12 – Jesus & Self-Defense

Home Learning Hub Violence in Scripture 12 – Jesus & Self-Defense
We often approach Jesus in the Gospels from our personal perspective, with questions such as whether we are allowed to act in self-defence. We discuss the statements of Jesus on this level; “If an attacker is coming to my house, aren’t I allowed to defend myself, my wife and children?”

Sometimes, the whole discussion on “pacifism” is prevented at this point. Those who would hesitate at this question of violently protecting others are silenced from further discussion. From this point, people extrapolate on the use of violence to support gross acts from their governments against other people, whether economic or military, in the name of the safety of “our families,” forgetting that so many other families are perishing.

We won’t find much in Jesus’ statements directly answering this question about our personal protection. Jesus wasn’t addressing this issue. He wasn’t speaking about our concerns for selfdefence.

The statements Jesus made about violence were made in the context of his new kingdom, coming to transform the world. Often, we don’t read the scripture in this context. We don’t think of this kingdom, or of the purpose of Jesus for this kingdom in our nations. We have let this number one aspect of the gospel message slip into the background and disappear.

When we read the Gospels we are still thinking about our personal lives, and how we can be safe in this world and defend our way of life. Jesus wasn’t speaking of this, so he wasn’t answering the questions we are asking about this today. He wasn’t speaking about how we can best “save ourselves.” He was speaking of the opposite, how we can “lose ourselves” for others. This is our starting point for our hope of a better future, and this is where we begin in our discussions on this matter.

When we argue about Jesus’s statements in isolation, like when he told his disciples that he came not to bring peace, but a sword, or when he told his disciples to buy swords, we are often speaking out of context. We give these statements the context of our desire for self-protection, but Jesus was speaking of the opposite. If anything, he was denying us this self-protection, if we would be his disciples.

He was saying that this is the cost of our discipleship. His telling his disciples to buy swords was a figure of speech for the violence ahead. It wasn’t to be taken literally. He was telling them they must be ready to lay down their lives for him. He said this to them often. Peter still misunderstood Jesus, as he often did. Peter, just like us, learned slowly.

Most of the Jews were expecting the Messiah’s kingdom to come violently. So Jesus was explaining that it comes peacefully. If there is violence, then it is the violence of the world against his kingdom, it is not the violence of his people in retaliation. This was as unacceptable to people in Jesus’ day, as it is to people today. This is why so many of this displaces stopped following him. When they found out he wouldn’t be king, in their traditional sense of taking up arms against their enemies, they totally lost interest in being in his group.

John traces this in his Gospel. In chapter 2, many believed, but Jesus knew their hearts and knew what they wanted. In chapter 3, he told them the Messiah would be lifted up and killed, and his followers would inherit this pacifist kingdom. The message was too clear, and the crowds lost interest in him. Throughout the rest of the Gospel, John shows that violence was to have no part in this kingdom, and in fact this kingdom would instead suffer violence against it.

I guess we can discuss the text here, which says, “From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force.” This could be a reference to the violence against John, and the violence against Jesus. He would be scapegoated by the world, which didn’t want to lose its advantaged rule over others. Or, it could be a reference to Micah 2:13, which Jesus was quoting, which refers to the shepherd in their culture, who broke down the walls of the sheepfold in the morning, to let his sheep out to pastures and water. That is, the breaking of Jesus’ body, would allow the sheep to escape out of the law and into eternal life. This isn’t violence committed by Jesus, but by satan against Jesus, which turns out to our deliverance.

Jesus’ main message was that, unlike the kingdoms of this world, like those Isaiah and Daniel spoke of, the gentile powers, of which Israel was, unbeknown to itself, actually a part, since it adopted all the same methods, the kingdom of God would come completely without violence, or any form of human manipulation. The violence of all the other kingdoms was based on covetousness, selfpreservation, but the kingdom of God would not have any self-interest. If people want it, fine; if not, then God will wait. The kingdom of God is not forced upon people, like human kingdoms always are.

The kingdoms of our world are either forced through military means, or through appeal to human desires, like satan used in the Garden, like advertising today, or a mixture of these. But there is always the profit motive in these kingdoms. Rome’s kingdom was based upon both military brute force, and the appeal to some classes for a better life, in addition to sports and bloody entertainment (put movies and video games), to prevent us from any meaningful existence and from becoming occupied over questions about mercy for the masses. It is the same today. In one way or the other, we all participate in the violence of our world.

