December 12, 2011

Why Deborah Makes All the Difference in the Women in Ministry Debate

Another guest post from our current Lectio writer, Dr. Nijay Gupta:

When it comes to the issue of whether woman can and should be in leadership (and/or teaching positions) in the church, there are two obvious views – either the Bible says they can and should, or it demands that they can’t and shouldn’t. For many people, the matter simply comes down to quoting verses from the Bible. The Bible clearly says… [Can I make a suggestion? Let’s stop beginning debates this way!]

For some, you simply need to turn to the apostle Paul.  Doesn’t he write “I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man” (1 Tim 2:12)?

What does this tell us? It seems to say that women have been given a general command to refrain from seeking positions of authority and instruction in the church. What is the rationale? Paul continues,

For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor (1 Tim 2:13-14)

Now, if Paul were simply trying to communicate that he universally does not permit women to teach and have authority, and that he still values and supports women in general, it would be odd to use this kind of rationale. It seems like Paul is saying that because Eve was deceived (having something to do with being created second), she is unqualified to teach because her intelligence, wisdom, or shrewdness (call it whatever you will) does not reach the same height as Adam. [I am going to argue that this is rubbish, but I am trying to go along with a certain reading of this text for a reason.]

Does Paul intend to say that women should not teach because they lack a certain kind of intellectual capacity suitable for that task?

I think that, based on what seems to be going on in the context of the letter, there is a particular reason why Paul makes this command. The mentioning of Eve is not a way of making the teaching universalized based on gender, but to point out that Eve was hasty in responding to the snake, when Adam was clearly better informed of the situation (which has nothing to do with his gender, but everything to do with the fact that he probably received the commands and prohibitions about the trees before Eve was created and, thus, should have responded to the serpent, not Eve, because he had first-hand knowledge). So, given the false teaching Paul is concerned about in the Ephesian churches, he is discouraging women who want to usurp power from men, because they need to get their facts straight before acting on second-hand information. [My goal is not to get into the nettle of what 1 Timothy 2:12-15 is about, but to use it as an entry point into a discussion of women and their capacity to lead in the church. However, for a good approach to this matter from a conservative scholar who does not think it prohibits women from teaching in the church, see Ben Witherington’s Letters and Homilies for Hellenized Christians, pp. 228ff.]

What can we say, then, about the intelligence and leadership capabilities of women according to Scripture? Some would have us put women in their rightful place so that creation-established balance can be maintained. Here is where I think Deborah makes all the difference.

In a time and place where women were not considered to be suitable for leadership (the Ancient Near East in the time of Israel’s settling into the land of Canaan), with Deborah we have a woman who was already serving as leader and judge over Israel (Judges 4:4). Could this have been a bad thing? Could it be that Deborah shouldn’t have been the national judge? Perhaps, but the “Song of Deborah” (Judges 5) seems to affirm the leadership of Deborah (see 5:7; also 5:12). She is hailed as “motherly protector in Israel” (5:7). Did Israel worry about a woman leading the nation in this way? If women were considered more gullible, why would God take this kind of risk?

What is more, she served as a competent adjudicator of civil matters as “the Israelites went up to her to have their disputes decided” (4:5). Who else before this time in Israel had such a role? We do not know for sure, but the language used of Deborah strongly resembles the imagery of Moses in Exodus 18:13.

Now, someone might say that Deborah was not a real “judge” because she didn’t lead in battle, but Barak did. However, Deborah was the one that “summoned” Barak in the first place and she went with Barak. She formed a partnership and they worked together. Some scholars reason that this shouldn’t have happened either. My friend Daniel Kirk (who does affirm women in church leadership, but finds the character Deborah insignificant on this subject) makes this argument.

The fight into which she [Deborah] ends up leading the people is a fight that should have been waged by Barak. When he is too afraid to go out and fight, she says she will go with him. But in consequence of, literally, hiding behind the skirts of Deborah, Barak will not gain honor from his victory: “for YHWH will hand Sisera over to a woman” (Judges 4:9). See (http://www.jrdkirk.com/2011/09/26/does-deborah-help/)

While I admire Kirk’s attention to detail, I think that there is one key point he is missing: the “Song of Deborah” (again Judges 5) gives us a healthy interpretive lens through which to view the events of Judges 4 – and I don’t think we get any sense that Deborah was butting into Barak’s business. In fact, the fact that both Deborah and Barak sing this song implies (to me) that their partnership did the trick. Even if Barak had a lack of faith (by asking Deborah along), that doesn’t say anything about the appropriateness or quality of Deborah’s leadership.

