Christians and Violence

At our men's group on Monday, we had a somewhat heated conversation about Christians and violence.  There were good points on all sides. And I mean that honestly. As I stated, these issues are secondary. That is, this is an issue that should not divide us. We can debate this issue, but it shouldn't divide us.

I think, also, that we are talking about two different things - war and violence against individuals. These are important distinctions (however, in war, violence is done to individuals but the context is different). Some great questions have been raised regarding soldiers within the military in the first century. Basically, the position is that since neither Jesus nor the apostles ever told someone in the military to get out of the military, that must mean that it is alright to continue in that duty. But, and I'm sure we all see this, this is an argument from silence. As has been pointed out, there is (supposedly) nothing within the Scriptures that state owning slaves is wrong. However, it was because of the biblical texts, because of his trying to be an honest follower of Jesus, that William Wilberforce 'fought' for the disbanding of the slave trade in England. Would any of us today have been on the other side of that issue? Would we have stated, 'Neither Jesus nor the apostles ever told a slave owner to stop owning slaves'? This is an important point. And something else we need to keep in mind - context. That is, the people of the Bible were living in different times than we are today. We have to be as faithful as we can to what has gone on before us on issues that are not addressed in the Bible. I will use slavery to illustrate this.

Essentially, slavery was a necessary (evil) part of society for a long, long time. It is what kept society going. Without slaves, society would have fallen apart. So, we can see why there would be no instructions about getting rid of slaves. They didn't know what would happen to society if they were removed. But, the question to ask is, would the future consummated Reign of God have slaves? In looking at uncharted waters (and that is what a world without slaves was) you have to keep in your minds eye some crucial passages of Scripture, mostly, the prophecies in the Old Testament that speak of that ultimate future. And with that, the image of God's grace through the blood of Christ who 'reconciled the world to himself'. That is what Wilberforce did. He looked at the ultimate future of God's 'very good' creation and sought ways of implementing that future now. And you know what happened? Society, for a long time, did fall apart. But that was okay. The world is a better place because of it.

My position on war (and violence) is the same. I am looking at those passages that speak of God's ultimate future for creation. In that future, there will be 'no more war', there will be 'no more death', there, the people will take their weapons of war and transform them into farming tools. We have to look at all people and see them, whether we want to or not, as brothers and sisters in Christ now or realize that they will be in the future. As an Episcopalian, I am asked a number of questions during Baptism and Confirmation. These are (obviously) based on our understanding of Scripture. Three questions that are critical in this conversation are:
Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?
Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?
Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?
That question about 'seek[ing] Christ in all persons reminds me of what Paul wrote about his conversion.  He stated that 'God revealed Christ in me' (Galatians 1.15-17). Not 'to me' but 'in me'. That is quite a difference. Furthermore, Paul wrote that God 'reconciled (past tense) the world to himself' through the blood of Jesus and this included all of the enemies of God and his people, both seen and unseen. Do we look at our 'enemies' in that way? Can we see that this is why Jesus told us to 'love our enemies'? He knew that through his death and resurrection they - the enemy - would be reconciled to God.

Furthermore, the leadership of the church is supposed to be gentle and not violent (1Timothy 3). I believe that this also refers to the support of violence. And why is this important? We, the people, the ministers of the Gospel, are to look to our leaders for guidance, for examples on how to live and conduct our lives (Philippians 3.17; Hebrews 6.12, 13.7; etc.). And we are all to follow Jesus and he was not a violent person. He taught us over and over again not to be violent. Now think about this. The leaders of the church are to follow Christ. They are to be gentle and not violent. We are to follow them as they follow Christ. Therefore, it stands to reason that we too are to be gentle and not violent. Further, we are also to be followers of Christ. So, it seems clear that we are not to be violent or support violence.

