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Theological Reflection: Violence and the Christ-follower

Introduction

This post could be viewed as controversial. While I admit that this topic is one about which there are several opposing views, I am not posting to simply be contrarian or divisive. Rather, I am attempting to flush out my theological convictions as they relate to a number of “hot button” issues. This is not intended to be a fire starter, but rather a discussion starter. I want to biblically and theologically reflect on issues that concern our lives today. What I am presenting is essentially a non-academic position paper.

I say non-academic because this is not an assignment and my writing style will be informal. However, I will be delving into some theologically dense concepts and arguments. Meaning, this blog post may not be your cup of tea.

I also want to caution any readers who disagree with my reflections to thoughtfully and respectfully engage the content here. I also want to caution against reading things I am not saying into this reflection. Assumptions are generally unhelpful for the discussion and tend to impose on others a view they did not espouse. That said, here we go.

Jesus and Early Christian Thought

Much of the debate concerning violence has to do with the teachings of Jesus:

  1. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. (Matthew 5:9)

  2. You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. (Matthew 5:38-39)

  3. You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor[a] and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matthew 5:43-48)

  4. “Put your sword back in its place,” Jesus said to him, “for all who draw the sword will die by the sword. (Matthew 26:52)

One of the important things to note is that Jesus is not saying these words in a cultural or historical vacuum. The challenge of his teachings is just as radically impractical then as it is today. To love their enemies would have meant loving their Roman oppressors.

For Jesus’ audience, this went against everything they believed about the Messiah. They believed and desired a military leader who would liberate Israel from her enemies. Which at that time, meant Rome. They believed Israel’s salvation would come via the sword. Jesus not only taught otherwise, but his life exemplified otherwise. He did conquer Rome, he was crucified by Rome. This was completely unexpected.

Not only was Jesus killed by Rome, but Jesus while on the cross declared forgiveness over those responsible for his death: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). What we need to see here is that how Jesus lived was in complete alignment with what He taught. There is no incongruence between what He said and what He did.

As Christ-followers we have to ask ourselves if the impracticalities of Jesus’ teachings let us off the hook. Since Jesus’ teachings and the hope of sin’s eradication will only be fully realized in the age to come, do we have any present responsibility to do that which seems humanly foolish? As theologian Miroslav Volf states,

But in the meantime, we continue to live in a world which would rather stock-pile swords than make enough plowshares, in which every minute the nations of the world spend 1.8 million dollars on military armaments as every hour 1,500 children die of hunger, according to statistics of a few years ago… As violence erupts, oppression and deception will hold sway, new imbalances of power will be generated, and profound disagreements over truth and justice perpetuated. And this all will be done by big and little Caesars wielding their large and small swords. In such a world, our question cannot be whether the reign of truth and justice—the reign of God—should replace the rule of Caesar. It should—the sooner the better. Our question must be how to live under the rule of Caesar in the absence of the reign of truth and justice. Does the crucified Messiah have any bearing on our lives in a world of half-truths and skewed justice?[1]

What are the implications of the sort of life Christ modeled? How should our lives and identities be shaped as Christ-followers?

For some early Christians, they believed Jesus’ teachings and example prohibited any use of violence. Here are some quotes offering a sampling of some of the earliest Christian perspectives on violence:

  1. Whatever Christians would not wish others to do to them, they do not to others. And they comfort their oppressors and make them their friends; they do good to their enemies…. Through love towards their oppressors, they persuade them to become Christians. — The Apology of Aristides 15[2]

  2. A soldier of the civil authority must be taught not to kill men and to refuse to do so if he is commanded, and to refuse to take an oath. If he is unwilling to comply, he must be rejected for baptism. A military commander or civic magistrate must resign or be rejected. If a believer seeks to become a soldier, he must be rejected, for he has despised God. — Hippolytus of Rome[3]

  3. Christians have changed their swords and their lances into instruments of peace, and they know not now how to fight. –Irenaeus, approx. 180 A.D.[4]

  4. But how will a Christian engage in war—indeed, how will a Christian even engage in military service during peacetime—without the sword, which the Lord has taken away? For although soldiers had approached John to receive instructions and a centurion believed, this does not change the fact that afterward, the Lord, by disarming Peter, disarmed every soldier. –Tertullian, 155-230 A.D.

Now, to be fair, there were and are opposing views than those represented above. Saint Augustine of Hippo advocated the “just war theory.” A theory that essentially wrestles with the reality that violence and war are never ideal options, but are sometimes the necessary options to prevent greater atrocities. Another great thinker from Christian history that proposed the possibility of “just war” was Thomas Aquinas. Here is a sampling of their perspective:

  1. They who have waged war in obedience to the divine command, or in conformity with His laws, have represented in their persons the public justice or the wisdom of government, and in this capacity have put to death wicked men; such persons have by no means violated the commandment, “Thou shalt not kill.” – Saint Augustine[5]

  2. The first thing is the authority of the prince by whose command the war is to be waged. It does not belong to a private person to start a war, for he can prosecute his claim in the court of his superior. In like manner the mustering of the people, that has to be done in wars, does not belong to a private person. But since the care of the commonwealth is entrusted to princes, to them belongs the protection of the commonwealth of the city, kingdom, or province subject to them. And as they lawfully defend it with the material sword against inward disturbances by punishing male-factors, so it belongs to them also to protect the commonwealth from enemies without by the sword of war. – Thomas Aquinas[6]

Augustine and Aquinas both leaned heavily on conclusions drawn out from Paul’s words in Romans 13: “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.”