Kirk makes another argument – the shrewdness and wisdom of women in Joshua and Judges is meant to shame the downfall of the Israelite men, not to make an argument in favor of gender equality. I think Kirk is right. In fact, I agree with Old Testament scholar Daniel Block who writes

The biblical author was obviously interested in women’s affairs and achievements, but in the final analysis Deborah and Jael are not heroic figures because of their revisionist challenges to prevailing social structures; they are heroines because of what they accomplish as agents of the divine agenda, which in this instance has less to do with overthrowing oppressive patriarchs than the role they play in Yahweh’s overthrowing oppressive Canaanites. (Judges, Ruth [NAC 6; Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman, 1999], 186)

I don’t think Judges promotes gender equality as a primary point. However, Deborah makes all the difference by implication. She is a reliable prophet (who speaks from the wisdom of God), and a trustworthy teacher – as the Song of Deborah proves. In a sense, she becomes one of the “authors” of Scripture (with her teaching inscribed into Judges 5), and by implication an authoritative evangelist through her testimony.

I have met women who have said that, when they got up to preach, men (and sometimes other women) got up and walked out, offended by a “woman leader” in the church. I wonder how the Israelites felt about Deborah. Did anyone walk out on her? Did anyone condemn her for speaking on behalf of God? Did anyone encourage her to take more interest in her domestic duties? We don’t know. What we do know is that it was the Lord’s will to use her as a leader of God’s people to deliver them (with Barak’s help as general). Judges does not offer a command to promote women, but it only takes one example like Deborah to show that women are just as capable in leadership as men. Leadership did not suppress Deborah’s femininity, but gave her an important setting to be “motherly protector” (5:7).

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December 1, 2011

The Violent God of the Bible (Part 1)

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

Introduction

Do a Google search for the words “church” and “peace” and you will mostly find church names that are something like “Church of Peace” (Florida, Indiana, Wisconsin, France!). Clearly something connects the Christian faith to peace. Scripture refers to the “God of peace” (Heb 13:20); the “peace of Christ” (Col 3:15), peace for the whole community (Eph 6:23). Jesus promises to leave peace with his disciples (John 14:27). Even in the OT, the herald of Zion, the long awaited evangelist, announces the good news of world peace and salvation in a vision of a world where God rules ultimately (Isa 52:7).

The Bible is not a G-rated book, though, and I hate to break the news to you that, when it comes to violence, it seems that God is not just quietly putting out the fires, but seems to be fighting fire with fire. In 2007, LifeWay Christian Stores began putting on some Christian books in their stores “Read with Discernment” labels, because the theology and ethics of these books may be dangerous and overly provocative. Perhaps the Bible itself needs such a label!

I have three small children and I read them a Bible story from their Children’s Bible every evening. These “kid-friendly” versions censor most of the OT stories. The story of Noah saving the animals from the terrible storm is invariably told, but it is never mentioned that God sent the storm in the first place! [By default, I presume we are meant to think the storm was “naturally occurring” and God graciously predicted it for Noah.] When David knocks Goliath out with his Dennis-the-Menace slingshot, we rarely read in the kid’s version that David afterward cuts Goliath’s head off (why add injury to insult?)

Again, the Bible is not G-rated.

The question before us right now, though, involves God’s own participation and plan in violence. We will deal with three sets of questions.

  1. What is violence? Is the God of the OT violent?
  2. Why is the God of the OT violent?
  3. Do Jesus and the cross change how we understand God’s use of or attitude towards violence? Do things change with Jesus when it comes to necessity of force?

The Issue of Violence and the Habits of God

Let’s start with the question of definition. This is important because it has been argued in the past by some that, when Israel participated in acts of violence, it was because of human sin and not because God is violent. Sometimes the buck of blame for violence is passed to Israel as if they misunderstood or misrepresented God in their warfare.

