Written by Mikey Ward. Media by Noah Henry.
In his 2011 Society of Vineyard Scholars presentation, Jev Forsberg states that “the topic of violence has been on the minds and in the hearts of Christ-followers since the climactic birth of the Christian movement: the violent death of Christ on a Roman cross.” Furthermore, we can suggest that one is called into action when confronted with violence. Throughout history it has been perceived that there have been two prominent responses: fight or flight. However, “violence only begets more violence. No violence can therefore ever be redemptive.” Thus, as a Christian we must turn to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is here that followers of Christ are commanded to fight. However, the Christian call to fight is void of violence. Instead, Jesus calls Christians to love God, neighbor, and enemies as their self. In doing so, we are commanded to fight for peace. Now commonly theorized as pacifism, this command is derived from the Sermon on the Mount. Furthermore, we are commanded to bring about the Kingdom of God here on earth. As a result, we cannot utilize worldly means to bring about a holy end. Thus, we are commissioned into love through and in Christ. We must allow the love of Christ to dictate our actions. This is not an easy task. Bertrand Russell, a non-Christian and 20th century philosopher, expresses the difficulty apparent in this simple command when he states, “there is nothing to be said against (the Christian principle) except that it is too difficult for most of us to practice sincerely.” Consequently, Christians throughout Church history have struggled to obey this command. Specifically, since the marriage of the Church and the Roman state in the 4th century, Christianity have justified and utilized violence to further the Body of Christ. In doing so, however, it has contradicted and compromised the revolutionary power at work in the words, life, death and resurrection of Christ. Therefore, in the attempt to live in accordance to Christ, I believe in and continue to attempt to reflect Christian pacifism. Accordingly, I must support my stance through an examination of Just War, Romans 13, and critiques of pacifism. In doing so, I hope to bolster my belief and better articulate why I feel called into a personal and peace oriented relationship with Jesus.
In his work, Why I am not a Pacifist, C. S. Lewis attempts to demonstrate how pacifism is not a valid approach to violence. He does so by separating pacifism from Christ. In doing so, he demonstrates the weaknesses apparent in the argument for pacifism. He states that pacifism is a position that states that war and violence should never be used. He supports his notion of pacifism through the following premises. First, that war does more harm than good. Second, that death is the worst evil. However, Christian pacifism does not rely on these premises. Instead, Christian pacifism places the concern of causality in the hands of God. In doing so, Christian pacifists renounce their control to destiny and hand it over to God. As a result, they have no need to worry about whether or not war accomplishes good or evil. Rather, they only need to fully trust in God. Thus, we see the position of Christian pacifism as fully dependent on God in all matters. Consequently, Christian pacifism forces one to be fully obedience to God and emulate the life of Christ—life, death, and resurrection. It is through Jesus’ very own death that we see that death has no power over Christianity. Instead, it has been and will continue to be a sign of God’s renewing power. Therefore, Christians ought to have no fear of death and should confidently proclaim “o death, where is your sting? O grave, where is your victory” (1 Corinthians 15:55). This is further demonstrated by Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s last words: “This is the end…for me the beginning of Life.”
Through the example of Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Nazi Germany we see the attempt to practice Christian pacifism thwarted. In an overly Anti-Semitic German Church, Bonhoeffer was known for taking the most radical approach towards Nazism. However, in the face of Hitler’s Nazi Germany, Bonhoeffer demonstrates the ideology of Just War rather than pacifism. In April 1933 Bonhoeffer produces a lecture and article entitled, “The Church and the Jewish Question.” In it he provides three possibilities of action for the Church in Nazi Germany. Bonhoeffer exemplified each in the following six years. First, the Christian church ought to question the State’s legitimacy. Second, the church ought to aid or suffer alongside the victims of state action. Third, the church ought to put a stake in the wheel of the State through direct political action. Through his eventual activity in the Abwerh, a German secret service agency, Bonhoeffer dismisses the peaceable modes of pacifism for the notion of Just War. Derived from Augustine’s work, Just War is a utilitarian approach to violence. It states that violence of lethal force can be used when a few are killed for the betterment of the larger whole. However, unlike Augustine and the Just War theory, Bonhoeffer identified that his actions were sinful, not holy. By attempting to kill Hitler, Bonhoeffer was not bringing about God’s kingdom here on Earth. Thus, Stanley Rosenbaum, a Jewish rabbi, is right by stating that Dietrich Bonhoeffer was “the best of a bad lot.” However, when we examine the rest of the overly anti-Semitic German Church, it is obvious why Bonhoeffer has become a hero and testament of faithful obedience. Nonetheless, through his life Dietrich Bonhoeffer demonstrates that when Jesus calls, he bids us to death. Bonhoeffer furthers this notion in his work Discipleship when he states: “Giving up our desire to take revenge is a hard sacrifice, perhaps the hardest, which Christ requires of us…the first person born on this earth to humankind murdered his brother…never be conceited –lest you become murderers of your brothers.”
