In the last two articles I have reviewed some key passages in defense of pacifism. Some I thought highly of and others I did not. In the course of that review I also discussed one of the key verses put forward by non-pacifists, Luke 22:36-38, in which Jesus instructs his disciples to buy swords. It is now time to move on to some of the other key passages brought forward by non-pacifists of various flavors.
There are two as-yet un-discussed passages to mention. One is Matthew 10:34-38 which reads (NIV):
“Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn
“‘a man against his father,
a daughter against her mother,
a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law—
a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.’
“Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.
The other passage is Jesus’ clearing of the Temple.
The passage from Matthew has almost nothing to recommend it. I’m astonished that people actually use this one as it is irrelevant to the issue of pacifism. However, it does include the words “I did not come to bring peace” and I suppose that’s good enough for people who hate context. I have included the context above so that you can see what Jesus actually means – that conflict will arise even within families over Jesus. To make this into a case for just war (or any war) one would have to first establish that “sword” here means a real sword (since the term is often a metaphor for conflict). This can’t be done as the discussion of hatred within families never goes far enough to tell us whether physical violence erupts. Secondly, one would have to establish that violence was being done by the faithful not to them and that this was done correctly and not sinfully. None of these conditions can be met. Instead, Jesus talks about the disciples suffering (not causing others to suffer) for his sake (“Whoever does not take up their cross…”).
The clearing of the Temple is not as weak a case for the a proper use of violence but it is also deeply flawed. The synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) give us very little detail on what Jesus does to clear the Temple saying only that he overturned tables and drove people out. The manner of his doing so is not explained further. In John 2 a more detailed explanation can be found in which Jesus makes a whip and then uses it to clear the Temple. However, John also specifies that Jesus drives out sheep and cattle and the whip may be used on them. While Jesus certainly causes a scene it seems unlikely that this scene is a violent one in large part because such a violent scene would bring a violent response. Even if the Temple guards initially feared Jesus’ followers in the crowds enough to forestall such a reaction a violent riot in the Temple would be a great piece of evidence for use at Jesus’ trial. However, instead of pointing to this incident the prosecution at Jesus’ trial focuses on other things. This suggests that whatever Jesus did it was not disruptive enough to register as an action against the Temple or state.
As I mentioned earlier in this series Jesus is not a violent figure while incarnate. (As I also mentioned earlier Jesus’ potential violence in places like Revelation is significantly less useful for determining whether human beings are justified in using violence.) The gospels contain no records of Jesus doing violence to anyone else either physically or miraculously (unlike some of the apocryphal works from later centuries in which Jesus fries the wicked right and left with divine power). While other religions may draw a mandate for just war from the actions of their founders Christians cannot do so. The best a just war theorist can get from Jesus is his apparent approval of his disciples carrying swords.
Last week I discussed the Sermon on the Mount with regards to pacifism and noted that it is almost impossible to avoid the pacifist implications of that sermon. Another set of verses cited by pacifists are distinctly less convincing. In all four gospels when Jesus is arrested someone (identified as Peter in John but left anonymous in the synoptic gospels) draws a sword and strikes the servant of the high priest. Jesus’ response to this event is unfavorable in all but Mark (where Jesus does not make any response). These verses are often cited as evidence for pacifism.
Mark 14:46-50 reads:
The men seized Jesus and arrested him. Then one of those standing near drew his sword and struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his ear. “Am I leading a rebellion,” said Jesus, “that you have come out with swords and clubs to capture me? Every day I was with you, teaching in the temple courts, and you did not arrest me. But the Scriptures must be fulfilled.” Then everyone deserted him and fled.
Matthew 26:50b-56 reads:
Then the men stepped forward, seized Jesus and arrested him. With that, one of Jesus’ companions reached for his sword, drew it out and struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his ear. “Put your sword back in its place,” Jesus said to him, “for all who draw the sword will die by the sword. Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels? But how then would the Scriptures be fulfilled that say it must happen in this way?” In that hour Jesus said to the crowd, “Am I leading a rebellion, that you have come out with swords and clubs to capture me? Every day I sat in the temple courts teaching, and you did not arrest me. But this has all taken place that the writings of the prophets might be fulfilled.” Then all the disciples deserted him and fled.
Luke 22:49-53 reads:
When Jesus’ followers saw what was going to happen, they said, “Lord, should we strike with our swords?” And one of them struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his right ear. But Jesus answered, “No more of this!” And he touched the man’s ear and healed him. Then Jesus said to the chief priests, the officers of the temple guard, and the elders, who had come for him, “Am I leading a rebellion, that you have come with swords and clubs? Every day I was with you in the temple courts, and you did not lay a hand on me. But this is your hour—when darkness reigns.”
John 18:10-11 reads:
Then Simon Peter, who had a sword, drew it and struck the high priest’s servant, cutting off his right ear. (The servant’s name was Malchus.) Jesus commanded Peter, “Put your sword away! Shall I not drink the cup the Father has given me?”
