What if Someone Tried to Kill Your Family?

Here is our final guest-blog of the “Jesus & Non-violence” series.  I’ll be following up with some concluding remarks in a few days.

Dr. Gregory Boyd

Dr. Gregory Boyd

I’m grateful for Dr. Gregory Boyd allowing me to post this excellent article on a topic that is often brought up in this discussion.  It relates to the worst-case scenario that few in our country face, but that of course we must answer, as many of our brothers and sisters face it on a daily basis.

“What happens if someone breaks into your house and tries to kill your family?  Would you protect them by any means necessary, even if it meant killing the intruder?”

Worst-case scenario, to be sure.  Not a question any of us hopes to have to answer in a way other than theoretical.  And though I’m not sure any of us knows how we would truly act in such a stressful and difficult circumstance, Dr. Boyd gives us glimpse into how we might uphold Jesus’ Kingdom value of “non-violence” even in a Kobayashi Maru.

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The New Testament commands us never to “repay evil with evil” but instead to “overcome evil with good” (Rom.12:17; cf. I Thess 5:15; I Pet 3:9).

Jesus said, “Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also”(Mt 5:39).

He also said, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you” (Lk 6:27-28).

loveyourenemy-1The teaching seems pretty straightforward, yet this very straightforwardness presents us with a dilemma.

On the one hand, we who confess Jesus as Lord don’t want to say that Jesus and other New Testament authors are simply off their rockers in telling us not to resist evildoers, to repay evil with good, to love our enemies and to do pray for and bless people who mistreat us. If our confession of faith means anything, we have to take this teaching very seriously.

On the other hand, we have to frankly admit that it’s very hard to take this teaching seriously when it comes to extreme situations like having to protect ourselves and our family from an intruder. Not only would most of us resist an evildoer in this situation, killing him if necessary, but most of us would see it as immoral if we didn’t use violence to resist such an evildoer. How can refusing to protect your family by any means be considered moral? Isn’t it more loving, and thus more ethical, to protect your family at all costs?

How do we resolve this dilemma? It helps somewhat to remember that the word Jesus uses for “resist” (antistenai) doesn’t imply passively allowing something to take place. It rather connotes resisting a forceful action with a similar forceful action. Jesus is thus forbidding responding to violent action with similar violent action. He’s teaching us not to take on the violence of the one who is acting violently toward us. He’s teaching us to respond to evil in a way that is consistent with loving them. But he’s not by any means saying do nothing.

Still, the teaching is problematic, for most of us would instinctively use, and feel justified using, violence to protect our family from an intruder if necessary.

taken_galleryposterThe most common way people resolve this dilemma is by convincing ourselves that the “enemies” Jesus was referring to are not our enemies – e.g. people who attack our family (or our nation, or our standard of living, etc…. ). Jesus must have been referring to “other kinds” of enemies, less serious enemies, or something of the sort. We tell ourselves that when violence is justified – as in “just war” ethics – Jesus’ teachings do not apply. This approach allows us to feel justified, if not positively “Christian,” killing intruders and bombing people who threaten our nation — so long as we are nice to our occasionally grumpy neighbors. Unfortunately, this common-sensical interpretation makes complete nonsense of Jesus’ teaching.

The whole point of Jesus’ teaching is to tell disciples that their attitude toward “enemies” should be radically different from others. “If you do good to those who do good to you,” Jesus added, “what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same” (Lk 6:32). Everybody instinctively hates those who hate them and believes they are justified killing people who might kill them or their loved ones. In contrast to this, Jesus is saying: “Be radically different.”

This is why Jesus (and Paul) didn’t qualify the “enemies” or “evildoers” he taught us to love and not violently oppose. Jesus didn’t say, “Love your enemies until they threaten you; until it seems justified to resort to violence; or until it seems impractical to do so.” Enemies are enemies precisely because they threaten us on some level, and it always feels justified and practically expedient to resist them, if not harm them if necessary. Jesus simply said, “love your enemies” and “don’t resist evildoers” – and note, some of the people he was speaking to would before long confront “enemies” who would feed them and their families to lions for amusement.

The teaching could not be more radical and as kingdom people we have to take it seriously. At the same time, what do we do with the fact that most of us know we would not take it seriously, let alone obey it, in extreme situations like our family coming under attack?

"The Politics of Jesus"  by John Yoder

"The Politics of Jesus" by John Yoder

As with all of Jesus’ teachings, it’s important to place this teaching in the broader context of Jesus’ kingdom ministry. Jesus’ teachings aren’t a set of pacifistic laws people are to merely obey, however unnatural and immoral they seem. Rather, his teachings are descriptions of what life in the domain in which God is king looks like and prescriptions for how we are to cultivate this alternative form of living. In other words, Jesus isn’t saying: “As much as you want to resist an evildoer and kill your enemy, and as unnatural and immoral as it seems, act loving toward him.” He’s rather saying: “Cultivate the kind of life where loving your enemy becomes natural for you.” He’s not merely saying, “Act different from others”; he’s saying, “Be different from others.” This is simply what it means to cultivate a life that looks like Jesus, dying on a cross for the people who crucified him.

How does this insight help address our dilemma? A person who lived with the “normal” tit-for-tat kingdom-of-the-world mindset would instinctively resort to violence to protect himself and his family. Loving his attacker and doing good to him would be the farthest thing from his mind. As with the Jerusalem that Jesus wept over, the “things that make for peace” would be “hidden from [his] “eyes.” (Lk 19:41-42). Indeed, from this kingdom-of-the-world perspective, Jesus’ teaching seems positively absurd.

