A View From the Wall
Can anyone read the news and not come across a headline that announces some act of violence somewhere in the world. Whether conflict between nations, civil wars, terrorism, or some mixture of both, the twenty-first century has seen no decrease in war, terrorism, and bloodshed. Why is this?
While some philosophers and academics have proclaimed that today’s world is actually more peaceful and less violent than in ages past, it would be difficult to argue against the numerous acts of sensational and purposeful violence.
Logic based on Biblical truth should provoke, and compel us to think more intensely about the human condition as we find it today, submerged in violence, both Christian and otherwise.
What we see passing for intelligent debate today is often just academic drivel. The Biblical boundaries of dialogue have collapsed to such a degree that we often find it difficult to entertain ideas that do not meet our presupposed conditions. Today’s discussions begin and end with symptoms and never identify the underlying root cause.
The militaristic and violent attitudes of many Christians today are shocking, to say the least. The words embarrassing, dangerous, ignorant, faithless, and worldly are some of the other terms that come to mind. But it is not only other “religious” people who have exhibited inclinations toward violence, it is Christian people also; but aren’t we supposed to have a deeper understanding and truth concerning the use of violence?
What I am trying to do is to bring a message, from outside of this world that can illuminate something that has gone missing and overlooked in our studies. My goal is to upset and challenge established assertions, and assumptions, and our customary ways of thinking and seeing. I want to be somewhat abnormal and make you uncomfortable and expose some hidden tension. I am not being systematic or constructive in my approach here, but more like a troubling critic, a little like the prophets of old who intentionally got underneath the skin of their listeners.
We Christians understand reality by accepting the simultaneous truths of seeming opposites and contradictions, paradoxes, and incongruities. This is a fundamental truth of the Bible and of the world. Jesus is divine and human, God is three and one, the state is Babylon and Jerusalem, you must become poor to be rich, die to live, and violence is necessary yet unacceptable.
These tensions do not resonate intellectually or rationally—the resolution or synchronizing has to happen in life, in being and in acting on the level of the spirit. In other words, we can live with the tensions of violence, theology, etc., but we cannot make them connect in the reality of our theories and explanations apart from the Spirit. I don’t care much about complex solutions and theories, but I do care about things pertaining to this present life at this moment in the context of these contradictions and paradoxes because there are simple answers. All of this will be unsatisfying to those who want something other than the simplicity Christ has to give. What I want to offer is a gift to your way of thinking and communicating; not as a last-word on the subject of violence, but as a valuable waypoint and boundary marker identifying God’s ways-and-means as distinctively His.
A Little Background History
The Church has a history, it moved from being pacifistic and non-resistant to evil during its first three hundred years, when Christianity was excluded from all worldly power and position to the period of the 4th to the 16th century of Augustine to Martin Luther, when the theologians approved the “just” use of force and violence to punish their own people, and “just wars,” against its enemies. We then move to the post-Reformation world which includes the supporters of both complete pacifism and non-violent resistance on the one hand, to the theology of revolution on the other, and everything in between.
Those who are looking for a Christian guide to support their use of violence try to balance a compromise between the demands of Christ and the necessity of violence in the world, to work out an agreeable resolve, and to stabilize all the conflicting factors that will hopefully produce a comfortable harmonious result. They relish the hope that the various elements involved can be brought into harmony. They conveniently forget that this is the world that has absolutely rejected Jesus Christ, that there can be no harmony between the values, the constitutions, or the peace efforts of this world and Christ.
The Reality of Disharmony
Now, here is the stumbling stone. The attempt to embrace and to integrate world and faith to each other is one mistake, but the attempt to separate them radically is another. If Christmas, the Incarnation, has any significance it can only be that God came into a most violent and disgusting place and that He did not, by his coming, either validate or change that place.
So, we too must stand at a distance, as Jesus did, from our society, its predispositions, susceptibilities, inclinations, and activities, but we must never break with it, because Christmas, the Incarnation, has taken place. We are instead invited by Christ to take part in an interaction, to be in the world but not of it, and thus to seek out a particular, a specifically Christian position. It is from this separated point of view that we must consider the problem of violence in our own lives and in the world, which is so evident today.
We need much more soundness in our understanding of violence. Violence is common to human history; it is found everywhere and at all times. This is the state of life outside Eden. Scripturally, biblical revelation shows the same thing: violence is of the order of the fall; from Cain killing Abel, to the world crucifying Jesus, to the apocalyptic conflict of Armageddon, violence is the common condition of all human history. Politically, all conditions are based on violence and there is no fundamental difference between the use of violence or force, they are both the leaven of the loaf called humanity.
Even as moral and Christian-influenced a nation as we suppose the USA to be, even our free market competition can represent a kind of economic violence and compulsion.
Violence is about forcing and attacking others, forcing their submission, dominating and imposing our will upon others. This can be done physically, of course, but it is still violence if the oppression is psychological, economic, ideological, or otherwise. It is the opposite of Biblical freedom.
Necessity of Violence
Violence is the natural condition of humanity; it is part of the nature of the fall. Violence in its various forms has nothing to do with freedom or its maintenance, but much to do with necessity. In other words, violence is a kind of trap that draws us into its snare and imposes itself on our lives, that pressures us to participate in it and continue it; this is not freedom, this is slavery.
But as hopeless and pessimistic as all of that sounds, the necessity of violence for the Christian individual is not the last word; we are not absolutely destined to be a fatality. It is possible to resist violence. It cannot be eliminated from a fallen world but it is possible to eliminate it from our lives. It is important to try to lessen its impacts, address and improve where possible, the conditions that generate it, and to heal and comfort those suffering from it. The world of violence will exist even if we do everything to resist it, but still, we are to overcome evil with good.
