This is a guest post from Eric A. Seibert, adapted from Disarming the Church: Why Christians Must Forsake Violence to Follow Jesus and Change the World (Eugene, OR: Cascade 2018)
In 1978, Michael Hart published an intriguing book titled The 100 in which he ranks the one hundred most influential people in history from his perspective.* Scientists, explorers, inventors, philosophers, and musicians populate the list, along with notable religious and political leaders, both ancient and modern. Hart devotes several pages to each person, explaining their significance and his rationale for their placement on the list. Among the top ten are many familiar names, including such luminaries as Buddha, St. Paul, Johann Gutenberg, and Albert Einstein.
Obviously, with a list like this, people are naturally curious about who takes first place. Who does Hart regard as the most influential person in all of human history? Is it Jesus? As the founder of Christianity (and God incarnate!) we might assume that Jesus must certainly be the most influential person of all time. But Jesus is not first on Hart’s list. Jesus does not even place second. Instead, Jesus comes in third. He is outranked by Isaac Newton in the number two spot and the Prophet Muhammad who tops the list. Why is this? “The impact of Jesus on human history is so obvious and so enormous,” writes Hart, “that few people would question his placement near the top of this list. Indeed, the more likely question is why Jesus, who is the inspiration for the most influential religion in history, has not been placed first” (Hart, The 100, 4).
Hart answers this question at the end of his essay about Jesus. After referencing Jesus’ teachings from the Sermon on the Mount about turning the other cheek, loving enemies, and praying for persecutors (Matt 5:39, 43–44)—which many believe to be Jesus’ clearest and most direct teaching about nonviolence—Hart offers this explanation for Jesus’ third place finish:
Now, these ideas—which were not a part of the Judaism of Jesus’ day, nor of most other religions—are surely among the most remarkable and original ethical ideas ever presented. If they were widely followed, I would have had no hesitation in placing Jesus first in this book.
But the truth is that they are not widely followed. In fact, they are not even generally accepted. Most Christians consider the injunction to “Love your enemy” as—at most—an ideal which might be realized in some perfect world, but one which is not a reasonable guide to conduct in the actual world we live in. We do not normally practice it, do not expect others to practice it, and do not teach our children to practice it. Jesus’ most distinctive teaching, therefore, remains an intriguing but basically untried suggestion. (Hart, The 100, 20–21, emphasis original)
Considering the violent history of the church, Hart is on to something. Though I think he somewhat overstates his case—there are many examples of people who have taken the teachings of Jesus seriously and tried to follow them—the sad truth is that the majority of Christians have not been guided by Jesus’ directive to love their enemies. Instead, they have routinely justified all sorts of violence, often against the very enemies they were supposed to love. Numerous books and articles have been written describing the way the church has harmed others and behaved violently over the past two thousand years. They make for difficult reading.
Given the New Testament’s clear directives to love enemies, repay evil with good, and reconcile rather than retaliate, it is fair to ask why large numbers of Christians condone so much violence against others. For example, why do so many churchgoers sanction torture, justify warfare, support capital punishment, and approve of violence for self-defense? While we have a moral obligation to do all we can to confront evil, injustice, and oppression, Jesus never encourages us to help some people by hurting others. Condoning or participating in acts of violence, even for the most noble reasons, runs contrary to the teachings of Jesus.
This is one of the central claims I make in my recent book Disarming the Church, namely, that Jesus lived nonviolently and taught his followers to do the same. This was central to his mission and message, and it should be central to the church’s as well.
Unfortunately, some people mistake nonviolence for passivity in the face of evil. Nothing could be further from the truth. Courageous people have used nonviolent strategies to correct injustice, stop wars, and remove dictators from power. They have also used it to rescue people from imminent danger and to escape from harm themselves. We should avail ourselves of all the alternatives to violence at our disposal as we seek to follow the nonviolent way of Jesus.
As Christians, we are called to reject violence, confront evil, and unconditionally love others. We are to practice gracious hospitality, radical forgiveness, and deep compassion toward all people—no exceptions allowed. In short, we are to love others, enemies included. If we actually did that and became known as a community of people who genuinely love their enemies, then maybe, just maybe, Jesus would have a shot at coming in first.
(For more, check out Disarming the Church: Why Christians Must Forsake Violence to Follow Jesus and Change the World (Cascade 2018). It offers a biblical case for following the nonviolent way of Jesus and is filled with stories and practical suggestions for how to live this out in the world).
*I am indebted to Daniel Buttry for introducing me to Michael Hart’s work and his ranking of Jesus. The quotations from Hart’s work that follow are from the revised edition of The 100 (1994).
About Eric A. Seibert
Eric A. Seibert (Ph.D., Drew University) is Professor of Old Testament. He has training and experience in conflict mediation and enjoys speaking about how to read the Bible nonviolently, in ways that promote peace. He is the author of Disturbing Divine Behavior: Troubling Old Testament Images of God (Fortress 2009) and The Violence of Scripture: Overcoming the Old Testament’s Troubling Legacy (Fortress 2012). Eric lives with his wife and three children in Grantham, PA.