Today I have the privilege of introducing you to Ed Cyzewski. Ed is a great guy who I had the opportunity to meet last April at a writing conference. He is also a contributor over at A Deeper Story. He has written a number of books, and if you’ve spent anytime reading blogs, you have probably run across him a time or two. You can find out more about Ed at the bottom of the post. So grab a cup of coffee and enjoy.
“The Lord is a warrior; the Lord is his name.”
We don’t have to look further than the rubble-filled streets of Gaza to recognize our world’s problem with violence. From military conflict to mass shootings, violence is a common tool for solving “problems.”
A quick breeze through the pages of the Bible reminds us that nothing much has changed. In fact, it appears that even God resorted to acts of violence in order to solve “problems.”
There’s no getting around the words of scripture. God is described as a warrior in the book of Exodus. So, is it accurate to say that God is violent? Do we misrepresent God? And if God is violent, would we want to worship such a God?
Since the Bible gives us more stories than absolutes, let’s consider what happened when David aspired to build God’s temple. Before David could start construction, God stopped him because David was a man of war.
God did not want a warrior to build his house of worship.
We may rightly wonder, “Wait a second, wasn’t David doing God’s work? Wasn’t killing Philistines the thing back then?” This encounter with God suggests that David’s violent past wasn’t exactly ideal. While God certainly gave Israel victories in battle, God also didn’t want his temple to have the stain of blood on it.
We could look at this in a few different ways. On the one hand, we could say that YHWH is inconsistent. Did God want David to fight those battles or not? On the other hand, we could say that perhaps God is able to handle tension much better than us. While the consistent desire of YHWH throughout the Prophets is to beat swords into plowshares, he’s still willing to meet his people where they’re at—even if it’s in combat. And if YHWH could meet David in battle, he at least drew a line in the sand: Now that you have peace in your land, I will build my house of prayer under the leadership of a man of peace.
It’s not perfect, but then God is dealing with people who make sinful choices. The raw materials are not exactly top notch at the start. However, there’s a progression moving God’s people away from violence. In fact, we could say that God moved his people from tribal warriors to a powerful nation who built temples and welcomed foreigners.
The future that God always imagines in the Old Testament is one with peace and justice where everyone can enjoy their own vineyards and crops. God does not present a future where his people will roam the earth as a marauding army. Their swords will become second-rate farm tools before they’re ever raised in anger again.
Can We Find Resolution for a Violent God?
Whether we look at the story of David or Joshua’s conquest of Canaan, there’s no escaping the role of violence in the Bible. It should disturb us. That Joshua would record God’s involvement in a military campaign should unsettle us—especially in light of God’s future plans for peace and the message of Jesus to love enemies.
It’s striking that the Jewish people and the early church both held onto the book of Joshua along with the oracles of the prophets that spoke of a peaceful future. Who would blame them for tossing Joshua because it didn’t fit with a more palatable book like Isaiah? They saw that God is leading our world to a peaceful resolution where justice will reign, but they didn’t rewrite the past.
To their credit, they kept the records passed down to them. The tough parts belong in the story too. And if we consider that the Bible is inspired by the Spirit of God, we should ask what the Holy Spirit is telling us by including such diverse stories related to God and violence.
Perhaps the involvement of God in any kind of violent conquest is too much for those who are committed to pacifism. I can appreciate that.
Whatever more there is to say, if this post has left you conflicted and dissatisfied, then you’re probably in a good place. That’s most likely the very thing we’re supposed to take away from these stories.
Ed Cyzewski is the author of Coffeehouse Theology and A Christian Survival Guide. He writes about imperfectly following Jesus as www.edcyzewski.com. He lives in Columbus, OH with his wife and two sons where they obsess over New York style pizza and organic gardening. Connect on Facebook or Twitter.
We shouldn’t be surprised by Good Friday.
After all, we are familiar with the events of the day. Not just in the historical sense, but because we have lived them. No, not exactly as they happened, but we have bloodied our knuckles on something similar.
