Jesus, Violence, and the Will of God

The scandal of Christianity is not that Jesus is like God but that God is like Jesus.  It is a scandal because so much of the world has trouble conceiving of a God that would become flesh, let along become someone who was humiliated unto death on a Roman cross.  Nevertheless, the claim of Christianity is that the revelation of God is Jesus Christ, who is God Incarnate.

While most discussions on the Doctrine of Incarnation begin with the Gospel of John, the book of Colossians also contributes to this understanding as well.  The apostle Paul writes in Colossians 1:15-20:

The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation.  For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him.  He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.  And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy.  For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.

This passage is not just christology, it is theology proper as well.  That is, the passage is not just telling us about the nature of Jesus.  It tells us about the nature of God who has reveals himself in Jesus.  The question of how the invisible God can be known is answered by this passage.

There is more said in this passage about God and Jesus than just the contribution it makes to the Doctrine of Incarnation.  However, I want to focus on this because I believe it provides the narrative or story necessary to understand God’s will.

When we want to understand who God is and what God is like, this passage points us to Jesus and says “See who God is, see what God is like!”  When we want to know what the purpose or mission of God is, this passage points us to Jesus on the cross and says, “See what God has done!”  The passage even provides explanation by defining the cross event as that which God reconciles all things to him.

This is necessary as we read scripture with an ear towards tradition, reason, and experience.  We all can cite scripture, including Satan himself.  It is really easy to cite a passage of scripture(s) as a proof-text to legitimize whatever practice, ethic, etc… we want to uphold.  Sometimes we even might try appealing to some text in the Old Testament to legitimize the way disciples of Jesus should think and act (when reading about the OT, we need to keep in mind that God could be accommodating himself within history until that time when he reveals his fullness in Jesus).

Yet since Jesus is the living image of God, in whom the fullness of God dwells, the life Jesus lived, along with the beliefs and values that shape that life, and the larger creative-redemptive narrative that Jesus is the central figure of, should become that which we measure our understanding of specific beliefs, values, and practices against.  In other words, if we want to know whether or not a certain belief, value, or practice is the will of God, we ought to measure against Jesus and the life he lived and lives.

Yesterday I posted a link on Facebook to an article on the Huffington Post website written by Lee C. Camp titled, “Batman, Neo-Nazis, and the Good News of Jesus.”  In the article, Camp calls into question the myth of redemptive violence that many people, including many Christians, have placed their faith in.  In doing so, Camp writes:

To embrace a “war on terror” is a rejection of the fundamental Christian conviction that the world has been saved, is being saved, and will be saved not through violence and warring, but through long-suffering, self-emptying love.

Camp reminds us that God is reconciling all things to him through the self-sacrificial love of Jesus’ “blood, shed on the cross” rather than the power of the sword.  It is also a reminder that Christians will only bear authentic witness to this redemptive act of God by embracing this way of self-sacrificial love rather than the violent power of the sword.

This obviously raises the question of Christian pacifism vs. just war and the many moral dilemmas that Christians could hypothetically find themselves in.  It should be recognized that in such moral dilemmas, the lines of black and white seem to blur.  Be that as it may, appealing to such potential dilemmas or even to certain biblical proof-texts in order to justify violence as a legitimized way of life is counter to the way of God revealed in Jesus Christ.

For example, even though I don’t have the answer to every moral dilemma and have plenty of unanswered questions, I certainly would not stand by idly and let some assailant attack and harm my family.  I would not stand by and allow this to happen even if it required some degree of violence.  I doubt you would either.  Nevertheless, whether we are morally right or wrong in such admission, it does not permit us to legitimize violence as a value and way of life for those who follow Jesus.  After all, among the many ways we are blessed, we are still blessed, among o to be peacemakers (Matt 5:9) and peacemaking, as Jesus teaches us, is by the means of self-sacrificial love on the cross.

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9 responses to “Jesus, Violence, and the Will of God

  1. Rex,

    I wonder how legitimate it is to take what God was doing at the cross and map one particular aspect of it onto everything else in life. Let me be more specific. In the cross we see that God disarms the powers of this world through self-sacrifice. So we take that principle and apply it to every single situation that we could possibly find ourselves in. If someone attacks us, the answer is self-sacrifice so just let them kill you. War on terror? Don’t defend your country, the answer is always self-sacrifice so just let them blow you and your children up. I am not sure God sees it that way. Jesus told his disciples to make sure they had a sword (Luke 22:36ff) but he couldn’t have really meant use it, right? Is it possible that Jesus thought there was a legitimate use for a sword without embracing ungodly, worldly intent? Seems to me that he does, otherwise we tell them a sword will be needed.

