Blessed are the Peacemakers
Updated: Oct 19
Jesus uttered these words in his Sermon on the Mount and stated the reward for peacemakers: they will be called sons of God (Matt 5:9). So for Christians, it is imperative to be peacemakers--it is not an option--that is, if we are truly sons of God. But what is involved in peacemaking, according to the New Testament?
Blessed are the gentle, for they will inherit the earth. - Matt 5:5
Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. - Matt 5:43
Never pay back evil for evil to anyone. - Romans 12:17
Then Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back into its place; for all those who take up the sword shall perish by the sword." - Matt 26:52
Treat others the same way you want them to treat you. - Luke 6:31
“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also." - Matt 5:38-39
This last scripture is a reference to the Mosaic Law, where the punishment for injuring another must be the same as the injured--an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. But Jesus overrides this explicitly: "You heard it said... But I say to you..." In Matthew 5:21-43 Jesus goes through several Mosaic Law proscriptions regarding murder, adultery, divorce, oaths, retributive justice, and treatment of enemies and overrides all of them. And so the argument that the Old Testament allows believers to fight wars so Christians should too is defeated: Jesus is a greater authority than Moses and calls us to a higher ethic (cf. Hebrews 3:1-6).
Some will object and refer to Matthew 10:34-36: “Do not think that I came to bring peace on the earth; I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I came to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a man’s enemies will be the members of his household." But Jesus here is using a sword figuratively: that even families will be divided because of belief in him (cf. Rev 19:15). It cannot mean that Jesus is causing wars between political powers; that would be absurd given all his pro-peace teachings, the fact that his Kingdom is "no part of this world," and the context of this scripture.
Still others will say Luke 22:35-38 teaches killing is permitted by Jesus:
And He said to them, “When I sent you out without money belt and bag and sandals, you did not lack anything, did you?” They said, “No, nothing.” And He said to them, “But now, whoever has a money belt is to take it along, likewise also a bag, and whoever has no sword is to sell his coat and buy one. For I tell you that this which is written must be fulfilled in Me, ‘And He was numbered with transgressors’; for that which refers to Me has its fulfillment.” They said, “Lord, look, here are two swords.” And He said to them, “It is enough.”
John Yoder, in The Politics of Jesus, Second Edition (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994) responds, and is worth quoting in full (p. 45, footnote 44.):
Traditional proof-texting debate for and against pacifism has always made much of the "two swords" passage. If Jesus had meant his disciples never to kill why would he now have told them to arm? Is he not preparing them for legitimate defense while on their post-Pentecost missionary travels? But Jesus says he is preparing them for his capture, for the fulfillment of the prediction that he would be found among compromising company. When they respond, "We have two swords," his response, "Enough," cannot mean that two swords would be enough for the legitimate self-defense against bandits of twelve missionaries traveling two by two. He is (in direct parallel to Deut. 3:26, where YHWH tells Moses to change the subject, LXX hikanon estin) breaking off the conversation because they don't understand anyway.
In addition to Yoder's explanation, it is possible that Jesus is uttering a prophecy, according to Clifford Forward, a friend and Bible teacher who is now deceased: that up until now, the disciples lacked nothing, but soon, "whoever has a money belt is to take it along, likewise also a bag, and whoever has no sword is to sell his coat and buy one." After the death of the apostles, and especially with the rise of Constantine to Roman Emperor, Christians would be increasingly motivated by money and power, and would normalize violence (discussed below). A white outer garment is a symbol for the Christian's imputed righteousness (Rev 3:4,18). Selling their coat means they traded their imputed righteous standing for the sword--the power of the State. The disciples of course don't understand any of this and so Jesus says, "Enough!"--enough of this conversation.
Another key point is this: when Jesus returns, and the Kingdom of God begins absolute rulership of earth, there will be no more wars:
Of the increase of His government and peace there will be no end (Is 9:6-7).
And He will judge between many peoples
And render decisions for mighty, distant nations.
Then they will hammer their swords into plowshares
And their spears into pruning hooks;
Nation will not lift up sword against nation,
And never again will they train for war. (Micah 4:3)
He will wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away (Rev 21:4)
So if there are no more wars in the Kingdom of God, why would Christians support war now? We are supposed to be a light to the nations; examples of Kingdom life for people to see and be attracted to. By supporting wars, Christians are violating their sacred duty be a comfort and hope to the nations.
The teachings of the New Testament are clear: violence and killing is forbidden, even if they were allowed in the Old Testament. Jesus is a greater authority than Moses. Further, Jesus says that, "If you love Me, you will keep My commandments" (John 14:15), which implies that if we break his commandments, we do not love him--a serious offence that could cost our salvation. But if Jesus and his apostles taught non-violence, why do most Christians today support the wars of their governments? What happened? What changed? We have to go back to the early centuries of Christianity to find out.
