Is Nonviolence Essential to the Gospel?

Justin Martyr assured Emperor Titus that he need not fear that Christians were insurrectionists as they have, by definition, forsworn all violence. They have, he explains, turned from violence to “cultivating piety, justice, and love” and “they have turned their swords into ploughshares and their spears into farm tools.” In a recent video, the Capitol insurrectionists pause on the senate floor, led by the horned man (Jacob Chansley), to pray and dedicate their invasion to Jesus. Frank Schaeffer also released a video explaining that he and his father, the famous missionary Francis Schaeffer, were to blame for the events that unfolded in Washington. He explained that his father had declared a kind of holy war and that in his last book, A Christian Manifesto, he had called for a potential revolution against the government if Roe V. Wade was not overturned. Schaeffer blames himself, his father, C. Everett Coop (Ronald Reagan’s Surgeon General), Jack Kemp, Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, Franklin Graham, and Ralph Reed, as leaders and creators of the religious right. He claims, “America does not have a political problem but a religious fanaticism problem.” Certainly, the Christianity which Justin defended to Emperor Titus is not that which Schaeffer describes or that of the insurrectionists dedicating their invasion of the Capitol to Jesus. Which raises the question, is there a violent form of the Christian faith, a violently insurrectionist Christianity?

Since we have just recently celebrated the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, it is fitting that he serve as a counter-example, as one who has enacted a revolutionary-peaceful gospel, but also as someone who gives testimony to profound personal courage provided by the gospel of peace. His life is a portrayal of the nonviolent revolution at the heart of the gospel but what may be less well understood was the depth of his personal dependence upon the peaceful gospel and the peaceable vision he gained from the Hebrew Bible.

King’s epiphany at his kitchen table, perhaps the central spiritual experience of his life, is on the order of the epiphany of Isaiah during a time when Judah faced the possibility of obliteration at the hands of Assyria. Isaiah calls for Judah to trust in God and not in weapons of war. King, like Isaiah, would realize God’s power and presence in his life, and both would recognize God’s power to determine the course of history, in spite of the terrible events of the present moment.

King’s encounter came during the Montgomery bus boycott. It had become a months long affair and he had expected it would be over in a few days. As the economic threat of the boycott began to hit home, he was receiving up to 40 phone calls and threats on his life daily. After being pulled over for speeding and taken to jail, he feared he would be lynched. In his description, he was overcome with fear. He had reached the breaking point on Friday night, January 27, 1956. Then, he once again received a death threat: “N, we’re tired of your mess. And if you aren’t out of this town in three days, we’re going to blow up your house and blow your brains out.”  

With the Assyrian army bearing down on the tiny Kingdom of Judah, Isaiah called on the people of Israel to trust in the Lord and not in horses and chariots. The basis of this trust is spelled out in Isaiah’s vision of a future which, to paraphrase King, Egyptian children, Assyrian children, and Jewish children would hold hands in one accord. It is a trust which came to King that night, Shaken by the continual threat, he buried his face in his hands and began to pray aloud:

I am here taking a stand for what I believe is right. But now I am afraid. The people are looking to me for leadership, and if I stand before them without strength and courage, they too will falter. I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left. I’ve come to the point where I can’t face it alone. Lord, I’m down here trying to do what’s right … But … I must confess … I’m losing my courage.”

The great sense of comfort and courage that came to him at that moment is what strengthened him a few days later when his house was bombed. “Strangely enough, I accepted the word of the bombing calmly. My religious experience a few nights before had given me the strength to face it.” As he writes years later, “It seemed as though I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice saying: ‘Stand up for justice, stand up for truth; and God will be at your side forever.’ Almost at once my fears began to go. My uncertainty disappeared. I was ready to face anything.”[1]

Isaiah’s understanding of God’s peace came from an encounter while he was officiating in the temple. Just as King’s “kitchen table epiphany” revealed God’s comforting presence and power to determine the course of history, Isaiah had a temple epiphany (in the temple and concerning Zion, the temple Mount).

