In 2001 during a dialogue with a friend, he asked me about my shift in thinking away from some of what I was taught during my upbringing as a Mennonite. He asked me the following question in writing, and I responded as follows, revised slightly for publication here:
What do you believe are the core values of the Gospel, as lived and preached by Jesus Christ?
My thinking on Jesus' teaching on peace has been influenced by a number of surprises, even, I might say, disillusionments that I have experienced as a Mennonite. I note Jesus' teaching on peace, but I have come to see it more integrated with his other teaching than I once did. I don't see Jesus and the Apostles making peace the overriding emphasis that I have been taught as a Mennonite they did. It is definitely there. But I found it was there in the Old Testament as well. In fact, frequently the New Testament's teaching on peace is by means of quotation from the Old Testament, something that was not taught me, but which I discovered when I examined the passages closely. This is one of the eye-opening experiences I have had when I read the Bible for myself. In my Mennonite upbringing one vein of teaching led me to believe that the New Testament teaching on peace was in stark contrast to the Old Testament teaching on it. This was supported by, for example, Matthew 5:38-45 NIV:
38 "You have heard that it was said, `Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.' 39 But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. 40 And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. 41 If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. 42 Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. 43 "You have heard that it was said, `Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' 44 But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.
[See below in the summary Part 8 for a discussion of this passage as I now understand it.]
But there was another vein of teaching which held that the whole Bible is the Word of God and thus was actually self-consistent, which could be seen when its real message was understood. This particular teaching I have tested and accepted as part of my worldview. Another thing I was taught was that God has always put such a premium on peace that war is therefore inherently evil. So when I was still largely ignorant of what the Old Testament says in detail I expected that since God is unchanging I would find war condemned by him in the Old Testament. However, when I actually read the Old Testament carefully and in detail, I was shocked to find that it was not as I had come to believe it would be. Far from condemning war as evil, I found God commanding Israel to fight hand-to-hand combat and condemning them when they didn't do as he commanded. For example, I found that King Saul lost his right to have his son Jonathan succeed him as king because he disobeyed God's command to kill every last one of the Amalekites. I found that there were dozens of examples like this where the actual reading of the text was contrary to what I had been led to expect.
My disillusionment has been repeated and deepened as I have observed some Mennonite speakers at Western Mennonite School, where I teach, and Western Mennonite Church, where I am a member. Among these were Brother Peter Dyck. I will be specific here so it will not appear that I am simply prejudiced against Brother Dyck. This incident occurred 20-25 years ago, but I believe I remember the details accurately.
Peter Dyck had been giving several chapel talks down in the dining hall when it was being used as a chapel. In giving a defense of the Mennonite doctrine of nonresistance or pacifism he made the following assertions. He said that in the Old Testament there could be observed a cycle in the faithfulness and betrayal by God’s people of the ideal of peace. "Stage One" was a time of faithfulness at the time of the Patriarchs Abraham and Isaac. This was a stage of original pacifism as could be seen from the following passages:
18 Isaac reopened the wells that had been dug in the time of his father Abraham, which the Philistines had stopped up after Abraham died, and he gave them the same names his father had given them. 19 Isaac's servants dug in the valley and discovered a well of fresh water there. 20 But the herdsmen of Gerar quarreled with Isaac's herdsmen and said, "The water is ours!" So he named the well Esek, because they disputed with him. 21 Then they dug another well, but they quarreled over that one also; so he named it Sitnah. 22 He moved on from there and dug another well, and no one quarreled over it. He named it Rehoboth, saying, "Now the LORD has given us room and we will flourish in the land." Genesis 26:18-22 NIV (as are all Bible quotations in this article).
Brother Dyck concluded that the Patriarchs Abraham and Isaac were pacifists and thus exemplified God’s original will for his people.
During Stage Two and following, this original standard was gradually departed from. I don’t remember the details here anymore, but he made it clear that the Israelites’ conduct of warfare was a departure from God’s will for them. Completing the great circle Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount at the very least recalled God’s people to that original standard of the Patriarchs.
However, I was aware of the record in Genesis of an incident involving Abraham that conflicts with Brother Dyck’s characterization of him as a pacifist:
1 At this time Amraphel king of Shinar, Arioch king of Ellasar, Kedorlaomer king of Elam and Tidal king of Goiim 2 went to war against Bera king of Sodom, Birsha king of Gomorrah, Shinab king of Admah, Shemeber king of Zeboiim, and the king of Bela (that is, Zoar).
