Faith and Violence

As a culture we have developed the concept that violence, in any and every form, is evil. Yet we entertain ourselves with endless violence throughout every form of media, which we decry even as we consume it. We support seemingly endless wars, we encourage violence against criminals even as we chastise our children that ‘hitting is wrong’. We deprive our children of any legitimate means of expressing their frustration and anger, and then we wonder why school shootings are on the rise. In truth, as a nation, we have no clear concept of when violence should be used and when it should be avoided. We have no consistent philosophy of violence in relation to our daily lives. We might be able to espouse the tenets of Just War theory, but we can’t explain if or how America follows those tenets,or why they are justifiable in the first place. We certainly can’t explain the tenets of Just War theory in relation to Christ’s command to ‘turn the other cheek’ in the sermon on the mount. As individuals and as a nation we must answer the question: when and why is violence appropriate?

There are a number of seemingly pacifistic commands in scripture. Four of these are found in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:9, 43-48; Matthew 6:39; Matthew 7:12) and another warning against violence appears in Matthew 26:52. However, only Matthew 7:12 truly supports a concept of Christian pacifism, and it only to the degree that every presentation of the Golden Rule supports pacifism, which is to say that it can be taken that way, but is better understood as a general standard of behavior. After all, if we all went around treating one another exactly as we individually want to be treated, we would doubtless cause many people to be aggrieved. No two people want to be treated in quite the same way. That being said, these verses do give us strong and real warnings against violence. Christ tells us that peacemakers will be blessed (though historically force can and does bring peace: consider the Pax Romana or the peace brought by the military might of the Han dynasty), and he tells us to turn the other cheek (i.e. violence is not a tool for vengeance). He also tells us that those who wield violence will die violently, which is all to often true, and he commands us to love our enemies.

However, the scriptures also have an inordinate (at least with a concept of pacifism) amount of violence in them. God commands the Hebrew people into many violent conflicts, and multiple times commands the people to commit genocide. He raises up violent oppressors to punish the people in the form of Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, and Persia, and he himself does violence, both to the Jews (as a punishment) and to their enemies (as a boon). In the New Testament we see Christ drive the money-changers out of the temple violently. It is also interesting that in Luke, before his capture at the Garden Christ commands the disciples to procure the very swords that he later chastises Peter for using. In Matthew 10 and Luke 12 Christ promises to bring violence and division rather than peace, and in the book of Revelation we see God bring immense amounts of violence to the Earth, culminating in Revelation 19 in which Christ slays all those who oppose him. We also see, both in the Mosaic law and in Romans 13, the acceptance of violence in the pursuit of justice.

So, as faithful Christians, how can we practically approach the philosophy of violence? First, we must accept that violence does solve problems. As Jean V. Dubios says in Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers when confronted with the claim that violence never solves anything: “Tell that to the people of Carthage.” It is true that violence has probably solved more disagreements throughout history than any other method. However, this does not mean that it is the best method of solving problems.

Second, we must understand the places in which violence is appropriate. For instance, violence is appropriate between friends. A good-natured fight can be a lot of fun and a good way to get exercise. As long as both people are involved for the same reasons and no grudges are formed, then violence between friends is appropriate, natural, and healthy. Violence can even be a good way to solve problems between friends, as long as all parties are recognized as equals in the end. Violence is also appropriate in the pursuit of justice, for the protection of oneself or others, and in the defense of national interests. Formalized violence (i.e. refereed matches) can also be both a good form of entertainment and a practical means of solving a dispute between two parties.

Third, we must understand the places in which violence is not appropriate. For instance, while violence is appropriate in the pursuit of justice, it is not appropriate in the pursuit of vengeance. Violence should not be used to satisfy the emotional need for retribution. While violence can be a good means of resolving disputes between friends or opposed parties, it should not be used to oppress. A good fight between friends leads to agreement and mutual trust. When violence between friends results in oppression and resentment, then it is not healthy in itself, and it does not lead to healthy ends. Violence should never be uncontrolled. Whether it is controlled intentionally by those using violence, or controlled by a referee, violence that is controlled can be an excellent emotional outlet. However, when violence is uncontrolled, while it may be an emotional outlet, it generally doesn’t end well.

Lastly, we must understand that violence is never a replacement for faith. When one has a choice between faith and violence, faith must always win. God is our guide, our lord, and our judge, and when he commands us either to commit or abstain from violence we must obey. The capacity for violence demands responsibility, because if a violent person is not responsible in their use of violence, the result is almost never desirable.

