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Jan.–Apr. 1984 · Vol. 13 No. 1–2 · pp. 16–25 

The Biblical Basis of Peacemaking

Mervin Dick

There is only one valid beginning point for peacemaking and that is the central figure of the human race, Jesus Christ, and the central symbol of the Christian Faith, the cross.

In our world, virtually anywhere we may find ourselves there is one sure way to establish our identity as Christians and that is to display a cross. That marks us and sets us apart. Today we construct our symbol out of finely carved wood, polished silver or chrome, or even plastic. Unfortunately, for many today, including large numbers of those who so casually call themselves Christians, the cross has become an abstract symbol of the faith. It is admired, revered and displayed, but lacks personal significance, without ever becoming even in the most elementary sense a pattern for our lives. With such a shallow view of the cross, is it surprising that our plastic crosses have brought with them a plastic Jesus? This Jesus is romanticized out of His concrete, historical, flesh and blood humanity. This Jesus stirs up warm loving feelings within us because of the many good and kind things he did to help people and because of the noble and lofty ideals he projected. But it is a Jesus who never becomes “Lord” of our lives, who never models the way of the cross.

The cross—on that rough hewn jagged, slab of wood, Roman soldiers took spike and hammer and nailed to it Jesus of Nazareth, whom we follow and worship. Here God’s son suffered the most despicable death possible. Paul called the cross a scandal and so it was. For here the one who had confidently said that the Kingdom of God was near, died abandoned by God. Here the one who had helped so many others appeared to be helpless himself. His very death seemed to contradict his claim to power. What does it all mean? What did it mean then and what does it mean now for us in concrete practice? What, we ask today, does this cross have to do with peace making?


Jesus was born into a poor Jewish peasant family. Like other Jewish people they were the victims of the social and economic arrangement of that time. Herod the Great, ruling as a client King of {17} Rome, turned large portions of Palestine into personal estates worked by tenants—an oppressive arrangement referred to by Jesus in some of his parables. By the time Jesus began his public ministry Judea was directly governed by Rome as a Roman province. Pilate, the governor when Jesus was crucified, was described by one of his contemporaries as a person “of hard disposition, brutal and pitiless.” His rule was characterized by “corruption, violence, robbery, brutality, extortion and execution without trial.” 1

It is hard for us to imagine how much the devout, God-fearing Jews of that time despised Roman rule and all it represented. And of course there were times when the Romans deliberately provoked the Jewish religious sensitivities as when the Emperor Caligula attempted to set up a statue of himself in the temple in A.D. 41.

The Roman rule increased the deep seated Jewish Messianic expectation. Shalom, the Old Testament term for peace, is a rich comprehensive word meaning wholeness and well being in every area including material abundance, national prosperity, and right relationships among persons in society. It is a theme that runs throughout the Old Testament Scriptures. Even today when I read a passage like Leviticus 26:3-6 which paints a wonderful picture of the earth yielding rich harvests, wild animals that are domesticated and a condition of peace—“the sword not go through the Land”—I find myself getting goose bumps. It seems almost too good to be true. Reflect on the images painted by the prophets (Isaiah 2:4 and Micah 4:3): “and they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks, nations shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” Or visualize Isaiah’s picture (11:6, 9) “the wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid, and the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.” With time this Old Testament expectation came to be centered in a person—a Messiah who would come to usher in this hoped-for and promised kingdom.

Such images and longing nurtured and sustained the Jewish population of Jesus’ time as they endured oppression, exploitation, brutal wars and disappointed hopes. Almost everyone longed for the dawn of a new age when the Messiah would come to end the rule of the hated foreign oppressors. And from time to time there would arise on the scene individuals who would claim to be this Messiah. They usually didn’t last long, however, because with cruel efficiency the Romans would crucify them, as they did other dangerous political insurrectionists suspected of treason against Roman rule.

Considering this background it is not difficult to understand why Jesus attracted such attention and collected a large popular following when he appeared on the scene. When Jesus began his ministry, saying, {18} “the time is fulfilled, the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel,” it appears that those listening to Jesus understood what he meant. He was claiming to be the long-expected Messiah and the Messianic age was breaking into the present movement. To a faithful Jew there could be no better news than that.