When I pointed this passage out gently to Peter Dyck after his presentation, he admitted that his interpretation was problematic, but justified the interpretation because it supported the peace position. I was appalled that he seemed to be willing to consciously falsely interpret Scripture as long is doing so supported the peace position. Of course, if one has to distort Scripture in order to defend pacifism, pacifism is in trouble.
Another example involves teaching by Professor Marion Bontrager of Hesston College. In mentioning this I do not wish to demean Professor Bontrager. And he may have changed his position since. However I cannot gloss over what, in my view, was a flaw in his interpretation of Scripture and played a part in the development of my thinking. If further evidence of Brother Bontrager’s past teaching is desired, I have it on videotape and will gladly share it. It is a recording of a course he taught at Salem Mennonite Church for the benefit of the Mennonite churches of the Pacific Coast Conference around 1993 or so, if I remember the date correctly.
One of Brother Bontrager’s claims of original pacifism as God’s will refers to the Exodus. This claim was in the context of his presentation of an overview of the message of the Bible he called “Heilsgeschichte”, a commonly used German academic term for the story of "salvation history" presented by the Bible. He noted that God’s first deliverance of the Israelites from the armies of Pharaoh involved the Israelites doing nothing themselves in their defense:
13 Moses answered the people, "Do not be afraid. Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the LORD will bring you today. The Egyptians you see today you will never see again. 14 The LORD will fight for you; you need only to be still."
Brother Bontrager then drew the conclusion that this type of deliverance--where the Israelites do nothing and God does all the fighting--was God’s ideal pattern for all the rest of Israel’s wars. He interpreted the promise of God in verse 14, “The LORD will fight for you”, to mean that God will fight instead of you. This is a possible interpretation, and seems to fit this passage. But there is another possible interpretation, which Brother Bontrager did not acknowledge. “The LORD will fight for you”, could also mean that God will fight on your side. In this first case of the LORD fighting on Israel’s side at the Red Sea, God did all the fighting. But in other battles God shows that he could fight on Israel’s side and command that the Israelites do some of the fighting, too.
Three questions may be asked here:
(1) Did God intend that the Red Sea deliverance be his desired pattern for all Israel’s battles in the sense that God would do all of the fighting?
(2) Was it in principle a departure from God’s will for Israelites to fight and kill those occupants of Canaan who resisted God’s decision to give their land to the Israelites?
(3) When God elsewhere in Scripture said he will “fight for” Israel, did he mean that he would fight “instead of” Israel fighting?
My answer to question (1) is that I find no hint of evidence that God intended the Red Sea deliverance to be the pattern for all of Israel’s battles.
The answer to question (2) makes clear why this evidence is absent. This answer is suggested in God’s response to the very next battle that occurred, that with the Amalekites, three chapters after the account in the text of the Red Sea deliverance:
8 The Amalekites came and attacked the Israelites at Rephidim. 9 Moses said to Joshua, "Choose some of our men and go out to fight the Amalekites. Tomorrow I will stand on top of the hill with the staff of God in my hands." 10 So Joshua fought the Amalekites as Moses had ordered, and Moses, Aaron and Hur went to the top of the hill. 11 As long as Moses held up his hands, the Israelites were winning, but whenever he lowered his hands, the Amalekites were winning. 12 When Moses' hands grew tired, they took a stone and put it under him and he sat on it. Aaron and Hur held his hands up--one on one side, one on the other--so that his hands remained steady till sunset. 13 So Joshua overcame the Amalekite army with the sword. 14 Then the LORD said to Moses, "Write this on a scroll as something to be remembered and make sure that Joshua hears it, because I will completely blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven." 15 Moses built an altar and called it The LORD is my Banner. 16 He said, "For hands were lifted up to the throne of the LORD. The LORD will be at war against the Amalekites from generation to generation." Exodus 17:8-16 NIV
While the text does not say whether or not Moses consulted God before commanding the Israelites to fight against the Amalekites, no disapproval by God is indicated. On the contrary God’s miraculous supporting of the Israelites’ fighting by responding to Moses’ hands’ position and God’s words in verse 14 seem to strongly imply that he approved of what they did.