    I am asking here more than telling. This is something I have a difficult time with. I don’t think living a violent life is something God would be pleased with but I think there is a difference between living a life characterized by violence and upholding our duties as husbands and fathers to protect those entrusted to our care. Paul condoned the state’s use of the sword in Romans. He believed there was a place for that. We could say, well that is just Paul allowing the pagans to be pagans…but that isn’t what Paul says at all. Paul says they wield the sword by the authority of God (Rom 13:4). Paul tells us God condones and even authorizes the state to use the sword to punish wrong doing. That is the same God/Jesus who told his disciples to not forget their sword for the journey ahead.

    When we protect the innocent (our wife, kids, etc) it is done purely out of love and not out of a lust for power…Jesus came to promote the first and disarm the second. I think when we do things out of loving intentions, even defending our families, it is not to be deemed sinful in light of the broader scheme of redemption and the victory of Christ over such powers at the cross because I fail to see how self-defense or defense of the innocent falls in line with the powers of darkness Jesus came to subdue.

    Make sense?

    • Your thoughts/questions are good and challenging. I appreciate you taking the time to express them.

      Let me first say that I recognize that there are some very gray areas, as there is with any moral/ethical issues. In the blog post, I admit that I would not stand by and allow an assailant to harm my family. Yet that admission neither requires nor allows me to underwrite violence as the will of God (which is what I frequently encounter these days among Christians who want to defend the use of violence). I also think from an ethical stand point that we are talking about two different issues when talking about a would be rapist entering our home to harm our family vs. war-making (how many wars have really been about the protection/defense of the innocent rather than political domination?).

      As for the cross and the self-sacrificial act of love it bears witness to, I am going to stand by that as the hermeneutic by which the disciples of Jesus discern their practice of God’s will. We are called to carry our own cross and follow Jesus (cf. Mk 8:34ff), so any practice that is not formed through theology of the cross (and subsequent resurrection) seems problematic to me.

      In Luke, Jesus did tell “Peter” to pick up his sword. But in context, Jesus has just told Peter about his impending denial then Jesus asks Peter in v. 35, “When I sent you without a purse, bag or sandals, did you lack anything?” which refers back to Luke 9:2-5 where the disciples were sent out and told not to take anything with them. That had to do with faith and now with Peter’s impending denial of Jesus, he lacks the faith necessary to live the way of Jesus. So Jesus knows that since he cannot live by faith, he should take his purse and bag as well as getting a sword if he doesn’t have one.

      Also, back in Luke 19:41-44, Jesus wept over the city because he knew that the Romans would destroy Jerusalem and the people and yet Jesus ultimately did not use violence to prevent that but went to the cross. Why is that?

      In summation… While I recognize that there are gray areas, I still believe that we must read scripture in light of the story of Jesus who is God Incarnate and comes not bearing the power of the sword but makes peace by reconciling all things through the cross. We might be able to proof-text isolated biblical passages to legitimize the use of violence as God’s will and the way of life for the disciples of Jesus but when we read the bible in light of the Jesus story, I see no way that this can be done.

      Grace and Peace,

      Rex

  2. So you think my interpretation is proof texting Luke 22 and Romans 13? I will have to think more on the Luke passage but you haven’t dealt with Romans 13 🙂 I have a ton on my plate today but I would like to respond more fully to your comment later in the day.

    • I have no objection to Romans 13. That passage legitimizes the role of the government in stopping the wrongdoers of this world, which I assume involves a certain degree of force. My interest is how those who belong to the kingdom of God act. But this post is more about the way we read scripture in regards to the moral/ethical issue of violence.

  3. Rex,

    You have some very good thoughts and it’s clear that you have thought deeply and care about the issue. This is definitely a heavy and controversial subject. Every person should have a clear conscience which is not dictated bys someone else’s opinion. I have personally changed some of my “feelings” and thoughts about just how much “violence” we should accept as Christians.

    Now, I personally believe that the Bible does NOT teach pacifism as those passages used to support such have been either misinterpreted or misapplied or missing the principle taught. I would side with Matt’s views especially regarding Romans 13. I do believe that a Christian can participate in any violence that is Biblically “just,” which would include serving as a government employee (military, FBI, CIA, etc.) since it is the government who “bears the sword” (Rom 13:1-7).

