What is the proper response to violence? In an increasingly violent culture, this is a question we must all ask ourselves. And as Christians, we must answer this question in a way that is not only practical but also faithful. It isn’t just a question of what “works” to reduce violent crime; it’s also a question of how God has called his people to live. In what follows, I will offer my own convictions, though I readily admit that fellow Christians will differ in their responses to this sensitive subject.
I can think of no better place to start—for this or any other issue—than with Jesus. So let’s begin by considering what he has to say on the subject.
How to be sons of your heavenly Father
When asked about the greatest commandment in the Law, Jesus replied, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 22:37–40).
Jesus does something radical here. He doesn’t simply list the most important commands—he reframes the entire Law in the light of one basic mandate: love. Love is the reason for every command God has given.
This concept is so important that all three Synoptic Gospels include a similar account (see Mark 12:28ff and Luke 10:25ff), and in the Gospel of John, Jesus narrows it down to just the second half. “This is my commandment: that you love one another just as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this: that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:12–13).
Jesus essentially says that love of neighbor (or “one another” or “friends”) is how you show love to God, and he defines that love as sacrificing yourself for the sake of others. This echoes what he said in the parable of the sheep and goats, “as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40). And such love of God via love of neighbor fulfils the Law, as Paul and James would later confirm (see Romans 13:8–10, Galatians 5:14, and James 2:8).
But “who is my neighbor?” This question was posed to Jesus in Luke’s account cited above. Jesus responded with a parable. And in this parable—we call it “the good Samaritan”—Jesus cast the most unlikely of characters for the role of neighbor. Jews hated Samaritans. They viewed them as the lowest of the low. Yet this is who Jesus said to love.
But that’s not all Jesus taught. He didn’t merely say, “Love the neighbors you don’t really like.” He also said, “Love your enemies.”
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:43–48)
Jesus taught that love of enemies is so important, it defines us as sons of our heavenly Father. God loves his enemies, and so must we. But who is my enemy? And what does it look like to love them? Let’s jump back a few verses to give context to Jesus’ words:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.” (Matthew 5:38–42)
When Jesus spoke of those who force you to go a mile, he was referring to the Roman soldiers occupying Israel. These violent men were known for executing Jews at random, just to show off their power and keep their subjects in line. Yet these are the kinds of people Jesus said we must love—evil people intent on harming us.
In Luke’s parallel account, Jesus further explains how to love our enemies, “. . . do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you” (Luke 6:27–28). And when we do this, “. . . you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil. Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:35–36).
Having seen the importance of Jesus’ mandate to love everyone—including those who would do us harm—we’ll now look at how Jesus lived this principle in his own life. John tells us that “whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked” (1 John 2:6). So we must consider how Jesus responded to violence, for we ought to respond in the same way.
To that end, let’s examine the most violent episode in Jesus’ life—his arrest and crucifixion.
Buy a sword . . . but don’t use it
Shortly before his arrest, Jesus told his disciples, “Let the one who has no sword sell his cloak and buy one” (Luke 22:36). Why did Jesus say this? Was he preparing them to defend themselves? Not quite. Jesus explained, “For I tell you that this Scripture must be fulfilled in me: ‘And he was numbered with the transgressors.’ For what is written about me has its fulfillment” (Luke 22:37).
The disciples said, “Look, Lord, here are two swords,” to which Jesus responded, “It is enough” (Luke 22:38). Enough for what? Two swords would hardly have provided sufficient defense against “a great crowd with swords and clubs” (Matthew 26:47), but they were enough to fulfil the Scripture. Alternatively, many translations (CEB, CEV, HCSB, ISV, etc.) suggest that Jesus’ response is better rendered, “Enough of that!”—indicating that the disciples had misunderstood his intent.
When an armed band of soldiers came to arrest Jesus, his disciples asked, “Lord, shall we strike with the sword?” (Luke 22:49). Then Peter, failing to wait for Jesus’ response, drew his sword and struck the high priest’s servant, cutting off his right ear (John 18:10).
Jesus said, “No more of this!” (Luke 22:51). “Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword. Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? But how then should the Scriptures be fulfilled, that it must be so?” (Matthew 26:52–54). And he healed the servant’s ear.
To the crowd he said, “Have you come out as against a robber, with swords and clubs to capture me? Day after day I sat in the temple teaching, and you did not seize me. But all this has taken place that the Scriptures of the prophets might be fulfilled” (Matthew 26:55–56).
Jesus then allowed himself to be arrested, endured a mock trial by the Sanhedrin, and ultimately came before Pilate, who said, “Your own nation and the chief priests have delivered you over to me. What have you done?” (John 18:35). Jesus replied, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world” (John 18:36).
Jesus endured scourging, mocking, humiliation, beating, spitting—all with no attempt at retaliation. He then went to Golgotha, where he allowed himself to be crucified between two criminals. While dying on the cross at the hands of his enemies, Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34).
In summary, Jesus prohibited his disciples from using a sword, even in self-defense. He instead entrusted himself to the Father, enduring the suffering that followed. He made it clear that his kingdom does not follow the pattern of this world—his followers do not fight. And as his ultimate response to the violence he had suffered, Jesus forgave those responsible for his persecution.
At this point, an observation should be made. Jesus had a very specific mission to accomplish. He was in the process of fulfilling Scripture and atoning for the sins of mankind. Though we may face violence, we will not do so under these same circumstances. Does this negate the idea that we should follow Jesus’ example, at least in this instance?