Consider the very next battle after this, against Arad, as recorded in Numbers 21:1-3 NIV:
There is no indication of displeasure by God at Israel’s individually fighting against the Aradites. Precisely the opposite attitude is evidenced: God gave them into the Israelites hands so they could kill them.
The next battle was against Sihon and the Amorites, Numbers 21:23-24 NIV:
23 But Sihon would not let Israel pass through his territory. He mustered his entire army and marched out into the desert against Israel. When he reached Jahaz, he fought with Israel. 24 Israel, however, put him to the sword and took over his land from the Arnon to the Jabbok, but only as far as the Ammonites, because their border was fortified.
Again there is no mention of displeasure by God at the Israelites’ fighting and killing the Amorites.
If these examples are not enough, God makes his attitude explicit before the next battle, against Og and the Bashanites, Numbers 21:32-35 NIV:
32 After Moses had sent spies to Jazer, the Israelites captured its surrounding settlements and drove out the Amorites who were there. 33 Then they turned and went up along the road toward Bashan, and Og king of Bashan and his whole army marched out to meet them in battle at Edrei. 34 The LORD said to Moses, "Do not be afraid of him, for I have handed him over to you, with his whole army and his land. Do to him what you did to Sihon king of the Amorites, who reigned in Heshbon." 35 So they struck him down, together with his sons and his whole army, leaving them no survivors. And they took possession of his land. [Emphasis added.]
What God commands the Israelites to do can hardly be a departure from his will. All the subsequent battles, as well as many explicit commands by God that the Israelites fight and kill the Canaanites, make it clear. The answer to question (2) is “No”. It was not in principle a departure from God’s will for Israelites to fight and kill those occupants of Canaan who resisted God’s decision to give their land to the Israelites.
Question (3) may be answered by juxtaposing Moses’ reminder of God’s promise in Deuteronomy 3:22 with God’s command and Joshua’s follow-up command in Joshua 6:2-5, 16-17, 20-21 NIV:
Deut 3:21 At that time I commanded Joshua: "You have seen with your own eyes all that the LORD your God has done to these two kings. The LORD will do the same to all the kingdoms over there where you are going. 22 Do not be afraid of them; the LORD your God himself will fight for you."
Josh 6:2 Then the LORD said to Joshua, "See, I have delivered Jericho into your hands, along with its king and its fighting men. 3 March around the city once with all the armed men. Do this for six days. 4 Have seven priests carry trumpets of rams' horns in front of the ark. On the seventh day, march around the city seven times, with the priests blowing the trumpets. 5 When you hear them sound a long blast on the trumpets, have all the people give a loud shout; then the wall of the city will collapse and the people will go up, every man straight in."
It should be apparent from these passages that God's “fighting for” Israel here meant God “fighting on the side of” Israel, not “instead of” Israel. Israel was intended by God to do some of the fighting, that is, the actual killing of the people of Jericho. Such examples could be multiplied illustrating the same point.
One might ask how the behavior of the Israelites can be justified. Although many Mennonites--as well as other Christians--seem to have difficulty with this, this question seems to me easy to answer. God manifestly delegated to the Israelites part of the carrying out of his sentence of judgment on the inhabitants of Canaan. Why shouldn’t God be allowed to delegate his authority to take life he has determined to take if he so chooses? I believe this is one of the key questions involved in this discussion of the place of the state in God’s plan for the world and the place of God’s people in this plan.
After Brother Bontrager made his assertions in his course they were accepted by the teacher of the Sunday school class I participate in at Western Mennonite Church. They have been repeatedly presented there as the truth of Scripture. Each time this has occurred I have presented evidence such as that given above, showing the interpretation of Brother Bontrager to be false. Each time this evidence has been met with silence. No effort was made to show that the interpretation I gave is wrong. Instead when the topic was addressed later Brother Bontrager’s position was simply presented again as if it were true, in spite of the abundant evidence that was earlier presented against it. Evidence and rational argument seem usually to have no effect. This is amazing to me and does nothing to persuade me that these Mennonites are objective when it comes to what the Bible teaches about peace.
Instead of taking anyone's word for it I long ago embarked on a quest to find out for myself what the Bible teaches about peace. What I have found may be summarized as follows:
1. God's original intent was for mankind to live sinlessly in the Garden of Eden. This would necessarily mean man would be at peace with God and with his fellow man.