There are two major issues and several minor ones with citing these verses as evidence for pacifism. The first major issue is that Peter has a sword. The disciples spent almost all their time with Jesus. Jesus must know that Peter has a sword. Actually, two disciples have swords and Jesus told the disciples to buy swords (Luke 22:36-38) which prompted the disciples to show him that they had two swords. Now, Jesus apparently doesn’t believe in being heavily armed because Jesus tells the disciples (who will number eleven in the period that Jesus appears to be telling them they need swords for) that two swords is sufficient but he does directly tell them to buy swords and does not tell them to get rid of their swords as any pacifist would1. The second major issue is that in every gospel except John Jesus’ response to the appearance of the soldiers is to say, “Am I leading a rebellion?” with the clearly-implied answer “no”. Indeed, this is an important point for this whole interaction: Jesus is not leading a rebellion although he is accused of doing so. While some of the charges against Jesus are true or true in interesting ways (a topic I’ve discussed here) this one is false and it is important that Jesus is innocent. This is the whole point of Jesus’ speech to the guards – Jesus is not a physically dangerous man. If the danger to the guards had been restricted to the threat of violence from Jesus they could have grabbed him at any time in public. The real threat was that doing so would incite a riot. The leaders who have sent the soldiers to arrest Jesus know that Jesus is not the sort of man they are about to accuse him of being. Because of this, Peter’s action in drawing and using a sword is a wrong move simply because that’s what would happen if you tried to arrest a rebel leader – his right-hand man would fight to protect him. Jesus must deny Peter’s action because he is not that sort of person and, critically, because his arrest and trial is not to be forestalled. It is actually part of the plan even though it seems to the disciples that it is the plan falling apart. In Mark, Matthew, and John this specific fact is mentioned. Indeed, in John’s account it is Jesus’ entire explanation of why Peter’s action is wrong.
This leads us directly to the minor problems with using these verses. The best phrase to cite for pacifist use from all of these versions is the line in Matthew, “Put your sword back in its place for all who draw the sword will die by the sword.” Extracted from context this is a damning condemnation on the use of violence (and an observably true statement for most individuals who have made a habit of resorting to violence throughout history). However, in context this phrase is immediately followed up by Jesus explaining that Peter is out of line in part because Jesus already has plenty of firepower that he is not using and so he must have reasons for avoiding violence in this situation. More problematic is that only Matthew records any phrase that condemns all violence. Depending on one’s stance on what inspiration means this could mean several things. Certainly if you allow for any real human influence in the gospels it means that at least three evangelists did not remember Jesus issuing a blanket condemnation of violence at this point or that if he did they thought of it as a minor point to be passed over in the interests of following the main events. Only if one believes that the Holy Spirit dictated every word of Scripture to the evangelists and that He did so with the intent that one would put the four gospels into a composite in which a phrase found in only one account would rise to prominence could one argue that it is in no way significant that three evangelists fail to have any blanket condemnation of violence.
This discussion of inspiration can be simplified and summarized in the following way: if what Jesus actually said were something like, “Peter, put away your sword because violence is always wrong and not at all what I want my followers to do,” then three gospels give us horribly mangled accounts of what Jesus said with one of the central points missing. This merely circles us back around to some of the first problems I noted with these verses from a pacifist perspective: why didn’t Jesus just say that? Why are the disciples walking around armed without receiving a stern lecture (especially when Jesus is clearly trying to draw a clear distinction between himself and the violent anti-Roman factions who do carry weapons to fight a holy war with)?
 Jesus’ comment about the swords is sometimes rendered as “That’s enough!” with an exclamation mark as if Jesus is saying something more like, “Wait, you guys seriously have swords? That was metaphor! I can’t believe you people!” Jesus’ tone is entirely speculative however. The word used can mean “quite a lot” (“Two swords? Wow, you guys don’t do things by halves”), “sufficient” (“Two swords? That will do”), or “fitting” (“Two swords? Good, you’re already properly prepared”). As my expansions on these phrases demonstrate this gives us every option between disapproving of two swords and heartily endorsing them. One option that is not available is a translation that would indicate that the disciples need more swords although, as I noted in the main text, this leaves most of them without a sword.
In this article I intend to follow up on the previous discussion of the large ideas behind just war and pacifism by examining the New Testament evidence. The first thing I need to explain is why I intend to ignore the Old Testament here (something I generally think is unwise). The simple answer is that no argument that depended on the violence of the Old Testament to stand could be conclusive. Obviously the Old Testament is much friendlier to warfare than the New Testament but the New Testament also focuses on God’s full and final self-revelation. If we found ourselves in a position where the Old Testament said or appeared to say one thing and Jesus said or appeared to say another Jesus would win1. Given this we should seek to build our case from the New Testament.
It is also important to note that God’s own use of violence is not particularly instructive here. While God’s divine violence may tell us that violence is not inherently in opposition to holiness (contrary to some pacifist theologies) it does not tell us anything more than that. Much as one could agree with the tenets of just war theory without believing that any actual war met them one could easily believe that God in His perfect knowledge and unbiased viewpoint is capable of meting out violence in a correct manner while imperfect humans are not. For this reason I will deal with the actions of Jesus in the gospels where he walks the earth as one of us and models perfect behavior for us (among many other things) but not Jesus in Revelation where his actions may not be intended for us to emulate. Again, the purpose is to build a case that starts only with solid evidence. Both Jesus’ actions in Revelation and the Old Testament can conceivably be called in as supporting evidence for a Gospel-centered case but they can only add some weight to that case and not tip the scales against it.
