One of the abiding difficulties of living as a disciple of Jesus and attempting to teach others about the way of Jesus is the wall of resistance that one meets when Jesus’ way of peacemaking comes up for discussion. It appears that the world has so thoroughly groomed us in the way of violence that I might as well be an alien from another planet when I speak of this – even among other Christians. This impulse was driven home for me when my church in Accra, Ghana had conversations around what to do in an armed robbery scenario, given the slow response of our already overstretched police forces. It was such a given that one had to defend one’s family through a “kill or be killed” approach that there was very little room for imagining a different approach.
First Century Expectations of a Messiah
But perhaps that state of affairs is a symptom of a disease with which centuries of Christendom has left the church. And that disease is a spiritualization of Jesus so we can ignore his context and background. So we will attempt to cure a bit of that here and help establish the fact that the way of peace is not a bug but a feature of Jesus’ life and ministry and of our discipleship after him.
You see, in the world of first century Palestine that Jesus lived in, one thing that everybody expected of a “Messiah,” aka “the Chosen One,” was that he would lead the Jewish people to violently overthrow the Roman empire that dominated them at the time. Such a victory would have signified that Yahweh was indeed with this “Chosen One” and with his people. What many Christians are not aware of while reading the Gospels is that there were indeed many “messiahs” who came before Jesus and many who came after him. Many such “messiahs” only ended up suffering a violent death. If you are a well-groomed spiritualizing reader of the Bible like I was brought up to be, you might not notice that the fate of two of such revolutionaries is mentioned by Gamaliel the Pharisee in Acts 5:34 – 37 during the persecution of the apostles. In fact, the Macabbean family dynasty, centuries before Jesus, had achieved a semblance of this desire for a 150 year period as they violently overthrew the Syrian empire and won Palestine their independence. But the nation couldn’t withstand the might of the Roman empire’s military machine and were back in subjugation by Jesus’ day.
It is against this backdrop and with these pre-established expectations that Jesus enters the scene and totally repudiates violence towards “the enemy,” the most obvious one of which was the Roman empire. And it is this that we intend to establish as we go along.
Let’s be clear. Jesus commended Peter for declaring him “the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16 – 17), which means he does accept the title. But his refusal to participate in removing the political “enemy” meant that for Jesus, being a Messiah meant something different than to the ordinary first century Jew. And this is part of what confused Jesus’ disciples about him. He obviously had the power through the signs and wonders he did – and hence the backing of Yahweh, Israel’s God – so what was power for, if it couldn’t be used against the enemy? The last thing anyone expected of a true Messiah was for him to die, not least on a cross, made doubly shameful because it was at the hands of the enemy.
One can see the significance of Jesus’ rejection of the devil’s offer of “authority and splendor” as the NIV puts it in Luke 5:5 – 8. The only power that the devil can give is the same that he’s been giving since the fall – power by violence and lording it over, and not Jesus’ kind of paradoxical power that works by peace and nonviolent trust in God and in his wisdom to overcome by love. The devil offered Jesus something that God did intend him to have, but the temptation was to seize it in the wrong way. It’s no surprise that the devil exercised this power by violence – orchestrating the death of the Son of God – only for death to be the tool of the devil’s own defeat.
So when Jesus tells his disciples to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44 – 45), it really is a manifestation of the radically different nature of Jesus’ “messiahship.”
And yes, he means even the “wicked” political enemy – the Roman empire as represented by their soldiers dispatched to Palestine. That will certainly not have gone down well with his disciples, not to speak of the ordinary Jew suffering under the stifling control of Roman taxation and military brutality.
Interestingly, this call to “love your enemies” is embedded in a much larger manifesto for living within his kingdom called “The Sermon on the Mount,” at the beginning of which is the “Beatitudes.” Here, Jesus teaches “blessed are the peacemakers” (Matthew 5:9). Just like his command to “love your enemies,” being peacemakers also shows whose children his disciples truly are. The two are intimately linked. Peace is the way of our God, and his children are manifested when they copy his behavior.
But Jesus’ teachings thoroughly perplexed his disciples. Not only were they expecting him to use his power to violently advance his course and remove all resistance to his reign, but they were also quick to interpret any semblance of confrontation as one that will trigger that transformation from a peaceful messiah to a violent one. Jesus tells his disciples to get swords so he might look like a violent revolutionary, and his disciples think it means Jesus is finally going to be their hoped-for violent revolutionary (Luke 22:36 – 38). When two swords are made available, he shuts down their imagination with “that’s enough.” Anyone who knows anything about violent overthrows knows that two swords are light-years away from being enough. But that didn’t stop an impatient disciple from swinging that sword when Jesus was being arrested, cutting off an ear of a member of the arresting party (Luke 22:49 – 51). Not only does Jesus correct his disciple and heal the man’s ear, but he also questions his arresting party’s perception of him: “Am I leading a rebellion that you have come with swords and clubs?” (v52). That question was meant to drive home the point of how radically different he was from any “messiah,” past or future.
