Dear Sisters and Brothers,
Even as we look at the teachings of Jesus verse by verse, we try to keep it in context. If you say things without giving context, you can use shorts text from the Bible to support any good or evil idea.
To understand today’s verse in context, you must look at the other teachings of Jesus and the way he conducted himself during his earthly ministry.
Here is today’s verse from the Sermon on the Mount :
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” Matthew 5:9
To put it simply, we are siding with peacemakers as opposed to those who make war and cause division and strife. We are not exactly sure what Jesus meant by peacemaker: So, we are left to wrestle with the idea. The implication is that God doesn’t want us to be violent, but is this limited to the home, the community, or something much larger? It is certainly a rejection of domestic violence, but is Jesus saying that we should go so far as to be pacifists or “peaceful activists?”
Clearly, the blessing is a great sign of honor. If you make peace, you will be called a daughter or son of God. You are being set aside of special admiration. We assume this applies to good counselors, negotiators, ambassadors, and any person who brings reconciliation.
Remember what the Jewish people hoped for in a messiah, and the ways that Jesus did not match their expectations. They were expecting a king like David who was a military leader who solved many problems with threats or a show of force. When Jesus arrived, rather than seeming like one of the military leaders or fiery prophets of the past, he showed very little aggression in his dealings with others.
The only bits of aggression we see in Jesus, are turning the table of the money changers and driving them out of the temple with a whip of cords… and the destruction of one fig tree. There is no record of anyone being hurt when Jesus chased the moneychangers out of the temple. Before he was crucified, Jesus was beaten repeatedly, but he never threatened any of his followers, townspeople or even his persecutors with physical harm. Much to the disappointment of people who came to hear his words, he was no King David.
During his earthly ministry, Jesus stopped the public execution of a woman caught in adultery, he stops the violence that begins at his own arrest, and he heals but never injures.
So, the context of today’s verse suggests that this is a blessing very close to Jesus’ heart. It could easily be described as non-violence. Except for a few verses here and there, he would seem to be as much a pacifist as today’s text suggests.
The main text against pacifism comes in Luke 3 when some Roman soldiers speak to Jesus: ‘Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?” He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely–be content with your pay.”’ It is taken as significant that he doesn’t tell them to stop being soldiers, but that wasn’t an option at the time. You couldn’t resign from the Roman Legions, to quit would get you killed for insubordination or desertion. You served in the army until you died, retired or were severely incapacitated. Still, Jesus never told anyone to stop being soldiers. On the other hand, he never encouraged armed rebellion against the Roman invaders. Jesus would have been much more popular if he had led an uprising… and he knew it.
Here are some other biblical texts that agree with today’s text:
“Turn from evil and do good, seek peace and pursue it.” Psalm 34:14
“And he will be called a Wonderful Counselor, mighty God, everlasting father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end.” -Isaiah 9:6-7
“They will beat their swords into plough shares, and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.” Micah 4:3
“You shall not kill.” Exodus 10:13
“Do not take revenge on someone who wrongs you. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” Matthew 5:39
“Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.” Matthew 5:44
“Then the men stepped forward, seized Jesus and arrested him. With that, one of Jesus’ companions reached for his sword, drew it out and struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his ear. ‘Put your sword back in its place,’ Jesus said to him, ‘for all who live by the sword will die by the sword.’ Enough of this, stop it!” Luke 22:49-51
“Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” Romans 12:17-18
“Do not overcome evil by evil, but overcome evil with good.” – Romans 12:21
“Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult, but with blessing….” 1 Peter 3:9
Most of the Bible’s statements that are militaristic are from what we usually call the Old Testament. Even the book of Psalms has many passages that speak of killing enemies with zeal and enthusiasm. We are giving guidance on just causes for war, but there are many un-just battles in the Old Testament as well. Jesus does not reject the laws of the Old Testament, but he makes many of those laws much stricter, for example
Matthew 5:21-22 “You have heard that it was said to the ancients, ‘Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment.”
We can also look at today’s text from the context of the early church and what they thought it meant. We know that none of the first disciples led any rebellions or military actions. For the first three centuries of the church, non-violence and pacifism were a major theme. The most notable Christians of those first centuries of the church were martyrs, who were executed for refusing to denounce their faith in Jesus Christ. Early Christians were known for dying for their faith, but not killing for their faith.
The big step away from pacifism was when Christianity was adopted as the official religion of the Roman Empire in the fourth century. Suddenly being the religion of a huge government that had a long history of conquest, many people came to see violence as an appropriate behavior of “a Christian State.” Just as Christianity continued to adopt traditions from other religions and cultures, it became militaristic.
Through the following millennia many groups of Christians returned to the non-violence of the New Testament (such as the Quakers, Mennonite, and Moravians). The Moravians maintained a unified stand against military service for its members until the American Civil War (1861-1865), after seeing that some people were led by conscience to take arms against the evils of slavery.
Though the American Moravians lost their “conscientious objector” status decades later, there is still plenty of room in the church for people who either serve or refuse to serve on the basis of conscience.
In the Moravian Covenant for Christian Living, we have these words of guidance from section four (the witness of a Christian citizen): “We will be subject to the civil authorities as the powers ordained by God, in accordance with the admonitions of Scripture [Romans 13:1; 1 Peter 2:13-14] and will in nowise evade the taxes and other obligations which are lawfully required of us [Romans 13:7]…. Though giving our loyalty to the state of which we are citizens, we do recognize a higher loyalty to God and conscience [Acts 5:29]. For the sake of the peace which we have with God, we earnestly desire to live peaceably with all people and to seek the peace of the places where we dwell.”
This is a hard issue to figure out. In terms of home and community, we are never supposed to solve disagreements with violence, but what are we allowed to do when threatened? When Jesus was threatened, he surrendered his life. When the disciples and other early Christians were threatened, they also chose to lay down their live in a very idealistic manner. Much later, Christian soldiers fought Crusades and even killed each other in the name of Christ. Entire continents were later conquered by Christians using violence to make the land “Christian.”
On the other hand, you have stories of Christians fighting for the freedom of others in the Civil War. You have Christians fighting fascism in World War Two (even though most of those fascists identified as being Christian). Sometimes, wars appear to be just and Christians fight with a clear conscience.
In the end, we can say that pacifism is our ideal, but sometimes we step away from that ideal because of the excessive evil of those who would rob, kill or enslave others. We cannot fight conquering armies in good conscience, but we can defend our neighbors and others against aggression.
So, we are left in a place of ambiguity between our ideals and the practicality of living in a world of sinners. We should honor all peacemakers if they are people of conscience. We should honor the peacemakers that bear arms for a good cause and the ones who refuse to bear arms for any cause.
Questions to Ponder: What do you think of early Christians who welcomed martyrdom as a way to show their faith? What do you think of soldiers who fight against evil aggression?