One of the biggest misconceptions of Jesus’ way of nonviolence is that it leads to inaction. It is assumed that those who elect not to fight in the face of evil somehow pass the moral buck on to others.
As soldiers of shalom, however, our task is to bring God’s healing power into broken situations and to people who suffer under the unbearable weight of bitterness and injustice that rip people up and apart from each other. To ignore or turn a blind eye toward sin and evil – be it personal or systemic – when it is one’s power to confront it is not only cowardice but unfaithfulness. Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers,” not just the peacekeepers. We are to overcome evil with good (Rom. 12:21). That means stepping into the fray.
Indeed, we have a public role, like the prophets, to protest and witness against what is evil. In the Scriptures we find plenty of examples where God’s people confront those in power with truth and righteousness. John the Baptist confronts Herod's immorality (Matt. 14:4), Jesus overturned the tables of the Temple moneychangers (Mark 11:12ff), and spoke against the Pharisees’ false righteousness and hypocrisy (Matt. 23:1ff). Paul stood up for his rights as a Roman citizen (Acts 16:35–40) when wrongly treated. And James warned those who oppressed and hoarded their wealth (James 5:1–6).
It’s a misnomer, then, to think of nonviolence as inaction. Nonviolence is rooted in love, and love is an action; it calls one to even lay down one’s life for another. Nonviolence is not just a way to respond to evildoers, it is a way of being in the world that extends God’s peace to others. Though we do not wage war as the world does, or use carnal weapons to achieve some greater good (2 Cor. 10:3), we are called to do battle nonetheless. Followers of Jesus wage war against the principalities and powers that demean and undermine human flourishing.
It’s a misnomer, then, to think of nonviolence as inaction. Nonviolence is rooted in love, and love is an action; it calls one to even lay down one’s life for another.
Soldiers of shalom, therefore, can never simply acquiesce to evil. But what about the state? Is it ever right to resist it, especially if it becomes an agent of injustice? Are we still obligated to comply?
The Bible indeed teaches that the authorities are ordained by God and that laws of the state must be treated with respect (Rom. 13:7; 1 Pet. 2:17). God instituted it to hold the forces of human strife at bay and to ameliorate humankind’s propensity toward injustice. Its role is to restrain evil in the world. We are thus obligated to submit and be subordinate to the state (Rom. 13:1; 1 Pet. 2:13), paying taxes and revenues (Rom. 13:6–7; Mark 12:13–17). In Jesus’ words, we are to render to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.
As ambassadors of God’s kingdom we should do all we can to find a neighborly and friendly contact with the government. We are to peaceably live within its confines as conscience permits, all the while praying and interceding (1 Tim. 2:1–7) that it may be an agent of good. Indeed, if what the state imposes does not violate our calling as soldiers of Christ, then we are to give the government its due.
However, by nature the state embodies a spiritual dynamic that falls well short of the way of absolute love. It is an agent of God’s wrath against evil. As Eberhard Arnold reminds us, “There is no state that does not kill!” It is an “infernal machine” that controls “the hell of human crimes.” As a principality and power reliant on the force of violence it naturally tends to exacerbate the cycle of injustice in the world by maximizing its own interests. When left unchecked, the state tends to absolutize its claims and tyrannically expands its reach – both within its borders and outside its proper sphere of influence.
This is why the church is called to be a witness of both the gospel and to righteousness (Matt. 10:16–20; Acts 4:18–20; 5:27–29). We are duty-bound by Christ’s righteousness to remind the state of its mandate and limits. If the state demands more than what is necessary for its proper functioning, of punishing evildoers and reward those who do good, it transgresses the limits set by God. Christians are not allowed to give the state what belongs to God. The Christian will give to the state, even Nero’s state, what is due to it, but no more. Obedience to the authorities is thus always conditional.
We are duty-bound by Christ’s righteousness to remind the state of its mandate and limits. If the state demands more than what is necessary for its proper functioning it transgresses the limits set by God.
But what, exactly, does this mean? Scripture teaches that we are to obey God and submit to the governing authorities. What happens when these two commands conflict? What happens if the state turns demonic, like in Revelations? What are we to do when God’s moral order is inverted, when evil-doers get rewarded and go free while the righteous and innocent get punished or are oppressed?
To begin with, it is never right to rebel against the state in the sense of seeking to subvert or overthrow its basic role of restraining evil. In a fallen world, the apparatus of the state is a necessary evil. Besides, soldiers of shalom represent one thing alone: the power of humble love. Seeking to overcome the enemy by means of power is not the way of Christ nor will it ever advance God’s kingdom. Furthermore, we must always seek constructive ways to exert our influence on the political life, no matter how corrupt it may become. Similarly, we must support others who stand for peace, for equity and justice in the world, even if we can never simply side with them or fight their battles in their way. Though we must avoid getting involved with class struggles that employ violent, coercive means to avenge justice or further some good, we must stand with those who suffer indignity and injustice.
But what about desperate situations of terrible evil which are sanctioned by the state itself? Are we still called to submit to the authorities? Are we only to pray? Or is there a place for and even a duty to disobey the state, or engage in some form of civil disobedience?
The answer to this question lies partly in how we understand “civil disobedience.” In general terms, civil disobedience is engaging in any intentional act that is prohibited by the state or refusing to perform an act that is required by the civil authority (or law). Within this broad definition, however, we can distinguish two kinds of civil disobedience: disobedience of conscience (noncooperation) and political disobedience (subversive action).