When we look at the life of Jesus and his followers in the Gospels, we must realize that violent revolt was an option to bring about the kingdom or rule or 'nation' of God. But again and again, Jesus did and said things that sometimes hinted and sometimes stated plainly that his 'kingdom', his 'rule', his 'nation' would not be like the kingdoms of the world - and the inference there was that it would not be a kingdom or rule or nation that used violence either militarily or otherwise. This is crucial to my understanding of the issue.
Luke 19.41-44.  But as he came closer to Jerusalem and saw the city ahead, he began to weep. 'How I wish today that you of all people would understand the way to peace. But now it is too late, and peace is hidden from your eyes. Before long your enemies will build ramparts against your walls and encircle you and close in on you from every side. They will crush you into the ground, and your children with you. Your enemies will not leave a single stone in place, because you did not accept your opportunity for salvation.'
Let's look at the context of this passage. Israel was an occupied country. They were occupied by the Romans - the 'pagans'. As I stated above, one of the ways of resistance was that of violence. Some people saw no choice but to use violence. I'm sure that this was not the first option. I'm sure that, like so many of us, it was a last ditch effort to end the oppression of an occupying nation. After all, the Israelites just wanted to be left alone and live their lives. But some saw no option other than violence. It was the only thing that would bring about relief from the pagans. And let's be clear - the Romans were not a nice bunch of guys. They were brutal. They used whatever means they deemed necessary to force allegiance. Rape, murder, extortion, whatever, to terrorize the people into 'following' Caesar. Now, if we were in the same situation today, I'm sure that many Christians would be just like the 'zealots' of Jesus' day. But what was Jesus' response to the situation? He wept. He wept because the people of YHWH had become the people of the 'world'. That is, they had decided to use the means of the world to 'fight' the world. And because of that, they would be crushed. The 'salvation' mentioned here is not eternal life. It is salvation from the Romans. It is deliverance from the occupying forces. And his fellow Hebrews would not hear of it. They didn't want to do it God's way. They wanted blood. Jesus was saying that they did not 'understand the way to peace.' Do we 'understand the way of peace'?

Also, someone has brought up the idea of 'God' using (or sanctioning) the use of military violence in the Old Testament. 'God' also sanctioned a lot of things that changed when Jesus rose from the dead. Something happened cosmically. The world changed. Do we go back to those times? Do we go back to 'putting the women' outside society when they are menstruating? I hope not. And I hope you see my point here. The world is moving toward a fixed goal. That fixed goal is a world redeemed! A world that is at peace with all things. The question we must ask ourselves is does war move us toward that goal or away from it?

Violence gives birth to more violence. In the immediate context, the people involved know what is going on. But what about those who come after the war is over? Or those who are effected personally because of it? Will the 'enemies' children see that their fathers were part of the 'axis of evil' and 'deserved' to be punished? Or will they just see the blood of their ancestors being slaughtered at the hand of the 'infidels'? I can guarantee that it will be the latter. This shows us that even in times of war, violence has individual casualties. And we must never forget those who are abused, raped, and murdered during war. We are kidding ourselves if we think that this does not go on. 'We don't do those things.' Well, as a nation, we might not approve of them, but we are being represented by others that have no problem in doing those things. And the nation will suffer for it.

And with that, I must ask with trembling, where does our fidelity lie -- to the nation or with the King of kings and Lord of lords (and I could add, the President of presidents or the Monarch of monarchs)? We are members of a different nation. We are not Americans or Brits or whatever. Sure, we reside in those countries but we are ambassadors of another country, another nation. And another way of living. Our lives should reflect, not the position of our respected countries in which we reside. Our lives should reflect our true home. We must look at that country, at our God and reflect that self-giving love to the country in which we reside.

Now, switching to 'personal' violence. There was a scene in the movie 'Daredevil' that paints my position clearly.

