Can it ever be a Christian’s duty to kill? For Plough’s founding editor Eberhard Arnold, who wrote the following selections in Germany between 1920 and 1935, this question goes to the core of the meaning of Christianity, and of human life.
I. In the name of Jesus, no one can shed human blood.
In the name of Jesus Christ we can die, but not kill. This is where the gospel leads us. If we really want to follow Christ, we must live as he lived and died.1
Speaking to those advocating class war leading to state communism: Again and again in the life of a nation, and in the class struggle for existence, pent-up tensions and conflicts erupt in violent outbursts. These outbursts reveal exploitation and oppression and the savage instincts of covetous passion. People respond in different ways to this violence: some try to uphold law and order by murderous means, while others feel called to fight for social justice with the oppressed.
As Christians, however, we must look further ahead. Christ witnessed to life, to the unfolding of love, to the unity of all members in one body. He revealed to us the heart of his father, who lets his sun shine on the wicked as well as the good. He commissioned us to serve life and to build it up, not to tear it down or destroy it.
Thus we believe in a future of love and constructive fellowship – in the peace of God’s kingdom. And our faith in this kingdom is much more than any wishful longing for the future. Rather, it is a firm belief that God will give us his heart and Spirit now, on this earth. As the hidden, living seed of the future, the church has been entrusted with the Spirit of this coming kingdom. Her present character must therefore show now the same peace and joy and justice that she will embody in the future.
For this reason, we must speak up in protest against every instance of bloodshed and violence, no matter what its origin. Our witness and will for peace, for love at any cost, even our own lives, has never been more necessary. Those who tell us that the questions of nonviolence and conscientious objection are no longer relevant are wrong. Just now, these questions are more relevant than ever. But answering them requires courage and perseverance in love. Jesus knew he would never conquer the spirit of the world with violence, but only by love. This is why he overcame the temptation to seize power over the kingdoms of the earth, and why he speaks of those who are strong in love – the peacemakers – as those who will inherit the land and possess the earth. This attitude was represented and proclaimed strongly by the first Christians, who felt that war and the military profession were irreconcilable with their calling. It is regrettable that serious-minded Christians today do not have the same clear witness.
We acknowledge the existence of evil and sin, but we know it will not triumph. We believe in God and the rebirth of humankind. And our faith is not faith in progress, in the inevitable ascent to greater perfection, but faith in the Spirit of Christ – faith in the rebirth of individuals and in the fellowship of the church. This faith sees war and revolution as necessary judgment on a depraved and degenerate world. Faith expects everything from God, and it does not shy away from the collision of spiritual forces. Rather, it longs for confrontation, because the end must come – and after it, a completely new world.2
No one who has heard the clear call of Jesus’ Spirit can resort to violence for protection. Jesus abandoned every privilege and every defense. He took the lowliest path. And that is his challenge to us: to follow him on the same way that he went, never departing from it either to the left or to the right (1 Pet. 2:21–23). Do you really think you can go a different way from Jesus on such decisive points as property and violence and yet claim to be his disciple?3
II. Thus there can be no Christian state.
The sword of the Holy Spirit given to the church is totally different in every respect from the sword of governmental authority. God gave the temporal sword, the sword of his wrath, into the hands of unbelievers. The church must make no use of it. The church must be ruled by the one Spirit of Christ alone. God withdrew his Holy Spirit from the unbelievers because they would not obey him. Instead, he gave them the sword of wrath, that is, temporal government with its military power. But Christ himself is the king of the Spirit, whose servants cannot wield any sword but that of the Spirit.4
Still, we cannot go to a police officer or a soldier and say, “Lay down your weapons right now, and go the way of love and discipleship of Christ.” We have no right to do that. We can do it only when the Spirit speaks a living word to our hearts: “The decisive moment has come for this man to be told.” Then we will speak to him, and at the same moment God will tell him. What we tell him must agree with what God says in his heart at the same time.5
In the time of the Reformation in the early sixteenth century, our brothers the first Anabaptists protested by the thousands against all bloodshed. This powerful movement of the brothers was decidedly realistic. For they never believed that world peace, a universal springtime, was imminent. On the contrary, they believed that the day of judgment was at hand. They expected that the Peasants’ War would be a mighty warning from God to the government.
