Was Jesus a Pacifist? An Exercise in Missing the Point

Andrew Fulford has published an article over at The Calvinist International on the question of whether Jesus was a pacifist. Now, I should note at the outset that I am not a pacifist (though I would be just about as close as you could get without being one). My point in engaging Fulford’s comments has less to do with arguing in favor of Jesus’ claimed pacifism and more to do with his hermeneutical approach.

Appealing to Martin Joo’s interpretive rule “Semantic Axiom Number One,” which functions as a sort of Ockham’s Razor for doing theology – the least number of premises and assumptions before reading the text, the better – Fulford appeals to four interpretive frameworks “in the air” at the time Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount. Having done a lot of work recently on the Sermon on the Mount (you can read my interpretations of the Beatitudes here), I thought Fulford’s article provided some fresh fodder for discussing it.

In the first place, I am suspicious of any hermeneutic which carries as its presuppositional premise that the “best interpretation is the least interpretation” is helpful for doing theology and interpretive work. The graveyards of academia are littered with the corpses of people who were convinced of this or that overriding reading was “the” way to approach the text, only to be left behind in the rubbish bin of history. Are we to favor someone’s reading of a passage of Scripture because they think there is only one framework that needs to be applied purely on the basis that their set of assumptions is numerically less than another’s? While this may work well with regard to scientific fields, interpretation is essentially a humanity. The Bible is complex and highly nuanced and attempting to reduce the number of elements allowed to intersect with any given passage will almost certainly have a deleterious effect on our overall approach.

Fulford begins with four considerations. We will start by analyzing each of them in turn, assuming for the moment that Fulford’s broader approach is correct.

First, he claims Jesus made use of natural law. Right away we see how far removed his approach is from mine. Following the Dutch Reformed and Cornelis van der Waal in particular, I reject natural law as a Biblical concept. While the Bible is not closed off from considerations outside of Israel’s own history and culture, it remains true that the New Testament in particular has little interest in the classical philosophers or in Greco-Roman culture beyond those points where it runs up against them. Following Peter Leithart and James Jordan and other scholars, I view the NT as radically Israel-centric. That is, the gnosticism addressed, the persecutors of the NT Church, the wicked, the “vain philosophies,” all address Israel.

Second, he argues that what Jesus says in the Sermon would have been understood as general claims rather than 100% binding laws against which there could be no exceptions. This is certainly true (the clause on divorce being a good example of this). Given that this is the case, it is up to Fulford to demonstrate where such exceptions to Jesus’ Sermon would be in the rest of the NT.

Third, Fulford argues that the poor and powerless make up the majority of the crowd listening to the Sermon on the Mount. Again, this is certainly the case. But Fulford must show us places where Jesus did not address the poor and the powerless. That is, he must show us cases where Jesus addresses the wealthy and the powerful in the same positive light. Jesus’ ministry is defined by the Jubilee (Luke 4), with the elevation of the poor and the overturning of the powerful (Luke 1:51-53). The Beatitudes themselves are oriented around the priority of the powerless and the poor. The poor will inherit the Kingdom, the mourners will be comforted, etc. He has a steep up-hill battle ahead of him.

Fourth, he argues that the Old Testament cannot be ignored. Of course this is true. The OT is of vital importance for understanding Jesus’ ministry and teaching. Following the intertextual links between the OT and NT has been a standard approach for a few decades now. He spends the remainder of his article pointing to various passages in the OT that would imply the OT was not pacifistic.

This brings us to the most important observation of all. Fulford has approached the Sermon on the Mount as though it were addressing nation-states, that it is a cultural ideal to be implemented by, say, the United States or the EU. His assumption is that the Sermon speaks to the justice or injustice of the various wars of the nation-states of the world. His third point, about the audience of the Sermon being poor and powerless, has to do with the fact that they are not those in power, they are not the cultural and political leaders of either Israel or of Rome.

This has typically been the problem with approaches to the Sermon on the Mount (and the rest of Jesus’ earthly ministry). We approach it as though it were something to be implemented by various cultures (American, European, Asian, etc.) or to be implemented by the individual himself. Ultimately these two approaches amount to the same thing, and reveal our confusion between Kingdom and Christendom (I have addressed this confusion here). Both views assume that Jesus is not addressing the Church alone. Partly this is because we have not understood that the Kingdom and the Church are the same thing, and have thus confused the Kingdom with Christendom.

I have proposed an understanding of the transition between the Old and New Covenants that sees the national state of Israel transferred to the Church. That is, the Church is as much a “city” or polis as Athens or Rome was, with its own economy and communal life. The Church, simply by being the Church, is a political entity, not because it “gets involved” in projects connected to the nation-state and voting in their elections, but because by virtue of simply being the Church, the Church is an alternative city, a political rival. As is perfectly clear when you look at the intertextual passages for the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is addressing the Kingdom-Church, not the nation-state, not the “broader culture.” All speculations about just-war and whether Jesus’ audience was the Jewish or Roman politically powerful misses the point of the Sermon in the most profound way. Those concerns, while perhaps important to consider elsewhere, have nothing to do with what Jesus is doing in the Sermon. He is constituting around Himself a New Israel. The laws of the old national Israel will be transformed and become the laws governing this new polis. Capital punishment will become excommunication, and so on.  Jesus is laying out the covenant by which His Church will be lived, and those who enter into His Kingdom-Church will be made into the rulers of the earth and of the nations. The powerless will be elevated, and those thought powerful in the old order will be thrown down.

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