Archives For Christians and Violence

This entry is part 6 of 8 in the seriesChristians and Violence

I’m not sure how many have followed the interaction between Adam F(inlay) and I from the first blog, but I thought it would be good to follow up with some of his questions here. So this blog is a bit of an aside; hence the goofy 5.5 title. First, let me just say that Adam is a good friend of mine and one of the sharpest guys I know. He wrestles with the text like no other and is well versed in first century Judaism. As always, he’s raised some very good questions regarding my reading of Matthew 5 and the pacifistic position as a whole. In short, Adam says that Jesus was a Torah abiding Jew who never contradicted (the law of) Moses in his teaching, as Matthew 5:17-19 makes clear. Therefore, since the law of Moses has allowances for violence, Jesus must have as well. He wouldn’t and didn’t teach against Moses.

(Adam, if this is off in any way, please let me know!)

So here’s my response. I’ll try to be concise at the risk of setting out underdeveloped arguments.

First, I don’t think we should see such total continuity between Jesus and Moses, or between Jesus’ teaching and Moses’ teaching, or between the Old Covenant and New Covenant. The New Covenant doesn’t just renew the old, but takes God’s relationship with his people to a new level. Such discontinuity between the Old Covenant and the New can already be found in Jeremiah 31:31-34, where the New is “not like” the Old (not that it’s completely different, but that there will be some discontinuity). Ezekiel 16:61-63 hints at this as well, and Galatians 3, 2 Corinthians 3, and many other statements in Paul (Rom 6; 10:4; and others) suggest that there is discontinuity between the Old Covenant and the New. In short, the biblical drama unfolds as a dynamic, not a static, story; the law of Moses does not reveal God’s ideal for all people of all times under all covenants. The Mosaic law was culturally, geographically, and ethnically bound. It was God’s law for the people of Israel, in the land of Israel, while living in a particular period of time. The very nature of the shift—or progression—from a uni-ethnic, geographically bound covenant people into a multi-national, non-geographically bound covenant people, demands that the law in all its literalness cannot be sustained.

Second, there are many other things that “progress” as the biblical story unfolds. In the OT (Old Testament), God dwells behind walls in a tabernacle/temple; in the NT (New Testament), He dwells in his church without walls. In the OT, animal sacrifices expiated sin; in the NT, Jesus takes away our sins once and for all. In the OT, all ethical behavior was tethered to the land of Israel; in the NT, ethics are detached from the land promise. In the OT, holiness and purity is conceived in spatial and material terms (the alter can be defiled, along with the lamp stand, and they need to be cleansed; etc.); in the NT, the concept of holiness and purity is not the same.

Third, and related to the previous point, many ethical commands of the OT law are explicitly reversed or “brought to their intended goal” (as I like to put it) in the NT. In the OT, divorce is clearly allowed (Deut 24:1ff), while in the NT it’s not (in most cases) and Jesus “takes” Deut 24 “to its intended goal” in Matt 5:31 to prove his point. Retaliation is allowed in the court system of the OT, but for the people of God in the NT it’s strictly forbidden (e.g., Matt 5:38). (Adam had some great thoughts on this in the first blog; I hope my wording here reflects his astute correction.) Circumcision and all the dietary laws were mandated in the OT—even for Gentiles who became covenant members—but not so in the NT. (There’s a debate about whether or not Jewish believers in Jesus are still commanded to keep such laws, but it’s clearly reversed in the case of Gentiles.)

Now, fourth, what about Matthew 5:17-20? Here’s the text:

17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18 For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. 19 Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

Look up any major commentary on Matthew and you’ll find a 5-10 page discussion on this passage, which usually summarizes anywhere from 5-10 different views on what Jesus means here. All that to say, the obvious meaning of what Jesus says here is not all that obvious. Several questions are immediately apparent: What does Jesus mean by “fulfill?” What does he mean by “all is accomplished?” What is the “least of these commandments”—specifically, which ones are the “least” and which “commandments” is he thinking of? (Several interpreters suggest that “these commandments” point forward to Jesus’ own “law” in 5:21-48.) And what in the world does Jesus mean by having a righteousness that surpasses “the scribes and Pharisees,” which constitutes your entrance card into the kingdom? Needless to say, we really have to roll up our sleeves, cancel our appointments, and set aside a good deal of time to work through these issues before we can confidently quote Matthew 5 in favor of any view of Jesus and the law.

