Was Jesus really a pacifist?

Jesus is perceived by many as being a pacifist who never practiced or advocated violence of any kind.  He commanded us to turn the other cheek when someone hits us and to love everyone, including our enemies.  On the basis of these commands some Christians have concluded that a Christian must never engage in any kind of violence.  They believe it is wrong for a Christian to serve in the military, even if his country is at war.

If we consider only these teachings of Jesus this seems to be a logical conclusion.  But Jesus also did and said some things that are inconsistent with pacifism.

His reaction when he saw what was going on in the temple wasn’t that of a pacifist.

And Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who sold and bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons. He said to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer,’ but you make it a den of robbers.”
Matthew 21:12-13

When he was arrested Peter tried to defend him.

Then Simon Peter, having a sword, drew it and struck the high priest’s servant and cut off his right ear. (The servant’s name was Malchus.) So Jesus said to Peter, “Put your sword into its sheath; shall I not drink the cup that the Father has given me?”
John 18:10-11

At first this seems to confirm the belief that Jesus advocated pacifism.  He said that Peter was wrong in attacking.  But then Jesus told Peter to put his sword back in its sheath.  Wouldn’t a true pacifist have told Peter to throw his sword away because he would never need it again?

Earlier he had given his disciples a command that was even more inconsistent with pacifism.

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.”
Luke 22:36

He not only told Peter to keep his sword but he also said the the disciples who didn’t already have swords should buy them.  But what is the point of having a sword if you are commanded to respond to an attacker by turning the other cheek?  This appears to be a problem because we misunderstand what Jesus meant by the command.

Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.
Matthew 5:39

Jesus said that if someone slaps us on the right cheek we are to turn the other cheek.  Most people are right handed.   If you are facing someone and hit him on the right cheek with your right hand you will hit him with the back of your hand.  You might cause some pain but you can’t do any real physical harm.

The purpose in striking someone this way is to insult him and express contempt for him.  There have been cultures in which this act would be considered a challenge to a duel.  Today it is possible that the person being slapped will try to kill the other without bothering with the formalities of a duel.  Jesus has forbidden us to respond in this way.  This command does not prohibit us from defending ourselves if someone attacks with the intention of hurting or killing us.

Swords can be used for other reasons beside self defense.  Jesus said that one of the two great commandments was to love our neighbor as ourselves.  If a neighbor is being attacked love demands that we defend him if possible even if it means hurting or killing the attacker.  (I have heard objections to this on the grounds that it isn’t showing love for the attacker, but this is a situation that calls for justice as well as love.)

The things Jesus taught while on earth were only the beginning of his teaching.  After he was taken up into Heaven he continued to teach and direct his disciples through the Holy Spirit.

But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.
Acts 1:8

Acts chapter 10 tells how the Spirit led Peter to preach the gospel to a Gentile named Cornelius.

And while Peter was pondering the vision, the Spirit said to him, “Behold, three men are looking for you. Rise and go down and accompany them without hesitation, for I have sent them.”
Acts 10:19-20

Peter obeyed and the Holy Spirit came on Cornelius and the people who were with him just at he had come on the Jews earlier.

While Peter was still saying these things, the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word. And the believers from among the circumcised who had come with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit was poured out even on the Gentiles. For they were hearing them speaking in tongues and extolling God.

Then Peter declared, “Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people, who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked him to remain for some days.
Acts 10:44-48

Cornelius was not only a Gentile but he was also an officer in the Roman army.

At Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion of what was known as the Italian Cohort, a devout man who feared God with all his household, gave alms generously to the people, and prayed continually to God.
Acts 10:1-2

If Jesus taught pacifism surely Cornelius would have quit his job and found a new occupation when he became a believer but there is no indication that he did anything like this.  Chapter 11 of Acts describes the opposition of some believers to the conversion of Cornelius, but their objections were based on the fact that Cornelius was an uncircumcised Gentile, not that he was a Roman soldier.

Jesus acknowledged the authority of human government.  When asked whether it was right to pay taxes to Caesar his response was, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”  We are not only required to pay our taxes, but the choice of Cornelius as the first Gentile convert shows that we may also serve as soldiers in Caesar’s army.  Jesus never taught pacifism so there is no reason a person cannot be both a professional soldier and a Christian.

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Posted on November 30, 2015, in Bible study, government and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. We all tend to use the word “pacifism” too loosely. In the cleansing of the Temple, perhaps you are confusing it with the completely unrelated word, “passive.” Anyone who grew up on a farm would understand why Jesus made the whip.

    On Peter using his sword, remember that Jesus also told him, “…all who take the sword will perish by the sword” Mt. 26:52.

    Jesus “said the the disciples who didn’t already have swords should buy them.” Yes, and then when the disiples said, “…here are two swords” Jesus said, “Enough.” https://textsincontext.wordpress.com/2012/06/17/two-swords-enough/

    The point about the Roman Centurion is conjecture based on silence. We could wrongly use the same silence to say that Jesus endorsed slavery.

    What is not silent is the testimony of Chrisitans in those early centuries, beginning with Paul and later heroes of the faith like Charles Spurgeon https://spurgeonwarquotes.wordpress.com/

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    • The point about the Roman Centurion is based on silence but it is the silence of God, who inspired the Bible. Jesus interacted with other Roman officials while he was on earth but he never indicated that any of them was doing anything wrong in his choice of occupation.

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