The Active Nonviolence of Jesus: The Witness of the Early Church (1 of 12)

PART 1 OF 12

The Witness of the Early Church


“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’ But now I tell you: do not take revenge on someone who wrongs you. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, let him slap your left cheek too. And if someone takes you to court to sue you for your shirt, let him have your coat as well. And if one of the occupation troops forces you to carry his pack one mile, carry it two miles. When someone asks you for something, give it to him; when someone wants to borrow something, lend it to him. You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your friends, hate your enemies.’ But now I tell you: love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may become the children of your Father in heaven. For he makes his sun to shine on bad and good people alike, and gives rain to those who do good and to those who do evil. Why should God reward you if you love only the people who love you? Even the tax collectors do that! And if you speak only to your friends, have you done anything out of the ordinary? Even the pagans do that! You must be perfect—just as your Father in heaven is perfect.” — Jesus (Matthew 5.38-48)It would seem to me that in Western Americanized Christianity, we have lost our way, and maybe even forgotten what the road we are supposed to be on even looks like. Ever since Jesus spoke these words two millennia ago, followers and non-followers alike have read these words and felt that Jesus was pretty clear. Sometimes Jesus speaks in parables and we have to figure it out. But this teaching was different. Jesus speaks plainly here and then lives a life demonstrating exactly what He means, all the way down to the manner of His death. How did we get from the clear teaching of Jesus to today where we, as Christians in America, celebrate July 4th as a Christian holiday, fly American Flags in our churches, identify ourselves as Americans first and Christians second (rather than strangers, foreigners, ambassadors for a Kingdom that is not of this world), and to John Hagee’s now famous prayer that God would, in the Name of Jesus, lead this country in our wars and that the angels of heaven would go before American troops against “our” enemies. How did we get here?

Today we have a series of reasons and justifications that circumvent our application of these words in their truest meaning. In our application we say that Jesus teaching on this subject is only for certain groups, certain time periods, or certain cultural circumstances. But the fact that Jesus taught the way of peace is obvious to everybody. Christians today just find unique ways to circumvent its application to our lives.

Today we have gone from a rule with no exceptions (this is how the first three hundred years of Christian history interpreted Jesus teaching), to believing that there were certain exceptions to Jesus’ teaching, then from exceptions being admitted to exceptions being embraced. Today, exceptions are now lived by more than the rule. The exceptions are seen as the rule and the teachings of Jesus are seen as the exception. How did this happen?

This series of e-Sights and Podcasts could not be more important right now. Your understanding on this topic, I will freely admit, is deeply determined by whether your picture of God looks like Jesus or something else. Most of the time, Renewed Heart Ministries is a ministry with a goal of humbly serving the world with a call to non-followers of Jesus to consider the radical, self-sacrificial, other-centered teachings of Jesus. But in this series, we are not calling those who are non-followers to consider the teachings of Jesus. We are calling those who claim to follow Jesus to take a serious look at the actual teachings of Jesus. This series is focused uniquely toward “Christians,” asking them to change the direction of their lives and begin following Jesus. It’s a call to Christians to repent. It transcends denominations and reaches to the central core of what, for the first three hundred years of Christianity, it meant to be a follower of “the way.” At its heart, the Kingdom was about following the way of peace.

Now, first, I also want to say before we begin this series, that I am fully aware of supporters and followers of Renewed Heart Ministries that are wonderful Christians who have a different opinion on this. These are Christians that are committed to scripture, who love God, who subscribe to the “Just War Theory” and who do not align with Renewed Heart Ministries teaching on this. Some of them are in law enforcement, in the military service currently, or work in different governmental roles (Hi Oahu! I love each of you!). I’m so glad you are tracking with me on this series. One of the things we at Renewed Heart Ministries passionately believe is that it is possible to separate agreement and acceptance. We can disagree and yet disagree as brothers and sisters, friends, not viewing each other as outsiders, but both as insiders, not as enemies, but as family, understanding that we accept each other even though we don’t agree. It would be easier for you, if you are not a Pacifist either by career or by actual belief, to find another ministry that agrees with you and that doesn’t stretch you and pull you out of your comfort zone. But the fact that you and I are friends and that we consider each other as deeply committed Christians and that you are even a part of what RHM does in this world is a wonderful opportunity to demonstrate what we DO agree Jesus’ Kingdom is all about. And so through this series, we are going to be looking at this subject as family, not as an effort to find out who the real Christian is and who is the heretic. But as Christians who are centered on Christ, founded on scripture, and secure and confident in our love and consideration of each other, over the next few weeks we are going to, together, hash some of this out.

