Does Jesus’ Life and Teaching Show Him a Pacifist?

Many people believe that Jesus was a pacifist because he is often associated with phrases like “turn the other cheek” and “love your enemies.”

But was Jesus really a pacifist?

In the strictest sences Jesus was not a pacifist. He used violence to make a point in the temple and armed his disciples before his arrest. But he did advocate for people to refrain from violence and practised a high level of self-control during his arrest. Stopping the violence and bringing healing in its place.

But this does not tell the full story of Jesus’ teaching and life.

Studying his life, it becomes more complicated.

I will highlight a few to consider when deciding if Jesus was a pacifist, but before we do that.

We need to define terms.

What is a Pacifist?

A pacifist is a person who opposes the use of violence and military conflict to resolve disputes between different political entities.

Pacifists reject war and violence in all its forms, believing that peace can be achieved through non-violent means instead. They advocate for peaceful solutions to conflicts, such as diplomacy, arbitration, and negotiation. Pacifism is often associated with the belief that all life is precious and should be respected.

So, was Jesus a pacifist?

We will need to analyze his teachings and life to answer this.

Did Jesus Preach Pacifism?

Many people, when considering if Jesus was a pacifist, begin with the sermon on the mount.

Well, not to start a fight, let’s start there too.

Sermon on the Mount or Plain

The sermon on the Mount Jesus clearly preached non-violence.

“But I tell you who hear me: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. If someone strikes you on one cheek, turn to him the other also. If someone takes your cloak, do not stop him from taking your tunic. Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. Do to others as you would have them do to you.”

Luke 6:27-31

In fact, it’s hard to read his words and not think that he was a pacifist.

In the gospel of Matthew 5, a similar sermon, he goes even further by calling his listeners to be loving like their heavenly Father.

Being hit on the cheek

That turning the other cheek and overcoming violence with love is exactly what he wants people to do.

That resorting to violence to protect yourself and your property is not God’s way.

No God does good to both those who do good to him and those who do not.

But this is not Jesus’ only teaching.

Bringing Peace or Conflict?

On the opposite side of the spectrum.

Jesus, while sending out the 12, warns about the dangers that they will face. That people will oppose them and their message. Betraying them and persecuting them. Including this.

“Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn

“‘a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law—a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.’

Matthew 10:34–36

Clearly, Jesus did not see that his teaching and lifestyle were going to bring tranquillity.

No, the exact opposite.

Jesus foresaw that his actions and his followers were going to be the cause of many conflicts.

He was not trying to de-escalate the situation but the exact opposite.

But to be fair, the “sword” is probably figuratively not literal.

Conflict does not have to include violence.

The Roman Centurion

Not directly preaching but from an example in his life often brought up in discussions about pacifism and professional soldiers.

Matthew 8:5-13 tells of a centurion coming to Jesus regarding his sick servant.

After a brief conversation and much praise from Jesus about this man who made his living with his sword, Jesus heals the centurion’s servant.

But never does he mention to him that he should give up his profession and become a pacifist. No, Jesus does as he requests and ignores the fact that this is a “man of blood” that he is dealing with.

Unless Jesus does not consider his involvement in war a problem. Jesus knew his scriptures that involved many wars and acts of violence. God commands many. Meaning they were not wrong.

And in a time of much conflict, maybe Jesus appreciated the “Roman Pax (Peace).” Which was only made possible by the centurion and the many soldiers that served to make it possible.

But what about Jesus’ own life?

Did Jesus Live as a Pacifist?

Regardless of what he taught and who he interacted with, what about his own life?

Did Jesus live a life of non-violence?

Was Jesus a pacifist in word and deed?

Again we have a spectrum. We have stories about Jesus being violent and him being a peacemaker. Rebuking the use of violence and responding with kindness.

First, the most often cited story of how Jesus was not a pacifist.

Jesus Clearing the Temple

All four gospels record Jesus clearing the temple. John is most clear about the use of violence by Jesus.

