A Case for Christocentric Nonviolence

*The following is the complete manuscript of my paper I presented last Thursday at the annual Evangelical Theological Society's annual meeting. I was one of four participants who presented on "Just War in an Age of Terrorism." Two of the panelists were Just War theorists, and I was one of two "pacifists," though as you'll see, I don't prefer this term.   

I want to begin my brief talk by acknowledging the complexity of this topic. Pulling together and synthesizing the diverse Scriptural witness concerning violence and nonviolence, and then applying it to our 21st century age of terrorism, is not an easy feat.

Now, having spent several years reflecting on the strongest arguments on all sides of this multifaceted debate, I have cautiously concluded that absolute nonviolence is the most faithful expression of a Christocentric worldview. But I hold onto this conclusion with an open hand, always eager to be corrected where I am wrong, which is why I’m grateful to participate in this discussion this afternoon.

Before I argue for my position, I want to first acknowledge that there are dozens of different brands of “pacifism,” most of which I disagree with. In fact, I don’t like the term “pacifism” and I rarely use it to describe my position, largely because the term is so often misunderstood. When most people hear the term “pacifism,” they think of “passiveness;” they imagine people standing around with their fingers interlocked behind their backs as they self-righteously watch evil run rampant. This may depict a brand of pacifism, but it is not the brand that I endorse.

I also find non-Christocentric versions of pacifism, or nonviolence, to be ethically and theologically anemic. If Jesus does not walk out of a grave and sit at the right hand of the Father, then we have no business loving our enemies. Unless Christ defeats evil by submitting to violence—by dying rather then killing—and rises from the dead to tell the tale, I will most certainly destroy my enemy before he destroys me. Without the death and resurrection of Jesus, all forms of nonviolence, I believe, are uncompelling.

To be clear, I believe in Christian—or more explicitly, Christocentric—nonviolence. Christocentric nonviolence says that we should fight against evil, we should wage war against injustice, and we should defend the orphan, the widow, the marginalized, and oppressed. And we should do so aggressively. But we should do so nonviolently.

In other words, Christocentric nonviolence does not dispute whether Christians should fight against evil. It only disputes the means by which we do fight.

Now, rather than asking the questions: Are some wars just or should a nation wage war as a last resort, I want to ask and answer the question: should Christ-followers use violence as a means of confronting evil or defending the innocent.

My answer—as expected—is no. Or more specifically: there is little to no biblical evidence that Christians should use violence to confront evil.

To articulate my view, I want to give 4 brief theses and then address 4 common challenges to my position.

4 Theses

1. Jesus never acted violently to fight injustice or defend the innocent.

Jesus endured unjust accusations and physical attacks, and yet he never responded in kind. He was spit upon, punched, slapped (Matt 26:67), and had his head pounded with a stick (Matt 27:30), yet he never used violence to defend himself or attack his perpetrator. Jesus therefore models his own command to not “resist evil…but turn the other cheek.” When the Pharisees were about to use violence on the woman caught in adultery, instead of violently protecting her, Jesus jumps in front of the firing squad.

He ends up being tortured and crucified unjustly for treason, yet he offers only forgiveness and love toward his enemy, again practicing what he preached. Jesus’s life is peppered with violent attacks, yet He never responds with violence. He embraces suffering, not because he is weak, but because suffering contains more power in defeating evil than using violence, and suffering is the pathway to resurrection glory (Rom 8). In doing so, Jesus shattered all Jewish expectations of how a Messiah should act. It’s not that Jesus just happened to act nonviolently. Rather, he directly and intentionally demilitarized the meaning of messiah and kingdom.

2. Jesus taught his followers to follow the same rhythm of nonviolence and enemy-love

“Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, and pray for those who abuse you. To one who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also” (Luke 6:27-29). Whenever violence is mentioned, it’s always shunned. There’s no evidence that only some of our enemies are to be loved, or that we should love our nonviolent enemies, but kill the ones who are trying to harm us or our nation. Jesus’s countercultural commands are unqualified and absolute. And whenever the apostles try to confront evil with violence, they are rebuked (Luke 9; 22).