2. However, through Adam's rebellion, peace with God was destroyed. As a consequence peace among men and women tended to be lost as well. Hatred and murder became commonplace.
3. The world became filled with violence, including murder. It became so bad that God destroyed everyone living except Noah and seven others. After the Flood, to restrain murder, God instituted capital punishment for it, since to murder is to assault the very image of God. Whoever so assaults God's image forfeits his own life. Furthermore, God commanded that man himself was to carry out the death sentence on murderers. Genesis 9:5-6 says:
5 And for your lifeblood I will surely demand an accounting. I will demand an accounting from every animal. And from each man, too, I will demand an accounting for the life of his fellow man. 6 "Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man. . ."
It seems clear to me that an objective reading of this leads to the conclusion that God commanded the humanly administered death penalty to establish respect for human life. Many Mennonite opponents of it interpret capital punishment as somehow disrespectful of human life. It puzzles me why they would knowingly take a position opposite to God's.
4. Later when God (the Word, Jesus pre-incarnate) gave the Law through Moses, he forbade murder and commanded a humanly administered death penalty as his delegated judgment on this sin.
5. Before and after the giving of the Law at Sinai, God commanded and commended the carrying out of his judgment on "fully" sinful Canaanite peoples by Israelite hand-to-hand combat warfare. There is not the slightest hint of disapproval of this on God's part. I fail to see how this can possibly be disputed. Yet many Mennonites continue to dispute it.
6. With the dissolution of the Israelite theocracy and the coming of Jesus Christ, the responsibility under God for the waging of just warfare and enforcing God's continuing death sentence for murderous attack on the image of God in man has passed to the various state governments God has subsequently instituted, authorized, and ordained. The Apostle Paul makes this continuity with the God-given Mosaic Law clear in Romans 13:1-5.
1 Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. 2 Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. 3 For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he will commend you. 4 For he is God's servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God's servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also because of conscience.
The Apostle Peter does the same thing in 1 Peter 2:13-14.
13 Submit yourselves for the Lord's sake to every authority instituted among men: whether to the king, as the supreme authority, 14 or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right.
Actually, I see evidence that during the Israelite theocracy, God intended the neighboring and distant nations' rulers to carry out capital punishment on murderers and likely approved of it when carried out. Consider Deuteronomy 4:5-14:
5 See, I have taught you decrees and laws as the LORD my God commanded me, so that you may follow them in the land you are entering to take possession of it. 6 Observe them carefully, for this will show your wisdom and understanding to the nations, who will hear about all these decrees and say, "Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people." 7 What other nation is so great as to have their gods near them the way the LORD our God is near us whenever we pray to him? 8 And what other nation is so great as to have such righteous decrees and laws as this body of laws I am setting before you today?
The "righteous decrees and laws" included God's commands to the Israelites of capital punishment. I think it is safe to presume that God would have approved of the other nations adopting for themselves certain of these "righteous decrees and laws" including capital punishment to preserve respect for human life.
7. How can the “wrongness” of a man killing by murdering be reconciled with the "rightness" of a man killing by carrying out an authorized sentence of execution? I believe the key is to realize that when God delegated his authority by his command that man take life for murder he set up a distinction between private action (such taking life is murder) and authorized official action (such taking life of a murderer is commanded and so is not murder). This distinction is clearly inherent in Scripture. For an example see Numbers 35:10-34. Note especially verses 26 and 27:
26 "But if the accused ever goes outside the limits of the city of refuge to which he has fled 27 and the avenger of blood finds him outside the city, the avenger of blood may kill the accused without being guilty of murder.
This is something I do not remember being taught as a Mennonite. If I remember accurately, I saw this reconciliation largely through my own study, but I think I had some help, though I have forgotten whom it came from. Of course, I'm not the first to see it.
Other examples that show the contrast between official action and private action are as follows:
Taking money under the threat of force from people: If it is done by a person authorized by the government, it is taxation, and citizens are commanded by God to comply. Tax collection is not considered stealing. If it is done by a person acting as a private citizen, it is stealing, and the Eighth Commandment forbids it: "You shall not steal." (Exodus 20:15 NIV)
Seizing other persons without their consent: If done by a police officer for cause, it is called "arrest." If done by a private person, it is called "kidnapping." Kidnapping carried the death penalty in the Mosaic Law. Exodus 21:16 “Anyone who kidnaps another and either sells him or still has him when he is caught must be put to death."
