Jesus’ pacifism is not passive

Americans like Jesus’ teachings when we go to the movies, but not when we go to war.

By Joe Phelps

I visited recently with a young man who is part of a crew remodeling our house. When I learned that he is an Army reservist who is home for a while from the Middle East and will soon be redeployed, I thanked him for his service to our country and spoke of the current dilemma in Syria.

Reports of massive killings from chemical weapons in Syrian towns and the footage of rows of dead children wrapped in white were like a kick to my stomach, I said. But the prospects of a U.S.-led retaliation — or “punishment” to use President Obama’s word — felt to me like the wrong course.

“After all, I’m a pacifist.”

The young soldier on leave laughed as if I’d made a wisecrack. It wasn’t a disrespectful laugh. It was, rather, a spontaneous reaction to something that sounded to him too preposterous to be serious.

I ignored his laughter and explained at least part of my views. “Wars and bombs create the short-term illusion of resolution but solve nothing in the long run,” I posited. “World War I sowed the seeds for World War II and on it goes. Ultimately, nothing is ever resolved by violence.”

He thought about this for a few moments and quietly agreed.

What I omitted from my response was the plain teachings of Jesus on violence and warring. I didn’t know this young man’s religious views, but as one committed to following Jesus I care deeply about his instructions on these subjects:

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.”

“See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.”

“Put your sword back into its place, for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.”

Tough words, each and every one of them. But it’s not only when responding to violence that Jesus’ way feels counter-intuitive. The same can be said for his teachings on greed, worrying, lust, forgiveness and who is my neighbor.

Like others, I’m an inconsistent follower. Each disciple has parts of Jesus’ teachings that we either ignore or equivocate about for convenience sake. There are few standing in line to “sell your possessions, give the money to the poor, and come follow me.” None of us get it all right, but merely believing certain claims about Jesus and announcing yourself a Christian does not qualify as a faithful, though sometimes reluctant, follower.

Following Jesus takes dexterity. Jesus’ pacifism is not passive. “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 an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.’”

In other words, stand up non-violently to the aggressor, in a way that demands recognition and respect. This stance creates a space for understanding that replaces political posturing with real problem-solving.

In 2002, on the eve the U.S. invasion of Iraq, I was invited to participate on a panel presentation titled “Onward Christian Soldiers? A Christian Response to War,” an event sponsored by the local Baptist seminary.

As each of the six panelists, which included the seminary’s president, gave their opening statements it was clear that I was the outlier — not only because I was no longer a part of the Southern Baptists, but more importantly, because I was the lone panelist promoting Jesus’ message of pacifism.

It was five against one. In the midst of the interchanges I drew the evening’s biggest laugh from the packed audience when I expressed surprise at being more conservative than the seminary’s president, because “I take Jesus’ words on war and violence more seriously than he does.”

The laughter was loud and long. It also wasn’t a disrespectful laugh. It was, rather, a spontaneous reaction to something that sounded to them too preposterous to be serious.

Here in an auditorium filled with young men being equipped to go out and lead churches across the land in the ways of Jesus, not one of them expressed concern that our country was forming its response to the 2001 attacks based on the gut reactions of the dominant culture more than from a faithful following of the one they’d pledged allegiance to.

And now President Obama, in a long line of presidents who present themselves as Christian, is considering options for violently punishing the Syrian president. His actions feel good to many of us kicked in the stomach by Assad’s murderous deeds that violate international law, much less sacred laws against killing. We want revenge. Of course we do, who wouldn’t?

But is it right? Will it help promote peace in the long run? Will anyone or anything be transformed? Will we even be any safer, if that’s our highest value?

To be clear, I do not believe that the U.S. is or ever was formed as a Christian nation. But with Christians dominating the White House and the Congress, shouldn’t the clear teachings of Christianity’s leader hold some sway upon the moral and ethical framework from which we take our actions?

At least we like Jesus’ teaching when we’re at the movies. Hollywood’s latest rendition of The Lone Ranger depicts the masked hero who opposed evil but eschewed violence as the only recourse for opposing it, while working actively to make sure that justice was served.

Jesus hoped to inspire a following who caught the spirit of his message and applied it to each generation’s challenges. He never intended to be the Lone Ranger.

OPINION: Views expressed in Baptist News Global columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.