December 1, 2011

The Violent God of the Bible (Part 3)

Part Three in a series of guest posts from our Autumn Lectio writer, Dr. Nijay Gupta:

What About Jesus and the New Testament?

When we look at the God of the OT and we compare it to the life of Jesus, Jesus comes out as a peace-loving hippie preaching community and goodwill on the hills of Galilee. Sure, he turned over some tables and made a whip, but he did not resist arrest and went to his death a martyr. I think we project on Jesus, in a modern perception of him, what Stephen Prothero calls a “Gumbylike” quality. We simply do not think of Jesus as “violent” in any sense of the word. OK, I am definitely on board with seeing Jesus as radically moving his disciples towards a new vision of shalom. He is not like the murderous thief — he gives life (John 10:10). But to say we cannot associate force, harm, and death with Jesus would be to erase a good amount of the New Testament. Jesus will say to the wicked in judgment “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matt 25:32). According to Paul, when Jesus returns he will confront the “lawless one” and destroy him with the breath of his mouth (2 Thess 2:8).

Wait. Wait. Wait. [I can hear the naysayers] We are talking about end-of-the-world judgment in these texts. Not “right here, right now” forms of violence.

My point, though, is that we cannot sidestep the issue of violence by making Jesus himself into a pacifist. Jesus used force when he cast out demons and will use force at the time of judgment. Jesus was and is violent. Two questions, though, arise out of this matter. First, is his violence cast off into a “spiritual realm” where he is peaceful on earth towards humans, but violent towards supernatural forms of evil? Secondly, does he bring about a certain kind of change in how God approaches injustice and violence in the world? First question to start with.

This is a good question (about moving the battle to the “spiritual realm”) but in the ancient world, it would have been understood that you cannot neatly separate the physical world and the realm of the spirits and gods. They interpenetrate. So, if you have a headache, you might go to the doctor and the cultic priest for help. When a calamity struck your town, you would attribute natural and divine causes.

What about “turn the other cheek” (Matt 5:39)? This is where the second matter comes in. Certainly this “advances” in some way upon the notion of “eye for eye,”  but even the Old Testament lex talionis (law of retaliation) was originally a violence-limiting not violence encouraging code. In any case, this command to accept the force of an “evildoer” fits into a series of principles that involve avoidance of retaliation. You must treat well and love your own enemies. This is not about self-defense per se, nor about defending the other. It is about the problem of seeking justice for yourself through harm. That does not make Jesus a pacifist, despite scholarly opinion to the contrary. Or, put another way, if it makes him a pacifist, it only does so in a particular (limited) way.

All this is not to say that things don’t change with Jesus. I do think the cross ushers in a new phase of history. Every Jew was expecting a military messiah who would fight and purify and re-claim on behalf of the underdog Israel. The Greeks would see jail time for their mockery. The Romans would be held accountable for their crimes against Israel.

When Peter began a violent resistance in the garden, Jesus demanded his brash disciple to “go quietly into the night,” so to speak. Why? Why let the Roman and Jewish authorities win in making a fool out of the Messiah?

I think this has something to do with what Paul refers to as the “fullness of time” that saw the birth of the unique man Jesus. At the right time, he “let” evil win because evil is hell-bent on mocking the slave-state of the very humans who once ruled the world. However, this Jesus, man but also very God, took on the identity of the slave by becoming mortal (see Phil 2:5-11), but entered this prison-cell of the likeness of sinful nature to humiliate the forces of evil in the world. His suffering and death shows his dedication to God despite human machinations. The cross of Jesus, a symbol of shame in the Roman world, demonstrates its own reversal of power because he rose from the grave. If the cross was Caesar’s stamp of disapproval of Jesus, the empty tomb was the counter-seal of the Sovereign. Might does not make right.

