” Or was Jesus nonviolent because he believed that nonviolence expresses the nature and character of God?

Many people who acknowledge the nonviolence of Jesus still embrace the violence of God. For example, some pacifists believe that God will fight for us. God will avenge us. God will take care of evildoers.

On the other hand, other pacifists believe that God is nonviolent. In this view, God loves all his children–the good and bad alike. God suffers with us. God overcomes evil with good.

Jesus and a God of compassion, justice and peace

In the life and teachings of Jesus we encounter a different image of God. In fact, according to Jesus, the entire biblical story ends differently than that suggested by narratives of the God of violence. Unlike the New Testament book of Revelation, in which the current world ends with a war of retribution in which a third of God’s children are destroyed, Jesus describes a vision in which the world will end with a great banquet to which all God’s children are invited. These two contrasting images cannot be reconciled.  It’s not a battle first and then a banquet. These are not two sides of the same coin, they are completely different coins.

For Christians, Jesus is the decisive revelation of God. Jesus puts a human face on God. Jesus reveals the true character of God to us when he says, “Be compassionate as your Father in heaven is compassionate.” (Luke 6:36) Jesus teaches us to live and love radically because that’s how God is. Give extravagantly, forgive extravagantly, and love extravagantly. The life of Jesus is a testimony to a loving nonviolent God who refuses labels like ‘good’ and ‘bad.’

fight or flight

Most people see only two ways of dealing with violence and oppressive power: fight or flight. Fight: war, violent rebellion, revenge, retaliation. Flight: escape, emigration, quietism, passivity. Jesus rejects both these options. Neither passivity nor violence are the way of Jesus. He teaches a third way, the way of nonviolent resistance to evil.

nonviolent resistance

Rejection of violence does not mean acceptance of evil. Evil must always be resisted. Jesus resisted evil at every step of his life. The means of resistance is the issue. The model that Jesus provides us is nonviolent resistance.

“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 [violently] resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go the second mile.” (Matthew 5:38-41)

The word violently is enclosed in brackets in the previous quote. Typically, the text simply reads, “Do not resist an evildoer.” But this gives the wrong impression of Jesus’ meaning. The early church assumed this meant no use of arms, including self-defense. Some pacifists today believe that nonresistance means Christians must even reject nonviolent direct action and civil disobedience. That position seems strange since Jesus consistently resisted evil throughout his life, but he also refused violent means.

The Greek word translated as “resist” is antistenai which means to stand (stenai) against (anti). It is a technical term involving the tactics of warfare. Two approaching armies march toward each other until they meet. They stand on the field of battle opposing one another. They then engage in a violent struggle. Therefore antistenai means to take a violent stand against the opponent.

Jesus was saying that his followers must not take a military stance against evildoers. He was telling us not to resist evil on its own terms—do not resist evil with violent means. Elsewhere in the New Testament we see the admonition “Do not repay evil with evil.” (Romans 12:17, 1 Thessalonians 5:15, 1 Peter 3:9) Jesus is not recommending nonresistance to evil. He is recommending nonviolent resistance to evil. It is the process of resisting evil without doing evil.

Jesus provides three examples of nonviolent resistance to evil. Turning the other cheek, giving up one’s cloak, and walking the second mile have been shown to be examples, not of submissive acts of nonresistance, but brave acts of defiance using creative, even humorous means to resist acts of oppression.

Walter Wink says this about the teachings of Jesus:

“The logic of Jesus’ examples in Matthew 5:39b-41 goes beyond both inaction and overreaction to a new response, fired in the crucible of love, that promises to liberate the oppressed from evil, even as it frees the oppressor from sin. Do not react violently to evil, do not counter evil in kind, do not let evil dictate the terms of your opposition, do not let violence lead you to mirror the opponent—this forms the revolutionary principle Jesus articulates as the basis for nonviolently engaging the Powers.”

The third way of Jesus provides practical methods of resistance to power and oppression while maintaining one’s dignity. It is an assertion of one’s humanity and worth.

  • Perform nonviolent resistance in public
  • Turn the tables on the oppressor
  • Employ “Moral jujitsu” by using the strength of opponent against him
  • Turn one’s weakness into strength
  • Use cleverness and humor
  • Shame and embarrass the oppressor
  • Render the oppressor’s power powerless

can Jesus be our ethical norm?

