This is the sixteenth in a 19-week series from Answering Jihad: A Better Way Forward by Nabeel Qureshi, author of Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus. Weeks one through eighteen will cover eighteen questions people most commonly ask Qureshi about jihad and Islam. These questions explore the origins of jihad, the nature of jihad today, and the phenomenon of jihad in Judeo-Christian context. After answering these questions, Qureshi will conclude by proposing a response to jihad, in his view the best way forward. His concluding remarks will be presented in week nineteen.
You can order the book from Amazon by clicking here.
QUESTION # 16 – What Does Jesus Teach About Violence?
ISLAM APPEARS TO ENVISION Moses as a prefiguring of Muhammad, and there are parallels between the two men. Both proclaimed monotheism in polytheistic contexts, both led their people out of physical oppression, both guided their people in times of battle, and both brought intricate laws to their followers.
Yet Jesus did none of these things. In the four accounts of Jesus’ life that we have in the Gospels, Jesus never led an army, never struck a man, and never even wielded a sword. In fact, His teaching on violence was clearly the opposite. The only place in the Gospels where we might expect Jesus to fight, during His arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane when His disciples were willing to fight for Him, Jesus gave them this command: “Put your sword back in its place… for all who draw the sword will die by the sword” (Matthew 26:52).
If Islam’s final and most succinct commands on peace and violence can be found in Surah 9 of the Qur’an, Jesus’ final and most succinct commands on peace and violence can be found in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). This sermon encapsulates Jesus’ teachings and forms a basis for Christian ethics. Nowhere in the Sermon on the Mount do we find an allowance for Christian violence, even for self-defense: “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 5:39-41).
This teaching works in tandem with Jesus’ command to love one’s enemies. Christians are not supposed to fight their enemies, because they are supposed to love them.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, ‘love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:43-48)
In the Christian worldview, the exemplar for followers of God is no mere man but God Himself. Since God cares for those who are His enemies, even blessing them with rain, Christians ought to love their enemies and pray for those who persecute them, so that they can follow God’s example.
This contrasts with the teaching of the Qur’an, where Allah tells Muslims, “O you who believe! Do not take my enemies or your enemies as allies, offering them your friendship when they do not believe” (60:1). Of course, that is not to condemn the Qur’an, as it is counter-intuitive to love one’s enemy. The Christian command may make little earthly sense, but it is the explicit teaching of Jesus. There are no teachings in the Gospels that contradict this categorical command, none that abrogate the mandate for peace and replace it with violence or hate. Jesus’ command is for grace and love, unconditional and unadulterated.
JESUS THE ZEALOT?
In his 2013 book Zealot, author Reza Aslan argued that Jesus actually did have violent aspirations. Aslan, a professor of creative writing at the University of California, Riverside, seemed to borrow heavily in his book from the 1967 arguments of S.G.F. Brandon that Jesus was a revolutionary figure seeking political upheaval and not opposed to violence. Arguments such as these, heavily criticized by the scholarly communities of both the 1960s and the 2010s, generally refer to a few verses to make their points.
One of the verses is Matthew 10:34, “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.” Those who quote this verse to demonstrate that Jesus was violent are either deceiving or deceived, as it is taken suspiciously out of context. The very next verse clarifies that Jesus is not talking about physical violence: “For I have come to turn ‘a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law—a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.” Jesus is talking about division within families, not actual warfare. No honest and careful study could conclude that Matthew 10:34 promotes violence.
Another verse that can cause confusion if context is ignored is Luke 19:27, in which Jesus says, “But those enemies of mine who did not want me to be king over them—bring them here and kill them in front of me.” Yet reading the whole passage makes the statement clear. Jesus is telling a parable, sharing a teaching about a king. He is not demanding that His enemies be brought before Him and killed. Throughout the Gospel of Luke, Jesus tells many parables, including ones about an evil judge who ignores a woman (Luke 18), a farmer who sows seeds (Luke 8), a vineyard owner who orders a tree to be cut down (Luke 13), and a woman who searches for a lost coin (Luke 15).