Second, I want to make this very clear, is it possible for a pacifist to honor a non-pacifist? Absolutely! This is one of the major differences between Christian pacifism and what some have called secular or “hippy” pacifism (This is NOT the “hell no we won’t go” movement of the 60’s). I have friends who are deeply committed Christians who are, again, in military service or in law enforcement and I can honor them even though I may hold a different position than them. Let me explain. My friends and I both agree that there are causes worth dying or risking our lives for. And I can honor them in this. I can honor those in military service or law enforcement that continually put their life at risk for a cause in which they believe. This is honorable. We may disagree on whether or not it’s moral to kill for a cause, but we both DO agree on whether or not we should be willing to die for a cause, and this is deeply honorable. So let me say from the beginning that those of you who are in the military and law enforcement, if you are doing this from your best understanding of Scripture and according to your conscience, I deeply honor you and the passion in which you hold your beliefs, to the point of being willing to die for what you believe. This level of commitment to what you believe is rare among most of American Christians in today’s comfort-based, consumer-driven Christianity. I honor YOU in this. For this, I can say, you are my heroes. Is it possible to do this and disagree? I believe it is.

Third, Jesus’ teaching on pacifism is not to be confused with “passive-ism.” It’s not a do-nothing, let others pay the price, inactive, excuse to just run away and be a coward. Pacifism holds the same root as “to pacify.” It comes from the Latin word pax which means “peace.” Pacifism is to bring peace or reconciliation. But it’s not peace by any means. It is not a goal to be reached by any means necessary. It’s peace by peaceful means. It’s a lifestyle, a disposition, attitude and way of life where the means and the ends are aligned. This contrast we can see modeled in the different methods used by the Muslim activist Malcom X and the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during the civil rights movement in the US. King spoke of the ends being embedded in the means so that the means themselves reflect the ends toward which we are working. So we do not choose the way of violence in order to obtain peace. The way of peace is exactly that; it’s both a way and a goal. To embrace pacifism simply means you seek to bring peace but by means that reflect the goal. It is not a “do-nothing” passive-ism, it’s a willingness to lay down even your own life if need be to bring about peace. This is what Jesus so effectively demonstrated throughout His entire life.

Today we have overwhelming evidence that the followers of Jesus were pacifists for the first three centuries. They held an unwavering commitment to non-violence. Today, the Christian church in America has become something that would be completely unrecognizable to early Christians. The statements that follow are not a random sampling of the majority position. There is not one record of a dissenting voice within Christian leadership on this point for the first three hundred years. Never has there been such unity of belief in Christian history as there was on this topic during these years. This is not the majority position; this is the only position, held unanimously without exception. Here is how the early church interpreted Jesus teaching on pacifism:

“We (Christians) no longer take up sword against nation, nor do we learn war any more, but we have become the children of peace.” — Origin

“And shall the son of peace take part in the battle when it does not become him even to sue at law? And shall he apply the chain, and the prison, and the torture, and the punishment, who is not the avenger even of his own wrongs?” — Tertullian

“Anyone who has the power of the sword, or who is a civil magistrate wearing the purple, should desist, or he should be rejected.”—Hippolytus

“Rather, it is better to suffer wrong than to inflict it. We would rather shed our own blood than stain our hands and our conscience with that of another.” —Arnobius

“It makes no difference whether you put a man to death by word, or rather by the sword, since it is the act of putting to death itself which is prohibited.”—Arnobius

“When God forbids killing, he doesn’t just ban murder, which is not permitted under the law even; he is also recommending us not to do certain things which are treated as lawful among men . . . whether you kill a man with a sword or a word makes no difference, since killing itself is banned.”—Lactantius

We do not see the “Just War Theory” (or “Justified Violence,” which is the dominant teaching in Christianity today on this topic) enter into Christian belief until Constantine, when Christians for the first time began to lay down the cross (non-violent, self-sacrificial love) and began picking up the sword. This change is what historians and scholars call the “Constantinian Shift,” where violence was embraced by those who claimed to follow Jesus for the very first time in history. And the rest is a bloody history that I personally believe, has brought untold damage to people’s picture of God. We are experiencing the backlash in our culture today.