Within these limits there are three lines of evidence to consider: direct statements about violence, the actions of Jesus and the apostles, and the interactions of Jesus and the apostles with people whose lifestyles or careers were based around doing or threatening violence (mostly Roman soldiers). These categories are arranged in rough order of their importance: direct teachings on violence are most informative, the actions of Jesus and the apostles allow a bit of leeway but are also very important (imagine the situation we would be in if Jesus explicitly banned all violence but then he and the apostles engaged in it – we would assume there were exceptions left unmentioned or implicit in the command), and the interactions with violent men are hardest to parse since the issue of their lifestyles or careers may remain off the radar in the interaction.
With this said let us address the direct sayings of Jesus first. The most famous of these is “turn the other cheek” (Matthew 5, Luke 6). This saying is so important that it is worth examining the whole section in the Sermon on the Mount about violence as recorded by both Matthew and Luke. (The following quotes are from the NIV but I am unaware of any significant translation differences in these passages.) Matthew 5:38-48 reads:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Luke 6:27-36 reads:
“But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them. Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. Do to others as you would have them do to you. “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that. And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full. But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”
The first thing to note is that Matthew’s version includes a direct quote from the Torah which Jesus then overrides on his own authority (one of his implicit claims to be God). The phrase “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” appears in several places in the Torah including Exodus 21:23-25 where it describes the penalties to be inflicted on someone who injures either a pregnant woman or her prematurely-born baby (the text is unclear as to who the subject of the injury is2). Leviticus 24:19-20 assigns these penalties in a general sense to anyone who injures anyone else. Deuteronomy 19:21 uses this same formula to describe what should be done to someone who attempts to frame someone else for a crime – whatever punishment the framed would have received should be dealt to the framer. The function of this phrase within the Old Testament is beyond the scope of this article but the phrase does seem to encapsulate a general ideology of punishment whether it serves as an outer limit for punishment (no more than an eye for an eye, certainly not a life for an eye) or as an exact standard (no more or less than an eye for an eye). I tend to believe that in the Exodus and Leviticus cases it serves the first function, as an outer limit to vengeance, while in the Deuteronomy case it is probably a requirement so that framing someone for a crime is not treated lightly. However, in either case Jesus is overriding this phrase.
Jesus’ replacement is nonviolent. Again, there is some debate about what kind of nonviolence this is. Are these actions that Jesus suggests simply helpful to the attacker or are they nonviolent but shaming in their cultural context? These debates can also be passed over. Whether or not the aggressor is shamed (either because culture dictates it or because such a response highlights the aggressor’s wickedness) Jesus’ standard condemns violence. Indeed, in Matthew’s version Jesus explicitly condemns resistance: “Do not resist an evil person.” In both Matthew and Luke Jesus goes on to link this nonviolent command to a positive command to love one’s enemy. This action is backed up by two lines of evidence: first, even sinners treat their friends well and Jesus’ followers are called to a higher standard. Second, God Himself gives the things necessary for life to both the evil and the good and so we emulate God in His mercy by refusing violence towards the wicked.
There isn’t a very good response to this from the just war side. Jesus’ commands are clear, relatively lengthy (reducing the chance that they are misunderstood), and appear in the context of general commands and not as a response to a particular situation. The most often repeated assertion and possibly the best argument against understanding this passage as requiring complete pacifism is that this is not a statement about how the government should act but a statement about how individuals should act towards one another. In this understanding individuals are barred from any sort of retributive violence or even self-protection but the government is empowered to hold the forces of chaos at bay with the tools denied to normal citizens. However, this suggestion has three distinct problems.
First, separating the actions of the government and those of “normal people” makes sense only if we understand there to be a real division in the way God sees people who are appointed to, inherit, or brutally grab hold of the reins of government and the way God sees everyone else. Does it really make sense to assume that an action that is illegitimate four seconds before you take an oath that makes you the leader of a country suddenly becomes legitimate once that oath is taken? Second, there is no clear reason to establish a context for the Sermon on the Mount that makes this sermon about personal ethics only (even assuming you’ve bought the argument that there are such things as personal ethics separate from government ethics). The best way to establish this context it to cite other verses that appear to require it but you certainly can’t find support within the Sermon on the Mount for limiting its scope. Indeed (the third point), the Sermon on the Mount may well be the Sermon on the Mount because it is supposed to be a second Sinai. The earlier paragraph where I appeared to digress into trivia discussing the origins of the phrase “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” was no pointless digression: Jesus is rewriting Torah in his statement (from a mountain or, in Luke’s version, after coming down from a mountain) and the most reasonable context to see his statements in is as new Torah for a new kingdom. The Torah is certainly not “personal only”.