“In the temple courts he found men selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money. So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple area, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. To those who sold doves he said, “Get these out of here! How dare you turn my Father’s house into a market!”

John 2:13-16

Making a whip sounds pretty violent to me.

Not the actions of a pacifist.

John records this event nearing the beginning of his ministry but the others the last week of Jesus’ life. If this did, in fact, happen in the last week, there is a small detail we may not think of when he was “whipping” those merchants.

Later while in the upper room, Jesus becomes distressed about the situation. Asking the disciples if they had any weapons. A sword or something for protection.

“The disciples said, “See, Lord, here are two swords.”

Luke 22:38

If these men were with him during his temple rage, most likely they were. They probably also had their swords.

Jesus made a whip. He did not grab a sword.

Was that an intentional, measured response?

The whip adds effect, not significant damage.

He could have done a lot more damage with one of those swords. Making a much stronger statement, but he didn’t.

Was that because of his pacifist convictions?

Later in the week, those swords, or at least one of them, did come into play.

His Arrest

We have 4 different versions of Jesus being arrested before his trial. Depending on which one you emphasis will determine how pacifist Jesus is.

In Mark 14, as Jesus is being arrested, one of his disciples strikes with his sword to defend Jesus. Jesus has a verbal exchange with the soldier and then is led away. No clue if Jesus condoned the violence or not.

In Luke 22, we have scared disciples asking Jesus if they should defend him. But before he can answer, one of them cuts off the servant of the high priest’s ear.

Jesus saw what was happening, the escalation of violence. Tells them to stop and allows himself to be arrested. Appearing to offer himself to minimize violence.

Plus, to correct the wrong, Jesus does heal the man’s ear.

John 18, Jesus commands Peter to put away his sword. To stop the resistance because his being arrested is part of the plan of God.

Not condemning the use of violence but that there was something more important. Jesus believed that he was to “drink the cup the Father has given me.”

It wasn’t the violence that mattered, but it could sabotage God’s plan.

Turning to Matthew 26. Same story, Jesus being arrested and violence being used to defend him. But now we have the pacifist statement.

“Put your sword back in its place,” Jesus said to him, “for all who draw the sword will die by the sword.”

Matthew 26:52

A clear warning that using violence will only lead to one’s own demise. The cycle of violence will only make things worse.

If Peter kills those arresting Jesus, they will come back in greater force and kill him also.

Now not only is Jesus killed, but Peter, the other disciples and those serving the High Priest. Would it not be better for only one to die?

Jesus adding, that at his request, God would send an even greater defence than Peter’s sword. And again, this is God’s plan.

Not condemning the use of force but pointing towards God as the source of such force, violence and protection.

At His Trial

In John 18, we have 2 trials recorded.

These stories are interesting in seeing Jesus “being struck” and his response to being king.

First, before Annas (Former HighPriest and Father-in-law of the current High Priest), who is questioning Jesus about his disciples and his teaching. Jesus is not cooperative, and one of the officials strikes Jesus for not showing proper respect for the High Priest. A different era and different practises, but in modern times we would see Jesus being in contempt of the court. He was not showing proper respect for the Judge and proceeding. The official was quickly correcting this.

Which Jesus responds

“If I said something wrong, testify as to what is wrong. But if I spoke the truth, why did you strike me?”

John 18:23

Most likely, Jesus is bound (handcuffed), so he couldn’t exactly hit back, but he is not just taking it. Jesus demands a response to his perceived injustice.

Measured but still being assertive that the official had done wrong.

The next trial is before Pontius Pilate, the Governor of Judea. Who has higher authority in Judea. In short, he commands the army and is in charge of maintaining the peace.

Having been accused of being a king, Pilate demands of Jesus to respond to the charges.

Asking him if he is a king, to which Jesus responds.

“My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.”

John 18:36

We are not discussing Jesus’ kingship here but his response. Jesus is asserting if A is true, then B would happen.

As I highlighted.

Jesus asserts if he was a king in this world. If he held authority, he would have an army protecting him.

Now that is not very passive.

