11 Jul 2010

A Weak (But Common) Argument Against Christian Pacifism

Religious 10 Comments

[UPDATE below.]

Today the pastor of a church I have been attending recently went off on a bit of a tangent to explain why he thought Christianity did not imply pacifism. I happen to think it does, but I want to be clear that in this post, I am NOT making a case. All I’m doing is pointing out that one of the pastor’s trump cards is, in my view, really weak.

Specifically, he said something along these lines: “For me, one of the strongest pieces of evidence that Jesus was not commanding us to be pacifists, occurs in His exchange with the centurion. After the centurion says that he is familiar with authority and that all Jesus need do is say the word, Jesus turns to those present and says, ‘In all of Israel I haven’t seen such faith.’ Surely this would have been a great time for Jesus to condemn military service, if He really had a problem with it.”

I have heard Christians make this argument a lot. I think it’s incredibly weak, to the point of not being worth repeating. (Again, I am NOT saying you are wrong if you think it’s OK to be a Christian in the military, in this particular post. All I’m doing is pointing out that the above argument is very weak.)

First of all, it’s always dangerous to have evidence based on what someone did NOT do or say. We quite clearly have Jesus ordering us to turn the other cheek, etc. Jesus didn’t explicitly endorse the centurion’s career, He simply didn’t criticize it in the midst of praising the guy’s faith.

Second, it’s not as if General George Washington interacted with Jesus. This was a centurion serving the Roman Empire, which quite clearly conquered other nations and maintained law and order through crucifixions. So are we to say that Jesus had no problem with aggressive military empires?

Third, let’s use this same logic in two other cases. When Jesus was questioned by Herod and Pontius Pilate, He didn’t tell them they ought to resign. So are we to conclude that Jesus has no problem with the governmental institutions at that time? In particular, can I challenge American evangelicals of today that our form of government departs from the Biblically preferred method of monarchy? (Note that I’m not here taking a stand on monarchy versus democratic republicanism–I’m just pointing out that American evangelicals who love the U.S. military would not use the centurion argument in these other contexts.)

Also, Pilate famously asked, “What is truth?” and the Bible records no answer from Jesus. Are we to conclude that Christianity is compatible with relativism, because Jesus had a great opportunity there to set Pilate straight on truth, and chose not to?

What was really frustrating to me about the sermon was that the pastor said at least twice that “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth” was “sewn into us,” meaning that it just cries out as just that the criminal should receive a proportionate punishment. This astounded me, because the whole point of the Sermon on the Mount is that we are supposed to rise above that mentality.

The pastor didn’t sweep this under the rug completely; he said something about a distinction between it being just to do something, versus actually enforcing the punishment. OK fair enough.

But when I say I think Jesus wanted us to be pacifists–at least as a general rule–I mean that’s what He wanted us to strive for, at the height of commendable behavior. I am not saying it would be unjust to kill a murderer, I’m saying Jesus didn’t act like that when He lived among us as a role model, and He quite explicitly told us not to act like that ourselves:

38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’[a] 39 But I tell you not to resist an evil person. But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. 40 If anyone wants to sue you and take away your tunic, let him have your cloak also. 41 And whoever compels you to go one mile, go with him two. 42 Give to him who asks you, and from him who wants to borrow from you do not turn away.

43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor[b] and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you,[c] 45 that you may be sons of your Father in heaven; for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet your brethren[d] only, what do you do more than others? Do not even the tax collectors[e] do so? 48 Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect.

UPDATE: You know, is the apparent dichotomy between the Sermon on the Mount and Old Testament law, really as simple as the distinction between legality and morality? In libertarianism, I like to preface an argument for drug legalization by saying, “Just because something should be legal, doesn’t make it moral. I don’t think adultery should be a crime, either, but I’m not thereby condoning infidelity to your spouse.”

So do we have the opposite thing going on here? God lays down the Law–literally–to Moses, and Jesus comes along and assures us that He’s not overturning it. However, is He teaching us that the moral thing to do is refrain from meting out the punishment that someone deserves–just as God has spared us from hell?

In other words, going back to the pastor’s sermon today, we can say, “Yes God told us it would be legal to kill a murderer, but Jesus said it would be immoral.”

Can you Biblical experts tell me how this squares with Paul, Luther, etc.?

10 Responses to “A Weak (But Common) Argument Against Christian Pacifism”

  1. Robbie says:

    As an example, that was one of the main points that caused the Jews to reject the Savior, they were looking for a political savior after the order of Moses to free them and restore the Tribes of Isreal to the seat of government that had been displaced by the Romans.