Of particular interest for our consideration is the Zealot movement and Jesus’ relationship to it. The Zealot movement was an underground organization of violent, nationalistic revolutionaries. It emerged shortly after Judea became a Roman province in A.D. 6. The adherents to this group combined an ardent zeal for the law with avid messianic expectation. They were a deeply religious people who believed that if the Jews would provoke a popular rebellion against Rome, God would step in and usher in the new Messianic age. Violence was at the heart of their strategy. They believed that slaying the godless was a religious duty.

Because they were suppressed, the Zealots operated mainly as guerilla bands from the caves of the Judean desert. So in Jesus’ day the question of revolution was a burning issue, and the violent option offered by the Zealots was popular among a segment of the people.

But not all of Jesus’ contemporaries accepted this option. The Sadducees and the high priestly ruling class collaborated with the Romans. The more moderate Pharisees also opposed violent rebellion and the Essenes retreated into their Judean caves to wait quietly for the day of vengeance.

In this politically charged milieu Jesus took up his ministry. How was he perceived in relationship to the Zealots of his time? It seems clear that some Zealots were attracted to Jesus. Simon, one of the twelve is in fact, called “the Zealot.” Some scholars are convinced that Judas was a Zealot and others think that Jesus’ reference to James and John as the Sons of Thunder indicates they too were influenced by Zealot thinking. What did Zealots find attractive about Jesus?

There were certain ways in which Jesus’ actions resembled the Zealot style. Jesus clearly put himself in a confrontational opposition stance with the establishment of his day, both religiously and politically. He challenged the status quo whenever it was wrong. He upset the male-female status quo by denouncing liberal divorce regulations which favored men and made women susceptible to the personal whims of their husbands. Jesus also disregarded the accepted social pattern of treating women as inferior persons. He appeared publicly with women (John 4:27), something commonly called a disgrace in his day. He even taught them theology (Luke 10:38-42). He challenged the smug {19} political status quo by teaching that leadership in the kingdom was based on being humble servants rather than domineering masters, as was the pattern in Roman politics. And who can miss the scathing denunciation Jesus made against Herod when he called him “that fox?”

Jesus took on the economic establishment as well. “It is easier,” he said, “for a camel to squeeze through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom” (Matthew 19:24). These who were rich were to lend to the needy even if there was no hope of regaining their investment (Luke 6;30, 34; Matthew 5:42). To a rich ruler whose wealth had apparently become his life and his god, Jesus recommended giving it all away—to the poor. And it now seems quite clear that part of what Jesus did in the synagogue at Nazareth was to announce the year of Jubilee (Luke 4:18, 19, cf. Lev. 25). All of this underlines the radical nature of Jesus’ teachings regarding economic life.

Perhaps the most daring act of Jesus was his cleansing of the temple. Many see only the religious side of this act. But that is to miss the full impact of the text: “It is written, my house shall be a house of prayer, but you have made it a den of robbers.” It appears that the chief-priest, in collaboration with the Romans had turned the temple into a profitable stockyard operation by charging exorbitant prices to poor worshipping peasants who had come to Jerusalem from a distance. So in addition to denouncing the religious sacrilege being carried on, Jesus also denounced the economic oppression this represented.

Anyone who demanded such radical change from the rich and powerful was a dangerous revolutionary. The Jewish leaders clearly saw this and in the end the Romans thought so too for they crucified him. This was the Roman way of despising political revolutionaries. No doubt the Zealots applauded Jesus for his courageous confrontational actions.

But it would be a serious mistake to call Jesus a Zealot for there was a very basic way in which Jesus differed from them. He rejected violence as a way of bringing in the kingdom. We must not miss the full impact of Jesus’ words to a people so oppressed by foreign conquerors that repeatedly for over two centuries they had resorted to violent rebellion. To them Jesus gave this unprecedented command, “Love your enemies!” Martin Hengel believes that Jesus formulated this command to decisively set himself apart from the violent Zealots. 2 The contrast must not be missed. Jesus was rejecting one popularly attractive political method in favor of one radically different.

