“Is God Violent?”


In the January 2011 issue of Sojourners magazine is an article by Brian McLaren which deserves a wide and thoughtful readership.  Readers of this blog will perhaps recognize some themes, as I have posted here and elsewhere about my own thought processes about the practical implications of taking the Way of Jesus seriously and reading the Bible through a red-letters-first filter. (Everyone who reads the Bible reads through some filter or other, whether secular, doctrinal, political, analytical, historical, devotional, or something else; I choose to begin with Jesus, of whom scripture itself testifies that he is the beginning and the end).

McLaren admits,

I remember the first time I heard of something called pacifism: My response was that it sounded terribly impractical and dangerous.

but in this piece outlines how he has come, through his discipleship to Jesus, to recognize something that (in my view) everyone who claims too be a follower (student, disciple, imitator)  of Jesus sooner or later will have to come to grips with, in terms of what approach to take with respect to human conflict:

And the staggering reality is that Jesus didn’t kill anybody — something that can’t be said about Abraham, Moses, David, Paul, or Mohammed (no disrespect intended to any of them). He didn’t hit anybody. He didn’t hate anybody. He practiced as he preached: Reconciliation, not retaliation. Kindness, not cruelty. A willingness to be violated, not violation. Creative conflict transformation through love, not decisive conflict termination through superior weapons.

Since the purpose of this piece is evidently to stimulate further discourse within Christian circles about this matter, my purpose here is not just to regurgitate his views, but to build on them, perhaps, by expounding some thoughts of my own.  I have a bit of an advantage over McLaren, maybe, in that I grew up in a family where pacifism was not a bad word, where I knew that I had two uncles (my mother’s brother and my mother’s sister’s husband), who did alternative service as conscientious objectors during World War II.   I thought about going that route during Vietnam, but did not see my way clear to do that, not because I had no objection to the war, but because I did not at that time have a way to honestly say that I could base that objection on religious faith.  My faith came later, and it was only later that I also came to understand that the radical position my two uncles took was actually the generally accepted stance of the Christian movement during its first two or three hundred years of existence.  That is, until Augustine introduced something we call the Just War Theory.

These days nobody much argues that Augustine’s theory, when brought into service, can successfully justify most modern conflicts.  The weapons are too deadly, the politics too murky, the responses too disproportionate, to pass muster by the standards he articulated.  But we moderns tend to take some sort of comfort in thinking that, in the dimness of antiquity, a respected Christian leader propounded what was then a novel way to justify institutionalized violence.  But over time, as I have thought about this, I realized what, I think, others more famous than myself are now struggling with. Namely:  the argument starts somewhere other than Jesus.

Augustine wrote just as the Christian movement was gaining legitimacy within the already-declining Roman empire, when the greatest threat no longer seemed to be the actions of the Empire against the Christians, but the actions of Goths, Visigoths, and other invaders from the East against the Empire.  In those days the secular power was beginning to be seen not as the persecutor of the church, but as its protector.  So he put forward the foremost rationale for legitimized violence, one that is easily recognizable still:  protection of the innocent from the violence of others.

That’s a hard one to argue against, on its own terms.  It seems perfectly straightforward, logical, and right.  Until we look at the example of Jesus.

On the most dangerous night, the night he was betrayed and arrested, what step did Jesus take to protect his disciples (who had declared their willingness to die with him) from suffering the same fate?  None.  In fact, when impulsive, well-meaning Peter, sword in hand, took action along those lines, it earned him a rebuke from the Master, who then proceeded to perform his last recorded act of miraculous healing — on the victim of Peter’s violence.

Later, in Acts:  What steps did Peter and John, or the angel that let them out of prison, take to protect the hapless guards who were punished for letting them escape?  None.

What example can we find in the New Testament of Jesus or any of his disciples (after Pentecost) inflicting violence of any kind on others? None.

What violent, retaliatory act did any of Paul’s friends take against those who attacked him, on the many occasions (at least five) where he was beaten up?  None. On one occasion we read of church members other than Paul being the target of such a beating. Did Paul, as leader, organize violent means to protect them?  No.  But the apostle presents these events, not as complaints against unbelievers or secular authorities, but as proof of his own credentials as a follower of Jesus.

So I think Augustine made a simple mistake:  he used conventional contemporary wisdom, and a little bit of human logic, to build a case, without starting out where all Christian thinking should start:  with Jesus.  This is the Jesus whose life and teachings were so controversial, three centuries or four after the fact, that when a group of pastors and leaders got together to come up with a statement of what they all believed (intended, ultimately, for the stamp of approval of their new patron, the Emperor, who sat in on some of their discussions), nothing whatever of what this Jesus did or said, between being born and being crucified, was included.  There’s nothing in the Creed about him being a healer, not a killer.

But Jesus was a healer, a reconciler, a lover of sinners, and when he told his disciples to take up their own crosses and follow him, he was laying down a principle which was exemplified in the Cross.  He was no wimp, nor should we be.  It takes great strength and courage to “proclaim peace to those who are near and those who are far off”.

This brings me to the nub of the most controversial part of this discussion.  I have asserted that the Cross is an example to be followed.  Much of contemporary popular religion sees it otherwise, as a unique event that accomplished something we can never do.  I do believe it was that, also.  But just as I believe calling Jesus the unique Son of God does not diminish, but rather makes possible, our ability to be called God’s children; just so, there is a place for each of us to follow Paul in that troubling claim he makes when he says “In my flesh I fill up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions” (Colossians 1:24).   Paul does not say to the Philippians that his ambition is “that I may know Him, and be able to use His awesome power, and escape from His sufferings, being thankful that I needn’t share in His death”; he says rather “that I may know Him, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings, being made conformable unto His death.”

I’ll say again what I have said elsewhere:  it was by acting in accordance with his own teaching that Jesus came to the cross.  The good news is that his teaching is practical.  Healing can be accomplished, and for those who have the courage to turn the other cheek, go the second mile, forgive an outrageous number of times (70*7), lend without expecting repayment, love their enemies, return blessings for curses, and even lay down their own life, not with violence but as a faithful response to violence, the way of the cross opens up the way to glory, as the first martyr Stephen testified.

Those are just a few disjointed thoughts on a very large subject.  But I think I’ll end this brief essay with a new look at an old text, to ponder on when one thinks of violence as a legitimate means to a good end:

“There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death.”  — Proverbs 14:12 and Proverbs 16:25

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