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)

What About Romans 13?

Welcome back!  I know it has been a while since my last entry.  The summer months get kinda hectic for a youth pastor.  However, we are going to jump right back into our discussion on “Jesus & Non-violence” today with another guest blog.

(If you are just joining us, please consider getting caught up on our conversation through the links to the right.)

Shane Claiborne

Shane Claiborne

Today, I am excited to introduce someone to you that many of you know or have heard of already.  His name is Shane Claiborne.  He has written several well known books:

“The Irresistible Revolution”

“Jesus for President”.

I would highly recommend both of these books.  Shane has quickly become one of my favorite authors on this topic and I think you will appreciate his insights as well.

I asked Shane to help address a question that many of you have asked from the beginning of this conversation, which is “what about Romans 13?”  He agreed to participate in our blogalogue and submitted this article that I believe he wrote in tandem with his co-writer for “Jesus for President”, Chris Haw.

Thank you, Shane and Chris, for sharing your thoughts with us here!

Oh, and make sure to read the “footnotes” on this one… especially #3!

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The popularly misquoted Romans 13 is surrounded by exhortations to not conform to the patterns of the world, love one’s enemies, and overcome evil with good. The passage in 1 Peter 2: 13ff on submitting to authority is woven into a larger tapestry about Christians living as aliens and strangers to the ways of the world. So before we hastily jump to the conclusion that these passages support Christian war or violence, we must understand what they actually say and their placement in overarching New Testament themes.

Because of space limitations, we’ll address only Romans 13.  So, let’s start by reading Paul.

“Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good.

But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience. This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. Give to everyone what you owe: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.
(Romans 13:1–7)

Some talking points about this text. (1)

1.  To study any text with an appropriate sympathy, one must give it the benefit of the doubt before judging it.

"The Irresistible Revolution"

"The Irresistible Revolution"

One must allow the text to be “innocent until proven guilty.” This means we must assume that the author (in this case, Paul) is intelligent enough not to contradict himself or herself.  If there is coherence in Paul’s thought, then we can use his clear passages to illuminate passages that are harder to understand.  Granting this, we can assume that Paul’s point in Romans 13 harmonizes with the rest of his politics.  Without this initial sympathy, we might fail to understand a text.  The critical eye, squinting with distrust, cannot see clearly.

And it’s a disservice to an author to reconcile apparent contradictions in different texts by “balancing” them, concluding, for example, that “Christians need both a violent side and a peaceful side.”  Others simply write off Romans 13 as either a later compromise in Paul’s originally radical politics, or another author’s later addition to a largely nonconformist epistle.  But what if, instead of having two contradicting points, Paul had a single point?

Let’s assume that nowhere in Romans 13:1–7 is Paul saying anything that contradicts what he says at the end of the previous chapter:

“Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. … Live in harmony with one another. … Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’  says the Lord. On the contrary: ‘If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.’

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
(Romans 12:14–21)

2.  Note that the text says God orders “all authority.”

As we asked before, what would this text sound like to a German Christian under Hitler’s rule or an Iraqi Christian under Saddam’s rule?  It is easy to blindly use this text to support some militaristic adventure of Constantine or the United States and assume its divine sanction, but this overlooks the fact that “all” must include all authorities: Nero, Domitian, Pilate, Mao Tse-tung, Saddam Hussein, Hitler’s Third Reich, and so on.

World_Greatest_Dictators_by_vherandAlso, there is no place in the text where these authorities, under the right conditions, are considered divinely inspired (therefore worthy of obedience) or, not meeting some criteria, are considered divinely condemned (therefore worthy of disobedience).  The text does not give ordination only to democratically elected governments, but includes dictators!

When certain governmental standards (which have been imported into this text from elsewhere) are not met, some Christians like to introduce an exception: “We must obey God rather than men.”  But this phrase was intended not to provide an exception to the rule but serve as a clue to the overarching politics of the people of God: they always obey God rather than men, and they always subordinate to all authorities.

That God establishes all authority does not mean that God approves of all authorities.  The point is rather that God is to be considered greater than, not equal to, all the powers of this world.  Even the best democracy in the world isn’t worthy of allegiance, for God is sovereign even over it.

trinity-college-library-dub

"God ordered authorities, like a librarian orders books..."