So what does the passage mean? Here’s a very truncated summary of my view. First, “fulfill” is not the same as “obedience,” since “the word plhrouvn, ‘to fulfill,’ is never used in Matthew to describe obedience to the law” (Hagner, Matthew, 105). I agree with Don Hagner who says that the word “fulfill” does not refer to

“establishing the law as is, nor of supplementing it, but in the sense of bringing it to its intended meaning in connection with the messianic fulfillment (together with plhrouvn, note ‘he law and the prophets’) brought by Jesus…In Matthew’s view, the teaching of Jesus by definition amounts to the true meaning of the Torah and is hence paradoxically an affirmation of Jesus’ loyalty to the OT” (Hagner, Matthew, 107).

So Jesus didn’t seek to destroy the law, but to bring the law to its intended goal. All that to say, I don’t think the passage presents the law as a static constitution for God’s people of all time, being reiterated and reaffirmed by Jesus; rather, Jesus “penetrate(s)…the divinely intended meaning of the law.”

So what does Jesus mean by “the least of these commandments” (v. 19)? I actually don’t think it refers to Jesus’ own words in vv. 21 and following, although this would support my view. The context necessitates that Jesus is talking about the law of Moses, which makes perfect sense, because Jesus said he’s not trying to “abolish” the law but to “fulfill it.” Again, I think Hagner’s interpretation is as good as any:

“What is being emphasized in this way are not the minutiae of the law that tended to captivate the Pharisees but simply a full faithfulness to the meaning of the law as it is expounded by Jesus. Thus, the phrase “the least of these commandments” refers to the final and full meaning of the law, but taken up and interpreted by Jesus, as for example in the material that begins in v 21” (Hagner, Matthew, 108).

All in all, I don’t think that Jesus was simply reinstituting the law of Moses in all its literalness for the New Testament people of God. (Had any bacon lately?) He clearly “fulfilled” several commandments in the law, including divorce (v. 31) and retaliation (v. 38), and his treatment of unclean women, lepers, and prostitutes, seems to go against a strict interpretation of Moses—or at least, it takes Moses to a new level. Again, I don’t think this means that Jesus was abolishing the law, but bringing it to its intended goal—the love of God and love of neighbor among the worldwide community of God’s New Covenant people. After all, Sinai is not the final goal; Eden is.

So unless Jesus explicitly reiterated the OT’s allowance, and command of, violence—like stoning kids who curse their parents or those who violate the Sabbath (Exod 21:17; 35:2)—I don’t think we can assume that Jesus endorsed violence simply because Moses did. We would need to find Jesus explicitly endorsing some measure of violence among God’s people. But he doesn’t.

This entry is part 7 of 8 in the seriesChristians and Violence

We’ve been considering the relationship between Christians and violence, and in this post, I’m going to do what many people never think of doing. I’m going to list what I think are the best arguments against my position, because the best way to understand and defend your own view is to consider it from the other side. After all, it’s not about being right; it’s about being a biblical Christ-follower, and pushing back on your own “view” is a good way to make sure you’re not just seeking to win an argument.

So, what are the best arguments against Christian pacifism? Two come to mind.

First, in the New Testament (NT), whenever Roman soldiers come to Christ, they are never told to quit the military or stop using violence. Perhaps the most revealing example comes in Luke 3:10-14:

“10 And the crowds asked him, ‘What then shall we do?’ 11 And he answered them, ‘Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise’. 12 Tax collectors also came to be baptized and said to him, ‘Teacher, what shall we do?’ 13 And he said to them, ‘Collect no more than you are authorized to do.’ 14 Soldiers also asked him, ‘And we, what shall we do?’ And he said to them, ‘Do not extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusation, and be content with your wages’.”

Here, the soldiers ask John the Baptist what they should do and they are not told to retire from the military nor are they told to stop using violence. They are told simply to stop robbing people.