But how might a person who cultivated a non-violent, kingdom-of-God mindset and lifestyle on a daily basis respond differently to an attacker? How might a person who consistently lived in Christ-like love (Eph 5:1-2) operate in this situation?

For one thing, such a person would have cultivated the kind of character and wisdom that wouldn’t automatically default to self-protective violence. Because he would genuinely love his enemy, he would have the desire to look for, and the wisdom to see, any non-violent alternative to stopping his family’s attacker if one was available. He would want to do “good” to his attacker. This wouldn’t be a matter of him trying to obey an irrational rule that said, “look for an alternative in extreme situations.” In extreme situations, no one is thinking about obeying rules! Rather, it would be in the Christ-like nature of this person to see non-violent alternatives if they were present. This person’s moment-by-moment discipleship in love would have given him a Christ-like wisdom that a person whose mind was conformed to the pattern of the tit-for-tat world would not have (Rom. 12:2). Perhaps he’d see that pleading with, startling, or distracting the attacker would be enough to save himself and his family. Perhaps he’d discern a way to allow his family to escape harm by placing himself in harm’s way.

themythofachristiannationNot only this, but this person’s day-by-day surrender to God would have cultivated a sensitivity to God’s Spirit that would enable him to discern God’s leading in the moment, something the “normal” kingdom-of-the-world person would be oblivious to. This Christ-like person might be divinely led to say something or do something that would disarm the attacker emotionally, spiritually, or even physically.

For example, I heard of a case in which a godly woman was about to be sexually assaulted. Just as she was being pinned to the ground with a knife to her throat, she out of nowhere said to her attacker, “Your mother forgives you.” She had no conscious idea where the statement came from. What she didn’t know was that her attacker’s violent aggression toward women was rooted in a heinous thing he had done as a teenager to his now deceased mother. The statement shocked the man and quickly reduced him to a sobbing little boy.

The woman seized the opportunity to make an escape and call the police who quickly apprehended the man in the park where the attack took place. He was still there, sobbing. The man later credited the woman’s inspired statement with being instrumental in his eventual decision to turn his life over to Christ. The point is that, in any given situation, God may see possibilities for non-violent solutions we cannot see and a person who has learned to “live by the Spirit” is open to being led by God in these directions (Gal. 5:16, 18).

Not only this, but a person who has cultivated a kingdom-of-God outlook on life would have developed the capacity to assess this situation from an eternal perspective. Having made Jesus her example on a moment-by-moment basis, she would know — not just as a “rule,” but as a heart felt reality — the truth that living in love is more important than life itself. Her values would not be exhaustively defined by temporal expediency. Moreover, she would have cultivated a trust in God that would free her from defining “winning” and “losing” in terms of temporal outcomes. She would have confidence in the resurrection. As such, she would be free from the “preserve my interests at all costs” mindset of the world.

love-your-enemiesOf course, it’s possible that, despite a person’s loving wisdom and openness to God, a man whose family was attacked might see no way to save himself and his family except to harm the attacker, or even to take his life. What would such a person do in this case? I think it is clear from Jesus’ teachings, life and especially his death that Jesus would choose non-violence. So, it seems to me that a person who was totally conformed to the image of Jesus Christ, who had thoroughly cultivated a kingdom mind and heart, would do the same.

At the same time, I have to frankly confess that I’m not sure this is what I’d do in this situation. Indeed, I have to honestly admit that, like most people, I don’t yet quite see how it would be moral to do what I believe Jesus would do. Yet, I have to assume that my disagreement with Jesus is due to my not having sufficiently cultivated a kingdom heart and mind. If I felt I had to harm or take the life of another to prevent what clearly seemed to be a greater evil, I could not feel righteous or even justified about it. Like Bonhoeffer who, despite his pacifism, plotted to assassinate Hitler, I could only plead for God’s mercy.

What we must never do, however, is acquiesce to our present, non-kingdom, spiritual condition by rationalizing away Jesus’ clear kingdom prescriptions. We must rather strive every moment of our life to cultivate the kind of mind and heart that increasingly sees the rightness and beauty of Jesus’ teachings and thus that would naturally respond to an extreme, threatening situation in a loving, non-violent manner.

Further Reading

Boyd, G. The Myth of a Christian Nation (Zondervan, 2007)

Brimlow, R. What About Hitler? (Brazos, 2006)

Yoder, J. What Would You Do? (Herald, rev. ed. 1992).

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Should Christians Participate in “Just War”?

Welcome back.  Hopefully all of you local Seattle dwellers survived the massive heat-wave this week.  Now that it has cooled off a bit, we’ll get back to our discussion on “Jesus & Non-violence”.

Today, I want to welcome another guest blogger.  His name is Dr. Gregory Boyd.

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Dr. Gregory Boyd

Greg Boyd received his Ph. D. from Princeton Theological Seminary (1988), his M.Div. from Yale Divinity School (1982) and his B.A. from the University of Minnesota (1979).

He was a professor of theology for 16 years at Bethel University (St. Paul, MN) and he is the founder and senior pastor of Woodland Hills Church, an evangelical mega-church in St. Paul, MN.  (for full bio, click here)

Greg is also the author of numerous books, my favorite of which are:

“The Myth of a Christian Nation”

“The Myth of a Christian Religion”

“Satan & the Problem of Evil”

“Letter from a Skeptic”

Dr. Boyd is one of my favorite “thinkers” and writers and though I have mentioned his books on this blog before, I cannot stress enough how highly I recommend the books listed above.   Boyd gives incredible “legs” and voice to this and many other conversations from a well-respected and scholarly perspective.

I asked Dr. Boyd to contribute to this discussion on non-violence and he gave me permission to share this essay that he wrote regarding the question: “Does following Jesus rule out serving in the military if a war is just?”

