Should a Christian ever use violence?
It is a question that will not fail to draw a passionate response from people. For many Christians there is no doubt about it, of course there are times when violence is justified. To suggest otherwise is to risk being called a “wishy-washy liberal” or something even worse. Yet it is a question that ought to be asked, for as Gandhi is once said to have stated, “The only people on earth who do not see Christ and his teachings as nonviolent are Christians.”
The book A Faith Not Worth Fighting For seeks to put forth a defense of Christian nonviolence as well as answer the toughest critiques opponents of nonviolence put forth. In the introduction the editors state that nonviolence is not, primarily, being against violence but rather flows from the belief that Jesus Christ is risen from the dead. In the second essay the writer takes pains to differentiate a “liberal pacifism” where pacifism becomes a political strategy from a “Christological” pacifism where pacifism is simply seen as obedience to Jesus. This is a vital point. Some argue that nonviolent actions can lead to the same results as violent ones and thus they are preferable. The author rejects this point, and I agree. Sometimes violence can solve problems in a way non-violence cannot. Yet the Christological view is not concerned with makings guesses about what works best for a desired end, it is simply an obedience to Jesus which refuses to fight for the faith, though is more than willing to die for it.
Like any book filled with essays by various authors, this one has highlights and low points. Pacifism is shown not to be “passive” but instead to be a nonviolent way of being active. War and violence in the Old Testament, the passage in Romans 13 about submitting to the governing authorities, and the apparent violence of the book of Revelation are all dealt with. So too are statements of Jesus that could be taken as allowing violence, such as when he says he came not to bring peace, but a sword, and when he turned over the tables in the temple. This leads into one of the flaws with the book. Many of these essays on biblical topics come in the second half of the book. I think they should have come earlier, laying a foundation for the more topical essays.
I appreciate how the writers, for the most part, were respectful and kind to those who disagree. It may be surprising to some readers to see pacifists, who oppose war, talking about honoring soldiers. The theme throughout was that even if the contributors think that Christians ought not be soldiers, it is impossible to not recognize that those who are soldiers are making a sacrifice.
That said, there are a few times when a bit of arrogance and legalism creeps in. In the chapter on whether Christian pacifists ought to reject the police force, the statement was made along the lines of “can a sincere Christian serve in the police force.” I made a note, “why don’t you ask a sincere Christian who is a policeman?” Any book on ethics runs the risk of portraying those who follow the ethics promoted as the “real” or “serious” Christians while everyone else is not. This book for the most part did avoid that, but not completely so. Clearly there are plenty of policeman and soldiers who are sincere Christians; I have many dear friends who are both. Wherever one falls on this issue, I don’t want to presume to question someone’s sincerity of faith.
Overall, this book is incredibly challenging and sets forth a clear case for Christian nonviolence. Through the years I have come much closer to the belief that Jesus intends for his disciples to be nonviolent. Yet I still have serious questions and while some were answered by this book others remain. Christian pacifism at times appears to separate from the world too much, to create too much a sacred/secular dichotomy. I am not sure that violence ought not be used to defend others (and there is a whole chapter on this). As a Christian I may be willing to risk my own life, but I am not going to allow someone to harm my daughter, if I can stop it. One of the contributors bought up how opponents of pacifism often use such extreme examples (what if you were being raped?) and questions why. Yet it makes sense to bring up extreme examples, those are the ones that put your convictions most to the test.
So I came into this book very sympathetic to Christian pacifism and after reading it I am moreso. But I still would not consider myself a pacifist. I am sold that Jesus calls us to be nonviolent and this ethic flows from Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. I certainly think the evangelical Christian subculture in America is way too in love with violence and a good dose of pacifist ethics may be what we need. And I am pretty sure that in situations where we feel violence is the only solution, Jesus himself would probably not use violence. If Jesus won the greatest battle ever won by dying on a cross, and Jesus calls us to do the same, when could we ever use violence? Probably never…
And yet…and yet I just can’t go the whole way. To use the example, if someone tries to kidnap my 1 year old daughter, I am going to do all I can to stop him.
Along the same lines, I don’t think I could call myself a Christian pacifist anyway, in good conscience. It is easy to claim to be one living where I live. I could post anti-war and anti-violence things on Facebook, engage people in online debate and so on. But to say you are against violence in all situations when you live in a situation where you may never face violence yourself seems disingenuous (and I am not in any way implying the authors of this book are disingenuous!). The bigger question for me, and why I love the title, is am I being Christ-like, nonviolent, in my interactions with people? Do I use verbal violence? Do I tear my enemies down? Am i willing to lose an argument for the sake of helping the other person? In other words, my beliefs about physical violence are less relevant, at least in my current time and place, then my words and attitudes.