The New Testament Perspective on War and Peace

The New Testament contains important texts that seem to communicate a negative perspective on the use of violence as means to deal with evil, but human experience presents us repeatedly with situations that appear to require violent action to deal with evil. Are there norms concerning the use of violence in the New Testament that could guide Christians today? This being a very difficult subject a number of texts are often cited in the debate, some are quoted as supporting non-violence others as supporting the acceptance of at least some kinds of violence, and of the military profession. Defenders of both positions cite “Proof texts” as shown below. We shall look at these texts in their contexts in light of the whole story of Jesus, past, present and future.

A more clear text on this subject comes from Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount:
“You have heard the law that says the punishment must match the injury: ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say, do not resist an evil person! If someone slaps you on the right cheek, offer the other cheek also. If you are sued in court and your shirt is taken from you, give your coat, too. If a soldier demands that you carry his gear for a mile, carry it two miles. Give to those who ask, and don’t turn away from those who want to borrow. “You have heard the law that says, ‘Love your neighbor’ and hate your enemy. But I say, love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you! In that way, you will be acting as true children of your Father in heaven. For he gives his sunlight to both the evil and the good, and he sends rain on the just and the unjust alike. If you love only those who love you, what reward is there for that? Even corrupt tax collectors do that much. If you are kind only to your friends, how are you different from anyone else? Even pagans do that. But you are to be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect.(Matt. 5:38-48)

This text has astounded many Christians for centuries. This is because it states a clear intention of the Lord but implies a difficult if not close to impossible task for those who seek to be faithful to their Lord. This difficulty has led to attempts by many interpreters to try and make meaning of the task at hand for those who follow Jesus. As a result, varied interpretations have been offered as to the meaning of these texts and their implications for the followers of Jesus. New Testament scholar and Duke Divinity School professor Richard B. Hays summarizes these interpretations as shown below in his book, “The Moral Vision of the New Testament”:

1. These words offer a vision of life in the eschatological kingdom of God; thus, they are not literarily to be put into practice presently. (Impossible Ideal)
2. These words prescribe an “interim ethic” for Jesus’ disciples on the assumption that the end of history and the final judgment of God are soon to occur (temporary arrangement while awaiting the end)
3. These words literally forbid self-defense, but they do not preclude fighting in defense of an innocent third party (St. Augustine’s reading)
4. These are “council of perfection” that apply to those who aspire to belong to a special class of holy Christians, such as monks, clergy etc not to general believers (The Catholic Church’s traditional position)
5. These words serve to show how impossible it is to live up to God’s standard of righteousness, thus, they convict our consciouses and show that we are sinners in need of grace.
6. These words are located within a specific social setting. Therefore limited in scope, the “enemy” refers only to personal enemies within the Palestinian village setting, not to foreign or political enemies.”

A reading of this passage within the larger context of Matthew reveals that the above interpretations miss the point of the passage. Matthew 5-7 commonly referred to, as “The Sermon on the Mount” constitutes discipleship 101. It is training on life of discipleship for Jesus’ disciples. When Jesus sat on the mountain to teach his disciples, he rolled out his mission in the same way Moses rolled out the Ten Commandments at Sinai marking the beginning of a new people with a new set of lifestyle separate from other nations and other deities. This sermon is a disclosure of the kingdom of God and a stipulation of the lifestyle of those who were to become part of that new community. Like Moses Jesus went to the mountain to unveil the new plan and define its characteristics and its subsequent mission.

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