The Jewish population saw only three possibilities in respect to their situation: (1) armed revolutionary resistance (Zealots) (2) opportunistic accommodation and collaboration with the establishment (Sadducees {20} and chief priests) (3) patient endurance. Jesus lived and taught a fourth possibility, the way of suffering servanthood and forgiving love.


For Jesus forgiveness was a very basic sign of the kingdom. Many of the parables of Jesus make this basic point: God is a generous and merciful King and father who initiates forgiveness for all sinners. One enters this kingdom through God’s forgiveness. And Jesus clearly demonstrated with his life that he was a forgiving person, culminating on the cross where he prayed for those who had crucified him: “Father, forgive them they know not what they are doing.” Jesus even claimed for himself the authority to forgive sins. And He made it clear that those who are members of this kingdom are to practice this radical forgiveness as a sign that they are forgiven by God. Forgiveness, not vengeance, is the sign of the kingdom.

Coupled with forgiveness is the clear teaching and example of Jesus that suffering servanthood has replaced violence as the way of the kingdom. Jesus saw himself as the suffering servant described in Isaiah 53—one who could suffer and die rather than kill. In both his actions and his words Jesus rejected all forms of lethal violence. When Jesus stood before Pilate he said “My kingship is not of this world; if my kingship were of this world, my servants would fight, that I might not be handed over to the Jews; but my kingship is not from the world” (John 18:36). Jesus said to Pilate that a sure way to tell that this was in fact the kingdom of God rather than the Kingdom of this world, was that his followers did not use violence. In this Jesus was consistent to the end. For when Peter took the sword at the time when Jesus was arrested, Jesus said, “All who take the sword will perish by the sword.” It seems clear: you cannot follow Jesus and participate in violence. In its place are the practice of servanthood, love for all people including enemies, and the practice of forgiveness and reconciliation. John Howard Yoder has summarized it well: “Servanthood replaces dominion, forgiveness absorbs hostility.” 3

The life and teachings of Jesus have brought us to the cross. In that cross were demonstrated two very basic and equally important aspects of the Christian faith. First, on that cross Jesus died to accomplish forgiveness of sin and reconciliation with God. Jesus, who had taught that we should love the enemy, died as the incarnate Son of God to demonstrate once and for all that God reconciles his enemies by suffering love and forgiveness. That is the kind of heavenly father we have—he desires to freely grant forgiveness rather than judgement to sinners like you and me. The cross demonstrates God’s method of dealing with enemies. But there is a second and equally important aspect of the cross. The cross becomes for us a way of life. If God in the person of {21} Jesus Christ reconciled his enemies by suffering, self-sacrificing love and forgiveness, then those who follow this Christ must treat their enemies in the same way. That is how the New Testament writers understood it. “To this you have been called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you as example, that you should follow in his steps . . . when they hurled insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead he entrusted himself to him who judges justly” (1 Peter 2:21, 23). “Be imitators of God . . . and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Ephesians 5:1-2). Both of these aspects of the cross are equally valid for the believer today.

Christians stumble over the cross. One group, usually those in the evangelical tradition, hold tenaciously to the forgiveness aspect of the cross but downplay or even ignore it as a model for Christians. And there is another group of people, usually placed in the pigeonhole we call “liberal,” who strongly emphasize Pacifism and non-violence but who fail to link it with Christ’s vicarious atonement. Must we not be honest and say that both of these are inadequate if not heretical understandings of the doctrine of the atonement? Let us speak plainly. If we are not willing to accept the cross as the decisive ethical pattern for how we are to deal with opponents and enemies including even our willingness to give up our love affair with the violent militaristic enterprises of our nation, then we must in the end give up any legitimate claim to be followers of the cross of Christ. For if we reject the way of peace, forgiving love and reconciliation as our way of life, we are in effect expressing our rejection of God’s way of reconciling enemies, that is a denial of the atonement itself.