An argument that I think is somewhat more convincing is that many of the ills that Jesus addresses (someone slapping you, someone taking your coat in court, someone forcing you to walk a mile) are societal ills. Striking someone on the cheek is more likely to be the action of a social superior disciplining (at least in their eyes) a social inferior than a serious attempt to deal real damage. Taking someone’s clothing in court is consistent with a debt-holder collecting on a debtor, a situation that frequently involved extremely predatory lending practices in the ancient world3. Being forced to walk a mile probably refers to a practice whereby Roman soldiers were allowed (within limits which were often ignored) to force civilians to carry their packs for them. It might be possible to argue that Jesus’ context is then that (contrary to the Zealots and other violent revolutionaries) societal change should not come about through violence4. However, this argument would require support from other texts to be convincing. If all we had was the Sermon on the Mount such theories would be little better than weaseling out of a tough command.
 For essentially the same reason I will not discuss John the Baptizer’s comments and interactions with soldiers. John, while a great prophet, also has moments of confusion as when he sends his disciples to verify that Jesus is the Messiah. It is quite possible to believe that John understood the magnitude of what Jesus had come to do without understanding the means by which it would be done. Indeed, this is the viewpoint that I lean towards, that John understood that Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah but, like most people of his day, was taken off-guard by how that Messiaship was enacted. Given the plausibility of this argument John the Baptizer’s comments will not be considered definitive.
 Sorry about that to those of you who are staunchly pro-life and have regarded this verse as a linchpin in that decision. It’s just not possible, it seems, to sort out from the Hebrew whether “eye for an eye” phrase refers to the eyes (and other parts) of the child or the mother. I am also pro-life but this isn’t the verse to argue that position from.
 Notably, the Bible does not seem to be interested in the legality of a deal nearly so much as its predatory or cooperative nature. There is a lot of modern economic activity that is legal but probably not Biblical because of this.
 Interestingly, while it is common to hear that Roman soldiers were not allowed to coerce civilians into carrying their packs for more than one Roman mile I cannot locate any credible source (i.e., primary ancient source) for this statement. There are actually a whole host of statements about how each of the three situations mentioned in the Sermon on the Mount are really places where a person could upend the social order through nonviolent action. For instance, it is often said that slapping someone on one cheek must occur in a particular way to be legitimate and that turning the other cheek would require someone to backhand slap their victim which was somehow shameful. Similarly, it is said that leaving a debtor naked in court would shame the debt-collector. All of these bear investigation (although the idea that it would be shameful to strip a person naked in collecting a debt on them at least connects to prohibitions in the Torah against taking particular items of clothing from someone as collateral in a debt).
In this article I wish to follow up on the previous article by discussing the large-scale ideas behind just war and pacifism. As I mentioned in that article I believe it is easier to grasp the basics of this debate by first understanding the big ideas behind each position and then looking at the evidence for each position than by constructing each big idea from the component data.
The large-scale idea of just war is relatively simple and straightforward, so much so that it is almost a default human position: love for one’s neighbor requires action to be taken against someone who wishes to harm your neighbor.
While this basic idea is simple it rests on a number of other ideas. One of these ideas is the idea that the good done for people is arithmetically quantifiable. While this seems abstract an example should make this simple: doing X amount of good for one person is half as good as doing X amount of good for two people. Even if you don’t believe that the scaling factor is quite that simple the idea that X good done to two people is better than X good done to one person is necessary. This sets the stage for negative good: if X good is done to two people and X bad is done to one person is the net result good? Large parts of the justification of just war rest on this idea. I worry that I have made this arithmetic system sound far too sterile and unspiritual and so a real example is in order. Imagine that you are out in a public area, armed, and a good shot with your weapon (perhaps you are a police officer) when a madman appears with a rapid-fire weapon and begins to shoot people with wild abandon. Most people would agree that it is moral to shoot this madman. In fact, most people would insist that it would be your moral duty to stop the harm he would be inflicting by taking whatever action necessary against him. This is a real example of arithmetic good: the deliberate killing of multiple people is more evil than the deliberate killing of one. Therefore preventing the deliberate killing of multiple people outweighs deliberately killing one person. Stated like this this basic idea is much harder to disagree with.
The second basic idea underlying just war theory comes into play when the numbers of aggressors and victims are more evenly matched. If we imagine a scenario in which one person is attempting to kill another (innocent) person with a knife and you can again intervene by shooting the assailant we have such a situation. (Warfare may also involve such situations where the battlefield death tolls may add up to similar numbers no matter which side wins.) In these scenarios we must invoke a second principle: those who deliberately try to kill others without provocation have a reduced right to their own lives. The commission of evil in this case causes us to see the right the assailant has to live to be less than that of his victim and if we must pick one we side with the victim, killing the aggressor.
I do not wish to immediately render judgment on either of these ideas. Instead, I wish to point them out so that we may ask whether the Bible supports not merely just war but the philosophical preconditions that just war theory requires.
The case for Christian pacifism is also quite simple, although much less widely embraced. I mentioned part of this when I argued for my “bookend” ideas for this series of articles: it is possible to argue for Christian pacifism much more plausibly than it is to argue for pacifism in many other religions. For instance, Abraham, Moses, and Mohammed all fought battles. Arguing for Jewish or Muslim pacifism is inherently very difficult because the central figures in the religion (I list both Abraham and Moses because either might be plausibly called the central figure in Judaism) engaged in warfare. Jesus didn’t.
