Love your enemies: Jesus on violence
This segment comes from Episode 1: War + Peace.
From Jesus’ command to “love your enemies” to the idea of “holy war” is a giant leap. Yet from the Old Testament through to the Crusades and the inquisitions, Christian history is full of violence. Has Christianity been a major contributor to war? How have the followers of a crucified leader managed to get things so wrong? This segment takes a close look at what Jesus has to say when it comes to violence.
Love your enemies
Jesus preached a radical ethic of non-violence – one the early church took very seriously.
JOHN DICKSON: It’s hard to deny, history is littered with Christians proclaiming divine mercy, and then taking up arms to enforce the faith. It’s a hypocrisy we rightly hate today. But so did their founder.
Perhaps no figure in history was more scathing of religious hypocrisy than Jesus of Nazareth. And central to his critique was religion’s complicity in the violence that was everywhere in Roman times.
Galilee saw its fair share of religiously motivated violence. And some of it was staged from these caves behind me, where rebels could hide from the authorities. Ever since the Romans began to occupy these traditional lands of Israel, some believed that armed resistance was the only practical way to replace a corrupt empire with the Kingdom of God.
In 4BC, the residents of Sepphoris, the capital of Galilee, raided the armoury and claimed the town back from the Roman overlords. Rome crushed the rebellion with brutal efficiency.
Ten years later Judas the Galilean ran a guerrilla campaign to expel the pagan occupiers. He was killed, but his sons and grandsons kept the hope alive that one day a great military victory would establish heaven on earth, the so-called “Kingdom of God”.
Jesus taught about the Kingdom of God, but he said if you want to belong to it, you have to shun violence. “Love your enemies,” he said. “Do good to those who hate you. If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn the other cheek also.” To some around here, these words must have sounded bizarre, or at least impractical.
LYNN COHICK: When Jesus said “love your enemies”, I think people paused. They may have said, “wait a minute – can I hear that again? That sounds so odd.” Because you see people relied on each other in the ancient world. They relied on their neighbours. And there were limited resources. So, you didn’t just throw your extra around. You were very careful with who you helped, knowing that they would help you in return. That means, for someone to say “love your enemies”, that just sounded foolish.
JOHN DICKSON: Impractical or not, the first Christians, for the first few centuries, took their master seriously. Loving enemies and turning the other cheek were the true ways of God’s kingdom, whatever the cost.
Within a generation, Christianity spread to Rome. And in the year 64, the first state-sponsored persecution of the church tested the resolve of Christ’s followers to maintain their ethic of love. The Roman writer Tacitus records the brutality of emperor Nero.
ACTOR (TACITUS): Nero punished the Christians with the utmost refinements of cruelty. Vast numbers were convicted. They were covered with the skins of wild beasts and torn to death by wild dogs; or they were fastened to crosses, and, when daylight failed, they were burned to serve as lamps by night. Nero had offered his gardens for the spectacle and gave an exhibition in his circus.
JOHN DICKSON: It’s hard to imagine now, but this is where it happened. Nero’s great circus or arena ran straight down here, with a massive stadium over there. The crowds watched on as countless numbers of Christians “turned the other cheek” and “loved their enemies” – all the way to their deaths.
One leader, himself soon to be martyred in Rome, wrote to the church:
ACTOR (IGNATIUS): In response to their anger, be gentle; in response to their boasts, be humble; and in response to their cruelty, be civilised. Do not be eager to imitate them. Let us show by our gracious forbearance that we are their brothers and sisters. Let us be eager to be imitators of the Lord.
JOHN DICKSON: I’ve known and taught about this event for years. But to actually stand here is quite confronting. I wonder, could I have done what those Christians did?
WILLIAM CAVANAUGH: The early Christians for the first three centuries assumed that what Christ’s sacrifice meant was that you would prefer to go to your death rather than shed blood, and so the early Christian church is full of martyrs, and the few Christians that joined the Roman military were most often criticised by their fellows. It’s not until the Roman emperor himself becomes a Christian in the fourth century that Christians begin to develop justifications for the shedding of blood.close
Choose an image that you think describes Jesus’ attitude to violence.
- Share about a time when someone has wronged you. How did you respond?
- Do you think that the statement “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” is a fair way to think about actions and reactions to wrongdoing?
- Read this article, “Flip the script, a message for Christmas” by CPX’s Natasha Moore.
- What is your reaction to the first story in the article?
- Find three other examples not mentioned in the article of when people have “flipped the script” and met hate with love.
- Read the quote in the box below from A Concise History of the Christian World Mission by J. Herbert Kane. Are you surprised that Gandhi drew inspiration from Jesus Christ? Why or why not?
Understand & Evaluate
Watch the segment: Love your enemies: Jesus on violence
- What was distinctive about Jesus’ teaching about the “Kingdom of God”?
- Why was Jesus’ message to “shun violence” so strange for those who first heard it?
- How did Jesus’ early followers respond to his command to “love your enemies”?
- Briefly describe Emperor Nero’s treatment of Christians as recorded by the historian, Tacitus.
- What is your reaction to this?
- How did Christians respond to Nero’s treatment?
- Read the following excerpt from Ignatius. Explain how these encouragements would have been counter-cultural in the Roman Empire.
- At the end of the video, William Cavanaugh says that the early Christians preferred to go to their deaths rather than shed blood, and for that reason the early Christian church is full of martyrs.
- What do you think was so attractive about Jesus’ message of non-violence for these early Christians?
- What concerns or questions do you have about this?
Read Matthew 5:9-10.
- Who does Jesus call “blessed” in these verses?
- Why is it surprising for these categories of people to be called “blessed”?
Read Matthew 5:38-48.
- Explain Jesus’ teaching on how to respond when you have been wronged (v.38-42).
- Choose one word to describe your reaction to this teaching.
- Describe how Jesus wants his followers to treat their enemies.
- Outline the justification Jesus gives for this (v.44-45).
Read Romans 5:6-10.
- Who were Jesus’ enemies, and how did he show love to them?
- How might this teaching further motivate us to love our enemies?
- Refer to the quote from Ignatius’ letter to the Ephesians earlier in this lesson. If you were to take his advice in your own life, what challenges would you anticipate?
- Place a mark on this line to show to what extent you agree with Jesus’ teachings to “love your enemies” and “turn the other cheek”. Explain your response.
- Read the excerpt below from this article, “Does religion cause violence?” by CPX’s John Dickson. Discuss why you think Christians sometimes fail to follow Jesus’ teaching on violence.
- Make a list of types of violence (not only physical violence) or bullying that might exist in schools. Then, imagine you work for the NSW Government and are asked to create a 30-second TV advertisement to promote non-violence in schools. In groups, plan and script your advertisement and, using a video camera or mobile phone, record a prototype.
- Create a discussion script between a Christian living under Emperor Nero and a Christian living under Emperor Constantine to show some of the changes in the way Christians thought about violence. (Watch the “Curbing Violence: Just War and the Peace of God” segment from For the Love of God to help you.)