Furthermore, if it is true that (1) all people are sinners, (2) that sin is not just wrong action toward other people but also a rebellion against a just God and (3) that “God desires all men to be saved” (1 Timothy 2:4), then, surely, to kill or to cooperate in killing someone who is not a Christian is to deny that person the opportunity to accept Christ as his/her savior. Instead we are called to affirm the humanity of the one who oppresses us and to call that one to decision, even if in the process we suffer abuse, wrong, or the loss of our lives.

Jesus said “If anyone would come after me let him deny himself, take up his cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24). Parallel to the cross of Christ stands the cross of the Christian. To take up our cross is to put into concrete praxis that which Jesus did and taught. It is to make the cross of Christ the pattern, the norm of our lives. While the New Testament over and over again commands us to imitate God’s love, it explicitly forbids us from imitating his wrath. “Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: It is mine to avenge: I will repay” (Romans 12:19). How often we do the reverse, {22} withhold our love and seek revenge.

The cross of Jesus is the norm for every area of our lives, in the home, in the church, in the marketplace and in our relationships with the state. The most important New Testament text in this regard is found in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:38-48 and parallels). This text makes several important points. (1) For the followers of Jesus, the circle of those who are to be actively loved extends beyond family and friends, and includes even those who are enemies. For the Jewish people this included the Romans, for us it includes the Russians, the Chinese and the Cubans. (2) This call to love our enemies is grounded not in the realm of pragmatics—the optimistic hope that somehow doing this will result in transforming vicious enemies into bosom friends. It is grounded in the very nature of God himself: “So that you may be sons of your father in heaven, for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and unjust” (Matthew 5:44-45). God is a God who loves his enemies instead of destroying them. The cross is the ultimate demonstration that this is true. “God shows his love for us in that while we were reconciled to God by the death of his son” (Romans 5:8, 10). (3) It is this love that we are to imitate in relationships to our enemies. (4) This ethic applies in all situations of life, both private and public. We must reject as misguided the view of some Christians who claim that this ethic is for some future time and not for today. Likewise we must reject the view that this is only a personal ethic and does not apply in the public sphere. Exegetically, there is no ground for limiting the ethic of the cross to the personal sphere of life. Edward Schweizer’s comment on this Matthew text is appropriate here: “There is not the slightest hint of any realm where the disciple is not bound by the words of Jesus.” 4

To love by this standard will put us out of step with today’s nationalistic approach which says, “Love the friends of our nation, but hate the nation’s enemies, and if called upon to do so, destroy them.” Christians love their enemies, not because they think love is sure to conquer these enemies. Christians love their enemies because God does and because God commands his followers to do so. That is the only reason and that is enough. We live under no illusions. Such love is not easy and it is not painless. At some point to love our enemies will cause suffering, maybe even death.

Does this mean that a Christian must passively accept all that happens and never resist? Is this what Jesus meant when he said that we should not resist the evil person? (Matthew 5:39). If it is, then we must observe that Jesus violated his own teaching in his blistering attacks on the Pharisees (Matt. 23:13-33) in his cleansing of the temple, and in his rebuke of the soldier who unjustly struck him on the cheek (John 18:19-24). Here Jesus did not turn the other cheek. When we look at {23} the total record of the gospels, it is clear that Jesus resisted evil actions and evil persons. Thus it is my conclusion that non-violent coercion can be a legitimate expression of resistance to evil that is valid for Christians today. Indeed sometimes it is our Christian duty to resist evil oppression and injustice in this way. I am convinced that this is what we must do in behalf of our brothers and sisters in Christ in Central America today. But lethal violence, taking a life, is never an option for Christians.

