The New Testament portrays Jesus as a man of peace. He blessed peacemakers, he came to give life, he healed the sick and offered hope to the despairing, he refused the service of the sword to constrain his enemies, and he died forgiving those who persecuted him. Can anyone maintain the image of a violent Christ?
Some do, indeed, pointing to one who “did not come to bring peace but a sword” (Mt. 10:34), who made a requirement of hating ones family in order to become his disciple (Lk. 14: 26), and echoing Paul’s depiction of him as “a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles” (1 Cor. 1:22). In equating these statements with violence, they, wittingly or not, misunderstand the active resistance to evil demanded by Christian non-violence. Christ brought a truth that many would find hard, many would reject, and many would persecute. He knew this, but he enlisted disciples anyway. He summoned them, not to be wimps, but martyrs for the Kingdom.
Others cite the cleansing of the temple to justify Christian violence in the cause of justice. They paint a lurid picture of an enraged believer strenuously beating man and beast, expelling both from his Father’s house. Examine this interpretation closely.
In the first instance, this rationale repeats the non-violence-equals-passive- acceptance defense. Supposedly, Christ, and his followers, cannot be angry at, cannot act against, cannot resist and disrupt unjust business-as-usual. Rather, Christian non-violence expects, even requires, these behaviors.
Moreover, Jesus fashioned a whip such as was used to herd animals, like a switch. Rushes littering the temple floor could be twisted into a rope: think of caning used to cover seats of chairs. Though effective in frightening animals and men, it would inflict little damage on either. Indeed, we have no evidence that Jesus actually struck any of the sellers or moneychangers. If he had, the religious authorities would have had a ready legal charge against him; yet all three synoptic gospels report that subsequently “the chief priests, the scribes and the leaders of the people sought to destroy him and were able to do nothing; for all the people were very attentive to hear him” (Lk. 19: 47).
At Passover time thousands of Jews went up to Jerusalem. They crowded the Court of the Gentiles along with the animals for sacrifice and temple servants changing forbidden Roman and Greek coins, emblazoned with graven images of Caesars and gods, to Hasmonean shekels. One man alone, even Christ, could not have emptied that Court once and for all of merchants and beasts. He could, at best, interrupt for a moment the profitable flow of trade; he could also assert his moral authority. Why, then, did he act so forcefully and publicly?
In the Synoptic Gospels this scene occurs after Palm Sunday and just prior to Passover. Afterwards, “his disciples remembered that it was written, zeal for your house has eaten me up” (Jn. 2: 17). They are recalling Psalm 67, a desperate cry for God’s help for one surrounded by enemies who hate him and seek to destroy him, who give him gall for meat and vinegar for drink, and who reproach him because “the zeal of your house has eaten me up” (Ps. 69: 9). Through this action Jesus identifies himself as this suffering servant, pre-figuring his passion. This sacrifice of his body “shall please the Lord better than an ox or bullock that has horns and hoofs” (Ps. 69: 31). John, although placing the encounter at the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, makes the same point when he recounts: “Jesus answered and said to them, ‘Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.’ . . . But he was speaking of the temple of his body” (Jn. 2: 19-21).
In performing this symbolic action Jesus fulfills the prophecy of Malachi: “And the Lord, whom you seek, will suddenly come to his temple. . . . He will purify the sons of Levi and purge them as gold and silver, that they might offer to the Lord an offering in righteousness” (Mal. 3: 1-3). Most immediately, Jesus was reacting to the price gouging of poor religious pilgrims. The temple authorities had a monopoly on the animals stabled in the outer court, they charged an excessive rate for changing pagan money into acceptable currency, and they collected a half-shekel of pure Tyrian silver as a tax. In a place that “shall be called a house of prayer for all nations” (Is. 56. 7), they had created the “bazaar of Annas” (Josephus, ANT. 18: 5: 2), a den of thieves.
It remains noteworthy that during three centuries of murderous Roman and Jewish opposition to their new cult no Christian leaders cited Jesus’ expulsion of the temple desecrators to justify armed uprisings against their persecutors. Instead, the community preached non-violent resistance to pagan demands and steadfastly supported its faith-inspired martyrs.
During that same period few Christians served in the Roman army. Their Roman rulers exempted Christians and Jews from conscription for military service; the Roman military worshipped Caesar among other gods; Christian teachers and apologists preached non-violence as a conspicuous aspect of the following of Christ. Let a brief sampling from the Church Fathers indicate this almost universal stand:
- Clement of Alexandria (c. 195 A.D.): “Paul does not merely describe the spiritual man as being characterized by suffering wrong, rather than doing wrong. Rather, Paul teaches that a Christian does not keep count of injuries. For Paul does not allow him even to pray against the man who has done wrong to him”(ANF 2.548).
- Tertullian (c. 200 A.D.): “Now inquiry is made about the point whether a believer may enter into military service. . . . A man cannot give his allegiance to two masters—God and Caesar. . . . How will a Christian man participate in war? In fact, how will he serve even in peace without a sword? For the Lord has taken the sword away” (ANF 3.73).
- Lactantius (c. 304 A.D.): “Religion is to be defended—not by putting to death—but by dying. Not by cruelty, but by patient endurance. Not by guilt, but by good faith. For the former belongs to evil, but the latter to the good. . . . For if you wish to defend religion by bloodshed, tortures, and guilt, it will no longer be defended. Rather it will be polluted and profaned” (ANF 7. 157, 158).
In the Fourth Century, after state-sponsored persecutions had ceased, after the Roman emperors had legitimized Christianity within the Empire, and after they had accepted Christianity as its official religion, church leaders dropped their opposition to violence. St. Ambrose, bishop of Milan, drawing on examples of Yahweh-inspired battles in the Old Testament, preached the legality of an armed defense of Christian orthodoxy. His disciple, St. Augustine of Hippo, although he spoke strongly against armed conflict, set down a number of conditions that could make any war a just enterprise. In time, with the assistance of philosophers like Aquinas and jurists like Gratian, the Catholic Church formulated and accepted a just war theory, one still held.
Let it be said: The Church has never made that theory an article of faith. Let it be asserted further: Intent upon winning as expeditiously as possible, few if any Christian commanders have used this just war theory to shape their strategy. Nor has Christian war-making ever adhered consistently to its specific tenets. Finally, let us be honest: In our modern age of technological prowess in fashioning fiendish weapons of indiscriminating destruction, antagonists cannot, and will not, attack each other under the banner of, and rules of, any philosophical just war.
One can hardly overestimate the effect of the Church’s changed position regarding violence. Previously, it had based ethical Christian behavior on the example of a bravely loving Jesus. Now it claimed that the survival of, protection of, and growth of Christianity as established in the Catholic Church equaled justice. Previously, Christian communities had no need to defend their survival because their founder had promised that all who believed in him would have eternal life, a life that no one could take from them. Now the Catholic Church elevated the survival of its orthodoxy into the ethical measure of Christian discipleship.
In a blasphemous travesty, in the name of God, the Catholic Church sanctions and even blesses state-produced killing. Its popes and bishops label those members who dare to protest as radicals or extremists or purists. And so they are. They certainly dwell on the fringe of our religion. As the figure of a non-violent Jesus fades away into the mists of irrelevance, Christian violence reigns. If Christ would rematerialize, he would be weeping, not over Jerusalem, but over Rome.