Jesus and violence

In late July I did a seminar at New Horizon on ‘Jesus and violence’. Here are the ‘starters for 10’ used on the day.  I really enjoyed the interaction and discussion in a packed (and very hot) room.

And really enjoyed meeting Rikk Watts and his wife Katie and listening to his excellent Bible reading on Friday morning. Very encouraging to see loads of teenagers and young adults there.

Much to keep reflecting on, especially from reading Yoder’s War of the Lamb.

THESIS 1: THE USE OF ‘JUST VIOLENCE’ HAS BEEN, SINCE CONSTANTINE, THE MAJORITY POSITION OF THE CHRISTIAN CHURCH

THESIS 2: VERSIONS OF ‘JUST WAR’ HAVE UNDERPINNED CENTURIES OF VIOLENCE IN IRELAND

 

THESIS 3: JESUS CALLS HIS DISCIPLES TO FORSAKE VIOLENCE AND EMBRACE A LIFE OF RADICAL OBEDIENCE WITHIN THE KINGDOM OF GOD

THESIS 4: VARIOUS HERMENEUTICAL OBJECTIONS TO JESUS’ TEACHING IN MT 5 ON RADICAL NON-VIOLENCE FAIL TO PERSUADE

THESIS 5: THE REST OF THE NEW TESTAMENT CONFIRMS JESUS’ TEACHING ON NON-VIOLENCE

 

THESIS 6: IN REGARD TO VIOLENCE IN THE OT, THE BIBLE NEEDS TO BE READ AS ONE UNFOLDING NARRATIVE THAT CLIMAXES IN THE LIFE, DEATH AND RESURRECTION OF JESUS

THESIS 7: EARLY CHURCH HISTORY IS COMPELLING IN ITS WITNESS TO NON-VIOLENCE

 

THESIS 8: ACTIVE NON-VIOLENT WITNESS IS NOT EQUAL TO SUPINE PASSIVITY

THESIS 9: CHRISTIAN ‘JUST WAR’ PRACTICE IS FATALLY FLAWED

 

THESIS 10: PRACTICING ACTIVE NON-VIOLENCE REFLECTS THE UPSIDE-DOWN, SURPRISING, COUNTER-CULTURAL AND SELF-GIVING WAY OF JESUS – AND IS A POWERFUL FORETASTE OF AN ALTERNATIVE COMMUNITY LIFE WITHIN THE KINGDOM OF GOD

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11 thoughts on “Jesus and violence

  1. Why does Jesus say he came to bring a sword ( sounds like a spiritual message some i sure there is an easy way to explain it away) why does he advise the disciples to carry a sword? why does JTB not advise the roman soldiers who come to him to leave the army?

    Refusing to strike back makes sense to me – when its me that is being hit in the first place; refusing to strike those who strike others does not.
    Ive been annoyed that pacifists are somewhat annoyed when hypothetical questions are posed to them.. i only say that as a refusal to answer a good question!!! what are you going to do Patrick when the man with the gun has it pointed at your kids? You can shoot him and be sure your kids wont die. How is not attempting to kill him a good thing?

  2. Was away over the weekend Richard, so late reply.

    Let me ‘push back’ (peacefully!) as they say.

    First a general comment; I’m often surprised at how readily Christians defend the use of violence as a ‘good thing’ given the overwhelming and powerful and consistent message of Jesus (and the rest of the NT) of being members of what Hauerwas called The Peaceable Kingdom. I would have thought that following a crucified Messiah who explicitly renounced violence would give serious pause.

    Second, some comments on the texts you mention:

    Mt 10:34 ‘I have not come to bring peace but a sword’. In context, obviously not a literal sword, but the cost of discipleship for those proclaiming the kingdom. The cost will be high – the way of Jesus.

    Luke 22:36b ‘The one who has no sword must sell his cloak and buy one’. Again figurative in the context of preparation for coming persecution after Last Supper. Jesus rejects their literal understanding (here are two swords Lord!). The disciples’ default is to use self-defence and yet violence is utterly at odds with Jesus’ purposes. Effectively he is saying ‘Enough – quit thinking like this!’

    The appeal to a couple of ad hoc texts where soldiers encounter Jesus (or Peter with Cornelius) and they are not told to quit soldiering as an argument for military service is a weak argument from silence and misses the point of the texts. They are about how the kingdom is for the most unlikely people – even Gentiles and Roman soldiers are welcomed in. Astonishing. The witness of the early church is that they renounced violence and soldiering.