To follow the way of Jesus and his cross can never lead us to withdraw from active involvement in the affairs of life, including the tough questions of militarism and nationalistic aggression of our nation. It means rather that we demonstrate an alternative way of obedient servanthood, in the midst of crisis and conflict. I strongly identify with the following statement made by Henri Nouwen this past summer in Washington D.C. after having spent a period of time in Central America:

When I moved to Latin America I was teaching spirituality and prayer. I had it together on that level and I decided to stay out of anything close to politics or economics. But gradually I realized that I couldn’t avoid the political, economic, and military mess that is there to be seen. Suddenly I had this image that indeed Christ himself was called political, subversive, and was crucified as a competitor of the worldly king. I remember that Judas was interested in money, and that money had a lot to do with the suffering of Christ. I realized that there were soldiers and military people all around the Lord that came to his crucifixion. I saw then that our spiritual call takes place in the midst of ambiguity and ambivalence and that if I waited until I had a very clear, final view of how things really were before I started saying anything, I would never speak. So here I am, a little bit unclear, a little nervous, saying things that I am not competent in, but claiming the competence of the Christian to speak clearly and specifically in a time of crisis. 5

This brings us, finally, to the one area that Christians today cannot avoid. The whole area of nuclear armament. There was a time when we could say, “I will refuse to allow any government to use me to kill other human beings.” But things have changed. With the advent of the nuclear age has come a whole new set of rules. Now we are dealing with massively destructive weapons, and sophisticated technology to bring about destruction virtually untouched by human hands, but capable of totally destroying the earth and all its inhabitants. “Stealing God’s stuff” Mark Hatfield called it. 6 On this issue our very credibility to the claim that we are followers of Jesus Christ is at stake. Jim Wallis has focused the issue for us: {24}

The sign of the nuclear age is the Bomb. The sign of Christ is the Cross. The Bomb is the countersign to the Cross; it arrogantly threatens to undo the work that the Cross has done. In the Cross, all things are reconciled; in the Bomb, all things are destroyed. In the Cross, violence is defeated; in the Bomb, violence is victorious. In the Cross, evil has been overcome; in the Bomb, evil has dominion. In the Cross, death is swallowed up; in the Bomb, death reigns supreme. Which will hold sway in our times? Will we choose to live under the sign of the Cross or the sign of the Bomb? Finally, which sign will the church choose for its own life? The great evangelistic task before us is to convert our people from the Bomb to the Cross. 7

Nuclear weapons are the last mile along the Zealot’s violent road. As we know, our nations and our president are committed to increased nuclear build-up. To do nothing, to be silent, is to give consent to this violence, death and destruction. We cannot sit this one out. We must take a stand. Faithfulness to Christ and his cross means to make our voice heard, perhaps even to resist non-violently. Our Lord is begging us to see that the only hope for our nuclear age is the way of the cross. Will his people believe him and act in obedience?

As we apply the way of the cross in this terrifying nuclear world, we can do so with confidence and hope because of two important events. The first is the Resurrection. It was the resurrection of Jesus that convinced the first disciples that Jesus’ claim and his announcement of the messianic kingdom were valid. And it is the Resurrection with its claim that Jesus is the prototype of a new humanity in which all who are in Christ share, that lifts a peacemaking way of life from being a noble but utopian dream to a new genuine possibility. The Resurrection is the unalterable indication that the way of the cross will ultimately triumph in the universe and in our own lives here and now. Pentecost is the second powerful sign. In it we see the new humanity that is created when the Holy Spirit of God comes to take up residence in fullness among God’s people. Both the Resurrection and Pentecost are signs that the messianic kingdom of Jesus is in fact a reality among us, that his kingdom has come on earth as it is in heaven.

Lord we believe! Help thou our unbelief!


  1. Martin Hengel, Victory Over Violence: Jesus and the Revolutionists (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1973), p. 63.
  2. Ibid., p. 50. {25}
  3. John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1972), p. 134.
  4. Edward Schweizer, The Good News According to Matthew (Atlanta: John Knox, 1975), p. 194.
  5. From a talk entitled “A Journey Interrupted,” delivered in Washington D.C. July 27, 1983 and adapted in A Call to Peacemaking (World Peacemaking, Inc.).
  6. Mark Hatfield, Commencement address at Fresno Pacific College, Fresno, CA on May 1, 1983.
  7. Jim Wallis, The Call to Conversion (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1981), p. 88.
Mervin Dick pastors the Butler Avenue Mennonite Brethren Church in Fresno, California. This article was originally delivered as a chapel address at the Seminary.

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