Jesus and the army

Tolstoy Center for Nonviolence

Sep 23, 2017

Is it permissible for Christians to kill their enemies? What about the enemies of their loved ones and homeland? Is it a sin for a soldier to kill in war? What about crippling someone in a war? What if a police officer kills someone? What if an ordinary citizen does it?

Let’s think this one through. The savior of human souls — where and when did he allow for the killing and crippling of people? And what (and whom) do we destroy by doing so: body or soul, someone else’s or our own?

Let’s consider the most controversial passages from the Gospel, cited by proponents of violence in arguments for the use of force in resolving conflicts. Please note that we are not talking about spontaneous reactions to aggression (not everyone has fully developed the skill of humility — to meet anyone in peace and to defeat evil with good), but about the conscious everyday protection of peace by means of armed violence and the threat of its usage.

Jesus Christ on the protection of life, homeland, and loved ones

He made a whip and drove the merchants from the temple

Now the Passover of the Jews was at hand, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. And He found in the temple those who sold oxen and sheep and doves, and the money changers doing business. When He had made a whip of cords, He drove them all out of the temple, [also] the sheep and the oxen, and poured out the changers’ money and overturned the tables. And He said to those who sold doves, “Take these things away! Do not make My Father’s house a house of merchandise!”
John 2:13-16

Now we’ll ask a simple question. Who here was maimed, wounded, crippled, or killed?

Not a single person is mentioned, not a living soul — not even the animals. The Gospel does not specify whether or not Christ used violence (either struck someone or threatened to do so) or whether his anger alone struck the fear of God into people’s hearts and awakened their conscience and fear of God. It also does not specify for what purposes the whip was used — to drive away people or animals by blows or cracks of the whip (oxen and sheep are controlled in this manner without intent to hurt, unless, of course, the driver aims to injure the owner’s cattle). But it highlights that Christ never treated anyone, even the most wicked of people, like cattle. Moreover, the uncertainties connected with the word ‘also’ make the idea of threats and violence against people even less credible.

Give unto Caesar Caesar’s

Matthew 22:21 Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and give to God what is God’s
Mark 12:17 Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and give to God what is God’s
Luke 20:25 Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and give to God what is God’s

A clear and verbatim instruction to give to Caesar what is Caesar’s. There’s even less reason to interpret it differently if we look closely at what happened a little earlier:

When they had come to Capernaum, those who received the temple tax came to Peter and said, “Does your Teacher not pay the temple tax?” He said, “Yes.” And when he had come into the house, Jesus anticipated him, saying, “What do you think, Simon? From whom do the kings of the earth take customs or taxes, from their sons or from strangers?” Peter said to Him, “From strangers.” Jesus said to him, “Then the sons are free. Nevertheless, lest we offend them, go to the sea, cast in a hook, and take the fish that comes up first. And when you have opened its mouth, you will find a piece of money; take that and give it to them for Me and you.”
Matthew 17:24-27

Firstly, Christ himself paid the temple tax and not army tax. This means that an immediate end can be put to this issue.

However, secondly, He mentioned his reasoning: lest we offend them. Do not offend them and do not seduce them. Do not entice the collectors to condemn you for not wanting to give them money. Whose money? Roman — Caesar, Jewish — the Jewish King. Caesar/the king established the law: pay your taxes and duties. Well, then give this money to the servants of the king/Caesar and do not tempt them to resort to the law (mainly due to their own weakness) to condemn you or take it by force.

Thirdly, and most importantly, is that which is overlooked most often. To give means to give and not to “take”. Once again, there is instruction from Christ to give to Caesar what is Caesar’s. But there’s not a single instruction to take what is Caesar’s from Caesar. Not a single instruction to take this money from him and hence involve yourself in the violence that Caesar commits as well as good deeds.

And finally, the last point. Why is there no ambiguity? It’s forbidden to forcibly resist but to submit and pay for force is permissible! In fact, there’s no ambiguity. When Caesar spends his money it is his responsibility and not that of the person who returns it to him. People are responsible when they spend their own money.

Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends

Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends.
John 15:13

To lay down your own life, not someone else’s. Once again, only your own. Not someone else’s soul and life.

