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July 27, 2011


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Brian Zahnd

Over on my site, an opponent of my position of nonviolence said this:

"Is it it not more truthful to call it "romanticized pacifism" since even Brian admits it is not practical? Would Jesus give us commands that are not practicable? Is not acquiescing to evil and injustice, either nationally or personally, well, evil and unjust? Does not a policeman or soldier practice loving their neighbor far, far more by risking his life to defend theirs, than a romantic pacifist does while trying to interpret Scriptures too literally, and yet ignoring their plight? Is that not straining at gnats and swallowing camels?"

Here is my (somewhat lengthy) reply:

The cruciform is offensive to the unimaginative mind of pragmatism. Pragmatism sees the cross as a passive surrender. (Though it is anything but that!) Pragmatism believes the only way to change the world is to beat down the bad guys—either with ballots or bullets. But without even raising the thorny issue of who are the bad guys in the ever-escalating world of revenge, the philosophy of “beat down the bad guys” displays an appalling lack of imagination. Pragmatism requires little imagination, it only needs the will to power. Or pragmatism will trot out the oft quoted axiom from Edmund Burke: “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” Which is true enough, provided we don’t misapply what it means to “do nothing.” I was once given Burke’s maxim as counterargument after preaching on the Sermon on the Mount. As if living the Sermon on the Mount is “doing nothing.” Or worse yet, as if a Christian can call upon Edmund Burke to refute Jesus Christ!

Why would we do this? Why would we sacrifice the beauty of the cross for something everyone knows is a far cry from beautiful? Why this obsession with violent power? I think the answer is that we have a carnal obsession with outcomes. It’s the ugly specter of pragmatism. We want to see a clear and obvious way that our actions are going to result in the desired outcome. We want to do good, achieve good, bring about good, vote in good, legislate good, formulate good, enforce good. So we choose the means that appear most logical in achieving this outcome. But remember, Satan never tempted Jesus with evil, Satan tempted Jesus with good. Satan enticed Jesus to go ahead and do good and to bring it about by the most direct way possible. The temptation was to imitate the means and methods of the pharaohs and Caesars. Satan tempted Jesus to usher in a righteous world by a bloody sword. War is impatience. Obsession with outcomes and demanding to see a quick and logical way in which present action will bring about desired good is the way of Caesar, but it’s not the way of the cruciform. Obsession with outcomes is, among other things, an abandonment of faith.

Christians all believe that Jesus achieved salvation through what he did on the cross. But on Good Friday how could anyone have seen a “logic” in Jesus’ crucifixion? If Jesus’ intent was to save the world from the dominion of evil, how could submitting to an unjust execution at the hands of an oppressive regime accomplish anything like that? It’s absurd! Salvation is ironic because there is nothing logical or practical or obvious about the cross. Fighting is practical. Fighting is logical. Fighting has a long history of (at least temporarily) achieving desired ends. Peter was ready to fight, and presumably so were many others who followed Jesus from Galilee. But Jesus told Peter to put up his sword. There would be no bloody revolution. No violent resistance. Not even an angry protest. Instead Jesus went to the cross, forgave his enemies and simply died. In rejecting the way of Caesar, Christ showed that the world was a text that could be read differently: according to the grammar, not of power, but love.

Did evil triumph because this good man did nothing? It certainly seemed so. But don’t forget the dying prayer of Jesus. “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” I think we can understand Jesus’ prayer as something like this: “Father, I have obeyed you, I have shown the world your ways, but the world has rejected me and your ways. I forgive them, but I am dying. So now I entrust everything to you.” This is the way of the cruciform. It is the way of faith.

In going to the cross Jesus was not being practical, he was being faithful. Jesus didn’t take a pragmatic approach to the problem of evil, Jesus took an aesthetic approach to the problem of evil. Jesus chose to absorb the ugliness of evil and turn it into something beautiful. The beauty of forgiveness. Jesus bore the sin of the world by it being “sinned into” him with wounds. Jesus bore the sin of the world without a word of recrimination, but only a prayer of forgiveness. He bore the sin of the world all the way down to death. So that the Apostle Peter says, “By his wounds you have been healed.” This is the beauty of the cruciform.

In order to do a beautiful thing, Jesus had to abandon outcomes. He had to entrust the outcome to his Father. On Good Friday Jesus abandoned outcomes, embraced the cross and died. Jesus abandoned outcomes in order to be faithful and trust his Father. But until Easter Sunday no one thought of death, burial and resurrection as a logical means of achieving good. Even today most people cannot accept the “formula” of the cruciform as a viable means of bringing about good. We want something that makes more sense. Something quicker. Something practical. And what we get are the same old ugly ways of Pharaoh and Caesar. Our embrace of the practical and ugly over the faithful and beautiful exposes our unbelief. We are orthodox enough to confess that Jesus saves the world through his cross, but we don’t want to imitate it. So we choose the ugly forms of violence and coercion over the beauty of the cruciform.

But things are beginning to change.

What I'm setting forth here is not pacifism, but Christianity. It’s not romantic, but it is beautiful.


Brian Zahnd

I eschew labels. ("When you label me, you negate me." -Kierkegaard) That's why I never call myself a pacifist. Once you have the label hung on you, people tend to say, "Oh, you're one of those" -- end of discussion. The only label I embrace is Christian. So I call myself a follower of Christ, and then say, now we can talk about what Jesus has to say concerning violence. Furthermore one can be a pacifist apart from Christ...but I can't. I have no "secular" commitment to pacifism. What I have is a commitment to follow Jesus...and he leads me into the path of nonviolence. Actually I was once quite "hawkish" in my politics and nationalism...but I stayed on the journey with Jesus and ended up in a radically different place. (Jesus is like that, you know!)


Eric H Janzen

Excellent Brian. Forgiveness is one of those things that is difficult for many to wrap their heads around, particularly in the face of violence. When we teach that forgiveness is the Kingdom Way we face the challenge of communicating that it is much more profound than an ethical or moral call. You put it so well when you said:

"I’m not committed to nonviolence as a social theory. I’m committed to Christ. And I look to Christ to see how he informs us on the subject of violence."

Forgiveness is Jesus response to violence and wrongs committed against us. This concept is at such severe odds with the world culture response of 'justice' in the form of revenge. Our first instinct as humans is to want revenge. It is only by our commitment to Jesus himself that we can allow his merciful heart to fill our hearts empowering us to be those who forgo vengeance and extend forgiveness. When we do we display a powerful testimony to the transforming power of the Gospel and the Spirit.


Wayne Northey

Thanks Brian for this. "Forgiveness" is the future because forgiveness is God's Kingdom Come.

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