As I sit down to write this post I’m realizing that I’m probably going to get branded as “that guy who writes about nonviolence”, but I can think of no core aspect of the message of Jesus that I’d rather talk so much about. Nonviolence is one of those utterly insane ideas that becomes ridiculously beautiful and exciting once that light bulb goes off in your mind.
As I’ve said before: there’s nothing more offensive in the teachings of Christ than the simple phrase “love your enemies”. It’s a phrase that defies common sense to the point that even most Christians I know, or talk to online, don’t functionally believe it should be followed– even if they do claim to believe the inspiration or inerrancy of scripture.
People reject this aspect of the teachings of Jesus for a variety of reasons. I think this is primarily because it’s a doctrine that’s been so neglected under the era of Christendom that when someone brings it up, it just sounds like complete hippie nonsense. One of the main ways some of my critics push back against the doctrine of Christian nonviolence is through questions such as, “How could it bring glory to God if your enemies kill you?”, “What good are you to anyone if you’re dead?”, or “It would not honor God to get shot by a guy who is stealing your television”. I’ve heard about seventeen different ways of asking the same question.
These questions appear to be driven by a few underlying assumptions that seem to be rational, but are revealed to be false when we consider what I believe is the core purpose for a Jesus follower. The false assumption is essentially this: “if I die before my time, God’s plan plan for my life will be thwarted”, or perhaps “I am no use to God or anyone else if I’m dead”.
And, I get it. The idea of dying for one’s enemies is crazy– and I’d reject it to if it were not for the fact that this is precisely what the guy who kicked this whole movement off did with his life. In Undiluted (you can pre-order your copy here), I write that it’s one of those things that makes me actually believe Jesus, because his message is too crazy to not be true.
Unfortunately, I think both assumptions are completely untrue when you look at the big picture of what we’re really here for. Instead of the above assumptions, I start with two different ones:
1. The first (central) purpose of my life is to follow Jesus, whatever that looks like.
2. The second purpose of my life is to invite others to do it too. One of the last things Jesus asked his followers to do was to go into “all the world” and create more followers, so that this movement keeps reproducing itself, and God’s Kingdom grows.
With those two new assumptions, let’s look at why I think dying for an enemy, instead of killing an enemy, could potentially be more beneficial to the goal of Kingdom growth:
Let’s say an intruder broke into my house to steal my television or raid my medicine cabinet. I accidentally walk in on what’s happening and end up getting attacked. Instead of reaching for something that could be used as a weapon, I pass on all opportunities to kill my “enemy”. However, let’s also say that passing on those opportunities costs me my very life– I die, and they live.
Here’s two things that could potentially happen that would play right into my master plan to keep inviting more and more people into this Jesus thing:
1. The person who killed me, while sitting in their jail cell, is going to have a lot of time to think about it. In doing so, my hope would be that they’d start asking some questions about why I didn’t try to kill them when I had the chance. As they dug into my story, they’d find out the reason why I didn’t try to kill them was because I believed with all of my being that they had infinite worth and value to God– and that they were worth dying for. They would then potentially see that I was filled with a radical, self sacrificial love for them which I hope would spark a new question: “why the hell did that guy believe that about me?” This question would lead them to only one answer: Jesus.
Furthermore, if I killed my enemy, I might potentially seal their fate of separation from God (if there’s no postmortem redemption), but dying for my enemy would give them more time and opportunity to be reconciled to God through Christ. I have already been reconciled— which means the loving and unselfish thing to do would be to sacrifice what was left of my years here, in hopes that this would help my enemy be reconciled before the end of their years.
By trading my life for theirs, an enemy could potentially spend the rest of their natural life asking the question, “why did he love me so much?” and every time, the ONLY answer it would lead to would be, Jesus. If I am thinking “long-game” for the Kingdom of God, that’s the right answer even if it seems like sheer foolishness in the eyes of the world. However, Jesus taught that whoever looses his life for the sake of the Kingdom will find it again (and that the opposite is true too)– and call me crazy, but I believe him.
2. The second potential impact would be the exponential discussion about Jesus that could potentially happen far and wide. It’s not often that someone willingly gives their life in place of an enemy’s life– and when they do, it generates some buzz. Just look at my hero, Dirk Willems (see image at top of article). Dirk was an Anabaptist and was sentenced to be burned at the stake (we Anabaptists tend to get that a lot). However, he escaped his holding cell and tried to escape– with his jailer fleeing close behind. When crossing a semi-frozen river, Dirk made it across safely, but his jailer fell and and would have died in minutes. Instead of continuing on to freedom and life, Dirk decided to save the life of his enemy– who, as it turns out, didn’t return the favor. Dirk was burned to death on May 16, 1569. But guess what? We’re still talking about Dirk Willems in 2014, and when we talk about him, we’re forced to talk about Jesus! If I were to give my own life in order to allow my enemy to live, people would talk about it because that’s a pretty crazy thing to do. But when they did, they’d be forced to talk about this Jesus guy who I’ve given my life to. That could be potentially huge for the Kingdom– perhaps even bigger than anything I could accomplish while still living.
Is it true that dying for an enemy is a poor use of your life? Not at all! In fact, if our dedication is to building the Kingdom and making it as big and as crowded as we possibly can– over and above temporal self preservation– giving our lives for our enemies might actually be one of the most practical and valuable things we could do.
But yeah, I know it all sounds crazy. Jesus is sorta like that sometimes.