Now, this argument is not actually as strong as it may seem. First, it’s not altogether clear that John the Baptist had the same non-violent ethic that Jesus did. If John came from the Jewish sect of the Essenes (which isn’t clear), then he certainly would have been cool with violence, and John’s misunderstanding of Jesus’ mission in Matthew 11 may support John’s expectation of a more violent (or at least political) messianic mission. Second, the whole flow of Luke in 3:10-14 (the whole gospel, really) is focused on radical economics. All three groups of people (the crowds, tax collectors, and soldiers) are all given exhortations that have to do with the use of money. Obviously, John (and Luke) is after a particular theme here, but this doesn’t mean that money is all he cares about—the soldiers also would have worshipped pagan gods, yet John doesn’t address this. Does this mean he’d be fine with them maintaining a bit of paganism?

All that to say, I don’t think that the “soldier argument” really proves that Jesus and John would have supported the war in Iraq or would have dropped the nuk on Hiroshima.

Second, Romans 13 says that God works through governments to violently punish evil (cf. “the sword;” 13:4). So, according to Just War theorist Arthur Holmes:

“If force is divinely entrusted to governments and if the Christian should support and participate in just government in its rightful functions, then why not participate in legitimate governmental uses of force” (Holmes, “Just War Theory,” 68-69)

Now, we’ve addressed this a bit in the 3rd blog. When Paul’s writes Romans 13, he’s talking about the church’s posture toward the government. There’s nothing in the text that assumes that members of the church would actually be serving within the government. Now, contrary to some of the previous comments, I’m not saying that Paul therefore says they can’t. All I’m saying is that Paul doesn’t have this in mind in Romans 13. Holmes’s logic can only be deduced implicitly.

However, there is evidence that there were some who worked for Rome and became believers, and the text doesn’t say that they quit their jobs. The Roman centurion (Matt 8), Corinth’s city treasurer Erastus (Rom 16:23), the Philippian jailer (Acts 16:25-34), Dionysius the Areopagite (Acts 17:34), and Nero’s household who passed on their greetings to the Philippian church (Phil 4:22) all became believers and also held some sort of governmental position. Some would be required to use or enact violence (the jailer), while others probably wouldn’t (Erastus). Now, we’re not told much about their ongoing post-converted life—maybe they remained within the government, or maybe all the violence, corruption, and paganism violated their conscience to the point of forcing them to withdraw from their vocation. The text simply does not say.

So I would say that the New Testament does open the door just a crack to the possibility of a believer serving in a governmental position, including the police force and courts of law. Nick Megoran, in his great book The War on Terror, wrestles with this issue and concludes:

“[total pacifists] must either condemn the police and courts, leading to anarchy, or explain why they allow the police, but not soldiers, to use force. It is not clear that pacifists have a robust answer to this objection, and it is rarely given sufficient consideration in their writings” (Megoran, The War on Terror, 166).

And FYI, Megoran is an ardent pacifist! There’s nothing in the next that would strictly forbid Christians participating in such positions. Coupled with the view that Christians should penetrate all areas of vocation and culture—wall street, Hollywood, politics, and yes, even law firms—the New Testament cannot be taken to condemn all vocations that work for the government. But in the same way that a Christian cameraman in Hollywood will more than likely encounter some dicey situations (filming a racy nude scene for 23 different takes), so also a Christian serving in the government will be faced with situations where it’ll be tough to strictly adhere to all of Christ’s ethic, including Jesus’ stance on violence.

When all is said and done, whether you are a cameraman working on the set of 300, or cop strolling the streets of Skid Row, Jesus’ non-retaliatory love of one’s enemy, along with his strident critique of adulterous lust, cannot be sacrificed on the alter of one’s vocation. We are Christ-followers first, and secondarily everything else.

This entry is part 8 of 8 in the seriesChristians and Violence

This is the 7th (actually, the 8th) post on Christians and violence, and for better or worse, it’ll be the last. We’ve covered lots of different sub topics within the issue, including what Jesus and Paul say about violence (blog 2), how the Old Testament’s view on violence fits in with the New Testament (blog 4), and we’ve even wrestled with what to do when a killer breaks into your home and pulls a gun on your family (blog 5). For this last post, I want to do three things: 1) sum up my view, 2) sum up some of the others, and 3) point out a few areas where I’ve changed over the course of this series. (That’s why I blog, by the way. I want to sharpen my thinking, not just to show why my thinking is correct.)

