A recent Facebook post of mine about military spending led to what I hope will be a healthy conversation amongst some wonderful Christian friends of mine who hold differing views about the permissibility of Christ followers using violence and some other related topics. One friend, who has been a wonderful example to my wife and I of faithfully serving Jesus in Asia, told the story of a comment her husband’s seminary professor made awhile back. This professor said in essence, “The test of whether you are really nonviolent is if you are able to say you would stand by and not try to defend your wife and child if they were attacked by invaders or raped. Then you can claim you are a non-violent person. Short of that, it is only a matter of degree and location.”
The scenario this seminary professor raised is a fairly common “But what if…?” question that Christians genuinely grapple with while trying to determine the validity of nonviolence as a Christian ethical response. For those of you that attend Friendswood Friends Church, I am hoping to teach a 6-8 week course on nonviolent peacemaking starting sometime in August or September. In that course we’ll be diving deep into such issues as: the Church’s stance throughout history, Jesus teachings on nonviolent peacemaking, the hard sayings of Jesus that seem to affirm the use of violence, how to reconcile the Old Testament’s view of God as a warrior with the New Testament’s affirmation that Jesus is the Prince of Peace, foundational principles for nonviolent peacemaking, how Christians should relate to the State, and “But What If” questions that tend to serve as stumbling blocks for Christians embracing nonviolence as the way of Jesus.
Since not everyone can attend that course, I think it would be helpful for others to reflect on a few observations I have about this classic “But What If” scenario. Much could be said, but for brevity’s sake I will simply highlight two big mistakes and one helpful insight we can glean from this seminary professor’s comment.
(1) This professor wrongly assumes pacifists are passive…that a pacifist husband would simply “stand by and not try to defend”. A pacifist is someone who interprets “do not overcome evil with evil; overcome evil with good” (and many other NT teachings) to mean that we are to resist evil acts with direct actions that are always loving (and thus never violent). Let me be clear, the invaders would have to kill me before I would passively sit by and let them harm my family. Still, I hope that I would have the courage to resist with nonviolent means. Besides, given the scenario of multiple invaders, resisting with active nonviolent love would likely be far more effective than if I tried to violently stop them. If I used violence, I’d likely end up dead and perhaps my violent resistance would actually enrage the invaders into raping my wife, even though they had only entered my home with the intent of stealing my possessions.
(2) These types of “But what if…” questions can be very helpful or harmful for determining a Christian ethical response on a given subject (war, abortion, truth-telling, etc.); it depends on how you use them. Ultimately, as Christians we must look to Jesus, allowing our ethics to be determined by His way and teachings and in harmony with the attributes of His Spirit. It can be really helpful to then look at specific scenarios (like the one this professor raised) to ask how an ethic would be applied to that situation. This helps assure that our Christian ethics are not merely high ideals inapplicable in our fallen world. After all, when Jesus said to love our enemies, He surely meant us to apply this ethic in the midst of our fallen world, for in heaven there will be no enemies. The reverse approach, which I’ve seen many Christians use, is to actually determine one’s ethical response on war and violence based on these types of scenarios and then they go to the Scriptures to find some proof texts to support your conclusions. You shouldn’t dismiss an ethical response as contrary to what Jesus calls us to embody based solely on what if situations. Still, these scenarios can be helpful for grounding our ethics in real life. This is why I’ll be taking a whole class to discuss “But what if” questions; however, it will be near the end of the class.
(3) The professor was wise to point out that it is one thing to say you believe in “nonviolence” (by which I mean resisting evil with acts of love that refuse to use violence), but the real question is whether you will act upon that belief. Many pacifists simply intellectually affirm a belief. I’d appreciate your prayers for me to have the courage to put my belief to action. I commend the courage of those who bravely pick up a sword/gun to defend their country, and I truly believe pacifists have no right to claim that war is not the answer unless they find the same courage to pick up their cross and enter into places of oppression as peace-makers armed solely with love. This is why, years ago when I applied to serve with my denomination’s foreign mission organization, two of my three picks for where to be assigned were based in Iraq. If my country is going to bomb Iraqis, then I ought to stand with the suffering Iraqi people, seeking to overcome enmity with love, while telling them about the Good News that God has extended mercy to those of us who treated Him as an enemy. Though I was not assigned to Iraq, I have still tried to put my belief into action and have seen amazing results from the use of nonviolent and loving means. Still, in the end, as disciples of Jesus we are called to be faithful, not effective. That said, I suspect Jesus knew that faithfully using good to overcome evil is the most effective way to make peace.
I hope these reflections will be helpful for each of you as you continue to grapple with how Christians ought to actively be engaged in peacemaking in places of oppression and injustice.
[Written by Jason Porterfield. Given the disproportionate impact of war on the world’s poor, Servants has taken a strong stance in committing to non-violence. Contact us for more information.]