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Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Arguing with Jesus About Nonviolence

Jesus, Nonviolence, and Self-Defense
Luke 6:27-36

            I have always been fascinated with martial arts.  When I was only 6 years old, I begged my mom to let me sign up for a judo class that advertised to kids at my school.  My mom—who is very submissive and nonviolent—would not let me join the class.  She didn’t like any kind of fighting and she didn’t want her son participating in something she considered too violent.  However, the allure of martial arts never faded for me and I watched martial arts movies and tried to teach myself the moves from books I checked out of the library.  When I was 10, my mom finally relented and allowed me to join a martial arts class with some friends.  My friends dropped out after only a few months, but I was hooked and became a lifelong martial artist.
            It's 30 years later and my love and appreciation of martial arts and self-defense have never faded—even after I became a pastor.  In fact, based on some things I learned in seminary about the positive effects of martial arts, I even developed a Christian Martial Arts program that combined elements of martial arts with prayer, community service, and scripture memorization.  I taught my own martial arts classes for 7 years.  Even though I am a 2nd degree black belt in Tang Soo Do, I am currently learning a new martial art called Jiu-jitsu and I love it!
            People are sometimes puzzled by a pastor who has so much interested in punching, kicking, and choking people.  I mean, isn’t Christianity a nonviolent religion?  I got a few questions about it from the Board of Ordained Ministry when they interviewed me to see if I was fit to be a United Methodist minister.  “Do you like fighting?” they asked.  “Absolutely not!” I replied, “but I love sparring.”  Sparring is practice fighting.  Although I detest fighting, I really like to spar in a friendly setting.  The same is true of verbal confrontations for me.  I love to debate, but I can’t stand to argue.  I can spar with someone (or debate someone) and then give them a genuine hug full of love and mutual respect afterwards.  I may even love and respect them more because of it.  I do not like to fight.  However, if I am forced to fight—either physically or verbally—I am quite confident in my ability.
            How do I justify my love of martial arts and resolve to defend myself given Jesus teachings and life of nonviolence?  I often find myself thrust into an awkward position—arguing with Jesus about the subject of self-defense.  Actually, I am not really arguing with Jesus; I am arguing with the way people misunderstand or misuse what Jesus said.  Let’s look at one of the passages where Jesus urges a nonviolent response.

Luke 6:27-36
27 “But to you who are willing to listen, I say, love your enemies! Do good to those who hate you. 28 Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who hurt you. 29 If someone slaps you on one cheek, offer the other cheek also. If someone demands your coat, offer your shirt also. 30 Give to anyone who asks; and when things are taken away from you, don’t try to get them back. 31 Do to others as you would like them to do to you.

32 “If you love only those who love you, why should you get credit for that? Even sinners love those who love them! 33 And if you do good only to those who do good to you, why should you get credit? Even sinners do that much! 34 And if you lend money only to those who can repay you, why should you get credit? Even sinners will lend to other sinners for a full return.

35 “Love your enemies! Do good to them. Lend to them without expecting to be repaid. Then your reward from heaven will be very great, and you will truly be acting as children of the Most High, for he is kind to those who are unthankful and wicked. 36 You must be compassionate, just as your Father is compassionate. 
General Interpretations
Christ’s teaching and exemplary example of nonviolence are extraordinary.  Jesus wisely understood that given the socio-political-religious conditions of his time, the best way to change his world forever was through a nonviolent, peaceful revolution.  This was God’s plan of salvation and Jesus willingly drank from the cup God handed him.  By not resisting the Roman authorities and willingly dying on the cross, Jesus affected salvation for all humanity for all time.  Jesus astonishing sacrifice sparked a social and moral revolution that changed the world forever.
Following Christ’s nonviolent example, other notable leaders have made significant changes to better our world.  Mahatma Gandhi led India to win independence from the British Empire through nonviolent resistance.  Martin Luther King, Jr. helped transform civil rights in the United States through nonviolent protest.  So, we can certainly see that Jesus’ revolutionary teachings to “turn the other cheek” and to “love your enemies” are powerful weapons indeed.
Many Christian pacifists[i] interpret Jesus’ teaching to mean it is always wrong to injure other humans, no matter the circumstance.  They would argue that even self-defense is wrong.  If Jesus was willing to lay down his life—even for his enemies—we should do likewise.
On the surface, complete Christian Pacifism may seem reasonable and many who take a simplistic view if Christ’s example accept this conclusion without much thought.  However, this simplistic view is not the whole of Jesus teachings or actions.  To make my point, I would draw your attention to other examples of Jesus teachings and actions.
First of all, there is the story of Jesus and the money changers.  The story is found in all four of the Gospels—Matthew 21, Mark 11, Luke 19, and John 2.  In the story, Jesus enters the holy Temple in Jerusalem and violently flips over the money changers tables and drives them out of the Temple with a whip because they were cheating people and dishonoring God’s house.  This is not exactly the gentle, peaceful Jesus of our nonviolent dreams.
Second, when Jesus enraged the people of Nazareth with his preaching at their synagogue in Luke 4, a mob tried to push him off a cliff.  However, Jesus did not allow them to hurt him.  Luke 4:30 says, Jesus “...passed right through the crowd and went on his way.”
Third, when Jesus was on trial before the Sanhedrin (John 18:22-23), one of the high priest’s guards slapped Jesus across the face.  Interestingly, Jesus does not “turn the other cheek” and passively invite the guard slap him again.  Jesus doesn’t strike back with fists, but rather he fights back with words.  Jesus defends himself saying, “If I said anything wrong, you must prove it. But if I’m speaking the truth, why are you beating me?”[ii]
Let me give you one more example.  Luke 22:31-38 tells the story of how Jesus predicted Peter would deny him.  You remember this story.  Peter is adamantly professing his eternal loyalty to Jesus even in the face of death and Jesus says, “Peter before the rooster crows in the morning, you will deny me three times.”  Well, embedded in this story is a strange instruction from Jesus to his disciples.  Let me read it to you straight from the Bible.
Luke 22:35-36 – Then Jesus asked them, “When I sent you out to preach the Good News and you did not have money, a traveler’s bag, or an extra pair of sandals, did you need anything?”  “No,” they replied.  “But now,” he said, “take your money and a traveler’s bag. And if you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one!”
The implication here is that in the past the disciples were able to move about the country safely due to the goodwill of the people.  But Jesus is about to be arrested and executed and his followers are going to be in danger everywhere they go.  Even traveling will be treacherous.  The disciples will need a sword for self-defense.  Since we know Jesus is not encouraging military aggression—his plan is to allow the religious leaders to arrest and crucify him—Jesus must be telling his disciples to purchase swords for self-defense.  What!?!  That doesn’t seem like the peaceful, pacifist Jesus I was taught about as a kid!
In fact, the passage from Luke 6:27-36 where Jesus says, “Turn the other cheek” is not about nonviolence at all.  It is about receiving personal insult.  Slapping someone in the face was considered a great insult to Jews of Jesus day.  So Jesus is not talking about a grave, life threatening danger when he said “turn the other cheek”.  Jesus is saying, set your ego aside—even if you are in the right.  Love your enemies.  Bless those who curse you.  If someone insults you and slaps you in the face, love them the way God loved you when you were His enemy.  Show extravagant love by going the extra mile and turning the other cheek. 

