“Repay no one evil for evil. Have regard for good things in the sight of all men. If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men. Beloved, do not avenge yourselves, but rather give place to wrath; for it is written, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,” says the Lord.” Romans 12.17-19
We live in a world obsessed with violence. You turn on the news and hear of wars fought both overseas and at home. The United States government has turned video games into reality and now war can be waged from behind a computer screen while heartless drones injure and kill countless thousands. Then, when robots won’t suffice, they send well-programmed human killing machines to do the work. And as if that is not bad enough, the government is now making its intentions clear that it plans to invade the lives and homes of its own citizens in order to steal more of their property, guns in particular. But the violent government is not the only group obsessing over guns and violence. While they plan their attack on American citizens, many otherwise good people are buying weapons and preparing to defend themselves and their families with violent force.
What I am about to say here is for those of us who follow Jesus. When he walked the earth, he laid out a brand-new way of living in a world much like ours today.
When Jesus came into the world, he came into the very center of conflict. Israel was a crucial junction between Rome to the west and Asia to the east. It was critical that Rome keep control of it, no matter the cost. The Israelites were a proud people and armed resistance was common. Assassinations were a daily reality. When Jesus arrived, the Jews were looking for a leader to defeat the Romans and drive them from their land. That is why his disciples asked him, “Now are you going to set up your kingdom!?!?” (Luk 19.11; Act 1.6) They expected him to send out a call to arms at any moment.
But that was never his intention. The kingdom he came to set up is “not of this world” (Jhn 18.36). In other words, it does not fit within the structure and ways of the world. The kings of this world vie for power and take it by force (Mat 11.12; 20.25). But Jesus knew that “those who live by the sword will die by the sword” (Mat 26.52). He instead advocated a way of life where if someone takes your goods, you willingly let them take them and do not even ask for them back (Luk 6.30). To the world’s way of thinking, that is absolutely crazy. But Jesus took it even further and told his followers to “love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you and pray for those who spitefully use you” (Luk 6.27-28). While their desire had been to kill and drive out their enemies, Jesus left the people with a new challenge, a challenge to love (Jhn 13.34-35). They had to ask themselves the important questions, “Can I love my enemy while killing them? Am I doing good to my enemy by using violence against them? Can I bless and pray for my enemy while attempting to spill their blood?
The church was primarily pacifist until the time of Constantine when the church came to believe that it could make Jesus’ kingdom physical through force. That was a terrible experiment which we are still suffering through today.
Jesus’ followers are to be set apart from the world, and a life lived the way of Jesus is very different from the way of the world. It is impossible to not be set apart when you only pledge your allegiance to God (Act 5.29), when you love your enemies and do good to those who oppress you. Everyone around you will know you are different when you begin treating every living human being as your neighbor (Luk 10.29-37), and love them as yourself (Luk 10.27).
We have seen these truly set-apart people throughout history. Two examples are the Quakers and the Anabaptists. During the Catholic church’s wars against the Muslims, the Anabaptists experience extreme persecution because they were unwilling to join in the fight. Their stance of non-violence made them stand out and they became seen as a threat and were dealt with violently. Then later, during the American Revolution, the Quakers stood their ground as pacifists yet were treated as enemies by the American “patriots.” History shows time and again that the nonviolent lifestyle brings violent persecution. Maybe that is why Jesus warned his followers multiple times that persecution would always follow them.
Today we have a chance to stand out once again, to truly live like Jesus and let our lives be a clear contrast to the world around us. By the power of the Holy Spirit within us, we can live out Jesus’ teachings in Matthew 5-7 and Luke 6. This is our chance to be salt and light (Mat 5.13-14) in a world set on its own destruction. This is a time for us to be set apart.