    Third, your support of violence to defend the innocent third party is a strand of the ‘just war’ argument. It assumes the ‘obvious’ logic (‘what makes sense to me’) that violence will solve things and is the right thing to do. It also assumes that NOT using violence is foolish, perhaps immoral and naive. It is worth saying that this position is NOT an essentially Christian one but one based on logic and a form of natural law – there is no text that supports Christians taking up violence to defend themselves or others. On the contrary, Hauerwas would argue that if our identity is as citizens of an alternative kingdom of non-violence that is who we are. We can no more decide to be violent that the courageous can decide to be cowardly. In other words, violence is not an option for those who are non-violent.

    Your assumpion is therefore somewhat mechanistic – if pushed we ‘must’ resort to violence. It is what is right and best when push comes to shove.

    Yoder discusses the actual practice of non-violence in politics. He argues that we need to think through our responses to violence rather than just assume violence is the obvious best answer. Four options to the sort of scenario you describe include:

    1. The attacker succeeds = tragic outcome
    2. Death for the victim or myself. This one has the deepest legacy in Christian tradition – a powerful witness to God and an alternative way of powerlessness and grace of God. Why not accept suffering? – Jesus did. Death is not the worst thing for a Christian.
    3. A way out. Loving gesture; kind words; dialogue; persuasion.
    4. Resort to violence with violence – possibly kill the attacker. With possibility of failure and heightened violence.

    His point is not be holier than thou or a naive purist. But it is to question the logic of force and power as the only realistic solutions.

  3. That’s good stuff Patrick, though i dont understand your explanation of the Luke verse. You seem to be saying that he doesnt want them to have a sword UNTIL the last supper…? which would be against what you say in the rest of your answer.

    I guess i’m not ready to let someone kill my children just yet. Also i dont think its fair to say that the use of violence to defend the innocent third party is NOT an explicitly christian position. If i were to kill the attacker of my child i would be doing so out of love for my child. Love is still Christian yes?

    • Would you be loving your enemy by killing him? And in saying that I’m not being facetious or judging someone for defending a child in danger – but it is an explicit command of Jesus that can’t be brushed aside lightly.
      And the wider issue here is Christian attitudes to and support of war …

  4. No. But would you be loving your child to let him or her die? In what world is letting your child die at the hands of another when you could have done something to stop it fulfilling Christ’s command to love them?

    The response of Jesus in Luke could just as well be one of Christ getting annoyed that they think HE needs a sword. i.e. they still don’t get that he will not be around. I also can’t see how it is a figurative saying. At first glance Jesus seems to offering advice on how to deal with the trouble to come.

  5. Hi Richie, if I may butt in here… the argument you are using (“what if someone is threatening to shoot my kids”) is one that I have frequently seen used by American Christians to justify their support for American militarism. Two things strike me about this. Firstly, as we all know, America is almost invariably the aggressor in her use of militarism and has rarely (if ever) been an innocent victim – so the argument is simply false in that context.

    Secondly, if you take the argument literally, even in America the chances are extremely low that someone is ever going to point a gun at your kids. Here in Ireland, thankfully, the likelihood of this happening is so low that it can effectively be discounted. The scenario is hypothetical almost to the point of being meaningless. And the best way to ensure that such a scenario remains hypothetical, I believe, is to embrace and preach non-violence.

    Whereas the argument from fear (“what about the other guy?”/”what if this, or that, were to happen?”) paradoxically makes the thing we fear far more likely to happen. This is precisely what has happened in America, where a culture of fear has led to gross proliferation of guns, leading in turn to countless tragedies such as Newtown, Columbine, etc – the very thing the guns were supposed to protect against. As Jesus said, whoever lives by the sword will die by the sword. Violence inevitably leads to more violence. The best way to protect your kids, in the long run, is through non-violence.

  6. Andy and anyone else watching.

    I agree with what Andy has said – I give not 2 whits about american military policy or indeed american gun policy or indeed the militarism inherent in nearly every single country in the world!! and the law of increasing returns is very evident in most uses of violence. However I’m not advocating “for” violence per se but only its use in restricted uses. A position I understand to be called Just war.

    The first bit of Hauerwas that I ever read was him talking about how ethics shouldn’t be done through “situational reasoning” i.e. by positing scenarios and trying to see what one should do. Which is exactly what I have just done. To be honest I couldn’t care less. I know full well that should I get up into a pulpit and start preaching pacifism the scenario above is exactly what people will put to me. All that is to say that I still feel my original question is not being answered sufficiently and for me to sign up I think I’ll need a better answer than I’ve got so far.