Now, some will say that Jesus’s nonviolent journey to the cross was necessary for Jesus to atone for our sins. He had to suffer; he had to die. His nonviolence was theologically necessary not practically mandatory.

But the Bible says that it was both.

3. Jesus’s nonviolent journey to the cross was both theological and ethical

Yes, Jesus had to die, so he chose not to resist his death. But NT writers view his nonviolent journey to the cross as a pattern for believers to follow. 1 Peter 2, Romans 12, Philippians 2, and other passages draw upon Jesus’s nonviolent journey to the cross as a model for believers to follow.

When NT writers themselves ask the question WWJD, their most consistent and pervasive response is: don’t fight evil with evil, endure suffering, don’t retaliate, love your enemies—because that’s what Jesus did. Jesus fought against evil through suffering.

The book of Revelation expounds this theology of suffering through its use of the key word and theme nikao (“conquer”). The word nikao conjures up warfare imagery from its typical usage in the Greco-Roman period. John also uses the verb nikao to describe how Jesus has “conquered” the beast and his empire. But unlike the Roman rulers, Jesus conquers not with swords and spears but with a cross. The Lamb conquers by being conquered, by suffering and dying (Rev 5). And the followers of the Lamb conquer evil by the same means: “they have conquered him (Satan) by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for/because they loved not their lives even unto death” (Rev 12:11).

In Jesus’s upside down kingdom, there is more divine power infused in the suffering and death of Christians than in 10,000 pounds of C4. (One of the problems with fighting evil with violence and killing is not that it’s too powerful but that it’s too weak. America could nuke ISIS and Al Qaeda to hell, and Satan would walk away untouched. You can’t fight a non-flesh and blood enemy with flesh and blood weapons. It’s like squirting a raging fire with a squirt gun. In any case, Jesus calls us to faithfulness before a worldly perceptive of effectiveness. But I digress.)

4. Even though injustice and evil were rampant in the first century, there’s no verse in the NT that commands or allows believers to use violence to confront evil or defend the innocent.

The New Testament was written in the face of violence and persecution. There were innocent people suffering. Evil was widespread. Most of their Jewish brothers and sisters had no problem using violence against evil. All the ingredients are there for Christians to use violence to confront evil or defend the innocent. But they don’t. There’s nothing in the NT that suggests that violence is an option—even a last option—for believers to use to fight against evil. And given the previous 3 theses, there are many reasons to believe that the opposite is true; that nonviolence is actually a more powerful means of defeating evil.

But, we should probably hurry on to those passages you’re thinking of that appear to contradict this claim.

The “What about…” passages.

Again, as we turn to these “what about” passages, we are asking the question: Do these passages challenge or disprove the claim that Christ-followers should not use violence as a means of confronting evil or defending the innocent?

1. Romans 13: The Sword of Rome

Romans 13:4 says that Rome “is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer” (13:4).

I’ll make two observations, which show that Rom 13 does not challenge my central claim.

First, Paul’s statement reflects a widespread Old Testament notion that God works through secular nations to carry out His will.

For instance, the Old Testament calls many political figures “God’s servant,” such as Cyrus king of Persia (Isa. 44—45), Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon (Jer. 27:6; 43:10), and the ruthlessly wicked nation of Assyria (Isa. 10:5), which God calls the “club of my wrath” and the “rod of my anger.”

Cyrus and Nebuchadnezzar were pagan dictators. The phrase “God’s servant,” therefore, does not sanctify Roman policy, but celebrates God’s ability to use Rome as an instrument in His hands.

Just because God uses secular—and sometimes quite evil—institutions to carry out His will, does not mean that God approves of everything they do.