To be aware that the world will always use the sword is realistic. But that realism must be combined with the certainty that Jesus stands free of all bloodshed; he can never be an executioner. He who is executed on the cross can never execute anyone. He whose body is pierced can never pierce or wreck bodies. He never kills; he himself is killed. He never crucifies; he himself is crucified. The brothers say that Jesus’ love is the love of the executed one for his murderers, the one who himself can never be a murderer or executioner.
No government can exist without using force. It is impossible to imagine a state that does not use police or military force. In short, there is no government that does not kill. There is no government that does not compromise with capitalism, mammonism, and injustice.
When Jesus said, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s,” he was talking about money (Luke 20:25). He called money something alien, something he had nothing to do with. Give this alien stuff to the emperor; they belong together, mammon and Caesar. Let the money go where it belongs, but give to God what belongs to God. That is what these words mean. Your soul and your body belong not to Caesar but to God and the church. Let your mammon go to the emperor. Your life belongs to God!
Jesus means us to recognize the state as a proven practical necessity. But there can be no Christian state. Force has to rule where love does not.6
III. Pacifism is a misleading caricature of peacemaking.
Nowhere does Jesus say a single word to support pacifism for the sake of its usefulness or benefits. In Jesus we find the deepest reason for living in total nonviolence, for never injuring or harming our fellow human beings, body or soul. Where does this deep inner direction he gives us come from? It has its roots in the deepest source that we sense in one another: the brother or sister in every human being, something of the inner light of truth, the inner light of God and his Spirit. (1 John 2:10)7
Much good is being said and done in the cause of peace and for the uniting of nations. But I don’t think it is enough. If people feel urged to try to prevent or postpone another major European war, we can only rejoice. But what seems doubtful is whether they will have much success in opposing the war spirit that exists right now:
When over a thousand of our German people have been killed by Hitler – without a trial – isn’t that war? When hundreds of thousands of people in concentration camps are robbed of their freedom and stripped of all dignity, isn’t that war? When hundreds of thousands are sent to Siberia and freeze to death while felling trees, isn’t that war? When in China and Russia millions of people starve to death while in Argentina and other countries millions of tons of wheat are stockpiled, isn’t that war? When thousands of women prostitute their bodies and ruin their lives for the sake of money, isn’t that war? When millions of babies are murdered by abortion each year, isn’t that war? When people are forced to work like slaves because they cannot otherwise feed their children, isn’t that war? When the wealthy live in villas surrounded by parks while other families don’t even have a single room to themselves, isn’t that war? When some people build up enormous bank accounts while others earn scarcely enough for basic necessities, isn’t that war?8
We do not represent the pacifism that believes it can prevent future war. This claim is not valid; there is war right up to the present day. We do not advocate the pacifism that believes in the elimination of war through the restraining influence of certain superior nations. We do not support the armed forces of the League of Nations, which are supposed to keep unruly nations in check. We do not agree with a pacifism that ignores the root causes of war – property and capitalism – and tries to bring about peace in the midst of social injustice. We have no faith in the pacifism held by businessmen who beat down their competitors, nor do we believe in the pacifism of people who cannot even live in peace with their own wives. Since there are so many kinds of pacifism we cannot believe in, we would rather not use the word pacifism at all.
But we are friends of peace, and we want to help bring about peace. Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers!” And if we really want peace, we must represent it in all areas of life. We cannot injure love in any way or for any reason. So we cannot kill anyone; we cannot harm anyone economically; we cannot take part in a system that establishes lower standards of living for manual workers than for academics.9
We are very much concerned that the objective proclamation of the kingdom of God not degenerate into some new theoretical orthodoxy. We take a lively interest in the socialist and pacifist movements of our day, and we affirm the global conscience they represent – without resorting to their false methods. What we share with them is simply the view that the community of the future will be a life in which all goods are shared freely and lovingly.10
IV. Christ calls us to a life of action, not passivity.
The very ordinary demand Jesus makes of his church, namely, to maintain an attitude of love and unconditional kindness, is subject to all manner of misunderstandings. God’s language suffers because of such false translation. One example of this is the ineffectual and passive pacifism of the sort advocated by Leo Tolstoy. (Gandhi’s situation is different: in his case, nonviolence combined with passive resistance is a weapon for the liberation of his people; it is a form of power politics.)
