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006063796XWe’ve now reached the section of The Moral Vision of the New Testament where Richard Hays begins to examine how the New Testament speaks to specific, controversial issues.

(If you’ve gotten behind in the reading or you’re just joining us, I recommend skipping ahead to this section. See the reading schedule here. But make sure to check out the previous two posts, the first on focal images for New Testament ethics and the second on how five ethicists’ use the New Testament to reach their conclusions.)

Here’s the question for today: Is it ever God’s will for Christians to employ violence in defense of justice?

Key Texts

What are the key texts for this question? Hays points to Matthew 5:38-48 and summarizes it this way:

  • Jesus’ words here are not merely an eschatological vision or ideal.
  • Teaching others to obey Jesus’ commands (fulfilling the Great Commission) must include nonviolent enemy-love, as laid out in this passage.
  • We have no basis for restricting prohibition of violence to self-defense. The larger paradigm of Jesus’ own conduct indicates a deliberate renunciation of violence as an instrument of God’s will.
  • All baptized believers are to be taught to observe all that Jesus commanded, not just Christians in pastoral roles.
  • Jesus intends these words to be put into practice.

In this passage, Hays says, Jesus overrules the Torah, forbidding retaliation altogether. By loving their enemies, the disciples of Jesus, as the light of the world, reflect the character of God.

Synthesis: Violence in Canonical Context

How do we understand Matthew 5 in relation to other parts of Scripture? Hays examines multiple passages that speak either directly or indirectly to the question of non-violence. Here are his conclusions:

  • To be saved by Jesus’ life means we must recapitulate the pattern of Christ’s self-giving.
  • The governing authority bears the sword to execute God’s wrath; this is not an option for believers.
  • The suffering of Christ is the paradigm for Christian faithfulness.
  • We do not see soldiers in the New Testament being instructed to give up their occupations, but such an expectation misses the larger point of these narratives: to show how God’s grace reaches the unlikeliest people.
  • Jesus’ explicit teaching of nonviolence must reshape our understanding of God and the church so that killing our enemies is no longer a justifiable option.

Next, Hays looks at the question through the three focal lenses:

Community: The church as a whole is called to exemplify the love of enemies.

Cross: The example of Jesus is determinative for the community of the faithful.

New Creation: Turning the other cheek makes sense only if all authority has been given to Jesus.

Hermeneutics: Responding to the New Testament’s Witness Against Violence

The question before us now is: How do we adhere to the New Testament’s teaching against violence?

  • Rule: We have clear directives from Jesus on how to respond when persecuted.
  • Principle: There are generally formulated norms that reinforce the rule.
  • Paradigm: The story of Jesus’ renunciation of violence is the preeminent mode of New Testament’s witness to nonviolence.
  • Symbolic world: Our struggle is not against flesh and blood. The weapons of the church are faith and the Word of God.
  • Other Authorities: Tradition since Constantine has endorsed war in certain circumstances, but Scripture stands against the church’s tradition in this case. Reason and Experience can lead to conflicting conclusions and are therefore unreliable.

Living the Text: The Church as Community of Peace

  • Hays believes the church is deeply compromised on this matter and is too often committed to nationalism.
  • If we live in obedience, the church will become the sphere where the future of God’s righteousness intersects – and challenges – the present tense of human existence.

Some Personal Considerations: If someone were to ask me to offer a strong case for pacifism, I would recommend this chapter from Richard Hays. Of the arguments for non-violence I’ve come across, Hays’ treatment is certainly the strongest. And yet, I close this chapter utterly unpersuaded that Hays has done justice to the complexity of the New Testament’s teaching on this subject.

First, Hays’ recognition of the government’s legitimate authority to wield the sword (Romans 13) counters his statement that the violence is never the instrument of God’s will. Does God authorize unbelieving rulers to do things He forbids His people to do? He assumes that believers cannot participate in the governing authorities’ exercise of violence, and in this, he fails to give sufficient attention to the moral imagination required in applying Romans 13 to our context today. If the government is given authority to wield the sword, how does this apply to a democratic republic where Christians by their citizenship are represented by the government? How does neighbor love apply in circumstances where we can defend the innocent and the weak by thwarting evildoers? Hays bypasses these ethical quandaries, whereas in later chapters (on homosexuality or abortion, for example) he is willing to entertain all sorts of extenuating circumstances.

Secondly, just as we must differentiate between the “anger” Jesus forbade and the kind of righteous anger that Jesus displays on other occasions (the kind of anger that is not sin — Ephesians 4:26), so must we also differentiate between the situation of non-resistance in Matthew 5 and other cases of violence pursued with the goal of peace (Romans 13). The best appeals to “just war” theory are grounded in a broader New Testament synthesis, not in order to escape the forcefulness of Jesus’ command in the Sermon on the Mount, but in order to better understand it in light of the rest of the New Testament’s teaching.