Peter—having walked in the Spirit for some time since his incident with the sword—provides us with a definitive answer to this question:
For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. (1 Peter 2:20–23, emphasis added)
Having now examined both Jesus’ instructions and his example, let’s consider how we can practically live this out.
The first thing to clarify is that Jesus never told us to adopt a position of passivity. He did not mean that we should simply let evil have its way and do nothing to stop it. For this reason, I tend to like the term “nonviolent resistance” better than “pacifism.”
But didn’t Jesus say, “Do not resist the one who is evil”? That is one possible translation, but it isn’t without its difficulties.
Here’s what Preston Sprinkle has to say in his book Fight: A Christian Case for Non-Violence:
The Greek word for “resist” is anthistemi, and it often (though not always) refers specifically to violent resistance. Throughout the Old Testament, for instance, anthistemi refers to military action: Israel resists its enemy in battle, and the Canaanites weren’t able to resist Israel in the conquest. In the New Testament, other words related to anthistemi refer to violent revolts, insurrections, and war. Josephus, the first-century Jewish historian, almost always used anthistemi in ways that convey some sort of violent action. So when Jesus tells His followers not to resist evil people, He uses a word that suggests a violent resistance.
N.T. Wright, in Matthew for Everyone, Part 1, translates this phrase as “don’t use violence to resist evil!” Rather than prohibiting resistance, Jesus prescribed a very different kind of resistance. No longer should we respond in kind—“an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” We should instead respond by turning the tables on our aggressors. N.T. Wright explains further:
Jesus offers a new sort of justice, a creative, healing, restorative justice. The old justice found in the Bible was designed to prevent revenge running away with itself. Better an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth than an escalating feud with each side going one worse than the other. But Jesus goes one better still. Better to have no vengeance at all, but rather a creative way forward, reflecting the astonishingly patient love of God himself, who wants Israel to shine his light into the world so that all people will see that he is the one true God, and that his deepest nature is overflowing love. No other god encourages people to behave in a way like this!
So Jesus gives three hints of the sort of thing he has in mind. To be struck on the right cheek, in that world, almost certainly meant being hit with the back of the right hand. That’s not just violence, but an insult: it implies that you’re an inferior, perhaps a slave, a child, or (in that world, and sometimes even today) a woman. What’s the answer? Hitting back only keeps the evil in circulation. Offering the other cheek implies: hit me again if you like, but now as an equal, not an inferior.
Or suppose you’re in a lawcourt where a powerful enemy is suing you (perhaps for non-payment of some huge debt) and wants the shirt off your back. You can’t win; but you can show him what he’s really doing. Give him your cloak as well; and, in a world where most people only wore those two garments, shame him with your impoverished nakedness. This is what the rich, powerful and careless are doing. They are reducing the poor to a state of shame.
The third example clearly reflects the Roman military occupation. Roman soldiers had the right to force civilians to carry their equipment for one mile. But the law was quite strict; it forbade them to make someone go more than that. Turn the tables on them, advises Jesus. Don’t fret and fume and plot revenge. Copy your generous God! Go a second mile, and astonish the soldier (and perhaps alarm him—what if his commanding officer found out?) with the news that there is a different way to be human, a way which doesn’t plot revenge, which doesn’t join the armed resistance movement (that’s what verse 39 means), but which wins God’s kind of victory over violence and injustice.
Such nonviolent resistance is risky. It makes us vulnerable. But it also exposes our aggressors’ sins for what they are. And if we believe what Jesus said—that “all who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Matthew 26:52)—then our nonviolent response is actually much safer than carrying a weapon. Wouldn’t you rather entrust yourself to the God who rules the universe than to a piece of steel?
But in this violent world, there are no foolproof methods of preventing violence. When we choose to live in nonviolent love, we accept the possibility that we will “share Christ’s sufferings” (1 Peter 4:13). When that happens, we have one further response—one more way in which we follow the example Jesus left for us.
It would be easy for me to speak of forgiveness when I have had no major offenses to forgive. So I’m not going to do that. Instead, I’m going to close this post by pointing you to Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina.
On June 17, 2015, Dylann Roof joined them for an evening Bible study. After initially participating with their study, he pulled out a gun, and he murdered nine people. If there was ever a case for retaliation—for responding to violence with violence—surely this would be it? But that’s not what happened.
This is how the survivors and relatives responded:
“No matter how much hate there is in the world, it’s no match for love” Chis Singleton, son of slain Sharonda Singleton, said. “Love is always stronger than hate.”
And the daughter of Ethel Lance, addressing the killer directly in court, said, “I will never talk to her ever again. I will never be able to hold her ever again. But I forgive you.”
She added: “You hurt me, you hurt a lot of people. May God forgive you.”
Anthony Thompson, husband of the slain Myra Thompson, echoed Lance’s daughter’s words. “I forgive you, my family forgives you,” he said.
Felecia Sanders, the grandmother who shielded her 5-year-old granddaughter from the gunfire, but lost her son in process, told the killer that the parishioners “welcomed you Wednesday night at our Bible study with open arms.”
She continued, fighting tears: “You have killed some of the most beautiful people that I know . . . And it will never be the same. But as we said in Bible study, we enjoyed you. May God have mercy on you.”
Alana Simmons, granddaughter of victim Daniel Simmons, said: “Although my grandfather and the other victims died at the hands of hate . . . everyone’s plea for your soul is proof that they lived and loved and their legacies will live on.”
“Hate won’t win,” she concluded firmly.
A relative added, “I am a work in progress and I acknowledge that I am very angry. But we are the family that love built. We have no room for hate so we have to forgive.”