It’s more than Jesus’ teaching that leads to a life of peacemaking and pacifism.
You’d be hard pressed to find a Christian who didn’t believe that the life Jesus lived ought to serve as a model for how we live our lives. But it’s fairly easy to find Christians who do some mental and theological gymnastics about whether his suffering and death are a model for us as well. “Well, he had to die to forgive our sins. That’s why he died, and only he could have done it.” As if the only thing Jesus’ death accomplished was an individualistic forgiveness, and NOT an overcoming of evil in the world. As if the choices Jesus made which led to his death are either impossible for us to follow or choices he made only because of his mission of providing personal forgiveness of sins. As if only his life and teachings, and NOT his death and suffering, are glimpses into the heart and character of God.
“While we were still enemies, Christ died for us.” God’s method for breaking the power of evil in our world (not just providing our forgiveness) was to submit to it. If God’s method for conquering evil is to suffer unjustly under its effects, in order to transform it completely…what does that mean for us?
One of the major arguments against pacifism relates to leaving great evil unchecked in the world. WWII is, for people in our era, the defining example: “If no one had fought Hitler, where would we be?” Jesus’ life and death and resurrection were God’s response to the great evil in the world. I think this is essential. It wasn’t just his answer to provide a way to heaven because evil could not be overcome. Forgiveness wasn’t the only purpose for the cross. The cross is how God responds to great evil in our world. It’s God’s way and method of conquering evil.
One can imagine someone “counseling” Jesus: “Why not fight back? Why not use your power and not be unjustly killed by these Romans? Where will we be if you don’t?” We don’t really have to imagine it at all; that line of thinking is what lies behind the temptations of Jesus in the desert in Luke 4.
The last part of this post is Luke 9:23. “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow me.” God’s way of overcoming evil is supposed to become our way. I’ve mentioned before that I’ve been tremendously influenced by Marva Dawn’s book Powers, Weakness, and the Tabernacling of God. She challenges us by showing the theme of suffering in every book of the New Testament. God’s power works in us when we come to the end of our power, she says. There is some way in which suffering is redemptive, in which God’s power comes through submitting to and suffering evil. More later.