Jesus acted nonviolently. Nonviolent resistance to unjust political powers led Jesus directly to his crucifixion. Yet the nonviolence of Jesus is rarely considered normative or even relevant for the Christian life today. Certainly, many people suggest, Jesus cannot be the norm—the standard, model, or pattern—for our ethical behavior in a violent world.

Some church teachers claim we cannot build a system of ethics on Jesus’ life and teachings because they are simply too radical. They suggest that Jesus’ teachings, especially in Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount and Luke’s Sermon on the Plain, were not intended for the long term. The tell us that this was merely an interim ethic until the quickly anticipated arrival of the kingdom of God in all its fullness. However, that brief interim has now stretched to over 2,000 years. If Jesus intended his teachings as a brief interim ethic, he was a bit off the mark in terms of the timing.

Also, some church teachers claim, Jesus and his followers were not in positions of power. They were mere peasants and poor fishermen. We however can hold positions of great authority, making decisions that affect the lives of millions of people. Therefore we must base our ethics not on the teachings of Jesus, but instead on some general principle like love, or honor, or duty.

But what if these church teachers are wrong? What if Jesus meant exactly what he said, not just for the short term, but for every time and place? What if he calls us to be agents of nonviolent resistance to evil no matter what our role is in society?

when Jesus was the ethical norm

The earliest followers of Jesus looked to Jesus as their norm or standard for ethical behavior. They modeled their lives on Jesus. The New Testament is filled with appeals for Christians to be like Jesus. The call to follow Jesus is a call to imitate Jesus and, in doing so, to reflect the essential character of God as exemplified in his life. Christians are told to love as Jesus loved and to serve others as he did. They are admonished to forgive as God forgives and to love indiscriminately as God does.

In their desire to be like Jesus, the early Christians looked to his stance in relation to the power of the state. His nonviolent direct action for social change, his willingness to accept arrest as a consequence of his actions, and his execution without recourse to violence became their model.

the church as an anti-imperial movement

The followers of Jesus were essentially anti-imperial because they believed that at the heart of the empire was the power of Satan.

The Apostle Paul talked about Jesus in terms that were reserved exclusively for Caesar Augustus in Roman imperial religion: Lord, savior of the world, prince of peace, son of god, and divine being. Paul and others in the early church were developing a contrasting theology to the Roman imperial theology of victory and peace through violence. In Jesus, they saw a new religious movement committed to justice and peace through nonviolence. The early creedal statement “Jesus is Lord” was a treasonous statement in the Empire of Rome where the universal loyalty oath was “Caesar is Lord.”

Up until the fourth century, Christians in the empire were persecuted by the state. One of the things that angered the Roman government most was that Christians were largely pacifists. They refused to carry weapons or serve in the army. They resisted personal violence even for self-defense. This was the path they followed by choosing Jesus as their ethical norm. They refused military service for two reasons: (1) soldiers were expected to kill others and (2) soldiers were expected to worship the emperor. They also refused to serve on a jury in a capital case. As a result, many early Christians were martyred for their lack of patriotism. For them, God held a higher allegiance than country.

Evidence for this stance of nonviolence is found in the writings of Justin Martyr (100–165 CE), Ireneaus (130–202 CE), Tertullian (c.150–c.229 CE), Hippolytus of Rome (170–236 CE), Origen (c.182–c.251 CE), Cyprian of Carthage (200–258 CE), Lactantius (240–c.320 CE), Arnobius of Sicca (c.290–c.330 CE), and in the trial testimony of Maximilian of Thebeste (d. 295 CE) who was beheaded for refusing military service.

be subject to the governing authorities

For many Christians today, Jesus is not the final authority on Christian participation in war—Paul is. It all hinges on the 13th chapter of Paul’s letter to the Christian community at Rome.

“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.”

Paul goes on to say:

“Authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be subject, not only because of wrath but also because of conscience.” (Romans 13:1-7)

Some scholars have noted the questionable nature of these first seven verses of Romans 13—especially the odd point at which they come in his letter. They are abruptly inserted after Paul describes the marks of the true Christian. Just prior to these words on the governing authorities, Paul reviews some key teachings of Jesus:

“Love one another… Bless those who persecute you… Do not repay anyone evil for evil… Live peaceably with all… If your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink… Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

Then these seven verses on governing authorities follow. Immediately after, Paul continues his previous thoughts on marks of the true Christian without missing a beat:

“Owe no one anything, except to love one another… Love your neighbor as yourself… Love does no wrong to a neighbor.”