So, what is my view? Again, here are the four views I listed in the first post:

View 1: Pacifism (non-resistance). Christians should not kill people, but they can join the military (or police force, etc.) as long as they serve as non-combatants (psychologist, medical doctor, etc.)

View 2: Pacifism (total non-participation). Christians should not join the military or any other institution that endorses and participates in violence.

View 3: Just War. Christians can participate in a war that is waged on a “just” basis. The seven-fold criteria for a “just” war include: (1) Just cause, (2) Just intention, (3) Last resort, (4) Formal declaration, (5) Limited objectives, (6) Proportionate means, (7) Noncombatant immunity.

View 4: Self-defense and justice. This view focuses on the individual’s encounter with evil, as opposed to his/her participation in national warfare. The view says that a Christian may use violence when defending oneself against evil (i.e. being attacked in a dark alley, etc.) or to achieve justice for someone being oppressed (i.e. executing Hitler, etc.).

In the previous posts, I defended view 1 (while allowing for view 4 in some extreme cases and with qualification; see part 5). As far as the other views go, View 2 (total non-participation) doesn’t make sense to me, since if you pay taxes, or work for a company that makes springs that go into making M-16s that go into the hands of combatants on the front lines, or if you work for a plastic company that makes water bottles, some of which are sent to our soldiers in Iraq—in other words, if you’re a citizen of America—then it’s impossible to completely divorce yourself from the military or many other societal evils. (Every bite of chocolate you take helps fund the use of slave labor in picking cocoa beans in Africa.) For this reason, I actually think that Christians can participate in the military. I only think that Christians should not serve as combatants for the reasons stated in the previous blogs. But Christians can and should, I think, serve as psychologists, doctors, and cooks in the military. Yes, you’re still part of the machine that’s waging unjust wars (see below)—but in a sense, aren’t we all? Why not serve in a capacity that can help reverse the tide of evil and show off a glimpse of the shalom that awaits us?

I’ve already considered View 4 in part 5 of this series. In some extreme cases, we may be forced to choose between killing or letting our families be killed (for example), and I’ve argued that killing the killer and thus preserving the life of your family can be considered the “higher law” since you are preserving life. But this is only as a last resort.

Now, what about the Just War theory? The problem with this view is immediately exposed when you look at their own criteria and ask the question: has there ever been a just war? Has there ever been a war that has adhered to non-combatant immunity? The answer is no, by the way. WWII, often hailed as a just war, fails by the position’s own criteria. Non-Combatant immunity was violated on a nuclear level, as America incinerated over 250,000 Japanese non-combatants at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And—we don’t often hear about this—some of these were Christians. Nagasaki had a growing Christian population, which was annihilated by Americans with a nuclear bomb, which stunted the growth of the gospel in a largely anti-Christian country. What about just intention? Would Jesus say that retaliation or a preventative strike is “just?” Or who gets to define what “just” is? (Jesus does, right?) The issue of “just” when speaking about “war” becomes very convoluted once you look into why countries go to war. Our intentions for war raise a lot of questions. Why didn’t we fight for justice when 800,000 Rwandans were being hacked to pieces with our full knowledge of what was going on?

And who are the “we,” and who are the “them?”

Think about the war in Iraq. We were the good guys taking out the bad guys, right? Well, that’s how the story goes, but the story doesn’t like to talk about the fact that Iraq also had a growing Christian population before America invaded the country. There were some 800,000 – 1.2 million Iraqi Christians during Saddam’s reign who were able to worship in relative peace, but after we invaded, Christians have been vigorously persecuted, exiled, and killed. Today, the number of Christians has radically dwindled to a(n unknown but) small number. So when we talk in terms of “us” invading “them,” which citizenship are we referring to with the pronouns?

