Saturday, February 18, 2017
The Wrath of the Lamb: Why the NT is not necessarily "non-violent"
Comparing the New Testament to the Qur'an, the obvious difference is that the later sections of the Qur'an are addressed to a community of people possessing political power and engaged in warfare, while the entire NT was written long before Christians had the capacity to wage war. We shouldn't assume too quickly that this was simply a matter of necessity. The Gospel of John describes Jesus refusing efforts by the crowd to crown him as a king. Whether or not that account is historically accurate, I think it's fair to say that Jesus could have taken the path of so many other would-be Messiahs in seeking to bring in God's kingdom by military means, but chose not to. That being said, the early Christians who wrote the NT in the form we have it were hardly in the same position as the Islamic community at Medina. And the fact that the NT was written by people who did not have political power has always made it a tricky guide for Christians who did have such power. Unless Christians are willing to renounce political and military power altogether (i.e., a strict Anabaptist position) we need to be wary of claiming spiritual superiority based on the nonviolent nature of the New Testament's injunctions.
The New Testament does, however, repeatedly use apocalyptic language--colorful descriptions of a final, world-shaking confrontation between good and evil in which God's kingdom would be established. There's a lot of debate, of course, about what first-century Jews would have thought this language meant. N. T. Wright argues for a highly metaphorical meaning of the language, but this doesn't necessarily mean "spiritualized." In fact, he and many other scholars would point out that Jewish contemporaries of the first Christians routinely used metaphorical "cosmic" language to refer to very this-worldly events they expected to take place--a literal war against the wicked in which a literal kingdom would be established on earth. (And other scholars think that Wright has overstated the metaphorical nature of the cosmic language, arguing that writers and readers of apocalyptic really did expect the stars to fall from the sky and so on.) Even today, many Christians interpret apocalyptic language as describing quite literally events that will happen in our future (see the Left Behind books, for instance). One of Wright's mistakes in his criticisms of American dispensationalism, in fact, is his claim that this is a spiritualizing of the faith, when in certain respects it's a very concrete, this-worldly vision of the End.
All of this is to say that the apocalyptic language we find in the NT can be applied in a diversity of ways to the "this-worldly" situations Christians find themselves in. And that's relevant, because this language is vividly, brutally violent. Here are some examples:
In Matthew 3: 11-12, John the Baptist says that Jesus will "burn up the chaff [the wicked] with unquenchable fire."
Similarly, Matthew 13:40-42 interprets the parable of the weeds in the field to mean that the "Son of Man" will send out his messengers ("angeloi"--yes, this presumably refers to supernatural heavenly beings, but to grasp the force of the passage in Greek the more generic meaning should be heard as well) who will weed the wicked out of the world and burn them in a fiery furnace. 49-50 repeat this language in the context of the parable of the net.
Matt. 22:7 describes the king (clearly representing God) sending out an army to destroy "those murderers" (who had mistreated his servants) and to "burn their city." This most likely refers, in its immediate context, to the very this-worldly event of the destruction of Jerusalem.
Matt. 24, of course, uses apocalyptic language to describe the destruction of Jerusalem and the "coming of the Son of Man." And in that context, the parable of the sheep and the goats in 25:31-64 once again uses language of fiery punishment to describe the judgment of the wicked.
Luke 19:27, in the "parable of the pounds" (Luke's version of Matthew's "parable of the talents") has the king say of his enemies who had opposed his kingship, "bring them here and slay them before me."
Romans 1-2 describe God's judgment on the wicked. 1:32 got a lot of attention a few months ago when the NYT ran an article interpreting it as saying that homosexuals should be killed. Of course, the verse does not simply refer back to the "shameful lusts" passage in 26-27, and the "death" in question might be "spiritual death." But the passage could quite easily be taken as a justification for the imposition of the death penalty on those whom Christians see as wrongdoers, including (but not limited to) those described in 26-27.
2 Thess. 1:8 speaks of Jesus coming "with blazing fire" to "take vengeance" on those who "do not know God" or obey the Gospel.
2 Peter 2:4-9 (mirrored by Jude) again speaks of God's vengeance, connecting the punishment of the fallen angels, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, and the punishment awaiting the wicked on the day of judgment. 10-12 goes on to speak of those who "despise authority," describing them as being like animals made to be caught and destroyed. (Imagine how much fun Christians would have with a passage like this if it were in the Qur'an. We'd see claims like, "The Qur'an says that anyone who doesn't submit to Muhammad is an animal and should be killed!")
And this is all before we even get to the book of Revelation, with death and destruction on every page, Jesus as a conqueror on a white horse slaughtering his enemies until blood comes up to the bridles of the horses (chap. 19), and the final torture in the lake of fire of all those not "written in the book of life."
Of course none of these passages were commands to first-century Christians to go out and kill their enemies. But too often Christians are content to say this without thinking through the implications of what the NT does say. Here are some things that we might expect Christians shaped by these passages would believe, and which many Christians throughout history have in fact believed:
1. God's character is expressed, at least in part, through taking vengeance on his enemies in the same way that an earthly king would do--slaughtering them in war, executing them, torturing them, burning their cities, and so on.