Seeing these words on subjection to authority in their context makes them highly suspect as authentic words of Paul. It is entirely possible that these seven verses are a later insertion by a Christian scribe to ensure that Christian behavior does not become insubordinate to the state. However, if these words are truly authentic, we must try to understand what Paul was saying.

I think the point being made by Paul is that the concept of government and order was instituted by God, and was good. At least in the beginning. But like everything else in creation, government has fallen and is under the control of Satan. Paul was writing to his readers about an imperial totalitarian state—a domination system that ruled by violence. Ironically, it was this same Roman state that executed both Jesus and Paul as wrongdoers.

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities,” reminds us of the advice in both Ephesians and Colossians also attributed to Paul (although an increasing number of authorities question Paul’s authorship of these two letters). “Wives, be subject to your husbands… Children, obey your parents… Slaves, obey your earthly masters.” (Ephesians 5:21-6:9, Colossians 3:18-4:1) Nearly identical advice is expressed in 1 Peter 2:13-3:22. Scholars refer to these as the ‘Haustafeln’ or household codes, a German term that may have originated with Luther.

In these codes, we find a pattern of a weaker party being subjected to the domination of a more powerful (almost always male) party. In every case the weaker party is advised to submit to the will of the one with the power. The powerful party is then advised not to take advantage of their socially conferred position of domination and to stop provoking their children, and threatening their slaves, and in the case of a wife, to even show her some love.

be subordinate to the powers

Mennonite scholar John Howard Yoder has challenged our traditional understanding of these household codes. Rather than seeing these statements as a description of a divinely mandated hierarchy, Yoder sees them as statements of how the Christian should behave under what Paul called the “powers and principalities” and Walter Wink calls the “ancient domination system.”

Yoder suggests the verb “be subject to” is better understood if translated “be subordinate to.” Subjection suggests unflinching obedience under the thumb of a more powerful force. (The NIV translates this as “submit.”) Subordination, on the other hand, is a recognition that a systemic cultural hierarchy exists due to the fallen state of humanity, and that the weaker party may only act to change the status quo from a position of weakness within the system. Transformation of the relationship, not acceptance of their state, is the goal.

To transform the relationship, the subordinate party may find it necessary to speak up and stand up for an equitable partnership—for a just relationship. But violence is not an option. The powerless one must be willing to accept the consequences of his or her prophetic action. Yoder calls this action to transform domination from a position of weakness “revolutionary subordination.” This is the stance that Jesus modeled for his followers.

The domination of women by men, children by patriarchal fathers, and slaves by masters is not part of God’s plan. Clearly we recognize that the institution of slavery is not a divine mandate. Neither is the patriarchal family with men in total control. Paul says that in Christ “there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female.” (Galatians 3:28) The roles of the old order are replaced by the egalitarian roles of the new order announced by Jesus.

Christians are called to transform the domination structures into egalitarian systems that truly reflect the intent and the nature of God. According to Walter Wink, they were created good, they have fallen, and they will be redeemed.

Wink says:

“God at one and the same time upholds a given political and economic system, since some such system is required to support human life; condemns that system insofar as it is destructive of fully human life; and presses for its transformation into a more humane order. Conservatives stress the first, revolutionaries the second, and reformers the third. The Christian is expected to hold together all three.”

the power behind the throne

The idea that the governing authorities have fallen from their divinely intended role is reinforced by another viewpoint in the New Testament. In the gospel stories of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, we get an intriguing picture of the power behind all national governments.

“Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, ‘To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please.'” (Luke 4:5-6)

According to the gospel writer, the kingdoms of the world are under the power of Satan. They are not servants of God; they are servants of a truly demonic force. In the words of Walter Wink, they have “betrayed their divine vocation.” They must be transformed, not blindly followed.

John’s first epistle states: “The whole world [meaning the whole present domination system] lies under the power of the evil one.”  (1 John 5:19) And in the book of Revelation, the symbols of the Beast (representing imperial Rome) and the Dragon (representing Satan) are the enemies of God. (Revelation 12, 13 & 18)

To accept subordination to the domination system, which includes the governing authorities, recognizes that some order is better than no order. Subordination also has to do with methodology. Christians are not called to overthrow or tear down the domination system with violence. We are not called to escape or run away from dominions of power. We are called to nonviolently transform the system from within. In doing so we follow the path of Jesus as a suffering servant. Like Jesus we are called to willingly accept the consequences of a stance over against the domination system. We are called to live out the new lifestyle of the kingdom of God in the midst of these fallen structures, even if it costs us our lives.

