Pope Francis and the Pacifist Jesus

In his recently released message for the 50th World Day of Peace, Pope Francis called on humanity to adopt nonviolence as a “style of politics for peace.” Continuing a tradition inaugurated in 1968, the Holy Father began his message by painting a picture of a “broken world” in which humanity finds itself “engaged in a horrifying world war fought piecemeal”—a world torn apart by wars, terrorism, crime, violence against women and children, abuse of migrants and victims of human trafficking and environmental devastation. By way of a solution, the pope suggests a politics of nonviolence. Such a politics would begin with a purification of the heart, but would also entail the abolition of nuclear weapons, an ethic of fraternity and peaceful coexistence, a willingness to “face conflict head on” and resolve it, and a commitment to active peacebuilding at the local, national and international levels.

Like many of the Holy Father’s public statements, his message for the 50th World Day of Peace embodies what might most charitably be called “constructive ambiguity.” On the one hand, despite the efforts of an increasingly assertive Catholic pacifist movement to persuade him otherwise, Pope Francis said nothing in his message on the issue of Catholic Just War Theory. He neither embraced nor condemned it, choosing to remain entirely silent on the topic. On the other hand, the Holy Father has clearly embraced two of the other main planks of the new pacifist platform: “Just peace” and “Gospel nonviolence.”

The first of these, a theological adaptation of the idea of “positive peace” that has been circulating in peace research circles for decades, refers to the need to address the root or structural causes of violence if we are to have real peace. To the degree that this concept refers to the need for the Church to promote justice, freedom, human dignity, the peaceful resolution of conflicts and so on this plank is unobjectionable to me and I will not comment on it here, other than to say that such an approach sometimes betrays considerable naiveté about the post-Lapsarian human condition. The second, however, is problematic indeed; for it rests on a set of assumptions that are ultimately invalid and that consequently lead to false conclusions regarding settled church doctrine on when and how it is licit to used armed force.

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What do I mean by this? Well, let me begin by addressing the fatally flawed underlying assumptions first. The Gospel nonviolence argument, as reflected in the Holy Father’s call to adopt nonviolence as a style of politics, is premised on the belief that “Jesus himself offers a ‘manual’ for this strategy of peacemaking in the Sermon on the Mount.” According to this perspective, which the theologian Karl Rahner famously called “Christology from below,” understanding Jesus and his teachings with respect to war and peace requires that we start not with Jesus the Christ, but with Jesus of Nazareth—a flesh-and-blood, historical human being confronting the evils of his time and place. Once one adopts this perspective, Rahner and some recent advocates of Gospel nonviolence argue, the Jesus that comes into view is a man who lived a life of heroic resistance to the “powers that be.”

In this picture, Jesus was a man whose heroic resistance took the form not of armed rebellion or war of liberation, but of nonviolent opposition to the forces of injustice and oppression at work in first-century Palestine. The practical, ethical implications of this seem as obvious to Pope Francis as they are to institutions like Pax Christi and others who participated in last April’s Nonviolence and Just Peace conference in Rome: as Jesus’ life is normative for Christians, the practice of “Gospel nonviolence” (pacifism) is a binding obligation for all Christian disciples.

Now there is much to be said for this Christology from below. And I think it fair to say that from Vatican II onwards there has been a greater emphasis on this form of Christology as a source of Catholic social thought than on either Johannine “Christology from above” or natural law. In this respect, the Holy Father’s emphasis on the beatitudes as a manual for “political and religious leaders, the heads of international institutions, and business and media executives” is perhaps not terribly surprising. But, there are obvious limits to this approach—especially as it pertains to questions of war and peace. To start, and perhaps most obviously, following Jesus is not the same as being Jesus or attempting to live exactly as he lived. If it were, faithful Christians would have to forsake both marriage and parenthood—in contradiction to other biblical injunctions to be fruitful and multiply. But even if one were to accept that Jesus’ example is to be followed in all things, what was the actual example he actually set regarding violence and war?

Was it the example Jesus set when he violently expelled the moneychangers from the Temple (Jn 2:14)? Or perhaps it was the example he set when he said to his disciples, “whoever has no sword is to sell his coat and buy one” (Lk 22:36)? Or maybe it was the example set by Jesus when he declared, “Do not think that I came to bring peace on the earth; I did not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Matt 10:34). And what are we to make of Jesus’ full-throated endorsement of the blood-soaked Old Testament, with its not infrequent holy wars? Or, indeed, of his effusive praise of the Roman centurion on the road to Capernaum (Matt 8:5-13)? My point is that, even if we accept the fundamental premise of the argument that Jesus of Nazareth’s example and teachings are normative, we are in no way compelled to conclude that true Christian discipleship necessarily entails pacifism. The picture of Jesus painted in the New Testament is a complex figure who is neither an absolute pacifist nor an unwavering peacemaker. Indeed, the picture that emerges from such a reading is one of a Jesus who quite literally embodies the righteous use of force.