Think about Exodus 15 – a celebration of the drowning of Pharaoh’s armies in the Red Sea. Moses sings a song of victory and a memorial to the Lord. He cries,

“I will sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider he has thrown into the sea. The Lord is my strength and my might, and he has become my salvation; this is my God, and I will praise him, my father’s God, and I will exalt him. The Lord is a warrior; the Lord is his name.” (15:1-13).

The song goes on and on, but you get the picture. Lest we think Moses simply misunderstood God, we have a very clear account of God warning the Israelites before he sent the “destroyer” to kill the firstborn of Egypt (Exod 12). Israel had nothing to do with that except get out of the way. The Divine Warrior flew solo on that mission and no human dare “take the credit” (or blame).

Back to definition. What is violence? The always trusty Oxford English Dictionary defines it as “The exercise of physical force so as to inflict injury on, or cause damage to, persons or property.” Does God injure or damage by physical force? It would be hard to read the OT in such a way that he does not (read 2 Sam 24). So, I would say that God is violent. However, if you notice, the OED definition does not place a value statement on the term, nor does it penetrate to the deeper (emotional?) motive. When we think of “violent” people, we think of out of control, crazy, hateful, angry people (like a disgruntled teenager taking a gun into a school with the intent to kill). Is there ever good violence? That may sound like a contradiction, but I think it is a legitimate question in light of the OED definition. Is there ever good reason to destroy or damage by force? Think of a fireman, having to hack his way through a door or wall to get into a house to save someone. Is that an act of violence? I think it counts (according to OED), but none of us would abhor such an act.

What about a doctor re-breaking a bone that did not heal correctly. Is not damage done? By force? To a person? But we would not treat this as violence.

So what bothers us about violence? It is that often enough it is done gratuitously, meaninglessly, or with evil intent. We naturally associate force with malice when we hear the word “violent.” I may be skewing the discussion, I suppose, by focusing exclusively on the definition from OED. Old Testament scholar Terence Fretheim defines violence as “any action, verbal or nonverbal, oral or written, physical or psychical, active or passive, public or private, individual or institutional/societal, human or divine, in whatever degree of intensity, that abuses, violates, injures, or kills” (see “God and Violence in the OT,” W & W 24.1 (2004): 19).

While Fretheim is sensitive to the fact that violence can be emotional and often involves abuse, the God of the Old Testament clearly still fits this definition in its most basic sense: God sometimes chooses to injure and kill. Just think of when Jacob wrestles with God and his hip is put out of socket (Gen 32:25).

Our problem with conceptualizing God as a violent God is that we think about human violence. We cannot even comprehend human violence that is free from malice, because we naturally see so much hatred and revenge. That does not disqualify the possibility that God is violent with good reason. In Lewis’ enchanting The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, there is a key scene when the Pevensie children are in the company of Mr. and Mrs. Beaver and learn that Aslan (the ruler of Narnia) is a lion and not a human. The Pevensies, new to the Narnian world, ask whether he is “safe.” Mrs. Beaver replies, “if there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else just silly.” Lucy Pevensie, still perplexed, responds, “Then he isn’t safe?” Mr. Beaver chimes in incredulously, “’Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”

So, it is hard to get around the idea that God is violent. However, maybe it is a purposeful violence. For what purpose? We will get to that next time.

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December 1, 2011

The Violent God of the Bible (Part 2)

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

Part II: Justifying the Violent God?

Even as I write that we must admit the God of the Old Testament is violent, that hardly seems a comforting thought. Who wants to worship a violent God, especially in a post-Holocaust era? One conviction Christians must hold, though, is that we must be shaped by the world that Scripture creates and not the other way around. In the same way that people like Hitler distorted the Bible by militarizing it, so those who domesticate it of violence undermine its own revelatory power.

Still the question lingers on, even when we are humble enough to submit ourselves to Scripture’s message fully, could God have not avoided violence? This question leads into the first of three points I wish to make about the violent God of the Old Testament and understanding his purposes in taking forceful action.

The first point I wish to underscore is that, while we may idealize a quiet and placid God and heaven, warring gods were par-for-the-course in the Ancient Near East. In fact, in comparison to surrounding nations’ religious texts, the Old Testament seems rather PG-rated. Let me offer an example.