    Perhaps its the thought of “your” kids. Lets make it my kids. There is a gun to their head. They are about to be shot and I can do something about that fact with a gun that I have.

    Please run through Patrick’s 4 point response and tell me how you make it out that the best thing to do to is to watch your kid die? I have not loved my child in that instance. Fact.

    It should be pointed as well all though in the Republic this is not a likely hood for a long time to come hopefully, in other parts of this island i.e. the north there are more guns and the likely-hood of this albeit rare idea is greater. Even taking into consideration that it is a purely hypothetical idea for Ireland it is not for much of the rest of the world and if I’ve learnt anything from this blog its that restricting our view of the Christian life to what we only experience in our country – aint right.

    While I’m at it what about WW2? So we shouldnt have fought the Nazi’s?

    Also there seems to be a theme of pacifists who under the test relent on their beliefs. Wasn’t bonhoeffer a pacifist but changed his mind and tried to kill Hitler? My wife is descended form a group of the original Mennonites who moved to an area in present day Ukraine to avoid being conscripted. The colony died when they were attacked and some took up arms. Those who remained pacifists immigrated to America.

    I feel Yoder has been discredited by his sexual abuse.. well i suppose that’s unfair but still the guy was a creep. 80 women minimum!! How can i take him seriously? That’s worse than Jimmy Swaggart!!

    Lastly am i right to say that Revelation portrays armageddon as Jesus waging war with the forces of evil?

    Sorry ive kinda thrown it all out there tonight.. I guess I’ve got some reading to do. Bottom line for me: answer the practical outworking well and i’ll buy it much easier.
    Pacifism, for me, is most definitely all about being able to watch your loved ones die whilst you did NOT resort to what is allowed. Make no mistake- its not a small thing your asking of us Patrick.

  7. You sure did throw it all out there 🙂

    Richie, I’m not pretending to have all the answers. there are many varieties of pacifism / non-violence. Some would use persuasion, forced restraint, even knock someone on the head in order, a willingness to lose one’s own life in order to save other life. I would not stand passively by in the situation you describe for example. Some support legitimate restrained violence of the police done with the backing of the state for example. But to live up to its name, pacifism stops at killing. ‘thou shalt not kill’.

    But, even in the hypothetical and extremely unlikely situation you describe, you picture yourself handily having a gun to hand. This gives you the power to take life and imagines that in such a violent situation you will have some option of power and control. it imagines you will be a crack shot, it will end cleanly, and all will be well. For this to work, you will have to purchase a gun, train, practice and prepare to take life. You are at this stage, well down the road of violence – you have already decided in principle to be violent. This is why I think Andy is right – violence leads to more violence.

    Yet the more I go on as Christian, i find such a position incompatible with the teaching of Jesus. We can’t be mimic Jesus and imiate his unique mission – but we are to be his followers. And the characteristics are well described in Mt 5 and they include a renunciation of violence, force, power in favour of the way of the cross. And so this is far more than one ‘situational ethic’ but the way we understand and frame what being a Christian actually is.

    And you see this worked out in the rest of the NT: Stephen in Acts; Paul in Romans 12:14-21; Hebrews; Peter; and Revelation – it is never the people of God who resort to violence there (quite the opposite), there is the just judgement of God.

    I was struck by something Ben Witherington said – a Jesus scholar and pacifist when he argued Christians should not be only pro-life on Abortion but also pro-life on capital punishment and war.

    WWII and the Nazis and the holocaust: being against killing does not mean supine passivity. I wonder what would have happened in Germany if millions of Christians had risked their lives like Bonheoffer and refused to fight for Hitler? What a witness that would have been! But by not having a robust and principled understanding that Christians do not kill, they were easily sucked into the myth / hope that joining Hitler’s army was their duty.

    Christians can care, pastor, take great risks to save those persecuted etc but to take part in the unleashed violence of all-out war is fail to recognise that war that no war will be ‘pure’ and just’. Pretty well no war has ever met the theoretical conditions that would make a ‘just war’. Take the end of WWII and the church’s active blessing of crews who dropped atomic bombs on civilian populations. Christians will kill fellow brothers and sisters in the name of their nation. To me this is a sign that we are serving nation before the king of all nations. We have centuries of where the church has been co-opted to bless the violence of the state and has acquiesed rather than stand for an alternative kingdom.

    {and coming back to a comment you made, I recognise that it is a real challenge negotiating this as a Christian leader with Remembrance Day and all that surrounds it – I hope you guys talk about this stuff as part of your training !] Blessings.

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