Another command pacifists will sometimes appeal to is Jesus’ “take up your cross, and follow me.” 1 Dr. Yoder argued that this command was essentially a command to be a faithful minority community under persecution. 2 However, as some have noted in response to Dr. Yoder’s work, at times he can seem to reduce the meaning of the Gospel to politics, and this problem becomes evident here.
Firstly, it is clear that Jesus did not literally mean all true disciples would die from public execution. The closing narrative of the Gospel of John (the end of chapter 21), for example, seems to deny this. It replies to a misunderstanding about the death of the beloved disciple, wherein some early Christians had thought the disciple would not die. The Gospel clarifies that Jesus did not promise this; but it does so by saying the issue was really none of the church’s concern. It does not suggest that such an event would be impossible because all Christians must die of state persecution. And it is ultimately statistically impossible that, in the first generation of the church, no Christians died except by state persecution. Even one elderly convert who passed away by natural causes would disprove such an interpretation of Jesus’ words. So whatever application Jesus’ words have, it must be broader than such a woodenly literal interpretation.
Secondly, while Dr. Yoder is correct to note the cross can be a symbol of state persecution, we need to take into account the early church’s demonology. It believed that superhuman beings, and ultimately Satan himself, could also persecute the church directly. The obvious example of this is demonization, but the wider nature of this demonic threat also appears in passages like Heb 2:14-15:
Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, 15 and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.
Proximately, Satan has power over death in this world. All death is in some sense a Satanic event, though ultimately it is also derived from God’s curse (about which, see more below). This fear of death binds people to slavery, in an attempt to assuage their fears and palliate them with sinful pleasures. It is precisely this bondage that Christ frees people from, as the passage goes on to say (2:17-17):
Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. 18 For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.
Christ defeated the ultimate persecutor, Satan, by showing the way through death, thus eliminating the threat sensed within death, and thereby eliminating the fear it produces and the bondage that comes from that fear. This redemptive work was for everyone, and it applies to the fear of death that all people face. And yet we know that there are more ways to die in life than by means of state persecution. Satan has more than one tool in his kit. There is no reason to think state persecution is the only kind of demonic harassment Christians might face.
Thirdly, when Paul takes up this same theme of participating in the death of Christ, he applies the concept much more widely (2 Cor 4:5-18):
For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. 6 For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.
7 But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. 8 We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; 9 persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed;10 always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. 11 For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. 12 So death is at work in us, but life in you.
13 Since we have the same spirit of faith according to what has been written, “I believed, and so I spoke,” we also believe, and so we also speak, 14 knowing that he who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and bring us with you into his presence. 15 For it is all for your sake, so that as grace extends to more and more people it may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God.
16 So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. 17 For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, 18 as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.
In this passage, Paul feels free to include an internal psychological pain, perplexity, in his list of experiences that exemplify “carrying in the body the death of Jesus.” Shortly after, he equates this “carrying” with a “light momentary affliction” in which “our outer self is wasting away.”
Elsewhere Paul writes (Rom 8:16-17): “The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, 17 and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.” Dr. N.T. Wright correctly explains this verse 17:
This is the fulcrum about which the whole discourse now pivots. Once Paul has established that all those in Christ and indwelt by the Spirit are “children of God,” the end of the argument is in sight: If we are God’s children, we are also God’s heirs. This is the real reason why he implied that Christians were indebted to God (8:12), and it indicates the substance of the paragraph to come. Paul quickly explains in more detail what it means to be God’s heirs: It means that one is a fellow heir with the Messiah. As Christians have shared his prayer, as a symptom of their sharing in his sonship, so they will also share in his inheritance. If he is to be Lord of the world, ruling over it with sovereign and saving love, they are to share that rule, bringing redemption to the world that longs for it (cf. 1 Cor 6:2-3; Paul takes this idea for granted, strange though it may be to us, and assumes that his hearers do so too). But, as Jesus himself solemnly warned, there is a cost involved (see Mark 8:34-38). The road to the inheritance, the path to glory (the two are now, at last, seen to be more or less synonymous) lies along the road of suffering. 3
The rest of the unit of thought 8:17 falls in, extends to 8:30, through discussions of the groaning of creation, the groaning of believers for their resurrection bodies, and the groaning of the Spirit which entails God’s providential care for believers through “all things” (8:28). In this passage, the apostle links the necessity of the suffering of believers with their continued existence in the present age. In the mind of the apostle, this age is the age of the curse, where the earth produces thorns and decay. It is the age where human beings can be subject to suffering on account of, e.g.: tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, danger, the sword, angels and rulers, things present and things to come, powers, height nor depth, and anything in creation. It is the age where all human beings must live in bodies which will eventually return to dust.