“Established” here means that God orders the powers, as a librarian orders books but doesn’t necessarily approve of their content.  After all, Paul speaks of a government that “rewards the just,” but he also has extensive experience with persecution under its rule, and John of Patmos later refers to the powers (in Revelation 13) as the great whore.

That God “ordered” pagan Assyria to chastise Israel (Isaiah 10) is similar to Paul’s point.  Isaiah made no hint that God approved Assyria or the violence it used, but Israel was to trust that, in their suffering, they were not outside of God’s sovereignty.

Jesus echoed this belief when he declared to Pilate, “You would have no power if it were not given to you from above,” while obviously acknowledging Pilate’s abuse of this power.

Or remember back to when Israel demanded a king despite God’s warnings of what kings would do to them, and “in God’s anger God gave them a king.”

And now we ask God to save us from ourselves and our kings and presidents.

3.  Because Paul gives no conditions for a disciple to be subordinate to the authorities, we see he is talking about something deeper than disobedience or obedience.

Paul, in fact, did not use the word obey (which would imply the sense of bending one’s will). He used the word subordinate, which means that you simply consider yourself under their order.  This word is not about patriotism, pledging allegiance, or any affection for the powers.  Paul isn’t trying to convince unpatriotic Christians to pledge better allegiance.   Rather, Paul’s problem is the opposite: he must convince Christians, who are not conforming to the patterns of this world, not to overthrow the government! (2)

"Jesus for President"

"Jesus for President"

Paul is helping disciples understand the futility of such endeavors, encouraging them to keep on the path described in Romans 12 (and all of Jesus’ life and teaching), and not fly off into a new and hopeless project of vying for power. As Paul makes clear in chapters 9 through 11, Gentiles need to see themselves not as participants in the political dramas of upheavals and revolutions but as part of the set-apart people of God which were begun through Abraham and Sarah.

Subordination is not simply a helpful spiritual caveat to remind the Christian to stay humble.  It’s a necessary safeguard against violence and power.  It’s difficult to find a time in history when the revolutionary, through violence and coercion, doesn’t become a new oppressor.  Jesus knew this was the case in his people’s recent history with the Maccabeans.  Thus Jesus rejected the Zealots’ goal to “take the power back” from Herod or Pilate.  Paul too is rejecting the Zealots’ impulse and opting for revolutionary subordination.  As with Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, the only thing that should be done with the ring of power is dissolve it in the fire, not put it in the hands of “a pious man.”

If this ever becomes confusing, one need simply look at the example of Jesus’ death at the hands of the powers to understand subordination.  The way Jesus interacted with the temple courts and with Pilate displays a subordinate yet revolutionary heart.  Jesus never obeyed their whims and wishes—indeed, his wild action in the temple precipitated his arrest—and yet he also nonviolently subordinated to arrest. (3) He understood the powers as fallen but lovingly navigated through their hands, speaking truth that their power had blinded them to.

To overcome evil, he would not resist it but suffered and absorbed it.

4.   The text does not sanction the Christian to take up arms or even try to become the one who “governs by the sword.”

Many warrior Christians like to refer to the “just war tradition.”  And apparently Romans 13 is at the heart of this theory’s constitution.  As you read through the text, you’ll notice there is no place where sanction is given to the Christian to take up arms or even try to become the one who “governs by the sword.”  Indeed, the Christian identity is upheld in this text, as it was a chapter before, as radically distinct from the powers.

For Paul, the powers and the state are clearly a “they,” because he pledges allegiance to another Lord.  Much just-war reflection fails not only in its logic and application but also in its preconception: their “we” is not the church but the state.  In response to the question, “What should we have done in World War II?” we must ask, “Who is we?”

faith-and-politicsIf you are a Christian and your citizenship is in Jesus’ kingdom, reflection begins not with the powers but with the church.  The church should not have religiously supported, fought for, and obeyed Hitler.  The church should have been enacting the teachings of Jesus.  The church should have been taking in Jews and others who were hunted.  In many instances the church was doing these things, but this is not the history we learn.  Each of these instances, as in the case of Schindler or in our Celestin story or with the midwives in Egypt, are acts of holy subversion and disobedience. We are blessed to learn the lessons of history through the small, faithful ones in the Church (instead of through gigantic military history).

