We’ve now reached the section of The Moral Vision of the New Testament where Richard Hays begins to examine how the New Testament speaks to specific, controversial issues.
(If you’ve gotten behind in the reading or you’re just joining us, I recommend skipping ahead to this section. See the reading schedule here. But make sure to check out the previous two posts, the first on focal images for New Testament ethics and the second on how five ethicists’ use the New Testament to reach their conclusions.)
Here’s the question for today: Is it ever God’s will for Christians to employ violence in defense of justice?
What are the key texts for this question? Hays points to Matthew 5:38-48 and summarizes it this way:
- Jesus’ words here are not merely an eschatological vision or ideal.
- Teaching others to obey Jesus’ commands (fulfilling the Great Commission) must include nonviolent enemy-love, as laid out in this passage.
- We have no basis for restricting prohibition of violence to self-defense. The larger paradigm of Jesus’ own conduct indicates a deliberate renunciation of violence as an instrument of God’s will.
- All baptized believers are to be taught to observe all that Jesus commanded, not just Christians in pastoral roles.
- Jesus intends these words to be put into practice.
In this passage, Hays says, Jesus overrules the Torah, forbidding retaliation altogether. By loving their enemies, the disciples of Jesus, as the light of the world, reflect the character of God.
Synthesis: Violence in Canonical Context
How do we understand Matthew 5 in relation to other parts of Scripture? Hays examines multiple passages that speak either directly or indirectly to the question of non-violence. Here are his conclusions:
- To be saved by Jesus’ life means we must recapitulate the pattern of Christ’s self-giving.
- The governing authority bears the sword to execute God’s wrath; this is not an option for believers.
- The suffering of Christ is the paradigm for Christian faithfulness.
- We do not see soldiers in the New Testament being instructed to give up their occupations, but such an expectation misses the larger point of these narratives: to show how God’s grace reaches the unlikeliest people.
- Jesus’ explicit teaching of nonviolence must reshape our understanding of God and the church so that killing our enemies is no longer a justifiable option.
Next, Hays looks at the question through the three focal lenses:
Community: The church as a whole is called to exemplify the love of enemies.
Cross: The example of Jesus is determinative for the community of the faithful.
New Creation: Turning the other cheek makes sense only if all authority has been given to Jesus.
Hermeneutics: Responding to the New Testament’s Witness Against Violence
The question before us now is: How do we adhere to the New Testament’s teaching against violence?
- Rule: We have clear directives from Jesus on how to respond when persecuted.
- Principle: There are generally formulated norms that reinforce the rule.
- Paradigm: The story of Jesus’ renunciation of violence is the preeminent mode of New Testament’s witness to nonviolence.
- Symbolic world: Our struggle is not against flesh and blood. The weapons of the church are faith and the Word of God.
- Other Authorities: Tradition since Constantine has endorsed war in certain circumstances, but Scripture stands against the church’s tradition in this case. Reason and Experience can lead to conflicting conclusions and are therefore unreliable.
Living the Text: The Church as Community of Peace
- Hays believes the church is deeply compromised on this matter and is too often committed to nationalism.
- If we live in obedience, the church will become the sphere where the future of God’s righteousness intersects – and challenges – the present tense of human existence.
Some Personal Considerations: If someone were to ask me to offer a strong case for pacifism, I would recommend this chapter from Richard Hays. Of the arguments for non-violence I’ve come across, Hays’ treatment is certainly the strongest. And yet, I close this chapter utterly unpersuaded that Hays has done justice to the complexity of the New Testament’s teaching on this subject.
First, Hays’ recognition of the government’s legitimate authority to wield the sword (Romans 13) counters his statement that the violence is never the instrument of God’s will. Does God authorize unbelieving rulers to do things He forbids His people to do? He assumes that believers cannot participate in the governing authorities’ exercise of violence, and in this, he fails to give sufficient attention to the moral imagination required in applying Romans 13 to our context today. If the government is given authority to wield the sword, how does this apply to a democratic republic where Christians by their citizenship are represented by the government? How does neighbor love apply in circumstances where we can defend the innocent and the weak by thwarting evildoers? Hays bypasses these ethical quandaries, whereas in later chapters (on homosexuality or abortion, for example) he is willing to entertain all sorts of extenuating circumstances.
Secondly, just as we must differentiate between the “anger” Jesus forbade and the kind of righteous anger that Jesus displays on other occasions (the kind of anger that is not sin — Ephesians 4:26), so must we also differentiate between the situation of non-resistance in Matthew 5 and other cases of violence pursued with the goal of peace (Romans 13). The best appeals to “just war” theory are grounded in a broader New Testament synthesis, not in order to escape the forcefulness of Jesus’ command in the Sermon on the Mount, but in order to better understand it in light of the rest of the New Testament’s teaching.
Third, Hays takes Jesus’ renunciation of violence toward enemies and makes it the dominant image of God’s character, who we are to emulate. He is surely right to see the self-giving love of Christ as representative of God’s heart for a rebellious world. And yet the New Testament also gives us examples of God’s judgment meted out against persistent unbelievers. Paul does not say, Do not retaliate because God is not a God of vengeance, but Do not retaliate because God will enact justice. To only see God as the self-giving Savior who renounces violence is to miss the bigger picture of God’s justice, which in the Gospels is accomplished through the wrath-absorbing sacrifice of the Son, but in Revelation is completed when the Son returns to judge (destroy) the living and the dead who continue to oppose Him.
For a fascinating back-and-forth on these issues, I highly recommend the interchange between Nigel Biggar and Richard Hays. (Click here for Biggar’s critique and Hays’ response.) HT – Matthew Lee Anderson