An Overview of Peace in Scripture
Written by Rev. Craig M. Watts
Few topics are more important than peace. Hostile divisions seem to dominate the planet far too often. The destruction caused by ethnic strife, racial animosity, gross economic inequality and international conflict mar the lives of countless millions. Even as so many suffer and grieve, many others remain convinced that the answer to the misery and turmoil is found in yet more, better targeted violence. That answer, I am convinced, is contrary to the way of Jesus Christ.
Peace is the will of God for all creation. The story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden expresses God’s original intention for the world. Here we find a harmonious, nonviolent existence where there is room for partnership, love and creativity but not for deadly conflict. This peace, we are led to believe, is what God had in mind for all that God made and in particular for those creatures made in God’s own image. According to the book of Genesis, fulfillment and wholeness rooted in right relations was God’s original design for humankind.
The disruption of peace was the result of the fragmentation of right relations, first of all with God, but, then, with other humans and with creation itself. The enigmatic story of the disobedience to God in the Garden quickly gives way to the story of the next generation, the murder of Abel by his brother Cain. This act of violence is the first deed that is expressly called “sin” in the opening book of the Bible. As the biblical story proceeds, violence continues to be prominent and peace proves to be illusive.
Obliviously, in this short presentation we can’t deal with the subject of peace in anything that comes close to being comprehensive. Still I hope to be able to provide a bit of material to help you in your reflections and in your attempt to live more faithfully in our conflict-ridden world. I also hope that you won’t keep to yourself the things that you learn here today but that you will go back to your churches and share with others. I happen to believe, as did some of the most significant Disciples leaders in the past, that the church is called to be God’s peace society. As a community of faith we are to practice and promote the peace found in Jesus Christ and in so doing, work for the healing of our fragmented and warring world.
I don’t think we can honestly deal with peace in the Bible without addressing in some fashion war and violence in the scriptures. We must frankly admit that there are many pages in the Bible that drip with blood. Hundreds of verses pertain to killing, violence or war. Certainly we can’t address most of those passages today and only in the broadest terms can we address the topic at all. From the start we have to acknowledge that war is not presented in scripture in a single uniform way. That said, I believe there are certain things that are generally the case as we look to war in the older testament. I am not at all convinced that what we find serves those who appeal to these passages of scripture in order to legitimate Christian support of and involvement in warfare. It is important to note, not simply that war is sometimes sanctioned and even commanded in the Hebrew Bible, but we must go further and ask, “What kind of war seems to be approved in the older testament?”
I believe there are several characteristics that are common to war in the Hebrew Bible. Because of the peculiarities of war in the older testament, any claim that precedent for Christians can be found in such war is highly dubious.
First, God is the primary warrior. War is an exercise in the miraculous. By the power of God victory is accomplished. The divine warrior is a motif that runs through the Bible, though presented in a variety of ways. Moses and the Israelites sang: “The Lord is a warrior, the Lord is his name” (Ex. 15:3). This occurred immediately after God overwhelmed the Egyptian army as it pursued the Israelites who were fleeing from slavery. The Israelites were frightened and knew they were no match against such a threatening military force. Moses said to them, “Fear not, stand firm, and see the salvation of the Lord, which he will work for you today; for the Egyptians whom you see today, you will never see again. The Lord will fight for you and you have only to be still” (Ex. 14:13-14). This is the first major conflict faced by the Israelites and the one most often referenced in later biblical writings. In other times of challenge and threat the people are called upon to remember this defining event: “The Lord your God, who goes before you, is the one who will fight for you, just as he did for you in Egypt before your very eyes,” (Deut. 1:30).
When the land of Judah was threatened by the Assyrian army, the prophet Isaiah called them to trust in the power of God to save. King Sennacherib of Assyria taunted King Hezekiah and warned the people of Judah to not follow their king in relying upon the Lord. While boasting of Assyrian might, he declared that the gods of no other land could save their people. In the face of this, Isaiah spoke these words to Hezekiah: “Thus says the Lord, Do not be afraid because of the words you have heard, with which the servants of the king of Assyria have reviled me. I myself will put a spirit in him, so that he shall hear a rumor and return to his own land; I will cause him to fall by the sword in his own land” (2 Kings 19:5-7). Without the use of military might “an angel of the Lord” attacked the Assyrian forces, killing eighty-five thousand in a single night –perhaps with a plague- and the army withdrew (2 Kings 19:35-37; Isa. 37:36-38). Later Second Isaiah writes, “The Lord goes forth like a soldier, like a warrior he stirs up his fury; he cries out, he shouts aloud, he shows himself mighty against his foes.”(Isa. 42:13).
