Here is a question I recently received about the apparent pacifism of Jesus and the self-defense of Christians....along with my response. I've left the name blank to protect anonymity. I hope my exchange is helpful to some.
Dear Pastor Kastler,
I’m having trouble getting a good understanding if Jesus was a pacifist or not. Could you guide me on this please? Also, if he was a pacifist, does it mean that we should be too? What does God want us to do with regards to self-defense?
Thanks for writing. Those are very good questions you ask; and I think they require more thought than most Christians give them. For example, Jesus famously said to “turn the other cheek” (Matt. 5:39), but he also said, “Whoever has no sword is to sell his coat and buy one.” (Luke 22:36) How do we reconcile these two passages and the mindsets that they convey? I think the best way of understanding the issue is to look at what Jesus did personally, what he actually said and taught, and then try to determine what Jesus expects of us. For example, it does not seem that Jesus carried a weapon for self-defense; and when he was arrested he refused to allow the disciples to defend him. On the contrary, he went “without a fight” because he knew that God's plan was for the evil forces against him to “win the day” (so to speak). Jesus said to those who arrested him, “This hour and the power of darkness are yours.” (Luke 22:53) He was destined to die on the cross and he refused to resist. Of course his death, unlike anyone else's, had a theological and salvational intent. He died to pay for the sins of his people. This is not so of our potential death. So should we defend ourselves?
One interesting aspect to note is that, while Jesus did not carry a weapon, at least two of his disciples did. And apparently they did so with his consent. Notice Luke's account of the Last Supper, “And He said to them, “When I sent you out without money belt and bag and sandals, you did not lack anything, did you?” They said, “No, nothing.”And He said to them, “But now, whoever has a money belt is to take it along, likewise also a bag, and whoever has no sword is to sell his coat and buy one. For I tell you that this which is written must be fulfilled in Me, ‘And he was numbered among transgressors" for that which refers to Me has its fulfillment.”They said, “Lord, look, here are two swords.” And He said to them, “It is enough.” (Luke 22:35-38)
Bible scholars are very disputed as to what Jesus meant when he said, “It is enough.” But what is not disputed is that there were two swords present at the Last Supper; and at least one of those swords (apparently belonging to Peter); was taken to the Garden of Gethsemane. Of course, when Peter uses the sword to defend Jesus; the Lord rebukes him and tells him to put the sword away. “Those who live by the sword will die by the sword.” (Matt. 26:52) This seems to mean that those who are too quick to “draw the sword” will eventually suffer the consequences of their own rashness and “die by the sword.” To “live by the sword” is much more than simply carrying a sword for protection. It is to draw the sword too quickly. It is to turn every offense into an excuse for aggression. This attitude, Jesus clearly rebuked.
The question then is whether or not Jesus is establishing a universal principle of non-violence when attacked; or if he is speaking specifically about his situation, which he knew was to end with the crucifixion. It seems that the latter would be the case. He did not rebuke them for possessing swords at the Supper, nor did he rebuke them for carrying the swords to the Garden. In fact, he seemed to indicate that with his departure a new “era” was commencing and they should “buy a sword.” And so it seems, “Sword-carrying” was not banned by Jesus. But rather, Jesus did not want his disciples seeking to defend HIM with the sword, for death was his destiny.
Another interesting event in Jesus's earthly ministry was his cleansing of the Temple. Here, we see him consumed with zeal for his Father's house, taking a whip, turning over tables, and driving out the money changers. While he didn't strike anyone, his actions were far from pacifistic. In fact they were downright confrontational and could have easily led to his arrest, or death. Once again, I wouldn't universalize this incident and say that we should go physically ballistic every time we see God being dishonored in church. Yet, we do see that there is a time and a place for physical action.
