The Christian Call to Non-Violence

If I’m out to dinner with my family when a crazed assailant starts shooting up the place, am I, as a Christian, permitted to defend myself? Am I permitted to defend others? What if I’m worshipping in my local church and a member of ISIS breaks in with guns blazing? Am I permitted to defend myself then? What if, as a missionary in a country hostile to the Gospel, I get arrested and am physically assaulted for no other reason than for my Christian faith? Do I have a right to defend myself?

These are 3 distinct scenarios that come up (in various forms) when I’m asked to defend my commitment to non-violence. To some degree, Dr. R. Scott Clark recently addressed these scenarios in his post, defending the Christian’s right to self-defense. While I appreciate both his time and perspective in his post, I have concerns regarding some aspects of his argument that I’d like to respond to, in hopes that brothers in Christ, united in a cause to see the Kingdom of our Lord advancing through His Gospel, can have differing opinions on important matters and still maintain true Christian fellowship.

I begin by declaring that I agree with his first paragraph, affirming the sovereignty of God over all, the existence of a redeemed sphere (the Kingdom of God/Heaven) and the created sphere (the kingdom of man/Earth or the “creational institution”), as well as a need to accurately understand the roles of each sphere, as Dr. Clark correctly cites Calvin’s “twofold kingdom”.

In the second paragraph, Dr. Clark states:

There are things that belong to Caesar and there are things that do not. Everything, belongs to God but he administers his kingdom in distinct spheres.

Again, I affirm. He will get no argument from me on this point.

In the third paragraph, Dr. Clark accurately summarizes the error of Constantinianism, and I hope that he knows he has an ally in me, regarding our mutual disdain for the doctrine.

But it’s in the fourth paragraph where he and I will begin to disagree. It appears that Dr. Clark is happy to lump monks and Anabaptists with all who would advocate for a doctrine of non-violence, or commonly (mislabeled) ‘pacifism’. There is absolutely no reason that a follower of Christ could not practice non-violence while still being actively engaged in the world (contrary to the monks who chose to be removed; see John 17:9-16), nor is there reason to think that simply because one adheres to non-violence, that he is necessarily an Anabaptist. This is a fallacy of division, which to be clear, goes something like this: Anabaptists adhere to non-violence. Ryan adheres to non-violence. Therefore, Ryan is an Anabaptist. If I may, all squares are rectangles, but not all rectangles are squares. Though it’s true that Anabaptists adhere to non-violence, they hardly “own” the doctrine, or have a monopoly on it. Pacifism is a doctrine not even owned by Christians, so it hardly seems accurate to assume that all Christians who adhere to such must necessarily be Anabaptists. I believe that the Scriptures call me to a commitment of non-violence WHILE also calling me to be actively engaged in the World. I reject the monks desire to be wholly separate, but I also reject the notion that being committed to non-violence must make me an Anabaptist.

In concluding the fourth paragraph, Dr. Clark writes:

The world that we must repudiate is the remnant of sin and death within ourselves, to which we must die to sin (1 Pet 2:24) but taking up our (metaphorical) cross (Matt 16:24).

Though I agree with the principle of the statement, his parenthetical inclusion of “metaphorical” concerns me greatly. I wonder if Peter and the many Christians who were crucified on a Roman cross considered it metaphorical. Maybe it’s metaphorical in a how one may die, but it must not be understood as a replacement for a call to physical death. Christ taught His disciples that a servant is not greater than His master, if they persecuted Him, they will persecute us (John 15:20). The call to take up our cross and follow Him is fundamental to our call to sacrifice all this world has to offer with the hope that even in the loss of our life, we serve the One who conquered death and will give us a life more abundant. We take up our cross and follow Him, because in Him, we have life.

I affirm his fifth paragraph, but will take up a couple of issues in the sixth. Dr. Clark writes:

Would Abel (Gen 4:8) have sinned had he defended himself against Cain? Was Abel morally obligated to allow Cain to murder him? It would seem not.

How would we know? Does anybody have an exhaustive list of the pre-Mosaic ethical requirements? Clearly God had communicated some kind of moral code, or how else would Noah have known which of the animals were deemed “clean” and which were “unclean”? The truth is, I really don’t know what Abel was morally obligated to do, or not do, nor am I interested in conjecture. This also presents a sort of false dichotomy, as if defending oneself or allowing yourself to be murdered are the only two options. What if Abel ran away from Cain? What if Abel had called for help? Maybe those are included in “self-defense”, but as Dr. Clark indicates, self-defense for him includes even killing the aggressor (in limited circumstances).

