10 Points On Non-Violence

A congregation member from back in Maynooth was talking to me on the phone this evening and they asked me to write a ten point list about Christians and non-violence. So here goes.


  1. Fundamentally, you can’t understand the call to non-violence without reflecting on Jesus standing before Pilate. Jesus’ victory comes about through his torture and death at the hands of the Roman Empire, their brutal representative Pilate and the nails driven through his flesh, into the cross by soldiers. Doing serious, prayerful, business with the fact that God responds to military might without militarism fuels the sneaking suspicion that Christians are called to another path.
  2. Of course, that sneaking suspicion appears to have been a full-on assumption in the early church. Tertullian is representative when he says, “The Lord, in disarming Peter, disarmed every soldier.” The early church, not absolutely but in the largest part, took non-violence to be the norm.
  3. That shifted fairly rapidly when the Emperor Constantine became a Christian. He was actually waging war when he had his purported vision that converted him. How bizarre is it that Rome would (more than fifty years after Constantine) adopt Christianity as its official religion? They raise Jesus as their Lord, having previously raised Jesus on to their execution device? But this is how Empire works. An imperial army devastates the opponent and then amalgamates the opponent into itself. Is it fanciful to suppose that Christians need to wrestle with what it means that we have been emeshed into the very systems that killed our Christ?
  4. And when we think about Rome, we think about Empire and our thoughts turn to how the Bible is always deeply troubled by militaristic regimes. From Egypt to Babylon, from Alexander to Caesar, the stance of the Bible seems to be that the people of God are not meant to play the ideological games of world domination. When Israel asks YHWH for a King so that they can be like the other nations, what warning does he send them through the prophet Samuel? “This is what the king who will reign over you will claim as his rights: he will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses, and they will run in front of his chariots. Some he will assign to be commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and others to plough his ground and reap his harvest, and still others to make weapons of war and equipment for his chariots.” Is it fanciful to think that Christians are called to be suspicious when power is used to accumulate military force?
  5. Perhaps you think you’ve spotted a weakness in my argument. I have gladly quoted from the Old Testament. And as Richard Dawkins famously put it, “The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser…” and it goes on. How can Christians be called to pacifism if God is not afraid of violence? Well let me answer that by saying that if God calls me to take up a sword, I will take up a sword. Until then, I will leave the outcome of history in his hands, since it is probably safer there than in mine.
  6. And this is why I don’t say I am a pacifist. That sounds too, well, passive. Instead, I am convinced we are called to the most difficult but also most significant action in the world: prayer. As Karl Barth says, prayer is the beginning of an uprising against the disorder of the world. If European Christians had prayed more in the aftermath of World War I, instead of trying to find ways to perfect politics, maybe we wouldn’t have gone so far down the hellish rabbit hole of fascism.
  7. My great theological hero, Stanley Hauerwas, who convinced me of non-violence, has a slogan. He says it is not our responsibility “to make history come out right”. What he means by this is that faith in God involves trusting that the victory of Christ is real. Nothing humans can do will either damage or hinder God’s plans. We are called to have the faith of the psalmist and the prophets and even of Job, in the face of turbulence, even war. God is in charge. We don’t have to be panicked into actions unworthy of his ambassadors.
  8. Ambassadors represent the people who sent them. Christ’s ambassadors are sent by someone who dies for the sake of others. For the Christian, there are fates worse than death. This seems to be an inevitable conclusion of Jesus’ claim that the greatest love one can show is that you lay down your life for others. In other words, the chief problem with war is not that you might die, but that you might kill.
  9. I hope it is becoming clear that the chief motivation for non-violence is not that somehow by being opposed to war we might reduce its occurrence (but how nice would that be?). Rather, in a world of war, Christians have no other option than to be non-violent. Since war is never a battle between goodies and baddies, the people in the right and those in the wrong, no matter how many Hollywood movies try to convince us otherwise. War is the continuation of politics by other means. War is the outcome of the military-industrial complex. War shows up as sharp end of politics and economy, of technology and propaganda, of surveillance, control and power. War is never a simple thing. By the time that Christians have prayerfully and gently deliberated and discerned what is going on, the blitz will have been krieged and the troops will be in play. In other words, war moves faster than the church, when the church is taking itself seriously. We couldn’t catch up even if we wanted.
  10. But then on another angle, war is always a simple thing. It involves the randomisation of the internal organs of human beings who are fearfully and wonderfully made by their creator, who bear the image of their God, who are sustained by their redeemer. War is not the plan God has for his people. When war breaks out, is the consequence of sin. Better to repent than try to undo the sin with more sin. As Bonhoeffer said, if you board the wrong train, it is no use running along the corridor in the other direction. Get off the war train. We don’t need it. We need God. And in Revelation, people walk into God’s city on foot to praise the Prince of Peace. Since that is our future, let us let it shape our present too.

Your Correspondent, If he was a spice, he’d be flour

11 Replies to “10 Points On Non-Violence”

  1. Great post. Thank you for the ever needed reminder of the call to be a Jesus follower. Thank you for being patient enough to repeat these truths again and again. (Resisting urge to make a ‘but what would Jesus do if’?… Joke)

  2. In response to #5, what are we to make of Bush (allegedly?) saying that he invaded Iraq because God told him to? And if it is not beyond Bush to legitimise a war on the basis of “divine command,” why should it be beyond ancient Israel?

    In short, I think the OT is more problematic than you make it out to be.

  3. Did Bush take up a sword?

    Did he sit in a cockpit, man a submarine terminal or grab a drone joystick?