Second, God calls the people and guides them to battle (Judg. 20:18; 1 Sam. 6:8-10; 14:6-10; 30:6-20; 2Sam. 5:17-25). The decision to go to war is not simply left to the discretion of the king or leaders of the land. Those who relied on their own strength and wisdom insofar as war was concerned were condemned for doing so: “Alas for those …who rely on horses, who trust in chariots because they are many and in horsemen because they are very strong, but do not look to the Holy One of Israel or consult the Lord! (Isa. 31:1). God decides when the time for war has come.
Third, victory is announced even before the enemy is engaged. In regard to Jericho, God announced to Joshua, “See, I have given into your hand Jericho…” (Josh. 6:2). Later God declared to Joshua, “See, I have given into your hand the king of Ai…” (Josh. 8:1). Regarding the Midianites, God tells Gideon, “Arise,…for I have given it [the Midian camp] into your hands…” (Judg. 7:9). To Israel God said,” Tomorrow I will give them [the Benjaminites] into your hand” (Judg. 20:28). To David God declared, “I will give the Phililistines into your hand” (1 Sam. 23:4). God said to Ahab, “I will give all this great multitude into your hand” (1 Kings 20:28).
Fourth, human strength is irrelevant for the outcome of the battle. As noted previously, sometimes God is the sole warrior and the people of God are simply to watch and wait. But even when humans have a role in the battle, it is a secondary role. Superior strategy, larger army or technologically advanced equipment does not play a significant role is achieving victory. The notion of “peace through strength” is utterly foreign to the Bible. In fact a quest for military strength is a sign of unbelief. When King Ahaz was threatened by a Syro-Ephraimite coalition Isaiah urges him to trust totally in God for protection and not rely upon strategies of power. Isaiah declares, “take heed, be quiet, do not fear, and do not let your heart be faint…If you do not stand firm in faith, you will not stand at all” (Isa. 7:4,7). A failure of faith was displayed precisely in the attempt to devise a military solution to the threat he faced rather than trusting in the extraordinary working of God. The prophet insisted that the king look to God alone for deliverance and condemned attempts to insure national security by means of alliances with other nations.
Isaiah later proclaimed, “Alas, for those who go down to Egypt for help and who rely on horses, who trust in chariots because they are many and in horsemen because they are very strong, but do not look to the holy one of Israel or consult the Lord….The Egyptians are human, and not God; their horses are flesh and not spirit. When the Lord stretches out his hand, the helper will fall, and they will perish together” (Isa.31:1-5). The repudiation of alliances and rejection of dependence upon military power, on the one hand, and reliance upon God, on the other, are two sides of one coin. Trust in God entails the refusal to trust in human power. The Psalmist expressed this same conviction “Some take pride in chariots, and some in horses, but our pride is in the Lord our God. They will collapse and fall, but we shall rise and stand upright” (Ps. 20:7-8).
Fifth, preparation for war is primarily spiritual, not military. The soldiers were “consecrated” (Josh. 3:5). Likewise, weapons were consecrated (1 Sam. 21:5; 2 Sam. 1:21). Sacred vows were made (Num. 21:2; 1 Sam. 14:24). Soldiers were to abstain from sexual relations (1 Sam. 21:5; 2 Sam. 11:11-12). The army offered sacrifices prior to going into battle (1 Sam. 7:9; 13:9-12). Gerhard von Rad observed, “The warriors had to be acceptable to Yahweh in every respect and had to be bearers of Yahweh’s intention even with regard to inward disposition” (Holy War in Ancient Israel, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), 46). For this reason, those who were fearful or weak of spirit were removed from the army (Judg. 7:3). Not only was the preparation prior to war primarily spiritual, following battle soldiers required special spiritual care because war contaminates those who engage in it. Even when war is commanded by God, war renders participants “unclean” (Num. 31:19-20). It is notable that David’s desire to build a temple to God was thwarted precisely because he was “a man of war” who “shed blood” (1 Chron. 28:3).
