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.

The Options of Non-Violence or Gnosticism

Two things are clear from the teaching of the early Church prior to Constantine: 1. Christians were forbidden to participate in violence or in those professions connected to violence. 2. Violence is such a pervasive and deeply rooted problem that it often went unnamed and unrecognized even among those advocating its abolition. For example, Tertullian forbids any form of participation in violence for Christians, declaring: “But how will a Christian man war, nay, how will he serve even in peace, without a sword, which the Lord has taken away?” A Christian, must not bear the sword in any circumstance as the Lord, “in disarming Peter, unbelted every soldier.”[1] Yet, Tertullian could also revel in the potential delights of watching his enemies suffer: “What sight shall wake my wonder, what my laughter, my joy, my exaltation?—as I see all those kings, those great kings, unwelcomed in heaven, along with Jove, along with those who told of their ascent, groaning in the depths of darkness!”[2] Tertullian completely rejected violence, in so far as he understood it to be such. He was simply blind to the violence he projected onto God and which he still harbored in himself.

The confusion is not in regard to the Church’s stance toward violence. There is a unified voice in the first three centuries of Christianity ruling out this possibility. “Christians could never slay their enemies. For the more that kings, rulers, and peoples have persecuted them everywhere, the more Christians have increased in number and grown in strength” (Origen Contra Celsius Book VII). “Wherever arms have glittered, they must be banished and exterminated from thence” (Lactantius’ Divine Institutes IV). “Christians are not allowed to correct with violence” (Clement of Alexandria).  As Justin Martyr (110-165) explained to Emperor Antonius Pius, Christians cannot be guilty of sedition as the Christian notion is a kingdom of peace, fulfilling the prophecy of Isaiah 2:4, in which people “will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.” Citizenship in God’s Kingdom, Justin informed the Emperor, is a present tense reality which renders Christians nonviolent: “That it is so coming to pass, let me convince you. We who once murdered each other indeed no longer wage war against our enemies; moreover, so as not to bear false witness before our interrogators, we cheerfully die confessing Christ” (The First Apology of Justin Martyr). There is an unequivocal stand against violence in the early Church.

The problem is not in determining whether violence was acceptable (it was not), the problem was in determining what constitutes violence. For example, is it acceptable for a Christian to accept a laurel crown as part of a military ceremony (the problem Tertullian deals with in On the Military Crown)?  A soldier, perhaps recently converted, refuses the honor and accepts martyrdom rather than to wear the crown. Tertullian argues that martyrdom is the correct choice, rather than to be associated, even by implication, in violence. He asks, “Shall it be held lawful to make an occupation of the sword, when the Lord proclaims that he who uses the sword shall perish by the sword? And shall the son of peace take part in the battle when it does not become him even to sue at law? And shall he apply the chain, and the prison, and the torture, and the punishment, who is not the avenger even of his own wrongs?” His answer is a resounding “no.” To be associated with such things, even through a laurel crown, is not an option. One could argue the point – as some did. It could even be pointed out that there were Christian soldiers (occupied nonviolently or recently converted, as is clear in the example). What cannot be argued is whether Christians rejected violence, as they clearly did. The problem they were negotiating is determining what constitutes violence.

The conflict is not between pro and anti-violence but with how to follow Jesus, how to recognize violence and evil. Tertullian’s opponents are arguing that “a peace so good and long is endangered for them.” Their fear is that obstinance, an unwillingness to recognize nuance, is being confused with nonviolence. Tertullian argues, “they have rejected the prophecies of the Holy Spirit” and “are already turning their back on the Scriptures.” He suggests a certain cowardice is at work: “in peace, lions; in the fight, deer.” One might argue either side of the equation, but the lack of clarity is not in regard to whether one should be violent but how to best avoid violence.

The first Christians had recognized that shedding blood, no matter the circumstance, is sin. Even vague association with violence, or the improper curbing of anger which leads to violence, they considered sin. What they had not recognized is that oppressive treatment (including physical punishment) of social inferiors, of women, of slaves, was violence as well. Origen, in making the case that God employs discipline, uses an unfortunate example: “And just as when you, punishing a slave or a son, you do not want simply to torment him, rather your goal is to convert him by pains.”[3] That beating one’s slave might count as violence seems to escape this one who railed against every form of violence. The point is not that the early Church accepted forms of violence, but the sense of what counted as violence had yet to be fully and clearly articulated. This is the proper task Christians are to continue to engage.

 We, I would hope, have no problem in recognizing the incongruity of Christians advocating beating slaves. That incongruence or blindness points to the need in the Patristic period to continue to develop a nonviolent sensibility. It also suggests the possibility of a similar blindness among contemporary followers of Jesus. The incomplete non-violence of the Fathers is not an excuse for violence. It should not serve to convince us that we can indulge in violence but indicates that the work of the Gospel continues, through the ages, to penetrate notions of authority, relationships with others and even within ourselves.

There is the need, as John Howard Yoder recognized, to overcome the Constantinian error of fusing state violence with the Church. Certainly “the entire Christian gospel” cannot be restored without recognizing this error. But this overcoming – this recognition that violence is evil – is not itself the restoration of the entire Christian gospel. Prior to the failure of Constantinian Christianity we do not, as Jennifer Otto points out, encounter a golden age of a perfect worked out pacifism.[4] This, however, is not a license to read Constantinian violence into the first centuries, it is simply the recognition that naming and overcoming violence is not easy but is the primary Christian task, and failure in this task is the greatest of temptations.

The hard stance against violence in the early Church explains the looming gnostic temptation in Patristic Christianity. The temptation is to concede the physical realm to the logic of this world’s kingdoms, an unnecessary concession where a clear delineation is not drawn between the two kingdoms (that of Christ and the world). The threat of martyrdom, of not striking back, of not offering resistance, is a temptation to concede to the logic of violence. As Tatian recognized, following his master Justin Martyr, a stark choice is posed: “I do not wish to be a king; I am not anxious to be rich; I decline military command.” I must “die to the world, repudiating the madness that is in it.”[5] Tatian recognized the “death to the world” Christ requires, but he could not endure it. With the death of his teacher, he takes up the gnostic religion of Valentinian.

Dying to the world, it turns out, is a continual process of repudiation. It is the process of the ages of cultivating peace, of continually recognizing and overcoming violence.  A Christianity that has relinquished this task of extending peaceful non-violence has already conceded to gnostic madness.


[1] Tertullian (145-220 AD) in On Idolatry

[2] Tertullian, De Spectaculis 30. Translation by Carlin Barton in Barton and Boyarin, Imagine No Religion, 68. From https://uwaterloo.ca/grebel/sites/ca.grebel/files/uploads/files/cgr_35-3_otto.pdf

[3] Origen, Homily on Jeremiah, 12

[4] Jennifer Otto, “Were the Early Christians Pacifists? Does It Matter?” https://uwaterloo.ca/grebel/sites/ca.grebel/files/uploads/files/cgr_35-3_otto.pdf

[5]Tatian (120-180) Address to the Greeks.