So, in contrast to these kingdoms, Jesus claimed that his kingdom is not of this world, and if it was, his servants would fight for it. This is a kingdom that comes through heavenly means, not earthly means. It comes through God’s grace and mercy, in keeping his promises, not through our worldly powers. This meant that Jesus would not use violence in the defence, nor in the expansion, of this kingdom, and that he would also forbid his disciples from using the same. This was the context of Jesus’ statements about violence. His kingdom must stand completely apart from the kingdoms of the world, because his kingdom has come to renew the world. We can’t renew the world by being of the world.

If Jesus forbad us from using violence to extend his kingdom, what did he expect us to use instead? This is where the bulk of his teachings fit in. His kingdom offers us a different way of doing things. It starts with, “Do not resist evil.” This means that we are not to resist evil violently. This is a plain command of Jesus for his disciples, for any who would take up membership in his kingdom. He replaces this with another way of resisting evil. He doesn’t mean we shouldn’t resist evil at all, but that there is a better way of doing it, one that really defeats it.

When we resist evil the world’s way, we just make more evil. When we use violence against one form of evil, we cause unjust damage against many people and thereby sow the seeds for tomorrow’s evil. This is the most constant theme we see with the modern history of America. We are repeatedly faced with the consequences of yesterday’s wars and victories, and this is plainly obvious in recent times. This is common to our whole human history.

A violent solution against evil is commonly unbalanced and commonly has mixed motives. The group that comes as the “righteous judge,” also has fault and self-interest. Before “righteous retribution” occurs, there is propaganda. This entails the advertisement of wrongs the others have done. These wrongs are held up, as though the whole other population are guilty of them; all members of that group are said to commit them. The wrongs are also often misjudged, just to feed the bloodlust. It is also silently stated that the group who is to avenge these wrongs, does not commit the same wrongs themselves. All this is unbalanced and unjust.

This is why taking vengeance upon wrong, generally produce’s more wrong and sows the seeds for future conflict. Propaganda has wrong motives. It is always the prelude to self-justified conflict, and therefore of future cultural clashes. A better alternative is the patient development of cultural understanding and mutual care.

Speaking of Western contributions, or the log in our eye, C. S. Lewis wrote, “If ever the book which I am not going to write is written, it must be the full confession by Christendom of Christendom’s specific contribution to the sum of human cruelty and treachery. Large areas of “the World” will not hear us till we have publicly disowned much of our past. Why should they? We have shouted the name of Christ and enacted the service of Moloch.” (C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves)

Jesus gives us another way of resisting evil. You resist the evil itself, not the evil person. You refuse to respond to evil, but resist it by responding against it, or oppositely to it. You resist evil by bottling it and taking it out of the system. You deplete the environment of evil, by answering it with good.

This is strategic resistance that works. This action is actually the call of the church, but is the one call we often stand against more than any other. We actually stand against what our Lord gave us as our main call in our nations. We say our main call is making Christ known. Yes, but this is who Christ is, and this is how we make him known.

This is the thing with the word pacifism. People often claim it means to do nothing, to show no resistance, to be useless in the face of evil. This is a total misrepresentation, designed to mock the truth. Pacifism doesn’t mean to show no resistance. It means to show plenty of resistance. It means to show far more resistance than is common. If we participate in our worldly narrative of war and consumption of resources, rather than in the mercy of God, then we are doing nothing about evil and violence. We are not resisting the spirit of our age at all. But if we work against evil, long before there are any wars, then we are highly active in resisting it. Resisting evil involves many life style choices, the kind of choices Jesus described in the Sermon on the Mount and in his other teachings.

Forgiving enemies is resisting evil. Loving and serving enemies is resisting evil. These are highly effective means. They take evil out of our systems. It’s like taking useless dirt out of a hole and replacing it with very wholesome dirt. When you plant a tree there, it will flourish. We are taking the bad out of the world and replacing it with good. But to do this, we have to forsake the advertising narrative, that it is our personal lives that matter. We have to forsake the religious narrative, that people of other religions are the enemy. We have to forsake the nationalist narrative, that people of other nations are worse sinners than we are. We have to forsake all the narratives that Jesus called the Jews to forsake, and take his narrative about treating people differently.

