Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Jesus and the Way of Violence

“[Jesus said,] 'Those who use the sword will die by the sword'” (Matthew 26:52)

Following the June 12 mass shooting at the “Pulse” nightclub in Orlando, this week my heart has been both sad and angry at the same time.  “Sad,” of course, because of the tragedy itself, and the great loss of life.  But at the same time, I’m “angry” because, in light of one of the most horrific single acts of violence in our country’s history, the response of some who profess to follow Jesus has been either to praise it (as in the case of a California Baptist Pastor who stated that the victims “deserve what they got” and that “the tragedy is that more of them didn’t die” [READ HIS STORY HERE]) or to question why we should care about the sexual identity of those who were the victims [READ EXAMPLES HERE].

Yes, I am incensed that (once again) a shooter has used religion as a pretext to justify his own selfish prejudices against a certain group of people who offended him (1). But I am equally incensed that some so-called “believers” are naïve enough about the way of Jesus (the “Prince of Peace”) to take his teachings and twist them so drastically as to believe that the shooters’ motivations were in some way actually justified.  To the contrary:  if one looks carefully at the gospels, we find that individual violence against others is never justified.

John 8:1-11 tells the story of a woman caught in adultery who is brought before Jesus, and who the crowd wants to stone to death for her sin.  Yet, instead of acquiescing to her death, Jesus confronts her accusers by announcing that “those who are without sin should throw the first stone.”  It is true that he later tells the woman to “go and sin no more,” but his first response is to those who are arrogant enough to think they have the right to judge others for sin, while ignoring the sin in their own life.

When Jesus is in the Garden of Gethsemane on the night before his death, all four gospels tell the story of one of his followers (who John says is Peter) taking a sword and cutting off the ear of one who was sent to arrest him (2). In Luke’s account, Jesus tells them “Stop! No more of this!” and promptly heals the man’s ear, and in Matthew’s account, Jesus goes on to say that “All those who use the sword will die by the sword.”

After Jesus’ trial, Pilate paraded him before the crowd in Jerusalem along with a man named Barabbas, a member of a radical Jewish nationalist group called the Sicarii (3).  Their job was to incite rebellion against Rome through acts of terrorism and violence, making them the first-century equivalent of Al-Qaeda or the Klu Klux Klan.  By offering the crowd a choice to release either Barabbas or Jesus, Pilate was, in essence, giving them a choice between choosing the way of prejudice, hate, and violence, or the way of peace, love, compassion, and forgiveness.  The sad truth is that, as all too often happens today, the way of Barabbas (violence) is often the way chosen over the way of Jesus (love).

Finally, the words of Paul in Colossians 3:12-15 & 17 should likewise be instructive to any of us who claim to follow the way of Jesus:  “As God’s choice, holy and loved, put on compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. Be tolerant with each other and, if someone has a complaint against anyone, forgive each other. As the Lord forgave you, so also forgive each other. And over all these things put on love, which is the perfect bond of unity. The peace of Christ must control your hearts—a peace into which you were called in one body…. Whatever you do, whether in speech or action, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus and give thanks to God the Father through him.”

There are more examples I could share, but my point is that the Bible is clear that individual violence against others is not the true way of Jesus Christ, that those who perpetrate, encourage or even condone it are not following that way, and that even when we don’t condone violence itself, we also should be very, very careful of our judgement of the “sins/wrongdoing” others that can eventually lead to it, lest our harsh judgement of them fall on us, as well (4).  If anything, the way of Jesus involves us loving our “enemies,” respecting those who we disagree with, and even at times laying down our lives for others, rather than us taking the lives of others (5).

Of course, some will invariably point to various biblical texts to “prove” that God uses human violence to dole out punishment and discipline against other humans for their sin. While it is true that some Old Testament texts can be interpreted this way, the contexts in which those apply are usually corporate in nature (e.g., a whole nation going to war against an injustice or wrongdoing (6)), and the reality is that for true Christians, Jesus’ teachings about love, compassion, and forgiveness should always override (or at least clarify) those earlier interpretations (7).

The bottom line is that all people have the right to live safe and secure from violence, regardless of what we personally think about their political views, sexual preferences, practices and/or beliefs.  This is the way of Jesus, and it should be the practice of all who claim to follow him.  Remember that God loves you and I do, too (no matter what you believe or think about my article here).


(1) In this instance the perpetrator used the teachings of the Muslim faith to justify his actions.  But lest those of us who are Christians judge too quickly, let’s not forget how Christians have used (and still do use) our faith teachings to justify violence in the name of God (consider, for example, the Crusades of the 11th and 12th-Centuries, the “Inquisition” of the 12th and 13th-Centuries, the Irish “Catholic-Protestant” conflict of the 20th-Century, and others).

(2) Read Matthew 26:51-52, Mark 14:47-49, Luke 22:49-51, and John 18:10-11

(3) Meaning "dagger bearers,” a reference to the hidden daggers they carried and used to kill others.

(4) Read Matthew 7:1-5, Matthew 5:21-26, and Galatians 6:1.

(5) Read Matthew 5:43-48, Luke 6:27-38, and 1 John 3:16.

(6) This rationalization for corporate/national violence is sometimes known as Just War Theory”, which sets forth very strict and narrow conditions by which nations can engage in corporate violence (i.e., war) in order to rectify a wrong. I should add that I believe this same rationalization justifies its use by those in law enforcement (when it meets the same criteria) allowing for the use of force to prevent others from doing harm to others.

(7) Read Matthew 5:17.  Even in the stories of Jesus “Cleansing the Jerusalem Temple” (Matthew 21:12, Mark 11:15, and John 2:14-15), his actions – while meant to express his disapproval of certain actions/behaviors by harming pocketbooks -- never physically harmed people.

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