Not only does Romans 13 make no mention of Christians and the sword, it also doesn’t talk about the state and war.  When the text refers to the sword (v. 4, machiara: “short dagger”), the Greek word used refers not to war but to the symbol of local policing—it is the sword Roman officers would carry while accompanying tax-collectors.  There are many Greek words that refer to war, but machiara is not one of them.

But if we must talk about the state and war, “just war” is the most identifiable tradition in the church.  If Christians actually held to this theory, they would never go off to war.  Just-war theory isn’t a “justify any war” theory.  It defines a just war by stringent criteria and was intended to criticize governments, minimize violence, and define several reasons wars were wrong.  It should not be used to encourage Christians to abandon Jesus’ teachings.

5.  Only when the state resists evil and rewards good can the state be considered God’s servant.

The conditional word “attending” (also “give their full” v. 6, proskarterountes) helps us read the verse to say “they are servants of God insofar as they busy themselves with governing (resisting evil and rewarding good).”  When this condition is met, it’s not as if the Christian would join in resisting evil—no, they are still called to overcome evil as agents of the gospel, not agents of wrath.  And as we said before, if this condition is not met, it’s not as if Christians are justified in overthrowing the government either! (4)

In a similar way, the fact that the prophets speak of what a good king should do doesn’t change the fact that kings were not part of God’s original plan but a breaking of God’s heart (1 Samuel 8).  The condition is simply to define for the Christian a broad conception of what the state is doing, which is not what the Christian is doing. (5) The act of resisting evil is what Paul and Jesus explicitly prohibited for Christians (Romans 12; Matthew 5).

carew6It may be argued that this reading of Romans 13 leaves the dirty work of violence to the state while Christians keep their hands clean. Paul, indeed, understands that the powers play a role.  (Paul had been protected from riot violence by this pagan government.  Doubtlessly he was grateful for this, but he also seemed to be indifferent to this protection when he declared, “To live is Christ and to die is gain.”)  The powers’ role is simply part of the old order that is passing away and crumbling.

It’s as if an old castle, deteriorating and full of holes in the walls from war, is being rebuilt.  The powers, partly responsible for creating the cycles of war, protect the castle from further bombing and set up scaffolds and girders to keep the building from crumbling on everyone’s heads.  They mitigate the mess they haven’t yet become convinced to stop making.  Meanwhile, those committed (the church) to the renewed castle make peace between the warriors who destroyed the castle, redesign its architecture, rework the plumbing, and so on.  But if the reworkers resort to constructing gun turrets on the walls, they simply assure the tightening of the cycle that destroyed everything.

This analogy, like any, falls short.  But the picture is that the old order plays a role, but it’s a limited and largely negative role.  Rather than trying to save a sinking ship, Christians are to be helping people get into lifeboats.  To the extent that people play a part in the old order of violence and power, they prolong and maintain it.

Put simply, “the most effective way to contribute to the preservation of society in the old aeon is to live in the new.” (6)

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footnotes:

(1)   It would be hard to cite all of the places where John Yoder has influenced these short observations. His remarks in The Politics of Jesus (especially the chapter “Let Every Soul Be Subject”) have thoroughly influenced our understanding. Readers would do well to go beyond our sketch and read his work and the works from which he draws.

(2)  A few years before this epistle Priscilla and Aquila had been expelled from Rome in connection with a tax revolt, and a new revolt was brewing under Nero. Paul’s point is that the insurrectionist motives behind this are missing the gospel’s methods of revolution. (See Klaus Wengst, The Pax Romana and the Peace of Jesus Christ (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1987), 82.

(3)  “The conscientious objector who refuses to do what a government demands, but still remains under the sovereignty of that government and accepts the penalties which it imposes, or the Christian who refuses to worship Caesar but still permits Caesar to put him or her to death, is being subordinate even though not obeying” (John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994], 209).

