The End of Violence, Part III: Re-examining Jesus and Violence

To be fair, there are several arguments (other than the one about the swords) given for the position that Jesus advocated for non-violence where possible but never took the position that violence was categorically impermissible.

An article on RealClearReligion.com by Jeffrey Mann organizes some of these arguments, so I’m going to make reference to it (from April 30th, 2014, available at: http://www.realclearreligion.org/articles/2014/04/30/the_myth_of_a_non-violent_jesus.html).

Mann makes a few good arguments, I think. In the original Greek, the word used in Jesus’ statement about turning the other cheek refers to an open-handed strike—an act of humiliation rather than of serious threat. For Mann, the statement does not preclude a permission to defend oneself. Mann also argues that the example of Jesus going to his death without fighting against it should not be viewed as the example for all people in all scenarios.

I want to agree with the second argument, but I have to acknowledge that we get into tricky territory when we start to say “follow Jesus in this, but not in this.” That difficulty, however, is not sufficient to say that the argument itself is incorrect.

Mann also brings up the point that, when we’re talking about the use of violence to protect others, there is a natural tension between loving the person against whom we might use violence and loving those who we seek to protect. I want to acknowledge that, but I want to argue against his statement (drawn from C.S. Lewis) that failing to punish criminals is a failure to love our neighbors. Punishment occurs when there is no immediate threat; that is a very different thing than using violence to stop an immediate danger to life and limb. I’ll talk about my views on justice in the legal system in other posts, but suffice to say for now that I believe that our punishment of criminals is more about us than them, and I stand against the death penalty as a punishment.

Mann asks the question, “Should we simply forgive them [our enemies] when they do awful things? This clearly cannot be what Jesus intended.” And yet, Jesus forgives those who persecute and kill him. I think that Jesus would have us attempt to love both victim and offender—to help restore the victim to wholeness (to the extent that we can) and help the offender to not offend again. We are called, ultimately, not to judgment but to healing. Unfortunately, people do not always give us the option to help them and sometimes wholeheartedly resist our attempts to love them.

There is also the passage in which Jesus takes a whip to the moneylenders in the temple. (John 2:15). It’s hard to call that a non-violent event; it’s even premeditated considering that we’re told that Jesus fashions the whip himself. On the other hand, the other Gospels make no mention of a whip in the same event, the word for “drove” is the same root as when Jesus “drives” demons out of the possessed and, after all, John is the most metaphorical and least literal of the Gospels.

Origen, the only church father to have commented on this passage in the first three centuries of the Church, reads it in purely a spiritual rather than a literal light. And, nowhere is it stated that Jesus even swings the whip at people, much less that he strikes anyone. For a great commentary on John 2:15, see “Jesus, the Whip, and Justifying Violence” by Nathan W. O-Halloran, SJ on The Jesuit Post blog on Patheos.com (http://www.patheos.com/blogs/thejesuitpost/2015/03/jesus-the-whip-and-justifying-violence/).

Where I strongly disagree with Mann is in his use of the Old Testament scriptures as an argument for the permissibility of violence. I’m sure, dear Reader, that you have read my posts on Ambiguity in Scripture and therefore already know my thoughts on this matter. I just don’t think that God did authorize the slaughtering of innocents for the benefit of Israel. I have less trouble with the idea of defensive actions fought by the Isrealites, but the question of whether such behavior is acceptable under Jesus’ New Covenant stands.

Before I leave Mr. Mann aside, I do want to accentuate his excellent point about the theological danger of heaping judgment upon professional or volunteer soldiers if one believes that Jesus would never tolerate any violence under any circumstance. Jesus also told us that “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” Soldiers end up in often horrifying circumstances not of their own choosing, being asked to give all to do things that others won’t do so that those same others don’t have to.

The soldiers I know, especially those who have seen combat, do not want to kill people but are willing to do so to perform their duty and to protect their brothers and sisters in arms. They have a tremendous respect for the enemy who faces them in open combat. They have a conviction of belief that makes them ready to shed blood for what they hold dear. That is a powerful thing, and to be respected.

On a different note, let us also not forget that Jesus also has hard—and sometimes downright terrifying—statements as well. He tells us that he has “not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Matthew 10:34). His pronouncements about the fate of the wicked often seem to be uncompromising, and he is unafraid to speak of the way that the world will hate those who follow him. Some of this is likely intended to be metaphorical, to be sure, but we cannot simply write off the apocalyptic sayings of Jesus.

Maybe I’m simply not capable of unambiguously dealing with an issue of importance. Or maybe it’s that every issue of importance remains ambiguous to some degree or another. Either way, we again end up with great ambiguity with the question of violence.

In the last (probably) post in this short series, I’ll try to offer a nuanced and workable approach that, I hope, seeks to follow Jesus intentionally and to the fullest extent possible while also accounting for the exigencies and realities of a fallen world.

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