Jesus practicalizes his own call to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” not only by dying naked at the hands of his enemy on a Roman cross but by also praying for forgiveness for them, “for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34).
As Peter pointed out in his sermonizing all over the book of Acts, Jesus may have been handed over to die by God’s plan, but the religious and political leaders of the day were certainly not blind to their active participation in the process. One of the “spiritualizing” failures of many church traditions today is to assume that the answer to the question “Why was Jesus killed?” is the same as “Why did Jesus die?” which then leads to religious leaders blindly behaving the same way now as the first century Jewish leaders behaved then. But perhaps Jesus’ statements in Matthew 23:37 hold a clue. For Jesus reminds Jerusalem of its sordid history of killing God’s prophets, then also reminds them that he had sought to “gather your children together … and you were not willing.” While many of us are quick to answer “Why did Jesus die” with one atonement theory or the other, a large majority of us fail to realize the challenge that Jesus’ alternative teaching of peace posed to his critics then and continues to pose to us today.
Jesus’ death then triggered the same feelings that we can imagine all the other followers of previous failed “messiahs” had – feelings of fear and of failure. And in recorded history, every first century Jewish messianic movement either died with their leader or a brother of the dead leader was chosen to continue the course. And yet for Christianity, Jesus’ brothers didn’t take center stage and the course didn’t die. So what was different about this one?
The Resurrection Makes Sense of Peacemaking
Jesus’ resurrection and ascension to the right hand of the Father made all the difference. One of the important points to keep in mind about the Jewish belief in the resurrection was that not only was it meant to happen to the whole Israel at once, but it was also meant to happen only to those whom Yahweh had found to be faithful in keeping his commands. So Jesus’ resurrection on his own meant that he was indeed special. But more importantly, it meant that the claims he made about himself were true. Therefore, his radical, sometimes paradoxical teachings to his disciples were to be taken seriously, including those about peace and enemy love.
New Testament scholar NT Wright puts it this way:
“The resurrection and exaltation of Jesus proclaims and installs him as the world’s true lord and saviour … The future resurrection and glorification of Jesus’ followers will vindicate them as the true people of the one true God, despite their present suffering and humiliation.” ‑The Resurrection of the Son of God, pp 233.
It is against this backdrop that his disciples went forth as witnesses to this nonviolent life, with Peter, the often impetuous and violent disciple, now “announcing the good news of peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all” (Acts 10:36).
The resurrection of Jesus now made sense of the way of life that he calls his disciples to live. It gave courage to his disciples that the way of peace was not only a possible way to live, but it was also the hopeful and true way to live.
The resurrection of Jesus reminded his disciples (as it should remind us today) that peacemaking is not guaranteed to “work” every time, but it is their default way of engaging with the world because they are witnesses to a different kingdom than the kingdom that the world disciples them into. At the end of the day, his disciples knew that their pain and suffering in following the way of Jesus – including his call to be peacemakers – wouldn’t be in vain because their faithfulness to his way would be rewarded with resurrection from the dead.
The Early Church: A people shaped by peacemaking
This explains why we see such a strong emphasis on peace and nonviolence in the early church. Until the church gained political patronage and power in the fourth century with the conversion of Emperor Constantine, Christianity was a movement of people who took the way of peace seriously and required non-participation in military service for all its members. If a new member joined who was already in the army, it was made clear to them that they were in a compromised position and needed to look for an opportunity to exit the army. They refused to attend gladiatorial entertainment where gladiators fought to the death, a popular pastime in their day. They created communities where people from different ethnic and socio-economic groups were able to see each other as brother and sister, overcoming the barriers that the world had erected for such unions. Of course, there was friction between these ethnic and socio-economic groups which they tried to navigate within their communities, but the idea that the church was a place of welcome for all such people was driven by their belief that Jesus had brought peace to all near and far. If Acts 6 was anything to go by, then friction and its resolution according to Jesus’ example was par for the course instead of something to be afraid of.