What this reveals, at the moment, is that we should not be quick to assume our position on violence is the only biblical position. I also want to challenge the merging of American patriotism with our theology. The Christian language that is married to 2nd Amendment issues is suspect and troubling to me. National Rifle Association Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre stated in a speech, There is no greater personal individual freedom than the right to keep and bear arms, the right to protect yourself, and the right to survive. t’s not bestowed by man, but granted by God to all Americans as our American birthright.”[7]

I feel there needs to be a more thoughtful reflection on our love and passion for guns, the American military, and violence. I am not saying that Christians cannot own guns, that we should not respect and value our military, or that war is never necessary. I simply think we are sometimes too quick to adhere to a position without thoughtfully, biblically, and theologically reflecting on it.

The Eschatological Now

One of the other arguments for nonviolence is the reality that we are participants in God’s mission of reconciliation. Reconciliation is our primary calling. It is essential to our identity as Christ-followers. We are to be working towards the realization of God’s will and His Kingdom here on earth as in heaven. Greg Boyd writes on Isaiah 2:4 and nonviolence:

“And He will judge between the nations, And will render decisions for many peoples; And they will hammer their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not lift up sword against nation, And never again will they learn war.” …This is God’s vision for humanity, and it begins to be realized in the Kingdom Jesus inaugurated. We are to be in the present what the world will become in the future. We are “the eschatological community.” Since there will be no violence when the Kingdom is fully come, there should be no violence practiced by Kingdom people now.[8]

In other words, since violence is not a part of the age to come, it should not be a part of our lives now. Analogous to this is our perspective on sin. Just because sin will be a part of the Christian’s life on this side of heaven does not mean we take a passive position towards sin. No, we actively oppose sin and work towards it being eradicated in our own lives.

Similarly, just because violence is an unavoidable reality on this side of heaven does not mean we take a passive position on violence or even a permissive position on violence. Rather, we should actively oppose violence. Now, some may argue that the preparation to defend the innocent is a means of actively opposing the violence committed by evil people. A recent example would be the shooting in Texas that happened earlier this month. The shooter was shot and killed by an armed congregant likely preventing any further carnage.

I cannot say this is a bad thing. However, I am hesitant to embrace this view personally. By that I mean, I do not know that I will ever own a gun or carry a gun. I can see the logic of the perspective and I am willing to leave room for such a view. Even still, the exercise of such violence is a tragic result of the fall and should never be viewed flippantly.

Implications for American Christians

I have left so much out. Partially because I have not finished reading works that are particularly relevant to this conversation. One of the other important pieces of a coherent biblical theology is to understand the Greek origin of the word “Gospel” or “Good News.” The “good news” of Jesus, as recorded by the gospel authors, contrasts the way of Jesus with the way of Rome. The self-giving, others-oriented way of the cross stands in direct contrast to the violent displays of power and dominance as exerted by Rome. The message in the gospels is clear: Jesus is King, Caesar is not. I develop this thought more fully in another blog post here.

For now, I will end with a couple of things I believe should be true of all Christ-followers and a couple of things that I, personally, am convicted of.

  1. All Christians should cultivate a heart of love and forgiveness. These things are at the heart of the gospel. Our deepest desire should be the reconciliation of every human being. We must actively and vigilantly protect our hearts from allowing bitterness, hate, and unforgiveness to take up residence.

  2. All Christians should lament violence and war. Violence is always a necessary evil, it is never a necessary good for violence is only necessary because of the sin-stained world we live in. The circumstances that should require a courageous and self-sacrificial act of defense always the result of sin. This reality is one for which we are sorrowful. Come, Lord Jesus, come.

  3. All Christians should have more grace and openness to differing views. We would do well to learn from one another’s perspectives rather than fight over them. I should be able to raise legitimate objections to the passion some people have about going to war against terrorists or adamantly opposing further gun restrictions. There seems to be room for legitimate concerns here. Likewise, I could learn from the perspective of someone who believes the protection of the innocent may require the use of force. We could all be more humble in this regard.

  4. I am convicted that the New Covenant prevents me from appealing to Old Testament examples of violence as justification for violence. Jesus is the exact representation of God, and as such, he is the supreme revelation of God. Greg Boy notes, “…that Jesus is not one revelation of God alongside others: he is rather the one and only embodied revelation that encompasses, sums up, perfectly expresses, and in this sense surpasses, all previous revelations”[9] The transfiguration in Matthew 17 records God saying to Peter, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!” Some scholars have noted that this highlights the superiority of Jesus over Moses (who represented the Law) and Elijah (who represented the Prophets). In other words, Jesus supersedes the Law and the Prophets, also known as the Old Testament. That is not to say the Old Testament has no value as the revelation of God. There is more to say about this than I have room for here. Simply put Jesus’ teachings, the New Covenant, and the new command to love one another define my identity more than the Hebrew Scriptures.

  5. I am convicted that the teachings of Jesus are not logical, practical, or easy, but that they nonetheless require me to seek to never resort to using violence. I believe the teachings of Jesus, the example of the martyrs, and the position held by a majority of the early Church call me to be a peacemaker. I believe I must discipline my emotions against retaliation. Not just physically violent retaliation, but I must work towards guarding even my words.

[1] Volf, M. Exclusion & Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation. P. 277

[9] Boyd, G. Crucifixion of the Warrior God. P. 65

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