Striking another person: If done by a parent officially as parent and is for due cause, it is called "spanking" It is actually recommended in Proverbs 23:13: "Do not withhold discipline from a child; if you punish him with the rod, he will not die." If done by a child to another child, it is called "hitting."
8. Since God commands that the governing authorities, after due process, execute murderers, the act of such execution is cleansed of any taint of evil or sin. The Apostle Paul presumably would call such executioners God's agents, even God's ministers. They are not committing private, personal acts. How can it be sin for God's people, Christ's followers, to be God's agents, God's ministers in this way? I do not see Jesus forbidding it or any other New Testament writer. I hope any readers of this will correct me if I am wrong. I realize I could be.
Here, as promised above, I want to explain what I believe Jesus means in the “you have heard that it was said” passage from the Sermon on the Mount I quoted. At one time I interpreted the above passage as Jesus’ doing away with the “eye for an eye, etc.”, (lex talionis) commands in the Mosaic Law. I have come to understand that the purpose of the lex talionis was to ensure that punishment for an offense was proportionate to the offense. This was to protect the dignity of both the offender and the offended. If the punishment were greater than the offense, the dignity of the offender would be degraded. If the punishment were less than the offense, the dignity of the offended was degraded.
In other words, the lex talionis is simply an embodiment of justice. But if Jesus were now abolishing the lex talionis, this would mean that no longer was Jesus commanding that punishment for an offense be proportionate to the offense. In effect Jesus would be abolishing official justice and substituting official nonresistance for it. No longer would physical assault on innocent persons be punishable, because everyone would be "turning their other cheeks," including law enforcement officers. No longer would innocent defendants in lawsuits be protected, because everyone, defendants and law enforcement officers and judges alike, would be giving the plaintiffs their tunics--and cloaks as well. Anyone who resorts to force to get anyone else, including law enforcement officers, to go a mile would get two miles. Because these examples are only symbolic, in summary, all resistance to evil, including official resistance as law enforcement and the justice system, would be done away with. No longer would God be delegating to government the responsibility to keep order, by force, if necessary, as he had done in the past. Evildoers would triumph--unless God himself intervened and shouldered the full responsibility to protect the innocent and punish evildoers. This is really a hard saying! But one thing I do admire about Anabaptists is their historic willingness to obey Jesus’ commands, including his hard sayings, regardless of the cost. This willingness I have learned and value highly.
I once believed Jesus meant basically what I have outlined in the the above paragraph. If it seemed radical and hard, so be it. That’s what discipleship requires. However, Jesus who reminded his hearers that God commands them to love him with all their heart and soul and strength also reminded them God commands them to love him with their minds. God is not honored by faulty thinking. One thing I have learned in sitting under Jesus’ teaching is that his true meaning is often not on the surface of his sayings. Someone unwilling to dig will often be misled. Mark tells us after Jesus’ telling the Parable of the Sower in Mark 4:10-12:
10 When he was alone, the Twelve and the others around him asked him about the parables. 11 He told them, "The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables 12 so that, "`they may be ever seeing but never perceiving, and ever hearing but never understanding; otherwise they might turn and be forgiven!'"
Jesus required his disciples to dig before he explained his teaching, and he quoted a passage from Isaiah that itself requires more digging to understand. And I am convinced that Jesus requires us to dig into his Sermon on the Mount teaching to understand him. One essential tool I am sure Jesus expects us to use is context. What Jesus meant in the “eye for an eye” passage has to agree with what he said (and meant) in nearby passages. By applying this principle I have come to a different understanding of it than I used to have.
I asked these questions:
(1) In general, did Jesus affirm or deny the distinction present in the Mosaic Law between official and personal action?
Or (2) Did Jesus’ teaching apply in the same way to all people in both their official roles and their personal roles?
In other words, did Jesus recognize and affirm that the Sanhedrin, the Jewish government of the time, was an authority ordained by God to use coercion? Or did Jesus mean that a member of the Sanhedrin who wanted to obey Jesus was not to resist evil but turn the other cheek both in his personal role and his official role?
To answer Question (1), I looked to the nearby context, to Matthew 5:21-22.
21"You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, 'Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.' 22But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother, 'Raca, ' is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, 'You fool!' will be in danger of the fire of hell.