Resisting Evil
            There is no doubt that Jesus’ nonviolent approach has brought about remarkable change in situations where change seemed completely impossible.  However, to teach that Jesus advocated pacifism in every situation is just not accurate.  To passively allow someone to break into your house and harm you or your family because “Jesus said so,” is a total misunderstanding of what Jesus said and did.  Theologians J. P. Moreland and Norman Geisler say that "to permit murder when one could have prevented it is morally wrong. To allow a rape when one could have hindered it is an evil. To watch an act of cruelty to children without trying to intervene is morally inexcusable. In brief, not resisting evil is an evil of omission, and an evil of omission can be just as evil as an evil of commission. Any man who refuses to protect his wife and children against a violent intruder fails them morally."[iii]
            I do not believe Jesus wants us to sacrifice our health or safety to someone who threatens us.  Nor do I believe Jesus would ask a nation to refuse to fight to defend the safety of its citizens.  You have the God-given right to defend yourself and I encourage everyone to learn how.  And thankfully, we live in a country where the constitution guarantees our right to keep and bear arms so we have an extra tool available to defend ourselves (God help us) if we ever need to.
            What I have learned in my life—what I have taught many people—is fighting should be the very last resort.  Sometimes however—and very rarely—fighting is the only solution.  Physical violence is a very short term solution.  It usually leads to more problems than it solves.  However, sometimes it is the only course to take.  And if you find yourself in a situation where you must fight for your life or limb, then fight with all your might and know that God is on your side.
            At the same time, there are occasions when the best course of action is nonviolence.  Sometimes, God calls us—like He called Jesus—to endure suffering for His glory.  Such times when we choose to refrain from fighting are not a sign of weakness at all.  Rather, they require great courage and resolve to suffer harm for a purpose greater than our own personal safety.  I pray that you will have such a close relationship with Christ through the Holy Spirit that should you ever find yourself in a situation where you need to refrain from fighting and suffer abuse for the sake of Christ, you will clearly know it and have the strength and courage to be faithful.   

In closing, I would like to point out how great was the love of Christ that caused him to willingly lay down his life for us on the cross.  The sacrifice was made greater by the fact that Jesus could have saved himself.  You see, no one could take Jesus' life from him unless he willingly surrendered it.  Jesus could have called down an army of 10,000 angels to come save him and destroy the world because it offended him.  This was totally within his power to do and he would have been completely justified to do it.  Yet, Jesus’ great love for you and me—though we absolutely didn’t deserve it—and his wisdom to know what was needed to save our souls and change our world forever compelled Jesus to suffer abuse, be nailed to the cross, and remain there until he died.  His act would have been amazing enough had he been unable to prevent it.  Yet it is even more extraordinary precisely because Jesus could have avoided it and chose not to for your sake.
How would you respond to such an amazing love as this?  Close your eyes and reflect on the love of Christ for a moment.  You see, Jesus was nailed to the cross, but it wasn’t the nails that held him there.  It was his love for you that kept him on the cross until he died to pay the price for your mistakes and wrongdoings.  Do you understand that?  Now what are you going to do about it?
I would suggest that you decide this day, to commit your life to him, to love him the way he loves you, and to love the people of this world—good and bad—because Jesus loves them too.

[i] For more a more, see this great article -
[ii] John 18:23
[iii] The Life and Death Debate: Moral Issues for Our Time, by Dr. Norman Geisler and JP Moreland, Greenwood Publishing, 1990.

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