Posts Tagged ‘Pacifism’

Loving Our Enemies

August 26th, 2011 No comments

“Loving Our Enemies” (Matthew 5:38-48)
By Pastor Peter Goerzen
July 24, 2011, Grace Hill Mennonite Church

Audio: Loving Our Enemies

I wrote out the introduction to this peace sermon. Several folks found it helpful for our context:

As many of you know or could guess, today’s reading from the Sermon on the Mount, which is the climax of the first part of the Sermon, touches on what I consider to be not merely a distinctive, but a core Christian conviction grounded in the teachings of Jesus, in the New Testament’s understanding of his death and resurrection, in the claims God’s grace has on us, and in our hope for God’s future.

And that conviction is the thoroughgoing Christian peace witness, which includes Christian pacifism. This is my heartfelt conviction I find to be revealed in Scripture and above all in Jesus Christ. This is the teaching and conviction of our church. This is our historic understanding for which we have suffered. This is an understanding and more importantly way of life that was the norm for the first generations of the church and has found expression in various ways throughout the entirety of Christian history.

And, there are many committed Christians who see much differently than I do. We are blessed to have veterans as members of our congregation. Many of our neighbors and friends in our community are deeply committed to Jesus, and do not share our church’s peace convictions.

And I want to be clear that because this is a conviction I hold deeply, I want to hold it with open hands rather than closed fists. I believe that as long as the Holy Spirit is present in the world, no one can claim to have a corner on God’s truth, and that belief begins with me. So we cannot claim to have everything figured out, and we welcome and value and want to hear everyone’s thoughts as we all seek to be faithful followers of Jesus.

So this morning, I will offer my reflections and heartfelt convictions about this text, while at the same time wanting to fully welcome, love, respect and accept anyone whose heartfelt convictions are different from my own as a brother or sister in Christ. And I humbly ask that we all extend this grace to one another, not just with this, but with many discussions.

There is no transcript for the remainder of the sermon. Enjoy the audio!

Nonresistance? Nonviolence? Pacifism? Another Look at Matthew 5:39

July 7th, 2010 No comments

This post is part of the “Gospel of Peace” series. The series grows out of conversations and concerns of congregation and community members. It is not a comprehensive statement on peace, but rather and occasional engagement with peace in light of Jesus Christ. The series is outlined below. Feel free to suggest additional topics. I suspect that each installment will evolve as the project rolls along, so readers may want to check back for updates to each essay. Thank you for your interest, and may the peace of our Lord Jesus Christ abound in your life and witness!


  1. Peace Conversations
  2. Vocabulary: Nonresistance? Nonviolence? Pacifism? Another Look at Matthew 5:39
  3. Peace and Eschatology

  4. Peace and the Death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ
  5. Peace and the Coming Fullness of God’s Reign.
  6. What about. . .

  7. The Old Testament: A journey of Biblical interpretation (hermeneutics)
  8. The New Testament: The Lordship of Christ in conversation with “difficult” NT texts
  9. If someone threatened your family: The “what would you do?” question
  10. Hitler: The problem of structural/institutional evil
  11. Living the Call

  12. Just Peace Initiatives
  13. Peace and Witness/Evangelism
  14. Peace and the Redeemed Community: A Theology of the Church through a Peace Lens

Nonresistance? Nonviolence? Pacifism? Another Look at Matthew 5:39

The vocabulary we use to talk about peace is important and often leads to confusion. When speaking of a “Peace Church,” the very use of the qualifier “peace” at least implies some sort of deviation from the norm of “church” – that peace is a distinctive of a certain tradition but not necessarily intrinsic to “church.” Similarly, to speak of a “nonresistant Christian” at least implies that being nonresistant is a particular minority flavor of being Christian – that nonresistance is an optional add-on to the core of Christian faith. Indeed, previous confessional language speaking of “Anabaptist distinctives” has perpetuated these notions of optionality over centrality (a distinctive is something optional). Future essays will address such issues. For now, I’d like to focus specifically on more particular peace vocabulary: nonresistance, pacifism, and nonviolence, and certain liabilities inherent to each.