And in the last days the mountain of the Lord shall be manifest, and the house of the Lord on the top of the mountains, and it shall be exalted above the hills, and all nations shall come unto it. And many people shall go and say, ‘Come ye, and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, unto the house of the God of Jacob; and He will teach us his way, and we will walk in it.’ For out of Zion shall go forth a law and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. And he shall judge among the nations, and shall rebuke many peoples; they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks. Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.

(Is. 2:2-3)

Isaiah 2 reflects a central theme in the Hebrew Bible, in which Zion is the center of the world and as it is lifted up this center of new creation heals the nations by removing what wounds and divides. As the nations of the earth “stream” to Zion (v. 2) they come together in a unified worship. As the “mountain of the house of the Lord” is “established as the chief of the mountains” (Is. 2:2) there is deconstruction of the counter religions – the “oaks of Bashan,” the “lofty mountains,” along with all the instruments of war – “every high tower,” “every fortified wall,” “all the ships of Tarshish,” or in summary, all “the pride of man will be humbled, and the loftiness of men will be abased” (Is. 2:13-17). The instruments of war and worship or all that goes into nation building and violence are undone. With the participation of all nations in Israel’s worship, there is a simultaneous movement “up to the mountain of the Lord,” an enabling to “walk in His paths,” and a movement outward as this teaching of Zion “will go forth” downward and outward (v. 3). As a result, “the court of YHWH will replace the battlefield of the world” as “people will use the scarce and valuable materials of earth to cultivate life instead of crafting death.”[2]

God’s reign, in Isaiah’s vision, culminates in a series of reversals: where the Edenic garden-world was turned into a blood-soaked burial plot (Abel’s blood cries out and, with the generation of Noah, the earth is filled with violence), now warriors are turned into gardeners as swords are beaten into ploughshares; the worlds languages had been confused and this confusion (the etymological and literal root of war) is synonymous with the scattering and enmity of violence, but as all gather in the singular place of worship on Zion they are instructed in the singular word of the Lord.

This Temple restoration sets the cosmos revolving around a new order of peace (shalom among men and even within nature), brought about by the branch of Jesse. This messianic figure will establish righteousness upon the earth and nature herself will be relieved of all violence. It is Isaiah 40, the culmination of the prophet’s kingdom vision, which King will quote in his most famous sermon:  “I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made straight, and the glory of Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together” (Is. 40:4-5). From verse 1 we understand that this straightening of the rough places and the lowering of the high places is synonymous with the fact that earth’s “warfare has ended.” 

In Isaiah’s depiction, peace is the purpose of the religion of Israel, and this purpose is fulfilled in the branch of Jesse: “Then a shoot will spring from the stem of Jesse” and “The Spirit of the Lord will rest on Him” (Is. 11:2-3). As a result, righteousness will be established in all the earth (vv. 4-5) and “the wolf will dwell with the lamb, and the leopard will lie down with the young goat, and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little boy will lead them” (v. 6).

The lesson of Isaiah brought to culmination by Christ (the true cosmic Temple), is that the children of God need to put their confidence and trust in the Lord and not in violence (chariots, horses, or swords). Jesus taught that peacemakers are the children of God and he demonstrated in his wilderness temptation the refusal of violent power or the temptation to become a violent messiah; he demonstrated the peaceful healing of the nations in his healing ministry; in his casting out of the violent demons, and in feeding and liberating the hungry and oppressed he embodied the cosmic vision of peace in which each will sit under his own vine and fig tree. He called for love of neighbor and of enemies and he called for his followers to offer no violent resistance. He sent his followers “as lambs sent among wolves” to carry out a mission of peace in a violent culture. He would enter Jerusalem as a nonviolent king, “a just savior is he, meek, and riding on an ass…He shall banish the war chariot from Ephraim, and the war horse from Jerusalem…and he shall proclaim peace to the nations” (Zechariah 9:9-10). He commands Peter to put his sword away and the command stands. He nonviolently challenged the Temple system and then submitted, without resistance, to those who put him to death precisely due to this challenge to the Temple and religion of Israel.[3]

