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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