Welcome. We are in a little discussion series on whether or not Christians should be involved in violence for any reason. I’m assuming that most Christians believe that unprovoked violence is wrong, so we will be spending most our time thinking about national violence (military), self-defensive violence (fighting or killing only when your own life is in jeopardy), and protective violence (done to protect another person).
It is a discussion that, apparently, is controversial for many people, especially Christians.
Which, I admit, is kind of strange to me. I obviously expect that many Christians are pro-national violence (at least as it relates to their own country), however it somewhat surprises me that these people are so vehemently opposed to the suggestion that Christ calls us to a life of non-violence. I understand the general disagreement. But, were I just to read the Gospels (the story of Jesus), I would assume the controversial issue would be that any Christian might actually think that violence of any kind was okay.
All that to say, from everything we know about Jesus, it seems weird to me that the non-violent position is in the minority, at least in Western Christianity. But, I suppose that is why we are having this discussion in the first place. And as Memorial Day approaches, it is a good time for us to think through these issues more fully.
Now there are many Scriptures that are debated and scrutinized in this dialogue, and we will be looking at these texts over the next several days. Many of these surround God’s involvement in the nation of Israel’s military violence in the Old Testament. Also, there are many philosophical challenges to Jesus’ way of non-violence that are often mentioned and we will deal with those as well.
However, I’d like to have us start by laying a foundation for all of this discussion somewhere else, before we dig into the rest of the arguments. So, put aside all of this anxiously awaited fodder and lets begin somewhere more broadly.
In this post, then, I’d like us to look at where we gather our primary pictures and assumptions of God’s character. In other words, what is our main source for knowing what God is actually like?
Youth pastors, preachers, and well-meaning leaders have told me since I was very little that I get to know who God is best through the Bible. And while I have found this to be quite true, I have also found that it was not quite specific enough. Through the Bible, God gives his very specific direction on how to know who He is and what He is like.
Let’s take a look at this direction:
“In Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form” (Colossians 2:9-10)
Jesus answered: “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? (John 14:9)
“He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation.” (Colossians 1:15)
“No one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only (Jesus), who is at the Father’s side, has made him known. (John 1:18)
In other words, God says, “you want to know who I am and what I am like? Okay, here I am. I am exactly like this. Like Jesus.” He even goes so far as to say that Jesus has made God known, as if until Jesus we didn’t fully know who God was. Apparently, as good as the stories in the Old Testament are, they didn’t reveal God adequately.
Only the Incarnate Son is an appropriate full-picture of God.
The writer of Hebrews (whoever she was) put it most directly like this:
1In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, 2but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe. 3The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven. (Hebrews 1:1-3)
Did you catch that? (I hope so; I underlined it and made it bold). Jesus is the EXACT REPRESENTATION of God’s being. Nothing defines God like Jesus. He is not an approximate picture of God, or just one side or facet of God. He is not the non-violent side of an otherwise “just war” God. He is the EXACT REPRESENTATION.
Now, because Jesus is the fullest picture of God, when it comes to the Bible, I am compelled to read everything through the eyes of Jesus. As this applies to our discussion at hand, it means that I must fit any violent stories of the Old Testament (which are problematic) into what I know of Jesus as revealed in the New Testament, not the other way around.
For instance, many people read stories in the Old Testament and glean what they perceive are “attributes” or “characteristics” of God from these stories and then apply them to their picture of Jesus. In this case, since God involves himself in the violent battles of the Israelites, then we assume that this “necessary violence” is something Jesus would condone (even if it apparently includes mass infanticide and genocide).
However, when God directs us to know Him through Jesus most perfectly, we are called to learn His character backwards. We learn what God is like by observing and studying Jesus and then read backward through the Old Testament through His lens.
Whatever these violent stories may mean (some are more confusing than others), through the primacy of Christ we regard them as an incomplete and inadequate picture. Where they contradict what we see in Jesus (war, genocide, even self-defensive violence), we embrace Jesus’ way as the EXACT REPRESENTATION of God, and find some other way to make sense of them.
Interestingly, I believe this is why Jesus’ time on this earth was so long. Certainly the death of Jesus was important in freeing us from the bondage of our brokenness, but his life was equally as important. For in his life, and ultimately in his self-sacrificial manner of death (the final exclamation point to how we should respond to violence), God demonstrates his character and what he desires. He lives and interacts with people and finally dies non-violent in the face of violence to show THE EXACT REPRESENTATION of God.
The problem of violence in the Old Testament is admittedly uncomfortable, but however these scenes are explained, as followers of Christ we are compelled to not use them to create pictures of God that are contradictory to what we plainly see in Jesus.
Ok. That’s enough for today. We’ll jump into some more tangible parts of the discussion in the next post.