In fact, this can be extended much further. Jesus not only didn’t fight wars, he actually died for his enemies. The direct opposite of dying for your enemies is making them die for you. This pacifist case is very simple: warfare is inherently an anti-Christian act, a reversal of Christ’s own revelation of the Godhead and a denial of the central truth of the action by which we are saved. To take Jesus seriously means dying for others not killing them.
Obviously, pacifism also rests on some philosophical assumptions. In general pacifism must reject the arithmetic logic of just war and also the premise that a person’s actions determine the moral value of their life. However, more centrally than this pacifism must insist on one’s responsibility for one’s own actions. One could be a pacifist who agrees that it is much more evil for two people to be killed than one and that someone who plots murder devalues their own life as long as one also argues that this is someone else’s business and that one’s own business is not to be involved in killing people. Under this view when a terrorist starts spraying a crowd with an automatic weapon one’s question isn’t “Do I allow this or act to stop it?” but “Will I personally kill anyone?” Just war would generally see inaction in this scenario as granting permission to the terrorist to kill (itself a crime) while pacifists would generally claim that it is not for us to decide who lives and who dies and if a terrorist breaks that rule my breaking it as well doesn’t make things better but just entangles me in evil as well. A slight variant of this would be to argue that inaction in the face of violence does constitute permission to be violent of some sort but that this connection is weak enough that the crime of permitting violence to continue is less than the crime of engaging in violence oneself.
Honestly, one of the main issues I have with the whole just war versus pacifism debate is that both large-scale ideas make some good points. Yes, it seems deeply immoral to allow someone to murder others but it also seems anti-Christian (or, if it didn’t have completely different resonances, anti-Christ-like) to inflict suffering on others rather than suffer oneself. (Of course, some of the earliest forms of just war theory prohibited self-defense for this reason and allowed only the lethal defense of others.) Given this it seems imperative to move on to the Biblical evidence. Which set of ideas is best supported within the New Testament?
I went to college with a number of members of the Church of the Brethren and Mennonites, both pacifist denominations. The issue of just war versus religious pacifism was one that I discussed and debated extensively during my time at college but largely moved away from (leaving the issue unresolved in my mind) afterwards. Recently I was prompted by a college friend to return to this issue. At the time I had little to say that I had not already said but as I began to think more about the subject I realized that there were angles I had not fully investigated. These articles represent my current attempts to answer these questions.
There are two main issues to deal with: the Biblical evidence for each position and the large-scale arguments for each position. The Biblical data are sparse and not always entirely helpful while the large-scale arguments are inherently constructed in part out of interpolation. Ideally one would read the Biblical data and construct a large-scale argument from these data. However, we all have a tendency to construct large-scale ideas while reading the data and allow these ideas to shape the reading of further data. Moreover, the construction of large-scale ideas from disparate data points can be time-consuming. In this case I believe it makes most sense to present two already-constructed positions in large-scale format and then work to the individual data points so that the data can be understood within a large context as it is read.
However, prior to reviewing the large scale ideas there is some basic groundwork to lay that define our options in both logical and historical terms. I will handle the options from the logical end first: what are the “bookend” positions between which one can argue? Radical pacifism is one obvious bookend since it is impossible to go further than the complete rejection of violence. Just war seems like a good opposite bookend. One could argue that holy war should be the opposite bookend because it is considerably more violent but even holy war does not represent the maximum violence possible. (The maximum violence possible would be a position that everyone in the world should be killed, a position that may not be held by anyone currently alive and which if it is held can be held only by someone who is insane.) However, modern Christianity has no tradition of holy war. Indeed, even medieval holy war was generally framed outside of that context – the Crusades were framed as protection for Christians against Muslim aggression. Real incidents of holy war are perhaps best represented by Charlemagne’s “convert or die” campaigns but even these do not represent a position of the church but a position of a single individual.
Just war, on the other hand, is a theory to which a great number of Christians pay at least lip service to. In reality it is not uncommon to run across just war proponents who understand just war to mean something like “war is not inherently wrong” and little else. However, modern just war theory has a number of specific demands that it places on participants in a conflict. Christian versions of modern just war theory are perhaps most refined amongst Catholic theologians who raised the theory from its Augustinian infancy1. The modern Catholic Catechism states:
The strict conditions for legitimate defense by military force require rigorous consideration. the gravity of such a decision makes it subject to rigorous conditions of moral legitimacy. At one and the same time:
- the damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain;
- all other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective;
- there must be serious prospects of success;
- the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated. The power of modem means of destruction weighs very heavily in evaluating this condition.
These are the traditional elements enumerated in what is called the “just war” doctrine. The evaluation of these conditions for moral legitimacy belongs to the prudential judgment of those who have responsibility for the common good.
It is hard to argue (as a Christian) that one should be more violent than these criteria. Who can argue plausibly that Jesus would have us fight wars over trivial matters or when other means to end the conflict are still available or when fighting will not succeed in doing anything but killing more people or when a successful war will do worse things to humanity than losing? I’m sure someone will argue against one of these points simply because there are a lot of people out there but until someone does just war as framed in these points will serve as our more-violent ideological bookend.