The views on violence can basically be summarized by the following main points:
1. Continuity: once you start using violence you get ensnared. It is like inertia, it will continue unless the opposing force of the Holy Spirit repels it.
2. Reciprocity: those who live by the sword will die by the sword; using violence against an enemy produces enemies intent on retaliation. You can’t put out fire with fire. We have killed enough of humanity in wars for peace to people fourteen of our planets yet there is no peace.
3. Sameness: all violence is the same, cut from the same cloth; it is impossible to distinguish justified and unjustified or liberating and enslaving violence; one kind leads to the others and involves the others.
4. Violence begets only violence and violence-corrupted ends: the means affect the character of the end. Violent means do not and cannot produce a peaceful end. At best the result is a kind of détente based on violence.
5. Justification: all users of violence try to justify it and themselves; but it is always a sign of the incapacitating ability of fear, and the inability to imagine or follow an alternative path, always from mixed motives that may include hatred, greed, etc.; in the life of a Christian it is hypocrisy.
If we get involved in any violence or coercion, we had better do so with our eyes open. If we don’t resist violence, violence is all we are left with.
Violence in the world of necessity is inescapable in any total sense. We are caught in it and there is no total escape from its impact. In practice most will find themselves in situations where they are cornered and cannot find another way out than violence, whether that is killing or injuring an attacker, trying to assassinate a tyrant, joining an army to hold back an invading force, or laying off some loyal employees before our company winds up in bankruptcy. We can’t find another way so we act in a violent/forceful way. It is understandable and even “condonable” in some cases. Violence can even have its own virtues within this world of necessity: it can bring about disorder, crush the lie, reveal a true situation, and expose the lie. So we can condone the violent revolts of at least some oppressed groups. But this is not holy or Christian nor is it just violence-for-violence-sake (which cannot be condoned)—but rather is an example of lost mankind yielding to necessity in a fallen world. The appropriate response is not “God sanctioned my killing him” but rather, “I just couldn’t find another way out so I had to kill him.”
But for Christians, we must not assume that what is natural is what is good or that what is necessary is legitimate. Christ came to shatter the false world of necessity and to introduce real freedom. Christ makes us free to struggle against the necessity for violence, to resist being defined by necessity. We must remember that where death is the final necessity, Christ broke the curse with His resurrection. Where society is stratified along rigid ethnic lines, Christ breaks that curse and exposes the lie by reconciliation. So it is the calling of Christians to resist and refuse violence and to introduce the Kingdom alternative, the way of real peace and freedom.
We must never sprinkle our wars and violence with holy water or blame what we do on God, or rely on the just-war tradition to explain why we acted as we did. Instead, we must confess that we are sinners caught up in a sinful world that dictates to us what is necessary.
What we need is “Christian radicalism” and the “violence of love.” In a world of necessity, the Christian calls for freedom. In a material world, the Christian calls for a spiritual warfare. In a world of realism, the Christian calls for the radical obedience of faith. In an unloving violent generation, he calls for the violence of love toward all men.
What Christ does for us is above all to make us free. But to have true freedom is to escape necessity or rather to be free to strive against necessity. Therefore, Christ’s prescription is to have only one line of action. He must oppose violence precisely because apart from Christ violence is the form that human relations normally and necessarily take. Either we accept the order of necessity, submit to and obey it . . . or else we accept the order of Christ, but then we must reject violence root and branch.
And mind, this means all kinds and ways of violence: psychological manipulation, economic imperialism, the venomous warfare of free competition and marketing, as well as torture, terrorism, police action and war. The business owner who abuses and exploits his workers is just as violent as the guerilla or terrorist; he must absolutely not boast of a Christian heritage, because what he is doing is of the nature of necessity, of sin, of separation from Christ; and even if he is a faithful churchgoer and a highly educated man there is no freedom in him. For him, it is “just business.”
What We Need
We need a renewed “Christian radicalism”: If the Christian is to resist violence he will have to be absolutely inflexible and narrow-minded, he will have to refuse to be appeased . . . Christian faith is radical, absolute like the very word of God, or else it is nothing. This does not mean withdrawal from the world or inaction or indifference but rather a full, living presence in a violent world, but with something specific and unique to offer. Because Christianity is the revelation of God in Christ, that action must be different, specific, and unique when seen alongside of political or corporate ways and means. It does not mean simply counseling the poor and the oppressed to be submissive, but it counsels us to be their voice, to make known their plight, and to stand for justice, not the progressive justice of the “social justice” advocates, but the justice of Love.
A basic theme of Scripture is the importance of the “watchman on the wall” who foresees distant, approaching events and warns the city. In an era absorbed in a storm of “breaking news” and current events, who will fill that role and watch with a greater depth of understanding for the approaching enemies? All too often it is when we are in the middle of a war or other conflict that people demand a vision, answers, and solutions; but by that time situations solidify and resistance is difficult. By that time the necessities of the flesh and the laws of violence have taken over completely. So one of the ways Christians can fulfill their role in society is to try to serve as the watchman on the wall to speak and act while situations and individuals are still pliable.
Rather than just providing news, analyses, and justifications for violent acts, followers of Christ should provide creative, constructive alternatives. Radical Christians should be playing the role of ambassador from Christ’s kingdom with its distinctive values displayed in their own lives. Helping their community to understand and see the humanity of the rival and enemy, even becoming the enemy’s voice and protector if our side somehow wins.
In the end, what can we make of this approach to violence? These things certainly challenge us to think again, more deeply and carefully, about our world and its violence and oppression. These points are important considerations in today’s world of violence committed on behalf of values that are claimed to be rooted in religious faith.
Theological reflection demands that we listen to the Word of God in obedience—without doctrinal presuppositions or systematic techniques. The Word of God has a voice if we have ears to hear and are willing to stand apart from religion hobbyist.