The creation scene we have in Genesis 1 and 2 is one of a single God creating a good world. Imagine the potter in his home studio, classical music playing in the background, and there is a sense of serenity and peace as he shapes clay in rhythmic fashion. Compare that to the Babylonians’ Enuma Elish myth of creation which involves, from quite early on, warring and raging gods that trick, plot against, and take revenge on each other. In these stories, the gods model hostile forms of evil for humans.

In the story of Genesis 1-11, we find a different conception. In seminary, we read a book with the apt title: Not the Way It's Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin (Cornelius Plantinga). Sin invaded God’s good creation and was not a part of the original plan. Violence is not the way its supposed to be. The story of Cain is really the first act of violence in the Bible. To call God “violent” is not to say that he is that by nature and was just waiting for an opportunity for his personality to surface (as in when God judges Korah and his conspirators by having the earth swallow them up; see Num 26:10). Perhaps he is violent because we (as humans) started a pattern of destructive force and he needed to intervene.

There is another option that some take to “get God off the hook,” as it were. You could take the deist’s position that all violence is only human violence and God sits in peace up in heaven. However, then we don’t have the Christian (or Jewish) God anymore, because our God is deeply invested in matters on earth. The incarnation of Jesus is surely a sign of God’s involvement in this world, but so is his active approach to judgment and justice.

Could God not just snap his finger or wave his magic wand and make our violence go away? Entertaining these kinds of thoughts could lead into infinite absurdity. If God wanted to solve problems this way, he didn’t need Israel at all, or Jesus as a human on earth, or the cross, or the church, and on and on. He chose a redemptive plan that actively involved working together with humans (like Noah, or Abraham, or Moses, or David, etc.). I think of the decision in the Lord of the Rings of leaving the world’s fate in the hands of hobbits. It is a risk. They are small and weak. For all its benefits, it has its challenges as well.

This leads to a second point I want to offer. John Goldingay, another Old Testament scholar, puts forward the theory that God (in the OT) is willing to accommodate to the methods and manner of the times and culture, to work towards the progress of his redemptive plan. Goldingay puts it this way,

[Becoming a divine warrior] is a price Yhwh pays for being involved with Israel as an ordinary people in the world. Eventually Yhwh will give up being involved with Israel in that way…In that period [with Israel], how else can you live when Amalek attacks? What else is Israel supposed to do? Is it supposed to lie down and die, unless God intervenes miraculously? (Old Testament Theology: Israel's Gospel, 345)

That does not mean that God simply strikes out willy-nilly, in the kind of petty, self-seeking ways that humans so often do. Rather, even if we call it accommodation, it is never violence without cause. It is a violence that has purpose in the world after “The Fall.” Old Testament scholars tend to refer to this as counter-violence. Walter Brueggemann writes this:

[T]he violence undertaken by Yahweh as warrior is not characteristically blind or unbridled violence. It is rather an act of force that aims to defend and give life to the powerless against demonic power that aims to give life to none (Old Testament Theology: An Introduction, 79).

This is the third point. The kind of counter-violence indicative of God’s activity never stands independently, but always in relationship to a world out of control. When God acts in violence it is, in Brueggemann's words, “to undermine and destabilize other violence.” (OT Theology, 244)

What Brueggemann and others are getting at is that God’s purposes involve bringing a chaotic world to order. Some might use the word “judgment” here, but we could also refer to this as “justice.” God wants to set things right — to be “just,” and he desires for his world to be “just” (read Jeremiah 7:1–7). We may wince when we read in Deuteronomy 32:35 that God says “Vengeance is mine,” but the apostle Paul takes this to mean that we should leave the “righting of wrongs through force” to God alone and not retaliate against our enemies. Paul was not trying to “trump” the OT with pacifistic love. I am sure that he would have seen this as to heart of the Mosaic covenant of Israel “Do not say, ‘I will repay evil’; wait for the Lord, and he will help you” (Prov 20:22).

If we can admit that the God of the OT is violent (without malice), and that his heart is only for justice and for fulfilling his wider plan of redemption to restore the kind of peace indicative of pre-fall creation, what about the New Testament? After all, doesn’t Jesus say “turn the other cheek”? How might the cross re-imagine the problem of violence in the world and God’s own violent approach to justice? Could it be that the cross is the end of God’s forceful mode of justice? Does the cross eliminate counter-violence? How?

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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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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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