> When we talk about God as Christians we are not talking about a generic conception of God. As Christians we believe in a very specific concept of God, one that was most fully revealed in the person and work of Jesus Christ.
For people that believe in Jesus and call themselves Christians, I think that it is important that we get something strait: Jesus was not violent. That is the first proposition. The second theory flows out of that: since Jesus was not violent, maybe his people should not be violent either.
I know that there are those who will object. Some of them will even point to verses in Scripture. I will try to look at each of the objections that I hear as best I can as quickly as I can.
I think that it is important to recognize that we are not GOD-ians, or Spirit-ians. We are Christians.We would take our cue from Christ.
Here is my concern: Every time some Christian wants to be violent and can not find a way in Christ to justify it – they reach back into the Old Testament in order to do so. This is a bad way to read the Bible. Sometimes, when christian ministers speak, it almost comes across as if Jesus never came. When I say “Jesus was not violent” you can’t just jump backward and say “In the Old Testament God…” That is not the right way to do it.
Turning over table in the Temple
Whenever I say that Jesus was not violent, almost without exception the first thing someone says is “what about when he cleared the Temple?” In passages like John 2:15, Jesus makes quite a ruckus in the Temple – driving out the animals that were for sale and turning over the tables of the money changers.
I would just point out three things: A) it was the only time that he did something like this. It was an exception. B) he did not harm any human or living thing. He cracked a whip and turned over tables. C) this act was in protest of those who had made religion big business, profiting from the vulnerability of others.
So often I hear this verse used to justify supporting violence and ironically it is by those who have made the christian religion big business and make a handsome profit off of it. That should tell you something.
The Book of Revelation
in chapter 19 of John’s Revelation you hear this:
11 I saw heaven standing open and there before me was a white horse, whose rider is called Faithful and True. With justice he judges and wages war. 12 His eyes are like blazing fire, and on his head are many crowns. He has a name written on him that no one knows but he himself. 13 He is dressed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is the Word of God. 14 The armies of heaven were following him, riding on white horses and dressed in fine linen, white and clean. 15 Coming out of his mouth is a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations. “He will rule them with an iron scepter.” He treads the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God Almighty. 16 On his robe and on his thigh he has this name written: KING OF KINGS AND LORD OF LORDS
Somehow this becomes permission to be violent to other countries and to people of different backgrounds or persuasions.
The error is threefold:
1. To derive doctrine from apocalyptic literature in difficult at best. The very nature of the genre is poetic, fantastic, and explosive. It really should not be read like the rest of scripture. I am firmly convinced that each genre should be read in ways that are appropriate to the nature of that genre. The Histories of the Hebrew Testament, the Psalms, the Prophets, the Gospels, the Epistles (or letters) and the Apocalyptic all need to be read in distinct ways.
2. To miss that his sword is a non-sword – it is his Word ! I call this “the problem of jesuSword” and though it can be confusing, it’s important to see that it is not Jesu’s Sword but Jesus’ Word !! What brings the nations to submission is not a sword but Jesus’ Word – or the word of the Word (if you prefer). To miss this is to miss the point all together. It is to think that the Romans did the right thing is nailing Jesus to the cross. It is to miss that Jesus was killed unjustly and the injustice pains the heart of God. There is poetry in that Jesus told Peter to “put away” his sword (jJohn 18:11) and said that if his kingdom was of this world that his followers “would fight” (John 18:36). The implication is that his kingdom’s power does not originate with this world* and therefor his followers will not fight.
3. Some people justify violence by saying “Jesus even said that he came to bring a sword” but think about the whole sentence… what did he say?
Matthew 10:34 “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. 35 For I have come to turn “‘a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law— 37 Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. 38 Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 39 Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.
Here is the important thing: swords were meant to guard families. To protect me, my things, and those close to me! Jesus says that his sword it to divide up families – and I think he was being ironic !! Because in his day swords were actually for defending one’s family – for guarding me and mine. In this sense, Jesus’ “sword” is an un-sword… or an anti-sword. It does the opposite of what human swords are used for. Jesus’ sword is not for defending family but for dividing family. Jesus did not come with a human sword but the opposite!!
The Kingdom suffers violence
In Matthew 11:12 Jesus says that the Kingdom “suffers violence” and that the violent “try to take it by force”. I know that this is a tricky passage. Some people see it as saying “you have to be aggressive to enter the kingdom” but I think it is more appropriate to read it as “violent men try to seize to use for their own purposes”. Regardless, either reading does not give us permission to be be violent and advance the kingdom of Christ “by the sword”.