So Jesus is teaching us about learning the values of a new kingdom, going about life in a different way, not using the normal worldly logic, but one from heaven, imitating what God did in his incarnation and in laying down his life to reconcile the world. We are to follow this logic in renewing the world and in overcoming evil. When we fight evil with force, it escalates and spreads. We when we answer it with good, we take it out of the way, even if it is a cost to us to do so. We have thought that we get rid of evil by blowing it up, but Jesus said we get rid of it by soaking it up.

One thing we could be doing is investing in research into peacebuilding, instead of investing so much into weaponry. So few resources are put into peacemaking research. We still think that force is our best bet. For example, just building schools in one environment, or taking measures to bring down corruption in another environment, would go a long way to enhancing living conditions and promoting peaceful communities, where people have opportunities others take for granted.

But we don’t want to do this. Munitions companies lobby politicians for more access to world markets. There is too much money in it. We don’t attack corruption, when the stolen money from those places sits in our own nation’s bank accounts. We allow the suffering of millions of people, when we are allies with those who want it that way. We haven’t given the teachings of Jesus any serious attention in our world. And then we say they don’t work. We auto-accept the solution of making more weapons, that cost untold billions, billions that could lift so many people in war-torn nations into productive lives. When we put as much research into peace and building lives, as we do into war and tearing lives down, we may get somewhere.

We might ask, “What about the defence of our communities, the normal kind of policing that Paul spoke of, where such is are called the servants of God, to punish the evil doer?” (Romans 13:1-2) For some reason, Jesus didn’t speak about this. In his whole ministry to the Jews, he didn’t address it. He didn’t address local or national defence responsibilities once.

When asked about taxes, he said, “Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” He said this because Caesar’s image was on the coin. If Caesar wants his coin, give it to him. But God’s image is in people. We give to God what is his, by loving our neighbour, not the coin. This is our transforming witness.

Why didn’t Jesus speak of government protecting us, the way Paul mentioned it? Why didn’t Jesus speak of government at all? Maybe because the kind of governments we have today weren’t God’s original intention. Maybe our governments are manmade. Maybe man made them to execute vengeance on evil doers. Maybe man made the laws of our governments to manage the evil that fallen man does. Maybe, when Paul said they are ministers of God, it means in the way Babylon was God’s minister in punishing Jerusalem.

This is what Paul means by “all governments are ordained by God.” He ordains when one overruns another, to bring down the level of evil against humanity. And he says, “Don’t resist this government, for it’s of me.” This is what he said to Jerusalem, when Babylon came against them. Then, when that government becomes too corrupt, God opens the gate and allows another one to come in and overrun the last government. And on it goes.

That is, God uses fallen mans’ systems to curtail the evil within the fallen world, even though these systems are also riddled with corruption themselves. That doesn’t mean that any of this comes from God, but that he allows it, to keep the evil in the world in check. He allows this human form of government to stem mans’ violence against man.

That doesn’t mean that any of this was God’s original intention, or that any of it points to God’s kingdom. Jesus came to point us to God’s kingdom. He came to point us to the kind of life, the kind of behaviour towards neighbour, that deals with evil in our daily lives. He came to call the church to be a witness to this very kind of heart and life. Like he said of the church, “You are the light of the world,” meaning that through us, God is bringing new creation. He is speaking light into darkness and bringing renewal to all things.

So we can’t depend on human government to do that, and that is why Jesus didn’t speak of it. Human government isn’t from heaven. It is of this world, and so it is not going to revive hearts and communities. Jesus didn’t call the government of Rome, or any other government, to do this. He called his church to do it.

And this is also what Paul taught. He spoke of God revealing his wisdom to the governments of the world through the church. (Ephesians 3:9-11) He said that the church is to be the witness of the way of life that Jesus spoke of. Paul said the same in Corinthians. The church is to bring to nought the worldly powers of greed and violence that function in our societies, by allowing God’s Spirit to do just that in our own lives and faith communities first.

So when the governments and other powers of the world, such as commercial powers, promote greed and national interest as our hope, the believing community promotes a witness of caring for others instead. When the world promotes power, position, corruption or racism, the believing community promotes service, even to those beyond our borders. The church is to be the light of the world, that transforms the powers.