2. God uses messengers and agents to carry out this vengeance. These may be supernatural beings ("angels") or earthly armies (as in the Roman destruction of Jerusalem). In the broader context of the Biblical narrative, it's clear that some of God's instruments may be evil. Nonetheless, one would not gather from these passages that being an instrument of God's vengeance on his enemies is incompatible with being a righteous and holy servant of God.
3. The nonviolence enjoined on Christians in the "present age" is therefore shot through with the eager expectation of the "blessed hope" of God's coming judgment. Romans 12:19 urges Christians not to avenge themselves, in order to "leave room for God's wrath" (at least according to most modern translations--the Greek simply says "wrath," so it could be read as "give way to the unrighteous wrath of the wicked and don't fight back"). For God has said, "Vengeance is mine, I will repay." This is in fact the attitude that Christians in the first three centuries took over and over, gloating about the future punishment of the wicked while practicing nonviolence here and now. And I think it's no concidence that Paul goes on, in the beginning of Romans 13, to speak of earthly powers "bearing the sword" by God's authority to punish the wicked. The "vengeance" which belongs to God has been, according to Scripture, entrusted to earthly authorities--not to Christians as such, but to the rulers entrusted with maintaining justice by punishing evildoers on God's behalf.
In light of these considerations, what would we expect Christians to do once they did have power? Would they not be quite likely to conclude that God's kingdom had come and that the time for vengeance on the wicked was here? And in fact at least some of them did conclude this. Eusebius referred to Constantine's reign as an image of God's kingdom, and praised Constantine's war-making as a means by which God was establishing peace and order in the earth. And the long history of Christians justifying and even sometimes encouraging violence in God's name went on from there.
Yes, this story has always been qualified. Yes, there are many passages in the NT that speak of love and mercy and forgiveness, and these cannot simply be swept aside by saying that early Christians were just tactically practicing nonviolence in the expectation of God's vengeance. I am emphasizing the passages that can be read to support violence, because Christians so often speak as if no such passages exist in the NT.
Of course Eusebius' eschatology was not universal and was perhaps not even typical. Quite quickly Christians realized that the Christianized Empire was not God's Kingdom. In the West, Augustine's City of God heavily qualified Christian acceptance of Empire. In the East, bishops and (more often) monks often held up the ideals of God's peaceable kingdom against the worldly kingdom of the Empire.
But the case I'm making here is a deliberately one-sided one: not that the NT, read overall in a theologically thoughtful way, supports violence, but that historic Christian violence cannot simply be swept aside as an obvious rejection or misunderstanding of the New Testament. When the Crusaders slaughtered the inhabitants of Jerusalem in 1099, they saw themselves as purifying God's city from defilement in an apocalyptic act of judgment. They were not simply medieval soldiers who got out of control (though they were that too)--they thought that in this particular case their violent behavior was righteous, in part because of the resonance of what they were doing with New Testament (not just Old Testament) language. Similarly with the Crusaders who sacked Beziers in 1209, the Catholic authorities who burned Protestants at the stake in the sixteenth century, the Calvinist mobs who sacked convents, the English Protestant government that ripped out the intestines of Catholics for the crime of going to Mass, and so on.
These passages of Scripture continue to be used to justify violent words and actions today. Jeff Sharlet claimed in 2009 that American soldiers in Iraq sprayed "Jesus killed Mohammed" on a Bradley Fighting Vehicle and had an interpreter shout the slogan as they drove through the streets of Samarra during the Islamic call to prayer. Better known are the remarks of General William G. ("Jerry") Boykin that "my God was bigger than his" (referring to a Muslim warlord in Somalia). More recently, working for the Family Research Council, Boykin has said that Jesus is coming back with an assault rifle (since that's the modern equivalent of a sword) and therefore Christians should buy assault rifles. (To be fair, Boykin clarifies that Christians are not to "build the kingdom" with guns, but that fighting will be incidentally necessary as part of the work necessary to build the kingdom.)
The combination of apocalyptic violence and belief in the divinely ordained authority of earthly governments means that Christians have persistently, over the centuries, seen political power as an invitation to use violence against the perceived enemies of God. This has been construed and nuanced in many sophisticated ways, and it has always stood in tension with the non-violent elements of the Christian tradition that we would all rather talk about. But we must talk about all of it. We must be honest about the whole of our tradition and the multiple ways in which the many voices of Scripture can be harmonized with each other.
We should try living out Jesus' command to love our enemies instead of using it as a badge of superiority to other religions. Instead of arguing that Christians are more nonviolent than Muslims, we should be nonviolent. And above all, we should not play the game of "our violence is not as bad as their violence" in order to justify our violence.
If my reading of Scripture is correct, then when we as Christians fall into this trap, using Jesus as a badge of superiority instead of following his choice to renounce superiority, we become those enemies of God on whom God's judgment falls. The violent parts of the New Testament should not be renounced or treated with embarrassment. They should be read humbly and with godly fear, for our God is a consuming fire, taking vengeance on those who take his name in vain.