Just war theory is susceptible to some common-sense objections. The simplest of these is one that in the Catholic Catechism appears as a note at the end but in some other formulations is accorded the status of a full point: who gets to make these decisions. The Catechism states that “The evaluation of these conditions for moral legitimacy belongs to the prudential judgment of those who have responsibility for the common good,” thereby placing the burden of making this decision on governments in most situations2. One simple and direct objection to this is that every Christian is responsible for their own decisions and so every Christian must be convinced that the just war criteria apply before participating in a given conflict. While there are counter-arguments to this objection as well it is certainly a live issue in just war theory, especially when those responsible for the common good are not Christians and are not considering these criteria at all. This is one reason that I regard just war theory and pacifism as bookends to a range of arguments. One could easily take a more pacifist stance than just war theory as described here or a more warlike stance than complete pacifism. What is hard to imagine is a Christian argument for being more warlike than just war and what is literally impossible to imagine is a way to be less warlike than the complete rejection of violence.
A historical note is worth making before moving on to the meat of these articles. A common version of Christian history among pacifists is that early Christians were all pacifists and that when Constantine converted some Christians sold out and invented just war. Not only is blaming Constantine a terrible Christian cliché with little basis in history but the evidence does not line up so neatly in support of ancient Christian pacifism. Certainly pre-Constantinian Christians were unlikely to be Roman soldiers (although there are graves of Christian Roman soldiers from before Constantine) but a significant amount of the reasoning given for avoiding the army in pre-Constantinian Christian writings is the level of active idolatry present in the army which had a number of pagan oaths as well as standards for each legion that were associated with pagan practices. The rejection of the violence of the army is much less frequent in the ancient Christian writings although direct references of any sort are fairly rare. What is clear is that Constantine’s pro-Christian policies made it significantly easier to be openly Christian in the Roman army, removing a major barrier to Christian participation in the military. It is historically unclear whether the expansion of Christian thought about just war came because Christians liked the Empire better when it had a Christian Emperor or whether Christians had not given much thought to ideas of just war when the Roman military machine was too deeply pagan for most Christians to consider joining.
Whatever the exact historical trajectory that brought the Church to this point as it now stands Catholic officially hold to just war (although some individual Catholics are notably pacifist or pacifist in practice, believing that modern warfare can never satisfy the conditions for just war), Protestants are (as always) a mixed bag with some notably strict pacifists in the Anabaptist denominations, and the Orthodox are neither just war advocates nor total pacifists having taken a different theological path that avoided any significant interaction with just war theory. These historical considerations provide additional reason to place the bookends of Christian thought at complete pacifism and just war.
In the next article I will deal with some of the big ideas that frame pacifist and just-war worldviews.
 Augustine often gets the credit or blame for just war theory but Augustine merely stated that it was possible for a Christian to fight in a war and do so morally. (Although Augustine did not believe that killing in self-defense was moral.) It required centuries of thought, including some significant expansions of Augustine’s thoughts by Thomas Aquinas, to reach something like the modern theory of just war.
 Those responsible for the common good might not necessarily be the leaders of a nation-state. If, for instance, an ethnic minority were being oppressed by the government of a nation the community leaders of that ethnic minority might qualify as those responsible for the common good. However, this clearly excludes some people from making these decisions.
One of the (many) uncomfortable things about following a God Whose pinnacle of revelation involved being tortured to death and then rising from the dead is that it might set some sort of example for us. Most of us would love to get in on the rising from the dead but we’d rather not die first1. It would be worrisome if Christ’s suffering was an example for us and it’s more worrisome that it’s very hard to argue that it isn’t. Some of this suffering is straight forward enough because it is suffering for others – suffer through the socially-awkward acquaintance who needs a friend, suffer through missing lunch because someone needed your time, and so on. Other suffering is not. It appears to do no one any good. Does God will this kind of suffering on us?
This is a tricky question of course because it involves asking questions about the manner in which God wills things. Is it fundamentally different for an all-powerful God to not stop something as it is to actually get it started? There is some sense in which we could say that God wills everything that is (although this might be a philosophically-incautious place to be) but there are also clearly things that God actually likes for us and things that He doesn’t. So does God give us suffering because He thinks we need it or will benefit from it?
This blog exists because I had cancer. This both changed my life in fairly radical ways and prompted me to want to share some of my theological musings with others. In many ways cancer made me a much better person. So did God send me cancer to knock off the rough edges? I tend to think not. I tend to think that the sort of God Who would torture you to teach you a lesson is a moral monster and incompatible with the revelation of Jesus Christ. I’m a bit hazy on this because it’s possible that from a divine perspective sending cancer to knock some of the rough edges off of me is, when the outcomes are compared, not much different from letting me lose a game to let me learn that I’m not very good at it. However, cancer is pretty unpleasant and that unpleasantness spills out on to all sorts of other people and so I’m relatively sure that the moral calculation says that a good God wouldn’t send cancer to someone to grow them up.
Instead, I tend to believe that once suffering reached me God had plans for how I could turn this evil into good. God may not have been the source of my suffering but that didn’t mean that God (unlike plenty of modern Americans) threw up his hands and said, “I don’t know what to do with this except make it end fast.” Instead, God used that time to shape me into a better person. So far this isn’t very revolutionary – God does not send suffering to us but He can and does work within the suffering that comes to us. Where this becomes interesting was when I thought to connect these thoughts with a particular reading of Christus Victor that I’ve run across most commonly amongst Christian pacifists.