    Yet having said that, I do believe many American Christians seem pro-war and we shouldn’t be. Over the past decade with all the conflicts our country has been involved fighting the “war on terrorism” I have been begun to rethink about my position about war and violence and do appreciate your thoughts.

    But nonetheless, regarding self-defense or fighting in a just war (like WWII for example or without question first Gulf War) or working in law enforcement to serve and “protect” (i.e., defend even with force or violence) I do still believe (even strongly I’d say just not as strongly as in the past:) that Christians can and even should act especially to fight against oppressors and for the oppressed.

    While Christian people I believe are allowed to defend their families, there is NO Biblical basis for personal revenge, hatred or political persuasion by means of arms. Christianity was never meant to be spread by means of the sword and we must opposed such as Christians. And while we do have a right to self defense, we must decide when it is proper to use it. Difficult choices exist in this evil world. BTW….I hope that I never have to use deadly force to protect my family!

    But if and when “violence” it does occur (especially again to fight against oppressors and for the oppressed), we can only hope that the God who loves both justice and peace will grant us wisdom in a time like this when we need it most.

    Here’s an interesting question for you guys that has been posed to me related to this subject: Is it ever right to do wrong to right? Or to put it another way: Can we utilize “fallenness” to bring about “restoration?”

    I guess, in a fallen, broken world, it seems sometimes, violence is necessary. Sometimes, evil has to be confronted and fought, and sometimes that can involve taking a life, to save another’s life.

    Maybe I’m wrong though:) Which is yet another reason why we need to cling to the grace of God, huh?

    Sincerely,
    Robert Prater

    • Robert, thank you for your thoughtful comments and questions.

      You said, “But if and when ‘violence’ it does occur (especially again to fight against oppressors and for the oppressed), we can only hope that the God who loves both justice and peace will grant us wisdom in a time like this when we need it most.” If nothing else, I hope my posts on an issue like this will spur Christians towards the wisdom of God that comes from deep prayer and gospel reflection.

      I agree that in the strictest sense, the Bible does not directly teach pacifism (nor does it teach “just-war” theory”). But let’s put aside the term “pacifism” since that can mean things which may not necessarily be gospeled. Instead, let’s talk about non-violence or the refusal to use violence as a means to an end. One question that we must wrestle with in trying to discern wether or not this is the way of life for disciples of Jesus is why historically neither Jesus nor the early Christians (first 3 centuries) ever relied on the power of the sword. That is, from everything known to us historically, Jesus and the early church rejected violence as a part of life. Why?

      As far as your question “Is it ever right to do wrong to right? Or to put it another way: Can we utilize ‘fallenness’ to bring about ‘restoration?’” That is difficult for me to answer. God certainly embrace fallennes by embracing the cross. In other words, God chose as his means of reconciliation to passively embrace the violence of the world.

      For me, my concern is that our witness as Jesus’ disciples be consistent with the life Jesus lived (since it is Jesus we are called to follow) which includes being consistent with the beliefs and values Jesus lived by. That is to say, the way we live our lives as disciples should make sense within the story of Jesus. If our life is not consistent with the story of Jesus’ life, then something is wrong.

      Nevertheless, as I said in the post, that still leaves a lot of gray areas that I don’t have a good answer for. That is why, as you say, we do need God’s grace.

      Grace and Peace,

      Rex

  4. When I finally realized and truly understood that it was God who came down and died for me, I was overcome with emotion. I still get teared up and can’t believe such love for such a rebellious creations. I wish the church made this more understood because its truly what sets us apart from just another religion. We are truly serving the one and only true Living God.
    Thanks for you blog, I am new to all of this!
    God Bless

  5. Rex,

    Thanks again for you insightful blogs. I do find it interesting that the Prince of Peace was violently murdered by His creation. God used the worst possible evil to bring about the best possible good. In a very real sense, we put Jesus on the Cross because of our sin.

    To address the question, “Is it ever right to do wrong to right?,” how many times in the bible do we see people, who are God-fearing people, lie and it seems to be blessed by God? Consider the Hebrew midwives, Rahab, David (when he faked being insane and when he lied to the king of Gath about what villages he destroyed), and other instances when lying took place with “positive” results. So, when is lying okay?

    • Good question. We certainly know that God can redeem – bring about his will – even through such circumstances. And yes, the victory of Jesus amazes me to think that even though he loved his enemies up to the very end, he defeated the powers of darkness by enduring its hatred and violence.

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