Paul’s reflections on these themes are profound, and warrant many books dedicated to them entirely. But the important point for our purposes here is to note: for the apostle, taking up the cross of Christ was not simply about being a persecuted minority in society. It was about enduring the effects of the curse; it was about accepting death in all its forms (literal and figurative) from the hand of God, and living in the certain hope that one day we will be redeemed from it, just as Christ has been. Not taking up the cross is not essentially about the minority’s temptation to take political and social power; refusing the cross is rather essentially repeating the sin of the Garden. Not taking up one’s cross is an action rooted in distrust in God’s goodness, leading to an attempt to minimize our pain and maximize our happiness by making moral compromises and breaking God’s commands. 4
Some passages in Jesus’ teaching do not directly address violence, but nevertheless become relevant to the issue because they directly address political matters. One such case is the conversion including the famous saying, “render to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s,” found in all the synoptics, and in Matthew 22:15-22. Dr. Christopher Bryan, in his book Render to Caesar: Jesus, the Early Church, and the Roman Superpower, provides the best interpretation of this answer’s political significance:
Aside from Jesus’ comment on the motives of those who question him, his initial response takes the form of a request for clarification and information. “Bring me a denarius and let me see it. … Whose head… is this, and whose title…?” But, of course, the “request” is really a rhetorical trap. “The emperor’s,” they say. Indeed, they can say nothing else. That, after all, was precisely what many of them disliked about the coin. What then? Disliked or not, the emperor’s head and inscription meant that it was the emperor’s coin, and according to ancient understanding a ruler’s coin was his property. The trap springs. “Give… to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s.” Jesus’ statement is, actually, more forceful than his questioners required, since he has exchanged the rather general word for payment… that they used for a much more precise word…–a word that speaks of payment as “a contractual or other obligation,” or restoration “to an original possessor.” The implication is, “Pay up what you owe! Give back to the Emperor what is his!” Pace Horsely, I cannot see how such a response, to such a question, in the situation in which Jesus and his quesitoners found themselves, can possibly have been heard or intended as “subtle avoidance” or anything of that kind. On the contrary, Jesus’ words, once examined, appear in their context to be quite unequivocal. As Morna Hooker correctly points out, Jesus has said that, “however much the inhabitants of Judah dislike it, they cannot escape the authority of Caesar and the obligation it entails.” 5
Dr. Bryan concludes that this teaching fits with the view he defends throughout Render to Caesar, 6 viz., that Jesus’ view of the political superpowers is the same as that of the biblical Joseph, Daniel, and Ezra. None of these men, it should be noted, were pacifists, nor were they anarchists of any kind.
Another indirectly relevant teaching of Jesus’ is his comment about Gentile rulers. In Matthew, this story is found in chapter 20:
20 Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came up to him with her sons, and kneeling before him she asked him for something. 21 And he said to her,“What do you want?” She said to him, “Say that these two sons of mine are to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.” 22 Jesus answered, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am to drink?” They said to him, “We are able.” 23 He said to them,“You will drink my cup, but to sit at my right hand and at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father.” 24 And when the ten heard it, they were indignant at the two brothers. 25 But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. 26 It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, 28 even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
The parallel texts are phrased slightly differently. In Mark 10 the text runs thus:
42 And Jesus called them to him and said to them, “You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them.
And in Luke 22:
24 A dispute also arose among them, as to which of them was to be regarded as the greatest. 25 And he said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, and those in authority over them are called benefactors.
