Nonviolence 101

Feb 18, 2012 | 2012 Articles, Ministry Musings

by Kurt Willems

This week we have the privilege of another guest post by local writer and Fresno Pacific Student Kurt Willems. This is actually parts 1 and 2 of a series on nonviolence that appeared on his blog in early 2011. To read the rest of the series simply go to Kurt’s blog, The Pangea Blog, where you can also see more of his posts, and you can find him on Red Letter Christians.

Kurt Willems

Nonviolence 101 – Becoming a People of the “Third Way” (Part 1)

Throughout my life, I have been part of a unique culture. This is a group of people who can point to several common experiences and values. Not only so, but there is a common story that unites us all. This is a story of revival in the best sense of the word. One that led to several phases of religious and social persecution, for many, some even to the point of death. My relatives, on both sides of the tree, can be traced back to this radical sect that chose to leave everything they had behind in order to search for a better way of life for their kin. Rather than taking a stand in the face of injustice by clenching to the sword, they chose to find their security in the nonviolent way of Jesus. When the persecution did not relent, many boarded ships headed toward the “new world.” It was during the late nineteenth century that my great grandfather arrived in the United States as a young boy.

Three generations later, I was born to wonderful parents who both could trace their roots back to the narrative of peace in the face of persecution.
But, oddly enough, now about a century removed from arriving in America, the radical nature of my ancestors had begun to fade. My people are still quite bonded by a common culture, but something is quite different. I grew up with wonderful traditions, many of which centered on food and family. Every holiday we had zwieback, which is possibly the greatest bread that strawberry jam ever had the pleasure of pairing with. Often there would be other foods from the motherland such as bierocks and varenika. In our churches, I still get forced into playing the name-game, where based on my last name, older folks can tell me all about my family history and how they are my fifth double cousin twice removed. Our tradition is wonderful, but usually is experienced outside of the theological marks that originally set us apart.

The reality of my upbringing in this wonderful family of churches is that one key distinctive, which set us apart in the old land, is no longer part of our identity (at least as a whole)
. Finding comfort in a home that allowed us to exercise our faith in freedom, led to a love for this country. Over time, such a love led new generations into military service to defend the nation. By the time that I was growing up, nonviolence became that silly, unpractical belief that was more likely to be the butt of a joke than a central teaching of Jesus for the church. In a very real sense, I grew up as a Mennonite Brethren but not as an Anabaptist.

It was not until I was in my twenties that this seemingly outdated perspective on the discipleship way of Jesus began to draw me in. After spending all my life with the assumptions of a Southern Baptist (no offense to my Baptist friends), by conviction I have embraced my Anabaptist roots. In what follows is an exploration of the subject of nonviolence in the Bible, followed by some reflection on why many Christians dismiss it as folly.


To begin this journey into the theology of nonviolence, it will serve us well to distinguish between terminology that is often used synonymously. Pacifism is the term that is most often employed to discuss the historical view of the Anabaptists, at least in common circles. The problem with this word is that it communicates the idea of inaction or withdrawal. Pacifism is often distorted to mean passivism. Another term that is used is nonresistance. A surface reading of Matthew 5.39 states, “do not resist an evil person.” Therefore, it is easy to see why nonresistance is a choice label. Traditionally, the Mennonite Brethren have preferred this term, but the New Testament does not seem fully against resisting someone if justice is threatened. For the next few posts, we will explore why I am uneasy with both of these common ways of describing Jesus’ teachings against violence. In order to do so, it is time to explore the relevant biblical texts (well, in the next post that is).

What have been your experiences with the subject of violence, just war, and nonviolence? I would love to hear your stories, even if you disagree with my perspective. (feel free to comment below)

Nonviolence 101 – Resistance is Futile… or the Meaning of antist?nai(part 2)

Key Texts

Throughout the New Testament there is a common thread of nonviolence. My goal in this section is to look at several of the key texts that present such a view. Forgive me if I do not cover every passage that deals with this subject, but hopefully the data presented will suffice to support my position on this particular discipleship issue.

