A home school mom's journey into peacemaking and Christian non-violence.
“Of course I would grab a knife from the kitchen and stab the intruder.”
That was my plan when my husband and I discussed the hypothetical situation of someone breaking in and hurting our children. We decided long ago that we would never own a gun (we were never comfortable with the idea of actually shooting someone), but the idea of my child being attacked elicited a visceral protective instinct, and I couldn’t imagine doing anything other than fighting back.
Two years ago, when that conversation occurred, my thoughts about violence were a vague grab bag of fear, societal permission for self-defense, and somewhat contradictory personal logic. I’ve had the privilege of living a relatively safe life, and violence has primarily been something happening to other people, elsewhere. Although I couldn’t explain why, my gut feelings told me that I didn’t want to be in the military or shoot guns, but that if someone was aggressive towards me or my family, I would certainly have grounds for responding in kind with whatever violence was necessary.
When my husband asked, “Is there any reason that would justify a Christian killing another person?”, it sounded like an extreme question. Clearly, I reasoned, Christians shouldn’t be bloodthirsty, but there must be extenuating circumstances when killing someone would be permissible, even necessary. As I thought about his extreme (but not unfathomable) query, I took stock of what I believed and found the barely-considered grab bag described above. My opinion on the matter was primarily rooted, albeit shallowly, in my emotions and personal experience (both of which have proven historically to be unstable sources of truth and conviction).
So I turned next to considering various “what-if” situations such as a home invasion, school shooting, or attempted kidnapping. Emotionally and logically, I kept traveling the same path and arriving at the same destination: “I would have to fight back to protect the innocent”. “Love always protects, right”? But it is how I choose to fight that is the real question, for Jesus was not a passive peacemaker, and making peace is the opposite of doing nothing.
But as I searched the Bible on this journey, I became more and more uncomfortable with my own logical conclusions. Both the words and life examples of Jesus Christ and his early followers pointed down a very different path, one that was hard to make sense of. When God looked at humanity, he saw his beloved children being attacked by an Enemy too powerful for them, and his protective instincts also kicked in. But his baffling solution was to rescue us by laying down his own life. He observed people being hurt and oppressed by their own sin, by one another, and by an occupying empire, and he neither ran away nor attacked. Rather, in the face of opposition and violence, Jesus practiced surprising, subversive ways to engage those who hated him. And then he went even farther and told his followers to love their enemies and to be kind to those who were hurting them. That doesn’t make any sense!
As I wrestled with these thoughts, a passage I came back to time and again was 1 Peter 2:20-24 (emphasis mine): “How is it to your credit if you receive a beating for doing wrong and endure it? But if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God. To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps. ‘He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.’ When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly. ‘He himself bore our sins’ in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; ‘by his wounds you have been healed.’”
How did Jesus suffer? How did Jesus respond to those who attacked him and ultimately killed him? When Peter pulled a weapon to try to protect the most innocent life in history, what did Jesus do and say? How did Jesus rescue me when I was powerless, helpless, and enslaved to the Enemy? He certainly did not lash out at human aggressors. Rather, he sacrificed himself and trusted the Father to sort it out justly. And the brave, non-violent, enemy-forgiving, enemy-loving, self-giving path of Jesus isn’t solely for me to admire and appreciate. It is an example for my life, that I should follow in his steps and actually live in the same way.
Jesus’ early followers did just that. When their own lives and the lives of their families and beloved brothers and sisters in the faith were threatened and taken from them, we hear no call to fight back. Both in the Bible and in early church history, we see the first Christians following Jesus’ example of non-retaliation and non-violence, and entrusting themselves to God. There is no hint in their teaching or example that would tell us, “Love your enemies, unless they are killing your children, in which case you should stab them with a kitchen knife.”
“But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you”. (Luke 6:27-28) Return with me to the question: “Is there any reason that would justify a Christian killing another person”? We follow a Lord who told us to do good to our enemies, who did not retaliate when people hurt him, and who counter-intuitively rescued people by giving up his own life. If we believe we are supposed to be like our Lord (Luke 6:40), then killing another human being directly contradicts both Jesus’ life and teachings.
Over the past two years, my beliefs about this topic have become rooted in Jesus, rather than in my own shifting feelings and opinions. As I write this I recognize that I am in a safe place, surrounded by my family, and that all of this seems easier to say and believe when nobody is hurting me or my loved ones. I wish I could say that I no longer have any fears and that I am confident that I will always react peaceably, but alas, I am a work in progress.
I certainly fear that when I do face hatred or violence, my self-protective instincts will kick in and override my desire to follow Jesus. I worry that if someone else is being harmed, I won’t know how to protect them in a non-violent way. I fear suffering. I fear that when I see a threatening situation I’ll panic or strike back. If I do face violence, perhaps God will give me a brilliant, creative response that is neither fight nor flight, an amazing third option that will turn into an inspiring story. Or perhaps he won’t. If he doesn’t intervene and offer me a great idea of how to engage peaceably, I pray that I will still have the courage and conviction to not react with violence, even if it means laying down my life. I pray to not fear death (Heb 2:15), and to trust God through all my other worries so that fear will not control me.
However, dramatic and extreme scenarios aside, every day, God gives me opportunities to practice peace.
When I am irritated, when someone disagrees with me, when my husband is harsh or insensitive, when my children are not doing what they should, when I feel hurt or misrepresented by someone, I can choose to practice anger and retribution, or I can exercise forbearance and forgiveness. By God’s grace, being “trained by constant practice” (Heb 5:14), I pray to be free from the violence and anxiety in my own heart and be transformed more and more into the likeness of our Prince of Peace.