    Maybe the OT is more problematic, but a free-floating political pragmatist with syncretic tendencies like Bush is not a figure that problematizes it.

  4. Superb, coherent and not as full of hyperbole as I might have expected… This is, as one of your fb friends noted a major issue in our attitude to Irish republicanism and Ulster Unionism, especially in this decade of remembrance… Thank you

  5. I reckon we can be pretty certain that Bush expressed the sentiments of quite a few who did grab hold of swords, men whose churches prayed God’s blessing over them as they went out to obey the divine call on their life to serve their nation by defending it against evil…or however the rhetoric goes.

    I don’t mean to imply that the Old Testament has to answer for Bush’s actions, just as the Old Testament doesn’t have to answer for the actions of creationists. My point is that Christians have heard and do hear the call of God to take up a sword, just as ancient Israel did. We may say – on the basis of Christ – that their hearing is severely impaired, but it it is not easy to do so without admitting that Israel’s hearing was also severely impaired, even at those points where the biblical writers think that it wasn’t.

    Ultimately, then, the “problematiser” [?] of the OT is not Bush, but Jesus: “You have heard it said…but I say…”

  6. I agree with you. Jesus’ bassline is “You have heard it said…but I say…” He never, even with a jot or a tittle, strays from the Hebrew Scriptures.

    And as he comes to us in the portrait that we receive in Revelation, he is going to war. But the major point is that because of that, we don’t have to. And the minor point is that he has always been at war and his military tactics are revealed in the last supper. Take this flesh and drink this cup.

    More basically, when is it that Christians have heard the call to take up swords? Times when they “think” they heard the call doesn’t count.

    Also, as a pure aside, because I think I’ve bounced back your substantive points, those who grabbed a hold of a sword and waged war on Iraq: what difference does it make if they thought they were obeying divine command when in fact they were obeying democratic command? Over on your blog, you are happy to trade in the language of heresy. Don’t come over here and pretend you don’t value it! 😉

  7. Perhaps my point, to the extent that I have one, is founded on a misunderstanding of what you’ve said. You said that you would take up a sword if God called you to do so, but maybe you were just being facetious and I was mistakenly literal in my reading.

    Would you say, then, that that call to take up the sword will never happen, and if one thinks that it has happened (since Christ) or does happen, one is gravely mistaken?

    That’s probably what I would say, but I read your comment at the end of #5 in such a way that you leave open the possibility of God calling people to take up the sword – a possibility that has been exploited by various Christians (heretics?) throughout history, and which will continue to be exploited by those who believe in a god who, at certain times, does call his followers to take up their swords.

  8. I would take up a sword if God called me to take up a sword. But just because I am convinced God calls me to take up a sword doesn’t mean he has done. The Nazis wore “Gott mit uns” on their belt buckles. This is certainly true. God was with them as they bore their swords, he did not abandon them. But he was not with them in their sword bearing.

    To directly answer your question: Short of the eschaton (when all bets are off), the chances of God calling anyone to the sword are dwindling tiny. But God is God! Call it an adaptation of Barth’s grenzfall teaching, if I can be so bold as to suggest a modification and extension of our great teacher! 🙂

    In all the instances thus far presented to me, I am unconvinced that Divine Command has been behind Christians engaging in war.

    It is true that leaving the possibility of God’s command to violence open is an invitation to abuse. But absus not tollit usum and all that. Especially since what we acknowledge to be possible has no bearing on the fact that for God, all things will always be possible.

  9. “In all the instances thus far presented to me, I am unconvinced that Divine Command has been behind Christians engaging in war.”

    I suppose this raises the question: Are you convinced divine command was behind the violence committed by the Israelites? Is there some narrative method or literary technique that compels Christians to believe God really did command all the human-on-human killing? God defeated the Egyptian army and freed the Israelites without ever requiring Moses to raise a sword. “The Word is mightier than the sword” seems to be a recurring message in the Bible.

  10. As an advocate of non-violence I know you’ve had to imagine enough hypothetical situations to last you a life time, but…

    What would it take for you to be convinced that God really has called you or someone else to kill a person/a particular group of people?

    And if you do have conditions that must be met in order for you to be convinced that God has ordained violence, are you left in a similar position to just war advocates?

    I can see the merits in the position “No killing unless God commands it” over against the position “No killing unless it is justifiable,” because it appears to put God’s reason in charge instead of human reason. But in another way appeals to divine command seems to be the end (as in the destruction) of ethics. A community of humans who can offer no reason for their action other than “God told us to do it” would make for very poor dialogue partners. Moreover, rather than maintaining the absolute, qualitative distinction between God and humanity, this seems to collapse the former into the latter.

    I know I haven’t described your position, or Barth’s for that matter. But as a lapsed Pentecostal I’ve grown up with people who have done things because “God told them to”, and that’s the end of the discussion. It has proved an almost unmitigated disaster. I am therefore tempted to throw the baby out with the bath water, but as you say, that’s certainly not necessary.

    I suppose what I am asking for is how the “test the spirits” command interacts with divine command. If you were to receive a command to kill, how would you test it? And is the test not therefore more authoritative than the command?

    Sorry for the length of this. I’m basically asking you to lay out your systematic ethics! 3 short bullet points telling me everything I need to know will suffice!

  11. Dec and Morbert: I will take up your important questions and try to blog them out separately. I can’t give an ad-hoc response that would even be worth reading. I may not be able to give a considered response worth reading, but at least the odds improve!

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