Jesus as a Pacifist? Apocalypticism, Non-resistance, and Violence
by James Tabor
One of the features that stands out in the teachings of Jesus, even at our earliest layers of tradition, are the notions of “love of enemies,” “bless those who curse you,” “turning the other cheek,” “going the second mile” and being “wise as serpents, harmless as doves.” One of the very few teachings of Jesus that Paul knows or at least quotes is “Repay no one evil for evil…never avenge yourselves…if your enemy is hungry feed him…overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:17-21).
Although some have argued that the historical Jesus was in truth a Zealot type who advocated the violent and revolutionary overthrow of the Roman and Jewish establishments (Brandon, Jesus the Zealot; Carmichael, Death of Jesus; Maccoby, Revolution in Judea) it remains the case that there is no evidence that Jesus gathered arms or raised a band of militants in order to threaten the authorities of his day, be they Jewish or Roman.
On the other hand he did indeed expect the sudden, violent, decisive, and bloody overthrow of the political powers of his day and the absolute overturn of the fortunes of the poor, the meek, the downtrodden, and the persecuted. Woe to you rich! Woe to you who laugh now! Woe to you that are full now! This apocalyptic violence would bring upon the world a destruction that would be unprecedented in human history (Mark 13:19-20).
I think there is a sense in which both perspectives have some important validity. Brandon, Maccoby, Eisenman and others have rightly emphasized that the image of the Jesus/James movement as a quietist, meditative, pacifist, “spiritual way” can be cast in a way that neglects the dynamic political and social contexts and implications of a proclamation that the Kingdom of God has drawn near. The focus of the apocalyptic message of the Kingdom of God was not that all things would be resolved in some afterlife or world beyond–but that the powers that be, the corrupt social, economic, and political forces that ran the country, and the world, were to be dramatically brought down. There is every reason to think that Jesus and his followers expected that overthrow and would have greatly rejoiced to see it come. There are lots of texts in the teachings of Jesus that deal with this dramatic time of judgment when what is up will be down, and what is down will be up.
The question then is one of how that overthrow is to come about, not whether it was expected, hoped for, and fervently desired. In the case of Jesus and his followers I think that the evidence does indeed indicate that they are not in the process of gathering weapons and making plans for a military coup against the Roman forces. But this is not to say that they were accommodating and quietist. Their sympathies would certainly have been with those who had tried, however unsuccessfully, to oppose the oppression and military occupation of the country. It came down to a matter of method–what did they think would lead to the desired results. What I argue in my book, The Jesus Dynasty is that Jesus and his followers expected a dramatic intervention by God, and only with that could their hopes and dreams be finally realized. But that intervention was certainly not seen as a pacifist one–to the contrary heads would roll, governments would be overthrown, and the faithful followers of the Messiah would be put in charge of things through an overwhelming show of divine power. In fact, I see the choosing of the “Council of Twelve” as nothing less than a provisional revolutionary government in exile, waiting to take over the rule of occupation-free restored nation of Israel once the time arrived for God’s decisive intervention. As Jesus told this select group, which one might call the “Messianic Cabinet,” at his last meal with them before his arrest and execution:
You are the men who have stood by me faithfully in my trials; and now I confer a kingdom on you, just as my Father conferred one on me: you will eat and drink at my table in my kingdom, and you will sit on thrones to judge the twelve tribes of Israel (Luke 22:29-30)
The difference between Martin Luther King, Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, and others who have practiced “passive resistance” in our own day is that Jesus and his movement expected and welcomed a very “violent” apocalypse in which heads would topple and flood would fill the streets. These “Woes” that Jesus pronounced upon the rich, the persecutors, and those “laughing now” in the Q source (Luke 3:24-25) capture the flavor of this way of thinking quite well, as do lots of the parables that predict a sudden and abrupt calling of the wicked to judgment and a casting out of those wicked ones who had power in “this age.”
John, Jesus, and James all believed fervently that a new age or era was imminent there was to be a great reversal that God would bring about in their lifetimes. All the apocalyptic literature that we have from this period is violent to the extreme. Think of the “body count” in the book of Revelation alone. There is also a strong element of “rejoicing” on the part of the “saints” who see the Beast/Babylon go down. This is what Eisenman has rightly objected to in his insistence that the Jesus/James movement was not some quietist movement that had withdrawn from society into a contemplative Pythagorean or Buddhist-like aversion to this world. They were very much in this world and keen to see the “will of God done on earth as it is in heaven,” which would mean some very powerful forces of oppression and evil would have to be overthrown. The question is how and when this was to come about? What our sources indicate is that the followers of Jesus, from James his brother to Paul who took the message to the non-Jewish populations of the Roman Empire, continued to expect an utter and violent overthrow of all the rules and powers of this world with Jesus’ followers sitting on thrones ruling the world in a new age (James 5:1-11; 1 Corinthians 6:1-3; 1 Thessalonians 2:14-16).
I would maintain that the kind of apocalypticism that was so prevalent both before and after the great war with Rome (66-73 CE) among a variety of late 2nd Temple Jewish groups, the Nazarenes included, is one of the most violent ways of thinking about the world and its future imaginable. Truly it was a view of the world in which “bringing down the house,” was its fondest hope and most fervent dream.
The problem of course is that the apocalypse never came and the challenge for Christians was how to live within an world in which all things continued in a “business as usual” fashion. Should one–could one–follow the pacifist ethics of Jesus if the old age was to continue indefinitely? Should evil be allowed to flourish without resistance? Or were the ethics of Jesus, as Albert Schweitzer suggested, a type of “interim ethics” that only made sense within the context of imminent apocalyptic overthrow–as a way of witnessing to those who still might be saved while “holding out” in the face of evil until the end? These are the questions that face any of us who are moved and challenged by the pacifists teachings of Jesus. One of my summer reading choices is Hannah’s Child: A Theologians Memoir, by my friend and former colleague at Notre Dame,Stan Hauerwas,who is now at Duke University. I look forward to hearing Stan’s thoughts on this important topic as I know that he considers Jesus’ stand for peace and non-violence to be one of the main challenges of the contemporary Church. You can hear Stan talking about his memoir here.