In our new Turning Over Tables series, we examine how central Jesus (as well as other new testament authors) placed our call to non-violence. In fact at one point in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus pre-conditions being considered a child of God to our love toward enemies and refusal to return evil for evil. Many throughout history have tried to twist scripture to fit certain personal or other non-Kingdom nationalistic agendas, but Jesus’ call to us is that His Kingdom is not of this world. What makes His followers distinct is our refusal to engage in violence no matter the “just” circumstance.
Over the past 20 years at Woodland Hills we have become increasingly aware of the centrality non-violence plays in our distinctive place in the world as kingdom people. Most evangelical churches have bought in to the “just war” concept, where under the right circumstances violence is justified and even necessary. This usually comes by appealing to seemingly violent OT depictions of God and then applying that to current day situations. Many have also used limited sections of NT scripture, such as Jesus cleansing the temple, to play this same role.
Jesus’ sermon on the mount sets the framework for His understanding of His Father’s Kingdom. In Matthew 5:43-48 Jesus makes several critical statements discussing non-violence and loving of enemies. It’s important to note that He gives no qualifications for whom or when we’re supposed to love. It applies to all people at all times, there is no off button. He also makes the bold proclamation that living in this way (indiscriminate love) is actually pre-condition for being considered a child of God. We are to be made full of this way of love as our Father in Heaven is full of this type of love that gives freely out of His nature, not by assessing merit. Jesus later goes on to explain that there is nothing distinct about loving those who love you and hating those who hate you, everyone does that. What is distinct about His Kingdom is returning evil with good, praying for those who persecute you, and doing good to your enemies. By in large, as a persecuted minority for the first 3 centuries the early church lived in this way. But in the 4th century when the church put down the cross and picked up the sword becoming the official state religion, as a whole we lost our distinctiveness that came from a non-violent ethic.
A couple sections of NT scripture were addressed in which people have appealed to support that even Jesus in certain just circumstances resorted to violence. The first is Jesus’ famous cleansing of the temple where he fashioned a whip and drove animals out of the temple and turned over money changers’ tables. A few points are important to keep in mind:
- The temple system of buying and selling animals for sacrifices was corrupt. This was not a spontaneous angry outburst by Jesus, it was a calculated planned prophetic act to fulfill the OT prophesy of God cleansing the temple.
- Jesus is also provoking the authorities. He came to be crucified and this is part of the path to keep those wheels turning.
- He never used the whip on any people or animals; He simply cracked it in the air as any animal herder would have done to get the herds moving. If he would have used it on people or actually acted violently it would have been obvious because anyone who heard Him teach would have called him a hypocrite. He was aggressive, but not violent.
A second passage in Luke 22:36-38 outlines Jesus request of His disciples to get swords to prepare for temple guards coming to arrest Him. Again a few points of context are important when interpreting what is happening:
- If Jesus really wanted His followers to use their swords to protect Him, they would have needed a lot more than 2. His only desire was to be seen as insurrectionist.
- When one of His disciples (Peter) actually does use his sword Jesus takes the man’s ear that was cut off and heals it while telling Peter to put his sword back in its place, and those who live by the sword will die by the sword.
- If ever there was a “just” time to use violence this would have been it, and Jesus uses it as the specific time to show that His Kingdom doesn’t work like that.
As Paul says in Ephesians, we do not wage war against flesh and blood, but principalities and powers, and the main way we do that is refusing to engage in violence against anything with flesh and blood. It’s important on this journey from violence being the water we swim in to actually getting free of its hold to not become self-righteous. In reality, we all justify the violence in our hearts even if it never gets acted out by our bodies. Elsewhere in Matthew 5 Jesus shows that although the consequences are different, anyone with violence in their heart is just as guilty as the murderer. Our violent worldview is a polluted filter that we see everything through, and unless we can be freed from this bondage and see it for what it actually is, we’ll always miss the beautiful creation and opportunities for love that are around us all the time.
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