Many took on extra burdens and difficulties by rescuing abandoned infants from rubbish dumps so they could raise them in addition to their existing families. And when push came to shove and their way of life led to persecution, their leaders taught them to endure it faithfully, even to the point of death as martyrs. They weren’t ready to kill or hate for their cause. They were instead ready to die or suffer for it. Taking hope from Jesus’ example that the resurrection and not death was the true end of their lives, they came to not fear death for the sake of bearing witness to the unique kingdom of Jesus Christ.
For them, peace meant not only nonviolence but also a wholeness of life that looked to live out the kingdom in self-sacrificial ways that the culture hadn’t even imagined possible.
Athenagoras, a second century Christian apologist, captures the active peacemaking approach of early Christians this way:
“Among us, however, it is easy to find simple people, artisans and old men who, if they are not capable of manifesting the usefulness of their religion in words, prove it by deeds. Because speeches are not learned by heart, but good deeds are manifested: not to hurt the one who hurts them, not to pursue in justice the one who despoils them, to give to everyone who asks of them and to love one’s neighbor as oneself.” ‑Athenagoras: Legation in favor of Christians, 11
How Power Ate Peacemaking for Lunch
But what happened to this way of peace, this prioritizing of peacemaking among people of different backgrounds? You can start to see a move away from nonviolent peacemaking to the use of force and coercion as the church gained more political power with the conversion of Emperor Constantine to Christianity. This transition was certainly not a sudden one. But because the church had experienced many bouts of persecution over the first four centuries of its life, many leaders of the church viewed Constantine’s supposed conversion to Christianity with such joy that they began to throw off the habits learned from being a persecuted people to being the favored people of the empire. Let’s explore two examples of such diversions from the way of peace.
During Emperor Constantine’s reign, Christianity became an accepted religion, no longer meant to face persecution. But a few emperors later, during the reign of Emperor Theodosius I, not only was Christianity an accepted religion, but it was the official one. It’s on record that in AD 388 in faraway Calinicium (now Raqqah, Syria,) a Christian mob attacked a Jewish synagogue and destroyed it. Emperor Theodosius, a professing Christian, ordered the punishment of the arsonists and the immediate rebuilding of the synagogue at the church’s expense. Many Christians today will agree that this was the just and fair thing to do. But Ambrose, bishop of Milan whose church Theodosius regularly attended, is captured in his own words in “Epistle 74,” rebuking the emperor for such an order, claiming that in times past Christians had to rebuild their own temples when they were under persecution. To our shame today, Ambrose prevailed.
Another example is St Augustine, a keen student of Ambrose of Milan, calling on the empire to use violent means to suppress the Donatist heretics who had risen in the church long before he arrived on the scene. He questioned the church’s received tradition on peace and patience in his “On Patience” treatise. He calls some forms of patience “false patience” and tells us not to look at overt actions but to “discern their inner motivations.” In this, he became one of the first Christian leaders to call for the use of violence against others of the same faith, even if they preached a heretical set of teachings. Augustine then goes on to lay the foundations of what is called a “just war” position. Whereas Jesus’ teaching posited the church as an alternative community that is able to live by his kingdom ethics, Augustine lays the foundation for just war theory – proposing that violence would be needed to run the world and to coerce others to do what is perceived to be good for society. With the church’s blessing, war became legitimized and Jesus’ way of peace further marginalized.
These two examples show the gradual “sophistry” around the peace teaching of Jesus, which only got worse over the course of the 2000-year history of the church. For the church to maintain its positions of power and privilege, it has had to move further and further away from Jesus’ teaching, using the Bible and a large dose of the Old Testament to justify its love of violence.
The way of Jesus has always been a way in which peace is both the means and the end, because the Christian life is one of discipleship after our master, Jesus the king. And if his life was marked by peace, so that his way was rewarded by resurrection from the dead, then peace isn’t an afterthought of our discipleship but core to it.
Unfortunately, many church traditions have taught us to read Jesus with rose-tinted glasses that teach us to focus only on his spiritual benefits and not his earthiness and the real challenges he confronted. The church’s collective amnesia about the way of peace is rather the bug in our witness.
If we are to be a people of peace, we must become a people who are deeply soaked in the hope that the resurrection of the dead gives us, so we can face the challenges of being faithful to Jesus, knowing that our faithful peacemaking will not be in vain.
Bainton, R. (1963) Christian attitudes to war and peace. Trad. Rafael Munoz Rojas. Madrid, Spain: Tecnos.
Well, R.D. (1950). Apostolic Fathers. Madrid, Spain: Catholic.
Originally posted at Jesus Collective, used with permission