Is violence ever justified? A deeper examination of the Biblical position
Recently, JCM published an article on the subject of violence, in which the teacher, whom I respect, asserted that the Christian approach was never to return violence with violence, for Christ did not in his life, even when he was going to unjustly arrested and convicted.
I said to JCM’s Director that I would like to write a response, because I was not entirely happy with that position, because I felt that there were circumstances in which it could be, even as a Christian and a thorough-going believer in the Bible, the right thing to use violence. It is a contentious area, and one that over the millennia the Church has been unable to easily come to a settled position upon and as, we shall see, the Bible does not give us the luxury of a simplistic answer.
In order to construct a Biblical approach to the subject of violence, we need to understand what violence is for – it is to compel someone or some group to comply with the will of another. This is generally what is meant when we use the term sovereignty. Sovereignty is the ability of a state to enforce its will, either on rebellious or criminal people within the state, or on forces who threaten the state from the outside. Both Jesus and the apostles accepted the normality of that in this world – it is the way this world works.
For example, when an armed party of soldiers came to arrest Jesus, he said:
‘Why have you come out with swords and clubs, like against a robber, to take me? I was sitting daily with you in the temple, teaching, and you did not take-hold of me.” [Matthew 26:55 Modern Literal Version, MLV]
The convention is that when dealing with a robber, agents of the state need to be armed. Listen to the apostle Paul:
“Let every soul be subject to the authorities which are superior to him; for there is no authority if not from God, and the authorities which are, have been appointed by God. So-then, he who is resisting the authority is standing against the commandment of God, and those who are standing against it will receive judgment for themselves. For rulers are not a terror to the good works, but to the evil works. And you do not wish to be afraid of the authority, do you? Do what is good and you will have praise from the same; for he is a servant of God to you for good. But if you practice evil, be afraid; for he is not wearing the sword vainly; for he is a servant of God, an avenger for wrath to him who is practicing evil.” [Romans 13: 1-4, MLV]
States that either will not or cannot use violence in a controlled and lawful manner to resist evil or rebellion will soon find themselves no longer in the business of being a state.
In the same way, imagine you are in your home. It is night time, and your wife and children are in bed. Someone one tries to get into your house, unannounced. It is dark, you do not know if he is armed or not, but you do know the person should not be doing this and is up to no good. What does God’s law say is the right course of action?
“If a thief is caught breaking in at night and is struck a fatal blow, the defender is not guilty of bloodshed; but if it happens after sunrise, the defender is guilty of bloodshed.” [Exodus 22:2, NIV]
Such a law is reflected in the law of self-defence in most jurisdictions in modern times. Is the Christian position that a Christian householder should not defend the lives of his family? If it were, then what about Paul’s teaching about marriage, such as:
“. . .he who is married is anxious for the things of the world, how he may please his wife” [1 Corinthians 7:33, MLV]
It would be a strange way indeed of behaving my saying to the armed intruder, ‘Oh, come in, please, take my wife, steal my children, batter me to death and take my possessions.’ That is no way to please your wife!
The householder has sovereignty over the affairs of his family and householder. While in the light he may be able to properly assess the intentions and weapons of an intruder, at night he must take a more cautionary approach, and is right to do so.
God’s word says that “God hates . . . hands that shed innocent blood” [Proverbs 6:17, NIV] but what if the blood is not innocent? God’s word says “ . . The wicked, those who love violence, he hates with a passion” [Psalms 11:5, NIV] but what if, despite hating violence, violence was necessary in order to protect the innocent from evil men? We ask the agents of the state to do this, but sometimes they are not around, or worse, they choose not to be around. What then? Does this mean it is wrong to undertake the duties that the state cannot, or will not? It is contradictory and illogical to then let evil have free reign. States in which this happens, for example failed states like Somalia, leave everyone living in fear. The purpose of the state with just law is to prevent this very thing.
So, if it is right that Christians should defend themselves and their families from criminals, marauders and robbers, when does this happen? Just before Jesus’ arrest, at the end of an evening of final teaching to His disciples, the Lord commanded this:
“. . . he who has a money-bag, let him take it and likewise a knapsack, and he who has no sword, he will sell his garment and buy one. For I say to you, that it is essential for this to still be accomplished in me, which has been written, ‘And he was counted with the lawless; for the things concerning me must have an end.” [Luke 22:36-27, MLV].
Jesus was about to be arrested and ‘counted with the lawless’, i.e. regarded as an outlaw. In any culture where Jesusand all He represents, the True God and the Word of God, is rejected and disregarded, the disciplesare unable to minister among the people in freedom and safety. Where the state has effectively come out in opposition against Christianity, the Christians have to look to their own economic wellbeing, their supplies and their own security.
Does this mean that therefore Jesus was telling His followers to become rebels and overthrow the state? No. But, neither can they rely on the government to treat them as government worthy of the name should, being ‘a servant of God for your good’. In that circumstance the government is no longer functioning as a government should, and has become to some degree or other morally indistinguishable from being an armed gang or a marauder. According to Paul, for a government to be classed as a government, it needs to distinguish good from evil – and good and evil are very much Biblical understandings of good and evil – there is no other.
Jesus once said, ‘Do not suppose that I came to cast peaceupon the earth; I did not come to cast peace, but a sword’. [Matthew 10:34, MLV]. Does this mean we are to fight for Christ with our swords? No, for he goes on: ‘Now he who is not taking up his cross and following after me, is not worthy of me. He who has found his life will lose it, and he who has lost his life because of me will find it.’ [Matthew 10:38-39, MLV].
What are Christians to do when states are poor reflections of the ideal, or when our families or towns are in opposition to our faith and presence? Do we fight? I want to say ‘never’ but it isn’t that simple. If they come as us as robbers and marauders, then we are within our rights to defend our families and, within the law, assert the rightful enforcement of the law. It is justified to assert our rights in law, if we are able to. If we are not able to, then we suffer.
