27 Dec 2009

Was Jesus a Pacifist?

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This is a lightly edited article that originally ran on LewRockwell.com a few years ago, but in response to an email from John Goes I dug it up. I thought some new readers might be interested. –RPM

Was Jesus a Pacifist?
By Robert P. Murphy

In a 2002 article, World Net Daily editor Joseph Farah challenges the view that Jesus was a pacifist. Inasmuch as I have asserted otherwise, I’d like to defend my opinion a bit more thoroughly. I’ll first explain the general reasons I believe Jesus was/is a pacifist, and then I’ll address Farah’s specific arguments.

Regardless of His possible divinity, Jesus was clearly a revolutionary thinker who challenged the seemingly natural idea of retribution. Rather than vengeance, Jesus commanded forgiveness (Mt. 18:22). Instead of the pagan ideals of strength and power, Jesus offered the Christian ideals of humility and meekness (Mt. 5:5). Jesus went so far as to demand that His disciples love their enemies (Mt. 5:44).

The above is not in dispute. Even most atheists would agree that Jesus’ teachings were wise precepts concerning the uselessness of hatred and revenge. But did Jesus literally require pacifism?

A straightforward reading would suggest that He did. He literally (given the translation) commanded “whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also” (Mt. 5:39). But perhaps this was just a specific rule? Well, immediately before this famous injunction, Jesus also gave the general rule, forbidding resistance to evil. It is this passage that inspired Christian pacifists such as William Lloyd Garrison and Leo Tolstoy, and I find their interpretation entirely plausible.

Of course, Jesus often spoke in metaphors; one should be very careful in deriving categorical conclusions from a few Gospel passages. When studying not merely His words, but His actions, does it seem that Jesus was a pacifist?

I for one think this is the only sensible conclusion. He rebuked Peter for drawing his sword during His arrest. And of course, the entire purpose of Jesus’ coming to Earth was to suffer unjustly at the hands of evil men, despite the fact that He obviously had the power to prevent this. Such an argument alone doesn’t prove the case for Christian pacifism, but it does show that the doctrine is consistent with Christianity.

Horrible things happen to good people all the time. The use of violence won’t ever “solve” this. Most people would agree that it is impermissible to murder someone, even if so doing would save (through a heart transplant, say) a child from death. Yet most people believe that it is permissible to kill someone in order to prevent him from killing a child. The apparent inconsistency is evaded by classifying the latter case as justifiable defense, and by classifying the dead man as a criminal, worthy of less respect and rights than “civilized” people.

Yet it is precisely this mentality, I claim, that Jesus sought to overthrow. The kingdom of God on Earth can only be realized when everyone voluntarily renounces violence against his neighbors. And isn’t it just possible that the best and surest way to reach that goal is for each of us personally to renounce violence, for whatever reason, right now? To say, “I will lay down my arms just as soon as all the evil people do first” is to guarantee that you will never see the kingdom of God in your lifetime.

* * *

We now move on to Farah’s arguments. He really has only two. First, he reminds us that Jesus came, not to overturn the Mosaic Law, but to fulfill it. He also reminds us that Jesus and God the Father are the same. Therefore, since the God of the Old Testament was clearly not a pacifist, Jesus can’t be either:

Moving to the Gospel of John, we learn that Jesus is eternal. He always was and He always will be. He made the world and the universe. He is one with the Father. So, all of the commandments of God, as we know them, in what Christians call “the Old Testament,” are likewise the commandments of Jesus. He didn’t come to overturn them. He came to fulfill them.

Read the Book of Judges and you will find that God told the Jews to utterly destroy entire unrighteous nations so that they could occupy the Promised Land. When the Jews failed to do this, they paid a heavy price. In Genesis, God Himself destroys Sodom and Gomorrah because of immorality. Throughout the Old Testament, we witness God destroying unrighteous men and ordering unrighteous men destroyed. Keep in mind, also, we are told in Hebrews 13:8 that Jesus is the same yesterday and today and forever.

If Jesus is the same yesterday, today and forever, that means Jesus destroyed unrighteous men and ordered unrighteous men destroyed.

Now this is, to me, a rather strange argument. Granted, to the extent that we use the Trinity to make Jesus the same as the Old Testament God, then Jesus isn’t a pacifist. (And we can also prove that Jesus is His own grandfather. That’s part of the danger of reasoning with a doctrine that is beyond human reason.) But that’s not what Christian pacifists mean; I don’t think anybody would argue that the God of Moses was a pacifist. In any event, when I say that I think Jesus was a pacifist, I mean the living and acting man of the New Testament renounced the use of violence, and commanded His followers to do the same.

More serious, I simply cannot understand Farah’s argument concerning the Mosaic Law. In the very sermon in which Jesus states that He has come to fulfill it, Jesus goes on to “update” all sorts of Old Testament commands. It is true, for most of them Jesus merely increases the requirements, in the sense that a Christian must not only obey the letter of the Law but do so with the right heart.

Nonetheless, Jesus clearly overturns many literal rules of the Old Testament. The most relevant for the current article is the “eye for an eye” revision; this was not some pagan barbarism, but commanded by God (Ex. 21:24). God also told the Jews not to gather food on the Sabbath (Ex. 16:28-29). Indeed, when Jesus’ disciples did this (with His approval), the Pharisees accused Him of breaking the Mosaic Law (Mk. 2:23-24). Finally, Jesus did not endorse the Mosaic penalty of stoning for an adulteress, but rather forgave the woman and told her to sin no more (Jn. 8:3-11).

Farah’s only other argument is Jesus’ command to purchase swords (Lk. 22:36). Now this is one instance where I think Jesus is speaking metaphorically; in the context it seems to me that He is trying to prepare His disciples for the fact that their leader will soon be taken from them. (In any event, He says that two swords are “enough.” I have heard one interpretation that Jesus was exasperated that His disciples had once again misunderstood His message, and so said, in effect, “Enough of this.” But even if one takes that literally—so that two swords among all his disciples are “enough”—then this hardly seems reconcilable with Farah’s belief that Jesus believed in smiting evildoers.)

Shortly after the admittedly troublesome (from a pacifist viewpoint) verse in which Jesus tells his followers to buy swords, He is arrested. He rebukes Peter for cutting off the ear of the high priest’s servant, saying, “Put up again thy sword into his place: for all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword” (Mt. 26:52).

* * *

In conclusion, I think there is ample Biblical support for the belief that Jesus was a pacifist, and that Christianity is a pacifist creed. I realize the case is not beyond doubt; I am certainly open to counterarguments. However, I don’t think the particular claims of Farah are very convincing, as I have tried to show above.

Finally, let me end by saying that I am not claiming that someone who, say, shoots a home invader is therefore a “bad Christian.” Such a judgment on my part would itself be contrary to my interpretation of Christianity. My only purpose in writing the present article was to explain why I personally think Jesus was a pacifist, and why I try to live up to that difficult requirement in my own life.

Robert P. Murphy holds a Ph.D. in economics from New York University. He is the author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Great Depression and the New Deal (Regnery, 2009), and is the editor of the blog Free Advice.

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