Much of what they do—whether it be Assyria’s sadistic practice of skinning civilians alive, or Rome’s crucifixion of thousands of people in the first century—does not reflect the law of Christ. But God can still use such godlessness, because God channels evil to carry out His will. This doesn’t mean that He approves of the evil itself.

Revelation 17-18 serves as a healthy compliment to Romans 13. In Rev 17-18, God destroys his so-called “servant” for the evil they have committed.

In fact, in Scripture, most nations and people who once served as ministers of God’s wrath become the objects of God’s wrath themselves precisely for their violence when they were the “rod” of his anger.

Second, Romans 13:4 must be read in light of (indeed, after) Romans 12:19. Compare these two statements, which are only a few verses apart:

Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” (Rom. 12:19, emphasis added)

For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out the wrath of God on the wrongdoer. (Rom. 13:4, emphasis added)

Romans 13:4 is an extension of Romans 12:19. When Paul says that God executes vengeance through Rome, it is to further prohibit Christians from doing so. There’s nothing in, under, or even near Romans 13 that sanctions Christians to use violence.

2. John 2: The Tempe Cleansing

If you look at the story in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, nothing suggests that Jesus acted violently in driving them out. The gospel of John, however, seems to suggest that Jesus used violence when he tossed out the money-changers:

In the temple he found those who were selling oxen and sheep and pigeons, and the money-changers sitting there. And making a whip of cords, he drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and oxen. And he poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables. (John 2:14-15)

I’ve used the ESV translation here, but it’s not quite accurate. It says that Jesus makes “a whip of cords” to “drive them all out of the temple” and then it says “with the sheep and the oxen.” The ESV implies that Jesus used the whip to drive out the people along with the animals. The only problem is that the word “with” is not in the Greek. This may seem insignificant, but a literal translation reads:

“And making a whip of cords, he drove them all out of the temple, the sheep and oxen.”

The phrase “them all” refers to the “sheep and oxen.” Jesus drove out the animals with the whip, not the people. I guess Jesus could have lacerated a few money-changers along the way, but the text doesn’t say this. None of the Gospels say that Jesus acted with violence against people in the temple cleansing.

3. Luke 22: Go Buy a Sword

And he said to them, “When I sent you out with no moneybag or knapsack or sandals, did you lack anything?” They said, “Nothing.” 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. For I tell you that this Scripture must be fulfilled in me: ‘And he was numbered with the transgressors.’ For what is written about me has its fulfillment.” And they said, “Look, Lord, here are two swords.” And he said to them, “It is enough.” (Luke 22:35-38)

So, Jesus tells them to go buy a sword, and lo and behold, two of them (probably Peter and Simon the Zealot) had swords already. “Look, Lord, here are two swords.” Jesus ends the discussion with a curious phrase: “It is enough.” Which raises the question: enough for what?

I’ve heard some people say this passage proves that Jesus advocated for violence in self-defense. This has always struck me as odd, since two swords for 11 disciples are not enough for self-defense, especially if they go out two by two as they did before. Plus, nowhere else does Jesus allow for violence in self-defense. Is Jesus now adding some footnotes to his Sermon on the Mount?

Just to see if I was the only one that had problems with the self-defense view, I looked at 10 of the most respected commentators on Luke—many of whom definitely aren’t pacifists—to see if I was all alone. I wasn’t. Of the 10, I found only 1 that took the self-defense view. And he didn’t give any scriptural support for this view.

There is little—if any—support from the text that Jesus all of the sudden advocates for violence in self-defense.

If self-defense isn’t the point, then what does Jesus mean when he tells his disciples to buy a sword? Most scholars offer one of two interpretations. Some think that Jesus is speaking symbolically here. New Testament scholar I. Howard Marshall says that the command to buy a sword is “a call to be ready for hardship and self-sacrifice.” Darrell Bock says that the command to buy a sword symbolically “points to readiness and self-sufficiency, not revenge.” Catholic scholar Joseph Fitzmyer writes, “The introduction of the ‘sword’ signals” that “the Period of the Church will be marked with persecution,” which of course we see throughout the book of Acts. And the popular Reformed commentator, William Hendrickson, puts it bluntly: “The term sword must be interpreted figuratively.”