Let me wrap this up by looking at Jesus's well known words from the Sermon on the Mount, where he states: “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 an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. If anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, let him have your coat also. Whoever forces you to go one mile, go with him two. Give to him who asks of you, and do not turn away from him who wants to borrow from you. You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” (Matt. 5:38-45)
Jesus is contrasting Old Covenant Law with the New Covenant ethic that he expects from his followers. Perhaps the most pacifistic thing he ever said was “turn the other cheek.” The principle here is one of humility and suffering, while not taking vengeance on your opponent. It would seem that in personal dealings we should display grace to such an extent that our enemies would marvel at it. So, I think its the “mindset” that Jesus is most concerned with here rather than just merely the physical example he uses. If someone hits us, should we simply stand there and take a beating? I don't think this is what Jesus means since in other places he encouraged the disciples that if they were persecuted in one city they were to “flee to the next.” (Matt. 10:23) Why not just stay in that city and take a beating? Is fleeing persecution contrary to “turning the other cheek”? I think not, which is why I say that Jesus is primarily dealing with an attitude of humility in the face of opposition.
Jesus goes on to speak of those who would “sue you for your cloak.” The fact that he references the court system by using the word “sue” would indicate that you legitimately owe your accuser something. In Biblical times, if you did not have the money to pay a debt the court could sentence you to pay with clothing. Rather than Jesus encouraging you to help armed robbers, it seems that Jesus is encouraging us to pay our debts and even be willing to pay beyond our debts for the sake of keeping peace. He says to “Give to those that ask of you.” Once again, this is not a blanket call to fund every beggar you see. But rather to give of yourself in helping others when you have the ability. John Macarthur says that this verse presupposes a legitimate need from the person making the request. So we help those with legitimate needs, if we can. But we are not required to give indiscriminately to everyone who asks of us. In fact, we might be guilty of enabling evil when we give money to someone we don't know.
The overall context of the Sermon on the Mount is that rather than hating our enemies and taking vengeance upon them; we are to love our enemies and seek their welfare. We are to display humility and even deference to the extreme, for the sake of peace and our witness.
One other passage I would cite as a possible example of legitimate self-defense can be found in 1 Timothy, where Paul writes: “If anyone does not provide for his own, and especially for those of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.” (1 Tim. 5:8) What is a person supposed to “provide” for his own? Food, shelter, protection, love? Certainly all of these. Why do we build houses for our families to live in, rather than simply live out in the openness of nature? One reason is to protect our families from the elements. Why do we build houses with doors that can lock? One reason is to protect our families from evil people who would seek to harm them. Locked doors may not be active resistance to evil. It may be merely passive resistance by “heading off robbers at the pass.” The same could be said of carrying a gun. I'm not actively pulling a gun and threatening anyone I see as a potential danger. Nor am I to pull a gun every time I'm insulted, in “John Wayne” fasion. Rather, I carry the gun passively and only draw it when it becomes necessary. Can I do it in self-defense? Jesus's words from Luke 22:36 cited above, seem to say I can. Can I draw a gun in defense of my family? Paul's words in 1 Tim. 5:8 about providing for my family seem to indicate that I can. In fact to neglect to protect my family might be construed as an act of infidelity. This is not to say that you are sinning unless you own a gun to protect your family. I leave that question to the conscience of each individual. But it seems clear that we CAN own and carry a gun (or sword, knife, weapon, etc.) for protection of self and loved ones.
There are numerous other passages from the Old Testament that I have not cited here, because your question pertained specifically to Jesus. Old Testament passages abound, that speak of the use of force against enemies. King David and others were commanded to destroy foreign armies; and the Psalms speak of God training a soldiers hands for war (Psalm 144:1). Likewise capital punishment is proscribed in both the Old and New Testaments (Rom. 13:4). As is the idea of believers serving in the military and/or law enforcement (Luke 3:14). So I haven't addressed any of those specific issues here; but rather only the idea of Jesus's pacifism and in what ways we should model him.
Thanks for writing. Once again your question is a very good and pertinent one. Hopefully my answer was helpful.