(4)  “The conception of a ‘state properly so called,’ in the name of which one would reject and seek to overthrow the state which exists empirically, is totally absent in the passage. In the social context of the Jewish Christians in Rome, the whole point of the passage was to take out of their minds any concept of rebellion against or even emotional rejection of this corrupt pagan government” (Yoder, Politics of Jesus, 200).

(5)  “Christians are told (12:19) to never exercise vengeance but to leave it to God and to wrath. Then the authorities are recognized (13:14) as executing the particular function which the Christian was to leave to God … the function exercised by the government is not the function exercised by the Christians” (Yoder, Politics of Jesus, 198).

(6)  John Howard Yoder, The Original Revolution (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 2003), 83.

When My People Prey – (Part 2)

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Dr. Brad Cole & family

Welcome back!

Today we are continuing our conversation with friend and guest blogger, Dr. Brad Cole (click here for BIO info).  This is the second and final part of his essay on making sense of the “Gentle Jesus” we read about in the New Testament and the disturbing violence we find in the Old Testament.  I think you’ll find his thoughts very helpful.

Recap:  In the first post (which you should go back and read HERE if you haven’t already), Brad established:

1)  Jesus IS the God of the Old Testament
2)  God makes concessions to meet us where we are

And if you remember, the first post ended with God saying that though the Israelites involved themselves in things that were not God’s ideal that he would not abandon them but meet them where they were and give them “laws that are not good and commands that do not bring life” (Ezekiel 20:25) as a concession to their hard hearts.

So, today we pick up on these “laws that are not good” and the context for why God had to give them to his people.

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3.    The context for the “bad rules” to fight

There are many more examples of this foundational principle of God giving in to something less than the ideal, but now let’s specifically tackle the problem of fighting and wars in Old Testament times. I believe that we can say that God never wanted them to fight in the first place, but we can only take this position by understanding the context for these violent times.

It is quite remarkable to consider the violent lives, even of God’s friends in the Old Testament. Just to list a few examples! When Jacob’s daughter Dinah was raped, the men of this city were tricked by Simeon and Levi into getting circumcised.

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"...laws that are not good and commands that do not bring life” (Ezekiel 20:25)

“Three days later, when the men were still sore from their circumcision, two of Jacob’s sons, Simeon and Levi, the brothers of Dinah, took their swords, went into the city without arousing suspicion, and killed all the men…”
(Genesis 34:25)

This was Levi, the father of the Levites!

Just a few verses later we read this about Reuben,

“While Jacob was living in that land, Reuben had sexual intercourse with Bilhah, one of his father’s concubines; Jacob heard about it and was furious.”
(Genesis 35:22)

Of course, these older brothers would then throw Joseph in a pit.

Judah later married a Canaanite woman and sometime later saw someone who he thought was a prostitute.

“When Judah saw her, he thought that she was a prostitute, because she had her face covered. He went over to her at the side of the road and said, ‘All right, how much do you charge?’ (He did not know that she was his daughter-in-law.)…About three months later someone told Judah, ‘Your daughter-in-law Tamar has been acting like a whore, and now she is pregnant.’ Judah ordered, ‘Take her out and burn her to death.’”
(Genesis 38:15,16,24-25)

It seems unthinkable that Jesus Christ descended from Judah and Tamar.

As the children of Israel traveled to Mount Sinai there was continual rebellion and mutiny against the authority of Moses. As evidence of the spiritual depravity, God had to tell them,

“Do not have sexual intercourse with any of your relatives. Do not disgrace your father by having intercourse with your mother. You must not disgrace your own mother…No man or woman is to have sexual relations with an animal; that perversion makes you ritually unclean.”
(Leviticus 18:7, 23)

Would God give rules like this if they were not needed, and if those kinds of rules were needed, what does that say about the people that were supposed to represent God to the world?