Paul once said: ‘Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,”says the Lord. On the contrary:“If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.’ [Romans 12:17-21, MLV].
For this discussion the critical phrase here is ‘If it is possible, as far as it depends on you’. Sometimes it is not possible, sometimes it does not depend on us, and we cannot live in peace.
There is no simple formula. One of the most intriguing verses in the New Testament is Revelation 13:10. This verse has been variously translated. One common translation is:
“ If anyone holds those in captivity, he is going into captivity; if anyone kills with the sword, it is essential for him to be killed with the sword. Here is the endurance and the faith of the holy-ones.” [Revelation 13:10, MLV]. But, now compare that with this translation:
“If anyone is to go into captivity, into captivity they will go.If anyone is to be killed with the sword, with the sword they will be killed.”This calls for patient endurance and faithfulness on the part of God’s people.[Revelation 13:10, NIV].
In the first, the translation says it is essential for those who kill with the sword to killed by the sword. In the second, it suggests that those who are to be killed with the sword should accept their fate. Both courses of action may require patient endurance and faithfulness on the part of the holy ones, for both a dangerous courses of action, and in neither case may good necessarily prevail. Why the total difference?
This verse is probably unique in the whole New Testament in that out of the 73 most ancient manuscripts that we have of this passage, there are 48 variant readings! In every other case, the doctrine of the Word of God is clear and unaffected by variant readings, and with manuscripts there are inevitably variant readings. However, with this one verse, there is no clear and unambiguous reading. You can justify both of the translations I quoted from Old Testament parallel scriptures. You can justify both from Jesus own teaching.
I believe that the ambiguity of this verse is actually meant – God wanted it to be ambiguous. The common theme of both senses is clear – both require God’s holy people to be holy, patiently endure and be faithful. That much is absolutely clear. But whether that is achieved by suffering persecution or military/violent operations would depend on the situation.
Let me give you a historical event by way of illustration. In Germany and the low countries St. Boniface was a holy and effective bishop of the church, spreading the Gospel far and wide and organising and uniting the church with great energy and wisdom. Towards the end of his life he was particularly keen to bring the Gospel to a pagan area in north Germany around the Friesland coast. Through preaching and teaching with great effect, many pagans turned to Christ.
The following summer, in June 754 AD, St Boniface travelled with around 50 monks back to Friesland. Before they could begin their mission, they were set upon by a band of pirates who believed that in their baggage the monks were carrying valuables of gold and silver. The monks had swords (to protect them from bandits) and started to protect themselves and eachother, but St Boniface commanded them to put their swords away. He himself was carrying only a Bible.
The pirates slaughtered every monk. As a pirate tried to strike St Boniface, he raise up the Bible, and axe and sword blows cut gashes in the Bible. The next blowswounded and killed St. Boniface.
The pagans collected all the baggage thinking they had collected a substantial horde of valuables. They opened the trunks, and found they only contained scrolls and books. They had no use for such, since they did not read. They tried to destroy them, but three books were later discovered abandoned and retrieved, taken back to St. Boniface’s cathedral in Mainz.
News of the attack had quickly spread to a Christian region. The lawless pirates were a threat to all. So, a band of Christian men from the Netherlands put on their weapons and armour and marched north to find and deal with these pirates. They found the pirates’ hideaway, attacked and left none alive.
St. Boniface’s bible, the Ragyndrudis Codex, is still to this day preserved in Mainz cathedral, complete with axe and sword cuts.
Now, who was right, St Boniface or the militia sent to deal with the pirates? I would say they were both right. And that illustrates where there are no simple answers to the question of the use of violence.
I am sure it is tempting for the persecuted, or those who wish to help them, that a military solution exists that will end the persecution. It rarely does in the end. The prophecies in the Book of Revelation point to a time when the Beast (which almost certainly we can now say represents Islam) will wage war on the Christians worldwide and will overcome them. This process has been going on for 1400 years and has picked up a renewed pace in the last few decades since the end of the colonial era. While viable states use violence against Islamic terrorist groups, in the end the Book of Revelation tells us that these efforts will fail and that the Beast will prevail worldwide. It will slaughter most of the church, those who refuse to bow to the ‘Beast’. It also says that all who do bow to the Beast will be judged by God and go to hell, not paradise. So in the end, there is no military solution – the simple choice will be death or hell. And the earth will be reaped of its Christians – or almost all. In that way at that time most of the world’s Christians will have to ‘take up their cross and follow Christ’ and suffer death just as their Lord did and the hands of evil men, just as some do now. Not long afterwards the nations of the earth will fight against Israel, but Christ will return. These nations will fight against the Lord, but their armies will be utterly destroyed at the command of Christ.
Those who do such violence should not imagine that they will receive any reward in heaven – scripture is clear – God hates those who love violence. It is a fearsome thing to fall into the hands of the living God. ISIS and Al Qaeda, Al Shabaab and Boko Haram, please take note.Indeed, the Jesus also said that those who take the sword will die by the sword. The recent military setbacks ISIS has experienced testifies to that general truth about military affairs. But, it is equally foolish to believe that the path to a peaceful resolution by man is to be found through violent confrontation by earthly armies. In the end all nations will be parasitized by Islam and join their cause.
The destiny of the earth is for Islam to be destroyed by none other than Christ Himself when he returns. Scripture says that the Beast will be destroyed at His command. So, yes, God himself provides the military solution, but it is a divine military solution, one justified by the holiness of Christ and the suffering patient witness of the true martyrs – the Christians slaughtered for their faith who are true victors of this battle – they are raised up and will rule the nations with Christ. God bless you all,
President – Jesus Christ for Muslims