Matthew 5

Matthew 5-7 is the most famous section of teaching that we have in the Gospel accounts. The Sermon on the Mount is a center for Anabaptist theology, for in it we are given a description of the demands of discipleship. This is one characteristic that makes the Anabaptists stand out from the other reformers. In his book on this passage: A Gospel for a New People, Herb Kopp makes the following observation:
The Anabaptists lived by the simple edict that if the words of Jesus in the Scriptures called for obedience, then the followers of Jesus ought to heed and obey. For them “the great word was not ‘faith,’ as it was with the reformers, but ‘following.’”[1]

The Anabaptists chose to take the teachings of Jesus seriously, even to the point of death. Following Christ, even to the cross, is the primary summons of the Christian life.

In the beatitudes is the declaration: “Blessed are the peacemakers.” Following this, Jesus gives ethical teaching on various elements of life and society. In verse 38 we come to the most important section with regards to the question of nonviolence. Jesus states:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Matthew 5.38-41

In verse 38 we are given the First Testament command “eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.” It is commonly noted that such a law was a preventative measure to ensure that punishment was proportional to the crime, and no more.[2] “Where the Torah restricts retaliation, Jesus forbids it all together.”[3] This is clear by his exhortation that disciples are called to “not resist an evil person.” Now the issue that was alluded to earlier with the word nonresistance needs to be dealt with properly. Is Jesus saying that one must not resist at all?

Resistance is Futile?

It is interesting to note that the Greek word for not resisting is: antist?nai. The way that this word is translated in this passage gives the impression that any form of resistance is unacceptable. If this is indeed the case, then nonresistance is the more faithful term to describe the New Testament position against violence. But, it seems that this word has a deeper meaning than is often attributed to it. Walter Wink helpfully points out that “antist?nai…means to resist violently, to revolt or rebel, to engage in an armed insurrection.”[4]

Support for this translation is not unwarranted as antist?nai is the word repeatedly used in the Greek version of the Hebrew Bible as “warfare” and is also used in Ephesians 6.13 in the context of active military imagery.[5] In the famous “armor of God” passage the rhetoric clearly indicates an offensive military-like “stand” that is able to both pursue and undo the works of the powers of evil.[6] Wink’s argument is further affirmed by N.T. Wright who translates verse 39 in the following way: “But I say to you: don’t use violence to resist evil!”[7] Jesus “is telling us to transcend both passivity and violence by finding a third way, one that is at once assertive yet nonviolent.”[8] Those who are outside of the nonviolence realm may want to resist this translation, but the evidence seems to stand in opposition to such detractors.

In the next post we will examine Jesus’ statement about turning the other cheek. (click here to read the rest of this series on Kurt’s blog)

[1]. Herb Kopp, A Gospel for a New People: Studies in the Sermon on the Mount (Hillsboro, KS: Kindred Productions, 2003), 8.
[2]. Richard B. Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament: Community, Cross, New Creation: A Contemporary Introduction to New Testament Ethics (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1996), 324.
[3]. Ibid., 325.
[4]. Walter Wink, The Powers That Be: Theology for a New Millennium (New York: Doubleday, 1998), 100.
[5]. Ibid.
[6]. Thomas Yoder-Neufeld, Ephesians, Believers Church Bible Commentary (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 2002), 294-95.
[7]. Tom Wright, Matthew for Everyone, 1 (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), 49.
[8]. Wink, The Powers That Be: Theology for a New Millennium, 101.

Kurt Willems is an Anabaptist writer and pastor who is preparing for church planting next year by finishing work towards a Master of Divinity degree at Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary. He writes at: the Pangea Blog and is also on Twitter and Facebook.


  1. Great article Kurt! It’s great to have you researching and spreading this information. Well done!

  2. Thanks so much Mr. Oberg!


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