MolechFlame

Caananite god, Molech & infant sacrifice

These people were deeply attracted to a form of worship that I hope would make all of us recoil in horror.  To make this “real” lets imagine that the church next door to the one you attend is representative of the religions of the nations who occupied the Promised Land.  What do we know about those religions?  They were remarkably cruel – the church experience involved child sacrifice and meeting with temple prostitutes.  What is especially sad is that the children of Israel were continually drawn to and tempted by this violent form of worship.  Just consider for a moment that when you got up for church next week that you had a hard time deciding, “Hmmm…shall I go sacrifice my child to the god Molech and then meet with a temple prostitute, or should I go to my regular church?  Tough call!”  That would not say very good things about you but it does tell us where God’s people were at this time.  It’s unthinkable that even king Solomon fell into this trap and began to worship the cruel pagan gods.

If you have ever had a chance to quickly read through the account of the serious rebellion of the wilderness wanderings, it is a terrible story of distrust of God and continued mutiny against Moses. Even when they entered the Promised Land they were still a rebellious people and in Joshua’s final sermon he had to tell them,

“Get rid of the gods which your ancestors used to worship in Mesopotamia and in Egypt, and serve only the LORD.”
(Joshua 24:16)

Then Joshua died and . . .

“That whole generation also died, and the next generation forgot the LORD and what he had done for Israel.”
(Judges 2:10)

What follows then is the book of Judges, one of the most violent and depressing books in the entire Bible! The people

“…settled down among the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. They intermarried with them and worshiped their gods.”
(Judges 3:5,6)

Every once in a while they would turn to God and he would help them fight against their enemies, but they would soon return to worship the other gods once again. The book of Judges culminates with the story of the Levite and his concubine. This poor woman was raped all night by a mob in a Benjamite city. This heartless Levite then cut her body up into 12 pieces and had them delivered to the 12 tribes of Israel.

Even the brightest moments in the Old Testament, such as the life of David, are mixed in with cruelty and violence. David, of course, had an affair with Bathsheba and then plotted to have her husband murdered, and on and on and on. It is literally too depressing to continue with this violent history and we aren’t even to horrible events of the splitting of the kingdoms, Jezebel, and King Manasseh who killed so many people that the streets flowed with blood, and so on.

The point of all this is to say that this is the setting, the context, and the people that God is trying to work with. In the Old Testament, God is reaching out to stubborn mules and to do that he must interact with his people in ways that only a stubborn mule could understand.

“The people of Israel are as stubborn as mules. How can I feed them like lambs in a meadow?”
(Hosea 4:16)

4.    God did not want them to fight

Just as we have seen God “give in” to divorce laws, the monarchy, polygamy, and countless other examples in order to maintain contact with a rebellious people, the Bible also describes God as giving in to the violence and fighting. But this was never God’s plan! God’s dilemma was that he knew intermingling with the other nations who were involved in the worship of the cruel gods who demanded child sacrifice would be fatal. Coexistence was not an option:

“Do not worship their gods, for that would be fatal.”
(Deuteronomy 7:16)

“Make sure that you don’t follow their religious practices, because that would be fatal. Don’t try to find out how they worship their gods, so that you can worship in the same way. Do not worship the LORD your God in the way they worship their gods, for in the worship of their gods they do all the disgusting things that the LORD hates. They even sacrifice their children in the fires on their altars.”
(Deuteronomy 12:30-31)

UntitledGod’s warning was clear: “They will be your enemies, and you will be trapped by the worship of their gods.”  (Judges 2:3)

They had to stay away from these people and their gods, but yet God’s plan was not to have them fight and kill. Many times God suggested another way:

“Don’t be afraid of them, for the LORD your God will fight for you”
(Deuteronomy 3:22)

“I will send an angel ahead of you to protect you as you travel and to bring you to the place which I have prepared…For my angel will go before you, and bring you in to the Amorites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Canaanites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, and I will cut them off”
(Exodus 23:20,23)

The LORD your God will send hornets among them, until those who are left and hide themselves from you are destroyed. You shall not be in dread of them; for the LORD your God is in the midst of you, a great and terrible God. The LORD your God will clear away these nations before you little by little…the LORD your God will give them over to you, and throw them into great confusion, until they are destroyed”
(Deuteronomy 7:20-23)

But sadly the people did not trust God to take care of them and to bring them into the Promised Land in the way he wanted to do it. And so it would appear that God (once again as a concession to the hard-hearts of humanity) helped them fight, despite the repeated message that he really did not want them to fight at all.