Jesus never spoke of God fulfilling his purposes of earth renewal through these governments, but only through his kingdom, that is, his people formed in his image through the gospel. And the way his people are to do this, is through cross-bearing, not by making compromising alliances with government to force “God’s agenda” on the world, or to save ourselves. This greatly misrepresents God’s agenda, which isn’t forced on others. It also corrupts the church, causing it to lose its saltiness, and to be thrown out; the world doesn’t consider a cross-less church to be of any use, and this is the church’s problem, when it forsakes the pacifism of its Lord for pragmatic reasons. It loses ground.

This kind of church joins the narrative of empire, against the interest of the weak, as we have done repeatedly, e.g. in the matter of the Australian Aboriginals, the American Indians, the South Africa of yesterday, and against women. It makes scapegoats of others. It becomes a voice for power, rather than a voice for the salves of Egypt.

God didn’t call us to power, which corrupts, but to service, which renews. This is Christ’s way. Satan offered all the governments of the world to Jesus, to “expedite his kingdom mission in the world.” Jesus refused. This tells us something about our governments. They are satanic, but also human and will be reconciled and renewed through the church’s faithful witness and prayers.

The church’s role is to live out the teachings of the cross in community relationships, doing to our neighbours, and to our enemies, what Jesus taught. This witness becomes the conscience of the world, exposing darkness and bringing transformation. This witness will often cost us. It will often go against the grain, because it will expose the advantage that others are enjoying. The powers won’t like this contrast. The church will suffer as a result. This is also the cross that Jesus bore and spoke of.

So Paul didn’t mention the military powers in relation to our own defence as the church, except they may serve us as normal citizens are served. He didn’t mention them as something God used to serve and secure the church especially. The kingdom isn’t advanced, or secured this way. Paul mentioned these powers, as something that exists in a fallen world, for a purpose that isn’t anything to do with the commission that Jesus gave us. Paul mentioned them because he wants us to show respect to all levels of society, not to try to change society by disrespectful, or revolutionary, means. Paul didn’t mention these powers because he wanted us to use them to carry out the church’s role in the world.

Paul had just got through, in the previous chapter, showing how the kingdom is advanced and secured. There, Paul taught us about our role, about how we are to bring change, to be the salt and light that brings transformation. He spoke of not being conformed to these values of the world, but of being transformed by the changing of our mind. And then, he spoke of the areas in which our mind is to be renewed. These are forgiving, not taking vengeance, not repaying evil for evil, but rather loving our enemies, and giving water to the enemy who is thirsty, and food to our enemy who is hungry. This is how we resist evil.

And this is the problem the Anabaptists had with the church after the Reformation. The church was still married to the state. They still used the state for their protection and to secure the gospel within nations. As one author put it, today’s politics are often “a particularly clear presentation of a longterm temptation (as old as the third temptation of Christ). The emperor, or king, or president offers to further the mission of the church. The church, in turn, provides legitimacy to power.”

The Reformation didn’t deal with our most domestic demons; especially exceptionalism, meaning our right, even our calling, to bear military arms to “fix” the world, while we demonise others. This exceptionalism was Israel’s demon that dealt with Jesus. The Anabaptist tried to address this after the Reformation, but their message was roundly rejected and Anabaptist were hunted down and killed. We haven’t yet addressed this, to our present time.

To Paul, pacifism didn’t mean just don’t harm others. It isn’t just to do with sins of commission. It is much more to do with sins of omission, omitting to serve our enemies. To Paul, pacifism meant to reach, love and serve those people who are our enemies, instead of calling on the government to kill them. This is the cross, what Jesus looks like, who God is. He didn’t come to condemn us, or to prosecute us through government. That is what we do to ourselves, through our continued destructive lives. Pacifism isn’t passive, it is highly active; it is putting the interests of others ahead of ourselves.

“But I say to you who hear (who want to listen), love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. To one who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also, and from one who takes away your cloak do not withhold your tunic either. Give to everyone who begs from you, and from one who takes away your goods do not demand them back. And as you wish that others would do to you, do so to them.”

This was behaviour totally opposite to the logic of the worldly government. Government speaks of justice in retribution. The church speaks of love for those who have offended us. These are totally opposite. The church doesn’t take the government’s role, thinking it is doing the will of God. We take the role that Paul spoke of in Romans 12. This way, Paul said, we heap burning coals of fire on the world’s conscience, which is our witness of good. Paul said, “Overcome evil with good.” This is our call and this is what Jesus taught.

Paul and Jesus taught the same thing. The church is not to take up the government to change the world, to execute vengeance on the sinners, but we are to take up our cross and serve the world, especially the sinners.