Christians Can Be Pacifists Because God Isn’t: A Response to Mark Driscoll

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Driscoll accuses Christian pacifists of being selective with biblical texts.
He should have read his own texts more closely.

by Dr. H. Wayne Johnson, Associate Professor of Pastoral Theology & Director of the Master of Divinity

In a recent post, Mark Driscoll asks the question, Is God a Pacifist? His answer is “no,” and a Christian doesn’t need to be one either. Driscoll takes aim at a version of Christian pacifism which is apparently built on a misunderstanding of the sixth commandment (thou shall not kill – ever) and which sees Jesus as a “long haired, dress wearing, hippie,” a kind of “pansy or pacifist” (which he apparently equates). So he sets out to correct these misunderstandings by commenting on Exodus 20, Romans 13 and Revelation 14. Driscoll suggests that those who hold to this view of Jesus “are prone to be very selective in the parts of the Bible they quote.”  Unfortunately, in his own narrow selection of texts, Driscoll manages not only to shoot down a straw man, but neglect some critical passages in the process.

As an evangelical Anabaptist, I feel compelled to chime in. It may be a surprise, then, to start by saying I have little disagreement with many of Driscoll’s biblical observations. He argues that the sixth commandment refers to “murder,” not all forms of killing. I agree. He also argues that Rom 13 grants governing authorities the power of the sword to carry out justice and keep the peace. Again, no disagreement there. Finally, he affirms that the picture of Jesus in his second coming (e.g. Rev 14) is one of justice and dramatic, even bloody, violence. I agree. I also agree that some pacifists bend these texts in defense of pacifism (wrongly, in my opinion). The problem comes when Driscoll assumes that his biblical observations leave a biblical Christian pacifism without a leg to stand on. I offer three points for consideration.

1. In focusing on Jesus’ second coming (Rev 14), Driscoll rightly points to Jesus as the one who carries out vengeance (and violence) against evil. However, in a discussion of pacifism, he completely overlooks the importance of Jesus’ first coming. Multiple texts speak of Jesus’ meekness, silence and non-retaliation in the face of violent enemies (echoing Isa 53 and 42). For example, 1 Peter 2:21-25 lifts up Christ’s sacrificial death on our behalf and his non-retaliation toward his enemies. The latter is an “example, that you (Christians) should follow in his steps” (v. 21). Ironically, Driscoll focuses on the violence of Jesus’ second coming (which we ought not imitate), and neglects the Christ of the first coming whom we are called to imitate. One wonders how this Jesus would be distinguished from Driscoll’s pansy pacifist. Perhaps clearing the temple makes up for it all. Much more could be said here, of course, about Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount as well as “taking up one’s cross” (which is not less than the risk of persecution and suffering at the hands of enemies).

2. If we agree that God is not a pacifist (though perfectly sinless in his justice and violence) and that Jesus, in the end, will be violent in the consummation, why must we assume that Christian pacifism is therefore illegitimate? To the contrary, Rom 12:14-21 seems to explicitly connect God’s violent vengeance with unwavering commitment to do good to those who persecute us. He says,

“Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited. Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord. On the contrary: ‘If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

Rather than repay enemies evil for evil or take revenge on them, the text clearly calls Christians to bless and do good to them, even caring for their physical needs. It’s interesting to note that this text assumes the possibility of physical harm (“persecute us,” “the pain of unjust suffering” and “receiving a beating”), but this is clearly not a loophole for disobedience. Finally, it is clear that the necessity of divine justice and the legitimacy of our desire for vengeance are both acknowledged in this passage. However, this vengeance and justice are placed squarely on God’s shoulders and not ours. We can conclude that Christians do only good to those who persecute them precisely because vengeance belongs to God. In other words, Christians can only be pacifists because God isn’t. Or, put yet another way, we are called to non-violence as an act of faith in God’s perfect and just violence. This is why Jesus’ non-retaliation is called trusting in him who judges justly (1 Pet 2:23).

3. In referring to Rom 13, Driscoll makes a common interpretive assumption that moves too easily from government to Christians. He assumes that once the use of violence (i.e. sword) is justified for the government, some form of violence on the part of the Christian is seen as necessary. Pacifism, in the end, isn’t realistic. The result is that Christians simply have to “work within the authority God has ordained and the means God has allowed… to align our imperfect efforts with the perfect will of God.” Here Driscoll, it seems to me, echoes the “realism” of H. R. Niebuhr – the nonviolent ideals of Jesus are good but ultimately unrealistic in this dangerous world, so we need to figure out how to temper this ideal with the necessities of self-defense and the sword.

I disagree. Christians can and should acknowledge the role of the sword in government. But I believe we have a distinct and higher calling in the world. That calling is empowered by the Holy Spirit, as we seek by God’s grace to obey the commands of Jesus – even at the cost of our own sacrifice. In the specific commands and example of Jesus regarding violence and enemies, we bear witness to the power of the Gospel. The loss of this distinctive calling and ethic is why the clichéd scenario of defending your family from intruders (used by Driscoll and countless others) essentially misses the point. The distinct calling and power of the Christian in the Gospel is factored out of the equation. It may certainly be reasonable for governments and people at large to blow away a maniacal monster in self-defense and the defense of loved ones. But isn’t it also possible that, for the Christian with a higher calling, the presence of the Spirit of God and the love of Christ working through them may open other possibilities? This is not naiveté, for we understand that the result may be suffering and even death (i.e. the cross). But it may not be, and even if it is we are in good Christian company, including that of our Lord. Rather than portraying Christian pacifists as cowardly pansies, might the model be more like that of Antoinette Tuff, who heroically and compassionately talked down a school shooter in Georgia?

 

Mark Driscoll does us a service by showing that God is not a pacifist and Jesus will bring divine justice and vengeance. In his caricatures of pacifism and the pansy pacifist Jesus, however, I think he unfairly dismisses the position and too quickly writes off a more biblical version of Christian pacifism. For the sake of Christian unity and the Gospel we owe it to one another to discuss these matters with both nuance and charity.

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