War in the older testament is as much of a problem for the advocates of the just war tradition as it is for the pacifist. Those who seek legitimization for participating in war by looking for a precedent in the Hebrew scriptures will discover that they have “bitten off more than they can chew.” War in these pages of the Bible cannot easily be domesticated and made to fit comfortably into rules of war as presented in just war thinking. It is not at all evident that there are actionable “principles” of war in the Hebrew Bible that can be applied by modern nation-states nor is it at all apparent that the characteristics of war in the older testament help provide any justification for Christian participation in warfare. It is simply not enough to claim that there is war in the older testament that was approved by God and therefore war is authorized for Christians.
Even though the pages of the Hebrew Bible are often bloody, still among those pages there are words filled with longing for peace. There are visions of peace, a peace promised by God. For instance, these words from Isaiah have traditionally been seen by Christians as being a prophesy of the coming Christ: “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord… Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins. The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them” (Isa.11:1-2, 5-6). Jesus, a descendent of Jesse, came preaching peace. Jesus came to fulfill the older scriptures (Matt. 5:17), bringing “new wine” that cannot be contained in “old wineskins” (Matt. 9:16-17; Mark 2:22; Lk. 7:37-38). For Christians what we find in Christ is the final and decisive revelation of God. Consequently, Jesus must be front and center in our understanding of peace as it has bearing on the lives of Christians.
When we turn to the New Testament and the beginning of the ministry of Jesus, immediately after his baptism we find him going into the wilderness to pray and fast. There he is faced with temptations, among them being the temptation to grasp the power of the nations of the world to use as he believed best (Matt. 4:8-10; Lk. 4:6-8). This temptation he rejected. The power to compel by threat and violence was an option Jesus resisted and he called his disciples to turn from such power as well. At the end of his earthly ministry, when his disciples began to argue with each other about which of them deserved the greatest power and position, Jesus responded by contrasting the patterns of power among the leaders of the nations with his own expectations for his followers: “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.”(Lk. 22:25-27). Not dominance but servanthood is what is required of those who credibly claim to follow Jesus. Preeminence, position and ascendancy are not among the goals of discipleship. Rather, “the last will be first” (Matt. 19:30; also Matt. 20:16; Mark 9:35, 10:31; Lk. 11:30).
Jesus worked nonviolently as he called people into his community of disciples and taught them to ready themselves to walk in his way. Throughout his life he battled evil but never entered the battle with a force of arms. He fought with the word of truth, the power of love and the signs and wonders of God. He called his followers to prepare themselves, not to kill or destroy in the name of their opposition to evil, but to endure suffering as they sought to serve his cause and be like him (Matt. 10:16-22; Lk. 21:16-17; John 15:18-21). When Jesus called people to follow him, it was to “deny themselves and take up their cross” (Matt. 16:24; also Matt. 10:38; Mark 8:34; Lk. 9:23, 14:27). Jesus did not urge his followers to approach the world from a guarded, well-protected posture. Vulnerability is a characteristic of discipleship. This is not to say Christians should never dodge and evade danger. Jesus did so himself at certain points in his life and ministry (Lk. 4:29-30; John 10:39). But openness to injury is inevitable for a people who have been instructed by their Lord to both expect persecution and to bless and pray for their persecutors (Matt. 5:44; Lk. 6:27-28).
Jesus did not promise that his followers would experience peace in the world. To the contrary, he said, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace but a sword” (Matt. 10:34). The “sword” that he speaks of here is not a weapon he places in the hands of his followers. Rather he is referring to a metaphorical “sword” of division, rejection and disruption –even the alienation of one’s own family members- that results from being loyal to him (Matt. 10:35-39; also, Lk. 12:51-53). Yet Jesus called his disciples to be peaceable in a world in which even people of God frequently “do not recognize the things that make for peace” (Lk. 19:42). Jesus urged his followers to be a people who practice forgiveness, compassion, generosity, reconciliation and unrelenting love. Most powerfully this can be found in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s gospel and the sermon on the plain in the gospel of Luke where we find Jesus explicitly teaching nonretaliatory love. From Luke Jesus is reported as saying,
I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you. If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful (Lk. 6:27-36).
Some interpretations of this and similar passages seek to reduce their relevance and restrict their applicability. In other words, they explain away the force of what Jesus says as it has bearing on us who claim to follow him.