Jesus is clearly saying that if he were “in charge,” he would use force.

Approving the “use of violence and military conflict to resolve disputes.”

Now I will admit that his answer is in the context of being questioned about kingship, not what his thoughts are on the use of force.

But it is telling that he responds by including an example of the use of force.

Possibly, Jesus was okay with a government’s use of force, but as an individual practised restraint. In both dealing with others and when being arrested, he chose to de-escalate rather than escalate the situation.

A whip, not a sword.

Arrest rather than resistance.

Violence and Pacifism in Jesus’ Time

We could also look more at the environment where Jesus was living.

Would Jesus’ teaching of turning the other cheek or pacifism have been unusual in his society?

Yes and No.

We have both examples of pacifism and armed resistance in Jesus’s time.

Pacifism and Resistance in Jesus’ Time

Pacifism was not unheard of in Jesus’ day. We often have a misconception that the Jews and Romans did nothing but fight with each other, but that is not entirely true. They had some violent conflicts, which we will get to, but they also worked together in other ways.

Josephus (War 2:175-203) tells of an incident where Pontius Pilate (Prefect 26-37 C.E.) had secretly at night set up “standards”, poles with symbols on the top representing the emperor Tiberius Caesar Augustus (Reigning 14-37 C.E.) throughout Jerusalem.

This so offended the Jews that they went in mass to Pilate’s administration centre at Caesarea to beg him to remove them.

He refused.

The next day they met again. Pilate had arranged for soldiers to surround them. That at his command, they drew their swords to show that he would kill them all if they did not accept the standards in Jerusalem.

The protestors laid down and showed their necks. Yelling that they would rather die than accept the images in Jerusalem.

Through the Jew’s pacifist actions, Pilate consented and removed the standards.

Armed Conflicts In Jesus’ Time

But the Jews were not always pacifist in their response to the Romans.

There were many incidents of armed revolts in Judea and Galilee near the time of Jesus.

Armed Bandits

In a very broad sweep, Crossan has a good chapter about Bandits and Messiah in his book The Historical Jesus The Life Of A Mediterranean Jewish Peasant, where he tells about 11 different groups of armed resistance of the lower level. These were men who took to violence and thievery among the Jews. Often targeting the Roman occupiers or the wealthy aristocrats believe to be cooperation with them. How Crossan distinguishes them from the common thieves is a level of support from the common people of the land.

“is that they are peasant outlaws whom the lord and state regard as criminals, but who remain within peasant society, and are considered by their people as heroes, as champions, avengers, fighters for justice, perhaps even leaders of liberation, and in any case men to be admired, helped and supported”

Bandits 1985:17

It is even possible Jesus was crucified between two “bandits,” not common thieves but men who used violence to assert their independence from Roman rule and the wealthy.

Such type of men who Jesus possibly heard about from his peers sharing stories about how they had revenged a perceived wrong done to their community by the Romans. If not them, quite possibly similar men as he lived in Galilee.

On a much bigger scale were outright violent rebellions.

When we think of Jewish rebellion and war, we often things of the major catastrophe and destruction of the Jewish war of 66-73 CE.

But of course, this came a generation after Jesus, but there was violent unrest during Jesus’ lifetime.

The first came around his birth.

Rebellion Following Herod’s Death (6-4 BCE)

In the temple in Jerusalem, revolutionaries were mourning the interpreters of the Torah, Judah and Matthias.

Archelaus, concerned that they may cause trouble, sent a cohort of Roman legionnaires under a tribune to suppress them. However, the partisans of the interpreters and the crowd became enraged and attacked the soldiers, stoning most of them. Archelaus then sent out his whole army, including the Roman cavalry, to prevent those from helping the Jews in the temple. Leading to the death of about 3000 Jews.

But this was just the start of a very tuber-lant period.

When Herod’s son Antipas left for Rome to gain support for his kingship of Judea.

Josephus in Antiquities writes, “a thousand other disturbances also took Judea by surprise.”

