Was Jesus a Nonviolent Pacifist?

People like Michael Moore and Ron Paul have speculated that Jesus would not give his thumbs-up to it the recent hit movie American Sniper, or to the military in general.  Many such people seem to imagine that Jesus was a nonviolent idealist like Gandhi. But anything more than a cursory look at Scripture shows that Jesus was obviously no Gandhi.

Of course, some of his famous quotes such as “turn the other cheek” (Matthew 5:39), “blessed are the peacemakers” (Matthew 5:9), and “do not resist evil” (Matthew 5:37) seem superficially to lend support to the view that Jesus opposed violence in principle.  However, these sayings were all uttered mainly to his disciples, in line with his principle that “my kingdom is not of this world:  If it were of this world, my servants would fight” (John 18:36), in the context of his trail before Pilate.  Interestingly, the last quote also seems to imply that if his realm were indeed a this-worldly kingdom, his servants would be justified in bearing arms to defend it.  Jesus made clear to the Roman governor that his teachings were no threat to the civil order and that his disciples took a stance of nonviolent resistance to religious persecution.

This also explains Jesus’s statement to a sword-wielding Peter that “all who draw the sword will die by the sword” (Matthew 26:52), quoted recently by Ron Paul.  Jesus said these words at the time of his arrest, when Peter had drawn a sword to defend his teacher and struck one of those coming to arrest him.  So, in context, these words are not a blanket condemnation of violence and soldiers; rather, they are against lawless, vengeful people, who will be struck down in all likelihood by the sword of government, meaning the police or the military.

In The New American Commentary, Blomberg comments, “This statement is sometimes interpreted as a call to pacifism, but in fact it is simply an observation that violence breeds violence. Perhaps warfare is sometimes necessary to prevent greater evils done to others but never merely in defense of self or God.”  Likewise, Lange and Schaff in A Commentary on the Holy Scriptures elucidate that “the sword of retribution opposes the arbitrary sword of rebellious sedition; and the sword taken up unspiritually in a spiritual cause, is avenged by the certain, though perhaps long-delayed, sword of historical vengeance.  Peter ... sought to bring his fellow-disciples, and his Lord Himself, into this wrong position, and to make his own Christ a Mohammed.”  In contrast to Mohammed, Jesus explicitly forbade his disciples to employ the sword to propagate and defend their faith.

Other passages also indicate that the words of Jesus cannot be applied more broadly than the realm of Christian believers.  In his own life, Jesus’s ejecting from the temple those buying and selling in it constitutes one rather violent event and an often-overlooked side of him (John 2:13-17).  Recounted in all four Gospels, this incident shows Jesus making a weapon (a kind of whip), overturning tables, and terrifying a whole crowd of people, who flee from a public place.  No milquetoast, Jesus demonstrated the ability singlehandedly to incite a human stampede without an automatic weapon.  It is very difficult to imagine Gandhi doing something like that.

Then there is another weapons-related text in which Jesus actually instructed his disciples to get themselves swords: Luke 22:36.  The appropriate interpretation of this one is hotly debated among New Testament scholars; some believe that it clearly shows Jesus approving the use of swords by his disciples in their journeys in order to protect themselves from bandits and similar dangers, since the apostles had to travel widely on foot in a dangerous world.  At any rate, such a text makes it clear that Jesus was not an advocate of government-mandated sword-control.  Moreover, the most prominent early theologian, the apostle Paul, explicitly expressed approval of government use of the sword to punish law-breakers, a clear endorsement of the use of deadly violence by the government to control lawlessness (Romans 13:1-4).  Beyond that, as a future hope, the earliest Christians looked forward to salvation and judgment by a glorified, sword-wielding Jesus coming from heaven (Revelation 19:11-15).

In regard to the legitimacy of military service, both Jesus and John the Baptist encountered Roman soldiers very interested in their messages, and at no time did they insist that these soldiers leave the legions.  When asked by Roman soldiers what they should do, John the Baptist replied, “Do not take money from anyone by force, or accuse anyone falsely, and be content with your wages” (Luke 3:14).  Some of Jesus’s highest words of praise were for the faith of a Roman centurion (Matthew 8:10).  In fact, a Roman centurion was one of the first Gentile converts to Christianity (Acts 10).  The New Testament never gives readers the impression that military service is to be disdained.  The New Testament writers and Jesus were obviously more interested in the faith of soldiers than in their uniforms.

Certainly Jesus eschewed violence used in the propagation and defense of his ideas, which sets him apart from the political and theocratic revolutionaries of the world, but closer inspection of the New Testament reveals the pacifist, nonviolent Jesus to be an invention of the idealist’s imagination.  If we base our views on the New Testament writings, it seems clear that a proper judgment of soldiers such as Chris Kyle should have little to do with their choice of career.