This reading of Christus Victor is fairly straightforward: there is evil in the world. The nature of evil is to be passed along. Christ in His sufferings absorbed a great deal of evil but did not pass it along. Instead, He brought it with Him to the grave and left it there. The heart of Christian nonviolence is in a similar place: when evil is done to you do not pass it along or give it back but instead absorb it and let it end with you. Direct support for this view in Scripture is somewhat sparse (although Ephesians 2:16 talks about Christ putting to death the hostility between Jews and Gentiles in the cross) but the framework is certainly there. Much of 1 Peter is concerned with how one responds to suffering and the example of Christ, Who did not retaliate against His assailants, is held up as a model for all sorts of people in all sorts of difficult situations. There is a definite sense that if one wishes to suffer correctly (and 1 Peter has some very strong ideas about suffering correctly) one must suffer even though one does not deserve it and one must not respond to suffering in a way that would have caused one to deserve the suffering if one had started off by acting that way.
This brings us to an odd verse in Colossians, 1:24, in which Paul says that he will “fill up in his flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s sufferings”. On the face of it this is a strange, impossible verse. Paul thinks, quite clearly, that Christ has accomplished everything for us. His suffering, His death, and His resurrection have won the victory. What is lacking from Christ’s sufferings? I wonder if this idea that suffering must be, in some sense, put to death might explain thus. Certainly Paul suffered a great deal for the Church (which is exactly what he says he suffers for in that verse). Certainly Paul in some sense absorbed suffering for or shielded the Church from some of that suffering by bearing it himself. In this sense Paul’s statement would make perfect sense. As long as evil is done there is suffering to be dealt with.
This also answers some questions about how we should suffer when we do suffer. We should suffer with the intent to make our sufferings end with us. We should not pass our suffering along to others as we are frequently prone to do – I have a bad day and so I’ll make you have a bad day too. (This is, of course, not the same as refusing to let others show Christ to us by helping us. It is merely refusing to do evil to others.) In our suffering we can emulate Christ in a small way – we can let that suffering die with us by turning Christ’s perpetually-loving face to the world instead of a harsh one distorted by our torment. Obviously this is hard and we will often fail but the guidelines do seem to be there. While I do not believe that God makes us suffer for our good I do believe that He has plans for how we should face suffering.
 The popularity of many weird ideas about the “End Times” may be based around the fact that they basically let you do this.
It’s very rare that I talk to people who like Christian tracts. It’s very, very rare that I talk to people under the age of 50 who like Christian tracts. Tracts are decidedly uncool.
As it happens, I don’t just dislike evangelization by tract, I also dislike evangelization by Facebook. Evangelization by trickery is also high on my list of things not to do. Don’t tell someone that they are going to see, hear, or get something when that something is actually going to be the gospel and you know that they would run away screaming if you said that. Yes, the gospel may be the greatest gift ever but don’t promise someone a great gift when you know they will hate the New Testament you are going to give them. Don’t get someone to watch a video that will end with a gospel message by deliberating failing to mention that. Going somewhat further afield I’m not a fan of some of the over-the-top showmanship that creeps into churches in the name of evangelism. All of this raises a real question though: do I dislike these things because they make me feel uncool or is there any actually Christian reason to dislike them? Are the ways of evangelism that most of us dislike actually wonderful because they get Jesus’ name and the gospel out there and is our discomfort only the pride of our flesh struggling against looking like dorks?
What I wish to lay out is a case that there really can be evangelism done so poorly that as Christians we should view its impact as negative. Let’s start with tracts. Why are tracts so uncool?
Once upon a time tracts weren’t uncool. I don’t know that they were cool but they were such a basic part of everyday life that the fact that something was advertised in a tract said basically nothing about its coolness. Imagine that I told you that a business had a sign out front. Does this tell you whether this business is cool? No, it’s just something that pretty much all businesses do. It’s actually pretty weird to be a business without a sign. Similarly, there was a point in American history when stores, political parties, churches, social organizations, and just about everything else used tracts to advertise themselves, find members, and make points. (In some areas of the world this is still true and I see no issue with Christian tracts in these places.) These days only religious organizations use tracts and even within this set it’s the subset of seriously-uncool religious organizations that use tracts. Cults love tracts. So do fundamentalists. Quick, name all the non-religious people you know who would vote to be a fundamentalist or a cult member as their first choice if they became religious.
Tracts communicate two things. One is the actual message on the tract. The other is, “The people who are sending you this message are out of touch with the real world.” If they weren’t they’d be using Facebook, Twitter, a webpage, face-to-face conversation, artwork, or something else modern people do to make their point. A while ago I passed a church that had a message on the church sign that said something like, “God sent the first text message – the Bible.” This message tells me a lot the church in question probably didn’t intend. For instance, the people who wrote this think that including the words “text message” in their sign makes them hip and relevant and which means they are anything but hip and relevant. The sign immediately brings forth images of white-haired older folks complaining about their grandchildren and their computer-boxes and internets. Moreover, these people thought that by calling the Bible a text message it would make it sound cooler. Humans who actually use text messages do not regard them as cool, they are just a way to send short notes quickly. Now the Bible itself has been dragged into a failed attempt to be cool and becomes, by association, uncool. It’s these secondary messages that become an issue.