Tolstoy rightly starts with Jesus’ commands in the Sermon on the Mount, where he tells us not to resist evil, to give our coat when our cloak is taken from us; to give two hour’s work when one is asked of us; to reconcile with our enemy while we are still on the way with him. But Tolstoy understands these words to mean that we have simply to give in, meekly submitting without clearing up the facts and without protesting against evil. To him the good means simply yielding to an evil fate, without exercising the freedom of will. Thus he in fact advocates the otherworldly, resigned piety of the established church that elsewhere he so sharply condemns. The attitude he demands is, in effect, utmost passivity, a kind of Buddhism. Although he speaks a lot about Jesus, we have to regard Tolstoy as a sort of sectarian monk.
By contrast, Jesus’ commands in the Sermon on the Mount have an active meaning, a positive content, namely, that the nature of God in Christ Jesus and in his coming kingdom is revealed here and now in the church. It follows that we cannot yield to any violent government action. God’s reign does not give way to the military strength of the great powers. Even though Jesus is executed, he shows throughout the trial that he protests this execution. He does not surrender passively and weakly to the judicial murder. He says, “I am a king, and you will see the Son of Man at the right hand of the throne of God. You will have to recognize my rule, you who now commit the outrage of killing me.”
Jesus’ attitude has nothing to do with weak compliance, yet it fulfills the demands of the Sermon on the Mount. This difference is decisive.11
At the time of Jesus, as today, people were waiting for a new world order. They longed for the kingdom of justice of which the prophets had spoken. Then Jesus came, and he disclosed to them the nature and practical consequences of this justice. He showed them a justice completely different from the moral order of the pious and holy – a living, growing power that conformed to the sacred laws of life. He did not give them commands about conduct, but instead radiated the spirit of the future with his very character. That character was unity.
That is why it is fruitless to take any one command of Jesus out of its context and set it up as a law on its own. It is not possible to take part in God’s kingdom without purity of heart, without vigorous work for peace; the change of heart must extend to all areas. It is foolishness to try to follow Christ in only one sphere of life. The Beatitudes cannot be taken apart. They begin and end with the same promise of possessing the kingdom of heaven.
The people of the Beatitudes are the people of love. They live from God’s heart and feel at home in him. The Spirit of life has set them free from the law of sin and death; nothing can separate them from the love of God in Jesus. And what is most remarkable and mysterious about them is that they perceive everywhere the seed of God. Where people break down under suffering, where hearts long for the Spirit, they hear his footsteps; where the revolutionary desire for social justice arises, where protest against war and bloodshed rings out, where people are persecuted because of their socialism or pacifism, and where purity of heart and compassion can be found – there they see the approach of God’s kingdom and anticipate the bliss to come.12
V. Love your enemies – even Hitler.
Nothing else can be commanded of us than what has also been commanded of us in quieter times: that is perfect love.
To our religious socialist and pacifist friends we have to emphasize: Love your enemies. They label Hitler and Mussolini as devils. I cannot find in the New Testament that Jesus called anyone who opposed him a devil (although he did call some children of the devil); even of Judas Iscariot it is only said, “He had a devil.” Our enemies, too, remain our brothers and sisters, and the objects of our love.
Love to the enemy is the true love of Jesus. Jesus says, “Blessed are the peacemakers.” If our pacifist friends want to be peacemakers, they have to live in love, even toward their enemies. If they hate them, they might also be capable of killing them: “Anyone who hates his brother is a murderer!” (1 John 3:15).
We are commissioned to represent perfect love, also to our enemies. Here there can be no bound or limit; whoever our enemy may be, it makes no difference to whom we offer our love. We love our enemies and want to love them in the right way, so that they come to peace.13
We know that we are surrounded by enemies of the Christian faith. In such times the sacrament of forgiveness is needed more than ever, for the enemy’s furious hatred challenges us to meet him with the opposite. Our enemies are the very ones we should love by having faith and understanding for them, knowing that in spite of their blindness they have a divine spark that needs to be fanned.