So when Jesus tells them to buy a sword, he was speaking figuratively about imminent persecution. According to this interpretation, when the disciples eagerly reveal that they already have two swords, they misunderstand Jesus’ figurative language (this wasn’t the first time). When Jesus sees that his disciples misunderstand him, he ends the dialogue with, “It is enough,” which means something like “enough of this conversation.”

This interpretation makes good sense in light of the context. But there’s another interpretation that I think does slightly more justice to the passage.

Notice that right after Jesus says “buy a sword,” he quotes Isaiah 53:12, which predicts that Jesus would be “numbered with the transgressors” (Luke 22:37). Then, the disciples reveal that they already have two swords, to which Jesus says “it is enough.” Now, Rome only crucified those who were a potential threat to the empire. For Jesus to be crucified, Rome would have to convict him as a potential revolutionary. And this is the point of the swords. With swords in their possession, Jesus and His disciples would be viewed as potential revolutionaries and Jesus would therefore fulfill Isaiah 53 to be numbered with other (revolutionary) transgressors. If Rome didn’t have any legal grounds to incriminate Jesus, there would have been no crucifixion.

This interpretation makes good sense of the quote from Isaiah 53 and the flow of Jesus’ ethical teaching. Up until Luke 22, Jesus has prohibited his followers from using violence, even in self-defense. Is Jesus now changing his mind by telling his followers to use the sword in self-defense? It seems better to take his command to buy a sword as we have suggested: Jesus is providing Rome with evidence to put Him on the cross.

So we could view Jesus’ command as a figurative expression about their coming suffering or as a way of ensuring His own crucifixion. Either way, it’s highly unlikely that Jesus encourages violent self-defense here. In fact, just a few verses later, Peter wields one of the two swords and Jesus rebukes him: “No more of this!” (22:51). Peter, along with some interpreters, misunderstood Jesus’ previous command to buy a sword.

Whatever Jesus meant by his command to buy a sword, it doesn’t seem that he intended it to be used for violence.

4. Revelation 19: Violent Jesus?

Some people say that while Jesus was nonviolent in his first coming, he’s going to be violent in his second coming. And therefore—so goes the argument—Jesus’s violent second coming disproves the nonviolent position.

This is probably the weakest pushback against Christocentric nonviolence for one main reason: The Bible clearly uses Jesus’s first coming (suffering and death) as an example for believers to follow, but never draws on images of his second coming as an example for believers to follow. Even if Jesus does act violently to punish evil in the end, this only strengthens my view. After all, Paul says “never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” (Rom. 12:19, emphasis added).

Jesus’s violent punishment of evil in the end is exactly what we are not to imitate. We are not to imitate God’s wrath and vengeance on evil.

So, I’m perfectly confortable with God’s vengeful, even violent, punishment of evil. I still have questions, though, about Revelation 19, which says that Jesus is pulling swords from his mouth. Now, either Jesus is running a carnival and if we wait long enough he’ll even pull a rabbit from his hat, or the sword being drawn from his mouth is figurative. Indeed, whenever we see a “sword from the mouth” in Revelation, it refers to a word of judgment, not a literal sword. That is, Jesus will defeat his enemies in the end by issuing an authoritative declaration that he has conquered them through the cross.


In a first-century world swimming in violence, in a land where “messiah” meant militancy, Jesus never acted violently. Whenever violence is addressed, Jesus condemns it. Whenever his followers try to act violently, they were confronted. Whenever Jesus encountered people who deserved a violent punishment, Jesus loved them. And in doing so, he left his followers with a non-violent example to follow.

When people around the globe think that American Christians are pro-war, enamored with violence, and fascinated with military might, something is terribly wrong. No one in the first century would have made the same conclusion regarding Jesus and his followers.