The understanding of the early church consistently placed the nonviolence of Jesus at the center of their life and discipleship. The Christian community refused to participate in the insurrection against Rome (66-70 CE), it resisted most any form of military service. Christians refused to kill on behalf of Caesar, and discipleship was aimed at preparing followers of the Way for martyrdom or witness. The practice of forgiveness, the application of the works of mercy, the cultivation of patience, all had as their center the nonviolent, nonretaliatory, gospel of Jesus.  Prior to the conversion of Constantine there is no Christian writing supporting “Christian warfare” as such a concept would have been oxymoronic. There were a few Christian soldiers, those who converted while in the service of the emperor (as testified by discovery of eight epitaphs to Christian soldiers). Tertullian (in 197) informs us that there were soldiers who converted, but the implication is that following Jesus meant they would quit the army. Nearly a century after Tertullian, St. Maximilian refused conscription into the Roman army and he was beheaded. His testimony during his trial would become, for centuries, a standard part of the mass: “I cannot serve. I cannot do evil. I will not be a soldier of this world. I am a soldier of Christ.”

St. Maximilian is a saint because the early church sought out those modeling the nonviolent Jesus. It was understood that Jesus broken body was celebrated not simply as another religious sacrifice, but as a model that accepts brokenness rather than to break the bodies of others. Christ submitted to torture and execution so as to overcome the violence and death which has the violent kingdoms of this world in its grip. [4] Christ rose from the dead and sends his disciples into the world so as to defeat death and the violent way that deploys death.

The early Christians understood the Church as the place where Isaiah’s vision is to be enacted. According to Gerhard Lohfink, the swords into ploughshares vision (of 2:3) is the most quoted text from the Hebrew Scripture in the early church. Origen (writing in the 240’s), presumed that every catechist would be familiar with it as the text was, apparently, a part of the catechism of every candidate for baptism. Justin employs the text in his explanation to Emperor Titus that Christians could not possibly be insurrectionists: “We who were filled with war and mutual slaughter and all wickedness have each and all throughout the earth changed our instruments of war, our swords into plowshares and our spears into farm tools, and cultivate piety, justice, love of humankind, faith and the hope, which we have from the Father through the Crucified One.” The testimony against violence and for peace is the consensus, as demonstrated by Christian writers such as Tatian, Athenagoras, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Cyprian, Minucius, Felix, and Lactantius.[5] The peaceful kingdom of Isaiah, inaugurated by Christ, deployed by the early church, and taken up by modern disciples like Martin Luther King, breaks the chains of violence and death, the very point of being a follower of Christ.

Where this peace is not the means and end, can this be said to be the faith of Christ or the Christian religion? Rene Coste summarizes the broad consensus of church history and gospel criticism in affirming, “It is an incontestable fact that Christ did preach nonviolence, both as a condition and a consequence of the universal love that he taught us. To pretend, as is sometimes done, that his directives are only meant to be applied to individual relationships is a supposition nowhere to be found in the New Testament.”[6] Peace is the primary marker of the faith of Christ and it is unclear what remains of the religion of the New Testament in the absence of this understanding.


[1] Dr. Martin Luther King, recounted in his Stride Toward Freedom, quoted from https://lisasingh.com/southeast-travel/martin-luther-kings-defining-moment-a-kitchen-in-montgomery-alabama-past-midnight/

[2]Ralph P. Smith, Micah–Malachi. Word Biblical Commentary 32. (Waco, TX: Word, 1984)

[3] Fr. John Dear and Ken Butigan, “An overview of Gospel nonviolence in the Christian tradition,” in Nonviolence and Just Peace 11-13 April 2016 Rome, Italy at https://nonviolencejustpeacedotnet.files.wordpress.com/2016/05/nvjp-conference-background-papers.pdf The understanding of Lohfink is found in •Kreider, Alan. The Patient Ferment of the Early Church (p. 92). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.


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Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.

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