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Coming to Grips with the New Testament Teaching on Nonviolence: Richard Hays

Richard Hays’s The Moral Vision of the New Testament may well be the best book on New Testament ethics written in the past two decades. It is certainly the most helpful exegetically based book that I have read. To be sure, that does not mean that I agree with Hays on every point, or even on some of Hays’s most important points. But Hays does a brilliant job letting the various texts of the New Testament speak for themselves, refusing prematurely to force them into a synthesis or a systematic ethics. As a result, he helps the reader come to grips with what the texts are really saying, allowing the reader (or the church) to do the hard work of determining how to bring the various texts together. (Note: this post is part 2 of my series on pacifism.)

Probably the most significant area in which I disagree with Hays is his affirmation of pacifism, an affirmation in which he breaks with the Christian tradition’s long-held just war doctrine. In particular I find Hays’s rather dismissive treatment of Romans 13:4 somewhat unconvincing.

But Hays nevertheless makes as solid a case for pacifism as I have ever read, and he makes an eminently persuasive (and sound) case for interpreting the Gospel of Matthew as calling Christians to a life of suffering service and nonviolence. To be sure, Matthew’s voice is not the sole word on the subject; Matthew does not raise the question of civil government or just war, and we should not force Matthew to say more than he is saying. But by that same token, we should hear the voice of the Spirit (and our Lord) in what Matthew is saying, and we should follow it.

Hays begins his presentation of Matthew’s teaching on nonviolence by noting that the Sermon on the Mount calls the church to be a light to the world and a city on a hill, “to exemplify the reality of the kingdom of God in a pluralistic and sinful world” (321). The Beatitudes proclaim God’s blessing on those who mourn, on the meek, on the peacemakers, and on those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness and of Christ, promising to these the kingdom of heaven. Jesus calls his disciples to follow the way of reconciliation with one another rather than anger, to renounce retaliation, and to imitate God by loving and blessing their enemies.

You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also … Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. (Matthew 5:38-39, 44-45)

The age-old question, of course, is whether or not this amounts to a call on Christians never to use violence, not even if it is necessary to defend one’s own life, or the lives of others, or even if Christians hold a position of lawful authority. As Hays points out, Christian theologians have offered all sorts of explanations to demonstrate why – in relation both to Jesus’ teaching on violence and on other subjects – Jesus’ words should not be interpreted or applied in the way that would at first seem obvious. These explanations range from claiming that Jesus’ concern was merely with the heart but not with actions, to suggesting that the most stringent commandments are merely counsels of perfection intended for a class of particularly holy Christians.

Hays helpfully suggests that we interpret the Sermon on the Mount within the context of Matthew’s broader narrative.

In the temptation narrative (4:1-11), Jesus renounces the option of wielding power over the kingdoms of the world, choosing instead to worship and serve God alone. In the three passion predictions (16:21-23, 17:22-23, 20:17-19), Jesus foretells his fate as one who will be ‘persecuted for righteousness’ sake,’ and he intimates that those who follow him will suffer the same fate (16:24-26). In Gethsemane, Jesus struggles with this vocation but aligns his will with the Father’s will that he should drink the cup of suffering (26:36-47). As Yoder has persuasively suggested, the temptation to refuse the cup is precisely the temptation to resort to armed resistance. Jesus, however, chooses the way of suffering obedience instead of the way of violence.

This point is even clearer in Matthew’s story than in the synoptic parallels, for at the moment of Jesus’ arrest, he admonishes the disciple who attempts armed resistance: ‘Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword’ (26:51-54). As Ulrich Mauser observes, ‘Jesus does not yield to the temptation to preserve his life by resisting evil with evil’s own armor. If anything in Matthew’s Gospel, this scene at the arrest is the authentic interpretation of the sentence in the Sermon on the Mount, ‘Do not resist an evildoer’ (Matt 5:39).’ Thereafter, the passion narrative plays out to its inevitable conclusion: Jesus dies powerless and mocked (27:39-44). Thus, the death of Jesus exemplifies the same character qualities that are taught as normative for Jesus’ disciples in Matthew 5. (322)

Of course, that is not the end of the story. Jesus rises from the dead, demonstrating that he has conquered violence, injustice, and death, and he tells the disciples that he has been given all authority in heaven and on earth. He commands them to make disciples of all nations, teaching them to “obey everything that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:20).

Although these few quotations are insufficient to demonstrate the point or to capture Hays’s full argument, I believe they accurately summarize the teachings of Matthew’s Gospel. In fact, as Hays points out, this perspective is replicated with impressive consistency in all of the New Testament writers, including in particular Luke, Paul, and John. In Revelation it is the lamb who was slain who conquers the violent forces of history by the power of the word of his mouth. The call of the faithful is to conquer through their suffering, in faithful witness to him.