God’s people did not trust him to take care of the problem. God could have left them, “I told you that I would take care of you, but since you don’t trust me to do it, you’re on your own!” Remarkably though, God did not abandon his children but rather condescended to help them fight. But even as he did this, he tried to teach them that instead of fighting what they really should do is to begin to put their trust in him.

For example, the first city they conquered was Jericho where the walls miraculously collapsed with a mere shout and some trumpets. Should not the people have realized, “You know what, it seems like it’s much more important that we stay connected to God than it is for us to have a large army?” There are countless examples of this. Gideon and his 300 men threw an army of Midianites that the Bible describes as so large they were like the sand on the seashore into a panic with nothing more than torches and God would many times summarize their conquests this way:

“As you advanced, I threw them into panic…Your swords and bows had nothing to do with it.”
(Joshua 24:12)

In every way possible God tried to lead the people away from fighting. When Joshua would conquer a people

“…he crippled their horses and burned their chariots.”
(Joshua 11:9)

This is cruel, but God was trying to tell the people in the only language they could understand, “Please, don’t have a large military and if you would just put your trust in me, you won’t be doing any of this fighting in the first place!”

david_and_goliath_zoomEven when David killed Goliath, we miss these words of David as he charged at the giant:

“You are coming against me with sword, spear, and javelin, but I come against you in the name of the LORD Almighty, the God of the Israelite armies, which you have defied. This very day the LORD will put you in my power…Then the whole world will know that Israel has a God, and everyone here will see that the LORD does not need swords or spears to save his people.”
(1 Samuel 17:45-47)

After watching a boy defeat a giant, did Israel get the message which was “Hey, God does not need swords or spears to save his people!” Fantasize with me for just one second that this event caused the people to have an epiphany. They turned to each other and instead of chasing after the Philistines they proclaimed, “From this day forward we will place our absolute trust in the Lord. The Almighty One will take care of us. Instead of killing our enemies let’s turn our swords into plows. Let’s become a great light to the world about the kind of Person that our mighty God is.”

Can you imagine how dramatically different the course of human history would have been? Of course, unfortunately, even David, the one who said those words to Goliath, spent most of his life fighting and killing. And so at the end of his life when David asked if he could build a temple for God, it’s almost as if God had to go on record and in print, that “I hate this fighting” and God did not allow David to build a temple for him,

“…he has forbidden me to do it, because I am a soldier and have shed too much blood.”
(1 Chronicles 28:3)

Rather than abandoning his rebellious people in Old Testament times, God stuck with them, but this came at a severe cost to his reputation. By stooping to stay in contact with a people who desired to do things contrary to his desire, God’s character was dragged through the mud:

“Wherever they went, they gave me a bad name. People said, ‘These are GOD’s people, but they got kicked off his land.’   I suffered much pain over my holy reputation, which the people of Israel blackened in every country they entered.  ‘Therefore, tell Israel…I’m not doing this for you, Israel. I’m doing it for me, to save my character, my holy name, which you’ve blackened in every country where you’ve gone.   I’m going to put my great and holy name on display, the name that has been ruined in so many countries, the name that you blackened wherever you went.”
(Ezekiel 36:20-23)

5.    The “Prince of Peace” to the rescue

The terrible Old Testament stories of fighting and violence reflect negatively on us (humanity), not God. We have ruined God’s reputation. It is in this context that we should consider the arrival of Jesus on the scene:

Caravaggion "Supper at Emmaus"  1606

Caravaggion "Supper at Emmaus" 1606

“No one has ever seen God.  But the unique One, who is Himself God, is near to the Father’s heart. He has revealed God to us.”
(John 1:18)

The  people could not “see” God because He simply could not clearly reveal himself in Old Testament times – the rebellion and the chaos of his chosen people was so severe.