The most important phrases to discuss are “lord it over” (κατακυριεύω), “exercise authority” (κατεξουσιάζω), “exercise lordship” (κυριεύω) and “in authority” (ἐξουσιάζω).
With regard to the first word κατακυριεύω, 1 Pet 5:3 also commands elders not to do this. Yet, the NT regards elders as having actual authority over their churches (e.g., 1 Cor 16:16; 1 Pet 5:2; Heb 13:7, 17; 1 Tim 2:12-3:7, noting especially 3:5, which draws a direct parallel between the authority of a parent and that of an elder). Jesus and Peter both must mean, then, a tyrannical kind of abusive authority, not authority as such, which is reflected in translations such as “lord it over” and “domineer.”
The second word, κατεξουσιάζω, is used in the apocryphal Acts of Thomas 98 of a man attempting to rape a woman, and in Tatian’s Letter to the Greeks (15) of matter’s attempt to dominate the spirit (which for Tatian is clearly an evil thing). Thus the word can certainly have connotations of a kind of tyrannizing, rather than entailing an ethically neutral holding of authority.
The third word, κυριεύω, can also sometimes seem to have the connotation of pejorative form of ruling, something more like domineering. 7 Given that Paul disclaims doing this to the faith of the Corinthians in 2 Cor 1:24, while nevertheless claiming to have real authority over them in 1 Cor 4:18-21; 2 Cor 10:8; and 13:1-3, there is some evidence the word can have a pejorative connotation in the NT corpus.
The fourth word, ἐξουσιάζω, can be used in a positive setting, as it is in 1 Cor 7:4, where Paul affirms spouses have this over their spouses bodies. On the other hand, Paul can use it with an apparently negative connotation, as in 1 Cor 6:12: “ I will not be enslaved by anything.” The first use by Paul entails having ἐξουσιάζω is not intrinsically wrong, and the second shows the word can be used with a pejorative connotation.
All of the words Jesus uses to describe activities common to Gentile rulers, in other words, can have a pejorative meaning. Alongside this lexical point, we must also recognize Jesus affirmed authority in various ways. He taught it would be present even in the age to come (Matt 19:28): “Jesus said to them, ‘Truly, I say to you, in the new world, when the Son of Man will sit on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.’” He also taught that disciples had the authority to excommunicate recalcitrant church members (Matt 18:17): “If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” He said there would be scribes in the kingdom (Matt 13:52), who by definition have the authority of experts in their religious community. In fact, nowhere in the OT and the NT is authority per se criticized as immoral. The natural conclusion to draw for this pericope is that Jesus is saying his disciples should not “rule” anyone in the pejorative senses these words have. But that leaves open the possibility of righteous rule by disciples.
It is worth noting, as a final comment on this passage, that the sentiment Jesus expresses is not original to him. Arguably, the sentiment appears in Psalm 58:1-2:
Do you indeed decree what is right, you gods?
Do you judge the children of man uprightly?
No, in your hearts you devise wrongs;
your hands deal out violence on earth.
As well as Psalm 82:1-4:
God has taken his place in the divine council;
in the midst of the gods he holds judgment:
“How long will you judge unjustly
and show partiality to the wicked? Selah
Give justice to the weak and the fatherless;
maintain the right of the afflicted and the destitute.
Rescue the weak and the needy;
deliver them from the hand of the wicked.”
And the observation of the Preacher in Eccl 4:1:
Again I saw all the oppressions that are done under the sun. And behold, the tears of the oppressed, and they had no one to comfort them! On the side of their oppressors there was power, and there was no one to comfort them.
In other words, Jesus says nothing more than what the OT has already taught, which is that it is commonplace for authorities to abuse their power. This does not mean it believed this was an absolute and fixed law of behaviour for even Gentile magistrates; in fact, the OT contains several stories where the acts of Gentile kings receive approval (Pharaoh in Joseph’s day; Nebuchudnezzar after his conversion; Cyrus’ decree that the Jews could return home; etc.). It is not rule in general, but the abusive kind of rule which Jesus forbids his to followers, as well as the more fundamental attitude of pride that such abuse flows from.