John Howard Yoder describes the cost of revolutionary subordination as the cross:

“The believer’s cross is no longer any and every kind of suffering, sickness, or tension, the bearing of which is demanded. The believer’s cross must be, like his Lord’s, the price of his social nonconformity. It is not, like sickness or catastrophe, an inexplicable, unpredictable suffering; it is the end of a path freely chosen after counting the cost. It is not… an inward wrestling of the sensitive soul with self and sin; it is the social reality of representing in an unwilling world the Order to come.”

the church becomes imperial

In the fourth century, the Roman emperor Constantine (272–337 CE) invited the church to participate in the power of his global empire. In 313, Constantine issued the Edict of Milan providing toleration of Christian worship throughout the empire. The edict made Christianity a lawful religion but not yet the official state religion. Constantine continued to tolerate paganism and encourage the imperial cult. At the same time, however, he endeavored to unify and strengthen Christianity.

In 314, Constantine convened a synod at Arles to regulate the church in the West, and in 325 he convened and presided over a council at Nicaea to arbitrate theological disputes over the nature of Jesus. The resulting Nicene Creed and related doctrines established the first official orthodoxy of the church.

As Christianity began to be more favored, significant changes developed within Christian thought and practice. Under Constantine, the church was carefully and craftily co-opted by the state. Christianity moved from a position of state persecution to state protection. Not long after, it became the official religion of Rome, replacing the cult of the emperor. Roman imperial religion was replaced by Christian imperial religion. The empire formerly known as “the Beast” and “the Whore of Babylon” suddenly didn’t look so bad.

At the time, many Christians thought this development was a positive thing, but within half a century it created a significant moral problem for them. By 400 CE, barbarian hordes were poised to sack Rome. Christians were no longer just a religious movement—they now ran an empire and had to decide what to do to protect it. By 416 CE, just a century after the Edict of Milan, only Christians could be soldiers in the Roman Empire.

If they decided to remain faithful to their nonviolent tradition and refused to fight the barbarians, they would likely be killed, their wives raped, their children enslaved, their possessions stolen, and their homes and businesses burned. But, if they fought, they would betray their God and would no longer follow the way of Jesus. It was a difficult decision to make. They asked Augustine (354–430 CE), bishop of Hippo in North Africa, for advice.

the “just” war

Saint Augustine was a student of Ambrose, the bishop of Milan (c.340–397 CE) who had borrowed the concept of a “just war” from two sources—the Roman philosopher Cicero and Clement of Alexandria, an early Christian writer.

Marcus Tullius Cicero (106–46 BCE), who was not a Christian, had written that limited violence could be used to maintain good order and to defend the Empire in order to justify Roman imperialism. He suggested three simple rules: there must be a just cause (e.g. to stop an invasion), there must be a formal declaration of war by emperor (to give the other side a chance to put things right), and the war must be conducted justly (e.g. unarmed civilians should not be attacked).

Clement of Alexandria (c.150–c. 215 CE) had similar thoughts which distanced him from the majority of Christians in the first three centuries. He introduced two elements in his writings that would later become standard just war theory. He argued that the defense of the Empire (a just cause) based on the authority of the emperor to wage war (a right authority) could make Christian participation in violent warfare justifiable in certain circumstances.

As bishop Ambrose adapted these ideas, he preserved the basic Christian presumption against the use of violence. He stated that the Christian should resist the use of violence for self-defense. However, he felt that when one’s neighbor is threatened, the love commandment requires the Christian to defend the neighbor by violent means, if necessary. In this case, he said, defense of the Empire could be seen as a just cause for war, but mercy must be shown to the defeated.

But Ambrose had an additional agenda and carried the idea of defense even further. Drawing from examples of divinely sanctioned war in the Old Testament, Ambrose proposed that a defensive war could also be waged to protect religious orthodoxy. Most of the enemies of Rome were heretics. But heretics existed within the Empire as well. Ambrose thus justified the violent persecution of heretics by the state church and planted the seeds for a long tradition of suppressing ideas, burning books, and using every conceivable method of torture and execution to defend orthodox dogma.