God came in human form to clear up any misconceptions as to what God is like as well as to show us what the real kingdom is like. Just the way he came should say so much to us about who our God is. The God of the Old Testament, the Creator of the Universe, moved into the neighborhood by transporting himself into the womb of one of his sinful creatures and then began the 9 month process of growing, cell by cell, into a baby boy.

Jesus’ mission was to reveal the truth about God’s character (John 17:3-6) and to establish a Kingdom of love and service. Everywhere he went he gave parables to describe, “The Kingdom of heaven is like this…” and his description of the real Kingdom never resembled an earthly kingdom of power, force, coercion or violence.

“My Kingdom is not an earthly kingdom. If it were, my followers would fight to keep me from being handed over to the Jewish leaders. But my Kingdom is not of this world.”
(John 18:38)

loveyourenemiesFor 3 and ½ years Jesus showed us what the King is like and what the Kingdom is like. Do we want to live in a Kingdom where the King lays down his life for enemies rather than killing them?

It was Jesus who opened our eyes to see that the principles of God’s Kingdom are love and service for others.  Jesus was God in human form. His every word and action put skin on what this Kingdom really looks like. (1)  Loving enemies and praying for them? That is the Kingdom!  Carrying the pack of your national enemy an extra mile?  That is the Kingdom.  Washing the feet of your betrayer?  That is the Kingdom.  Laying down your life for another?  That is the Kingdom!  The climax of Jesus’ life was his death where he absorbed all of our violence and hatred, but yet his response was to return this only with love and forgiveness. The Cross is the clearest picture we will ever see of what the Kingdom of God really looks like!

Jesus gave those of us who call ourselves Christian but one command:

“And now I give you a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. If you have love for one another, then everyone will know that you are my disciples.”
(John 13:34-35)

We are to love others in the same way that Jesus loved.  Our mission as a people is to esteem above everything else to replicate the love of Jesus as he died on a cross – tortured to death by his own children.

Kingdoms of the world do all kinds of things. They raise taxes, fight wars, enact laws, and occasionally achieve some good in the world, but they are all based on a power-over structure. This is not what the real Kingdom looks like! Listen to Jesus’ contrast between the kingdoms of the world and his Kingdom:

“You know that the rulers of the heathen have power over them, and the leaders have complete authority. This, however, is not the way it shall be among you. If one of you wants to be great, you must be the servant of the rest; and if one of you wants to be first, you must be the slave of the others— like the Son of Man, who did not come to be served, but to serve and to give his life to redeem many people.’”
(Matthew 20:25-28)

Bumper-Sticker-When-Jesus-said-love-your-enemies-he-probably-meant-don't-kill-735355As Christians we belong to a Kingdom that is not of this world and when wars and violence are ever labeled as a “Christian” we misrepresent Christ who never commanded us to use violence for a “just” end. Wars can be discussed as to whether or not they are justified for this or that reason, but we should never in any way associate violence with a Christian endeavor. Our motto as Christians is to love, serve, and to present the truth about God as seen in Jesus Christ – period. This is what we do – this is all we do.

In conclusion, when we read about all the fighting in the Old Testament, let’s appreciate the fact that God stooped to an infinite degree to meet a violent people, but why would we ever want to return to something that is less than what we see in the Person of Jesus Christ?  Now that we have seen and experienced the ideal, there is no turning back.  Or should we loveosamago back to the “good old days” and initiate private vengeance but with provisionary cities of refuge?  Should we insist that it is a shameful thing for a woman to speak in church or make provisions for men who might choose to take a second wife?  Of course not, and as Christians we should go just as far to reject violence in any form as we would to distance ourselves from polygamy or the suppression of a woman’s right to speak in church.

Loving, serving, and praying for enemies is not “safe” – Jesus’ death on the Cross is evidence of that.  In fact, God’s best friends throughout human history often seem to have had the worst of it from a worldly perspective.  Just consider the persecution of Abel (killed), Job, Isaiah (sawed in half in a hollow log), Jeremiah (stoned to death in Egypt), John and Baptist (beheaded), Peter (crucified upside down), John (imprisoned on Patmos), and Paul – just to name a few!  We are not called to live “practical” or “safe” lives.