Love for our enemies has to be so real that it reaches their hearts. For that is what love does. When that happens, we will find the hidden spark from God in the heart of even the greatest sinner. In this sense we must also forgive our enemies, just as Jesus asked the Father forgive the soldiers who hung him on the cross, saying, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”14
How are we to take up this fight? In the Spirit of the coming kingdom, and in no other way. We must fight this battle in love. The weapon of love is the only one we have. And whether we are confronted with a mounted policeman or someone in the Reich Labor Service, whether we come into contact with a district president, a prince, a party leader, or even with the president of the Reich, it makes no difference. We must love them, and only when we truly love them shall we be able to bring them the witness of truth. That is what we are here for.15
VI. The Christian way is a soldier’s life.
There are some who misunderstand Jesus utterly and think there was a kind of unmanly softness in him. His own words prove that this is not true; he says that his way will lead us into the hardest battles, not only into desperate inner conflicts but even into physical death. His own death and his whole conduct prove it – the sureness and fearlessness with which he met the powers of murder and lying.16
After Jesus was killed, the small band of his disciples in Jerusalem proclaimed that though their leader had been shamefully executed, he was indeed still alive and remained their hope and faith as the bringer of the Kingdom. The present age, they said, was nearing its end; humankind was now faced with the greatest turning point ever in its history, and Jesus would appear a second time in glory and authority. God’s rule over the whole earth would be ensured.
The reality of this message in the primitive church could be seen through the working of powers of the future. People were transformed. The strength to die inherent in Jesus’ sacrifice led them to heroically accept the way of martyrdom, and more, it assured them of victory over demonic powers of wickedness and disease. He who rose to life through the Spirit had a strength that exploded in an utterly new attitude to life: love to brothers and sisters and love to one’s enemy, the divine justice of the coming kingdom. Through this Spirit, property was abolished in the early church. Material possessions were handed over to the ambassadors for the poor of the church. Through the presence and power of the Spirit and through faith in the Messiah, this band of followers became a brotherhood.
In their certainty of victory, Christians gathered for the Lord’s Supper perceived the alarmed question of Satan and death, “Who is he that robs us of our power?” They answered, exultantly, “Here is Christ, the crucified!”17 When Christ’s death is proclaimed at this meal it means that his resurrection is given substance and life is transformed. His victorious power is consummated in his suffering and dying, in his rising from death and ascent to the throne, and in his second coming. For what Christ has done he does again and again in his church. His victory is perfected. Terrified, the Devil must give up his own. The dragon with seven heads is slain and the evil venom is destroyed.18
The trials of all the Greek heroes cannot match the intensity of this spiritual battle. By becoming one with the Christ triumphant, early Christian life became a soldier’s life, sure of victory over the greatest enemy in the bitter struggle with the dark powers of this world. Whenever the believers found unity in their meetings, especially when they celebrated baptism and the Lord’s Supper and the “Lovemeal” (Agape), the power of Christ’s presence was indisputable. Sick bodies were healed, demons driven out, sins forgiven. People were assured of life and resurrection because they were freed from all their burdens and turned away from their past wrongs.
Baptism and the confession of faith that those baptized professed were the “symbol” – the “military oath” – through which more and more soldiers of the Spirit were sworn into service. This “mystery” bound them to the service of Christ and the simplicity of his divine works.
It is probably impossible to visualize how seriously the early Christians took the heroic service of the Spirit. The military equipment bestowed by the Spirit was a living reality, and not a mere metaphor. The two basic principles of army life – the right to military pay and the injunction against economic and political involvement – aptly characterized Jesus’ commission to his apostles. He stressed their right as soldiers of Christ to receive provisions for their service (although they remained poor on principle) and commanded them to refrain from all business enterprises and the amassing of wealth and possessions. The rule of faith committed all Christians to the apostolic and prophetic soldiership of the Spirit. Non-Christians were therefore called “civilians” or pagani, from which the word “pagan” stems.
Jesus had foretold that the drinking of his cup would mean baptism in this bloodbath. Repeatedly the church gathered around the martyrs as for a Lord’s Supper celebrated in blood.