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Jesus and Military People

Some soldiers responded to the preaching of John the Baptist by asking him what they should do.  John gave them some ethical instruction, but, interestingly enough, he didn’t tell them to leave the army (Lk 3:12-13).  So too, Jesus praised the faith of a Centurion and healed his servant while not saying a word about the Centurion’s occupation (Mt 8:5-13; Lk 7:1-10).

Christian-Air-Force-eAnother Centurion acknowledged Christ as the Son of God at the cross (Mk 15:39) without any negative comment being made about his military involvement. And the first Gentile to receive the Good News of the Gospel was a centurion described as a God-fearing man (Acts 10:22, 34-35).  Clearly none of these texts endorse military involvement.  But just as clearly, they don’t condemn it.  For these and other reasons, most American Christians accept that the New Testament does not forbid serving in the military.

While I respect that people will have differing convictions about this, I must confess that I myself find it impossible to reconcile Jesus’ teaching (and the teaching of the whole New Testament) concerning our call to love our enemies and never return evil with evil with the choice to serve (or not resist being drafted) in the armed forces in a capacity that might require killing someone.

The above cited texts show that the Gospel can reach people who serve in the military.  They also reveal that John the Baptist, Jesus and the earliest Christians gave military personal “space,” as it were, to work out the implications of their faith vis-à-vis their military service.  But I don’t see that they warrant making military service, as a matter of principle, an exception to the New Testament’s teaching that kingdom people are to never return evil with evil.

What About “Just Wars”?

The traditional response to the tension between the New Testament’s teaching and taking up arms to defend one’s country is to argue that fighting in the military is permissible if one’s military is fighting a “just war.”  As time honored as this traditional position is, I’m not at all convinced it is adequate.

For one thing, why should kingdom people assume that considerations of whether violence is “justified” or not have any relevance to whether a kingdom person engages in violence?  Jesus is our Lord, not a human-constructed notion of justice.  And neither Jesus nor any other New Testament author ever qualified their prohibitions on the use of violence.  As George Zabelka remarked, the just war theory is “something that Christ never taught or even hinted at.” (1) We are not to resist evildoers or return evil with evil – period.  We are to love our enemies, turn the other cheek, bless those who persecute us, pray for themythofachristiannationpeople who mistreat us and return evil with good – period.  On what grounds can someone insert into this clear, unqualified teaching the massive exception clause – “unless violence is ‘justified’”?

Many have argued that such grounds are found in Romans 13.  Since Paul in this passage grants that the authority of government ultimately comes from God and that God uses it to punish wrongdoers (Rom. 13:1-5), it seems permissible for Christians to participate in this violent activity, they argue, at least when the Christian is sure it is “just.”  The argument is strained on several accounts, however.

First, while Paul encourages Christians to be subject to whatever sword-wielding authorities they find themselves under, nothing in this passage suggests the Christians should participate in the government’s sword wielding activity.

Second, Romans 13 must be read as a continuation of Romans 12 in which Paul tells disciples to (among other things) “bless those who persecute you”( vs. 14); “do not repay anyone evil for evil” (vs. 17); and especially “never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord’” (vs. 19).  Leaving vengeance to God, we are to instead feed our enemies when they are hungry and give them water when they are thirsty (vs. 20).  Instead of being “overcome by evil,” we are to “overcome evil with good” (vs. 21).

Now, in the next several verses, Paul specifies that sword-wielding authorities are one means by which God executes vengeance (13:4).  Since this is the very same vengeance disciples were just forbidden to exercise (12:19, ekdikeo) it seems to follow, as Yoder argues, that the “vengeance” that is recognized as being within providential control when exercised by government is the same “vengeance” that Christians are told not to exercise. (2)

In other words, we may acknowledge that in certain circumstances authorities carry out a good function in wielding the sword against wrongdoers, but that doesn’t mean people who are committed to following Jesus should participate in it.  Rather, it seems we are to leave such matters to God, who uses sword-wielding authorities to carry out his will in society.

How do we know when a war “just”?

Thirdly, even if one concludes that a follower of Jesus may participate in violence if it is “just,” we have to wonder how a kingdom person could confidently determine whether a war is “just” or not.  Few battles have been fought in which both sides didn’t believe their violence was “justified.”  The reality is that the criteria one uses to determine what is and is not “just” is largely a function of where one is born and how one is raised. How much confidence should a kingdom of God citizen place in that?

can-we-talkFor example, unlike most other people groups throughout history and yet today, modern Americans tend to view personal and political freedom as an important criteria to help determine whether a war is “just” or not.  We kill and die for our freedom and the freedom of others.  But why should a kingdom person think killing for this reason is a legitimate exception to the New Testament’s command to love and bless enemies?  Can they be certain God holds this opinion?

Of course it seems obvious to most Americans that killing to defend and promote freedom is justified, but fundamental aspects of one’s culture always seem obviously right to people embedded in the culture.  This criterion certainly hasn’t been obvious to most people throughout history, including most Christians throughout history.  And it’s “obviously” wrong to many non-Americans — including Christians — around the globe today.  Even more importantly, it certainly isn’t obvious in Scripture.  In this light, kingdom people in all countries need to seriously examine the extent to which the ideal that leads them to think a war is or is not “just” is the result of their own cultural conditioning.

Assessing this is no easy matter.  It helps to be mindful of the fact that the person you may end up killing in war probably believes, as strongly as you, that they are also fighting for a “just” cause.  It also helps to consider the possibility that they are disciples of Jesus just like you, perhaps even mistakenly thinking their cause is a function of their discipleship just as some American soldiers believe.  You have to believe that all of their thinking is merely the result of their cultural conditioning — for you obviously believe they’re wrong to the point of being willing to kill them — while also being convinced that your own thinking is not the result of cultural conditioning.  Can you be absolutely sure of this?  Your fidelity to the kingdom of God, your life and the lives of others are on the line.