Again, this is not the whole story. But however we interpret Romans 13 (and associated texts) and whatever we do with the various passages which are silent on whether or not Jesus or his apostles told soldiers, centurions, jailers, government officials, and tax collectors to abandon their vocations, our interpretation must embrace the teaching of Jesus as recorded in Matthew’s Gospel and the other parts of the New Testament. If we dismiss this teaching, or explain it away, we reject our Lord.

As I hope to demonstrate in further posts this week, the key involves recognizing that because the kingdom is already but not yet, God does indeed give civil government the power of the sword, calling it to use that sword justly (i.e., just war theory) rather than unjustly. (In all honesty, I do not understand how those who reject the two kingdoms perspective can possibly make sense of the disparate data. But let’s save that for the Calvin post.)

But that does not solve the problem. It merely tells us how we can begin to start thinking about how to solve the problem. The question remains, what does it mean for a Christian magistrate, or a Christian soldier, or a Christian citizen, to conform to Christ’s call to put away anger, hatred, and violence, and to follow Christ’s example as a suffering servant, even to the point of the cross?

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Should we take pacifist Christians seriously? What’s at stake?

Pacifism is making a comeback in the Christian church. It used to be that if you were a pacifist you were either a liberal academic or some sort of sectarian Anabaptist. Now many of the most significant (and best) ethicists and theologians in the church, scholars whose influence on evangelicalism is only growing, argue that the New Testament clearly calls Christians to practice a nonviolent ethic (think John Howard Yoder, Stanley Hauerwas, Richard Hays). Even the Roman Catholic Church, thanks in large part to the work of Pope John Paul II, has moved significantly in the direction of pacifism (though Rome still holds to just war theory).

For conservative theologians and pastors the temptation is simply to react. We can trot out the old ideas, list off the many centurions and soldiers described as Christians in the New Testament, and quote Romans 13’s reference to the civil magistrate as the minister (or deacon) of God who has been given the sword in order to maintain basic justice. If we are unaware of the way in which neo-Anabaptists and other pacifist minded Christians read their Old Testaments through Christ, we may even unthinkingly point to all the great Old Testament saints who were sword-bearing warriors and magistrates, or to the Israelite conquest (and genocide) of the Canaanites. If all else fails, we can always remind the pacifists of what would happen if no one ever used violence to protect the weak. What about Hitler (and Dietrich Bonhoeffer)? What if you saw a murderer about to explode a bomb that would kill hundreds of people and you had a momentary second to stop him with the loaded gun you were holding in your hand?

The problem with all of this is that it is so defensive and reactionary that it leads us to miss the most important point that the pacifists are right to emphasize: the New Testament does indeed call Christians to follow the example of Christ by devoting themselves to peace, practicing nonviolence, and being willing to suffer in love for their enemies rather than take up the sword against them. However we might qualify this affirmation by taking equally seriously Paul’s teaching about government in Romans 13, we should also be historically sensitive enough to realize that just as often as just war theory has served to restrain the violence of Christian magistrates and soldiers, it has been used as an excuse to justify wars waged in the name of honor, glory, and self-interest, wars characterized on a breathtaking scale by murder, rape, enslavement, and theft.

The fact is, it may well be the case (and I believe it is) that Romans 13 does indicate that a Christian can be faithful to Christ while bearing the magisterial sword, and yet the vast majority of war and violence in which Christians have participated on that basis be immoral and contrary to the teaching of Christ. It may well be the case (and I believe it is) that the overwhelming weight and emphasis of the New Testament falls on the call upon Christians to be nonviolent and love their enemies, rather than on those passages that point to potential exceptions. It may well be the case (and again, I fear that it is), that many Christians have turned the exceptions into the norm, and the norm into the exceptions. We have glorified the coercive power of the state to the point of losing all perspective on just how hard it is for a Christian to be a politician, or a judge, or a soldier, and yet remain faithful to his master.

This week I hope to build on Saturday’s post about pacifism in the early church by reflecting on this difficult question. I plan to summarize the New Testament scholar Richard Hays’s defense of pacifism based in particular on the gospel of Matthew, and then to follow up that presentation of the case for Christian nonviolence with a post offering some thoughts on Peter Leithart’s Defending Constantine. I’ll also take a look at Calvin’s approach to the problem, particularly his response to the Anabaptists of his day.