Every time, the repulsive spectacle of execution became the solemn victory of Christ over Satan’s rule, the certainty of the Lord’s resurrection – that event which guaranteed for all times the rule of the dying victor.19
VII. We have only one task in the world: to be the body of Christ.
Only very few people in our time grasp this realism of the early Christians. And it is just in this very realistic sense that the Word, which is Christ, wants to find a body in the Church. Mere words about the future coming of God fade away in people’s ears. That is why a living reality is needed. Something must be set up, created, and formed, so that no one can pass it by; this is the embodiment, the corporeality.
“Christ in you” is the first part of this mystery. As Christ was in Mary, so Christ is in us who believe and love. Thus we live in accordance with the future; the character of our conduct is the character of God’s future.20
The life of Jesus had nothing to do with killing and harming others, it had nothing to do with untruthfulness and impurity, and it had nothing to do with any influence of mammon or property. Jesus went even further: he smote this hostile power in its home territory. His death shattered every weapon of the enemy. But he did still more. He brought the kingdom of God down to the earth, he roused body and soul from death, he himself rose as the Living One, and through his Spirit he laid the foundation for the final kingdom – a kingdom of complete unity for everything in heaven and on earth. He broke down the barriers between nations, and he created the unity of the body of his church as his second incarnation. This new unity and bodily reality of Jesus lives here on the earth in the human race.21
This is not something moralistic or legalistic; it is something very natural and simple. It takes place now, through Christ in the Church, by which the future kingdom takes on a physical form. Just for this reason, the Church must demonstrate perfect peace and perfect justice. This is why it cannot shed blood or tolerate private property, cannot lie or take an oath, cannot tolerate the destruction of bridal purity or of marital faithfulness.
The apostle Paul says we are ambassadors of the kingdom of God (2 Cor. 5:20). And the kingdom of God is not represented by any state of this world, but by the Church. This means that we ought to do nothing at all other than what God himself would do for his kingdom. Just as the British ambassador in Berlin does nothing other than the will of his superiors in London, so we too must do the will of God alone. We are no longer subject to the laws of this world; the grounds of our embassy are inviolable, just as in the residence of an ambassador, only the laws of the country he represents are valid.
The will of God is to reconcile and to unite. Thus our task too is to reconcile and to unite. We have no other mission in this world.22
These readings are adapted from writings collected in Eberhard Arnold’s books, especially God’s Revolution and Salt and Light, as well as from texts accessible at EberhardArnold.com.
- Talk from December 1932, in Eberhard Arnold, God’s Revolution: Community, Justice, and the Coming Kingdom (Plough, 2021), 160.
- Johann Christoph Arnold, ed., Eberhard Arnold (Modern Spiritual Masters Series) (Orbis, 2000), 46.
- Talk from 1931, God’s Revolution, 161.
- Talk from 1930, God’s Revolution, 164.
- Talk from 1933, God’s Revolution, 164.
- Talk from 1934, God’s Revolution, 171.
- Talk from 1932, God’s Revolution, 168.
- Talk from August 1934, Eberhard Arnold, 47.
- Talk from August 1934, Eberhard Arnold, 49.
- Letter to Professor Evert, 1920, Eberhard Arnold, 102.
- Eberhard Arnold, Versammlungsprotokoll, 9. August 1933 (Meeting Transcript, August 9, 1933), 1933, 0000000112_04_S, Bruderhof Historical Archive, Walden, NY, USA.
- Essay from 1920, Eberhard Arnold, 63.
- Eberhard Arnold, Versammlungsprotokoll, 8. März 1935 (Meeting Transcript, March 8, 1935), 1935, 20126042_05_S, Bruderhof Historical Archive, Walden, NY, USA.
- 1935, God’s Revolution, 164.
- 1933, God’s Revolution, 162.
- 1932, God’s Revolution, 168.
- Syriac Testament of Our Lord Jesus Christ, 1.28.
- Ode of Solomon 22.
- Eberhard Arnold, “Introduction,” The Early Christians (Plough, 1970).
- Address, 1934, Eberhard Arnold, 214.
- Eberhard Arnold, The Conscience, Inner Land, vol 2 (Plough, 2019), 7–9.
- Address,1934, Eberhard Arnold, 216.