Let’s stop and consider the whole idea of secondary content a bit more. Imagine that several friends of yours invite you somewhere for a weekend away, just you and them. You can imagine that there might be some point in this weekend where you would be off by yourself in one room or outside or whatever and one of your friends would lean in (or out) the door and say something like, “Hey, we’re thinking of ordering pizza for dinner. Does that sound good to you?” Now imagine that the reason your friends had invited you on this weekend was because they had discovered that your spouse was cheating on you. In the first scenario they find a time to sit down with you and gently break the bad news, all of them together, with plenty of time for an extended conversation. In the second scenario one of your friends announces that your spouse is cheating on you in exactly the same way as they would ask about pizza – shows their face for a second, makes a quick comment, and disappears. It’s possible that you would not believe your friends in either scenario but you would almost certainly believe that your friends believed that your spouse was cheating on you in the first even if you thought they were mistaken. In the second you would probably assume this was a bad joke or a sign of deep contempt for you. The method of delivering the message would have a huge impact on how you processed it and your relationship with your friends.
Imagine a simpler and explicitly evangelistic example: someone realizes that a way to get lots of people to see a short gospel message is to sneak over to their outdoor trashcans at night and place the message inside facing up, presumably printed in large letters so that the next time someone opens that trashcan they will see this gospel message. Very, very few Christians would find this appropriate for the simple reason that it involves putting the gospel message in the trash. It’s clear that doing so also communicates that the gospel is trash.
Unfortunately, there are a lot of ways to communicate that the gospel message is not to be taken seriously. One reason I dislike evangelization by Facebook is that Facebook is not a place I go for serious, life-altering advice or opinions. I mostly put amusing comments about my day on Facebook and I generally go on Facebook to figure out what’s happening with my friends who I no longer live anywhere near or see regularly. Facebook messages are inherently aimed at a large group of people and we are not a society where serious conversations tend to happen as large groups. Instead, we tend to have our serious conversations one-on-one unless we’ve mentally prepared to go to a specific event to learn or discuss something serious in a large group. It’s probably possible to make a decent evangelistic message on Facebook but I’ve never seen it. Instead, I’ve seen messages that go up next to the funny cat pictures and feel like they belong at the same level.
Evangelization by trickery is even worse. Who tricks you into finding out information? Mostly people selling shady products. It’s amazing how much like the worst stereotypes of a used-car salesman some evangelists can be. Here, watch this video clip about this interesting thing you didn’t know that suddenly turns into a sales pitch for my over-priced widget that probably doesn’t work/my overpriced God that probably doesn’t work. Most people in America today are used to these sales tactics and respond to them by discounting everything the salesman says. The same goes for over-the-top “sells” of the gospel. Frankly, if someone thinks you are selling the gospel rather than sharing it you’ve already created a bad secondary message – “I benefit if you buy into this and am motivated to get you to do so whether or not it helps you.”
Of course, all of these things depend on culture. I was once at a Fourth of July event where a number of local businesses sent people into the crowd passing out flyers. When a local church came by with similarly-sized tracts and directions to their church it did not feel nearly as odd as when the Jehovah’s witnesses knock on my door and try to hand me a tract illustrated in a style of semi-heroic artwork that stinks of oldness. In other cultures, even amongst people of different generations, the signals sent by various methods of evangelization can be very different. However, if the way the gospel is delivered to people proclaims that this news is not life-changing but frivolous, cheap, or some kind of con game it really can have a negative impact. There are ways to evangelize that just shouldn’t be done because they are not merely unconvincing but anti-convincing. They leave the “evangelized” not just where they started but in a position where they are more likely to reject the next contact they have with the gospel as well. This is especially pronounced in a well-evangelized society like America where the choice is hardly ever between “hear the gospel done poorly” and “hear the gospel never” but rather “hear the gospel done poorly” and “hear the gospel later”.
As a final note, ultimately nearly everyone says that evangelism comes from a desire to share a wonderful gift with others. If, in fact, one evangelizes because it is a duty, because it will increase one’s social status, or for any reason other than a desire to share a deeply transforming faith with others who will benefit from it the odds of anti-evangelizing rise significantly (and you will be evangelizing as an act of intellectual domination, hardly a good thing). Most people are happy when you try to give them gifts even if the gifts are awkward and ultimately not what they wanted. Almost nobody is happy to sit through your sales pitch.
In short, I believe it is possible, even with good intentions, to evangelize so poorly that one actually turns people against the gospel (or at least turns many more people against the gospel than the few who are un-impacted by one’s bizarre technique). In fact, I believe it is so easy to hit the wrong notes for some people that everyone who tries talking to non-Christians about Christianity will occasionally un-evangelize them. Some of this is just the way life works – you talk to someone about something you care deeply about, you manage to come across as the sort of person they don’t want to be, and they mark down whatever you talked to them about as something not to do. Some of this though can be prevented and really should be. If you know you’re likely to make things worse inaction is the better course. To answer my original question yes, it is entirely legitimate to dislike and speak out against certain forms of evangelism.