Daredevil, a costumed super hero, hears a 'thug', an enforcer, for the Kingpin (a crime boss) beating up someone. He springs to action. As the thug stands up from beating the man into unconsciousness, he sees that shadow of Daredevil on the wall. He takes off running! Daredevil pursues. After a long chase, the thug believes to have given Daredevil the slip. He goes to his apartment building and walks down the hall toward his apartment. Just then Daredevil comes crashing through the window! A fight breaks out. The thud keeps swearing at Daredevil and taunting him, 'You don't own this town. It belongs to the Kingpin'. Daredevil beats the man unconscious. As Daredevil stands over the thug, he hears a small cry coming from the corner. It is a small child huddled up crying. 'Don't hurt me', the child cries. 'Please don't hurt me.' 'I'm not the bad guy kid', Daredevil responded.
Now, I know this is kind of silly but it is germane to my point. In the eyes of the audience, we know that Daredevil is a 'good guy'. That he has sworn to protect the 'innocent' and 'punish' the guilty with 'justice' (he states a lot that 'justice has been / will be served'). But what about in the eyes of the child? What does the child see? He sees one guy beating the snot out of another guy. Period. For all practical purposes, Daredevil was the 'bad guy' to that child. And that is my point. We might have 'righteous indignation' and feel that it is our 'duty' to bring 'justice' to the 'bad guys' but in the eyes of their children and grandchildren, we will be monsters. Jesus said the exact same thing in Matthew 7:
Matthew 7.15-20.  Beware of false prophets who come disguised as harmless sheep but are really vicious wolves. You can identify them by their fruit, that is, by the way they act. Can you pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? A good tree produces good fruit, and a bad tree produces bad fruit. A good tree can’t produce bad fruit, and a bad tree can’t produce good fruit. So every tree that does not produce good fruit is chopped down and thrown into the fire. Yes, just as you can identify a tree by its fruit, so you can identify people by their actions.
Jesus is crystal clear.  People will identify us as his followers by our actions.  And if our actions mimic that of 'the world', what will they think?  Or, maybe a harder question, what should we think of ourselves?

Jesus showed us a better way:
Luke 6.32-36.  'If you love only those who love you, why should you get credit for that? Even sinners love those who love them! And if you do good only to those who do good to you, why should you get credit? Even sinners do that much! And if you lend money only to those who can repay you, why should you get credit? Even sinners will lend to other sinners for a full return. Love your enemies! Do good to them. Lend to them without expecting to be repaid. Then your reward from heaven will be very great, and you will truly be acting as children of the Most High, for he is kind to those who are unthankful and wicked. You must be compassionate, just as your Father is compassionate'.
In other words, we are to be different. We are to be 'acting as children of the Most High'. We are to be 'kind to those who are unthankful and wicked' because Christ is. If we follow the way the world does things, how are we any different than they?

As an aside, but an important aside, I must say something about 'justice'. We use that term so loosely. What we mean by justice is vengeance, plain and simple. Would we discipline our children with that type of 'justice'? I hope not. And so does the world. That would fall under child abuse laws and we would be punished. How is it any different when we do the same thing to adults? It is still abuse. We must use our imaginations and come up with better ways of dealing with the bullies both locally and globally.

I understand that these are tough issues. I also understand that they are personal issues. These things are to be struggled through - to be wrestled with. I also know that my decision to be a pacifist was and is a very difficult one. It has cost me personally. But I want it to go on record - I do not think people who hold to an opposing view are any less Christian. I fully understand that my brothers and sisters can have differing opinions about these issues. I am fully aware of how we can take different passages and use them to support our views. But we must ask ourselves, does our position help bring about the ultimate goal for the cosmos - of a world renewed? Or does it move us in the other direction? Jesus said, 'God blesses those who work for peace, for they will be called the children of God.' In another place, Jesus said, 'So now I am giving you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, you should love each other. Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples.' And again, 'Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you.' Do our lives reflect a 'work[ing] for peace'? Do our actions 'prove to the world' that we are the disciples of Jesus? Do our lives reflect Christ's peace?

For those so inclined, here are a couple of articles for further reading:

A Practical Christian Pacifism

Biblical Pacifism


Eternal God, in whose perfect kingdom no sword is drawn but the sword of righteousness, no strength known but the strength of love: So mightily spread abroad your Spirit, that all peoples may be gathered under the banner of the Prince of Peace, as children of One Father-Mother; to whom be dominion and glory, now and for ever. Amen.

Almighty God our heavenly Father-Mother, guide the nations of the world into the way of justice and truth, and establish among them that peace which is the fruit of righteousness, that they may become the Reign of our Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
O God, the Father-Mother of all, whose Child commanded us to love our enemies: Lead them and us from prejudice to truth: deliver them and us from hatred, cruelty, and revenge; and in your good time enable us all to stand reconciled before you, through Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen.




~~~

In the Love of the Three in One,

Jack

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