Building on his mentor’s thoughts, Augustine likewise gave approval for Christian participation in war, but not unconditionally. He adopted many of Ambrose’s ideas about war, particularly the idea that taking up arms to defend others could be justified. His answer to the early Church’s dilemma is now called the “just war” (justum bellum).

Augustine explained his conclusions in the nineteenth volume of his massive work called The City of God (De Civitate Dei),written between413 and 426. It laid out the basic outline for most of the moral inquiry into just war in the Christian tradition.

Ambrose had said that clergy must refrain from violence. Augustine likewise pointed out that in waging a just war the state must respect certain conscientious objectors, but only clergy—the priests and bishops of the church. The laity, on the other hand, could and should be morally required to defend the innocent though force.

The defense of the Roman Empire depended on a ready supply of Christian warriors. And through Ambrose and Augustine, the Christian imperial church now had a theology that could, in good conscience, deliver them.

In a just war, Augustine made no distinction between treatment of civilians and soldiers. He believed that both merited punishment based on the collective guilt of the enemy. Nor did he distinguish between defensive and offensive wars, since God had commanded wars of offense and aggression in conquering the land of Israel. Furthermore, Augustine did not allow soldiers to disobey their commanders even in an unjust war.

onward Christian soldiers

So began the dilemma. In an army composed of Christian soldiers, who are not allowed to disobey orders, what difference does it make if the cause is just or unjust? What does it matter if the means are just or unjust? Right from the beginning, the concept of a just war was proven to be morally irrelevant. The Empire got what it wanted. Christianity turned its back on nonviolence and became the handmaiden of war and crusade.

Augustine never appealed to the example of Jesus. He never suggested that Jesus would defend a neighbor violently. But the world was becoming more complex for Christians and a concern for what was practical, pragmatic or realistic for the well being of society replaced the imitation of Jesus. Christian ethics were changing drastically. Instead of Jesus as the ethical norm, a general principle like love or duty was now substituted as a norm for Christian behavior.

From Augustine onwards, just war thinking became much more important than the earlier nonviolent teaching of the church. And in order to recruit the soldiers needed for the protection of the empire, the teaching of nonviolence faded away in the church, never to return.

the evolving “just war” tradition

In all of the just-war tradition since the fourth century, there has been an implicit injunction against war. The church’s attitude has been that although war may be at times a necessary evil, it is still an evil, even when necessary.

The just-war tradition has evolved into two concepts: jus ad bellum (the justice of the war) and jus in bello (the justice in the war). In brief,  jus ad bellum means that a war must be fought for a “just” cause, while jus in bello means that the war must be fought in a “just” way.

For a Christian to participate, a war has had to fulfill certain conditions:

The war must have a just cause. This is generally broken down into four scenarios:

1) It is a defense against aggression. Self-defense against an armed attack is always considered to be a just cause.
2) It is the correction of injustice. Conditions in another country are so desperate that not even the most basic of human rights are being upheld.
3) It is waged with an eye toward establishing a more perfect political order.  Revenge or punishment is not enough.
4) It is waged with the end of peace in mind. Restoration of an earlier peaceful condition, rather than territorial, political or economic expansion, should be the desired end.

It must be waged by a legitimate authority. Even just causes cannot be served by actions taken by individuals or groups who do not constitute an authority sanctioned by whatever the society and outsiders to the society deem legitimate. In the United States, a war declared by a president acting without the concurrence of Congress would not be legitimate. And a nation acting alone with no support from other nations is less likely to be considered legitimate than a coalition of countries would be.

It must be formally declared. A war engaged by a president without a formal declaration would be illegitimate.

It must be fought with a peaceful intention. The ultimate goal of a just war is to re-establish peace. More specifically, the peace established after the war must be preferable to the peace that would have prevailed if the war had not been fought.

It must be a last resort.  All non-violent options—including diplomatic, economic, and political means—must be exhausted before the use of force can be justified.

There must be a reasonable chance of success. Deaths and injury incurred in a hopeless cause are not morally justifiable.

The means used must possess proportionality to the end sought. The violence used in the war must be proportional to the injury suffered. States are prohibited from using force not necessary to attain the limited objective of addressing the injury suffered. The end sought should never be the ultimate destruction of the enemy.

