Jesus had, if we follow accepted chronology, about three years in which to preach and/or perform anti-Roman warfare. But as far as we can glean from the New Testament, he did no such thing.
On the contrary, Jesus’ teaching was overwhelmingly pacifistic. In most situations of foreign occupation, there is at least one “peace party” which, while opposed to the collaborators at the top of the system, nevertheless argues for non-violent solutions. Jesus seems to have been affliliated with such views. We know that some of the most stringent anti-Roman, anti-collaborationist people were also non-violent, namely the Dead Sea Scroll, or Qumran, community. They held that while they would be ultimately be called to an apocalyptic battle with God and the angels on their side, their role in history was to eschew what they saw as the corrupt Temple priesthood in Jerusalem, and wait for God to decide the time of the final battle. So they retired to the shores of the Dead Sea to farm, pray, and await the End which would come in God’s good time..
Jesus himself believed in God’s apocalyptic transformation of the current age, but he went beyond Qumran’s idea of an apocalyptic battle. Instead, Jesus seemed to think that a mysterious agent of God – the Son of Man – would appear at the end of the age, to perform God’s “cleanup” of the world. Some scholars believe that the Son of Man is Jesus’ oblique reference to himself, or to some other Yahwistic agent whose secrets were somehow acquired by, and known to, Jesus. In any case, the judging Son of Man is to separate the sheep from the goats not in terms of Jewish nationalism, but rather in terms of the Jewish Torah. Living out the Torah’s social mandates of care for the imprisoned, poor, widowed, orphaned, sick and rejected will be the moral measure by which the sheep are divided from the goats.
Not only did Jesus value simple charity as the saving point in the apocalyptic judgment. He further explicated the details of the Torah’s social mandate, and his explication is pacifistic. Not only to murder is wrong; but the simple wish to murder is equally wrong, with the same kind of inner application holding for a number of sins and human failings, with mercy topping the list as the highest virtue. This is demonstrated in Jesus’ mercy toward the woman caught “in the very act” of adultery, in his parable of the Good Samaritan, in his advice to aid even the fearsome Roman soldier in carrying his pack “the extra mile”.
Moreover, Christians acknowledge Jesus as the Messiah, the rightful King of Israel. Some scholars think that Jesus may have thought of himself as a king in the sense of being the unique agent of the Kingdom of God, and therefore its earthly “king”. If this is true, then clearly Jesus’ messianic response – his kingly response – to Roman occupation and priestly collaboration was pacifistic. He never encouraged his disciples to revolt. He never refused them the freedom to pay the Temple tax in good conscience. As far as we know, Jesus’ sole rebellious act was his demonstration in the Temple – the so-called “Purification of the Temple” – which was his lived-out criticism to the collaborationist priesthood. It was also an act of animal liberation, since Jesus’ prime motive was not the money changers, but the selling of animals for sacrifice. It is highly probable that Jesus was opposed to animal sacrifice, which is an ancient tradition within Judaism, although this is not a familiar idea to many. In any case, Jesus’ prophetic act in the Temple was a case of non-violent resistance.
In view of all this, it is baffling to see so many American Christians defending the US’s recent military interventions in the Near East. “Whatsoever you do to the least of these,” Jesus said, “you do to me.” From attacks with weapons associated with depleted uranium, to deadly drone attacks, to the highly questionable assassination of Osama bin Laden, to contemplation of war with Iran, it is clear that US foreign policy is far from Christian, if by “Christian” one means the pacifistic ethic of Jesus himself. How sad that the Prince of Peace has been assimilated by Christian hawks; stolen, disfigured, and re-created along militarist lines into a Lord of War.