The Nonviolent Missio Dei

A number of people, not least John Howard Yoder and Richard Hays, have made the case that the NT does not give support to Christian participation in violence but, rather, leads us to practice nonviolence. Glen Stassen and others argue rightly that hearing the NT as a call to nonviolence alone is insufficient, and that we must also practice just peacemaking.

I am not disputing either of these claims and would in fact support them. Without going back and looking at each of their writings in detail, I would also add that each also says, implicitly or explicitly, that the mission or story of God is in fact a mission/story of nonviolent action centered in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. If we think, then, of participating in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus—that is, of participating in the story and mission of God—as the goal of human existence and the meaning of salvation, then nonviolence is not a matter to discuss or debate as one of so many possible topics in Christian ethics. Rather, it is at the very heart of what it means to be Christian, to be saved, to be a disciple.

Over at Getting Free, T has a brief but excellent post about this very topic: “The Cross and the Plot-line of our Time.” He says:

If this is a Story that we’re in, then the plot of how good beats evil in this world must be central to it. From what I can tell from the New Testament, generous love for people who are (currently) agents of evil (even to the point of giving one’s blood or money in love) is the central strategy of God in this plot line.

If T is right, and I think he is “spot on,” then the way Tom Wright and others tell the story of God in five acts (creation through recreation/redemption) needs to be more carefully articulated with an emphasis on God’s nonviolent, nonretaliatiory enemy love that is the central act of the story.

I wonder if Rev. Pagano and friends (see previous post) have thought about this? What’s the story of God they believe in and tell week in and week out?

T (and I) welcome responses there or here.

15 Responses to “The Nonviolent Missio Dei”

  1. T says:


    Thank you. I do hope that more people see how loving evil people, even at cost to ourselves, is the core strategy of how good advances against evil in this world, at least from the NT’s perspective, and how the resurrection is, in no small part, intended to allow us to participate in this exact work with hope and confidence, even joy.

    By the way, after reading your generous post this evening, I began ch. 11 of Reading Paul. Very well timed! I think we swim in the same waters, but you’re in the deep parts! The whole book, so far, has been a sincere joy, which I can’t do any justice to here. Chapter 12 tomorrow. Many, many thanks for your work.

  2. MJG says:


    You’re welcome, and thanks for your thoughtful words and thought-provoking blog.

    I had a student at Duke this last semester who is also an attorney. I’d like to introduce the two of you offline. If you don’t mind, contact me via email so I can connect the two of you.

  3. Mike C. says:

    Mr. Stassen’s call for the practice of just peacemaking leaves me a little fuzzy…unless, of course, we clear it up with a stiff Niebuhrian turn. Don’t we too easily slip into legitimatized coerciveness, enforcement and militancy when we ultimately fall back (or move forward) on democratic definitions of what is “just”? I wonder if a good test for this phrase “just peacemaking” would be to see how many of its proponents would hang around if it were replaced with “kenotic peacemaking” instead?

    The very fact that justice and kenosis can be set up so dialectically should tell us something about how we’ve ripped and torn God’s work. Yet, even this tragic dialectic has many clarifying corners for our participation if we will take some time to poke around in them. I don’t know if we’ll ever get that completed (Ha!), but just a couple notes from the project so far: Consider how the popular chatter tends toward a connotation of justice heavy on “measurement” of some sort…These empirical observations are not necessarily evil, but the imbalances noted are generally met with programmatic responses and policy rather than relationship… Information rather than participation. Kenosis allows no such distance or indifference. It calls life into action and calls forth sharing of life. I’ll go back often to your Dunning lecture for the best articulation of a living justice, the embodied and constituted justice of God, and an envisioned community of kenotic participation.

    You and T are onto something we Jesus followers better grapple with… “If this is a Story that we’re in” (he says, and you go on), “that is, of participating in the story and mission of God,” then we’re gonna have to keep embodying kenotic participation in our neighborhood…else—whether we’re packing pistols to church or not—we’re complicit in a far different story than the missio Dei.

    Thank you both for goosing me to chew on this a bit,
    Mike C.

  4. MJG says:


    As always you raise some very significant issues and make insightful observations. The dangers of which you speak are very real if a vague “just peacemaking” theory is allowed to operate on its own. This is not Stassen’s own approach, which is very much grounded in the cross, as act of enemy love and reconciliation, and in the Sermon on the Mount. See his 10 principles and his website, with more links. Also, there are lots of interesting conversations about this out there, including this one.

    Stassen actually presented all of this as the Dunning Lecture at St. Mary’s Ecumenical Institute some years ago. He and others who have worked with him are not interested in allowing legitmated violence to enter by the back door (though you are right that it could) but are, rather, committed to nonviolence. Their concern is that the just war-pacifism debate has been seen (sometimes rightly, sometimes not) has a debate between action and inaction, which would obviously mean (to some) that pacifism/nonviolence, understood as inaction, must automatically be ruled out. Instead, they insist, peacemaking is not inaction but alternative action.