In matters of faith and conscience, if the state or a law compels us to do evil or prohibits us from living out the commands of the gospel, we must refuse to obey. Throughout the Bible we read of instances where God’s people refuse to act contrary to their faith. Hebrew midwives refuse to kill newborn Hebrew babies, despite Pharaoh’s policies (Ex. 1:15–21). Rahab disobeys the king when she deliberately protects the lives of the Israelite spies (Josh. 2). The prophet Obadiah disobeys Queen Jezebel’s orders by hiding and feeding a hundred prophets (1 Kings 18). The prophet Daniel refuses to eat the King Nebuchadnezzar’s food so as to not defile himself (Dan. 1) and later defies the king’s order to pray only to him (Dan. 6). Jesus himself violates the Mishnah Sabbath tradition by feeding his hungry disciples (Mark 2:23–24) and healing (Luke 6:7ff). And Peter and John keep on preaching the gospel despite orders from the authorities not to (Acts 4:1ff; 5:41–42).
In matters of faith and conscience, if the state or a law compels us to do evil or prohibits us from living out the commands of the gospel, we must refuse to obey.
In our current situation today, believers increasingly find themselves in situations where their faith is in direct conflict with the dictates of the state. Those who refuse to provide services for same-sex weddings, for example, or those who refuse to be drafted, or those who refuse to comply with laws mandating sterilization or abortion, do so because these things are contrary to Christian faith. Likewise, local ordinances, like those that ban the homeless from certain public areas and prohibit people from offering them food or shelter, prohibit followers of Jesus from doing what Jesus commanded: Feed the hungry, clothe the naked, reach out to “the least of these.” As the story of the good Samaritan illustrates, we are called to come to the aid of victims, whoever they are. In this sense, we must obey God, rather than man.
But what about acts of political disobedience? This second form of civil disobedience involves engaging in illegal action (the breaking of a justified law) for purposes of ridding the society or the state from a particular evil (including a bad law). Is it ever right to engage in deliberate, illegal action against some perceived immoral activity?
Of this form of civil disobedience the Bible is virtually silent. When God’s people in the Bible disobey the authorities they do so not because they are trying to change an unjust law but because their conscience and faith compel them to obey God’s higher commands. This, however, is not the same thing as deliberately disobeying or undermining just laws in order to accomplish a just end. There is nothing in the Bible or in Jesus’ example that supports disobeying the laws of the land.
Take abortion for example. To fight against abortion through legal means is one thing. But to disregard valid ordinances against trespassing or to disrespect laws that protect private property all in order to forcibly prevent women from entering a clinic is quite another. To voluntarily hammer guns into instruments of peace is a wonderful demonstration of the peaceable kingdom yet to come, but to illegally break into military installations to hammer on the instruments of war is quite different. Breaking just laws or committing violence – be it against others, the state, or property – is incongruent with the way of the Cross (1Pet. 2:18–23; 3:9–13).
When confronting a social evil, we must resist the temptation to meet it on its own terms (Rom. 12:17–21). When there are legitimate and legal ways to effect change, by petitioning or marching or protesting, these should be used. When good or decent laws are broken for purposes of changing an evil situation, this tends toward coercion and it draws attention to itself and away from the actual evil in question. Confronting the state must not be done by coercive means or by clandestine tactics, but through forthright, godly persuasion. To threaten, to use unruly methods of coercion, fear, or belligerence, to use means of indecency and disgrace, is contrary to the spirit of Christ and the way of the cross.
Confronting the state must not be done by coercive means or by clandestine tactics, but through forthright, godly persuasion. To threaten or to use unruly methods is contrary to the spirit of Christ and the way of the cross.
Speaking out in an appeal to another’s conscience in hopes of finding the key to a person’s heart, and there is a key to every human heart, is the only means consistent with the way of Jesus. Organizations like Christian Peacemaker Teams, who take risks, sometimes in defiance of those in authority, on behalf of those suffering injustice and the violence of war, give witness to the power of nonviolence in even the direst of circumstances.
The church indeed has a prophetic role in the world precisely because militaries and states invariably overstep their God-ordained limits. “A law that is not just,” Augustine once wrote, “goes for no law at all.” And so, there may even be situations in which the church, in the words of Bonhoeffer, must put a stick in the spokes of the wheel of the state, anchoring themselves nonviolently in the middle of the whirlpools of violence. When this happens, believers must be prepared to willingly suffer the consequences (e.g. Hebrews 10:32–39). Respect for those in authority means accepting the application of punishment to oneself. Even if in the right, we cannot simply flee prosecution or even death. Part of picking up one’s cross and following Jesus is to suffer for the truth (1 Pet. 2:12, 15, 20; 3:13, 17; 4:19) in the cause of peace.
From the church’s inception, and through its earliest martyrs, the most persuasive and effective witness to the powers was one of demonstrating and offering a true alternative to the ways of this world (Matt. 5:13–17; 1 Pet. 2:12). The early church abolished slavery in its midst not legally but morally – all were treated as brothers and thus the legal distinction between slave and brother was superfluous. In the end, the early Christians changed the world by means of sacrificial service, which revealed the root of a given evil in society. This kind of action has always had a much better record in effecting structural changes than strategies of civil disobedience or revolution.
In the end, the early Christians changed the world by means of sacrificial service, which revealed the root of a given evil in society. This kind of action has always had a much better record in effecting structural changes than strategies of civil disobedience or revolution.
In the end, soldiers of shalom should spend their energies sowing seeds of peace in righteousness to convert hearts. The church serves the state best when it remains faithful to its own calling. It serves society most when it consistently lives out Jesus’ message on his own terms. The church is called to respect the state’s use of force and law to ameliorate misery and conflict. At the same time, it boldly goes beyond the constraints of the law by giving witness to a different way based on love, brotherly fellowship, and compassion for the most vulnerable of society. Our task is to show that evil cannot only be restrained but be overcome with good, and that a new and living way to live life together in this world is possible.Comments
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