Jesus the Pacifist

My former professor, James Tabor, has an interesting post up asking just what type of pacifist Jesus can be considered to have been.

Jesus as a Pacifist? Apocalypticism, Non-Resistance, and Violence: 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.”

Certainly, there are many today who wish to label Jesus as the ultimate pacifist and liken him with figures such as MLK and Gandhi, but Tabor makes an important point here. Jesus not only hoped for and expected things to get better, but he expected, taught, and looked forward to a bloody and violent overthrow that would bring the hoped-for change about.

Tabor continues:

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.

What do you think? Just what type of “pacifist” was Jesus? Is that even the right term to use of his teachings? How else might we understand the teachings of Jesus?


3 thoughts on “Jesus the Pacifist

  1. To me this goes back to the question of the use of language and how the relationship between metaphor and ontology. Yes, the metaphor Jesus paints of the overturned world is often violent for those currently in power, but this is also the same guy who describes hell as a burning fire and place of weeping and gnashing of teeth. When one talked about the overturning of the world in Jewish rhetoric, one would use apocalyptic language, which was inherently the language of violence. Thus was Jesus advocating a bloody overthrow of the unjust regime or simply using common language to talk about the overturning of the wicked. True he may not have been a pacifist in the MLK/Ghandi sense, but I guess I tend to let the language of the SOM be the controlling metaphor for how I understand Jesus’ ideal ethics. Darn you Bonhoeffer

    1. I think you make a good point, but I wonder how lenient we are on the language attributed to Jesus by saying that he was just speaking in common parlance. I think it is very true that he was using apocalyptic language, but did he just use that language and not mean it, or did he really mean it and expect it to happen? Also, what is the point you’re trying to get it when you say, “this is also the same guy who describes hell as a burning fire and place of weeping and gnashing of teeth”? Does that mean that he simply described it that way but didn’t believe it? If so, how do we know he didn’t believe the descriptions he was offering?

      1. I was just making the point that many scholars do not take the reality of hell seriously even though Jesus describes it vividly and destructively, and in fact, do not take Jesus as meaning it literally because he often refers to hell in parables like the Rich Man and Lazarus, which are highly metaphorical. I’m probably overstating the case. I was just that if one can mitigate Jesus’ language of hell then one can do so as well with apocalyptic language. Nevertheless, you do make a good point. Does Jesus actually mean and expect these things to happen or was just speaking common parlance? I struggle with this question all the time when dealing with the language of hell, angels and demons, Satan, or even Jesus referring to Moses as author of the Pentateuch. How much can I realistically attribute Jesus as contextualizing his language for the beliefs and understanding of that time period while taking into account that what much of Jesus says and does also overturns the common beliefs and religious practices of that time period. What’s a good means of adjudication. I tend to use controlling metaphors and passages in theology such as the Sermon on the Mount to help with this process, but I admit that I am not hundred percent satisfied with my theological reflection/choices.

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