Here are just a few of those interpretations:
- Jesus assumed the world as we know it would end very soon so he gave an “interim ethic” that was perfectionist and he showed no concern for long-term consequences as he instructed his disciples.
- These teachings of Jesus offer a vision of life in the kingdom of God which is impossible to practice in the world of the present. They are held before us as an impossible ideal.
- These teachings were given by Jesus to show people the impossibility of living up to the standards of true righteousness and so convict the consciences of his hearers and make them aware of their need for grace.
- Jesus was teaching an individual ethic that pertained to personal relations and so the words have no bearing on political affairs and the responsibility of his followers to the state.
There are some other possible perspectives on these teachings of Jesus. However, I’m not at all convinced that any interpretation that minimizes that relevance of the words do justice to the teachings as we find them in their gospel context. There is nothing within the gospels themselves that would lead us to believe that Jesus intended his disciples to do anything other than to practice what he proclaimed and to do so in every context of their lives, public and private. Any attempt to exclude or limit the relevance of Jesus teachings regarding nonretaliating love by claiming the words pertain only to personal relations imports restrictions foreign to the text itself. The Greek word used for enemies in Lk. 6:35 and Matt.5:44 – “Love your enemies”- is not normally restricted to personal enemies but in biblical Greek is used of national enemies as well (e.g., Deut. 20:1 LXX; Lk. 19:43). Any notion that Jesus is only concerned about dealing with village squabbles is purely speculative and finds no support in the texts of either Matthew of Luke. Rather he calls for nonviolence and love toward all enemies.
Despite to the claims of Augustine that the love of enemies that Jesus commanded “is not a bodily action, but an inward disposition” (Against Faustus, 22.79), Jesus did not in fact only oppose vicious anger and blood-thirstiness. There is no hint in any of his words that if someone’s heart is free of animosity and a desire to do violence then killing for a just cause is acceptable to God. To the contrary, Jesus called upon his followers to “bless” and “do good” to enemies (Lk. 6:28, 35). There is no room in Jesus’ teaching to allow for the killing and maiming of enemies so long as one does not have a hurtful attitude or if one acts with the authorization of the state. Love for enemies cannot be reduced to dispassion toward them. It is a perversion of Jesus’ teaching to suggest that killing an enemy without feeling or even with some degree of regret is compatible with love. The love that Jesus called for is as much behavioral as it is dispositional. This love not only impacts the inward life of the disciple but the physical life of the enemy.
The teachings of Jesus regarding loving enemies does not stand alone but are reflected in the entire life and minister of Jesus. The message is reinforced repeatedly by Jesus in word and action. I’ve already mentioned Jesus’ rejection of the power over the nations when he was tempted in the wilderness and the Jesus’ response to the disciples’ argument about greatness, with Jesus contrasting the coercive power of Gentile leaders with the servant’s ways appropriate for his disciples. The beatitudes also point to qualities of character not typical of those who wield deadly force: humility, tender-heartedness, meekness, mercifulness and peacemaking (Matt. 5:3-11; Lk. 6:20-22). Jesus blesses those who are persecuted but speaks of no similar blessing for those who would defend the persecuted by violent means. He taught standards for a community, a community that is to exist as “salt” and “light”, embodying an alternative to the world characterized by the quest for dominance (Matt. 5:13-16). When the apostles James and John wanted to further God’s work by calling fire down from heaven to destroy Samaritans who were unresponsive to Jesus, he rebuked them. At no point does Jesus suggest that violence has any role in the lives of his followers. Those who seek some sort of sanction for violence by pointing to the disruptive action of Jesus in the temple neglect to notice that none of the gospels say that Jesus harmed any person, much less leave behind dead or maimed victims. His behavior was much more similar to the kind of action done by peace protesters than that of soldiers on a battlefield.
The one time in the gospels we find an attempt to protect an innocent person by violent means, Jesus condemns the effort and corrects the damage done. When Jesus was being apprehended the evening prior to his crucifixion, as the soldiers grabbed hold of him, a disciple –identified as Peter only in John’s gospel (18:10-11)- drew a sword to defend Jesus, struck out and wounded one of the group. Jesus insists that the violence stop. In Mark the reason given by Jesus was to “let the scriptures be fulfilled” (14:49). In Luke Jesus demands the violence end and heals the injury his disciple caused – loving and blessing an enemy- without any direct mention of his own destiny. In John’s gospel after Jesus insists that Peter’s sword be put away, he speaks of a need to “drink the cup which the Father has given me” (18:11).
