Yesterday was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day here in the United States. Americans of all ethnic backgrounds, ages, genders, and faiths came together to celebrate the life of a man who served as a crucial voice in the civil rights movement, urging his fellow citizens to recognize all races as truly equal in the eyes of the law (and in the eyes of the beholder). He may not have been a popular figure in his own time, but without Rev. Dr. King’s work, I daresay we wouldn’t be nearly as far along our struggle to end racism as we are. But what truly made MLK stand out was his chosen mode of operation: nonviolent resistance.
King detested violence in any form for any purpose, even the purpose of gaining equal protection under the law. He believed violence would never be an appropriate response to anything: “The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it. Through violence you may murder the liar, but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth. Through violence you may murder the hater, but you do not murder hate. In fact, violence merely increases hate. So it goes. Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars.”
Christians like Dr. King have long debated the uneasy relationship between Christianity and violence. (Already you’re saying, “What? Violence and Christianity have a relationship? Well, yeah.) Most people are quick to denounce overt violence carried out in the name of God; the Salem Witch Trials, the Crusades, and the Inquisition stand out as dark spots in a faith claiming to be founded by the one who said “I am the Light of the World” (John 8:12). I know of a few people who will attempt to defend the Crusades, stating they halted the ingress of Islam into Europe (which, according to some scholars, is true) — but no one will condone the murder of other human beings on ideological grounds.
Or will they? There are three approaches to violence, two of which describe the majority of Christians: pacifism/nonviolence, just war theory, and the “no holds barred” ideology of stalwart jingoists and others. The first two, pacifism and just war, are adhered to by a majority of Christians. Certain strains of evangelicalism may stray towards a “violence can be necessary even if it doesn’t fit your criteria” mentality, but I find this view completely indefensible from a proper biblical ethic; as such, I’ll spend most of my time on pacifism and just war theory.
Christian pacifism has a long, storied history beginning within the pages of the New Testament itself. The adage “those who live by the sword, die by the sword” is a paraphrase of the words of Christ to Peter in Matthew 26:52: “Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword.” Those who practice nonviolence in all things also point to scriptures such as Matthew 5:39 (“Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also”), Matthew 18:21-22 (“Then Peter came up and said to him, ‘Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?’Jesus said to him, ‘I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times'”), and the examples of Stephen, Peter, Paul, and the other apostles in the book of Acts (being arrested and suffering torture and martyrdom instead of defending themselves using violence). The Bible makes it clear believers will suffer due to their faith (see especially 1 Peter), but not a single verse ever exhorts Christians to use violence to defend themselves or others. With this in mind, Christian pacifism was the only real view of violence from the time of Christ until the legalization of the faith by the emperor Constantine in 313.
With Constantine, Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, and theologians began their work anew in the area of violence. Now that they wouldn’t be defending a pagan government, for example, Christians reconsidered their previous refusal of military service. The Empire promised the ability to spread the religion by force if necessary; should Christians participate in a sort of “swordpoint evangelism”? Should a person of faith be ready to cast down pagan governments and enforce the true religion by any means necessary? And what about matters of human suffering? Are Christians to simply stand idly by while the forces of evil oppress and destroy that which is good?
Perhaps the greatest voice writing on this topic was St. Augustine. Inspired by Paul’s epistle to the Romans, Augustine saw governments as chosen by God to rule, and thus they were defensible by force where necessary. A Christian could thus serve in the military and defend his country as long as the campaign met several very specific criteria. Over time, these criteria were refined and nuanced, and today they constitute what is called just war theory. For violence to be acceptable, a war/act must satisfy the following:
- Just Cause/Right Intention — The war must begin only to bring about social justice and protect life; retribution, material gain, or conquest is excluded by default.
- Competent Authority — The party declaring war must be a legitimate political power (e.g., a oppressive dictator has no authority to order people to fight and die).
- Proportionality — The good to be gained through violence must outweigh or at least be proportional to the destruction it will cause. Collateral damage is to be minimized at all costs.
- Probability of Success — If the war is unwinnable, it has no reason to be fought.
- Last Resort — War is only an option when diplomacy in all its forms has completely failed. Violence is not a “shoot first, ask questions later” sort of enterprise.
To give an example, World War II would certainly be considered a just war: it was waged to stop a genocidal regime (just cause/right intention), declared by democratic powers (competent authority), ended as soon as the objective had been achieved and followed by a rebuilding of private properties (proportionality), won by those who had sufficient military strength to accomplish the objectives (probability of success), and entered only after diplomacy, including a bit of appeasement, had been completely exhausted (last resort). Deciding to “liberate” an unoppressed people to gain crude oil or combat an ideological opposite would fail to meet at least the first (and probably the last) criterion. In strict interpretations of just war theory, WWII was in fact the last so-called “just war” ever waged.
On the personal level, just war prevents us from shooting our neighbor when his music blares into the wee hours of the morning, and it precludes fighting someone who has impugned our honor or even committed a violent act against a family member (both of which would be retribution). Ethicists still debate the exact parameters around violence for the purpose of self-defense or defending a neighbor; the just war framework can be either flexible enough to allow it or unyielding enough to totally forbid it depending on one’s interpretation.
Most Christians rally around one of these two positions, and there many historical, biblical, and theological reasons for doing so. Ardent patriots and other jingoists who too often confuse Jesus for George Washington, however, will loudly assert we should fight any takers with an assault rifle in one hand and the Bible in the other. While liberating the legitimately oppressed may satisfy the just war criteria, it will only do so under very specific circumstances — and obviously a battle for any reason at all fails the nonviolence test altogether. The neoconservative agenda (think “Team America, World Police) has yet, to my way of thinking, to satisfy just war criteria.
And our commands to love our enemies as ourselves, to bless them and wish them well (Matthew 5:44, Mark 11:25, Luke 6:27, Ephesians 4:32, etc.) forbid us from any acts of vengeance, theft, or military action designed specifically to spread an ideology or claim resources by force. For that reason, I’m always incredibly uncomfortable when my brothers and sisters in Christ get too cozy with the weapons of war or stray down the path of xenophobia — or who advocate abortion or the death penalty, both of which seem to be more accepted forms of violence. (But those are topics for discussion in their own right.)
Ultimately, God will put an end to all violence, and I know it must break His heart as much as it does ours to see people needlessly destroying other people. I long for the day when God “shall judge between the nations, and shall decide disputes for many peoples; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore” (Isaiah 2:4). Even so, come, Lord Jesus, come.