As we noted in the first installment of this series, when Jesus said to Peter (Matt 26:52), “Put your sword back into its place[, f]or all who take the sword will perish by the sword”, he uttered a common piece of timeless wisdom. This statement finds OT precedents, where it could not be pacifistic. What it really means is something people have truly recognized forever: that unjust aggression provokes vengeance from others. At least in the OT, however, this was not taken to mean that state coercion could never be effective. Further, it would find clear application in the case of revolutionaries and the seditious. These people, the OT taught, were very likely to meet a nasty end as a result of state vengeance. It is this aspect of the saying in particular which directly applies in Jesus’ context, for Peter’s violent act was committed against deputies of the state, and no doubt had a zealot holy war ideology as its engine. But Jesus knew the zealot agenda had no chance of succeeding against the might of the first century Roman empire. All those who took up the sword in that sense and context would surely die by it. And sadly, because they did not heed his warning, that is exactly what happened to Jewish zealot movements in 70 AD.
By far, the most common event in Jesus’ life used to justify pacifism is his submission to crucifixion. The basic claim is that his refusal to defend himself was an expression of his condemnation of violence in general. He regarded dying as preferable to killing in all situations, and so also in that situation.
But there are problems with this argument. Interpreting the intentions behind actions can often be difficult, for the same actions can be motivated by very different intentions. And such is the case with being willing to die. Granting that Jesus willingly suffered death, a number of possible explanations could provide the rationale for this act, without entailing pacifism.
One such motive would be to provide the propitiation for the sins of mankind. While some scholars have attempted to refute this possibility by denying the NT teaches Christ’s death was a propitiation, that attempt should be regarded as a failure. So this provides one reason. The logic of just war theory provides another. Given Jesus’ historical situation, where he knew very well that God did not wish to save him by means of legions of angels, and where his human followers had no political power, Jesus could not actually wage a successful war against the Herods, the Sanhedrin, and the Roman empire. He had no prospect of success. Further, in the system of human positive law that he lived under, Jesus had no political authority. These two facts alone mean, by just war logic, that he could not rightly fight to protect himself from death when the crowds came to arrest him. Just war criteria demanded his surrender at this point.
Pacifists will also sometimes suggest that Jesus’ death at the hands of the Romans somehow entails that government per se is always unjust, or at least that capital punishment is such. But of course, this does not follow with any kind of necessity from Jesus’ death. This conclusion must be read into his death first before it can be read out of it. For even in Jesus’ day people were well aware that unjust killing could happen (e.g., there were OT laws against murder for a reason) without concluding that capital punishment was therefore always unjust.
We return once again to the six major moral rationales given for pacifism:
The texts discussed above, upon close analysis, provide no positive support for any of these arguments. Some of the passages, in fact, contradict them: Jesus teaches his disciples to practice excommunication, suggesting he disagrees with 2, 3, and 6. Other texts provide difficulty for the remaining reasons. For example, Jesus predicted that Rome would soon come to crush the Jewish revolt (e.g., Luke 23:27-31). This contradicts 1, for it entails the imperial response would be definitive. It also would seem to undermine 5, for it presents a case where God sends non-eschatological (i.e., human mediated) justice to nevertheless definitively accomplish a political judgment. Perhaps, too, this event shows the consistency of love with violent judgment. For while Jesus appeals to God as the perfect exemplar of enemy-love in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5:45, 48), he is also quite clear that God is the ultimate agent behind the coming Roman desolation of Jerusalem (Matt 21:38-44; cf. Luke 20:13-16).
Regardless of the positive case against moral pacifism from Jesus’ teaching, though, there is a distinct lack of evidence in favour of it. And as with the NT data outside of Jesus’ teaching, none of the texts used to support non-violence seem to be ceremonial or symbolic in nature.
And this brings us back to the beginning of this series, where we noted the significance of “Semantic Axiom Number One”, and Ockham’s razor. That is, if we can find one sufficient explanation for a phenomenon, we should not look for more. And after this survey, we can see that affirmation of the principles found in the OT and natural law can explain all of Jesus’ teachings relevant to the use of violence. We need not take recourse to a new pacifistic cause for his words.