Third, Hays takes Jesus’ renunciation of violence toward enemies and makes it the dominant image of God’s character, who we are to emulate. He is surely right to see the self-giving love of Christ as representative of God’s heart for a rebellious world. And yet the New Testament also gives us examples of God’s judgment meted out against persistent unbelievers. Paul does not say, Do not retaliate because God is not a God of vengeance, but Do not retaliate because God will enact justice. To only see God as the self-giving Savior who renounces violence is to miss the bigger picture of God’s justice, which in the Gospels is accomplished through the wrath-absorbing sacrifice of the Son, but in Revelation is completed when the Son returns to judge (destroy) the living and the dead who continue to oppose Him.

For a fascinating back-and-forth on these issues, I highly recommend the interchange between Nigel Biggar and Richard Hays. (Click here for Biggar’s critique and Hays’ response.) HT – Matthew Lee Anderson


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14 thoughts on “Can Christians Employ Violence in the Defense of Justice?”

  1. Curt Day says:

    Two points here, we might want to add Martin Luther King Jr.’s identifying of and prohibition against internal violence as well as external violence. According to King, internal violence is the violence of our spirit against others that is especially evident in how we verbally interact with others, especially enemies. We should also note King’s passion for winning enemies over.

    But as for the sword the state wields, we should note that the context of our times might change how much sword wielding the state should be doing. In a world where, because of technology, the proliferation of WMDs is inevitable, should the state start thinking that the use of violence against those outside the state become at least modified if not extinct. As such proliferation continues, while one state might be able to obliterate another state or group with today’s weapons, that state or group might also gain the ability to obliterate back with yesterday’s weapons. And so we might want to consider whether documents like the Russell-Einstein manifesto should be used by the state as a guide.

  2. Three responses to your three-point critique of Hays’ view on violence. Sorry in advance for the length.
    First, the application of Romans 13 into our modern American context is indeed complex. I agree with Hays that the church (since Constantine) has struggled with the sin of nationalism. American Christians (in general) have to acknowledge the idolatry of nationalism, repent of it, and begin to form an identity in Christ separate from our national identity. Once we define ourselves by Christ first and foremost, then we subordinate our love for the nation below our love for Christ. Some will see this as hate, but it is just a subordinate kind of love (see Matthew 14:26). Only within this critical distance of identity can we clearly apply 1 Corinthians 13. Yes God has given the sword to the State, but how would Jesus speak to the US Government, the pentagon, or the industrial military complex (the masters of war)? Would he not preach to them enemy love? Should the ruling authorities who are represented by the citizens they govern defeat the weak and innocent by thwarting evil-doers? Yes, of course. The question is how? How would Jesus instruct them? Would he instruct them in the ways of war or would he instruct them in ways of making peace using the utmost consideration for the loss of life including the life of the enemy? It seems to me he would instruct them in the latter or perhaps he would instruct them in some other way?

    Second, where do we see the “righteous anger” of Jesus resulting in violent killing? We don’t. Jesus had the option of zealotry, the Maccabean-approach to embodying the kingdom of God, but he rejected it. When James and John asked Jesus if they could call down fire from heaven to consume a Samaritan (enemy) village, Jesus rebuked them. Indeed anytime Jesus was tempted by violence he refused it. The just war theory is based more in reason and experience, than a synthesis of New Testament ethics. A theological question that I find helpful in synthesizing NT ethics on the matter of violence is this: “Will there be war in the age to come?” Answer: no. Granted we live in the overlap of ages, but aren’t we (the church freed from nationalism) called to embody the values of the age to come? In this overlap of ages we understand that SOME acts of violent force will be necessary to thwart “evil-doers,” but shouldn’t the church be the voice of moral constraint, when the state wants use war-like tactics to thwart “evil-doers?” If God has given the sword into the hands of the State, then the church should be the voice of Jesus to Peter saying put away the sword? Yes the State has the metaphorical sword, but wouldn’t Jesus lead the State towards constraint? After all, according to Isaiah, in the rule of Messiah we will beat our swords into plowshares and learn war no more. The fullness of the kingdom of God is no sword, no war. So is Jesus leading humanity towards this kingdom-come, teaching us the ways of peace, or is Jesus teaching humanity how to use the weapons of war in order to kill?

    Third, the self-giving love of God is in no way contrary to the justice of God, but what we mean by justice is to be interpreted by what we mean by love. God’s love is not the co-dependent kind of love allowing human beings to do whatever they want to do and saying, “It’s all ok.” God’s acts of judgment (both present and eschatological) flow from his love. God is not a mixture of 50% love and 50% anger/wrath/hate. God is 100% love. Indeed God cannot be perfectly loving and not hate evil, but does this hate of evil mean his judgment includes the violent killing of God’s enemies? Jesus didn’t say “Love your enemies *wink* *wink* because I am coming back to kill them.” He said “Love your enemies because in doing so you will be sons of God who is kind to evil-doers” (Luke 6:35-36). Kindness to evil-doers does not mean we allow them to perpetrate acts of violence. We do everything we can to stop them, using force when necessary, but not trying to kill them. Revelation shows us the reigning Christ who rules and judges not by slaying his enemies but by being slain. He judges by the words of his mouth not the violence of his hands. The sword in Revelation 19 is in his mouth; not in his hand. Jesus will come again to judge the living and the dead and there will be those who go into eternal punishment and those who go into eternal life, but again this act of judgment flows out of God’s love not the petty human emotion of anger we too often want to thrust upon him.
    I realize these comments do not answer the heart of your question: “Is it ever God’s will for Christians to employ violence in defense of justice?” I suppose my answer would be far too complicated because “God’s will” and “violence” are too broad of categories for a concise answer.