But suppose, for the sake of argument, we grant that political freedom is a just cause worth killing and dying for.  This doesn’t yet settle the matter for a kingdom person contemplating enlisting in war (or not resisting being drafted into war), for one has to further appreciate that there are many other variables alongside the central criterion of justice that affect whether or not a particular war is “just.”

Do you know – can you know – the myriad of personal, social, political and historical factors that have led to any particular conflict and that bear upon whether or not it is “justified?”

Misc+209For example, do you truly understand all the reasons your enemy gives for going to war against your nation, and are you certain they are altogether illegitimate?  Are you certain your government has sought out all possible non-violent means of resolving the conflict before deciding to take up arms?  Are you certain the information you’ve been given about a war is complete, accurate and objective?  Do you know the real motivation of the leaders who will be commanding you to kill or be killed for “the cause” (as opposed to what the national propaganda may have communicated)?  Are you certain that the ultimate motivation isn’t financial or political gain for certain people in high places?  Are you certain that the war isn’t in part motivated by personal grievances and/or isn’t being done simply to support or advance the already extravagant lifestyle of most Americans?

Given what we know about the corrupting influence of demonic powers in all nations, and given what we know about how the American government (like all other governments) has at times mislead the public about what was “really” going on in the past (e.g. the Vietnam war), these questions must be wrestled with seriously.

Yet, even these questions do not resolve the issue for a kingdom person, for a kingdom person must know not only that a war is “justified” but that each and every particular battle they fight, and the loss of each and every life they may snuff out, is justified.  However “justified” a war may be, commanders often make poor decisions about particular battles they engage in that are not “just” and that gratuitously waste innocent lives.  While militaries sometimes take actions against officers who have their troops engage in unnecessary violence, the possibility (and even inevitability) of such unjust activity is typically considered “acceptable risk” so long as the overall war is “just.”  But on what grounds should a person who places loyalty to Jesus over their commander accept this reasoning?

myth of a christian religion

"Myth of a Christian Religion"

The fact that a war was “justified” means nothing to the innocent lives that are wasted, and the question is: How can a kingdom person be certain in each instance that they are not participating in the unnecessary and unjust shedding of innocent blood?  It’s questionable enough that a follower of Jesus would kill their national enemy rather than bless them simply because it’s in the interest of their nation for them to do so.  But what are we to think of the possibility that a follower of Jesus would kill someone who is not an enemy simply because someone higher in rank told them to?

The tragic reality is that most people contemplating entering the armed forces (or contemplating not refusing the draft), whether they be American or (say) Iraqi, North Korean or Chinese, don’t seriously ask these sorts of questions.  Out of their cultural conditioning, most simply assume their authorities are trustworthy, that their cause is “justified,” and that each person they are told to kill is a justified killing.  They unquestioningly believe the propaganda and obey the commands they’re given.

Throughout history, soldiers have for the most part been the unquestioning pawns of ambitious, egotistical rulers and obedient executors of their superior’s commands.  They were hired assassins who killed because someone told them to and their cultural conditioning made it “obvious” to them that it was a good and noble thing to do.  So it has been for ages, and so it will be so long as people and nations operate out of their own self-interest.

The Kingdom Alternative

But there is an alternative to this ceaseless, bloody, merry-go-round: it is the kingdom of God.  To belong to this kingdom is to crucify the fleshly desire to live out of self-interest and tribal interest and to thus crucify the fallen impulse to protect these interests through violence.  To belong to this revolutionary kingdom is to purge your heart of “all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice” (Eph 4:31)—however “justified” and understandable these sentiments might be.

To belong to this counter-kingdom is to “live in love, as Christ loved you and gave his life for you” (Eph 5:1-2). It is to live the life of Jesus Christ, the life that manifests the truth that it is better to serve than to be served, and better to die than to kill.  It is, therefore, to opt out of the kingdom-of-the-world war machine and manifest a radically different, beautiful, loving way of life.  To refuse to kill for patriotic reasons is to show “we actually take our identity in Christ more seriously than our identity with the empire, the nation-state, or the ethnic terror cell whence we come,” as Lee Camp says.

Hence, while I respect the sincerity and courage of Christians who may disagree with me and feel it their duty to defend their country with violence, I myself honestly see no way to condone a Christian’s decision to kill on behalf of any country.

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Endnotes

(1) G. Zebelka, “I Was Told It Was Necessary,” [Interview] Sojourners, 9/8/80, p.14.

(2) J. Yoder, The Politics of Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2nd ed. 1994 [1972]), 198. See also Hays, Moral Vision, 320-31.

Further Reading

Beller, K. H. Chase, Great Peacemakers (LTS 2008)

Brimlow, R. What About Hitler? (Brazos, 2006)

Eller, V. War & Peace (Wipf & Stock, 2003 [1981])

Roth, J. Choosing Against War (GoodBooks, 2002)

Trocme, A. Jesus and the NonViolent Revolution (Wipf & Stock, 2003 [1973])

Trznya, T. Blessed are the Pacifists (Herald, 2006)

Telephone Game & the First Christians

Remember playing the “telephone game” when you were little?   You know, someone comes up with a statement and whispers it in the ear of the person next to them, who then repeats what they heard to the next person down the line, and so on and so on.