The account in Matthew is considerably fuller. Again, Jesus expresses the need that “the scriptures be fulfilled” (26:54, 56). But he also directly addresses the defensive violence of the disciple who sought to protect him. Rather than commend the courage and good intentions of the disciple or suggest that on other occasions using violence to protect an innocent third party would be commendable, Jesus instead made a sweeping pronouncement that “all who take the sword will perish by the sword” (26:52). These words are all the more striking because they were spoken in response to an act of violence for a good cause and on behalf of one who would otherwise be unjustly harmed. From this condemnation of “righteous” violence, Jesus went on to speak of his own rejection of violence. He told his disciples that if he was inclined to use violence to further the cause of God’s kingdom, he had no shortage of force available to him: “Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and that he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?” (26:53) This was an option that Jesus rejected, embracing instead the way of the cross, the way of nonviolent, suffering love. The cross for him was not simply the means of salvation for the world but the shape of life that he commended to his disciples.
When we move from the gospels to the other portions of the New Testament support for war or violence continues to be absent. For Paul God is “the God of peace” (Rom. 15:33, 16:20; 1 Cor. 14:33, 16:11; 2 Cor. 13:11; Phil. 4:9; 1 Thess. 5:23). In Christ God showed divine love for enemies: “For…while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his son” (Rom. 5:10). This son is “the image of the invisible God” in whom “all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell…making peace by the blood of the cross” (Col. 1:15, 19-20). The peace of God came, not by God inflicting violence on the enemy but by God enduring violence in Christ. Peace is not the result of God destroying others or forcing them into compliance but rather through God’s self-sacrifice in Jesus Christ, according to Paul. Further, the peace is not only with God but the cross also makes peace between peoples because it has “broken down the dividing wall of hostility” (Eph. 2:13-18).
Paul understood that God’s way of making peace determines the pattern of Christian life. The cross provides the very shape of Christian existence: “I have been crucified with Christ: the life I now live is not my life, but the life which Christ lives in me”, Paul declared (Gal. 2:20). We are to be like Christ in service, suffering and forgiveness (2 Cor. 5:15; Phil. 1:29; Col. 3:13). Dominance and self-assertion have no place in Christian life “for Christ too did not please himself…Welcome one another, therefore, as Christ has welcomed you” (Rom. 15:1,7). It is not through gathering and using coercive power over others, but in relinquishing power for the sake of others that we are like Christ, living cruciform lives. With this in mind Paul wrote, “Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” (Phil. 2:4-8).
Paul occasionally used military imagery as he spoke of the nature Christian life. The church exists in a world in conflict with the church’s nature and mission. The church fights against forces that seek to undermine its work. But even as Paul freely employed military imagery, he was careful to make clear that a literal battlefield is not the stage upon which the Christian fights. This war is not a worldly war and the weapons “are not worldly but have divine power”, power against spiritual obstacles to the knowledge of God (2 Cor. 10:3-5). Elsewhere Paul urged his readers to be strong, not with power of military might but with the strength of God, putting on the spiritual armor of God. The Christian’s rightful war is not an earthly one, “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:12). Any other struggle or war that requires the weapons of this world in order to engage the enemy is not “our struggle”.
The most pointed and powerful call for peace in Paul’s writings is found in Romans 12:14-21. Like Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount and sermon on the plain, Paul calls upon Christians to practice nonretaliation when they are persecuted and abused. “Bless and do not curse them” he insisted (12:14). He told his readers they were to live at peace with all. Reciprocation for injury received is forbidden. Instead recompense is to be left in the hands of God, who will justly repay. Instead of responding to injury received with injury inflicted, Paul taught that enemies should be treated with undeserved kindness: “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink” for in doing so one will “overcome evil with good” (12:20-21).
Some have maintained that Paul is here speaking of how to deal with hostile personal relationships and his words have no relevance to national enemies, offers an ethic for individuals. But as with Jesus’ teaching in the gospels, this interpretation imports a restriction that is not found within the biblical text. These same interpreters claim that in the following chapter (Rom. 13:1-7) Paul addresses political/public matters. There he speaks of the need to “be subject to the governing authorities” who have the power of the sword and who function as “the servant of God to execute God’s wrath on the wrongdoer “(13:4). Consequently, some claim that Christians can use violence on behalf of the state.