From here, Dr. Clark quotes Francis Turretin, whom I generally regard as a great theologian, but is simply not convincing enough for me on this topic. Yes, I’m aware of the Exodus 22 passage, and do not deny that God allowed the use of self-defense for Israel. But the question we are asking is this: is self-defense an option for the follower of Christ, in light of what was both demonstrated and taught by the Lord and the Apostles?

At this point, Dr. Clark gets into the NT material, going for what he calls the, “overwhelming prima facie evidence against the pacifist rejection of the right of self-defense”, Luke 22:35-38.

And he said to them, “When I sent you out with no moneybag or knapsack or sandals, did you lack anything?” They said, “Nothing.” He said to them, “But now let the one who has a moneybag take it, and likewise a knapsack. And let the one who has no sword sell his cloak and buy one. For I tell you that this Scripture must be fulfilled in me: ‘And he was numbered with the transgressors.’ For what is written about me has its fulfillment.” And they said, “Look, Lord, here are two swords.” And he said to them, “It is enough (Luke 22:35-38; ESV).

Dr. Clark then writes, commenting on this critical passage:

This passage alone seems to be overwhelming prima facie evidence against the pacifist rejection of the right of self-defense. Our Lord commanded his disciples to buy swords for no other reason than for self-defense.” (emphasis mine)

I want to say emphatically that I disagree with Dr. Clark, that our Lord did not necessarily have self-defense in mind when He instructed His disciples to buy a sword. And I’m hardly alone in my concern for Dr. Clark’s interpretation. Consider the following commentary on this passage:

In metaphorical language he threatens that they will soon meet with great troubles and fierce attacks; just as when a general, intending to lead the soldiers into the field of battle, calls them to arms, and orders them to lay aside every other care, and think of nothing else than fighting, not even to take any thought about procuring food. For he shows them–as is usually done in cases of extreme danger–that every thing must be sold, even to the scrip and the purse, in order to supply them with arms. And yet he does not call them to an outward conflict, but only, under the comparison of fighting, he warns them of the severe struggles of temptations which they must undergo, and of the fierce attacks which they must sustain in spiritual contests.” (emphasis mine)

The same commentator continues:

It was truly shameful and stupid ignorance, that the disciples, after having been so often informed about bearing the cross, imagine that they must fight with swords of iron. When they say that they have two swords, it is uncertain whether they mean that they are well prepared against their enemies, or complain that they are ill provided with arms. It is evident, at least, that they were so stupid as not to think of a spiritual enemy.” (emphasis mine)

Metaphorical language? Spiritual contests? Shameful and stupid ignorance? And the commentator who said these things? John Calvin.

I want to say, for the record, that Calvin’s language is harsher than I’m comfortable using, but I think his point is abundantly clear, and in direct opposition to Dr. Clark’s point, that Christ could have only meant for the sword to be used in self-defense.

If I may, I also offer the thoughts of Professor Darrell Bock, though not Reformed, is widely regarded as an authority on Luke’s Gospel:

Jesus’ final words make it clear that circumstances are changing. Opposition to the disciples is rising. Where before Jesus had sent them out empty-handed yet they were provided for (9:1-6; 10:3-4), now they will have to take provisions and protection for their travel. They will have to procure a sword. Scripture such as Isaiah 53:12 is finding its fulfillment in Jesus. Jesus is rejected; he is numbered with the transgressors.

The disciples take Jesus’ remarks literally and incorrectly. They note that they have two swords, but Jesus cuts off the discussion. Something is not right, but it is too late to discuss it. As the arrest will show, they have misunderstood. They draw swords then, but Jesus stops their defense in its tracks. He is not telling them to buy swords to wield in physical battle. They will have to provide for themselves and fend for themselves, but not through the shedding of blood. They are being drawn into a great cosmic struggle, and they must fight with spiritual swords and resources. The purchase of swords serves only to picture this coming battle. This fight requires special weapons (Eph 6:10-18).

Again, we see that Christ was not telling His disciples to procure swords to that they could use them in self-defense (Peter would be rebuked just a few moments later for misunderstanding Christ), but to warn the disciples that danger was coming. Spiritual battles with spiritual weapons would be needed. Of course, we shouldn’t be surprised that the disciples took the easy interpretation of our Lord and completely missed His message. This was a recurring theme.

Allow me to state at this point that I don’t believe owning a sword, or a gun, or a knife, is inherently evil or sinful. This point was brought up by Dr. Clark and I want to make it known that I agree with him regarding the ownership of such objects. I am not a gun (sword) owner, but I see no Biblical prohibition against the ownership of such.