I recently had a conversation with someone who had attended two Mennonite colleges. One he characterized as advocating nonresistance (which he could tolerate); the other pacifism (which embodied everything wrong with the college in question). To him, nonresistance indicated a biblical opposition to war, while pacifism meant a humanistic opposition to war. While I believe the distinction between the two colleges on the matter is doubtful, the distinction of vocabulary follows traditional Mennonite thought of the past several decades.


In the pre-English days, Anabaptists would often speak of Gewaltlosigkeit, meaning abstaining from violence or force. In Anabaptist usage, it came to indicate a refusal of violence and rejection of military service.1 Vocabulary of nonresistance was used in the early 1800s by some abolitionists. Apparently, the contradiction in terms was not an issue,2 or resistance was clearly understood to mean violent resistance. Mennonites in the U.S. began using the term at least as early as the Civil War. In Mennonite writing and theology, the term indicated a refusal of military service, violence, or force to further personal or social ends.

Nonresistance comes from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount: “But I say to you, do not resist an evildoer. . .” (Matthew 5:39). Did Jesus mean we are to be completely passive, not resisting evil? Are Christians supposed to be doormats to the evil charging through our world? Judging by his numerous confrontations with the devil, demons, corrupt authorities, and the evil of the human heart, Jesus must have had something else in mind. Jesus himself frequently resisted both evil and evildoers. Mennonite have long recognized this, speaking of how we can resist (nonresistantly!) – by loving the enemy, etc. (Mt. 5:44; Romans 12:14-21), as opposed to carnal warfare or similar means. The term nonresistance thus either communicates, at least implicitly, an acquiescence to evil, or a severe contradiction in terms (resisting nonresistantly). Neither is desirable!

Objection can also come from the appropriateness of the translation of Matthew 5:39. The phrase in question is antistēnai tō ponērō, literally “to resist the evil (one).” First, antistēnai, alternately translated “retaliate,” is generally used as a military term.3 Meaning literally “stand against,” in common usage it comes to mean “to draw up battle ranks against the enemy.”4 Furthermore, tō ponērō in Greek grammar, can be translated as a dative instrumental: “by evil means.”5 Hence, “Do not resist by evil means” is a perfectly legitimate literal translation. Considering the semantic field of antistēnai, we are left with “Do not retaliate or resist violently, by evil means,” together with connotations of rebellion and insurrection (two historical realities of Jesus’ time).

And what might those retaliative, violent evil means be? Perhaps we need look no further than the immediate context of the lex talionis: repaying “eye for eye and tooth for tooth.”6 The examples that follow (the cheek, the cloak, the second mile, giving) describe situations where retaliation would be a common response. If a bully hits you, you hit him back, after all. If you don’t, you’ll come across weak, and he’ll think he can get a way with it – and more.

Often this is how “turning the other cheek” is viewed: let the bully (personal or social) pummel you until he tires of it (nonresistance in the full sense of the word). However, there are ways of reading the text wherein the action functions redemptively, rather than acquiescently. Walter Wink’s historical reading has gained significant support and has broken into the popular setting. According to Wink, a backhand slap to the right cheek was a sign of domination. To turn the left cheek was to say, “If you are going to strike me, strike me as an equal.”7 Similarly, one could offer a garment as collateral against a loan.8 People were often forced into these loans by unjust economic conditions. To give up both coat and cloak was to become completely naked, which in Jewish piety brought shame not on the naked person but on all who looked on him. Finally, Roman soldiers were permitted to force locals to carry their packs for one mile; no more. To go the second mile was to make the Roman soldier liable for breaking the law.9 The idea, of course, isn’t that these are supposed to be timeless rules, but rather creative examples of peaceful resistance. As we will see in a later article, such creative response invites the transformation of the Spirit and can even lead to reconciliation. Of course, it is not guaranteed to “work” every time (neither is a violent response).

For some, Wink’s interpretation comes too close to violating the principle of enemy-love. They prefer to read Matthew 5:38-42 more along the lines of Romans 12:17-21:

Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is right in the sight of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink. By doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

These actions become acts of prophetic judgment, exhortation, or proclamation of God’s sovereignty through enemy-love, “heaping coals of fire on their heads.” The function, however, remains similar to Wink’s interpretation: opening the door to transformation and reconciliation. Even in this interpretation it is still resistance: overcoming evil with good.