Three additional conditions must be met regarding conduct permissible during warfare:

1a) Noncombatants must be given immunity. The combatants must discriminate between combatants and noncombatants. Civilians are never permissible targets of war, and every effort must be taken to avoid killing civilians. The deaths of civilians are justified only if they are unavoidable victims of a deliberate attack on a military target.
2) Prisoners must be treated humanely.
3) International treaties and conventions
must be honored.

Before we proceed, we should be clear that however rational, realistic, or even compassionate the just-war theory may seem, it is not biblical. It is not part of the teaching of Jesus. But it is an important part of the teachings of many churches.

applying the criteria

Christians have frequently fought one another, both in civil wars and as combatants of opposing countries. One would have to assume that if Christian churches took the just-war theory seriously, they would carefully apply the criteria to the wars of their nations. For instance, during the two World Wars one would assume that Lutheran church bodies in both Germany and the United States would have applied the just-war criteria and determined that for their side, the war was just. Of course, for churches on both sides of a conflict to come to the same conclusion would indicate that the criteria are clearly subject to very biased interpretation.

Unfortunately, biased as it may be, this analysis rarely happens. Walter Wink notes:

“No authoritative Christian body has ever, prior to the commencement of fighting, decreed that one side or the other is justified in warfare on the basis of just-war criteria. Instead, the sorry record reveals that Christian churches have usually simply endorsed the side on which they happened to find themselves.”

Governments are regularly given the benefit of the doubt that their cause and their actions are just. The just-war criteria are generally ignored and, as a result, Christians frequently march off to kill one another in service to the state without a second thought. As churches, we engage in no serious dialogue, no discussion, and no concrete debate. In practice the just-war theory is not taken seriously by anyone—church or state.

conscientious objection and the draft

The United States government historically made provisions for conscientious objectors in the military draft procedure known as the Selective Service System. A conscientious objector was either classified as 1-A-O and served in the military as a non-combatant, or was classified as 1-O and served in an alternative service capacity, such as an orderly in a VA hospital.

But the government only recognized people who objected to military service based on religious grounds, not moral or philosophical grounds. This tended to favor Christians from the historic peace churches such as the Mennonites and Quakers who include pacifism as part of their religious training. Accordingly, the Christian had to be opposed to all wars to be a conscientious objector. If a Christian were not a member of a peace church, his claim of conscientious objection based on religious grounds would likely be denied. Prior to the war in Vietnam, few Christians outside of the peace churches were permitted conscientious objector status. Most of these Christians went to prison for their beliefs.

In order to co-opt the mainstream churches, and minimize the number of conscientious objectors, all clergy were declared exempt from military service in the Selective Service System.

During the Vietnam War, the Supreme Court widened the definition of religious grounds to include any Christian with sincere beliefs regarding military service. But the court did not extend the privilege to those who opposed specific wars on the basis of moral or philosophical grounds. It was thus impossible for a Christian who opposed a specific war on the grounds that it was unjust or immoral to be classified as a conscientious objector

All of this meant that if the churches refused to apply the just-war criteria to a given conflict, and individual Christians were not allowed to legally make independent moral judgments, the Christian opposed to a specific war had two choices—serve in the military or go to prison.

individual responsibility

Historically, Christians who take another person’s life in the service of the state are generally not held to be morally responsible for their actions. Article XVI of the Lutheran Augsburg Confession states that “Christians may without sin…engage in just-war, serve as soldiers.” It has sometimes been stated that God will hold the state or the rulers accountable, but not the individual soldier.

Still ethical behavior is an individual responsibility. With the inaction of the church on many major moral issues, it is up to each individual to make moral choices.

conscientious participation

Instead of conscientious objection, the church ought to embrace the idea of conscientious participation for its members. All churches should declare themselves ‘peace churches.’ They should begin with the assumption that warfare is always a sinful activity and an act of immense evil. It creates untold misery, suffering, grief and sorrow.

Participating in military service as an armed combatant requires the Christian to be ready to take human life. Therefore the basic stance of the church should be that participation in warfare is always fundamentally wrong and that non-participation should be the norm.

But if the individual Christian believes that by participating in this sinful activity a greater good may be gained—the protection of innocent people, the protection of national sovereignty, or the control of aggressive states—then the church should respect that conscientious stand and support the Christian’s right to make that ethical decision—one of conscientious participation in war.

The individual must assess the situation and the alternatives and must determine what is the just, right, and compassionate thing to do. And the church should continue to welcome those individuals who choose to participate in war into full fellowship as brothers and sisters. God’s forgiveness and grace are always freely offered to the individual regardless of his or her actions.