Girlfriends+Border_Girls+whispering4And if you remember playing this game, then you remember how funny it was when the last person to get the message finally tells everyone else what strange sentence they heard at the end of the line.  Most of the time, the statement began as something like, “The baker made an apple pie” and ended up as “Your face makes me wanna cry.”   They rhyme, but they aren’t really the same thing.

And even as a 7-year-old, I learned something simple.  It’s best to get information right from the source, because over time and even through good intentions (except for that one kid in my class who was always trying to purposely screw up the telephone message), the information evolves into something possibly different than what was intended.

We are involved right now in a discussion about violence and whether or not Christians should ever engage in it, even to protect their own life.   And I know that many Christians today have some strong opinions on this 2ymvo2hmatter, but I would like to caution us to rethink our stance in light of the telephone game.

You see, I come from a church tradition that while honoring and learning from the history of church through the centuries, looks to the early church and The SOURCE (Jesus) as its primary ideal and guide.

As we approach this topic, however, we may have done a rather poor job of maintaining this approach.

I would like to suggest that many of the currently popular rationalizations of a “just war” or engagement in any sort of violence is due in large part to a long running game of church telephone, in which we’ve diverted a bit from the original SOURCE.  So far are we from the source, in fact, that we consider The SOURCE to be too radical and our modern, westernized ways to be more progressive and advanced.  Surely we must use violence sometimes?  Our cause is just!  How can we achieve the greatest peace for the most people if not by using violence to defeat the foes?

The message still sounds understandable and we can rationalize it, but maybe it isn’t at all what The SOURCE intended or what those who heard the message first understood.

Somewhere along the way, Jesus’ message of a different type of kingdom that did not rely on the power methods of this world has evolved all the way into our current and prevalent situation of syncretism between church and state (or national pride).

So, as we journey back to “the origins” we have already seen how The SOURCE (Jesus) consistently and regularly commanded us to forsake violence and how His life was the greatest testimony to a power absent of coercion and violence. (see previous post here)

Today, we will look at how the first 300 years of people in the telephone line behind him understood His message.  And although 300 years sounds like a long time, it is but a brief beginning in a movement that has stretch into its 3rd millennium.

Here is how violence was understood for the first followers of this Christ.

The Witness of the FIRST CHRISTIANS:

The Early Church position ruled out violence as an option, even in self-defense.  The evidence for this is overwhelming and includes the story of Stephen found in Acts 7:59-60.  In the story Stephen is stoned to death for his faith, but even at the moment before death, he forgives his assailants for their crime.

228A similar story is found later in the book of Acts when Paul is also violently attacked for his beliefs, and yet does not seek revenge:

The crowd stoned Paul and dragged him outside the city, thinking he was dead. But after the disciples had gathered around him, he got up and went back into the city. Then they returned to Lystra, Iconium and Antioch, strengthening the disciples and encouraging them to remain true to the faith. “We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God,” they said.
(Acts 14:19-22 NIV)

In Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian Church, he writes of the importance of non-retaliation, even in the face of death:

It seems to me that God has put us on display at the end of the procession, like those condemned to die in the arena. We have been made a spectacle to the whole universe. To this very hour we go hungry and thirsty, we are in rags, we are brutally treated, we are homeless. Yet when we are cursed, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure it; when we are slandered, we answer kindly.
(1 Corinthians 4:9-13 NIV
)

Beyond what we find in the New Testament, there is great consensus among the people that immediately followed in the next several hundred years.  As demonstrated by the following quotes, no Early Church father interpreted Jesus’ teachings as advocating anything but strict nonviolence:

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The Lord, in disarming Peter, disarmed every soldier.
—Tertullian’s On Idolatry

origen

Origen

“Christians could never slay their enemies. For the more that kings, rulers, and peoples have persecuted them everywhere, the more Christians have increased in number and grown in strength.”
—Origen Contra Celsius Book VII

“Wherever arms have glittered, they must be banished and exterminated from thence.”
—Lactantius’ Divine Institutes IV

“As simple and quiet sisters, peace and love require no arms. For it is not in war, but in peace, that we are trained.”
—Clement of Alexandria Chapter 12 of Book 1

“In their wars, therefore, the Etruscans use the trumpet, the Arcadians the pipe, the Sicilians the pectides, the Cretans the lyre, the Lacedaemonians the flute, the Thracians the horn, the Egyptians the drum, and the Arabians the cymbal. The one instrument of peace, the Word alone by which we honor God, is what we employ.”
—Clement of Alexandria Chapter 4 of Book 2

“Above all, Christians are not allowed to correct with violence.”
—Clement of Alexandria

hippolytus

Hippolytus of Rome

“I do not wish to be a king; I am not anxious to be rich; I decline military command… Die to the world, repudiating the madness that is in it.”
—Tatian’s Address to the Greeks 11

“We who formerly used to murder one another now refrain from even making war upon our enemies.”
—The First Apology of Justin Martyr 39

“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

“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

“There is nothing better than peace, in which all warfare of things in heaven and things on earth is abolished.”
—Ignatius of Antioch to the Ephesians 13

saint_Irenaeus_Early_Church_Father

Irenaeus

“The new covenant that brings back peace and the law that gives life have gone forth over the whole earth, as the prophets said: “For out of Zion will go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem; and he will instruct many people; and they will break down their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks, and they will no longer learn to make war.” These people formed their swords and war lances into plowshares,” that is, into instruments used for peaceful purposes. So now, they are unaccustomed to fighting, so when they are struck, they offer also the other cheek.”
—Irenaeus