  5. Mike, I think you’re bringing up really important issues here. I just taught a course that entailed a lot of attention to atonement theories. I really like the cosmic vision of Christus Victor, but if we miss that the victory part is attained by self-giving-love (so that others might live), it becomes a total disaster (cf. church history. :) ).

  6. Andrew Cowan says:

    Dr. Gorman,

    Thanks for posting this. I have read Hays’s book and a little bit of Yoder, and I find the case that they (especially Hays) make for the centrality of non-violence very attractive. I have hesitations, however, when I look at how military figures and Roman government officials are actually portrayed in the narratives of the NT itself. The following questions spring to mind: How does Luke intend for us to take John the Baptist’s advice to soldiers in Luke 3:14? Why does Jesus not call the centurions with whom he has contact to leave military service? Why is there no mention of tension between the conversion of Sergius Paulus and his position as proconsul in Acts 13:6-12 or Cornelius and his position as a centurion in Acts 10? Although I really would like to adopt fully the non-violent/peacemaking position, these questions give me pause. Government officials and military personnel do not receive the treatment that I would expect if an absolutely non-violent ethic were the NT expectation while the present age remains. It seems to me that these examples indicate that wielding the sword is not inherently wrong, but I am certainly open to persuasion to the contrary.

  7. MJG says:


    Thanks for the reminder that we all need about the ways in which our theological models (of the atonement or anything else) can get abused; it is for this reason that they must always be articulated and re-articulated with caution and care. A violent spin on Christus Victor is no less a temptation than it is with respect to substitution. In fact, I would argue that historically it is Christus Victor that has been the real culprit in the promotion of violence, despite the recent criticism of substitutionary atonement/penal substitution and the turn toward C.V. Which is in part why I find none of the models problem-free even though they all have roots in the NT (note that I did not say “even though they are all biblical”)—though I am not hereby promoting a penal-substitution model.

    My own particular emphasis on atonement is (as you know) participatory and “covenantal.” I intend to develop the latter as a full-blown theory—as much as a theory can be fully developed in a lecture or two!—in the Lund lectures at North Park in the fall of 2010. A covenantal model means that through the cross God restores us to covenantal relations with God and others through our participation in the self-giving, life-giving (very close to your language!) love of God demonstrated on the cross. This rules out, in advance, any activity that contradicts this self-giving, life-giving love.


    Thanks for your sincere, appropriate, and time-honored questions. I don’t have the space here and now to answer all of them exegetically and theologically, but I do want to suggest that at one level they are the wrong questions. (Please forgive the apparent contradiction with sentence one!) Why? Pointing to such examples is a bit like saying, “Jesus never explicitly condemned ____ [fill in the blank with your favorite activity] so we can do it after all!” despite vast amounts of evidence to the contrary in his overall message in context. Hermeneutically and theologically, it is wrongly prioritizing historical examples that may or may not relate directly to the larger theological issue and failing to prioritize what is absolutely clear in the teaching and example of Jesus, not to mention the theo-logic of the remainder of the NT. Thus these examples—whose theological significance is unclear on this issue—are turned into the hermeneutical lens that controls and thus distorts the interpretation of texts and narratives that are clear: the Sermon on the Mount, the logic of the gospel according to Paul in Romans, etc.

    Furthermore, drawing conclusions about wielding the sword, etc. from these narratives in Luke-Acts independently of considering their role in Luke’s account fails to raise the exegetical and theological question of the reason for their presence in the narrative. Is it to offer a rationale for Christian participation in the military and the use of the sword, or is is something else?—perhaps to demonstrate the ability of the gospel to transform any and all? If it is the latter, then we would be misguided in our reading of such narratives to build an ethic out of them, especially if that ethic contradicted other, explicit teachings in the same evangelist’s narrative.

    Is “wielding the sword” inherently wrong? That may not be the right question, especially with the word “inherently” in it. The right question might be, “Does the practice of violence cohere with or contradict the NT’s interpretation of what God has done in Christ—including his incarnation, teachings, death, resurrection, and exaltation as the definitive divine self-disclosure?”

  8. Andrew Cowan says:

    Dr. Gorman,

    Thanks for your response. I do think (as you have gently pointed out) that my hesitations are to some degree based an argument from silence, and I understand that you do not have time to address each passage that I have flagged exegetically. Nevertheless, I would like to ask just one of my questions again, mainly because it is “the exegetical and theological question of the reason for [its] presence in the narrative.” The question I thus re-submit is “How does Luke intend for us to take John the Baptist’s advice to soldiers in Luke 3:14?” In this passage, John’s advice seems to assume that the soldiers may continue in their present line of work, only they must not abuse the power with which they have been entrusted. If this is not intended by Luke to be heard as instructional material for disciples of Christ in the same position (as his other points of advice appear to be in the subsequent narrative), what is its purpose? Why did Luke not avail himself of this golden opportunity to call Christians away from the sword? Is he trying to portray John the Baptist’s message as incomplete or insufficient? This passage more than any other gives me pause in considering the position of absolute non-violence, and I’m just not sure how to take it otherwise without doing violence to the text. If you do not have time to address this passage yourself, I am always happy to read a book! (In fact, I would be happy to be pointed toward any resources that you think deal well with the standard line of objections from the gospels which give me pause.) Thanks for your consideration.