Many of us have heard of the famous “Christmas Truce” held on Dec 24-25th, 1914, in the middle of WWI. Both sides—the Germans and the Brits—decided to break from war so that they both could observe Christmas in peace. And on Christmas eve, when temporary peace was being enjoyed, the British troops broke out in unison: “Silent night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright…” only to hear an uncanny echo across “enemy” lines, “Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht, Alles schläft; einsam wacht.”

Again, how are we defining “us” and “them?” The nations will always war, but war never brings shalom. Only Jesus through His Spirit-filled, peacemaking, enemy-loving church can. We cannot confuse our mission with theirs.

So, lastly, where have I changed over the course of this series?

First, I no longer like the term pacifism. I began the series using it, but I don’t like it because it’s not a distinctively Christian label. (You can be a flag burning drag queen, who hates Jesus and America, and be a pacifist—not the crowd I want to be confused with.) I’m not fond of any labels, so labels that aren’t distinctively Christian are worse! So—I’m no longer a “pacifist,” and if rumor gets out that Preston Sprinkle is a pacifist, you’ll know that the rumor starter didn’t read the entire series. I’m not sure what else to call myself. Non-violent shalomer? Too long, and too weird. Christ-follower (Jesus acted non-violently, and so do I)? Nah, too loaded and imprecise. Anyway, I’d love to hear any suggestions.

I believe that Jesus promoted and demonstrated non-violence as a means of confronting injustice. I believe that we should love our enemies and not kill them. I believe that the church as kingdom outposts should be well-known as peacemakers and not warmongers. (And if you’ve traveled or lived overseas, by the way, you know that Christians are usually known as the latter.) There may be extraordinary circumstances that allow for the use of violence (again, see part 5 of the series), but this is not the norm, this is not our posture, and this doesn’t reflect the passion behind Jesus’s ethic and practice. I believe that Jesus established a non-violent kingdom, and his followers should be known as being against violence in the same way that they are against homosexuality, fornication, and drugs.

Second, my view on Matthew 5 has been modified a bit. I still think that Matthew 5 supports Jesus’ non-violent ethic, but I think we need to pay very close attention to the details of the text before we quote it to make sweeping (and sometimes rather aggressive) claims (as I did in a couple posts). I no longer think that Jesus was correcting Moses’ liberal allowances for violence (thanks to Adam F), since Moses himself discouraged violence more often that we realize.

Third, I think we (for those who hold the same view that I do) need to be pastorally sensitive in how we discuss this issue. (If I was too insensitive throughout the series, I genuinely am sorry and didn’t intend to be so.) Many believers, who are passionate for Jesus, have fought in wars, have had kids who have fought in wars, and have lost kids in war. It’s a delicate issue. So treat it as such. This doesn’t mean that we ignore what the Bible says about violence, but it does mean that we proclaim truth in a way that shows love to our hearers. I would say the same thing, in fact, regarding issues surrounding homosexuality—we shouldn’t make stupid, non-Christians jokes about the gay community, nor should we simplify the issue, only to slam on homosexuals. 10-15% of Evangelical Christians struggle with same-sex attraction. Making unloving and degrading comments regarding these brothers and sisters could actually push them further away from Jesus. The same goes for those who have been divorced (biblically or unbiblically), those who have tearful battles with weight, eating disorders, self-perception, or even those who make a ton of money and haven’t grown up in a culture where greed, idolatrous comfort, or radical generosity has ever been addressed.

Point being: we need to be pastorally prophetic; we need to speak truth in love; we need to work hard at figuring out when to be bold and in your face, and when to walk gently with people through tough issues.

For those on both sides of the issue, my plea is that you would look not to the view itself but to the texts which are used to support each view. At the end of the day, I would love it if Christians would stop having a knee-jerk reaction against non-violence (cough, cough, “pacifism”) and would be honest with that fact—and I do think it’s a fact—that the promotion of non-violence and peace has a good deal of New Testament support. Disagree with it you may, but considering it an absurd, weird, or unbiblical view cannot be sustained.

Let’s continue the dialogue, shall we? Set aside our presuppositions, our cultural baggage (yes, we all have some) and our anger, and let’s continue to dig into the text in a healthy, cordial, Christ-exalting dialogue about His view of violence.

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