Welcome back. As we get closer to Memorial Day, we are continuing our discussion of violence and its place (or lack thereof) in the life of a follower of Jesus.
In the last post, we discussed the importance of a Christocentric hermeneutic (or interpreting the Bible through the person of Jesus). We determined that Jesus is the primary revelation of God and that whatever we learn about God through the rest of the Bible, it must be made sense of and consistent with this Jesus. This reading of Jesus as the center of scripture is the church’s classic way of reading and understanding the Bible (starting with Jesus Himself and the first apostles).
So, today, let’s take a look at the actual words of Jesus—our STARTING POINT and the “Author and Perfecter” of our faith. Here are just a few of his actual words regarding physical violence. (Quoted from TNIV)
Jesus said, “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. (Matthew 5.11)
Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the Sanhedrin. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell. (Mt. 5.21-22)
Jesus said, “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. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. (Mt. 5.38-41)
Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor 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?” (Mt. 5.43-46)
Jesus said, “Everyone will hate you because of me, but those who stand firm to the end will be saved. When you are persecuted in one place, flee to another. (Mt. 10.22-23)
Jesus said, “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” (Mt. 10.28)
Jesus said, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it.” (Mt. 16.24-25)
Jesus said, “You must love your neighbor as yourself.” (Mt. 22.39)
Jesus said, “you know the commandments: you must not kill…” (Mark 10.19)
Jesus said, “But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt. Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. Do to others as you would have them do to you.” (Lk. 6.27-31)
Jesus said, “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that. And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full. But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked.” (Lk. 6.32-35)
Jesus said, ” Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.” (Lk 6.36-37)
Jesus (on the cross) said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” (Lk 23.34)
Jesus said, “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (Jn. 16.33)
Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.” (Jn. 18.36)
And though there are other statements that we could look at as well, it is also worth noting that Jesus not only speaks these words but also lives them out with the most powerful witness of non-violence in the face of the worst of humanity’s thirst for blood that history has ever seen. Jesus backs up his words with his willingness to go without a fight to his ruthless and unimaginably violent death.
But, a few comments about his actual statements.
1) THEY ARE RADICAL! It comes as no surprise that these words make us uncomfortable. It is not shocking that we would try to explain them away as meaning something else other than what they plainly seem to mean. To accept them as they are is unpalatable to our sense of entitlement.
Jesus is saying things here that go beyond our sense of what we feel like we should “reasonably” be called to do. And as uncomfortable and even angry as these statements made the original hearers (they killed him for these types of things), it is understandable that it would be a difficult teaching for us as well.
These statements are not safe. They are as radical a stance on human violence that the world has ever seen—addressing not only preemptive violence, but self-protection and even intention that is not acted upon.
Jesus is no doubt calling us to something far beyond the brokenness of normal humanity. He is describing life in a totally different kingdom–His kingdom–and we should not be surprised that his calling is a radical diversion from life as we have known it. He is choosing to live and asking us to be a part of something that seems ridiculous to the rest of the world and operates on a totally different set of values.
2) THEY ARE CONSISTENT. In our next post we will be looking at several glimpses into the life of Jesus that some would say illustrate his acceptance of violence to one degree or another and finding a better explanation.
However, before even beginning this process, it is important to notice the overwhelming non-violent context that these very few glimpses are immersed in. Jesus consistently speaks of returning ONLY good toward evil. To interpret these few other instances as anything other than coherent with the broader and more expansive context of non-violence that Jesus promotes here and demonstrates in his death seems an irresponsible interpretation at best. Especially as we will find that they are easily understood as fitting into Jesus’ much more prevalent framework of non-violence.
(We also find that this is exclusively how the early church fathers read these statements and interpreted them as well. But we’ll dig more into that in a further post.)
Where we have such a greater context of non-violence, the burden is on placing these few other instances within this context, not making the broader picture fit into several verses that are of difficult explanation. Difficult passages should always be interpreted by the clarification of those passages that are easily understood.
3) THEY ARE COMPREHENSIVE. Though I personally would be much more comfortable with a tame Jesus that only calls me to not be a “first initiator” of violence, instead in the gospels I find a much more wild Jesus that makes a claim on all forms of violence.
Multiple times he says to “love your enemies”. He assumes in several verses that I will be attacked, but says my response should be love of the person and trust in God. This love apparently applies when people try to take what is rightfully mine, force me to do what I am not required to do, or even (as Jesus demonstrates from the cross) if my own life is in jeopardy. I am even called to “take up my own cross.” It seems as if there is no dimension of violence that Jesus does not speak into. He is consistent and thorough. We are to live only love in response to violence and trust everything to God.
So, what does this mean for us? How do we actually live this way? Does it mean that we are totally passive and never try to stop evil from happening? We will jump into more of that in another post.
Up next, though, the difficult passages, then maybe a word about a government’s role in protection and violence and whether Christians should participate. We have a long way to go here, but let’s keep building on these ideas!
Till then, happy thinking!