“We would rather shed our own blood than stain our hands and our conscience with that of another. As a result, an ungrateful world is now enjoying–and for a long period has enjoyed–a benefit from Christ. For by his means, the rage of savage ferocity has been softened and has begun to withhold hostile hands from the blood of a fellow creature. In fact, if all men without exception…would lend an ear for a while to his salutary and peaceful rules,…the whole world would be living in the most peaceful tranquility. The world would have turned the use of steel into more peaceful uses and would unite together in blessed harmony.”
—Arnobius

“Wars are scattered all over the earth with the bloody horror of camps. The whole world is wet with mutual blood. And murder–which is admitted to be a crime in the case of an individual–is called a virtue when it is committed wholesale. Impunity is claimed for the wicked deeds, not because they are guiltless, but because the cruelty is perpetrated on a grand scale!”
—Cyprian of Carthage

“Those soldiers were filled with wonder and admiration at the grandeur of the man’s piety and generosity and were struck with amazement. They felt the force of this example of pity. As a result, many of them were added to the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ and threw off the belt of military service.”
—Disputation of Archelaus and Manes

“We have rejected such spectacles as the Coliseum. How then, when we do not even look on killing lest we should contract guilt and pollution, can we put people to death?”
—Athenagoras of Athens’ A Plea for the Christians 35

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Strong statements, huh?  Apparently the first Christians were pretty clear on what they heard from the life and words of Jesus regarding this topic.

Consider that for three entire centuries after Jesus’ death and resurrection, almost completely universally, Christians believed that even self-defense violence was inappropriate for followers of Christ.

So what changed?

Most notably, the Roman Emporer, Constantine.

constantinevision

Constantine's Battle of Milvian Bridge in 312 AD

Christian sources record that Constantine experienced a dramatic event in 312 at the Battle of Milvian Bridge, after which Constantine would claim the emperorship in the West. According to these sources, Constantine looked up to the sun before the battle and saw a cross of light above it, and with it the Greek words “Εν Τουτω Νικα” (“by this, conquer!”), Constantine commanded his troops to adorn their shields with a Christian symbol (the Chi-Ro), and thereafter they were victorious.

From this moment on, Christianity becomes the dominant religion of the Roman empire.   And whatever his motives (genuine spiritual conversion or political genius), Constantine changes the landscape of Christianity.  It is no longer a persecuted minority, but a powerful, state-supported, military-leading civic religion.

You can nearly draw a line in history with this event as the place the telephone message changed.

Violence was absent from the lives of the earliest followers of Christ and only by the military subversion of Christianity by the emperor, Constantine, did violence (for national purposes or any other) enter into Christianity.  The church following this event was culturally conditioned to accept the merger of empire and “Christianity” and found ways to rationalize this “new power” that soon became the “norm” at the expense of its previously radical stance on violence.  And it became a marked departure from what Christ and the original followers had taught and modeled.

Now, certainly God is mightier than a game of telephone and His message has been preserved in His church.  But, I suggest that rather significant components of this message are now held in minority in Western Christianity.

Anyway, lots more to think about.  I know for some of you this is a difficult thing to wrestle with.  It calls into a question a lot of your life and assumptions.  My heart goes out to those of you who have served or are currently serving in the military.  My goal is not to make you feel less “Christian”.   You are loved by God and by me regardless of where you come out on this issue.

However, the church must always be thinking and examining our message.  Where there have been compromises to our culture, we must return to THE SOURCE and reform.

So, though it is uncomfortable, keep thinking.   And I’ll be praying for you…

(for the complete series on “Jesus & Non-violence” see the right sidebar of this blog)

Did Jesus Contradict Himself?

Hope you all had a terrific “Memorial Day”!

Welcome back to work!  I had the privilege to read several of your beautiful stories of celebrating the holiday by honoring the value of ALL people who have been killed in the human disease of violence and warfare.  What creativity some of you have shown in bringing great honor to God and his children!  Thank you for sharing those stories.  And we stand in remembrance with those of you who have lost loved ones to these conflicts.

hagia_sophia_vestibule_christ_mosaicToday, we will continue our discussion on how a follower of Jesus should respond to violence and whether or not we are ever to involve ourselves in this type of activity.  We are building on several concepts here as we go along.  Here is what we have established so far:

1)    We may disagree on this issue, but we UNITE in prayer for those engaged in war  (click here for post)

2)    Jesus is the FULL EXPRESSION of God.  (click here for post)

3)    Jesus CONSISTENTLY condemns violence of any kind  (click here for post)

In this post we will be looking at the VERY FEW passages in the life of Jesus that some have suggested give us license to use physical violence if necessary.  However, it is my contention that these passages have been interpreted this way because people approach them with pre-conceived notions that violence MUST BE acceptable at some level.  These already held convictions, then, read into these texts what the mind already wants to see.

In contrast to this type of eisegesis (reading what we hope to find INTO the biblical text rather than allowing meaning to arise OUT of it), we will be seeking to make better sense of Jesus’ words and actions by fitting them into the broader context of His easily understood and consistent commands against violence.

Here are some thoughts on several of the passages in question:

Luke 22:36-38

In this scripture, Jesus is pictured as actually commanding his disciples to obtain weapons.  What does a pacifist make of this?  Let’s read it and then make a few comments…

lk22_4935 [Jesus] asked them [the eleven apostles], “When I sent you out without a purse, bag or sandals, did you lack anything?”

They said, “No, not a thing.”

36 He said to them, “But now the one who has a purse must take it, and likewise a bag. And the one who has no sword must sell his cloak and buy one. 37 For I tell you, this scripture must be fulfilled in me: ‘And he was numbered among the lawless’; and indeed what is written about me is being fulfilled.”

