Editor’s Note: Cross-posted as an AskDrBrown question.
Actually, one of the foundations of our non-violent faith is the understanding that the Bible’s often “violent” language is not to be applied literally but spiritually. That’s why Christians around the world are almost always the persecuted rather than the persecutors, and it is only when Christians completely abandon their faith – and so are Christians in name only – that they commit atrocities like the Crusades and Inquisitions.
Jesus is our pattern and our model: When He was reviled He did not revile in return, and when He was physically attacked He did not fight back. “To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps. ‘He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.’ When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly” (1 Peter 2:21-23).
At the same time, Jesus, along with others in the New Testament, often used “violent” language. Consider the following sayings of our Lord:
“Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Matthew 10:34).
“From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force” (Matthew 11:12, ESV).
“When a strong man, fully armed, guards his own house, his possessions are safe. But when someone stronger attacks and overpowers him, he takes away the armor in which the man trusted and divides up the spoils” (Luke 11:21-22).
How about these sayings of Paul?
“Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. . . . Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God” (Ephesians 6:10-11, 17).
“For though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ, being ready to punish every disobedience, when your obedience is complete” (2 Corinthians 10:3-6, ESV).
And what do we make of the fact that Paul sometimes addressed his fellow-workers as “soldiers”? He wrote of “Epaphroditus, my brother, fellow worker and fellow soldier” and “Archippus our fellow soldier,” also urging Timothy to, “Endure hardship with us like a good soldier of Christ Jesus” (Phil 2:25; Phm 2; 2 Tim 2:3).
And what we do make of the “violent” imagery of the Book of Revelation? “Then there was war in heaven. Michael and his angels fought against the dragon and his angels. And the dragon lost the battle, and he and his angels were forced out of heaven. This great dragon– the ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, the one deceiving the whole world– was thrown down to the earth with all his angels. Then I heard a loud voice shouting across the heavens, “It has come at last– salvation and power and the Kingdom of our God, and the authority of his Christ. For the accuser of our brothers and sisters has been thrown down to earth– the one who accuses them before our God day and night. And they have defeated him by the blood of the Lamb and by their testimony. And they did not love their lives so much that they were afraid to die.” (Rev 12:7-11)
How do we reconcile the fact that the New Testament has so many “violent” references with the fact that Christians through the centuries have been persecuted and martyred for their faith (rather than persecuting and martyring others), turning the other cheek and refusing to retaliate? It’s all quite simple: As I said before, Jesus is our example! He was the one who asked the Heavenly Father to forgive those who were crucifying Him (Luke 23:34), telling Pilate that He was not an earthly king, otherwise His servants would have fought for Him (John 18:36), and ordering His disciples to put down their swords in His defense, since those who live by the sword also die by the sword (Matt 26:52).
As I wrote in my book Revolution: The Call to Holy War, as followers of Jesus, we are called to put down our swords – meaning all physical violence in His name and allegedly for His cause – and take up our crosses, laying down our lives rather than taking the lives of others. That is part of the very essence of the gospel!
That’s why we have Christian classics like Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, not Foxe’s Book of Murderers. And that’s why some of the great Puritan authors like John Bunyan and William Gurnall could write books with titles like Holy War and The Christian in Complete Armor without anyone ever thinking that they were calling for violent Christian acts. And that’s why William and Catherine Booth could found The Salvation Army without anyone thinking they needed to buy a gun to join. This really is self-evident.
In fact, the non-violent nature of the gospel (meaning, non-physically-violent) is so clearly spelled out that Christians can also use the parts of the Old Testament that were, originally, written with physical violence in mind – like Joshua taking the city of Jericho (Josh 5) or like David writing that the Lord trained his hands for war and his fingers for battle (Ps 144:1) – and apply them in an entirely spiritual, non-physically-violent fashion.
To repeat: We understand that as followers of Jesus, we put down our sword and we take up our cross, willing to lay our lives down for a lost and dying world but refusing to take up even a stone to hurt those who oppose us.
Is it possible to misunderstand the biblical imagery and become physically violent “for the gospel”? Only if the Word of God is willfully misused and abused; only if the entire example of Jesus and His New Testament followers is completely ignored; only if the testimony of hundreds of thousands of persecuted and martyred Christians through the centuries is systematically scorned. But to do so would be to call the ocean dry or fire cold or a mountain flat, and that’s why there are so few examples of “physical violence in Jesus’ name” despite the presence of hundreds of millions of Christians worldwide.
And that’s why, despite the tremendous passion against abortion that exists in our Bible-believing, Christian communities, when an abortion doctor is killed by a professing Christian, this is the rarest exception to the non-violent rule. It is, to be a sure, a very terrible exception, but the reason it stands out with such glaring clarity is because it is so contrary or our whole spirit and philosophy. We are pro-life, not pro-death, otherwise, rather than four abortion doctors killed in more than three decades of pro-life activism – this, of course, is four too many – there would have been 400 or 4,000 dead by now. The very thought of this is at complete odds with the message and method of Jesus, and the idea of killing people for the sake of the gospel is utterly revolting.
In a future article, I’ll address the question of why I and others often use the terminology of martyrdom – the willingness to glorify Jesus by life or by death – but I’ll close this here by restating the obvious: It is our use of “violent” biblical language in a non-violent way that helps us focus our energies on spiritual battles rather than physical battles, using the weapons of love and self-discipline and longsuffering, overcoming evil with good. We know that our fight is not with people but with spiritual forces (Eph 6:12), and we understand that we overcome evil with good and hatred with love (Rom 12:17-21). It is only those who willfully misconstrue this message – and therefore who do not truly know Jesus – who could possibly misunderstand it.
For further insights on this, see Revolution: The Call to Holy War, especially chapter ten, “Take Up Your Cross, Put Down Your Sword: The Jesus Way to Revolution.”
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