Is the use of non-lethal force ever an appropriate expression of enemy-love? Most agree that the use of force is acceptable in some situations (to protect our enemies from their own violence, necessary restraint, etc.). The question is where the line is drawn. We need vocabulary that allows us to ask this important question. Nonresistance limits the discussion significantly.

Finally, using the term nonresistance defines discipleship in terms of what we do not do. Peace in biblical terms is much broader than something we do not do. For all of these reasons, I find nonresistance to be an insufficient term for the Christian call to peacemaking and enemy-love.


The term pacifism comes from the Latin for peacemaking and is derived from Matthew 5:9: “Blessed are the peacemakers. . .” As such, its meaning in the Christian context is close to nonresistance. This is generally a good term for describing the Christian life of peacemaking, with noteworthy liabilities: First, pacifism is often confused with passivism – that is, doing nothing about evil in the world. As discussed above, this misses the point of Christian peacemaking and resistance to evil (Mt. 5:9, 39).

Second, Christian pacifism often becomes conflated with secular forms of pacifism. Secular forms of pacifism tend to see peace as an end in itself, fail to take seriously the reality of the power of Sin, are anthropocentric/humanistic, and tend to rely too heavily on the state to create and enforce peace.10 My conversation partner mentioned at the beginning of this essay was really not objecting to Christian pacifism, as much as its conflation with secular pacifism.


Nonviolence is a similar term to nonresistance, though it captures some of the essence of Matthew 5:39 in a more satisfactory way (see above). The main problem with this term is that, like nonresistance, it describes what one does not do.11 Stanley Hauerwas’s observation here is salient:

. . . pacifists cannot let their understanding of Christian nonviolence be determined by what we are against. . . The very phrase “Christian nonviolence” cannot help but suggest that peace is “not violence.” Yet a peace that is no more than “not violence” surely cannot be the peace that is ours in Christ.12

Additionally, nonviolence or derivative forms like nonviolent resistance describe reactive action, rather than the gospel call to proactive peacemaking. Nonviolence also carries some of the secular association common to pacifism.


When I hear the terms nonresistance, pacifism, or nonviolence used, I generally assume they mean mostly the same thing. Though I’m not terribly fond of any of the terms, I usually favor pacifism, then nonviolence, and then nonresistance. I generally prefer to speak of the “peace position,” or even better, of peace, peacemaking, or peace witness. These terms help to move away from rigid doctrinalism and into the the lived experience of faith and calling to discipleship. It is one thing to be intellectually opposed to war (which doesn’t necessarily require any action); it is quite another to be an active witness to peace with one’s life, making peace at home, at church, at work, at school, and with enemies across the seas. May the dawn from on high break upon us to guide our feet into the ways of peace.


1 Guy F. Hershberger, Ernst Crous and John R. Burkholder, “Nonresistance,” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online, The following also comes from GAMEO.
2 Abolitionism is necessarily a resistance to something; hence the contradiction with nonresistance.
3 E.g. Ephesians 6:13, also major military use in Josephesus and Philo.
4 Walter Wink, Engaging the Powers, 185.
5 Glen Stassen and David Gushee, Kingdom Ethics, 138.
6 It is interesting that Jesus truncated the “life for life” clause. Of course, he also leaves off other things like hands and feet. See Exodus 21:23-25, Leviticus 24:19-21, Deuteronomy 19:21. My guess is that Jesus was quoting a common shorthand summary of the lex talionis.
7 Turning the left cheek requires a forehand offense used between equals. The left hand was considered unclean and would not have been used (Wink, 176).
8 See, for example, Exodus 22:25-27; Deuteronomy 24:10-13; Ezekiel 18:5-9; Amos 2:7-8.
9 Wink, 176-182.
10 Though he did not distinguish between Christian pacifism and secular pacifism, these objections come from Guy F. Hershberger, “Pacifism,” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online, His objections come from a conflation of the two. Hershberger held a very nonpolitical portrait of Jesus – a perspective which has since faded.
11 Willard M. Swartley, Covenant of Peace, 6.
12 Quoted in Swartley, 6.