I read verse 22 as a clear endorsement of the authority of the Sanhedrin. I think this implies that Jesus recognized and affirmed the Mosaic distinction between official and personal actions. Thus the answer to Question (1) is that Jesus affirmed the distinction present in the Mosaic Law between official and personal action.
Question (2) is tentatively answered in the same passage. When Jesus says an angry person will be “subject to judgment” or be “answerable to the Sanhedrin”, he doesn’t seem to imply that he expects the offender should be faced with officials who turn the other cheek or give him the shirt off their backs or go the second mile. So this suggests Jesus was affirming their responsibility to resist evil and punish it. This suggestion is turned to certainty, it seems to me, when Jesus says directly in Matthew 23:1-3 that the Pharisees and teachers of the Law have authority similar to that of Moses:
1Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: 2"The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses' seat. 3So you must obey them and do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach.
I understand that there were Pharisees and teachers of the Law on the Sanhedrin.
So how then can Jesus’ words about the lex talionis be understood? Of the two possibilities of application, official and personal roles, Jesus appears to have excluded application to the official role. That leaves the personal one. Was Jesus thinking only of people acting in person-to-person relationships? I am convinced the answer is "Yes."
But this conclusion needs to be supported by context as well. I think Jesus’ example of “turning the other cheek” is a person-to-person interaction, as is giving your tunic and cloak to someone who wants to sue you. Going the extra mile involves ones relationship to a soldier, one in authority, but the person going the extra mile appears to be acting in a personal role to someone else, a soldier, acting in an official role. (This personal-to-officer response may also be what the two cases are. Even so this would not affect the point that Jesus is speaking to the personal action of his disciples.)
Actually, I don’t think the soldier interpretation is necessarily what Jesus had in mind, though I could be wrong. I expect anyone with some kind of power could force another person in a weaker position to go a mile. These apparent facts support the personal role conclusion, at least by the responder. A detail that further supports the conclusion that Jesus was not abolishing official lex talionis is Jesus wording: He says, “You have heard that it was said . . ., but I say to you . . .”, not “It is written . . ., but I say unto you.” This distinction I missed earlier, but seems to be important when I see how respectful of the OT Jesus is elsewhere. So when Jesus said this, he may not have been referring to Scripture, but to “the tradition of the elders” that he so condemned in his teaching. How could Jesus condemn what the teachers of “the tradition of the elders” said, when they were only saying what Scripture itself said, i.e., “an eye for an eye”? He would be condemning Scripture at the same time.
To avoid this apparent contradiction, I propose the following hypothesis, which needs to be tested, of course. Here’s what I think had been happening in the “tradition of the elders.” I predict that it will be found with further research that some of the elders had been teaching that, quite apart from the responsibility of the officials to carry out the lex talionis, it was sometimes OK for people (possibly these teachers themselves, justifying their own actions) acting in a personal role to take an “eye for an eye”, etc. In other words, they were teaching that it was OK to get even yourself, rather than leaving it to the authorities with all their slowness and red tape. Thus it was this taking of the law into ones own hands that Jesus was speaking against. Seen in this light, Jesus’ teaching here was in principle nothing new. Leviticus 19:17-18 says,
17 "`Do not hate your brother in your heart. Rebuke your neighbor frankly so you will not share in his guilt. 18 "`Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the LORD.
While commanded not to seek “revenge”, the Israelites were allowed to seek “redress” of grievances through the authorities. Then the authorities might decide to “avenge” the aggrieved party by meting out justice. This was all in accordance with the Law of God.
9. It follows logically, I believe, that anyone who is allowed to carry out just capital punishment must be allowed to carry out or participate in just war justly waged. I will give the steps of logic and ask anyone to point out any fallacy in it.
This reasoning is based on Romans 13:1-4, quoted again for convenience:
1 Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. 2 Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. 3 For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he will commend you. 4 For he is God's servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God's servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.
The police are an instrument by which the authority carries out his mandate as God’s agent of wrath on the evildoer. I take the above passage to be endorsing the authority’s use of the sword to go as far as to take the life of an evildoer as a last resort to protect the lives of the innocent. The police, then, may use deadly force, if necessary, to protect citizens from being killed by their fellow citizens.
