Christians and Nonresistance

Many times in the discussion of Christians and their attitudes toward war, nonresistance and pacifism get tumbled together as a single doctrine without distinction. In fact, nonresistance has numerous facets which make it unique from the doctrines of pacifism. Nonresistance appears to take a broader view of one’s responsibility as a citizen of a country and of the kingdom when it states that Christians should strive to avoid conflict as a daily practice but may, in times of war, serve their fellow citizens through military service in a noncombatant role. Matthew 5:39 gives the doctrine its name;

But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.

This verse can lead a reader astray into thinking that the Lord has called His followers into a passivity in the face of evil but there is much nuance that confers a more positive and active sense to the command. The Christian’s initial order of business upon regeneration is to begin the process of separating him/herself from the world and its ways, including the common use of force to accomplish the objectives of living. The Christian also begins to develop an awareness that they are citizens now of a different kingdom of a higher order while being sojourners in the world. Behavioral expectations come from the former to be practiced in the latter.

Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jews. But now my kingdom is from another place.”

While we sojourn here in this world, the Lord does not however command us to disengage from it. On the contrary, we are obligated to use spiritual means to bring blessing and do good for others (Rom 12:17-21). This said, the most crucial component of the new thinking of a regenerate person is to be directed toward the recognition of a new citizenship and the outward display of that privilege. Through the differences that are to be noted in Christian behavior, an evangelistic awareness is created among non-Christians, attracting some back to the Cross. They are at the center of God’s will and demonstrate their full faith in such. Some may have to pay with their lives for the privilege of following the Lord while others may be rescued by supernatural means. In either case, the testimony that remains will bear witness to greatness of God.

The distinction between nonresistance and pacifism comes in the interpretation of a couple of points. The first is the separation of the Church from the state. The commands of the Bible are written to the regenerate believers who, through their belief, obligate themselves to following and applying these commands. The pacifist will say that because violence is prohibited for the Christian, it is therefore prohibited for the government as well. Second, while Christians are citizens of God’s kingdom and look forward to eschatological restoration of that kingdom again on earth, they retain a responsibility to the state in which they live. The citizen must meet their obligations to support the state (Rom 12:1-7) (except as armed combatants) trusting that the end of the age will come at its appropriate time and usher in the new. This important distinction allows the nonresistant Christian to serve their government in non-combative roles for the common good.

The unbelieving world gives no credence to the doctrine of nonresistance because it is so contrary to the thinking and practice of the unregenerate. It appears that many fellow Christians also share this disdain of Christians who seek to follow the path of nonresistance. Those against the doctrine posit three objections against it. First, they point to Israel as a warring state as recorded in the Word of God. It is to be noted that Israel was a state of the world and an unregenerate people following a different set of commandments. Second, there appears to be a contradiction between the commands of Christ and his call to nonresistance. Critics point to passages such as Matthew 10:34 “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.” Careful exegesis shows that this passage focuses on spiritual division and not war; the same practice usually clears up the confusion surrounding other passages (Luke 22:35-38, 22:50). Finally, there is difficulty in defining the correct relationship of believers to civil government. This is perhaps the most challenging argument against the practice, sometimes leading to charges of hypocrisy. Romans 13:1-7 can be referenced as defining the proper relationship.

Christians and Pacifism

The church is the spiritual, social, and political body that gives its allegiance to God alone. As citizens of God’s kingdom, we trust in the power of God’s love for our defense. The church knows no geographical boundaries and needs no violence for its protection…As disciples of Christ, we do not prepare for war, or participate in war or military service. The same Spirit that empowered Jesus also empowers us to love enemies, to forgive rather than to seek revenge, to practice right relationships, to rely on the community of faith to settle disputes, and to resist evil without violence. “Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective”

The Anabaptist tradition within the larger Church is perhaps the most well-known body of pacifist believers, though the practice is not confined to these Christians. Pacifism, the refusal to engage in military action or violence in revenge or defense, is a radical practice. In the larger world of non-believers, Just War, and increasing violence, the refusal to visit violence on those labeled ‘enemies’ immediately sets one apart from the society norm and expectation. The radicalism extends to our physiological makeup; when we are about to become the victim of a violent act our body and mind naturally seek to act in self-preservation, even to point of exterminating the threat. The Christian who follows the path of pacifist action must strongly apply their allegiance to Christ alone at the expense of their citizenship in the state and more importantly, they must train their mind and body to submit to the suppression of its natural response to react to violence. Dr. Buschart records,

“Anabaptists were the most violently persecuted Christian movement of the sixteenth century, being pursued by both Roman Catholic and Protestant forces, in conjunction with civil authorities. Consequently, Anabaptists were were confronted by the demand to practice in the most radical ways this practice of nonresistance, and many practiced the principle to the point of suffering a martyr’s death.” Exploring Protestant Traditions

The source of the practice of Christian pacifism is deeply rooted in the Gospel. From the mountainside, Jesus said in contrasting the old and new ways  “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, Do not resist and evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” (Mt 5:38-39) Later in the garden he  cautioned Peter “Put your sword back in its place, Jesus said to him, for all who draw the sword will die by the sword.” (Mt 26:52). The Old Testament, often derided as being blood-soaked and hyper-violent, is not neglected either. Micah speaks eschatologically, pointing us forward to the era of the Christ  when he says “They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Naiton will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.” (Micah 4:3)

Over and above the words of Jesus, the pacifist follower will point to the life of the Lord as being completely non-resistant and peace seeking in His lifestyle. With Christ as our center and our revelation, believers are to develop their ethics, morality, and behavior from His example and teaching. These will often run counter to the demands of the state but we are called to be theological thinkers, examining the decisions that we must make in the light of our higher priority membership in the kingdom of Christ. It is to this that our primary allegiance is required teach the pacifists.

The early Church is historically pacifist and there is scant, if any, evidence of early Christians engaging in warfare. There was a gradual acceptance of military service through the centuries with noted objectors – such as the Anabaptist movement – here and there through the records. In our modern era we see the pacifism practiced in Martin Luther King who confronted the violence he encountered with an equally vehement non-resistance. King worked from five principles which fit human bio-social understandings effectively into the notion of Christian pacifism:

  1. Nonviolent resistance is not for cowards as it requires more strength to stand without retaliation.
  2. The non-violent resistance is not intended to humiliate the attacker but to establish love and understanding.
  3. Non-violent resistance is focused on evil, not the people performing the evil act
  4. You must be willing to suffer without retaliation.
  5. The external lack of violence is to be matched with an internal peace.

John Howard Yoder has a prodigious body of work that is rooted in this ideal. He says that we cannot kill other people for whom Christ died. We are to live the first commandment of the Lord, to love Him with heart, mind, and soul and to love our neighbor in the same way. Violence toward them for any reason is seen as contrary to this command.

Despite its inherent attractiveness, pacifism is not without its critics. Some say it is unrealistic in today’s world or that Christ’s words were hyperbole and not meant to be directly applied in this case. Theologians examine the word of Jesus in the light of Paul’s later commands that we be good citizens of the state in Romans 13, going so far as to see this as allowing military service as a part of this obedience. Another argument against the pacifist system is that our own non-violent capitulation may expose us and our neighbors to a greater violence. In this position, our refusal to act does not demonstrate an effective love for neighbor by the absence of our protection. In other words, Justice cannot be restored without the Christian’s action and ethics.

“Again, Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.”  John 20:21