In discussing this issue, I’d like to look at the Bible itself. My premise is that there is nothing new under the sun. We are not the first generation of Christians to ponder such issues, nor even the tenth. There is no plain verse in the Bible telling us never to fight under any circumstances. Yet from the very beginning of Christianity, there has been a strong pacifist undercurrent in much of Christendom, and I believe it does come from the Bible, perhaps from an incomplete understanding of what the Bible says. I believe that if armed Christians want to please our Lord, we have to grapple with some very difficult passages in Scripture.
What did Jesus say about pacifism?
I think that any Christian understanding of the warrior ethic certainly has to include an honest handling of Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount.
The Bible Says
[Jesus said] “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 someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him 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 sons 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 brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Years ago, I thought this passage was pretty clear: if someone wants to insult you, attack you, or murder you, your job as a Christian was simply to take it. All straightforward and tidy and completely impossible, which was why Jesus tossed in the bit about being perfect (that’s impossible, too).
But now when I look at this passage, I see a lot of things that I didn’t see back then. First, I see that it is part of a larger context. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is setting forth some common errors and misunderstandings from under the old law. Remember that the Jews in Jesus’ day had the books we call the ‘Old Testament,’ but they also had a very strong tradition of teaching by their priests and rabbis which commented upon and supplemented the Mosaic law. Over the years, the religious traditions and extra teachings had become to them nearly as important as the Bible itself, and there were errors in the human teachings as well as simple misunderstandings of what the law actually said and implied. So one of the things that Jesus was doing in the Sermon on the Mount was correcting those errors. Each error is prefaced by the saying, “You have heard that it was said …” and then corrected with the formula, “But I say to you …”
When Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,'” He was referring not just to the Mosaic law itself (see Exodus 21:24), but also to the human tradition surrounding that law. The error that Jesus was correcting was that people were treating the “eye for an eye” as if it were a personal command to each one of them, instead of being an admonition about how their courts and government were supposed to function. The courts were supposed to be strictly just and have the punishment of the criminal be in proportion with the damage done to the victim. That is what it meant when the old law commanded “an eye for an eye.” Jesus pointed out that the individual was not commanded to seek strict parity. The individual could choose to forgive rather than to seek vengeance — and that is what God’s people should also do if they are able.
In verses 38-42 of Matthew 5, Jesus mentions three situations in which the His followers should not fight back:
For an insult: “If someone strikes you on the cheek.” A slap on the cheek isn’t a deadly force assault. Especially in that culture, a slap on the face was simply an insult. An insult isn’t worth fighting, killing or getting killed over.
For a matter that can be settled by the courts: “If someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well.” Settle it out of court if you can, even if such a settlement costs more than was originally asked of you. (Besides, the lawyers will take more than just your coat and shirt once they get involved!)
For a hated legal requirement: “If someone forces you to go with them one mile…” This was the Roman right. Under Roman law, any centurion, at any time, could force a Jew to pick up the centurion’s pack and carry it for him one mile. You can imagine how deeply hated such a law would be. But Jesus said for His followers to stay so far on the right side of this hated law that there would be no question at all whether they had obeyed it. Do twice what the law demands, if you need to, rather than risk fighting, killing, or dying over it.
Look at the list again: none of those situations involves a threat to your life. This is all just good tactical advice in situations that do not call for deadly force.
Then Jesus went on to correct another misunderstanding of the old law (v 43): “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…”
Jesus is still talking about seeking vengeance. If you are praying for your enemy, it is because you are still alive. Whatever form your enemy’s attack against you took, you have survived it. That is when faith kicks in. You don’t need to hunt your enemy down after you have survived his attack and you don’t have to shoot him in the back as he flees. If you and your enemy are both still alive after your encounter, you can choose to let him live and allow the law deal with him. You can choose to let go of anger and bitterness, to embrace mercy and pray for justice. 1
Oh, and that bit about being perfect? The other meaning for the word “perfect” is “complete.” Jesus is telling His followers, Don’t deal with these issues incompletely. Don’t leave out the uncomfortable bits. Don’t engage in sloppy or wishful thinking. Instead, think the issues all the way through and act accordingly. Strive for your understanding of these things to be as complete, as finished, as perfect as God Himself.
