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Christian Nonviolence and Church History

Jesus’ message of peace for all time

The earliest Christians embraced Jesus’ message of peace. Indeed, up until the time of Constantine the early church taught that Jesus forbade his followers to kill. The most profound theological foundation for this conviction was the cross – that Christians should love, not kill, their enemies, as Jesus had shown them. Miroslav Volf is right: “If one decides to put on soldier’s gear instead of carrying one’s cross, one should not seek legitimation in the religion that worships the crucified Messiah.”

Even so, when Jesus commanded his disciples to love their enemies, did he mean that they should never kill them? Did Jesus literally want his disciples to put down their swords?

One may conclude with Reinhold Niebuhr that Jesus said to love one’s enemy, but that it does not work in the real world. One may also note the obvious, with C. S. Lewis: “Does anyone suppose that our Lord’s hearers understood him to mean that if a homicidal maniac, attempting to murder a third party, tried to knock me out of the way, I must stand aside and let him get his victim?” and with that, discount pacifism altogether. Yet Jesus’ command remains:

Christians are to love their enemies. What does this mean? For two thousand years, Christians have sought – more or less seriously – to grapple with this question. What can we learn from the history of the church? Could Jesus have really intended his followers to lay down their arms?


Originally published at Plough, used with permission


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