In American Evangelical Christianity, lethal violence is supported—or even celebrated—in some forms, such as self-defense and the military. Dr. Preston Sprinkle (with help from Andrew Rillera), an evangelical who grew up playing war and shooting guns, re-examined his assumptions about the Biblical text and church history and came to a startling conclusion: as Christians, we are never to use violence or support its use. Even though I never really examined violence and war Biblically, I went into Nonviolence: The Revolutionary Way of Jesus fully expecting to disagree with Dr. Sprinkle’s conclusions. I grew up in a church that heavily celebrated the U.S. military and that talked in favorable terms about using lethal force in self-defense. I was shocked that the Biblical case for non-violence is much stronger than I thought.
Nonviolence is a book written for anyone. Despite Dr. Sprinkle’s theological credentials, he’s written an incredibly accessible book. Anyone can read this book, and anyone can think about whether Christians can support violence.
What is Violence?
Sprinkle uses Chapter 1 to attempt to define his terms. Definitions are incredibly important in this discussion because it's effortless to create a caricature or “straw-man” of your opponent’s argument—one that’s easy to defeat, but which they do not actually hold.
Sprinkle’s definition of “violence” is: “a physical act that is intended to destroy a victim by means that overpower the victim’s consent.” This allows for things like mixed martial arts (MMA) fighting, or corporal punishment that could but does not have to, meet this definition of violence, depending on the intent. In other words, physical acts that involve physical contact but that are intended for the person’s good and flourishing, or that is not intended to cause him or her injury may not be violence according to the book’s definition.
From the outset, Sprinkle writes that Nonviolence has three goals: (1) “I want everyone who reads this book to rethink what the Bible—and only the Bible—says about warfare and violence. There are too many non-biblical worldviews that have controlled this discussion.” (2) “I hope that this book will help snuff out the militaristic spirit that has crept into the American church over the last few decades. As I will show, Scripture protests against militaristic zeal.” (3) “I pray that this book will help evangelical Christians to fight. Fight against evil…Fight against sin. Fight against injustice. …I pray that citizens of God’s kingdom would emulate their King and fight without using violence.”
The Biblical-Theological Case for Nonviolence
The majority of the book is set up to walk through scripture, from Genesis to Revelation, to think about how the Bible thinks about violence. This is the meat of the book. In the introduction, Sprinkle writes, “I’m sure you already have many questions about whether I’d kill Hitler or the psycho trying to hurt my family. We’ll get to these questions (and others)… But Bible-believing Christians cannot—or should not—approach these questions without first studying what the Bible says about violence… I want to focus primarily on what the Bible says about the topic. Then—and only then—will I wrestle with the various moral issues related to violence.”
The first scriptural place Sprinkle goes is Genesis—Judges. This is a tricky spot for the proponent of non-violence because there are clear and explicit commands of God for Israel to perform violence—for example the command to drive the Canaanites out from the land in the book of Joshua. Israel’s history is blood-soaked, and I was interested to see how Sprinkle would address it.
First, Sprinkle argues that we have to see Israel’s history of bloodshed in the redemptive story and in its cultural context. He writes, “As with polygamy, slavery, and divorce, the law of Moses accomodates to and offers moral improvements upon ancient Near Eastern warfare policy and violence. From our perspective, the Old Testament seems like an ongoing bloodbath. Compared to the laws of other nations, however, the Old Testament’s laws regarding war and violence are quite tame, and in some cases absurd.”
Second, Sprinkle looks closely at God’s commands for Israel’s army and its upkeep in comparison with its neighbors. This was one of the most surprising parts of the book for me, and it made a big impact on how I think about violence and militarism. “Israel was less violent and had a stripped-down—almost absurd—warfare policy compared to the nations around it.”
Sprinkle continues by looking at the Canaanite conquests of Joshua, how the prophets talked about violence, how Jesus talked about violence, and finally comes to Revelation. His treatment of Revelation was another lightbulb moment for me, and drove me to dig deeper, looking at Brett Davis’ book See the Strange: The Gospel according to Revelation and Nancy Guthrie’s Blessed: Experiencing the Promise of the Book of Revelation. He argues that popular Christianity in America has thought of Revelation as when Jesus stops being meek and starts taking names (and lives) in blood-soaked violence. But we’ve both missed the point and the details of a book that really teaches the opposite. I’ll leave it to you to explore more.
Even though Nonviolence spends 160 pages on the scriptural story and how it discusses violence, I was left wanting more. It does an impressive job of making a theology of nonviolence accessible, but if you’re someone who has read a few theological books, you may be left wanting something more in-depth.
In chapter 10, Nonviolence takes a look at how the earliest believers interpreted Jesus’ words about violence and how they tried to live in light of that interpretation. Why is that important? Because by trying to see how the earliest Christians thought about violence, we can remove some of our cultural baggage and see with fresh eyes. Instead of using lethal weaponry, the earliest Christians interpreted Jesus’ words to mean that they were called to obtain victory through faithfulness to Christ and loving those who hated them, even if it meant their deaths.
But they didn’t live in the modern world. They didn’t have gang wars with weapons that can kill quickly from a distance. They didn’t have serial murderers, kidnappers, and rapists (supposedly). So if we believe that the Bible teaches Christians should embrace an ethic of non-violence, how then should we live?
That’s what Sprinkle spends the rest of the book unpacking, starting in Chapter 11, the aptly named Attacker at the Door, and Chapter 12, Questions and Objections.
The important point to Sprinkle is the Biblical case for nonviolence. He wants to make his case and while he spends some time on the practical questions, they’re not answered comprehensively, and he doesn’t try to. It’s a weakness of the book, but one that is understandable for a 250-page book written for any Christian, not just an educated or long-time one.
I nearly gave this four stars because I was left wanting more. More Biblical discussion (160 pages may seem like a lot, but when you are covering the entire Bible, it’s definitely not), more church history, and more practicalities.
Ultimately, however, Nonviolence does what it sets out to do and does it extremely well. I recommend this book to any Christian looking for a light, easy-to-read, but challenging book on the issue of violence, militarism, and the Christian.
Nonviolence: The Revolutionary Way of Jesus
by Dr. Preston Sprinkle and Andrew Rillera