However, it is highly unlikely that just after Paul instructed his readers that they were not to be agents of the “wrath of God” in the previous chapter, he would so quickly claim they can work for the state as agents of divine wrath. In fact, in this passage Paul does not address Christians as agents of the state at all but as subjects of the state. Romans 13:1-7 does not deal with how Christians are to function for the state but rather how the state is to function for God. Service in the military for Christians was not on Paul’s screen at all. The Romans did not have anything like a military draft. Regardless, Paul had already made it clear that the role of the Christian is not compatible with the coercive role of the state. Love must control every behavior and no demand of the state that calls for unloving action can be obeyed by the Christian. So immediately after Paul’s discussion about submitting to the governing authorities we find these words: “Owe no one anything but to love one another…” (Rom. 13:8).
In the General Epistles peace continues to be promoted and no word in support of violence is to be found. In Hebrews God is “the God of Peace” who equips Christians to do God’s will (13:20). Included in the will of God is that they “seek peace with everyone” (12:14) and manifest “the peaceful fruit of righteousness” (12:11). In James when war is addressed it is not spoken of as either a noble venture or as a necessary evil but as a result of unruly passions, possessiveness and pride (4:1-3, 6). Participation in war is spoken of as “friendship with the world” and “enmity with God” (4:4). Such behavior stands in sharp contrast to “the wisdom from above [that] is first pure, then peaceable…” and at odds with “the harvest of righteousness sown in peace by those who make peace” (3:17-18).
1 Peter also advocates nonretaliation and peaceableness. The author spends a considerable amount of time dealing with the experience of suffering abuse, in particular abuse for doing good. There is nothing in this epistle that would fund the idea that the way toward greater justice is by means of violent resistance. Rather “let those suffering in accordance with God’s will entrust themselves to a faithful Creator, while continuing to do good” (4:19). Radical patience and persistence nonviolence is what Peter advocates. The epistle repeats the call not to return evil for evil, injury for injury (3:9). Rather the crucified Christ is offered as a model of faithfulness in the face of suffering: “For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps…When he was abused he did not return abuse; when he suffered he did not threaten, but entrusted himself to the one who judges justly” (2:21, 23). Christians are to allow their lives to be shaped by the cruciform pattern of Jesus Christ, in particular the way he responded to his abusers. In the following chapter, after urging his reader to live in love, and act without reprisal for injuries endured, Peter bolsters his appeal by citing from Psalm 34: “He who would love life and see good days…let him seek peace and pursue it” (3:10-11). Then, once again, Peter points to the crucified Christ as a model to be emulated: “For it is better to suffer for doing good, if suffering should be God’s will, than to suffer for doing evil. For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God.” (vs. 17-18).
The book of Revelation appears at first glance to be the most fruitful source in the New Testament from which to find validation for violence. In a very literalistic way the best selling series of books Left Behind has lifted images from the last book of the Bible –fabricating some new ones as well- and has presented a very violence Christ and a righteous “tribulation force” that kills and destroys while supposedly fighting evil for God. While the highly symbolic book of Revelation is filled with troubling images, it is interesting that –in contrast to the Left Behind series- Christians are not are not described as taking up arms. Instead John warns against using violence and exhorts his readers to have a willingness to suffer: “If you are to be taken captive, into captivity you go; if you kill with the sword, with the sword you must be killed. Here is a call for the endurance and faith of the saints” (13:10).
Rather than using deadly force, patient endurance, praise, and the word of truth are the means by which the faithful fight evil. The people of God conquer “by the blood of the Lamb and the word of their testimony” (12:11), not by shedding blood. The Lamb that was slain is the primary warrior and the weapon he employs is not some earthly instrument of death but the metaphorical “sharp sword of his mouth” (1:16, 2:12, 19:15). No doubt the judgment and vengeance of God is described with strikingly violent images. But it is also striking that neither in the book of Revelation nor anywhere else in the New Testament are Christians called to emulate Christ triumphant who judges and punishes. Only the nonviolent Jesus who suffered and died on the cross is looked to as a model for the behavior of disciples.
The Rev. Craig M. Watts is a member of the Executive Committee of the Disciples Peace Fellowship.