Still, the church should teach and preach that any act that results in a loss of human life is against the will of God.

nonviolence and conscientious participation

Dietrich Bonhoeffer provides a case study for conscientious participation in violence. Bonhoeffer was a pacifist. He believed that nonviolence was the way of Jesus. As it became apparent that Germany would go to war, he was asked what he would do. He replied, “I pray that God will give me the strength not to take up arms.”

Bonhoeffer wanted to travel to India to study nonviolence with Gandhi and learn Gandhi’s methods first hand so that he could introduce these techniques to the Confessing Church in Germany. He was eager to know if nonviolent resistance could still be possible and effective in Nazi Germany. Unfortunately, he never made the trip.

For Bonhoeffer, nonviolent resistance was the realization of the ideas Jesus expressed in the Sermon on the Mount. Bonhoeffer explored the implications of these teachings in his book The Cost of Discipleship. He believed that the Sermon on the Mount may have been an early catechism that reflected what the Jesus movement attempted to practice as an alternative form of life: nonviolence, love of enemy, justice, and fulfillment of human community not by the letter of the law, but by the spirit of God’s commands. He did not see these teachings as unrealistic ideals, but instead as the fundamentals of discipleship.

Not wanting to remain on the fringes of the struggle in Germany, Bonhoeffer joined the underground resistance. His brother-in-law, Hans von Dohnanyi, secured him a position in the Abwehr, the military intelligence arm of the German army. The Abwehr was a center of the resistance against Hitler. Bonhoeffer used his ecumenical contacts to communicate secret information about resistance plans to the Western nations. This position also enabled him to avoid bearing arms.

In the end, Bonhoeffer became involved in a plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler. He believed that if Hitler were killed, fellow plotters within the military leadership of Germany would approach the Allies and ask for a peace settlement. Bonhoeffer believed this must be done to stop the continued destruction of the war. The plot to kill Hitler failed (twice).

Bonhoeffer never rejected nonviolence as ineffective or impractical. Nonviolent resistance to Nazi authority was successfully used in Denmark, Norway, Finland and Bulgaria. Bonhoeffer never believed that violence was the only recourse against evil. But nonviolence on a large scale requires an army of people; the same way violence requires an army. And in Germany the tools of nonviolence were not available to Bonhoeffer. There was no widespread dissent, not even in the churches. The Nazi dream of a 1,000-year Reich was too powerful a force in the minds of the German people. The leaders of the Lutheran, Reformed, and Roman Catholic churches had not trained people to be the troops of nonviolent action. Instead, they had prepared their young men for war, told them to do their duty, and blessed them on their way.

Bonhoeffer prayed that the churches would speak out against war. In a 1934 sermon he called on the larger church to rise up with these words:

“How will peace come? Who will call us to peace so that the world will hear, will have to hear? Only the one great ecumenical council of the holy church of Christ over all the world can speak out so that the world, though it gnash its teeth, will have to hear, so that the peoples will rejoice because the church of Christ has taken the weapons from the hands of their sons, forbidden war, proclaimed the peace of Christ against a raging world.”

Bonhoeffer never claimed that his actions were justified—in the sense of being made right due to the rightness of his cause. He always believed that the action to take a human life, even Hitler’s life, was wrong.  Bonhoeffer declared he was personally willing to make an attempt on Hitler’s life. But before doing so he would deliberately have to leave the church. He believed he was committing a sin—and he threw himself on the mercy of God. When Bonhoeffer chose this path he realized he was no longer following Jesus.

Bonhoeffer believed that our fundamental stance as Christians must be one of nonviolence. Yet his conscience told him that if a limited act of violence could save many other lives, he would commit that act, even if it were wrong. He wrestled with the decision. And then he accepted the consequences of his action.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was arrested, not for the assassination plot, but for helping Jews escape from Germany. While in prison, his involvement in the plot was discovered and he was executed.

a conscientious struggle

When one chooses to participate in an activity leading to death, it must be based on a struggle with the conscience. The answer cannot be predetermined by a set of rules unless the Christian resolves to renounce all violence and all life-ending activities regardless of the situation. That is perhaps the only rule that can possibly apply to those who want to follow Jesus. Even then, the Christian must accept responsibility for the consequences that result from that decision.

We can have no easy way out.



social justice