Do not think that I came to bring peace on the earth; I did not come to bring peace, but a sword

Do not think that I came to bring peace on the earth; I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.
Matthew 10:34

With a sword as a weapon it is always injury or death. But did Christ bring death? Or war, terror, or unrest? What about ‘justified’ violence?

No, He bought the good news of eternal life and a new commandment: “love one another.” And in his own life He demonstrated strength of spirit, meekness, love. He has a completely different ‘sword’ as his weapon, a spiritual sword (Ephesians 6:17, “the sword of the Spirit — the word of God”) that separates divine truth from earthly falsities.

Sell your clothes and buy a sword. Now here are two swords. Enough.

Then He said to them, “But now, he who has a money bag, let him take it, and likewise a knapsack; and he who has no sword, let him sell his garment and buy one. For I say to you that this which is written must still be accomplished in Me: ‘And He was numbered with the transgressors.’ For the things concerning Me have an end.” So they said, “Lord, look, here are two swords.” And He said to them, “It is enough.”
Luke 22:36-38

Two swords against a crowd of armed soldiers and servants of the high priest. And this was deemed “enough.” So, what type of swords are we talking about? See the answer above. In addition, it is worth noting the situation that occurred shortly after (from which it is obvious that there was no question of armed resistance):

But Jesus said to him, “Judas, are you betraying the Son of Man with a kiss?” When those around Him saw what was going to happen, they said to Him, “Lord, shall we strike with the sword?” And one of them struck the servant of the high priest and cut off his right ear.
Luke 22:48-51

Sell your clothes and buy a sword (Leo Tolstoy)

Then He said to them, “But now, he who has a money bag, let him take it, and likewise a knapsack; and he who has no sword, let him sell his garment and buy one. For I say to you that this which is written must still be accomplished in Me: ‘And He was numbered with the transgressors.’ For the things concerning Me have an end.” So they said, “Lord, look, here are two swords.” And He said to them, “It is enough.”
Luke 22:36-38

Another interpretation, which doesn’t detract from the nonviolent nature of Christ’s sacrifice, but rather emphasizes it, can be found in Leo Tolstoy’s “The Four Gospels Harmonized and Translated.”

No matter how much the interpreters have laboured on this passage, there is no possibility of giving it any other meaning than this, that Jesus is getting ready to defend himself. Before this he tells his disciples that they will deny him, that is, will not defend him, will run away from him. Then he reminds them of the time when the criminal accusation did not yet hang over them. Then he says, It was not necessary then to struggle. You were then without your scrips, and did not need anything, hut now the time of the struggle has come, and we must provide ourselves with food and with knives, in order to defend ourselves. This is necessary, since they regard us as outlaws.

Is. liii. 12. Therefore will I divide him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong; because he hath poured out his soul unto death : and he was numbered with the transgressors; and he bare the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.

Jesus has reference to this passage. He speaks of the physical struggle, and that the end will come to all of you. It is impossible to understand it in any other way, for the disciples reply to this, Here we have two knives, and so it is impossible to understand it to mean that his disciples did not understand him, because Jesus replies to them, ἱκανόν ἐστιν, that is, Very well.

The church interpretations have so spoiled the Gospel, and have mixed us up in such a way that the clear and profound and significant passage is either lost for us, or, like a cataract, represents a manifest contradiction. The chief obstacle in the comprehension of this passage is this, that Jesus is God, and so he could not have weakened and fallen into an offence. But here we get a clear and straight story, — not an inward moment of wavering, as is shown in the discourse with the Greeks, in the garden at Gethsemane and on the cross, but a moment of wavering, a dejection of spirit, which almost passes into action. He orders them to provide themselves with knives, and praises them for having done so. He wants to struggle with evil against evil, and even explains this by saying that he did not struggle as long as he was not persecuted, but that he cannot help fighting when he is regarded as an outlaw.