For now, I want to make one point often ignored by those who can’t figure out why a simple glance at the Old Testament ends the discussion once and for all. Although Chris Smith’s recent article on Rousas John Rushdoony in California reminds us that there are plenty of conservative Christian who still view the letter of the Torah as the timeless statement of how God wants to be served by human beings (and how he wants us to punish those who don’t), most Christians, from the early church to Augustine, from Thomas Aquinas to John Calvin, have always rejected this assessment of the Christian’s relationship to the Old Testament. In particular, they have emphasized that although the Old Testament does help us to determine God’s timeless moral law, its witness is significantly qualified by the fact that its primary purpose was to point the faithful forward to the messiah, to Christ, and not to be the final statement on Christian ethics. For that reason, the Christian tradition has always emphasized that we read, interpret, and apply the Old Testament, and the law, only through the lens of the teachings and example of the one who fulfilled it, Jesus Christ.

At minimum this involves recognizing that not to relax “one of the least of these commandments” and to do them and teach them is to follow the teachings of Jesus (Matthew 5:17-20). It requires recognizing that the curse of the law from which Jesus redeemed us when he was executed and hung on a tree (Galatians 3:13) was nothing less than the curse of the Torah’s civil (or judicial, or penal) law (Deuteronomy 21:23). Any discussion of the meaning of the Christian call to nonviolence, though obviously informed by the Old Testament, must therefore be focused on what it means to follow Jesus Christ.

Get used to the slander that the gospel is antinomian – and remember that it changes lives

In his excellent book on New Testament ethics, The Moral Vision of the New Testament, possibly the most significant book on New Testament ethics to be published in the past two decades, Richard Hays writes,

Many of his Jewish compatriots, including fellow Jewish Christians, were scandalized by the freedom with which Paul dismissed the particular commandments of the Torah, fearing that his preaching provided carte blanche for the flesh. (It is a peculiar irony that in the modern – and ‘postmodern’ – world, Christianity has come to be regarded as narrow and moralistic. Originally, it was quite the reverse: figures such as Jesus and Paul were widely regarded as rebels, antinomians, disturbers of decency.) (36-37)

Hays points out that Paul tended to resist the emphasis on rules or even on moral striving per say, preferring to emphasize the example of Christ and the good of the Christian community on the one hand, and the work of the Spirit on the other.

[T]he sanctified conduct Paul expects of the Galatians is not so much the product of moral striving as that of allowing the mysterious power of God’s Spirit to work in and through them. Where God’s Spirit is at work, Paul contends, the result will be peace and holiness, not moral anarchy. (37)

Paul was well aware that his gospel was viewed as antinomian by some, but he was not generous to those who misrepresented the freedom of the gospel as leading to moral relativism. As Hays puts it, commenting on Romans 3:7-8, “At this stage of the letter, Paul does not really answer the objection except by rejecting it as a ‘slander’, a reprehensible misconstrual of his gospel.” (37)

Nevertheless, and this is important, Paul does not tone down his rhetoric about the radical message of the gospel. In Romans 5:19, Hays points out, “Paul provocatively restates his message of grace in terms perilously close to the ‘slander’ he had rejected earlier” (38):

But where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, just as sin exercised dominion in death, so grace might also exercise dominion through [Christ’s] righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. (Romans 5:20b-21)

Paul goes on to demonstrate why it is precisely the freedom of the gospel that brings about genuine righteousness in the next few chapters of Romans. Hays summarizes,

The great difficulty with the Law of Moses, according to Paul, was that it could only point to righteousness, never actually produce it… Consequently, even where the hearer of the Law applauds the vision of the moral life conveyed by the Torah – as indeed we should, since the commandment of the Law is ‘holy and just and good’ (Rom 7:12) – the Law can produce only condemnation and frustration. (44)

The solution, for Paul, is the gospel, and the Christian life is one that is lived according to the Spirit, not according to a written code of rules and regulations.

For God has done what the Law – weak on account of the flesh – could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and as a sin offering, he condemned sin in the flesh, so that the just requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. (Rom 8:1-4)

One of the very important implications of this fact – that it is the gospel of Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit that changes lives – is the sobering and yet often ignored reality that man-made rules and regulations designed to protect righteousness – often with the best and most pious of intentions – entirely fail to create true righteousness. In fact, insofar as they distract us from the power of the gospel itself, these human rules might even be detrimental. As Paul writes echoing Jesus’ warning against those who teach as doctrines of God the commandments of men (Matthew 15),

If with Christ you died to the elementary principles of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations – ‘Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch’ (referring to things that all perish as they are used) – according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh. (Colossians 2:20-23)

Protecting the church from being dominated by human rules and regulations is no minor obligation. It is essential not simply to protect the gospel. It is essential if we actually want people’s lives to change, if we want to help them to stop the “indulgence of the flesh.” Even love for the weaker brother, in that sense, demands that we help them get to the heart of the matter, rather than focusing on externals.

Taking a gospel-centered approach to the Christian life may well result in you being called an antinomian and a relativist at times. And that can be as discouraging as it is frustrating. But don’t worry. You are in good company with the likes of Jesus and Paul, and you are standing up for what really saves. That’s worth it.

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