But there is another, deeper, problem with grounding “Gospel nonviolence” in a Christology from below. Simply put, in order to work, such arguments must necessarily assume that Jesus’ teachings regarding Christian discipleship govern not only the actions of private persons but also those of public officials discharging their official duties. They must elide, in other words, the distinction between the realms of personal and political morality. A plain reading of the Gospels, however, reveals that Jesus did not make such an elision. His teachings regarding Christian discipleship pertain solely to the actions of private persons and their interpersonal interactions; they are effectively silent with respect to the morality of the state and its officials. Put slightly differently, Jesus’ ethical teachings in the Gospels are precisely that—ethical teachings. They deal with the morality of adultery, divorce, almsgiving and other standards of personal conduct, as well as specifying how to respond to personal insult or injury. They are not political teachings—indeed, they are entirely silent with respect to the precepts of governance and statecraft.

Once we understand this, we have the hermeneutic or interpretive key that unlocks the correct meaning of key Christian pacifist proof texts like the Sermon on the Mount. On the pacifist interpretation of Matthew’s account of this sermon, and there are clear echoes of this in Pope Francis’s message for the World Day of Peace, Jesus first declares that “peacemakers” are blessed and then proceeds to offer three teachings that are said to collectively constitute a blanket prohibition on the use of force. The first reaffirms the Old Testament injunction against murder, but adds a new dimension to the Law: it proscribes personal anger as well. The second bans personal vengeance and calls on Christians who have been wronged to “turn the other cheek” rather than retaliate. And the third enjoins Christians to love not just their neighbors but their enemies as well. Taken together, these teachings are said by Christian pacifists to abrogate the Old Testament lex talionis (“law of the tooth” or “eye for an eye”) principle and to decisively introduce a new Christian ethic of nonviolence—one that applies to both the personal and public domains.

Once we recognize, however, that the Sermon on the Mount is about personal ethics and not public policy, a very different picture comes into focus. Viewed in this way, the Sermon is less a blanket prohibition on the use of force by public authorities and more prohibition on the intemperate use of force by private persons in response to personal insult or injury. This had become a real problem in Jesus’ time with people not only exacting disproportionate retribution, but actually taking justice into their own hands instead of relying on magistrates or other public authorities. In the three teachings mentioned above, Jesus is clearly teaching his listeners about the proper response to personal insult and injury and, more generally, how private persons should conduct themselves in the interpersonal domain. He is not saying anything at all about the way public officials should enact the lex talionis. Nor is he saying anything about the broader issue of the propriety of the use of force by the state. Nor, finally, is Jesus barring Christians from wielding the sword in the service of those authorities. The assumption that the Sermon on the Mount is some sort of master class in political science is simply wrong.

This brings us to the second problem with adopting a pacifist Christology from below: not only is the assumption that the personal is the political wrong (at least in this case), the elision of the two realms inevitably leads to a rejection of settled Church teaching regarding war and peace. That teaching holds violent conflict is an inescapable reality in our post-Lapsarian world, and that we therefore need principles to determine when such conflict is licit and acceptable (even morally necessary) and when it is not. With roots in the Old Testament, the New Testament, and the life of Christ, and with a pedigree that stretches from the Church Fathers through to today’s Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC 2309), this Just War Theory specifies the conditions that must be met before going to war (competent authority, just cause, right intent) and the acceptable means of conducting war (CCC 2312-14). For a millennium-and-a-half, it has been not only a defining element of Catholic International Relations Theory, but also the foundation of contemporary International Humanitarian Law.

In an imperfect world, this teaching provides a tried and proven framework for making difficult moral calculations about war and peace. A flawed Christology from below logically compels one to reject this because it implies that no use of force is lawful or moral. It thus demands that a fifteen-hundred-year-old tradition of thinking about justice of war and justice in war be discarded in favor of an unproven pacifist alternative that would leave us with no real means of thinking about the just use of force in a world in which conflict, violence, and war is, unfortunately, an enduring and pervasive reality.

To be sure, Just War Theory is not without its complications and shortcomings. And active peacebuilding is certainly something to be embraced by the Church, as is an ethic of Gospel nonviolence in the realm of personal morality. But abandoning Just War Theory on the grounds of a spurious Christology from below and a tendentious reading of the Sermon on the Mount seems not only unwarranted, but dangerous. I pray that this is not the Holy Father’s intent. His message on the 50th World Day of Peace, however, seems to leave open this possibility.

Editor’s note: The image above, titled “Expulsion of the Money Changers from the Temple,” was painted by Luca Giordano in 1675.


  • Andrew Latham

    Andrew Latham is a professor of political science at Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minnesota for the past two decades. He is the author, most recently, of Theorizing Medieval Geopolitics: War and World Order in the Age of the Crusades published by Routledge in 2012, and The Holy Lance, his first novel, published by Knox Robinson.

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