    Christ came to be lifted upon the cross and be judged of the world. The command given to us is to throw off old things and be living sacrafices of the same Order.

  2. P.S.H. says:

    It is misleading to say that the Roman Empire “quite clearly conquered other nations.” Beginning with Augustus, the Romans largely contented themselves with maintaining the territory they had already acquired. In this respect, Tiberius followed in his predecessor’s footsteps.

    • bobmurphy says:

      Do you mean the Roman Republic conquered other nations, and then the Emperors just tread water? (I’m not being sarcastic.)

      • P.S.H. says:

        More or less—provided that by “the Emperors” you mean the early ones. If you doubt my judgment, look no further than Edward Gibbon:

        “The principal conquests of the Romans were achieved under the republic; and the emperors, for the most part, were satisfied with preserving those dominions which had been acquired by the policy of the senate, the active emulation of the consuls, and the martial enthusiasm of the people. The seven first centuries were filled with a rapid succession of triumphs; but it was reserved for Augustus to relinquish the ambitious design of subduing the whole earth, and to introduce a spirit of moderation into the public councils. Inclined to peace by his temper and situation, it was easy for him to discover that Rome, in her present exalted situation, had much less to hope than to fear from the chance of arms; and that, in the prosecution of remote wars, the undertaking became every day more difficult, the event more doubtful, and the possession more precarious and less beneficial.”


        “Happily for the repose of mankind, the moderate system recommended by the wisdom of Augustus was adopted by the fears and vices of his immediate successors. Engaged in the pursuit of pleasure or in the exercise of tyranny, the first Cæsars seldom showed themselves to the armies, or to the provinces; nor were they disposed to suffer that those triumphs which their indolence neglected should be usurped by the conduct and valour of their lieutenants. The military fame of a subject was considered as an insolent invasion of the Imperial prerogative; and it became the duty, as well as interest, of every Roman general, to guard the frontiers intrusted to his care, without aspiring to conquests which might have proved no less fatal to himself than to the vanquished barbarians.”

        “The only accession which the Roman empire received during the first century of the Christian era was the province of Britain. In this single instance the successors of Cæsar and Augustus were persuaded to follow the example of the former, rather than the precept of the latter.”

        The slow conquest of Britain began, in effect, under Claudius (who was not emperor until after any plausible data for the crucifixion).

  3. fundamentalist says:

    Some of the difficulties in reconciling the OT and NT requires understanding the cultural setting of the writings. A book like Edersheim’s “Life and Times of Jesus Messiah” is very helpful because Edersheim was a converted Jew and looked at Jesus’ life and teaching from the perspective of an orthodox Jew in Jesus’s day. In the day, hyperbole was a common rhetorical device, as it is today. I think that might be the case with “I tell you not to resist an evil person.” At the individual level it might be possible to do this, but to do that at the societal level would require getting rid of the police and courts and letting criminals have their way. Is that what Jesus really intended?

    And what about calling your brother a fool? Did Jesus really mean that it is the moral equivalent of murder?

    Did Jesus intend to overturn all of society’s norms of behavior? Or was he using hyperbole to convince the Jewish leadership that they were sinners in need of a savior? I think the latter. Even in the case of the woman taken in adultery, Jesus placed more value on convincing the men that they were guilty of sin as much as the woman they accused.

    According to Edersheim, Jesus’ number one problem was convincing the Jews that they were sinners in God’s eyes. They didn’t see it that way. They held a very low view of sin. They thought that being Abraham’s children and devoting themselves to study of the law made them privileged and that their sins were so small that God would just wink at them. In fact, Jews invented purgatory as a way for the really bad Jews to still get into paradise. They saw no need for a spiritual savior. Most of Jesus’s encounters with the Jewish leadership involve him trying to convince them of their need for a spiritual savior. He sometimes used hyperbole in order to get their attention and get his point across.

  4. Scott says:

    38a “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’”

    Quoted from Exodus 21:24, is a judicial verdict that fits the crime. Just punishment – equal justice. Nothing less – nothing more.

    39 “But I tell you not to resist an evil person. But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also.”

    Jesus juxtaposes the judicial verdict with personal insult. Most people are right-handed. To slap a person on the right cheek would be to slap him with the back of the hand. Getting back-handed across the face is to be insulted. Jesus has taught them to resist personal vengeance when personally offended.