I am not a pacifist. I am not passive. I am actively and passionately non-violent. I believe that violence begets more violence. Sometime – a person who wants permission to be violent in Jesus’ name will pull out the big two examples and ask me either “what about the Nazis” or “what if some guy broke into you house and was going to rape your wife”? These are always the big two and I will deal with them next week in “Breaking the Bell Curve”. Suffice to say – barring those two examples, most of what we are talking about with burning heretics, Godly nationalism, and militarized violence does not primarily fall into those two famous categories. They are just all too normal human violence baptized in Jesus’ name.
Let me get down to the heart of the matter. Here is an example of exactly what I am talking about. There is nationally known pastor in Seattle, Washington who is famously quoted as saying “Jesus is a cage fighter with a tattoo on his thigh and a sword in his hand, determined to make someone bleed”. He said this in reference to the fact that he “could not worship somebody that he could beat up.”
Some people dismiss statements like this and chalk it up to testosterone fueled, overly inflated, pumped up hyper-masculinity. I think that there is something much deeper and much more sinister involved. I think that it is a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of God and the interpretation of Christian scripture.
What is noteworthy is that in Revelation 19, the sword is not in Jesus’ hand but it comes out of Jesus’ mouth. That seems important in the poetic nature of Revelation. This sword is not your average sword. It is not in Jesus’ hand and that makes you wonder if the way in which this sword “strike down” the nations is not in bloody violence but in a kind of destruction that would happen as a result of a sword that proceeds from the mouth of God? Let’s ask ourselves “is there something that comes from the mouth of God that radically impacts or consumes peoples and nations?” Is there something sharp that comes from the mouth of God … something sharper than any two edged sword?
I am suggesting that we need to be open to consider at least three ideas:
1. that since that time in church history when the church rose to Roman power and began to kill people (burn, hang, and behead) what we often call Christianity has been very different than the initial vision of Jesus and the precedent set by the early church when Jesus was killed by Romans and the church suffered violence.
2. that when groups of nationals are invaded by violent foreigners who mix commerce and religion with genocide and ethnic cleansing, that maybe the rejection by the indigenous population of the alien religion can not be called a rejection of christianity. Maybe when groups like the Native American tribes who were assaulted by European invasion were not actually rejecting what you and I would know as the gospel of Jesus Christ.
3. that when preachers get stuff like this wrong, that it essentially changes the message and thus the addition of violence to the gospel makes it a different enough message that they are not preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ anymore but a different gospel. Maybe he doesn’t just quote this passage wrong, maybe he has Jesus all wrong.
Now usually people say “no no it is not a different gospel – it is just an adding of something to the gospel.” It is the gospel plus violence.
But I would ask, if the example and model of Jesus and the apostles is essentially and fundamentally non-violent, and one adds violence to it… does it then essentially and fundamentally transform the gospel into something that is then not the gospel of Jesus Christ.
But is it possible that this preacher did not just get a detail wrong but is actually portraying Jesus wrong. That he is not just adding something to the gospel but is preaching a different gospel and thus is not preaching the gospel?
I guess a fun example would be : if I write a book about how English is the best language and how everyone should speak English. Then someone translates that my book into French… that would be complicated. But what if they then appropriated the message and said that French was the best language and everyone should speak French… would that then be a different message? Even if it were based on my original book, had the same title and used all the same stuff – it would be a different message.
I think that they would not just have translated my message but would have changed my message. Essentially and fundamentally they would be saying something different than I was. They would not be promoting my same message.
This is the exact situation that I think we often have. People use Jesus’ name, read from the Holy Book and even put crosses on the outside of their building and on their stage. It has all the markers of a Christian message. Here is the problem – it has a fundamentally different message and motives than Jesus did. It uses Roman models and methods and thus it is not in keeping with the Spirit of Christ.
Jesus was not violent. jesuSword is not Jesu’s sword but Jesus’ word. It’s not a sword – it is an un-sword or an anti-sword. When we miss this detail, we miss the message.
* the phrase “not of this world” does not mean that Jesus power has nothing to do with this world, but that it does not originate with this world (unlike Herod’s or Pilate’s). It definitely impacts the world and is for the world. “Not of this world” does not mean that it has nothing to do with this world and is for a “world that is to come”. It means that it is fully IN the world but that the source of its power is not OF the world.