Jesus’ command to give up our own desires is the hardest requirement of us. In response to this request many attempt to use the source of scripture to combat Jesus’ commands. Specifically, some would posit that pacifism is in contention with the demand in Romans 13:1-7. Aided by this passage, many claim that Christians are subject to the governing authorities, and therefore are required to obey the government’s call to war. This claim, however, is derived from an erroneous interpretation of the text that does harm to its intended message to the Romans. The first error within this interpretation is that it ignores the larger body of teachings about the State by centralizing Romans 13 as the authoritative or lordly doctrine of the state. However, in other biblical passages, the State is considered and referenced as the dominion of Satan. This dominion of Satan is one of the fallen Powers often referred to in the New Testament. For example, in Matthew 4:1-11, the dominion of Satan pertains to all of the worldly kingdoms. Although not as explicit as other New Testament passages, Romans 13:1 utilizes the same language of Powers to refer to the ruling authorities. Therefore, it is clear that the Christian position pertaining to the State is more complicated than your rushed interpretation of Romans 13.
Often times, Romans 13:1-7 is interpreted to say that authority, in itself, is self-justifying and thus, God orders our complete obedience to the government. However, this interpretation reads into the text and establishes moral affirmation to the government that does not exist. In Politics of Jesus, John Howard Yoder provides an alternative translation of the verse stating, “the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing,” suggesting that it should read, “they are ministers of God only to the extent to which they carry out their function.” This translation rejects the faulty notion that Christians are morally dependent upon the whims of the government, and suggests that the government is also a morally independent agent capable of wandering from its vocation. Therefore, Christians are not called to obey the governing authorities, but to be subordinate to the governing authorities in suffering, faithful nonresistance. Any interpretation that asserts that all governing authorities have been given moral endorsement from God cannot be accurate. Why would God secure or affirm the very fallen Powers over which Christ had just triumphed?
In fact, such an interpretation of Romans 13:1-7 can only be the result of removing the passages from the contextual theme of chapters 12 and 13.The overall message of chapter 12 is that Christians are not supposed to conform to the ways of the world. Rather, Christians are to exercise suffering love in order to participate in God’s triumph over evil. Romans 12:19 states that Christians are not to seek vengeance or repayment because they should rely solely on God to carry out these acts of judgment. Furthermore, there is no textual evidence that would suggest that this overall theme in chapter 12 fails to carry over into chapter 13, such that verses 1-7 should be read independently. Yoder claims that the similarity in world choice between Romans 12:19 and 13:4 are not a coincidence. He contends that the authorities are allowed to exercise a function—namely, vengeance and wrath. These functions are to be left up to God, not man. In other words, God as the creator and sustainer of the order of the Powers uses the established Powers for His own good plans. Christians, however, are not to participate in the vengeance of the authorities because they must be faithful to God’s command. That is the overall theme of chapter 12 and 13: to live in nonconformity with the world as faithful participants in the Kingdom of God.
In his work, A Little Exercise for Young Theologians, Helmut Thielicke asks his students to look inward and to acknowledge their shortcomings as a pubescent theologian. Central to this work is the necessity for caution. Specifically, he states that young theologians tend to have a hiatus or gap between their knowledge of God and their experience with Him. In regards to loving my enemies through the means of pacifism, I identify that I have a noticeable void between my knowledge of love and my current ability. However, I turn to the work of Brother Lawrence for guidance. He states, “One does not become holy all at once.” Thus, in like manner to the work of previous martyrs and theologians I hope to rely on God for guidance. When reflecting on the works of previous theologians, especially John Wesley, I realize that theology relies on four sources in order to speak about God. The four sources are: scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. Now conceptualized as the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, these four sources all separately reflect and speak of God. However, when thought of separate of one another, they do not fully depict the truth of God. When combined, however, these sources depict a full and comprehensive lens of God in which we can see and speak of His relationship with humanity. When I am attentive to these sources, it is obvious that I am called to make peace through Jesus’ love. At present time I acknowledge that I need to continue to strive for a personal relationship God so that I can continue to deny my own self-seeking desires and comprehend my lifetime call to love and make peace in the face of violence.
 Forsberg, YHWH, Batman, Popeye, and Jerry Falwell: Questioning the Myth of Redemptive Violence, An Exploration of Nonviolent Atonement Motifs throughout the Biblical Text, p. 3.
 Ibid., Forsberg 7.
 Floyd, Wayne Whitson, The Modern Theologians, p. 53.
 Yoder, John Howard, The Politics of Jesus, p. 205.
 Lawrence, Brother, The Presence of God, p. 35.