“The Constantinian Shift amounted to a fundamental reorientation in the relationship of church and world.” – John Howard Yoder, Christian Attitudes to War, Peace, and Revolution.

Constantine’s conversion might possibly be the most defining event in Western history, second only to the life of Jesus himself. When Church and State unite, historically, it has only ever ended in the Church becoming the State’s whore. (See Revelation 17) According to the early church, pacifism was not an optional issue, but the clearest indication that we were free from all nationalism and other forms of domination. Today, when America goes to war, Christians view America as “our” country and especially in some parts of the US, Christians become America’s war time, loudest, cheerleaders.

There was a time, not so long ago, when all one needed to do was prove the story of Jesus to be true and then one would become a follower. Then came relativism and the abandonment of absolute truth, and Christians began claiming that, rather than being true, following Jesus works. There are intrinsic benefits. But this only goes so far because Christians suffer, too. Then came my generation, tired of playing religious games. We wanted something that was real! Jesus became more than true, more than pragmatic, Jesus was real! But that wore off, too. And today, we have a generation that has been raised in the wake of religiously motivated violence such as September 11. Today Christians and Muslims are not much different in their methods (I know I’m going to get an inbox full for saying that, but at its heart, the difference is very minimal). Originally, there would have been a stark difference in those who would have been willing to kill for their cause and those who were willing to be killed for their cause. Today, the world is ripe for a group of those who claim to follow Jesus to embrace also Jesus’ teaching of non-violence.

“The Anabaptists are beginning to make more and more sense to a world that is increasingly aware of the emptiness of materialism and the ugliness of militarism. Anabaptist logic is rooted in the wisdom of the cross of Jesus, which Scripture says confounds the wisdom of this world. It seems the world is poised for a new Anabaptist movement.”—Shane Claiborne

In this series, we will next take an honest look at what happened to the church with the conversion of Constantine. Then we will take a hard look at what the actual teachings of Jesus really were on this topic. We will then address frequently asked questions on various topics that arise when it comes to applying Jesus teaching to our lives as modeled by Jesus himself.

These will include, but not be limited to:

Hitler and the Allied Forces

Someone Who Breaks Into Your Home

Old Testament Violence Commanded By God

Christians in Military or Law Enforcement (Romans 13)

Domestic Violence (Should I stay with him?)

A Few Examples of Desperate New Testament Exegesis.

I want to encourage you to track with me and not guess ahead of time how I will apply Jesus’ teaching to each to the questions above. Instead, let’s simply start with the teachings of Jesus and the early church and allow the answers to surface. I think you will be pleasantly surprised and culturally challenged all at the same time.

Last, we will end this series with how to apply Jesus’ teachings in culturally relevant and meaningful ways that make sense to His followers today.

This is going to be a wonderful journey. If you are still with me even at the end of this first part, I affirm you. You are amazing! Stay with me. And whether we agree at the end of this series or not, whether you become a pacifist too, are reaffirmed in our pacifism, or whether or not you embrace more fully a Just War theory, once again, as family, we will at the very minimum understanding more fully what we each believe and why. Whether you subscribe to a Just War Theory or are a pacifist, we both agree that Jesus taught and modeled the way of peace. We both agree that we should seek nonviolent creative options first. The only difference is that a Just War theorist believes that as a last resort we can turn to violence as means of bringing peace, even if it cost them their own life. A pacifist simply stops one step short of this final option, even if it cost them their own life. And this is where we can agree. Following Jesus means living a life where we become conduits of Jesus’ radical, other-centered, self-sacrificial love. I would simply add one more adjective—non-violent.

“And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.— Hebrews 12.1-3

Whoever claims to live in him should live as Jesus did.”—1 John 2.6

Keep living in the way of peace, living a life of radical love, and keep building the Kingdom.

I love you guys. We’ll see you next week.