December 1, 2011

The Violent God of the Bible (Part 4)

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

Eschatological, Vicarious Counter-Violence

You may have gathered by now that I am not a pacifist. That should not mean that I don’t respect pacifists — I deeply respect many pacifists who have really thought through their stance scripturally, theologically, ethically, and socially. What I think is unfortunate are those who check a box called “pacifist” or “soldier/fighter” as if it were just a “position” to hold. The best kinds of pacifists are not passive, but active. They are non-violent aggressors. The best kinds of soldiers or fighters are ones that you will never see fighting or harming. Theologians are not list-makers or list-checkers, but missional agents in the world.

I would suggest that the cross marked the end of violence in so far as the cancerous power of sin in the world has found its antidote in the life-giving death of Jesus. The world can see the Church (at her best) and her groom, Christ, and some people will awake from the coma of power-hunger and hatred induced by sin, shocked by the smell-salts of Christ’s cross — the true image of God’s reality that can de-stabilize any so-called permanent worldview (just ask the former slave trader John Newton).

But, while we have the hope and model of the cross to carry out into the world, and with great effect, people are still dying and hurting. If violence still has a justifiable place in this time-between-the-times, for good of any kind, it must be understood properly. The model I would propose is an “Eschatological, Vicarious, Counter-Violence.”

  • First, to say it is “eschatological” means that it is “fit” for this special time between the Christ event and the return of Christ. It is a temporary measure that recognizes that our first efforts need to be non-violent negotiation and passive resistance. However, we may still need to act defensively, and as a last resort.
  • Second, it is “vicarious” in that it should be “counter-violence” instigated only for the protection of the other – to love and help the weak, vulnerable, or undeserved. It can never be for personal pride, tribal “honor,” national “reputation,” or revenge/retaliation.
  • Finally, to call it “counter-violence” is to be reminded that it is not the first blow. It is only for the sake of protection and preservation of the weak. It counters the violence already in place.

All of this should be understood within the conception that the world should be a less violent place than it was before the cross, precisely because the power of sin and death and evil was ruined at the death of the innocent man Jesus. The masquerade of evil was unveiled and the people of God invigorated to take back this world for God and his shalom.

When the world does not seem less violent, and the Church even participates in violence, it is a sad sign that she has forgotten the past, forsaken the cross-way, and given up on her present mission. When she does stand strong in the world, she will be a “city on a hill” that is lit so brightly by the radiance of the cross of Christ that it will blind many murderers, gangsters, weapons smugglers, street thieves, and battlefield enthusiasts and set into swift motion the vision of the new kingdom where swords become cultivators; guns become social networks;  tanks, hospitals; and bombs, bridges.

I would like to conclude with two examples. The first is from someone who does not articulate a faith-based position, but has his head in the right place. His name is Eric Greitens and he is the author of the book The Heart and the Fist. You see, Eric, even from a young age, took an interest in public welfare and studied ethics and public policy as an undergraduate student at Duke. Later, he was selected as a Rhodes and Truman Scholar so he could earn his M.A. and Ph.D. from Oxford with an interest in international humanitarianism. For years he worked as an aid worker in Rwanda, Cambodia, Mexico, India, Croatia, and Bolivia. He was deeply committed to world peace. On one of his trips in the Balkans, he was confronted by a local who encouraged him to help stop the ethnic cleansing in Bosnia. What good are food rations if people are being shot in the streets? Eric Greitens decided to do something. He joined the Navy Seals. This might seem extreme, but he felt that sometimes you must, as a last resort, involve both the heart and the fist.

The second example is my hero, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer lived during the terrors of Nazi leadership in the early part of the 20th century. He recognized, much earlier than many other Christians in Germany, that Hitler would destroy the country before he would save it. Bonhoeffer spent many months and years, as a pastoral leader and theologian, challenging the Reich itself, mobilizing church leaders, and writing and speaking publicly against the wretched discrimination against Jews. Bonhoeffer was not a violent man (passionate, but not violent). Yet, there came a point where he felt that words were not getting far enough to stem the tide of Hitler’s murderous flood. Bonhoeffer knew he had to join with conspirators to put an end to Hitler’s power, for the saving of many lives. It is important to know that Bonhoeffer did not feel his participation in an assassination plot to be morally justifiable, but he did find it to be necessary. He wrote this:

The meaning of free responsibility rests on a God who demands the free witness of faith of responsible action and who promises forgiveness and comfort to him who becomes a sinner in the process (LPP, 6)

Elsewhere he wrote this

If we want to be Christians, we must have some share in Christ’s large-heartedness by acting with responsibility and in freedom when the hour of danger comes, and by showing a real sympathy that springs, not from fear, but from the liberating and redeeming love of Christ for all who suffer. Mere waiting and looking on is not Christian behavior. The Christian is called to sympathy and action, not in the first place by his own sufferings, but by the sufferings of his brethren, for whose sake Christ suffered (LPP, 14).

This is, in a nutshell, eschatological, vicarious, counter-violence. It must be for the brethren, in defense of the “other,” rather than for oneself, and an act that seeks to end violence, not perpetuate counter-response. Ultimately, it must be “eschatological,” as it seeks a vision of God’s future kingdom where Christ is not like the Hitler-like conquerors, but we lift up the image of the lamb who was slain. With the holy men and women of Revelation, we seek to dip our robes, not in the blood of our enemies, but in the blood of this innocent, other-loving Lamb. Counter-violence is not about fighting fire with fire, but rather about stopping fire from spreading and burning everything down, and extinguishing the flame if it proves to be hopelessly uncontrollable.

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