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The Limits of Christian Non-Violence 01: Non-redemptive destruction6 min read

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This post is part of a series.

I am taking a pretty fantastic course at Fuller Theological Seminary this quarter entitled IS502 – THE PRACTICE OF CHRISTIAN COMMUNITY.

Fuller is largely populated with what I would call center-left Evangelicals, and often, the profs and students have a predisposition towards Christian pacifism. Coming from the Evangelical right, which emphasizes Just War Theory, I have had to learn to appreciate the Biblical injunction to becoming active peacemakers, not just a Christian who can justify the use of lethal force if he needs to.

In online class discussion, I have argued for a pairing of pacifist passages with a balancing Biblical principle that, while seemingly paradoxical, supplies principled limits to the pacifist bias in the teachings of Jesus.

For instance, do we always ‘turn the other cheek,’ or is that contextual to, for instance, insults, but not mortal threat?

When asked for specific situations where a theology of non-violence, forgiveness, and self-abnegation do not apply, I gave these examples. Here’s the discussion.

>> JOHN: It may help to hear some specific examples that you are thinking of, because you obviously believe this very much. I have difficulty imagining persistent forgiveness and avoidance of trouble

Valid criticism. Let me see if I can concoct some examples, progressively more difficult, but also very real.

The Drug Addicted Child

Your high-school-aged son’s grades have dropped precipitously because of his use of marijuana, and what you suspect are harder drugs like Oxycontin or meth. You’ve noticed that some of your electronics and jewelry have disappeared, and you suspect that your son has sold it for drug money.

He’s been picked up for his third DUI, but because your theology is one of consistent forgiveness, you bail him out again, not wanting him to spend a night in the lockup. But you suspect he is getting the wrong idea – not just that you will always love him, but that he will not really suffer any more severe consequences of his actions because you will always be there to help him.

What theology or scriptures would you use to stop enabling him? Do you have a theology that allows you to NOT save him, hoping that he will not end up destroying himself if you fail to intervene? Do you ‘warn him in love’ but let the truth of his situation play out by not ‘rescuing him out of love’? How do you balance those two paradoxical approaches?

The Abused Wife

battered-womanShe feels it is her Christian duty to obey and respect her husband, and forgive him every time he beats her. In fact, she suspects that she must ‘turn the other cheek’ every time he actually slaps her. Unforutunately, her lack of negative feedback to her husband enables his continued abuse, and she feels trapped in an ethical system that does not allow her to take action to defend or help herself because that is selfish, and likens her situation to that in 1 Peter 2:18:

Slaves, in reverent fear of God submit yourselves to your masters, not only to those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh.

What scriptural principles would you give her to help her situation?

The South Sudanese

You are lying in abject fear in the dead of night in your hut in South Sudan. Every time your children hear gunshots in town, they whimper, and you try to calm them. As a Christian, you know what is happening – Northern Arab Muslims have come into your town to kill Christians and non-Arab Muslims.

Suddenly, the front door of your one-room hut bursts open, and you are confronted with an Arab Muslim with a machine gun. You know that if they don’t just kill you outright, they are going to rape your wife and daughter in front of you, then kill all of you.

What does your theology tell you to do? What scriptures do you marshal?


Again, I am arguing for something like a 90/10 solution to these paradoxes – that we err on the side of peace and love, but we also allow for justice, forceful defense of the helpless, and good stewardship of the self in some situations where plain old martyrdom is not God’s only active principle.

In the cases above, not having such a balancing theology leads to what I would call a non-redemptive destruction. Sure, to some extent, martyrdom is always recompensed by God, and we ought to be “as wise as serpents and harmless as doves,” but as officers of government (be it civil, family, or even ecclesiastical), we do not ‘bear the sword in vain.’

I do not think that sword is merely a metaphor for power, but for lethal force if necessary, as given in the OT civil penalties that include capital punishment.

Interestingly, and contrary to my position, Muslims reject some of Jesus’ teaching because he seems too submissive and impractical in his teachings such as ‘turn the other cheek,’ and to some extent, I agree, not that Jesus was wrong, but that by taking his clear pacifist pattern out of the context of the OT and the Apostles’ teaching, we do come out with an unbalanced theology that is ‘so heavenly minded that it’s no earthly good.’