I’m really excited to introduce to you today an exceptional guest who will be helping us in our discussion on “Jesus and Non-violence”!!
This is Dr. Brad Cole and he is going to be assisting us in understanding how to make sense of all the violence we find in the Old Testament; a tough topic whether you are a pacifist or a “just-war” proponent.
Brad and his wife Dorothee are both neurologists and he is the course director for the 1st and 2nd year neuroscience medical students at Loma Linda University. Brad has a weekly bible study with the medical students. The video and recordings of this can be found at www.godscharacter.com. You can read his full bio HERE.
Because this topic is such a vast one, Brad has put in a great deal of effort to be thorough and I think you will appreciate the result. However, because of the length, we will be breaking his essay into TWO posts. And though it is a bit of reading, I promise you will not be disappointed. Brad has a lot of answers to the questions that many of you have asked. Welcome to the conversation, Brad!
“Come and see what the LORD has done. See what amazing things he has done on earth. He stops wars all over the world; he breaks bows, destroys spears, and sets shields on fire. ‘Stop fighting,’ he says, ‘and know that I am God, supreme among the nations, supreme over the world.’”
Many read the Bible and conclude that there are legitimate situations that call for a violent response. In fact, many have quoted scripture to support violent actions and we don’t need to go back to the Crusades for examples of this. Just last month it was revealed that Donald Rumsfeld extensively used Bible quotes in his daily briefings to George Bush with regards to the Iraq war.
These included “rah-rah” photographs of American soldiers with captions such as “Therefore put on the full armor of God…” (Eph. 6:13)
Another photo depicted soldiers kneeling in prayer next to the words, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us? Here I am Lord, Send me. ” (Isaiah 6:8)
And finally there was a picture of Saddam Hussein next to the verse, “It is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish men.” (1 Peter 2:15)
At the same time, however, it seems to me that there is a recent ground swell of individuals who believe that the Kingdom of Christ should never use violent means, even against enemies. I am not referring to a group of politically motivated individuals, or an anti-Bush, anti-Iraq war crowd. Rather, it seems to me that there is a growing movement that is seeing with greater clarity that the Kingdom of Christ is nothing like any kingdom of the world.
The verses used by Rumsfeld were so radically taken out of context. Their use to support violence of any kind was nothing short of dishonest. It seems to me that he could have made a much better case for going to war in the name of God if he had wanted to, because of course the Bible does records times when God told his people to fight. Imagine if Rumsfeld had quoted these words of God:
“Go and attack the Amalekites and completely destroy everything they have. Don’t leave a thing; kill all the men, women, children, and babies; the cattle, sheep, camels, and donkeys.”
(1 Samuel 15:3)
Perhaps words like this were too strong – even for someone like Rumsfeld – and here is the real challenge for those who make the claim that Christians should advocate absolute nonviolence. If the Bible records God as commanding his people to fight and even to kill babies on occasion, how is it possible for anyone who holds the Bible to be the inspired word of God to take this position?
Most who advocate nonviolence have focused their arguments on the teaching of Christ who never killed or hit anyone. As Alden Thompson said, “When he cleansed the temple, he attacked the furniture, not the people.” (1) The teachings of Christ really cannot be used to support violence of any kind, although some have tried. For example, Jesus’ words about the disciples needing 2 swords have been used as a point in favor of violence, but I love the quote that Nick Loyd found on this:
“Two swords for twelve Apostles? Truly they are dull scholars who thence infer he meant that they should literally buy two swords to fight with!” (2)
The real challenge to nonviolence lies in the Old Testament and so we must first spend a little time reviewing some violent history.
1. Jesus: God of the Old Testament
The first option we need to dismiss immediately in trying to reconcile “Gentle Jesus and his violent Bible” (3) is to split the Trinity in any way. Many times Jesus referred to himself as the “I AM” – the same title God used when he spoke to Moses at the burning bush.
Paul said that the God who went with the children of Israel was Christ:
“All ate the same spiritual bread and drank the same spiritual drink. They drank from the spiritual rock that went with them; and that rock was Christ himself.”