The next point that Dr. Clark argues is in “sorting out the distinction between self-defense and martyrdom”. Surely, when Christians are discussing these topics, we can and should look to what Christ did when He was faced with the threat of violence. Now, Dr. Clark will state that Christ did not resist the Roman authorities because He was on a redemptive mission from His Father, and therefore suffering at the hands of the Romans was part of that divine plan. My concern with this logic is this: though it’s correct that He was ordained to suffer for our sins, at the hands of the Romans, the Roman persecution of Christ was NOT for spiritual reasons. They weren’t beating Him because He was a faithful Jewish observer, they were scourging Him because they viewed Him as a political threat to Caesar. This is a vital distinction. Christ was, unjustly, beaten and killed by the magistrate because Christ was perceived as a political threat to Rome. Though Christ declared that His Kingdom was not of this world (John 18:36), they continued with their punishment, ultimately nailing Him to a cross. Since Christ was being beaten for political, and not religious reasons (from the Romans perspective), was Christ entitled to use self-defense? According to Dr. Clark, no, but that’s because He was being obedient to the Father’s will for Him. But I find that reasoning to be spurious. Dr. Clark seems to think that the only time we shouldn’t employ self-defense is when the magistrate persecutes us for our faith. But Christ did NOT use self-defense when He was being persecuted for “treason”. And if the argument is being made that the magistrate’s perspective is not of import, but only the will of our Father, then we MUST be inclined to follow Christ’s example and simply go along with it. Again, they did it to Christ, they may do it to me. And a servant is not greater than His master.

Peter, who would take up his non-metaphorical cross and follow Christ, admonished the Church, when he wrote:

Servants, be subject to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the unjust. For this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly. For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. (1 Peter 2:18-21 ESV)

Unlike Dr. Clark, the Apostle Peter doesn’t seem to care what the motivation or role is of the persecutor. It may by our boss, it may be the magistrate, it may be ISIS. Peter declares that it’s our responsibility to “do good”, and if (or when) we suffer at the hands of our unjust punishers, we are following the example set forth to us by Christ our Lord.  But if Dr. Clark is to believed, we really only need to suffer if A) It’s by the magistrate and B) Because they despise our Christian faith. I don’t see it. We endure persecution because Christ did. Regardless of whose hands that persecution comes by.

But what about us? What if we (Christians), are being persecuted, not for our faith in Christ, but for political or social reasons? Can we employ self-defense? If Christ is our example, I don’t see how we could. We see that Christ was killed for political reasons and “did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly.” (I Peter 2:23) Christ told us to love our enemies, pray for those who persecute us (Matthew 5:44). I don’t see a qualification that we must only follow this if that persecution is coming from the magistrate.

Paul would take this idea and add even more color:

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them…To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:14, 20-21 ESV)

I don’t see room in this passage to kill my attacker. I notice that Christ did not overcome evil with evil, but with good. Am I not to follow His example? The Cross shows us many things, but included in that, doesn’t it show us that God can use cruciform sacrifice to change the hearts of the attackers? What else made the soldiers declare, “Truly this was the Son of God!”?

But what about the scenarios I discussed at the top? Truth be told, I think Christ is calling His Church to follow His lead. If a gunman comes into a restaurant, should I be the one to draw the shooter’s fire? Should I be the one to divert the shooter’s attention? Will my sacrifice be enough to cause him to think about what he is doing? I don’t know. But I would do know is that I don’t see any teaching or example from the New Testament that I’m supposed to gun the lunatic down, you know, for the benefit of the others.

Truth be told, I don’t know what I’d do. I talk a tough game, hiding behind a keyboard. But will I have the strength when ISIS holds a knife against my throat? I sure hope so, but I’m not strong enough to tell you for certain. I know that I’m called to follow my master. But this awareness of my shortcoming provokes me to think eschatologically, pleading with our Lord to come quickly…because I’m not sure I have the strength to do what He has called me to do. To imitate Him.  I’m NOT called to have a working solution for every contingency that could arise should a shooter show up at the mall I’m shopping in.  As Preston Sprinkle writes, “Faithfulness folks. Jesus calls us to faithfulness, not perceived effectiveness.”

Is this about a twofold kingdom? Absolutely. I’m a citizen of one, colonizing in the other. We are ambassadors from the Heavenly Kingdom, sent to engage with those who are dying in an earthly one. I will honor the emperor. I will pay my taxes. And I hope that I will show them that followers of Christ do it differently. When the world kills their enemies, we love ours. When the world shoots those threatening them, we’re going to get them something to eat. And maybe some new clothes.

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