We are called to live out the radical love of Jesus Christ. The love of God as revealed on Calvary forever changed the world and whenever God’s people unite on their singular purpose to love and service others the world is brought closer to the real Kingdom and the real King – the “Prince of Peace”.

footnotes:

(1)  In this brief article I cannot begin to list the words and actions of Jesus that call Christians to a non-violent kingdom, but I would strongly recommend Greg Boyd’s book “The Myth of a Christian Nation”.

(pictures added by editor)

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To read more of Brad’s excellent work and see his lectures on video, please visit his website:

Restoring the Conversation

Recently I was approached by a friend who shares an opposite viewpoint on violence than I do and he was expressing some concerns about my steadfast belief that violence in all its forms is outside the reality of the kingdom of God.

And as he shared his concerns, he made one statement that has propelled me to greater research:  “That (viewpoint) isn’t what we teach here (at this church).”

no creed but christNow, to give you some context, I am a part of a non-denominational Christian church that has “no creed but Christ” and is a link in a long chain of churches that has held to the ideal that “we are Christians only, but not the only Christians.”

We are a movement that has held certain things we have considered essential to faith in Christ fiercely, but made allowance and grace for various other viewpoints on the periphery of these things to exist and be discussed in the life of the body.

It is, in my mind, a beautiful ideal and a marvelous history.  And though I believe we have not been totally (or in some cases even mostly) successful in achieving this ideal, it is a goal that I think is noble and reflects Jesus’ desire that we “be one” as a unified body made up of diverse and unique individuals.

Now these “Restoration churches,” as we call them, have tried to achieve this ideal by “restoring” the things we find in the early church.   The basic idea is that Christians can find unity together from various ecclesial backgrounds by escaping (as much as possible) the telephone game diversions in church history through returning to the “ancient reset-buttonorder of things” or The SOURCE (Jesus) and the early church.

It is an attempt to “restore” or “reset” to the biblical origins of church and abandon the many other traditions, creeds and theological constraints that people have evolved throughout history to designate people as either “in” or “out” of their particular brand of church club.

The forefathers of this movement believed that the body of Christ could exist in unity, despite different views of end times, atonement, predestination/free-will and many other tests of membership that groups throughout history have employed, by uniting around one simple statement, “Jesus is Lord.”

In short, these “restoration pioneers” made great sacrifice and dedicated their lives to allowing the conversation that we are having today.  I believe it was their intent and belief that the body of Christ is best when it talks, stretches, converses and grows in difficult issues, but always while maintaining the “spirit of unity”.

Now, some today would say that conversations like this one do harm to the church by causing division.   But, in response, I believe my church tradition would say that it is this very diversity that when approached in love and mutual respect is what makes the body of Christ so unique in this world; that it is one of the defining characteristics of the true kingdom of God.

Yes, unity is the ideal.  But unity is not achieved by taking a single theological cookie-cutter to clone the individuals of our body or by refusing to challenge each other to better model the life and teaching of Jesus.  Unity is not preserved in “turning off our brains” and skirting difficult issues. Unity is what we commit to and fight for as we share the burden of stretching and growing in the likeness of Christ.

conversationIn this regard, the enemy of true unity is not discussions like these, but a spirit-of-disunity within these discussions and a loyalty to any human rationalization or construct that takes priority over what we find in Jesus and the early church.

Most historically, this is what “my” church teaches.  And seemingly, it is as relevant today as it was in the 1800’s on the American frontier.

So, as we continue to think about this difficult topic and submit ourselves to God who is constantly working to move us to greater depth of understanding and participation in His kingdom, keep in mind that it may be discussions like this that help move us closer in that direction.  May the voice of God arise out of the murmur and discussion of His people!

Here’s what is coming next:

1)    What the “Restoration” church fathers thought about violence
2)    What to make of the nation of Israel’s war and violence in the Old Testament
3)    What is a Christian’s responsibility to government?
4)    So what?  Why is this particular discussion important?

The middle two topics will be addressed by two phenomenal guest bloggers (I can’t wait to tell you who they are!), so make sure and check back on their excellent insights!

In grace and for peace…

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:

—————————————————————————————————

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

———————————————————————————————-

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!)