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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