(1 Corinthians 10:3-4)
And Jesus would explain that the entire Bible is the story of him – the Son of God:
“You have your heads in your Bibles constantly because you think you’ll find eternal life there. But you miss the forest for the trees. These Scriptures are all about me!”
But even if someone were to take the position that it was the Father who spoke and did all those things in the Old Testament, that shouldn’t change a thing. In Jesus we can say that the Father and Son are precisely the same in heart, mind, and character.
“For a long time I have been with you all; yet you do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. Why, then, do you say, ‘Show us the Father’?’”
Somehow we need to wrap our minds around the fact that Jesus was the God of the Old Testament. If that paradox doesn’t immediately fry our neurons, let’s try to think this through.
2. God stoops to meet us where we are
We often view God as inflexible, changeless (“I change not!” — Mal. 3:6) and that his every word and action must reflect the absolute ideal. That is not the story of the Bible, however, which reveals countless examples of God “giving in” to something that was light years from the ideal. This was how Jesus explained the Old Testament. For example, after he seemed to contradict the Old Testament divorce laws,
“Some Pharisees came and tried to trap Him with this question: ‘Should a man be allowed to divorce his wife for just any reason?’ ‘Haven’t you read the Scriptures?’ Jesus replied. ‘They record that from the beginning ‘God made them male and female.’ And He said, ‘This explains why a man leaves his father and mother and is joined to his wife, and the two are united into one.’ Since they are no longer two but one, let no one split apart what God has joined together.’ ‘Then why did Moses say in the law that a man could give his wife a written notice of divorce and send her away?’ they asked.
Please don’t miss Jesus’ spectacular reply – this is critically important to our question:
‘Moses permitted divorce only as a concession to your hard hearts, but it was not what God had originally intended.’”
In the Old Testament, divorce was remarkably cruel. You don’t like your wife, get rid of her and bring a new one in the following week. You don’t like her, send her out on the streets and get another. It was the essentially the end of that woman’s life. Something had to be done and so we have Old Testament divorce rules. But notice, Jesus’ explanation of why the Old Testament divorce rules were given explains at least half of the hard to understand rules and stories in the Old Testament. Jesus admits in this explanation that his actions and rules in the Old Testament do not reflect the ideal – far from the ideal, in fact. What Jesus is saying is that “in your hard-hearted rebellion I had to say things and do things as a concession because it was the only way that I could reach you. It was not what I had intended.”
In the Old Testament we see God stooping to meet a rebellious people:
“I did his, because they had rejected my commands, broken my laws, profaned the Sabbath, and worshiped the same idols their ancestors had served. Then I gave them laws that are not good and commands that do not bring life.”
Rather than abandoning his people forever, God gave them laws and commands that were “not good” and that did not reflect the ideal of character or his kingdom. But yet, this was apparently the only way he could stay in contact with them.
Let’s briefly list some of the many examples of God “giving in” to something that was not the ideal and I will try to lay this as a foundation for all the fighting and violence as well:
The practice of polygamy was common in Old Testament times, even among “men of faith” like Abraham, David and Solomon. It seems that it would have been “too much, too fast” for God to go on record as saying “I forbid polygamy!” Instead, God condescended to allow for the practice, but with stipulations to move his people in the right direction,
“If a man takes a second wife, he must continue to give his first wife the same amount of food and clothing and the same rights that she had before.”
Rather than bluntly laying down the law from the onset, “I forbid polygamy”, God tried to make this horrible practice more humane until he could finally lead his people away from it altogether.
B. Private vengeance:
In Old Testament times, if you were chopping wood and the blade flew off your axe and killed someone walking by, under the accepted system of private vengeance it would be expected for the family of that man to hunt you down and kill you – even though everyone would acknowledge that it was an accident. And so God, rather than saying “I forbid private vengeance” (once again “too much, too fast”) created a safe place to flee. When the high priest died (which might be decades later), the obligation was fulfilled and finally the man could leave that city. Is this the ideal? No, this is the God patiently nudging the people in the right direction.
C. The monarchy:
Did God approve of the monarchy? Instinctively we might say “yes” as we think of King David and that Jesus was a descendant of David, but yet this was not God’s plan. The people said, “We want a king” God said, “No you don’t. That’s a terrible idea. He will take your men to fight for him. He will take your women to join his harem? He’ll raise your taxes. Don’t do it!” The people said, “No, we want a king.” Remarkably, God’s reply, after telling them that it was a terrible idea was to say,
“Do what they want and give them a king.”
