I hear the claim, “Jesus wasn’t a pacifist!” a lot. But is it true? Was Jesus a pacifist, or not?
What we know about Jesus comes to us from the four New Testament Gospel accounts, so that is where we must look for our answer—especially to those of us who would affirm the inspiration and authority of the Christian Scriptures.
However, first the word pacifism: it’s a deceptive word, for sure. On the surface, many assume the word refers to being passive, which understandably raises an eyebrow when associating it with Jesus. Surely we can all agree, Jesus was anything but passive in the face of evil and oppression.
The way Christian pacifists use the word however, is not to argue for passivity in the face of evil, but is a commitment to fighting evil and oppression exclusively using nonviolent means. (Which is why today’s Christian pacifists are nonviolent, but very confrontational.)
Which leads us to the question: Did Jesus share this commitment to fighting evil exclusively using nonviolent means?
That answer, of course, is yes—he did. What we know for certain from the Gospel accounts is that Jesus lived and taught an ethic of addressing injustice and evil through nonviolent means—and exclusively nonviolent means. In fact, this nonviolent ethic of Jesus was quite central to his ministry and comes up more frequently and consistently than many other New Testament subjects.
Jesus lived in a violent culture and under the occupation of a foreign army, so the issue of violence as a means to address evil wasn’t an out-of-sight-out-of-mind concept, but a daily reality. And yet, each time an issue of violence is brought before Jesus, he sides with nonviolence.
An eye for an eye? Jesus says in response, “Do not resist an evildoer.”
Slapped in the face? Jesus said to turn the other cheek.
Someone steals your personal property? Instead of shooting them, Jesus said to give them more than they took from you.
Execute lawbreakers? Jesus claimed there wasn’t anyone with the moral standing to serve as an executioner.
Resist the Roman army with violence? No, Jesus said to carry their bags for them instead.
Resist corrupt authorities with violence? No, Jesus told Peter to put away his sword because violence only gives birth to more violence.
In fact, the ethic of Jesus went even deeper than a traditional pacifistic commitment to nonviolence, as he argued that even feeling hatred in your heart was on equal moral footing to murder.
Instead, Jesus argued that his followers must love and actively serve their enemies with acts of kindness and generosity. He said we are to do this (a) in order to mimic God, who Jesus claimed is “kind to the ungrateful and the wicked” (Luke 6:27-36) and (b) that we are to love our enemies in order to become God’s children (Matthew 5:43-48).
So, back to our question: Was Jesus a pacifist?
Well, it depends on how you’re using the word.
If one is using the word to indicate passivity in the face of evil, then of course not—Jesus was anything but passive.
But if one is using the word in the traditional sense of indicating an individual is completely opposed to the use of violence, then yes—Jesus most certainly was a pacifist.
In fact, Jesus’s commitment to an ethic of nonviolence is one of the things we know the most clearly and consistently about him. In addition, according to the prophet Isaiah, Jesus’s commitment to nonviolence serves as evidence he was the true Messiah sent by God (Isaiah 53:9).
So, what about his followers? Well, Jesus taught that we are to follow him—and later New Testament writers actually claim that the ultimate proof we are Christians is that we live like Jesus did (1 John 2:6) and that we would let the example of Jesus act as footsteps that we follow (1 Peter 2:21).
Certainly, if the word “Christian” is to remain a word that means “like Christ” this would include a central commitment to nonviolent enemy love as a non-negotiable qualification of the Christian identity.
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That would be passivist, not pacifist. Many Christians don’t give a hoot about what Jesus taught. They just believe that he died to take them to heaven. They consider everything else irrelevant.
Nice try but you’re wrong.
Jesus wasn’t a pacifist any more than mohhamad,Infact he could be argued to be the more violent.
“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.””
“God does not forbid you from being good to those who have not fought you in the religion or driven you from your homes, or from being just towards them. God loves those who are just.”
” If anyone comes to Me, and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be My disciple.”
“Say: O people of the Book! Come to a word common between us and you: That we shall not worship any but Allah and (that) we shall associate nothing with Him, and (that) some of us shall not take others for lords besides Allah, but if they turn back, then say: Bear witness that we are Muslims.”
It is said that for each of us God has a mission based on our talents. Jesus gathered a group of fishermen and instructed them on his teachings on spreading the ‘good news’. You would not teach a class of priests or pastors on the defense of the country against an attack of barbarians. You would not teach them how to be policemen to protect the innocent in your society from the unjust.
Jesus lessons of ‘pacifism’ were more about not using violence that results in worse violence. “He that lives by the sword dies by the sword.” Jewish opposition to the Romans was an example of not resisting evil and being obedient to the law of Caesar because of the inevitable outcome. The destruction of Jerusalem and the massacre of Jews.
Spot on Ben. Thank you for another excellent essay.
