As the current “gun debate” gains traction and people from every side voice opinions and answer polls, it seems good to talk about this idea in light of the Christian faith. Admittedly, I’m going to feel a bit sheepish writing this with a 9 mm sitting on the table beside me, but that’s arguably part of the discussion.
When talking about nonviolence its prudent to first distinguish between violence for the sake of a cause and/or civil disobedience from the “need” or ability to protect ones self or family. The current gun debate has blurred that line significantly and to a fault. It’s one thing to march for a cause or demonstrate to initiate change. It’s clearly a totally different thing to talk about using violence when it comes to protection. As one person noted in a recent blog I read, “…its hard to deny that we have given up feeling any sort of tension between Jesus’ teachings and the Kingdom and our desire to protect our way of life at all costs.” His comment was targeted (pun intended) toward the Second Amendment and people’s individual right to bear arms. Without getting into the meaning or intent of the Second Amendment, I’ll be clear and say that is NOT what I think of when it comes to nonviolence and my faith. It seems to me I have every right, regardless of method and irrespective of my faith, to protect myself and my family or even my friends from bodily harm.
Jesus taught that we should be tolerant. He taught that we should be peacemakers. That we should show a level of submissive obedience when confronted with antagonists. He taught that we should not only love our brother and sister but also be careful how we talked about them and that vindictive or hateful language was just as guilt inducing as “murder” when it came to judgement. I am not convinced that Jesus ever advocated that we should be openly and willingly nonviolent when it came to resisting evil. Yes, he does say in Matt 5:29 “…do not resist an evil doer.” But as one commentator has noted, based on the context of Matthew and Luke’s versions:
In other words, Jesus is condemning the spirit of lovelessness, hatred, yearning for revenge. He is saying, “Do not resist the evil-doer with measures that arise from an unloving, unforgiving, unrelenting, vindictive disposition.” (BNTC commentary on The Gospel of Matthew)
I recall talking to a man a few months back who worked in a halfway house. He told me about an individual that was clearly more than a bubble off when it came to rational behavior. He explained how, on more than one occasion, that individual would spin out of control and grab him, shake him, and say vile things to him. He knew the man’s condition and with the aid of others was usually able to get him under control, no harm – no foul just a few bruises. However, one day things were not at all normal. The man went into a violent rage and if were not for the intervention of others, the person telling me the story said he would surely have been beaten to death. I’m not sure, in that situation, or anything similar, Jesus would have advocated a “take your lumps” response.
Now, looking a bit more closely at nonviolence and the Christian faith I’ll start with my son in-law – a university professor – who recently posted a comment on Facebook. Here’s how the exchange went between us:
(Initial post) “Lesson for the day in NT: Jesus, a model of nonviolent resistance. Why does the church not follow him?”
What situations might you be referring to when it comes to Jesus as a model? Firing from the hip on this one – but it seems to me outside of the Garden experience, the trial and the crucifixion, all of which he had come to resign himself to as his mission, I’m not aware of any instance where Jesus was faced with violence as an optional response. When confronted by antagonizers or usurpers it seems he simply slipped away or disappeared. That’s certainly nonviolent, assuming violence would have ensued, but it’s not a response everyone has the option to do.
There was the very real option of joining with the zealots/revolutionaries. There was a sizable “insurgency” against the Romans, which fomented into the full-out rebellion in the 60’s and which led to Roman destruction of the Temple in AD 70. There were full expectations of the Jewish messiah to drive the foreign nations out of the land of Israel (a la the Maccabees in the 160’s BC). The way to kick them out was through violence. Jesus chose not to establish his kingdom by fighting and warfare. Rather than killing his enemies, he suffered and died for them.
The historical context is real, but you say “Jesus chose” like he had an option. That somehow his incarnation provided an optional role of zealot or crucified savior. I’m not certain that’s an accurate picture. There were plenty of those types of “messiahs” around and I’m not certain him being one of them was ever an optional role in God’s plan.
It ended there, so I’m not sure what his response might have been. Nevertheless, it seems rather to the point that what Jesus did, as the son of God, is not something we can do as Christ followers – we simply can’t.
The original followers of Christ, John, Stephen, Paul and Peter for example, met violent circumstances when it came to their faith. Stephen and Paul are probably the most vivid examples because they were stoned and beaten in the course of living and speaking about their faith. If that’s a situation that ever confronts me then I believe without hesitation my Christian response should be nonviolent. Whether it would be or not, is something different. I can say the words, but when it comes to the action – well, I’m hoping I would do the right thing. However, if I’m walking down the street and a group of thugs are stomping on the head of a young person simply because they were witnessing to them, well I’m not sure I’d be that yielding. Nor am I sure the young person who was getting their head kicked in would want me to be. Are those circumstances different from the first century? Perhaps. After all, why wasn’t there anyone willing to come to the defense of Stephen or Paul?
Nonviolence in a social or political setting can and should be a Christian’s first sought method of operation. Nevertheless, when it comes to a physical and violent attack on my person and/or my family I don’t see where the scripture prohibits an appropriate response which could indeed be termed violent. Those are two different and separate issues at least in our American culture.