(1 Samuel 8:22)
Once again, God gave in to their desire, but it was not his plan.
D. False conception of justice:
As the people entered the Promised Land, we discover that their conception of “justice” was distorted. This is revealed by their words to Joshua,
“Whoever question your authority or disobeys any of your orders will be put to death.”
Had the disciples said this to Jesus we can be sure that his rebuke would have been severe and to the point. But when we understand that this is the standard of justice at this time, we realize that what Achan did just a few days later was to disobey God. If disobeying Joshua should result in death, then what should the penalty be for disobeying God? Do you see the dilemma God is in?
Tim Jennings has a very good illustration on this point (4). A few years ago an Iraqi grocer and his family were killed and the grocery store was burned down because he had the audacity to place celery sticks next to tomatoes. What’s the problem with that, you ask? Some felt that this was highly offensive because it could be interpreted as an erect male and so he was killed.
Now, if you were appointed governor of this town and you were creating law, let’s say that you decided that drunk driving was serious and that you wanted a penalty that was sufficient to deter this behavior. Suppose that you chose a $500 fine and 5 days in jail. What would this imply to the people? If celery sticks next to tomatoes results in death, would this not suggest that drunk driving is far less serious? How do you effectively reach people when their sense of justice is entirely warped?
But, of course, the other difficult aspect of Achan’s story is that not only was Achan stoned to death, but also his wife, children…even the pets. Why? Once again, we are dealing with a culture, time, and a conception of justice that is so different from ours. In our time and society, we champion freedom and we are deeply individualistic, but this was not true in Achan’s time. During this time, one’s person and one’s personality extended to the entire family and so Achan’s sin, in the minds of the people, equally involved everyone in his family (5). And so, once again, God condescended to work within a system of justice that we cannot identify with and that was far, far, from the ideal – and I think it made God sick.
E. “Eye for an eye”:
Jesus didn’t deny that he gave the rule “An eye for an eye” during a chaotic and violent time, but he did forbid this practice for his followers, once again implying that this rule was given only to reach us in our heard hearted rebellion.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’ But now I tell you: do not take revenge on someone who wrongs you…You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your friends, hate your enemies.’ But now I tell you: love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may become the children of your Father in heaven.”
Despite these clear and cutting words of Jesus, Christians still generally practice “eye for an eye” methods in the world but yet we are commanded by Christ to “not take revenge on someone who wrongs you.” And so when one country A bombs country B because they have been wronged, call that violent response whatever you want, but do not call it a “Christian” action or associated it with the name “Christ” in any way! The words bear repeating: “Do not take revenge on someone who wrongs you…love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”
In Jesus we can say that Gandhi was right, “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.”
Examples of God giving in to something that is far less than the ideal come from the New Testament as well. When Paul was dealing with the church of Corinth which was coming out of idolatrous worship, he had to use these same methods. A man was sleeping with his step-mother, people were getting drunk at the Lord’s Supper, and the worship experience was chaotic. Just down the street in Corinth was the Temple of Apollo. According to legendary accounts, there may have been as many as 1,000 temple prostitutes who “served” at any given time in this temple. In order to lead these immature Christians away from this form of false worship and everything associated with it, Paul had to say this:
“…God does not want us to be in disorder but in harmony and peace. As in all the churches of God’s people, the women should keep quiet in the meetings. They are not allowed to speak…If they want to find out about something, they should ask their husbands at home. It is a disgraceful thing for a woman to speak in a church meeting.”
(1 Corinthians 14:33-35)
Is this the ideal or is Paul meeting these people where they are?
(1) Good News Tour conference 2006
(2) Alexander Campbell, “An Address on War”, Millenial Harbinger, 1848, pg. 375
(3) A great sermon title by Alden Thompson
(4) Good News Tour, 2007
(5) This is known as “corporate justice”
Okay, lots to chew on… Even though I’m totally impatient and excited to show you the rest of the essay, I’ll post PART 2 in a few days to give you some time to read all the way through it.