  9. T says:


    Dr. Gorman may disagree with me on this point, but on the soldier issue, my response would be this: I don’t think God is opposed to human authorities using the sword to ‘restrain’ evil in certain ways in this age, using the moral law for the unrighteous. In fact, there seems to be intentional provision for this. But we need to understand that limited ‘restraint’ of evil is the best the sword can ever do, and is more easily and often used to multiply evil instead, even by human authorities. In other words, the cause of good vs. evil will not be advanced or won with the sword. As the Church, we are called to a higher, riskier vocation than mere ‘restraint’ of evil. We’re called, as sheep to the slaughter, to overcoming it with good, in Jesus’ footsteps.

  10. Mike C. says:

    Thanks Dr. G, and thanks all for some great input for me to think through further as well…I’ve been out a couple days, and I’m glad to get back and learn from you all. I am glad to hear good things on Glen Stassen too, and I’ll definitely learn a lot from him, I see. I will be honest…I am reacting to some of Mr. Stassen’s work through David Gushee’s interpretation as relayed in his The Future of Faith in American Politics (2008). There are many good things there, but on the violence issue, in short, I was left thinking that we Christians lack a substantive and compelling vision of a kenotic denouement. I don’t want to act overly confident about having a telos all worked out…I’m not trying say that or even do that at all, but we (who try to work through the implications of following Jesus) work out a thousand scenarios that tend to end with our eventual capitulation to utilitarian ends (with our hedging talk of “coming down to reality” and demarcating our “last resorts”), and we seem starved for much vision of a “kenotic corps”–deployed and at work in actual history. I’m afraid even our imaginations will be indicted for this! When we keep finishing our commitments (and, unfortunately, our actions) with these kinds of last resorts and forfeitures to “reality,” we have to wonder if we were ever really kenotically deployed.

    Also…I got so wound up on my soapbox that I completely forgot where I was! Dr. Gorman, your post is on the money! Sorry about that…You speak to the goal of human existence in a way that I need to revisit often. It is a sound conclusion: “…then nonviolence is not a matter to discuss or debate as one of so many possible topics in Christian ethics. Rather, it is at the very heart of what it means to be Christian, to be saved, to be a disciple.”

    Your work is prophetically speaking to our needed vision of kenotic deployment, and it rightly forms the voice that can accurately speak to our needs in the Jesus following family. I am going to take you up on this call to tell God’s story with a “more carefully articulated … emphasis on God’s nonviolent, non-retaliatory enemy love that is the central act of the story.”

    OK, I’m gonna go catch up on the rest of these goodies you all are posting too!

    Mike C.

  11. MJG says:


    Fair enough about Luke 3:14. Two comments come immediately to mind:

    (1) All three questions and responses in Luke 3:10-14 have to do with money/possessions, their use, and appropriate attitudes. John does not provide a comprehensive description of repentance or a comprehensive ethic but a focused one, typical of Luke’s concerns. For Luke this issue (wealth/possessions) is both a specific issue and representative of the kingdom’s demands and of our response to them. So I agree that Luke has this material here as part of the kingdom ethic to embody, but because the issue is focused, we cannot expect John/Luke to say everything possible about individuals in general, tax-/toll-collectors, or “soldiers.”

    (2) Most scholars believe that the soldiers named here are not Roman soldiers but Jews in the employ of Rome or Herod, probably more like police officers or even security guards, perhpas charged to protect the toll-collectors. They are not warriors, whether Jeiwsh or Roman. They are being directed to repent from their desire for more money/provisions, which they could attain by using coercion or violence with the public. (There is a similar passage in Josephus that suggests such people could extort, intimidate, or even rape the uncooperative.) Thus, the passage does in fact, at least implicitly, counsel against violence in the form of intimidation, coercion, and perhaps more. (Remember that violence is about coercion, not just inflicting physical harm.)

    Thus to conclude that this text shows that for John the Baptist, Luke, and/or God soldiering, wielding the sword, government use of appropriate force, etc. is permissible is both to miss the general reason for the presence of the text and to miss the implicit condemnation of violence and, at the same time, to find (by an argument from silence) approval of the military in a text that is probably talking about something like the equivalent of Brink’s security guards.

  12. Andrew Cowan says:

    T and Dr. Gorman,

    Thanks for your responses. In good Lucan fashion, I will ponder these things in my heart.

  13. MJG says:

    Very Lucan/Lukan, Andrew.

  14. Mike Cantley says:

    OK, confession time. I goofed spouting off about Glenn Stassen without even knowing the guy! After just a little bit of exposure to his work, I realize how out of line I was to open my mouth at all and how I will learn from him for a long time. I’ve been working through Authentic Transformation: A New Vision Of Christ And Culture by Glen H. Stassen, D. M. Yeager, and John Howard Yoder, and I will shut up and go get some more of him!

    Mike C.

  15. Nice. Thanks for putting up this. It is always nice to see someone help out the world.

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