We’ve been considering the relationship between Christians and violence, and in this post, I’m going to do what many people never think of doing. I’m going to list what I think are the best arguments against my position, because the best way to understand and defend your own view is to consider it from the other side. After all, it’s not about being right; it’s about being a biblical Christ-follower, and pushing back on your own “view” is a good way to make sure you’re not just seeking to win an argument.
So, what are the best arguments against Christian pacifism? Two come to mind.
First, in the New Testament (NT), whenever Roman soldiers come to Christ, they are never told to quit the military or stop using violence. Perhaps the most revealing example comes in Luke 3:10-14:
“10 And the crowds asked him, ‘What then shall we do?’ 11 And he answered them, ‘Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise’. 12 Tax collectors also came to be baptized and said to him, ‘Teacher, what shall we do?’ 13 And he said to them, ‘Collect no more than you are authorized to do.’ 14 Soldiers also asked him, ‘And we, what shall we do?’ And he said to them, ‘Do not extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusation, and be content with your wages’.”
Here, the soldiers ask John the Baptist what they should do and they are not told to retire from the military nor are they told to stop using violence. They are told simply to stop robbing people.
Now, this argument is not actually as strong as it may seem. First, it’s not altogether clear that John the Baptist had the same non-violent ethic that Jesus did. If John came from the Jewish sect of the Essenes (which isn’t clear), then he certainly would have been cool with violence, and John’s misunderstanding of Jesus’ mission in Matthew 11 may support John’s expectation of a more violent (or at least political) messianic mission. Second, the whole flow of Luke in 3:10-14 (the whole gospel, really) is focused on radical economics. All three groups of people (the crowds, tax collectors, and soldiers) are all given exhortations that have to do with the use of money. Obviously, John (and Luke) is after a particular theme here, but this doesn’t mean that money is all he cares about—the soldiers also would have worshipped pagan gods, yet John doesn’t address this. Does this mean he’d be fine with them maintaining a bit of paganism?
All that to say, I don’t think that the “soldier argument” really proves that Jesus and John would have supported the war in Iraq or would have dropped the nuk on Hiroshima.
Second, Romans 13 says that God works through governments to violently punish evil (cf. “the sword;” 13:4). So, according to Just War theorist Arthur Holmes:
“If force is divinely entrusted to governments and if the Christian should support and participate in just government in its rightful functions, then why not participate in legitimate governmental uses of force” (Holmes, “Just War Theory,” 68-69)
Now, we’ve addressed this a bit in the 3rd blog. When Paul’s writes Romans 13, he’s talking about the church’s posture toward the government. There’s nothing in the text that assumes that members of the church would actually be serving within the government. Now, contrary to some of the previous comments, I’m not saying that Paul therefore says they can’t. All I’m saying is that Paul doesn’t have this in mind in Romans 13. Holmes’s logic can only be deduced implicitly.
However, there is evidence that there were some who worked for Rome and became believers, and the text doesn’t say that they quit their jobs. The Roman centurion (Matt 8), Corinth’s city treasurer Erastus (Rom 16:23), the Philippian jailer (Acts 16:25-34), Dionysius the Areopagite (Acts 17:34), and Nero’s household who passed on their greetings to the Philippian church (Phil 4:22) all became believers and also held some sort of governmental position. Some would be required to use or enact violence (the jailer), while others probably wouldn’t (Erastus). Now, we’re not told much about their ongoing post-converted life—maybe they remained within the government, or maybe all the violence, corruption, and paganism violated their conscience to the point of forcing them to withdraw from their vocation. The text simply does not say.
So I would say that the New Testament does open the door just a crack to the possibility of a believer serving in a governmental position, including the police force and courts of law. Nick Megoran, in his great book The War on Terror, wrestles with this issue and concludes:
“[total pacifists] must either condemn the police and courts, leading to anarchy, or explain why they allow the police, but not soldiers, to use force. It is not clear that pacifists have a robust answer to this objection, and it is rarely given sufficient consideration in their writings” (Megoran, The War on Terror, 166).
And FYI, Megoran is an ardent pacifist! There’s nothing in the next that would strictly forbid Christians participating in such positions. Coupled with the view that Christians should penetrate all areas of vocation and culture—wall street, Hollywood, politics, and yes, even law firms—the New Testament cannot be taken to condemn all vocations that work for the government. But in the same way that a Christian cameraman in Hollywood will more than likely encounter some dicey situations (filming a racy nude scene for 23 different takes), so also a Christian serving in the government will be faced with situations where it’ll be tough to strictly adhere to all of Christ’s ethic, including Jesus’ stance on violence.
When all is said and done, whether you are a cameraman working on the set of 300, or cop strolling the streets of Skid Row, Jesus’ non-retaliatory love of one’s enemy, along with his strident critique of adulterous lust, cannot be sacrificed on the alter of one’s vocation. We are Christ-followers first, and secondarily everything else.