As we close out 2021 let us reflect on the contrast of the angels’ Christmas greeting, “peace on earth, good will to all,” with how the year began i.e. even professing Christians violently storming the capitol building of the United States.
In my last post we saw that Jesus perfectly reveals God’s nature. He did so most clearly on the cross where we see perfect love enduring the greatest pain and humiliation in order to bring salvation and show humanity his new nonviolent way of living. Many Christians are OK with Jesus bringing us salvation, but not sure about the idea that his death demonstrates a nonviolent lifestyle for us to follow.
The church has tended to focus on sexual sin as the great evil while downplaying the role violence plays in human affairs. Yes, sexual immorality is to be avoided at all costs, but so is our innate tendency to violence. Why, then, has there been a neglect of this essential biblical teaching? One reason is our great faith in violence as the means to get what we want. A glance at world history establishes this as an indisputable fact. Corpses and maimed bodies litter the millenia as powerful tribes and nations subdue their less powerful neighbours and plunder their resources. The strong dominate the weak. The rich spoil the poor. In 2021 we saw human faith in violence continuing unabated as Putin invaded Ukraine.
That nations use violence to get what they want surprises no one. What is much more difficult to understand is how those who claim to have accepted Jesus’ gospel of peace participate in it. The blunt truth is that professing Christians did take part in the Jan. 6th violence protesting the supposed election steal of Joe Biden from Donald Trump.(see here)
“Indeed, antagonistic religious imagery was easy to spot at the Capitol raid the next day. One insurrectionist photographed in the building’s rotunda wore military fatigues with a patch on the shoulder that showcased a cross and the words “Armor of God.” Just below was another patch featuring a slogan wrapped around a stylized skull used by the comic book character The Punisher: ‘God will judge our enemies. We’ll arrange the meeting.’”(source)
One factor that has facilitated this willingness to engage in violence is “Christian nationalism” ideology. This set of beliefs includes the idea that God was behind the founding of the U.S. as a kind of promised land and that it is one’s God-given duty to keep it that way by routing out enemies. For some this even includes doing so violently if need be. “Christian nationalism really tends to draw on a kind of an Old Testament narrative, a kind of blood purity and violence where the Christian nation needs to be defended against the outsiders,”. . .(source)
Thankfully, many Christians are calling out the idolatry which equates the state with God’s kingdom. Several hundred prominent evangelical clergy members launched the “Say ‘No’ to Christian Nationalism” campaign to “recognize and condemn the role Christian nationalism played in the violent, racist, anti-American insurrection at the United States Capitol on January 6.(source) Christianity Today adopted a similar posture in “offer[ing] advice to church leaders trying to deradicalize members of their own community.”(source)
One need not take a pacifist position to condemn such violence. There may be occasions when violence must be reluctantly engaged in, for example, when confronting someone raping a woman or the invasion of Ukraine spoken of above. The difficulty lies in our sinful human nature combined with the effectiveness of violence to get our way. That is, once we allow that there are some circumstances where violence is necessary, history has shown that it is easy to expand the number of such occasions to the point where violence can be justified pretty much for whatever we want.
For example, scripture was used to support the violent European conquest of North America. One American colonist who, after his group had completely annihilated an entire tribe of Native Americans, testified, “Sometimes Scripture declareth women and children must perish with their parents…We had sufficient light from the Word of God for our proceedings.”(source)
A 1493 papal Bull justified declaring war on any natives in South America who refused to adhere to Christianity. The jurist Encisco claimed in 1509: “The king has every right to send his men to the Indies to demand their territory from these idolaters because he had received it from the pope. If the Indians refuse, he may quite legally fight them, kill them, and enslave them, just as Joshua enslaved the inhabitants of the country of Canaan. (source)
The same logic was used in the American Revolutionary War, the Civil War and countless others.
Another reason for our faith in violence besides its ability to help us get what we want is what Walter Wink has described as “the myth of redemptive violence.”
“[The myth of redemptive violence] enshrines the belief that violence saves, that war brings peace, that might makes right. It is one of the oldest continuously repeated stories in the world. … The belief that violence ”saves” is so successful because it doesn’t seem to be mythic in the least. Violence simply appears to be the nature of things. It’s what works. It seems inevitable, the last and, often, the first resort in conflicts. If a god is what you turn to when all else fails, violence certainly functions as a god. What people overlook, then, is the religious character of violence. It demands from its devotees an absolute obedience unto-death.” (source)
World War I stands out as the prototypical example, being labeled “the war to end all wars.” In 1928, just to try to make that phrase a reality the nations of the world, including Germany, signed the Kellogg-Briand Pact where they agreed not to use war as a means of settling a dispute. Of course, we know how long that lasted. The hope that WWI was the “war to end all wars” evaporated like the end of the rainbow.
While violence in the short term may help us get what we want, its ability to bring lasting peace has been a spectacular failure. Nevertheless, the myth that violence will defeat violence continues as seemingly the number one strategy humans rely on. We’re indoctrinated with this propaganda from our earliest days in the form of fairy stories. The hero battles a monster, dragon or wicked king and brings about eternal peace i.e. they all “live happily ever after.”
The indoctrination doesn’t stop with children’s stories. Hart Wiens, the Director of Scripture Translation at the Canadian Bible Society, writes about how the myth of redemptive violence is perpetuated in adult books and movies. “The plot is depicted graphically in movies like Jaws, Rambo, and Air Force One. Likewise, the classic gunfighters of the “Western” settle old scores and restore order by shootouts, never by due process of law. The law in fact, is suspect, too weak to prevail in the conditions of near-anarchy that fiction has misrepresented as the Wild West. The gunfighter must take matters into his own hands. Similarly in the big city, in movies such as Dirty Harry, a beleaguered citizen finally rises up against the crooks … and creates justice out of the barrel of a gun. This is the environment in which we are catechized – more effectively than in any Sunday school.” (source)
Martin Luther King unmasked the lie behind this myth in December 1964: “Violence as a way of achieving justice is both impractical and immoral. It is impractical because it is a descending spiral ending in destruction for all. The old law of an eye for an eye leaves everybody blind. It is immoral because it seeks to humiliate the opponent rather than win his understanding; it seeks to annihilate rather than to convert. Violence is immoral because it thrives on hatred rather than love. It destroys community and makes brotherhood impossible.”
Our belief in violence can be seen in one more disturbing fact: the vehement hatred of those who refuse to believe in violence. It can’t be a coincidence that arguably the three strongest voices lifted up against violence have all been killed, Ghandi, Martin Luther King, and, worst of all, the One whose life was perfect peace.
The myth of redemptive violence is universal– almost, but not quite. Jesus shows us a different path. He inaugurates a realm of peace by completely contradiciting and confounding human wisdom. Instead, of killing others, he allows himself to be killed in their place. He says in effect. “Can’t you see that the way of violence is not working. It’s been going on incessantly for millenia and nothing has changed. I have a different plan–loving your enemy, turning the other cheek, living in peace with everyone.”
In the next post I will argue, perhaps surprisingly, that the war motif in stories (and in the Bible) still has a place. We are, in fact, very much caught up in a war. It’s just not a physical one.