These parables are not meant to imply that He is an evil judge who ignores women, that He is a farmer who sows seeds, that He is a vineyard owner who orders trees to be cut down, or that He is a woman looking for a coin. Similarly, His parable in Luke 19:27 is not meant to imply that He is a king who wishes to kill people. Rather, Jesus uses stories to provide memorable illustrations, and His parable in Luke 19:27 prefigures the outcome of those who have rejected God on the final day of judgment.
Perhaps more understandably, people sometimes turn to Luke 22:36 to suggest that Jesus considers violence acceptable. In this verse, Jesus says, “But now if you have a purse, take it, and also a bag; and if you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one.” It is sometimes assumed, since Jesus told His companions to purchase a sword, that He wanted them to fight.
Context is again critical, and a closer look reveals the problem with this understanding. Jesus in this verse is telling His disciples to prepare for a journey, and He suggests they purchase a sword among the list of items they will need for their journey. The English word sword is also misleading here, as English speakers are prone to imagine a weapon used primarily for battle. The Greek word for sword that evokes such imagery is rhomphaia, but it is not the word for sword that Jesus used. Instead, He used the word machaira. Like a machete, a machaira was a long knife designed as a multi-purpose tool, useful for cutting meat or cleaning fish. Like a machete, a machaira could be used for fighting, but that was not its only or primary purpose. It would certainly have been useful as a traveling tool.
There appears to be confirmation of this interpretation within the text. As if to ensure that His disciples would not use the machaira for fighting, He tells them two are enough (Luke 22:38). Two swords could not be sufficient among twelve disciples for fighting, but they could be sufficient as traveling tools. Either way, the verse says nothing about actually committing violence.
The only remaining account in the Gospels that might suggest Jesus’ approval of violence is His cleansing of the temple. Of all four accounts in the Gospels, the most apparently violent is the account in the Gospel of John, which says,
When it was almost time for the Jewish Passover, Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple courts He found people selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money. So He made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple courts, both sheep and cattle; He scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. To those who sold doves He said, “Get these out of here! Stop turning my Father’s house into a market!” His disciples remembered that it is written: “Zeal for your house will consume me” (John 2:13-17).
This passage describes Jesus at His most zealous. He sees cattle and sheep sellers, dove sellers, and money changers, and He makes a whip for driving them all out of the temple. Some who read this passage might picture Jesus violently attacking people, but a careful reading shows that Jesus expelled all three of the groups differently, and none with violence toward people. First, the Greek syntax shows that He struck only sheep and oxen: “[He] drove all from the temple courts, both sheep and cattle.” The sheep and cattle having been driven out, their sellers followed. Jesus then turned over the tables of the money changers, causing them to leave. Finally, Jesus did not release the doves as that would amount to stealing them, but He ordered their sellers to depart. So Jesus purged the temple of all three groups of people, yet struck no person.
For anyone who wishes to strictly follow the teachings of Jesus, there is no room for violence. Not only does Jesus never allow offensive violence, He explicitly teaches against self-defensive violence, living out this difficult teaching in the Garden of Gethsemane. This is a difficult teaching for Christians to grapple with, as it would otherwise seem self-evident that violence is permissible for just causes, such as self-defense or protecting the oppressed. Jesus did not give us any exceptions to this tenet. His commands were categorically peaceful.
Jesus’ radical stance against violence coheres with the life He lived and the message He preached. The very crux of Christian theology is that Jesus, the example for all mankind, was willing to die for others, including His enemies. He came to serve those who killed Him, even to die on their behalf. His commands to His followers are consistent with His example. He tells them to love their enemies, to pray for them, and to self-sacrificially serve them, and in this way to be like God. Reading Jesus’ words carefully leaves no doubt: Jesus commanded total love and grace.
This degree of peace was so radical that Christians struggled even with the notion of self-defense, and for 300 years after Jesus Christians never fought in a single battle.
Thanks for reading.
Please join me next Friday for Qureshi’s Question #17–How Does Jihad Compare With the Crusades? It is important for me to state that I do not support the religion of Islam ideologically or theologically. I am a Christian, who is a novice scholar of comparative religious study and an apologist. Indeed, Nabeel Qureshi is no longer a Muslim, having converted to Christianity after his exhausting study on the question of violence and jihad in Islam.