Judah, son of Hezekiah, one of those bandits who now rose to official rebel, attacked Sepphoris of Galilee. Seizing weapons and mounting raids plundered the countryside. Sepphoris had been rebuilt under Herod’s son and was just a few miles from Nazareth, Jesus’ hometown.

Simon, a slave of Herod, crowned himself king.

Athronges was just a shepherd but quickly started a violent rebellion.

All these rebellions were then crushed by Varus, a Roman General. Ending the whole violent mess by crucifying 2000 men, he felt responsible.

These are just a few incidents of violence which may have impacted Jesus’ view on

Was Jesus’ Mentor, John the Baptist, a Pacifist?

It’s difficult to say whether John the Baptist was a pacifist or not.

He was known for preaching repentance but with non-violence, but some of his actions could be interpreted as anything but peaceful.

For example, he condemned Herod Antipas, who had divorced his wife and married his brothers’ wife, along with his opposition to the Temple authorities.

But the strongest argument that he was not a pure pacifist was his dealing with repentant soldiers that came to him. When asked what they should do, the answer was.

“Don’t exhort money and don’t accuse people falsely-be content with your pay.”

Luke 3:14

Making zero mention of giving up their arms and becoming pacifists.

So John may have been calling for change and repentance. But he did not demand pacifist followers.

Were the Early Christians Pacifist?

They did not take to arms and rebellion, but answering if they were pacifists becomes a little more challenging.

Preston Sprinkle claims that out of 10 early church authors addressing Christians killing others in 28 passages, all said no.

That “love your enemies” was the most important verse or motto to live by.

From that, we could say that to be Christian was to be a pacifist.

But.

“This does not mean that all Christians accepted the military vocation. Some did, some did not, and some did not even consider the matter.” 

Niko Huttunen

Now I have not read all early Christian writings, for there are many.

But I would venture to say 28 saying from 10 authors, is a small sample. Raising the question, what did all the other authors have to say?

It’s not an argument from silence but doesn’t tell the full story.

Early Christians may or may not have been pacifists. Loving your neighbour or enemy can be understood in a variety of ways.

Jesus and many first-century Christians were Jews. His namesake, Joshua, was not a pacifist. I am not sure how he or his early followers could read such stories as from God and then to say what Joshua did was wrong. Context maybe everything.

Jesus did say to turn the other cheek and love your enemies, but this may not have been universally applied.

Conclusion

As an admirer of Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. and the non-violent Velvet Revolution of  Czechoslovakia all drew inspiration from the words and example of Jesus.

My first gut response is to say yes. Jesus was a man of peace. He killed no one and advocated that we do the same.

But considering his life, I think the answer is too simplistic.

Considering the often violent culture that Jesus lived in, he was offering another way. Violence and revenge is not the only option.

Self-restraint and responding in love is often a better solution.

There are times to make whips, to carry weapons to rebuke those who have done wrong.

But there are also times not to resist. To turn the other cheek to allow the plan of God to be accomplished.

In Jesus’ time, the message of turning the other cheek and diffusing the situation was needed.

As history quickly showed. The desire to rush to violence led to the destruction of Jerusalem and the death of thousands, possibly a million if you trust Josephus’ estimates. Within a generation of Jesus. Which could have all been avoided if only they had listened to the words of Jesus. Followed his examples and confronted the wrongs without violence.

But when viewed in its entirety, it is hard to say Jesus was a pacifist. The evidence just doesn’t lead us there.

Sources

Ryan Nickel

Two loves of my life beyond my wife and 4 children are history and the person of Jesus. From childhood, I was captivated by history and still love reading and learning about the past. One life in particular that intrigues me in history is the person of Jesus. It's fascinating to think about how the course of human history was changed by a carpenter turned preacher. Both in our times and also in his. I attempt to process all I am learning about him through conversations, writing and shooting videos about the life and teachings of Jesus. With each word drawing me closer into his life. Ryan Nickel has been part of range of churches, including Baptist, Evangelical Free and Church of Christ. In 1999 I graduated from Peace River Bible Institute with a Bachelor of Religious Studies.

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