The early so-called Church Fathers did not condone violence and wars:
Justin Martyr (150 A.D.): “We who formally killed one another… refuse to make war on our enemies…” - First Apology, 39.2-3
Athenagoras (c.175 A.D.): “We have learned not to return blow for blow…” - Plea for the Christians,1.4
Tertullian (c. 160–c. 220 A.D.): “The Lord, by taking away Peter’s sword, disarmed every soldier thereafter. We are not allowed to wear any uniform that symbolizes a sinful act.” – On Idolatry, 19.1-3
“Once a man has accepted the faith…he must immediately leave the [military] service.” – On the Crown, 11.1-7
Hippolytus of Rome (early 3rd c.): “A [converted] soldier…shall kill no one. If ordered to do so, he shall not obey… a member of the faithful who wants to join the army should be dismissed [excommunicated]…” – Apostolic Tradition, XVI
Cyprian (died 258 A.D.): “When individuals slay a man, it is a crime. When killing takes place on behalf of the state, it is called a virtue.” – To Donatus, 6
Origen (c. 185–c. 254): “For we no longer take up the sword against any nation.” – Against Celsus, 5;33
Lactantius (c. 240–c. 320 A.D.): “There must be no exception to this command of God. Killing a human…is always wrong." - Divine Institutes, 6.20.15-17
However, in 312 CE, Constantine became Roman Emperor. It seems he wanted to use Christianity in his quest to consolidate power. He stopped the persecution, funded new churches, and allowed Christians to freely proselytize throughout the empire. But the implication was, that Christians were subservient to him. Constantine, a sun worshiper and murderer--even of his own family--insisted on being present at various church councils and even added unbiblical language to the Nicene Creed. Subsequently, the view of church leaders changed dramatically:
Eusebius of Caesarea (ca. 260 – ca. 340 A.D.): “The Saviour’s friend [Constantine], armed…against his foes with the standards given him by the Saviour…subdues in battle and chastens the visible enemies of the truth.” - In Praise of Constantine, 2.3
Athanasius (ca. 296-373 A.D.): “One is not supposed to kill, but killing the enemy in battle is both lawful and praiseworthy…when the time and conditions are right, it is both allowed and condoned.” – Letter to Amun
Ambrose (ca. 339-397 A.D.): “Everyone believes it is much more commendable to protect one’s country from destruction than to protect oneself from danger…” – Duties 3.3.23
Augustine (354-430 A.D.): “When victory goes to those who have fought in the more upright cause, who would doubt that such a victory should be celebrated.” – City of God, 15.4
“Peace should be your aim; war should be a matter of necessity so that God might free you from necessity and preserve you in peace.” – Letter 189.6
Christianity, in general, has held this Constantinian view ever since. With a few exceptions, like the Mennonites, Quakers, Christadelphians, Church of the Brethren, and Jehovah's Witnesses, most churches take it for granted that Christians should fight if their government requires them to. Often the argument is: if America had not entered WWII and had not stopped Hitler, we would all be living under Nazi terror. But this is not a convincing argument. First, we don't know what would have happened if America had not entered WWII. Nazi Germany and the Communist Soviet Union may very well have destroyed each other. But a more salient point is this: who populated the German army? It was mostly Protestant Christians, from the country where Martin Luther ignited the Reformation. They had sold out to Nazi propaganda. There were exceptions, and these were treated very harshly, but most pastors in Germany supported the Reich. They obeyed Caesar, not Jesus, and the Christians in the West that went to war against Hitler did the same. If all Christians on all sides had obeyed Jesus and refused to fight, there likely would not have been WWII. Or to put it another way, would Jesus approve of Christians killing Christians in war? Hardly, if love is their identifying characteristic--love for brethren, neighbor, and even enemies.
And so we come to our time and the Ukraine-Russia war, which is really a proxy war between the West, led by America, and the East, led by Russia and China. The propaganda is fierce: the West is supposedly the righteous power and Russia is evil and must be "weakened"--America's stated goal by the Secretary of Defense, Lloyd Austin. There is no room for history, context, discussion, or debate. But for Christians who love Jesus and strive to obey his commands, we must not condone violence. We obey Jesus rather than Caesar. We choose peacemaking over war-making. And peace-making does not mean inaction. Go to peace marches. Write your politicians. Write blogs like this one. Preach the Gospel of Peace. Set an example of non-violence in your life. Pray for God's Kingdom to come and for wars to cease. There is much we can do in the pursuit of peace in this world, even now.