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  • Stephen Backhouse

Explaining Away Jesus' Nonviolence

The second I read the essay title I knew what was going to happen.

In my job as a theological educator I mark a LOT of essays. I have grown to notice the basic moves that Christian people make when attempting to think about a subject. So when I saw that the essay was going to be an examination and defence of Christian participation in lethal, state-sponsored violence, I settled in for the inevitable ride.

True to form, the essay was well researched, well written, cogent and interesting. It got all its footnotes in the right place, and engaged with key figures in the debate. It was the required 3000 words long.

The essay mentioned Jesus precisely twice, both times to acknowledge and then dismiss his stand against violence.

Due to official marking rubrics and the accreditation procedures of the principality we call ‘the university’, I was forced to give the author of this essay a pretty good mark. I said what I could in the comments, but I fear that this student will now think that she or he has, as a Christian, engaged Christianly with this Christian topic.

But I have grown weary of Christians who mount their clever defences of violence in pursuit of justice who fail to notice that the only time they mention Christ is to explain him away. I am tired of having conversations like I did with the otherwise good and honest celebrity pastor who gets cheers when he preaches in favour of dropping bombs on ISIS and yet who dismisses with a wave of his hand social media posters who ask “What about turning the other cheek”? My soul dies a little when I see yet another tome on Christianity and War which grudgingly quotes the Sermon on the Mount before expending all its intellectual and moral capital on the minutiae of Just War Theory.

My Facebook posts usually consist of pictures of witty signs outside of hipster coffee shops, but yesterday I made an exception:

I've been a political theologian now for about 20 years. After multiple conversations, reams of material, countless books and marking endless essays, I'd like to present a fact to you that once you've seen you cannot unsee:

The only time Christian defenders of lethal violence ever mention Jesus Christ in their arguments is when they are disagreeing with him.

The post garnered more feedback than I have ever got before. Predictably, almost all the comments attempted to defend Christian violence by referencing the Old Testament, the Apostle Paul, the early Church fathers, Roman soldier missionaries, Augustine, Oliver O’Donovan, Bonhoeffer, common sense, patriotism, etc. etc.

Some arguments in defence of violence were better than others. Some of the critiques of pacifism and non-violence were coherent. But what no one seemed to notice was that with every post my original observation was enforced. I never denied that there are Christian arguments in favour of lethal violence in pursuit of justice. How could I? It is just that every single one of these arguments begin by placing the life and words of Jesus Christ in the ‘no’ column before ranging against him a host of alternative voices.

Tolstoy was surely right: Christendom mentions Jesus’ non-violent commands and life example only when it is trying to exempt itself from the rule, not follow it. That this does not make Christ-ians pause with fear and trembling betrays an intellectual and spiritual dishonesty that pervades the Christian political imagination to the point of utter bankruptcy.

Right. Back to hipster coffee signs and marking essays.


Dr Stephen Backhouse is Lecturer in Social and Political Theology at St Mellitus College, London. Stephen studied at the University of Oxford, then McGill, then Oxford again, where he completed his doctorate on Kierkegaard and religious nationalism. Besides teaching at those universities, Stephen has also written on matters of politics, national identity and Christianity. As well as magazine and think tank articles, other publications include 'The Compact Guide to Christian History' (Lion, 2011), 'Kierkegaard's Critique of Christian Nationalism' (OUP, 2011), and 'Kierkegaard: A Single Life' (Zondervan: 2016).

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