Here’s another difficult passage that is often used to promote Christian pacifism.
The Bible Says
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?”
Another passage tells us that the disciple who drew his sword was Peter.
People usually remember this whole passage as, “Those who live by the sword will die by the sword” … and that’s often true. People who live by fighting generally die violently.
But take a look at the sentence after that one. Jesus goes to some pains to point out that He wasn’t defenseless. Jesus could easily have protected Himself if that was His plan. He carefully told His disciples that they didn’t need to worry about Him, since He had the ultimate in concealed carry — a dozen legions of avenging angels!
Jesus didn’t want Peter getting himself killed foolishly (one guy with a sword against a large crowd is just plain foolish). So He said, “Peter, put that away, you’ll get yourself killed! Look, you know who I am, I’ve got a dozen legions of angels in My back pocket, but you’ll have to trust Me for the plan…”
Jesus’ plan was to die. But notice that even when His plan was to get Himself killed, Jesus still had the means to protect Himself. That was the whole point of His death: it was His free choice to sacrifice Himself for us. If it hadn’t been His own choice, if He really was helpless and defenseless, then His sacrifice would have been no real sacrifice at all, and wouldn’t have had any meaning. It would have just been a gruesome story of some guy killed by a mob.
So I think we can look at this passage and say that it shows us several interesting things.
First, Christ’s disciples were normally armed: Peter had a sword. Jesus wasn’t surprised when Peter’s sword came out (there are also other passages where Jesus refers to His followers’ swords).
Second, It’s not always in God’s plan for His followers to use the arms they are carrying. Sometimes there’s a better plan than taking on a whole mob by yourself.
And finally, being able to protect yourself isn’t a sin, since Jesus Himself was able to protect Himself and He did not sin. Nor is carrying a weapon a sin, because even when Jesus told Peter not to fight, He didn’t tell Peter to get rid of the sword entirely. He only told him to put it away and not use it just then.
There are lots of other difficult passages in Scripture, and I think it would be the work of a lifetime to find them all and try to understand what they each mean. But at first glance, it really isn’t difficult to understand why so many Christians, over the years, have embraced pacifism.
Which brings me to my final observation, a cautionary note to myself.
The Bible Says
But if anyone regards something as unclean, then for him it is unclean.
If a fellow Christian truly believes that it is a sin for her to defend herself, then for her, defending herself really is a sin. I do neither her nor myself any good to flaunt my freedom before her, or to urge her to violate her own conscience. Although I feel strongly that every Christian should examine her own beliefs about these things in the light of Scripture, I am not the keeper of another Christian’s conscience, nor am I the One to whom she will answer at the end of her life for the choices she makes.
It is good to strive together for understanding, and that is why I enjoy doing it. It would be utterly wrong of me to urge a pacifist to arm herself or defend herself without also urging her to examine the Biblical and moral underpinnings of her beliefs. But if, after examining these things, the pacifist’s conscience still tells her that defending herself is wrong, then for her it would indeed be wrong. I must and shall respect other Christians’ choices, even when they are not the same choices I would make.
For another viewpoint about Christianity and pacifism, please read Dave Kopel’s excellent article, “Does God Believe in Gun Control?”
If you are interested in reading more about Christianity as it relates to firearms ownership and use, there is a collection of articles on the subject available from Mouseguns dot com. The articles are of variable quality, but there are a lot of them and if you are willing to do some digging through the dross, you may find a gem that helps you come to grips with your own thinking in this area. You can find these articles at the following link: http://www.mouseguns.com/cba.htm.
Another excellent research tool for those who are interested in exploring this issue further is Charl Van Wyk’s book, Shooting Back: the right and duty of self-defense, published in 2001 by Christian Liberty books.
- Look at the imprecatory Psalms for an example of how to pray for an enemy. It doesn’t have to be sweetness-and-light. There is nothing unbiblical about praying for justice. ↩