In a previous post, I noted that the way of Jesus, from the beginning, has entailed peace-making. To summarize: In his famous ”Sermon on the Mount,” Jesus blesses the peace-makers because “they will be called children of God” (Matt. 5:9). In that same context, he also pronounces blessing upon the gentle or meek (5:5), the merciful (5:7), and the persecuted (5:10). Each descriptor would seem to imply commitment to peace-making and, in general, a forsaking of violence.
The major voices within the New Testament support this. The Apostle Paul commands blessing for persecutors and living at peace as much as possible (Rom. 12:14, 18). The Apostle Peter charges his readers to follow in Jesus’ footsteps, involving patient suffering as the alternative to retaliation (1 Pet. 2:18-23; 3:9). The Apostle James extols the wisdom from above which is “peaceable” and leads to righteousness and fruitfulness in peace for those who make peace,” (James 3:15-18). And the writer of Hebrews calls his readers to “pursue peace with all and the holiness without which no one will see the Lord,” (Heb. 12:14).
It is remarkable, then, that some followers of Jesus today regard “peacemaking” as less than compelling, and often naively “impractical.” In fact, many assume that living in a world of violence simply requires at least the threat if not the actual use of violence. I posed this question to my friend, Rev. Peter Hough: what would it look like for peacemaking to be our default setting? Here is his thoughtful response.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. distinguished between a philosophy of nonviolence and its techniques—the why and the how. We must first be captivated by the why—the spirit of nonviolence and the “sheer morality of its claim.” Only after giving peace priority in our hearts and minds will we be ready to submit our hands and feet to its discipline. We have to do some inner work first.
We must let peace guide the way we read scripture. As we said before, peace is the privileged ideal and peacemaking the default response commanded and modeled in the New Testament and in the lives of the early Church Fathers and Mothers. But for the last 1700 years the church in the West has come to the New Testament with a different assumption in mind, which has led to a different way of reading. It’s almost as if when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire Christians changed their thinking toward violence from, “Given that we live in a violent empire, how do we witness to the true Prince of Peace and his nonviolent ways?” to, “Given that we have an army and that Christianity along with the empire must now be defended, how do we use the sword in a way that is tempered (or justified?) by the New Testament?”
This change of stance has made all the difference in interpreting scripture. We came to the Bible assuming we would have to (get to?) use the sword and stopped letting the text tell us otherwise. We’ve been reading scripture ever since with these lenses on, but it’s time to try on a different set of lenses to see what parts come into clearer focus and to test whether a different starting position yields a more coherent and compelling reading of the New Testament.
When we assume that we must be peaceful, we begin to recognize the centrality of nonviolence in Jesus’ teaching and living, which is to say that enemy love is essential to understanding what Jesus was demonstrating in his living, dying, and rising again. Through the lens of nonviolence we start to tie back together what Jesus taught and what Jesus did, like disciples on the shore mending their nets.
This is not typical. Mostly we assume that violence is a necessity in this world and then we read the New Testament through that lens. Consequently, the sheer volume of statements about peacemaking and enemy love don’t even register. Instead, we are surprised when someone questions our stance on violence and we go back through scripture to find some way to justify what we already assume to be true.
For example, we point to Jesus saying he didn’t come to bring peace but a sword (Matthew 10.34), failing to remember that just a little earlier he had clearly said that his followers will be the ones killed. When Jesus says he has come to bring a sword, we just assume we get to wield it. Where in Jesus’ teachings would we get that? The sequence in the immediate context is this: You’ll be betrayed and killed (10.21) because I’ve come to bring a sword (10.34), but grab a cross (i.e., not a sword) and don’t try to save your life (10.38-39). All of this happens in the context of sending out the twelve apostles, and we know from ample historical evidence that the disciples did not interpret Jesus’ words as license to use the sword.
Or in another case, looking for permission in Jesus’ words to be violent we read his statement, “Now take a sword” (Luke 22.36), as an eternal command to be followed—personally and nationally—in a way we don’t take Jesus’ command to love our enemies as an eternal command to be followed personally and nationally. And again we’re guilty of stopping short in our reading as soon as our assumptions and preferences find something to cling to, so we don’t allow Jesus to interpret his own words. Jesus immediately gives the reason why they should get swords: not to be violent, but so that the scripture might be fulfilled about his being “numbered with the transgressors” (22.37). And we take it as permission to be violent all these years later even though later that same evening Jesus rebuked his disciples for using the swords he told them to bring along (22.51). Didn’t he command them to bring swords? Then why rebuke them a couple hours later for doing what he said? Unless when they had shown him their two swords his response (“Enough!” 22.38) was more a rebuke of their thinking than an affirmation of their arsenal.
The lenses of peace and nonviolence make reading the New Testament a new and surprising experience. Why not try them on? Just as an experiment, read through the New Testament a couple of times assuming that we are to completely renounce violence, then see what happens. It will be difficult, not because these lenses make it harder to read, but because we have to confront the reasons and fears that make us not want to accept the results. But some of the results are surprising.
For example, in the “Sermon on the Plain” Jesus asks, “Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say?” (Luke 6.46). What had he just said in that immediate context? Love your enemies. Give freely. Forgive everyone. Don’t retaliate. Jesus then gives reasons for following his commands that don’t rely on his authority or our duty, but appeal to the pragmatic and even empirical results of doing what he says. Good trees produce good fruit, so good teaching will produce good results.
Then comes the prophetic closing Jesus delivers to his nation, subjugated in their own land by a brutal foreign power: “If you hear my words and—say what you will or admire them as you like—if you don’t actually practice them, it’s like building on the sand. And when the day of disaster comes, the house will be ruined.” The house here is not the home of the nuclear family and certainly not just a reference to the church. It is the house of Israel. Jesus is saying that the national security of Israel hinges on their willingness to love their enemies, renounce retaliation, and embrace radical forgiveness and active mercy, not only to their own despised Jewish “sinners,” but also to the brutal Romans as well.
So what does it look like to give peace its privileged place as our default understanding and practice? It looks like believing what Jesus says, that our security—personal and national—depends on our ability to make peace and that our refusal to make peace undermines our security. Peacemaking is a real world option, if only because the one who called peacemakers the children of God said the proof of his teaching would be in the lives of the people who followed it.
The most surprising thing about Jesus’ teaching on peacemaking is that he doesn’t just ask us to embrace it because it is right or because he said so. He bets it all on nonviolence being the wise choice. He said it would work, so we can figure out if Jesus was right. If he is who we say he is, we can expect that nonviolence will make the house more secure. And if we find that it doesn’t, then we don’t have to fret any more about Jesus’ teachings because bad fruit comes from a bad tree.
I am reminded of G. K. Chesterton’s statement, “Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried.” The simple fact is that we do not believe that peacemaking leads to greater security, so not only have we not tried it, we haven’t even tried reading the New Testament as if it might be true. Instead, we say, “Only a good guy with a sword can stop a bad guy with a sword.” But in what he taught and what he did, Jesus showed that only a cross can deliver us from the sword—not only the sword in our enemy’s hand, but especially the sword in our own.