We celebrate that God in flesh understands what it means to be human, and identifies with us as one who has had his feet covered in dust. We find comfort in his knowing what we know.
What do you know?
You know that it is the proximity to the heart that makes betrayal sting like an 8 gauge needle. You are cautious, only allowing those who have earned a place, to come close; which makes the surprise exit hurt worse than the stabbing.
You have limped after cruel words, sticks and stones, have injured flesh and soul. You are bruised. You have bruised.
You’ve wept at the loss of loved ones, and objected to God about the early removal of people you love from the world.
Nothing about Good Friday should surprise us. Nothing about it should catch us off guard. The events that unfolded that day are horrendous, brutal, painful, and sad. But they are not surprising.
Perhaps it is that the events happen to an innocent man that bewilder us. The betrayal and brutality do not surprise us, but the suffering of an innocent that takes our breath away. We can imagine the events of Good Friday happening, but not to someone who is without guilt. But even that shouldn’t surprise us. No one gets out of the world with unscathed. If we are surprised that Jesus experienced the ruthlessness of the world despite his innocence, then I don’t think we have been paying attention.
The danger is to pretend that we are somehow above the various players in the Good Friday story. We would stay awake all night. We wouldn’t be quick to deny our relationship to Jesus. We wouldn’t cry for blood, despite the fact that we are often joyous spectators of violent games. Forgetting our own willingness to point fingers full of accusations, we fabricate righteous indignation at events that, while magnified, are ordinary. Nothing happened on Good Friday that doesn’t happen with outstanding and despairing regularity.
Good Friday reveals the truth of the world, highlighting the brokenness of our hearts. In this moment, we hear the guttural groans of creation longing for the coming new creation.
If we are surprised, it is only in noticing, perhaps for the first time, that God is groaning too.
The discussion of violence and pacifism popped up again this week in Christian circles. That’s a good thing. Christians need to wrestle with how we respond to violence. We need to wrestle with what it means to be peacemakers in a world where peace seems like a pipe dream. We need to wrestle with the reality of war, our role in it, our support or lack of support for it. We need to wrestle with the war machine that profits off of war. We need to wrestle with the reality of evil, and that we are to take a stand in the face of evil. We need to wrestle with the role of violence to stop the violent.
We need to wrestle.
Christians have long wrestled with just war, self-defense, police work, or using violence to end other violence (think WWII). And we should wrestle with these things. They are, event though they may be justified, violent. How then should we think about them?
Reading the words of Jesus, I am haunted by the clarion call to peacemaking. The more I have read, and the more I have wrestled – the more I struggle with violence and peace. I do not think there is an easy answer when it comes to this topic.
Over the years, I have come to believe a few things with strong sense of certainty when it comes to violence and peace. Here are seven of them.
1. Violence was not part of the creative design.
I have never heard anyone argue the case for violence from Genesis 1 or 2. Mostly, because you can’t. Death, destruction, harm, mourning tears – all that results from violence – was not present in the garden but entered the world after the fall. When God created all things, he did not create world where violence was intended to be present. That came as a result of sin. Every time we see violence, just or not, we are seeing something that was never intended.
2. Violence will not be present at the return of Christ.
In Revelation 21, when the new Jerusalem comes down to earth out of heaven, we are told there will be no more death, mourning, or tears. Implicit in that description is the exclusion of violence from the eschaton. Violence will have not have a place in the new creation.
3. Jesus did not endorse violence.
I cannot find anywhere in the Gospels where Jesus endorses violence. Those who disagree with me will be quick to point to Matthew 10:34 where Jesus says, “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace, but a sword.” For many, this becomes a cornerstone in the argument for Christian support of war and the use of violence in bringing justice. And I’ll admit, this is a troubling passage. But, when we examine this text with its parallel in Luke 12:51 we see that there is no mention of the sword in Luke, but division. So we must ask, “What did Jesus mean by the sword?” Was Jesus talking about violence, or, in light of Luke, was he talking about what a sword does? Because a sword divides and it separates. Now, we are talking about something very different. Jesus does divide and separate and highlight difference and make distinction and pronounce “this not that.”