  3. Several thoughts. Given that I am not a Christian pacifist.

    1) I found Hays’ rationale pretty impressive. I essentially believe in traditional ‘just war’ rationale but am suspicious about it’s employ. ‘Just war’ often becomes ‘any war’. I appreciate pacifist voices like Hays (or Yoder, Hauerwaus, etc) who can serve to challenge us on that. Perhaps, then, there is a role of a sub-component of the larger Church who by living out strict pacifism can serve as special witness and challenge to the wider culture.

    2) My main objective to strict pacifism in that if the Christian community lives this way fully, then we will always be passing off defensive violence to others. Christian people will always have to ‘let the pagans sin for us’. That is, if we want to live in a society with cops and protected borders and such. I can’t quite solve that. That seems ethically irresponsible in some way. Parasitic almost.

    3) I’ve never understood “God isn’t vengeful so we ought not to be” as a grounding for non-violence. That’s like dealing the best card away. Far better is to believe, as I think the NT clearly says, that “vengence is God’s so therefore don;t deal it out yourself”. But so many Christian pacifists seem to de-emphasize, if not reject, that principle. Sure, Jesus was non-retaliatory but wasn’t that because He was resting in the eschatological judgment that was coming? Isn;t that the best rationale for Christian non-ratliation today? It certainly was for the earliest Anabaptists. Why not for many contemporary ones? I think no one addresses this better than Miroslav Volf in the end of ‘Exclusion and Embrace”. The non-violent Jesus of Nazareth is also the ‘White Rider’ or Revelation. They are the same Christ.

  4. Steve Bezner says:

    Trevin, thanks for engaging this important book. Question: Do you think Paul imagined Christians as part of the governing authorities in Romans 13? Wouldn’t your answer to that question guide your interpretation of that passage? In other words, if Paul couldn’t imagine a reality in which Christians would be making decisions of life and death (as in, for example, the 21st century United States), would we need to construe his argument differently? It is one thing to imagine the government as the instrument of God’s wrath if you see it administered by individuals of no faith, but it is quite a different thing to argue Christians can faithfully employ violence because they are God’s tool of wrath. Opinion?

    1. Trevin Wax says:

      I’m not making the case Paul imagined Christians as part of the governing authorities. I’m merely implementing the “hermeneutical imagination” that Hays says we MUST use when applying first-century texts to a different context. Considering Paul’s words about the governing authorities wielding the sword as a way of restraining evil and rewarding the good – as an instrument of God – would we imagine he tell a governor who converts, “Step down or you are compromised.” Or would he say, “Rule wisely on behalf of the good.” I don’t see how Hays can avoid giving an affirmative answer to the first, based on his view of Christians and non-violence.

      1. Steve Bezner says:

        I agree. Perhaps a third way might be: “Rule wisely on behalf of the good, and be more reserved in your approach toward violence than your unbelieving counterparts, for you follow Jesus.” If we’re talking about hermeneutical imagination.

        1. Trevin Wax says:

          I wouldn’t say that’s the third way. I’d say it’s the non-pacifist position that the best of “just war” theorists put forth.

          1. Steve Bezner says:

            Ha. Well, you only gave two options above. So I just counted to three.

  5. Steve Bezner says:

    Follow up question, apologies. You speak of the “complexity of the New Testament’s teaching on this subject.” What passages of the New Testament other than Romans 13 would you argue ought to be interpreted as pro-violence for believers?

    1. Trevin Wax says:

      I’m referring to the complexity of the New Testament’s teaching regarding the subject of God’s mercy and wrath, not merely the question of a Christian’s use of violence as a measure of defense for the helpless. The picture of God in the New Testament is not merely the self-giving Savior, but also the conquering King who punishes the wicked. Likewise, we would say that the picture of God in the Old Testament is not merely the war-commanding King but also the compassionate, slow-to-anger Father who longs for people to repent.

      1. Steve Bezner says:

        I see. The placement of the sentence (final sentence of the first paragraph under the section “Some Personal Considerations” appears as if you are arguing for the New Testament’s complexity on non-violence and pacifism.

        1. Steve Bezner says:

          Deep sigh. Left out the closing parenthesis. Alas. But I think you get my drift.

  6. Daniel Fiester says:

    Hays’ chapter on abortion is the worst chapter in the book. Other than that chapter, it’s a pretty good book. (Sorry to jump ahead).

    1. Trevin Wax says:

      I think you’re forgetting what he says about the Gospel of John in the chapter on ethnic divisions.

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Trevin Wax


​Trevin Wax is Bible and Reference Publisher at LifeWay Christian Resources and managing editor of The Gospel Project. You can follow him on Twitter or receive blog posts via email. Click here for Trevin’s full bio.

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