38 They [the disciples] said, “See, Lord, here are two swords.”  “It is enough,” he replied. (NRSV)

1)    Jesus tells them to only buy TWO swords?  If Jesus really intends for them to use violence against a mob that is sure to approach them, would only TWO swords really be enough?  It seems as though Jesus has something else in mind rather than physical protection through violence as only two swords for twelve men is rather inadequate.

2)    Jesus directly rebukes Peter for actually using a sword just a few verses later.

jn18_1049 When Jesus’ followers saw what was going to happen, they said, “Lord, should we strike with our swords?” 50 And one of them struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his right ear.
51 But Jesus answered, “No more of this!” And he touched the man’s ear and healed him.

In a similar telling of the story found in John 18:10-11, Jesus actually responds to Peter’s violence with a blatant rebuke.   Certainly Jesus wouldn’t contradict Himself this blatantly by arming his disciples for an impending battle and then just a few verses later when the conflict arises (apparently in the form of self-defense) condemning them for using the weapons!

3)    Jesus openly declares he is not leading a violent rebellion.  In the very next verse!

52 Then Jesus said to the chief priests, the officers of the temple guard, and the elders, who had come for him, “Am I leading a rebellion, that you have come with swords and clubs?

jn18_11Jesus makes it very clear to the people around him that he is in fact doing the opposite of what many today assume that he is doing in this section!

4)    Jesus is likely referring only to the fulfillment of Scripture.

37 For I tell you, this scripture must be fulfilled in me: ‘And he was numbered among the lawless’; and indeed what is written about me is being fulfilled.”
38 They [the disciples] said, “See, Lord, here are two swords.”
“It is enough,” he replied. (NRSV)

Jesus quotes Isaiah 53:12 saying that he is destined to be arrested as a criminal.  In Jesus day, criminals carried weapons, and Jesus encourages the disciples to obtain these “props” in order to fulfill this prophecy.  Much like he has them obtain a donkey for his parade into Jerusalem to fulfill that prophecy.  Thus Jesus needs only TWO swords to satisfy this need.

This section is about the fulfillment of prophecy, not an empowerment of disciples to physical violence.   To suggest otherwise, makes Jesus out to be a rather incompetent military general.  =)

Matthew 10:34

Again, the greater context of this verse is key to understanding Jesus’ statement.

32 “Whoever acknowledges me before men, I will also acknowledge him before my Father in heaven. 33 But whoever disowns me before men, I will disown him before my Father in heaven. 34 Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth, but a sword. 35 For I have come to turn
a man against his father,
a daughter against her mother,
a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law—
36 a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household [Mic. 7:6]
37 Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and anyone who does not take up his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 39 Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”

1)    Jesus is not talking about a literal sword.   Many times Jesus speaks in a non-literal fashion to add emphasis.  For instance, he tells us to “gouge out our eye” if it causes us to sin and “cut off our hand” if it causes us to sin (Matthew 5: 29-30).   Surely he doesn’t mean for us to actually DO these things!  He is speaking in hyperbole.

lk14_262)    Jesus means that he will bring DIVISION to even our most cherished relationships.   Jesus uses strong hyperbole to stress the reality that following Jesus has a cost.  That cost includes alienating us from friends and even family when we choose to follow him and they do not.

Or apparently from other believers who are offended that we would dare to suggest that Jesus was a pacifist!  (hahahaha, take it easy, it’s a joke!)

Luke records the same words this way: (Luke 12:49-53)

49 “I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! 50 But I have a baptism to undergo [my death], and how distressed I am until it is completed! 51 Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division. 52 From now on there will be five in one family divided against each other, three against two and two against three. 53 They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”

The proper way to interpret Scripture is to let verses clarify other verses, particularly parallel passages. And now Luke 12:49-53 confirms the non-literal interpretation of Matt. 10:34. Jesus did not endorse physical violence against one’s own family, but he warns people about possible family division.

Matthew 21:12-15

And finally, the one that makes the very least sense to me in the context of this whole discussion…

12 Jesus entered the temple courts and drove out all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the moneychangers and the benches of those selling doves. 13 “It is written,” he said to them, ” ‘My house will be called a house of prayer,’  but you are making it a den of robbers.'”
14 The blind and the lame came to him at the temple, and he healed them. 15 But when the chief priests and the teachers of the law saw the wonderful things he did and the children shouting in the temple courts, “Hosanna to the Son of David,” they were indignant..  (TNIV)

jn02_15bThis story is often quoted as an example of Jesus employing physical violence to achieve his goal.  And though I am of half-a-mind to not even mention it for the lack of credible support of this view, I suppose we may as well discuss it.

There is absolutely no reason to read this story with any understanding that Jesus performs physical violence on other humans.   Certainly he creates a commotion, but he is not endorsing or engaging in violence as a solution to anything.  Here are several better ways to understand this passage:

1)    Jesus as involved in civil disobedience.  Jim Consedine puts it this way,

“. . . . there is another way of looking at this episode that is more consistent with the rest of his teachings. Seen as an act of civil/religious disobedience, similar to that conducted by Te Whiti and Tohu, Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Ploughshares activists centuries later, it makes much more sense . . . . . . All of these people acted from religious outrage and disrupted civil processes, similar to the way Jesus acted. All are recognized internationally as leaders of non-violent direct action and role models of non-violent living.  So should Jesus be.”

Jesus neither harms people nor animals, but is creating a form of active protest toward the religious leaders.  This will be a great point of reference as well look into a future post on how Christians can be ACTIVE and not passive as we embrace a lifestyle of non-violence.

mk11_15b2)    Jesus as a Preacher.  Just as Hosea marries a prostitute to make a strong preaching illustration, Jesus overturns tables to show his disdain for the sham that the religious leaders have made of worship for God.   It is tantamount to a dramatic sermon illustration.  In the pattern of the prophets, he condemns the religious authorities.  In fact, this is a method of preaching that would have been understood and commonplace for His Jewish culture.