After that height of love, which he expressed at the arraignment of the traitor at the last supper, the temptation overcomes him in the night, and he says, Let us fight with knives, that is, he wants to do what is contrary to his teaching. This passage would be offensive, if it were not connected with what follows, if it were not a necessary introduction and illumination of the minute in the garden of Gethsemane and of the conduct of Jesus when he is taken, when the disciples wanted to make use of their knives and cut off Malchus’s ear; in connection with these it not only fails to be offensive, but is even necessary, and is one of the profoundest and most instructive passages of the Gospel. Two dangers beset those who profess Christ’s teaching: the offence of cowardice, — the renunciation of the teaching, against which Jesus warns Peter; and the offence of violence, — fighting evil with evil Against the first evil Jesus struggles all his life. He goes away, when he is persecuted. He answers the temptation of the Pharisees in such a way as to contradict them as little as possible. Most strongly does this offence show itself in the discourse in the temple with the Gentiles, when Jesus struggles against the offence, and comes out a victor. Now there approaches the second offence, the resistance to evil, and Jesus for a moment submits to it; but he goes out and prays, and struggles against the offence, and vanquishes it. The failure to understand this passage is due to the fact that it is separated from the prayer in the garden of Gethsemane, as the church does it, and both passages become obscure, but especially the prayer in the garden of Gethsemane.

The Four Gospels Harmonized and Translated by Count Lev N. Tolstoy
Chapter X. The struggle against the offences

Those who take the sword will perish by the sword

Then they came and laid hands on Jesus and took Him. And suddenly, one of those who were with Jesus stretched out his hand and drew his sword, struck the servant of the high priest, and cut off his ear. But Jesus said to him, “Put your sword in its place, for all who take the sword will perish by the sword. Or do you think that I cannot now pray to My Father, and He will provide Me with more than twelve legions of angels?”
Matthew 26:51-53

If you take a quote out of context (‘those who take the sword will perish by the sword’) then you can actually read it as a warning to all the unrighteous who raise their swords that they themselves will be overtaken by the sword of the righteous. The existing order of things says: criminal violence must be answered with force.

But if you look at the phrase in its entirety (‘Or do you think that I cannot now pray to My Father, and He will provide Me with more than twelve legions of angels’) then you are met with a completely different meaning. If He wanted protection He would, undoubtedly, receive it from above. But He does not require protection by means of injuring or killing people (‘Put your sword back in its place’) — and He warns against it: ‘all who take the sword will perish by the sword’ — not the righteous, not the unrighteous, but everyone who took the sword. The sword by which they die will not be the sword of their enemy, and not even the sword of the Heavenly Father, but their own sword: when we take it in our hands we cross the line that Christ commanded us not to cross (‘Love your enemies’). We are killing our own souls with the sword.

Blessed are the peacemakers

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.
Matthew 5:9

It is not uncommon to come across interpretations of this passage that essentially redefine ‘peacemaking’ to mean what it usually does today: mainly to establish peace by force. But Christ does not say a single word about this. Peacemakers are literally people who create peace, resolve conflicts and quarrels, and reconcile opposing parties.

Warriors: Go and do not wrong anyone

Likewise the soldiers asked him, saying, “And what shall we do?” So he said to them, “Do not intimidate anyone or accuse falsely, and be content with your wages.”
Luke 3:14

These are the words of John the Baptist, a man with Old Testament morals. This announced the coming of Christ, but he did not and could not have known about the New Testament, in which there is neither word nor action from Christ that justifies or encourages armed violence.

All authority is from God. He does not wear the sword in vain...

Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God. Therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves.
For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to evil. Do you want to be unafraid of the authority? Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same. For he is God’s minister to you for good. But if you do evil, be afraid; for he does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil.
Therefore you must be subject, not only because of wrath but also for conscience’ sake. For because of this you also pay taxes, for they are God’s ministers attending continually to this very thing.
Render therefore to all their due: taxes to whom taxes are due, customs to whom customs, fear to whom fear, honor to whom honor.
Romans 13:1-7

This passage is not a part of the Gospel; it reflects people’s attempts to live according to Christ’s commandments after his execution. These are the words of the Apostle Paul, a man who, unlike the twelve disciples, did not follow Jesus on his earthly journey. They are the words of a man with a very difficult past, and who is capable of making mistakes, just as every follower of Christ makes more than a couple of mistakes.

An additional point worth making is that these words were written during Nero’s reign, in a time of oppression and persecution when many Christians were brutally killed. To claim that this kind of authority was of God and was a terror only to robbers, thieves, and rapists, would be to deceive oneself and others; and, in the worst case, to classify one’s fellow believers as criminals.

Here, in principle, we could put an end to it. Because no words can be an excuse for endless obedience to the authorities, if you understand that evil is being done with your hands.

