Living gently in a violent world where cartoonists get shot

The graphic images of gunmen executing a helpless French policeman on a Paris street should shock. In conversation the other day, someone called this act ‘inhuman’ in its brutal callousness. Brutal and callous, yes; inhuman? No.

All too human in fact. I’m only stating the obvious (good at that) to point out that 2000 people were killed in violence in Nigeria last week. The nice, good, freedom-loving liberal West has killed thousands of people in Iraq and Afghanistan in the last 10 years: it’s alleged that the CIA tortured at least 14,000 Iraqi prisoners in the (terrifying for victims) ‘War on Terror’ along the way. Violent conflicts continue to rage at a fairly consistent level across the world, with particularly bloody examples in Syria and Iraq.

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And you don’t need to know much Irish history to be aware of the long legacy of the glorification of the gun on both sides of Irish politics.

I well remember sitting in a lecture class in Belfast as a student and hearing gunshots just outside the classroom window as the IRA ruthlessly executed Edgar Graham, a law lecturer and Unionist politician. It isn’t extremist Islamic violence that is somehow unique in its willingness to deal in death.

And then of course there is all the ‘common’ violence of domestic abuse and violent crime etc that don’t count in ‘war’ statistics. Or the innumerable ‘unknown’ stories of unimaginable violence that go on out of sight and mind: one a friend learnt first-hand of over Christmas was of Albino children in East Africa being hunted and killed out of the belief that drinking their blood or eating their body parts would bring wealth and prosperity, or having sex with an Albino girl would cure AIDS.

I could go on (and on and on) but the point is this: violence is embedded in the fabric of this fallen world; it’s endemic to human nature (mostly men of course but that’s another topic). It is primarily violence, especially against women, that hinders development in many parts of the world. And neither is violence limited to ‘backward’ cultures; indeed it seems that our capacity for violence climbs in line with our ability to develop technology to kill each other.

Today, it is primarily the democratic, liberal and free Western governments which make billions out of selling sophisticated weaponry globally. The top 100 companies worldwide sold $400 billion worth of arms in 2013. Two-thirds of those companies are in the USA or Europe. The USA makes over half of global arms sales, followed by the UK and France and even peace-loving Germany not far behind.

The causes of violence are complex: tribalism, ethnic conflict, hot nationalisms, religious extremism, political expediency; competition for scarce resources; ruthless greed, over-population – whatever reason you can identify, it is obvious that humans do not lack motives, means and the willingness to kill each other.

It has been ever thus (Gen. 4:8) and this is why the question of a Christian response to the reality of violence and war is a question posed to every generation of Christians in every culture globally.

And since Christians believe that the Bible is the Word of God, what the Bible teaches about peace and non-violence becomes pretty important.

Here’s my contention – and feel welcome to join a discussion: the New Testament witness is overwhelming and unambiguous in its commitment to non-violence. And that witness flows from the life and teaching of Jesus Christ. Any theory that justifies Christians engaging in violence inevitably therefore takes some form of theological or philosophical or pragmatic argument ‘beyond the New Testament’.

But what about Paul? Does he really have as strong and consistent committment to non-violence as Jesus? Doesn’t he live a more pragmatic grey-zone when it comes to (justified) violence?

Not according to Jeremy Gabrielson in his book Paul’s Non-Violent Gospel: the theological politics of peace in Paul’s life and letters. The longest chapter in the book is ‘Trajectories of Violence and Peace in Galatians’.

I suspect that, along with Romans, Galatians has been one of the most influential letters ever written in human history. Its huge themes of gospel, grace, justification by faith, law and life in the Spirit have impacted untold millions. What’s fresh here is Gabrielson goes beyond those usual Galatian themes, to argue how the letter also speaks of Paul’s deep and pervasive commitment to non-violence.

The ‘pre-Christian’ Paul is a violent persecutor (1:13) who tried to ‘destroy’ the fledgling messianic movement of Jesus-followers (1:23) – out of his zealousness for the law. While Paul does not go into details and we have to rely on Luke for an account of Paul’s role in the killing of Stephen, such zealousness linked to violence is seen in the writings of Philo.

Paul’s experience of the risen Christ, not only causes deep and profound ‘shifts’ in his understanding of the law, faith, righteousness and even his ‘theology proper’ of God himself, but also in his understanding of what sort of life pleases God.

Gone is the notion of ‘righteous violence’ – killing in the name of God. Rather he can rejoice that he has been ‘crucified with Christ’ and his former self no longer lives (2:19-20). However precisely understood (and there are debates over how much these verses are autobiographical), he rejoices in the humiliating and debasing horror of crucifixion. He is now a ‘slave’ (1:10) of Christ. As Gabrielson puts it,

“The violent Paul died when Christ was apocalypsed in him; now Christ-in-Paul shapes Paul’s life in the flesh in a cruciform existence. Violence remains a part of Paul’s life, but it is now violence inflicted on and received by the Apostle rather than performed by him.” (95)

He includes a significant quote from Michael Gorman’s excellent book, Inhabiting the Cruciform God (158-9)

“Seldom …. is his turn from violence qua violence (as opposed to his turn from persecuting the early church to promoting the faith) seen as a constitutive part of his conversion and life, or as paradigmatic for, and therefore constitutive of, Christian conversion and therefore new life generally. If the conversion of Paul, grounded in the resurrection of Christ, is paradigmatic, it is paradigmatic in multiple ways, not least of which is his conversion from violence to non-violence.”

In other words, the violent Paul ‘died’ upon encountering and then following the crucified and risen Messiah. The ‘new’ Paul was a man of peace. Now, IF this radical shift from violence to peace is paradigmatic for all believers, a life of non-violence is not just a personal ethical ‘choice’ for a Christian; it is an intrinsic part of belonging to the new age of the Spirit. Gabrielson puts it this way:

“The trajectory of violence for Jesus’ disciple is ruptured, and once they have been co-crucified, their transformed, newly enlivened bodies take on a power over violence which exercises its power-over-violence only because Violence cannot understand how it is defeated by weakness. The sway of the cosmos, the old-age modus operandi, led to Paul’s violence, but Paul’s new modus operandi, his new trajectory involves living into the new creation which has as its gravitational center the cross of Christ.” (99-100)

Gabrielson unpacks Galatian’s rich understanding of the Christian life – a life marked by the fruit of the Spirit in the overlap of the ages. I really like what he says here. It covers similar territory to a chapter I worked on last year on Paul and the Christian life, but with a focus on implications for Christian non-violence.

New life in the Spirit will embrace and overcome suffering. It will be a life of love and giving; bearing burdens and enacting forgiveness. It leads to the paradox of Christian freedom, where freedom takes the form of voluntary ‘slavery’ of love and obedience to the Risen Lord.

As I’ve argued elsewhere, the Spirit- flesh contrast in Galatians is talking of a cosmic reality, where the future is already here in the present and Christians to embody that new reality through life in the Spirit which overcomes the old life in the flesh. This new life leads to a new political order of ‘doing good’ to all, especially the household of God ( 6:9).

Yet, being peaceful, does not mean that violence will not come your way. This is why Paul warns his communities that the violent world would probably do its violent worst – they should expect suffering and trouble.  But their response was to repay evil with good; to embody a politics of peace in the face of a politics of violence.

For this was the way of their Lord.

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