Is violence ever a viable option for a Christian? I suppose most people will have one of these three responses; some will initially say yes, some will say no, and still others will wonder what I mean by violence and viable. A little background information may help to clarify the question for those in the last category. I decided to write this post after listening to two conversations about different aspects of violence. One centered around how to interpret the sacrifice of Jepthah’s daughter from Judges chapter 11, and the other around Ransom, the main character from C.S. Lewis’ novel Perelandra, and his decision to use physical violence against the devil.
I will come back to these conversations later, but first we have to acknowledge that Christians have had a rather complicated relationship with violence over the past two thousand years. For the first few centuries of the church’s existence Christians primarily suffered violence. Then once the faith was adopted by the Roman empire tension began to surface regarding several different aspects of violence. Could a Christian serve in the military? Was the church authorized to carry out corporal punishment? But just below the surface of all these questions remained the ultimate question of whether or not violence was ever divinely sanctioned?
Genesis paints a vivid picture of violence. After the actions of Cain and Lamech the whole earth is filled with violence, and “the Lord regretted that he had made man on the earth.” But strangely enough after the flood it seems as though God seems to allow certain acts of violence towards animals by allowing Noah and his family to eat meat. But as Robert Alter points out in his translation of Genesis, this is likely an “outlet” for humanities violent impulses. The allowance of killing animals for food is one of the first of many concessions that God makes for sin, which modern Christians tend to confuse with divine sanction.
Fast forward to the book of Exodus and we are confronted again with the question of whether violence is divinely sanctioned. Moses goes up on the mountain to receive the commandments and while he’s there the Israelites rebel. God says to Moses, stay out of my way, I am going to destroy them and start over with you. Moses, like Abraham before him, is able to talk God out of violent destruction. But when Moses comes down the mountain and sees the Israelite corruption for himself, he commands those who are “on the Lord’s side” to grab their swords and go back and forth throughout the camp killing their brothers, friends, and neighbors.
What are we supposed to do with these seemingly contradictory depictions of God’s relationship to violence? I think a great place to start is by looking at how Jesus handles them, and what we see at the end of Luke’s gospel is Jesus opening the scriptures for the disciples on the road to Emmaus, and showing them how Moses and the prophets wrote about how he, the messiah, would have to suffer before entering into his glory. Not only did Jesus tell his disciples how to interpret the scriptures, he showed them, and us, how those scriptures were fulfilled by the way he lived his life.
In Luke chapter 22 Jesus, like Moses, tells those who are “on the Lord’s side” to grab their swords. Then, like Moses, he goes up on a mountain to meet with God in prayer. But unlike Moses, when he comes down the mountain and sees the corruption of Israel, Jesus says, “put your swords away.” The connection between this scene and Mount Sinai can seem rather cryptic, but Jesus’ warning that “all who live by the sword will die by the sword” is crystal clear. So, why do many Christians fight so hard to preserve violence as a viable option, when it seems so clear that Jesus is condemning the use of violence? I think that part of the answer is because we’ve projected human violence into the divine will.
This projection can be seen and partially remedied by observing the life of the apostle Paul . There is a reason why Paul is only ever seen carrying out acts of violence before his encounter with Christ. In a recent podcast, John Behr points out that Paul reads the scriptures differently before and after he meets Jesus. Before his experience on the Damascus road, Paul read the Old Testament in a way that projected violence into the divine will, and thereby justified his own use of violence. But after that experience he never perpetrates or justifies another violent act, but instead he is constantly suffering from acts of violence carried out by others.
This is the pattern that we are to follow as well. We must learn how to read the scriptures in such a way that we can no longer justify our own acts of violence, but instead become willing to suffer violence without the need for revenge. In the early church this was done primarily by adopting what Behr calls an apocalyptic interpretation of scripture. By that he means that our own encounters with Christ must remove the veil (2 Corinthians 3:14) that remains over the Old Testament. This unveiling/revealing/apocalypse is what allows us to see that Jesus had to suffer before entering into his glory AND that we must all take up our crosses before entering into glory with him.
The sacrifice of Jephthah’s daughter and Ransom’s decision to use physical violence against the devil are examples of two issues Christians have to wrestle with if we adopt a new perspective on violence. First, as I’ve mentioned earlier, we have to find a new way of interpreting many Old Testament passages like Judges 11. And this process of re-evaluating and re-interpreting will hopefully lead us to see how we, like Ransom, might be justifying acts of violence in our own lives.