3)    The Jewish leaders are apparently not offended by any “violence” done against the moneychangers, but toward Jesus’ upsetting of their structures and His ministry to the blind, lame, and children.

Jesus has overturned the position of their tables and welcomed the less honorable (by their standards).   His act of civil disobedience is aimed at flipping the status quo.  Had he injured the moneychangers they would have had reason to arrest him, and yet instead despite their anger with him, they are unable to do so and he leaves unhindered.  In light of the religious leaders looking for any reason to arrest Him, the fact that Jesus leaves the scene “un-chained” is a strong indication that he does not “harm” anyone.

Now, if you are still hanging in there through this long post (certainly our longest of the series), then I commend you.   There are certainly many ways of understanding each of these stories that fit with the context of Jesus many other words of non-violence.

We’ll pick up next time on how the early church fathers and the Christians immediately following Christ interpreted and understood him on these issues.

Keep thinking!

(thank you to “The Brick Testament” for the great pictures!)

Would Jesus Wear Kevlar?

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.

hagia_sophia_vestibule_christ_mosaicIn 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)

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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)

Open Bible
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)

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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.

jesuswashingfeetJesus 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!

God’s Character in Reverse

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.

pacifism1Which, 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:

reading-bible-blueIn 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.

hagia_sophia_vestibule_christ_mosaicNow, 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.

Happy Thinking…

Divided in Discussion, United in Prayer

Military260Should we recognize “Armed Forces Day” in our church worship services?

What place does the community of God have with human armed conflict?

That was the question that we faced this week.   Apparently, AFD is this Saturday, and Memorial Day is, of course, soon upon us too.   So the question is, how much should we recognize military action in church context?

I doubt we were unified on our answer.   LOL!   It seems that many of us come from very divergent perspectives on the place and appropriateness of war and violence for Christians.  And so, a lengthy discussion ensued.

I thought I would mention it here in the blog, however, because I think I have learned a lot through this interaction.  And hopefully there is something you can learn here too, or contribute to this conversation.

I was already in the process of putting together a work on “non-violence” in preparation for Memorial Day and this discussion allowed me to purposely interact with my peers and colleagues and learn much more.

Over the next several days, I will be sharing with you some of my own conclusions on violence and war, based on how I understand Jesus, but I’d like to start today by sharing what I learned from just the act of discussing this issue this week with people I care deeply about.

1) I love my church! The great thing about the church I am a part of is that we have many divergent views on many topics, but we are committed to loving each other anyway.   I know of very few places in the world where people can feel safe to genuinely disagree on complex issues and still feel acceptance and love.

Often the church is criticized as a place where differing opinions are not welcome.  There is a sense that you must “check your brain at the door” and just go along with the party line when it comes to church.  And while I have seen places that this is true, church at its best is open to discussion and exploration and genuine conversation that seeks to understand God and our life with God better.

To those that are skeptical of church for this reason, I would like to encourage you that there are communities that are open to your dialogue.  These difficult issues can be what divide us.  Especially in church.  And yet, in the context of my community, I found it a wonderful chance to explore the reasoning and understanding of different views and grow in the process.   Thank you to my friends, Paul and Dave and others who chimed in and contributed their wonderful assessments and convictions!

It is discussions like this one this week that remind me of why I love being a part of the body that I am.  The Apostle Paul calls us to “be devoted to one another” or to stand by each other through thick and thin.  And in this interaction, I have seen yet again that our body models this call extremely well.  Cheers to you, brothers and sisters!

prayer2)  Whether pacifists or “just war” proponents, we all agree that we should support and pray for the people from our body that are currently surrounded by and engaged in violence.

And in the end, maybe that is what matters.  We may disagree about war, national violence, or the extent to which we should participate in our country’s defense of itself and ideals, but at the conclusion all of us love and care deeply about those in our body that are in danger (physically, mentally/emotionally, spiritually) due to war and violence.

I think we will all be praying even more diligently for these brothers and sisters over the next few weeks, in part possibly because of this conversation.  I know I will.  And I will be encouraging those around me to spend more time praying .

I would encourage you to spend some time praying for people that you know that are serving in the military this weekend as well.

Pray for their physical safety, of course.  Pray that they will return home to have full lives away from such violence.

Pray for their emotional/mental health.  We have all seen the devastating effect on the human psyche (especially in recent news stories of military suicides and post-traumatic stress issues) that violence-seen or participated-in creates.

personaluse2_9050019~A-Makeshift-Peace-Sign-of-Flowers-Lies-on-Top-John-Lennon-s-Strawberry-Fields-Memorial-PostersPray for their spiritual health as they wrestle with things they’ve seen, things they’ve been called to do and the terrible side of humanity that they have been exposed to.

Also, join me in praying for PEACE.  While it seems that eradicating the planet of violence is impossible, I believe that all things are possible with God.  Pray with me that we may sow seeds of PEACE and that because of the message of Christ our world will change.  Pray that our sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, husbands, wives, and friends will no longer need to leave us to go to war.  Pray that nations will beat their weapons into plowshares.   Pray for PEACE.

In the next few days we’ll look at some Scripture and the message of Jesus to discuss the place of violence and war in the life of a follower of Jesus.  We will be thinking about whether Christians should involve themselves in various types of violence: national violence (military service), self-defense (if attacked by another), in protection of another that is being attacked, or various other situations.

Hopefully it will be helpful and create broader discussion.  I’ll probably break it into a three-part blog series.  So, check back and feel free to leave a comment and join the conversation.

‘Till then, Grace and peace…