Jesus taught non-violence in regard to relationships with people of other faiths, theologies, social and economic status, gender, race etc. Something western Christianity has failed at. Western Christianity often used violence as it’s “first resort” if they didn’t get their way. Think about the treatment of slaves, indigenous peoples in the missionary fields, violence to bring people in line was first choice for Christians. Christian sermons led people to attack and kill each other ie. Protestants and Catholics in Europe. Looking back through history you could write volumes in which Christianity failed Jesus command to love others and took the path of evil to enforce it’s worldly view. His teaching about non-violence was not about personal threats to ones life if such a situation arose as he explained in Luke 22.36.
Although Jesus modeled and advocated non-violent resistance in most instances, there may’ve been exceptions. If Jesus encouraged complete pacifism why did his disciples carry swords? In Luke 22:36 he tells them “But now if you have a purse, take it, and also a bag; and if you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one.” My understanding is that travel between towns and cities at the tmie could be dangerous. There was plenty of banditry. Perhaps he did not take issue with protecting oneself from criminal elements. I don’t think he would take a pacifistic stance in the face of rampant lawlessness. I would like to think that Jesus and/or his disciples would intervene and use force if necessary to protect an innocent victim of a violent crime. In addition, would Jesus have advocated non-violent resistance against the kind of aggression and evil perpetrated by Nazi Germany and the other Axis powers in the second World War? I personally think force of arms was necessary.
Zacharias expected Jesus to be about deliverance from their enemies ( see 1 Luke)
Best comment on Jesus’ teachings on nonviolence came from Ghandi: To paraphrase ” everybody understands Jesus’ teachings on nonviolence except the Christians
What about John 18:6? Just curious.
I very much appreciate Ben’s commentary on this subject. But it’s really hard to miss this fact in Jesus’s teaching. So many Christians struggle to resolve how Jesus’s behavior projects into our violent contemporary society. I suppose this says a lot about the power and persuasion of church culture over following Christ’s example.
Also, the “turning of the tables” was not a violent act in that no one was hurt. Consider the lesson in John 11:18 “Put your sword away!” If there ever was a moment in human history that required a sword to be drawn, that was it! Yet Jesus reaffirmed, in the most dire of circumstances, that violence was never to be the proper response. We are all children of God. God has a heart of peace. It is artificial for us to behave in any way but in a manner of love, respect, and peaceful resolution.
‘cept for that whole “turning the tables over in the temple” bit of the gospels, eh?
Non-violence is – at a very basic level – about not acting against the physical body of another to achieve some supposedly higher goal. It removes causing harm or death as a viable option.
Those passages never indicate that Jesus actually hurt any human (in fact, if he had, he could’ve been arrested even sooner). The whips were there to control the animals being sold for sacrifice.
Using the whip in the open and making a bunch of noise by knocking over tables is a great way to cause a minor stampede – thus disrupting the exploitative operations of the Temple. // Think – Bonhoeffer’s “throwing yourself in the spokes of the wheel” //
The temple was a place for worshiping/meeting/revealing God (the same God who commanded them to observe the Jubilee – though they never really did) – and in that place, men schemed to squeeze every drop of money out of those who had traveled to Jerusalem to obey God.
If you’d like a more modern – but very imperfect – comparison, think of the “dumping of the tea” in Boston harbor (aka “Tea Party”). It was essentially industrial sabotage by the Sons of Liberty (who felt exploited by the crown) against Parliament’s darling, the British East India Company. Who got killed? No one. Any record of people getting physically maimed? Nope.
So yes. Jesus was “violent”…. to some tables. And yeah. He scared some animals and probably some people. But he was still essentially non-violent.
A violent-minded approach would be to have his disciples slit the throats of the moneychangers as they slept in their beds. Or to stir up one group against another in the temple and create a massive brawl. Or better yet – something the disciples might have loved – Jesus uses some of that healing magic to do some straight up damage to the elites – roast them where they stand. // That’s the urge in us to reaffirm the logic of Cain and it would be Jesus falling for one of those three temptations of Satan (accuser) //
The most basic premise about violence in the world of Cain is – “peace is ultimately established and maintained through violence and the ability and willingness to wield it. Call it necessity or call it fun, that’s how it is.”
The most basic premise of violence in the Kingdom of God (as preached and exemplified by Jesus) might be put – “true peace (shalom) will ultimately be established and maintained through forgiveness of wrongs, love of neighbor (even of enemies), and the triumph of mercy – even to the point of death.”
The vindication of love as the greatest commandment can never be found in our taking of life (or the violence that implies that end) – no matter how many times we try. Shalom is not accessible (nor perhaps even comprehensible) to those whose basic assumption about the world is the opposite of “life and life more abundantly.” Being like Cain may feel more practical in this world but being like Christ is what builds the Kingdom of God.
why are SO many, nearly Half of America is RACIST? Can a person be a Racist AND a Christian?? don’t think so. When Voting for our next President, there is Not one Person on Planet Earth that we could Vote for if we are to Vote like Jesus would because , as we all know way too well, we are ALL Sinners, sure some more than others, I KNOW Jesus & Holy Spirit is telling me: to Vote for the LEAST EVIL!!??
I vote for using less punctuation.