That doesn’t make Jesus’ words any easier. Most of us have been taught that Jesus is the Prince of Peace and that at his birth the angels pronounced peace on earth, and yet, here we have Jesus saying, “I didn’t come to bring peace.” What do we do with that?
The question I have been asking myself is, “Is division what Jesus is after?” Is Jesus looking down on us and clapping ecstatically saying, “Look at how well you have followed my command! There are over 41,000 denominations of Christianity! You have rightly brought division among yourselves!”
Is that what Jesus is after?
Perhaps Jesus was speaking prophetically when he said that he brought division. Perhaps he was speaking a reality we all experience; that when Jesus speaks, conflict breaks out. Even among those who love the words of Jesus, the words of Jesus brings division.
But that doesn’t mean Jesus endorsed violence. To use these words to advocate for violence is to neglect the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount, loving your enemies, Romans 12, and blessing the peacemakers.
4. The Old Testament envisioned peace, not violence.
“He will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.” (Isaiah 2:4) This is a continual refrain of the Old Testament prophets that must be paid attention to. Pointing to Joshua or Judges or Warrior David to support violence must be held in tension with the words of the prophets. For the telos of the prophets was not war, was not violence, but was peace between the nations.
5. Choosing peace does not a weakling make.
Hearing this argument infuriates me. Because it means Jesus was weak. Anyone who argues that not fighting back is a sign of a weakling is being ignorant. I think the strength of Jesus is seen in when he had every right to fight back, every ability to destroy his enemies, and yet choose to constrain his power and subject himself to violence. His strength is seen when the world thinks he is weak. Christians who quickly argue for violence so that we are not seen as weak are close to adopting the ways of the world; accepting that is just the way the world works rather than showing the world the way of the kingdom.
6. Peace will come through the lamb covered in his own blood, not through the blood of his enemies.
Some have recently pointed the portrait of Jesus as a knight who will come on white horse to slaughter in enemies causing blood to flow. The picture comes from Revelation 19 where, yes, Jesus comes riding in on a white horse dressed in a robe that is “dipped in blood.” What’s fascinating is that the word “dipped” in the Greek is the word “baptizo” which means, you guessed it, baptized. The robe has been baptized in blood. Before Jesus meets his enemies his robe has been baptized in blood.
In Luke 12, when Jesus talks about coming to bring division not peace, he talks about a baptism that he must undergo, which is his death. Now we see Jesus coming back wearing a robe that has been baptized in blood. Might it be, that the knight comes to destroy his enemies and the blood that flows is not theirs but is his own? Might it be that the enemies of the Knight are destroyed because he laid his life down?
You see, a knight with a sword wasn’t the one who was worthy to open the scroll. The one who was worthy to open the scroll was the lamb look as if it was slain. There is something powerful about that image that inverts how we think about bringing peace and justice. We think we need the show of brute strength. Jesus shows us that peace comes through strength restrained and death.
7. Peace is a hope, violence is a reality, and the Christian tension must be palpable.
Violence is a reality all around us. One of the greatest tensions for the Christian is the call to love your neighbor and to love your enemy. There are times when your neighbor is in danger because of your enemy. In those cases, who do you love? Do you love your neighbor by using violence to protect them from your enemy – whom you are also supposed to love? This is a real tension we must wrestle with. There are no easy answers. There are no clear cut solutions or ways of being. There is only the wrestle.
My fear is that, in America, we have too quickly baptized violence as a necessary evil. American Christians are some of the most staunch supporters of wars, the call to war, the arming for self-defense, and capital punishment. We are so quick to affirm its use that we have all but stopped the wrestle.
Have we lost our ability to hear the words of the Bible? To see the values of the coming kingdom of God?
I’m not yet a pacifist. I’m not advocating for pacifism.
I’m just advocating we live in the tension and wrestle – for the sake of peace.
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