Now suppose that someone who is not a citizen threatens to kill a citizen. May the police use deadly force against him as a last resort? The answer must be “yes.” Suppose the citizens were threatened by a large number of non-citizens, but still from within the borders of the nation. The answer is the same. Suppose the non-citizens were to invade from outside the nation’s borders. Again the answer must be yes.
Suppose the non-citizens were acting officially according to the will of a foreign government. The answer is still “yes.” The “non-citizens” seem now indistinguishable from an invading army and the police using deadly force against them seem functionally indistinguishable from an army acting in defense. Turn the defensive action over to a police force designated to defend the citizens from threats from a foreign army and you have an army, a military force. Foreign threats are real, and a government is ordained by God to be an agent of wrath to bring punishment on wrongdoers, sometimes with deadly force. Therefore from Romans 13 it seems to me to follow necessarily that God ordains that the state have a military that may be used in a just war.
12:17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. 18 If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. 19 Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God's wrath , for it is written: "It is mine to avenge; I will repay," says the Lord [possibly through his agent of wrath, the ruler in 13:4? I think so - Bob]. 20 On the contrary:
13:5 Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also because of conscience. 6 This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God's servants, who give their full time to governing. 7 Give everyone what you owe him: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor. 8 Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for he who loves his fellowman has fulfilled the law. 9 The commandments, "Do not commit adultery," "Do not murder," "Do not steal," "Do not covet," and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this one rule: "Love your neighbor as yourself." 10 Love does no harm to its neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law. 11 And do this, understanding the present time. The hour has come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. 12 The night is nearly over; the day is almost here. So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light. 13 Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy. 14 Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the sinful nature.
[Since writing this essay I have studied Jesus' parable of the minas in Luke 19:11-27. I believe in this parable Jesus adds support to the position I have presented here. In the future I may add that material to this essay.]
To summarize, I have moved in my thinking from what I might call “universal pacifism” to “personal pacifism.”
“Universal pacifism” would be the claim that Jesus’ command of nonresistance of evil applies to followers in both their official roles and their personal role. "Personal pacifism," then, is the claim that Jesus’ command to nonresistance to evil is for and only for someone acting in a personal role. I am committed to putting this into practice. Someone acting in an official capacity such as a magistrate is commanded by God to resist evil, even with deadly force in certain circumstances.
Now, what about a Christian's participation in warfare? Since there is nothing necessarily disobedient about a magistrate resisting evil as an agent of God, it seems to me acceptable for a personally nonresistant Christian to be a magistrate. Since a soldier acting justly in a just war is not acting personally, but is an agent of government authority acting in obedience to God, logic seems to suggest that in principle it is acceptable, perhaps even obligatory out of love for ones neighbor, for a Christian to serve in the armed forces in such a just war. Of course this doesn't answer the questions in regard to a war that is only partially just, waged in only a partially just manner. Is any human war totally both? I think it is unlikely. What then? Still thinking about that.
This is a conclusion that most of my life I never thought I would come to, and to which I have come very reluctantly and slowly. I was a convinced pacifist in my youth. I was a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War and did alternative service for three years overseas. Through that service I met my wife. I have been associated with the Mennonite Church all my life. It seems ironic that my devotion to Scripture as God’s Word, devotion I learned from Anabaptists, appears to have led me to this point. It is definitely beyond my comfort zone. It is new territory for me and I feel somewhat like a foreigner in it.
Relatives and friends who are Mennonites and find out the above will probably be disappointed in me. They may consider me a betrayer. To all of them I say that I am seeking to follow Jesus Christ to the best of my knowledge as he is revealed in Scripture as the Holy Spirit illuminates it for me, and I am still open to argument that I am mistaken.
I came to this position while being a teacher at a Mennonite school. Now I have retired from that position as of June, 2009. So, what was my relationship to Western Mennonite School while I remained? A difficult question. A possible answer is to see myself as joining the ranks of teachers already at Western who, while not endorsing all the tenets of Anabaptism, are open to persuasion and who will not take the initiative to publicly argue against pacifism. I questioned whether I should have taken such a position and maintain my integrity, my public stand as a truth seeker and a truth teller. I thought about that, and decided I could. In the meantime I believed God was still calling me to be as I am now, a seeker and sharer of the truth of God’s Word and God's world. I believed I had a mandate from Him to teach young people to be truth seekers as well, to love Him with all their minds. Now that I am no longer at Western, I have the same mandate with those I live with and meet.
This page last revised May 18, 2016