However, despite the apparent pathos of revenge and retaliation of evil for evil’s sake that Paul left to non-Christians, we can see an attempt to help Christ’s followers come to terms with the evident injustice in the world without resorting to resistance. Let’s consider what Paul says immediately afterwards:

Owe no one anything except to love one another, for he who loves another has fulfilled the law.
Love does no harm to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.
Romans 13:8, 10

Furthermore, we find the same tone with Peter the Apostle:

Therefore submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake, whether to the king as supreme, or to governors, as to those who are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and for the praise of those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you may put to silence the ignorance of foolish men.
Servants, be submissive to your masters with all fear, not only to the good and gentle, but also to the harsh. For this is commendable, if because of conscience toward God one endures grief, suffering wrongfully. For what credit is it if, when you are beaten for your faults, you take it patiently? But when you do good and suffer, if you take it patiently, this is commendable before God.
1 Peter 2:13-15, 18-20

And so, do not resist any power — love the other person, and do good in any circumstances, under any authority.

“The chief is God’s servant”. The Lord has both good servants and careless servants. Does authority defy God’s law and justice, and rampage? Love others, but do not resist the authorities. Does the government force you to violate the law of love? Love others, but do not resist the authorities. Have they captured and tortured you? Do they force you to kill people or participate in it? Do not do it — do not kill. Love others. And do not resist by force or evil.

Just as Christ did not resist earthly authority.

He did not ask the Roman centurion to forget his ‘craft’

And a certain centurion’s servant, who was dear to him, was sick and ready to die. So when he heard about Jesus, he sent elders of the Jews to Him, pleading with Him to come and heal his servant. And when they came to Jesus, they begged Him earnestly, saying that the one for whom He should do this was deserving, “for he loves our nation, and has built us a synagogue.”
Then Jesus went with them. And when He was already not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to Him, saying to Him, “Lord, do not trouble Yourself, for I am not worthy that You should enter under my roof. Therefore I did not even think myself worthy to come to You. But say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I also am a man placed under authority, having soldiers under me. And I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes; and to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.”
When Jesus heard these things, He marveled at him, and turned around and said to the crowd that followed Him, “I say to you, I have not found such great faith, not even in Israel!” And those who were sent, returning to the house, found the servant well who had been sick.
Luke 7:2-10

To begin with, in addition to the centurion and his servants, there is also mention of masters and slaves in the Gospel. For example, in the parable of ‘the master and slave who received five talents.’ Will we assume that through this He approved of slavery and servitude?

If the Gospel did not reflect that Jesus forbade the military ‘crafts’ during sermons, then there are reasons for this. And the first of them is the highest spiritual and moral law that contains all the others: 'Love one another.'.

Besides, what is Those who take the sword will perish by the sword if not a complete ban on bloodshed and violence?

Also let's keep in mind Jesus was preaching to the Jewish population during a time when Judea was occupied. Power was in the hands of the governor representing the Roman Empire. All warriors, in the traditional sense, were either Romans or mercenaries, including those who attended the baptism of John the Baptist. At that time the Jewish people had no problems concerning service in the military or police.

Military service first became a problem when the first Roman followers of Christ appeared, for whom this service was mandatory. From the surviving texts of the early Roman Christians we can see that their attitude to military service was clear — it was deemed unacceptable.

Another important fact is that Christ did not explicitly forbid any occupation or ‘profession’, be it soldier, tax collector, or prostitute. But there is also no explicit approval of them! On the contrary, He always went to those people first as they were most in need of God’s word: 'Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick' — Matthew 9:12, these words were spoken by Him at a banquet for tax collectors. And He always strongly condemned our fears, weaknesses, and passions that lead to ‘crafts’ such as the military, taxes, and selling.

This is a special path to the Son of God – not for us

It is widely believed that Christ’s nonviolence is not a guide for everyone, but a special path for the Son of God, that nonviolence is not for us and that we cannot do it. He is Christ and we are sinners. Do not venture down His path.

Well, then, the other lessons that He taught are not for us:

  • How He did not lie is not for us. Only the Son of God cannot lie.
  • How He loved others is not for us. Only the Son of God can love.
  • How He tolerated our vices and weaknesses is not for us. Only the Son of God can be patient.

But even if we are weak, what would prevent us from learning?