Jesus Said What?

Sometimes I want to choke people to death. This isn’t actually as big of a problem as it used to be. I lived for a very long time (we’re talking decades here) on the constant verge of homicide. I got so used to simply wanting to kill someone that I didn’t even realize how angry I’d been until I wasn’t angry anymore. Releasing that kind of anger is kind of like putting down the Empire State Building. Still, there are times when I just want to throttle some poor bastard. It’s not random anymore though. I don’t walk down the street and suddenly want to grab someone and beat them to death. Now it’s specific things that set me off. Plagiarism tends to be one of them, but another is when people take scripture completely out of context.

Honestly, I’m not going to say that this is a Christian response. Not even remotely, but that doesn’t keep me from wanting to leap across the table and tear a man’s arms off when he tells me that Jesus said that we shouldn’t judge anyone after I’ve just confronted him for cheating on his wife. However, something that possibly makes me even madder than people taking scripture out of context is people accusing others of taking scripture out of context when they haven’t.

I have a friend… we’ll call him John. John has a bad habit of accusing people of taking scripture out of context whenever he disagrees with them. For instance, the arguments that Christians should be charitable to the needy are met with a derisive, ‘that’s out of context’. My response to this… ‘No, no, Jesus actually said that we should take care of the poor, and he even said that we should give to our enemies, I can show you.’ See, I’m growing.

My friend isn’t the only one who does this. All too often, instead of actually looking at the text and seeking to understand what it says and why someone might interpret it the way they do, we simply react to any position that doesn’t match our personal worldview with the claim that it must be out of context. People do take scripture out of context… a lot… for instance, Paul’s famous “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” in Philippians 4:13 does not mean that I can be president someday. Paul says this in the context of adapting to, and being joyful in, various circumstances. For instance, because Christ strengthens me I can be joyful even when I’m unemployed. Because Christ strengthens me I can respond in love even when someone makes me angry.

There are thousands of cases of this, and to some degree we all take things out of context. Ideally, our hermeneutic (i.e. interpretation of scripture) should 1) be good (duh…) and 2) determine our theology, and our theology should determine how we live. All too often our lifestyle determines our theology, and our theology determines our hermeneutic. We are, all of us, blithering idiots on the verge of complete mental collapse, and it is only grace that keeps us marginally sane and capable of rational thought (… ok, that’s probably a little bit too far. Still, we all have our idiotic moments).

However, the fact that people do take scripture out of context doesn’t mean that everyone who disagrees with me is taking scripture out of context. Amazingly enough, I have found that I am not the final arbiter of proper hermeneutic and theology (almost put them in the wrong order there). I might have my beliefs, but my beliefs don’t determine what scripture says, and I need to keep this very, very close to the top of my bubbling cesspool of a brain or I go completely wonky and decide that I should be the emperor of all mankind. Needless to say, that would be a bad thing.

How many times do we wish, ‘If only everyone were more like me’. Because apparently I’m… what? The second coming of Christ? The goal of mankind, Christians especially, shouldn’t be to be more like me, or more like you. The goal is to be more like Christ. My goal should be to be more like Christ, and allowing the scriptures to shape my theology (instead of allowing my theology to shape the scriptures) is a major part of that process.

Scripture is a living, breathing thing, and (while it is not the only way that God communicates with his people) God speaks to us consistently through scripture. The meaning of various passages seems to change as I mature in my faith, and suddenly I see things that weren’t there before. This is normal. It’s called the devotional hermeneutic and it’s one of the ways that God speaks to you. Note that I said speaks to you there, not speaks to the Church, or provides us with elements of doctrine. What you get out of the devotional hermeneutic doesn’t apply to anyone else. It is God speaking to you (… oh, and if it contradicts what scripture says, then it probably isn’t God. For instance, if you read ‘I tell you that if you lust, you have committed adultery’ and think that God is telling you to go commit adultery, you’re wrong).

We all need to be less concerned about what we think a verse or passage means, and about proving everyone else wrong. We should be much more concerned with letting God use the scriptures to shape us in the way that he desires. Yes, there are people out there who get it wrong. Guess what, if God wants them out of the way, it isn’t exactly hard for him to make that happen. After all, he’s God. He doesn’t need you or me to protect him.

Well… that turned into a little bit of a rant there didn’t it. I hope you get something out of this. If not, well… I would say ‘sorry’, but honestly I don’t really think I am. I said at the beginning that this was going to be my journal, which means that you’re probably going to have to deal with rants every now and then.