  5. K Sralla says:

    The main thrust of Jesus moral teaching was in condemning the blatant legalistic hypocrisy that was leading Israel away from God. The religious leaders used the Law of Moses to masquerade as righteous people, reserving for themselves the authority and power to pass down judgment on the common folks and the “morally reprehensible”, while themselves living as wretchedly as everyone else. Through their not-so-transparent play acting, they silently preached a theology which told Israel that salvation was to be found in the precise and forensic adherence to legal ritualism. In following their perverse system, they often went out of their way to avoid doing genuinely good works motivated by love, all-the-while technically adhering to the precise letter of the law.

    Then enters into the scene John the Baptist first, and later Jesus, preaching a message of genuine repentance, not only from this dead outward ritualistic legalism, but from all inward and outward sin. Jesus stressed through his miracles, that deliverance from sin was not found through the technical works of the law as administered by the legal authorities, but through repentance and faith in God which leads to a genuine righteousness that is summed up simply by loving both God and neighbor. The Sermon on the Mount was a withering critique of the sterile legal system, and demonstrated that true Godly righteousness is light-years away from the code which the religious leaders were preaching.

    Then comes Paul and the Apostles. Paul’s message (essentially the same as Jesus) was that “the just shall live by faith”, not the dead works of the legal code. Paul recounted through his personal testimony that he had once been a legal and religious zealot himself, but in his legal zeal, the dead letter of the law actually brought more sin into his life than even if he had been born without the law. Then he met Jesus, and by faith in Christ, his sins became “aphesis” and his life changed. He then lived a life characterized by love and service, against which there is no law. This is why religious ritualism, such as the imposition on the Gentiles to be circumcised or keep the dietary law, was so fought against by Paul. It was the antithesis of the true gospel which declares a true inner righteousness that comes through faith, not religious play acts of self-righteousness.

  6. Lucas M. Engelhardt says:

    Agreed. The argument was a weak one – and it’s an argument that Christian pacifists have been having to answer for hundreds of years.

    My thoughts…

    I don’t think that the legal/moral distinction quite captures it… mostly because it requires us to accept that the God-given OT Law was immoral. And that seems… problematic.

    Anyway, a few thoughts…

    (1) K Sralla’s point is a good one. The general thrust of this passage in the Sermon on the Mount is “Here’s this outward rule – but it’s just as bad if you lack inward righteousness.”

    (2) Some suggest that the “eye for eye” rule is actually meant as a LIMIT on punishment. In the Exodus 21 context, this seems sensible since Ex. 22 talks about how theft results in somewhere between double and quintuple damages, depending on the case. Also, according to the great Bible Scholar Wikipedia, Jewish scholars typically don’t read the “eye for eye” text literally – but rather as a statement that justice should be proportionate to the injury done – though there are exceptions.

    Anyway, if the purpose was to establish a limit on punishment (to replace a vaguely defined disproportionate “vengeance”), then “do not resist” is a STRENGTHENING of the OT principle. (“Not only should you not hurt them worse than they hurt you – you shouldn’t demand restitution from them at all!”)

  7. fundamentalist says:

    I agree with all of the above, but want to add that we should consider the purpose of each document. The law was the civil code for a government. By necessity it will not deal with motives. Jesus’ teaching were meant for individuals to guide us in personal righteousness. He never intended to write civil code.

    Still, the Mosaic law is based on morality. It’s not arbitrary. The OT comes closest to Jesus in the Ten Commandments. The consensus among Protestant theologians regarding the OT law is that we are no longer bound by the specific civil code, but the morality underlying it still holds because it reflects the nature of God. God’s administration (his civil code) changed at different times, but his character never changes and morality issues from his character. So today we try to discern the morality behind the OT law, and to some degree that was what Jesus was doing.

    And as KSralla wrote, the Jewish leadership thought that their rituals covered their sins. Jesus was trying to break through their hard hearts and thick skulls to convince them that 1) their sins were much worse than they would admit and 2) rituals could never cover up their sins.

  8. Lukus says:

    Good post, Bob. I’ve had this argument used against me in a debate before. That’s about the point you start wondering if it’s worth the trouble.

    Interestingly, I had a somewhat similar experience with a pastor approvingly mentioning the US military. I wrote about it on my blog if you’re interested.

    Part 1: http://foraradicalpeace.blogspot.com/2010/05/military-defends-my-freedom.html

    Part 1: http://foraradicalpeace.blogspot.com/2010/05/christians-should-honor-military.html