What does the cross change? Anything? It changes everything. The promise  in Jeremiah of a new covenant (31:31-34) involves the changing of hearts. In this new era of history, thanks to the sin-bondage breaking act of God in Christ through the cross, and the rehabilitative work of the Spirit, we can see people change at their core. We can move violent people, like Saul the Pharisee, to a position of self-sacrificial love. There is new potential.

Does that mean that the New Testament “trumps” the Old? I don’t think it works in quite that way. But, again, there is a kind of change that can happen in the person who is transformative and can lead him/her down a path of restoration from evil violent ways. This is a sign of hope for a more peaceful world. However, I think Gordon Wenham is right in urging that, while Jesus “changes things,” we live in a time-between-the-times where the full consummation of God’s plan of peace is not realized. Wenham writes,

Jesus declared that with his coming the reign of God was beginning and the world was being recreated, an age in which all violence is out of place. This is why his followers must eschew revenge. But if violence of any sort is out of place in the new creation, does this mean that the Church may quietly jettison all the OT narratives which are so full of conflict? Had the kingdom fully come or the new creation been completed with his first coming, we could doubtless do so. But…the new creation was far from complete…[The Church today] still has to live in a world distorted by hardness of heart and not as it was in the beginning (Story as Torah, 153-4).

What Wenham seems to be admitting is that, while we live in the new creation inaugurated by Christ’s appearance, death, and resurrection, the birthing of this new age is not complete, so while the ideal of nonviolence is announced clearly and loudly at the cross, we must continue to live in a world stuck between old and new.

So, what am I advocating in the here and now? Am I merely justifying the use of violence and retaliative force? No, but we will get to that in a moment. First, I want to address in more detail how the “tree of shame” has shattered the “edge of the sword.”

Violence is usually justified by a value system and a legitimating authority. When the world witnessed the cruelty and violence in South Africa under apartheid, the value system favored the “white” and the government (and the Church) gave power to this. When a bully pushes a child on the playground, the value system is, essentially, “might makes right,” and the authority is usually the older bully who did the same thing to someone else yesterday.

Rome, in Jesus’ time, was the great bully and the political authority. To usher in pax (peace), it raised up the sword time and time again. When trouble makers were found in the Roman Empire, they were “handled” strategically. The worst fate was to die on a cross. It was a painful death, no doubt about that, but more so it was intentionally shameful — and in this time and place, honor was everything. Everyone did what they could to gain some honor in life (for themselves and their families/clans), but the cross was the mark of death — not only to life, but to honor. It was a forfeiting of honor itself, by order of Caesar. Cicero referred to the cross as the “tree of shame” and found it so humiliating that Roman citizens dare not even mention the word (Pro Rabirio 16).

We know, from Matthew’s Gospel (26:53) that Jesus had great power at his disposal — at least 12,000 warrior-angels waiting for his call. Yet he remained silent. He did not give in to what would have been the great temptation to vindicate his identity, role, and value using force. Did he cringe on the cross when the mockers cried, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” (Luke 23:35)? But Jesus knew, I think, that by giving in to the cross, the tree of shame, as an innocent man (that is crucial here), he could demonstrate once and for all that the strength of the world is feebly weak (1 Cor 1:25), that the “wisdom” of the world is pure foolishness, and that the “shame” of the cross could be disregarded. Jesus himself taught us to “despise” the shame of the cross (Heb 12:2).

This is ratified by the resurrection, but we will miss the point if the resurrection only proves that Jesus is God. He is God the Son, but the resurrection demonstrates much more than this, or the significance of his God-ness must be fleshed out (pun intended!). The resurrection not only establishes who Jesus is, but re-directs the value system of the world that was far off track from creation. In being “appointed the Son of God in power by his resurrection from the dead” (Rom 1:4), he takes a royal seat higher than the murderous lords and governors and leaders who thought the cross was a good idea. Jesus confirmed, in his new life given by God, that the “way of the cross” (suffering shame for the sake of loving and helping others) is the most excellent way. This is the furthest extent of love (John 13:1).

So what does all this mean for us today? That is the subject for the next post.

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