This week the American president introduced a freakish new term, "Fire and Fury", that echoed ominously around the world.
It wasn't much different to the previous term, "Shock and Awe" or any of the other slick euphemisms governments use to justify killing the people of other nations.
And the overall Christian response was pretty much the same: ho-hum - almost complete indifference.
Some Christian leaders even endorsed the proposed violence.
Let me put this in context: the very group that prides itself on being pro-LIFE, barely uttered a word against the notion of potentially killing thousands of people by dropping bombs on another nation.
Where are the Christian leaders today who will speak out prophetically like Martin Luther King Jr. who said, “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today is my own government.” ? (The US dropped 26,171 bombs last year alone.)
King observed, “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”
King spoke in the tradition of the original guru of non-violence - Jesus (also known by his street name, The Prince of Peace).
When Jesus' disciples wanted to open up a can of Whoop-ass on their enemies, by calling for Fire and Fury to fall on a town in Samaria, Jesus strongly REBUKED them (Lk 9:55).
Jesus was not at all cool about dropping bombs, fire or fury on anyone. In fact, he rebukes those who suggest such a thing, because he offers another, better way - the way of sacrificial enemy love.
As my buddy, Carlos A. Rodriguez, says in grappling with this passage, "The only way to defeat ...radical extremism is to love radically."
When I was working in inner city Vancouver, Canada, violence was an issue. One of my friends, who I'll call Jimmy, was a former "Enforcer" for the street gangs. If you didn't pay your debts, Jimmy was the one to show up at your door swinging a baseball bat.
So, when Jimmy became a Christian, it was quite a turnaround - in MANY interesting ways. And as I walked alongside Jimmy, we ended up having a whole bunch of conversations about the place of violence in a Christian's life.
Jimmy had a lot of questions and so did I, and maybe you do too.
So, here are 3 of the most common ones we all grapple with - the usual reasons that Christians use to justify violence, despite Jesus' command to love our enemies...
1. But God was pretty blood-thirsty in the Old Testament, wasn't he?
Didn't God encourage His people to destroy other nations left, right and centre in the Good Old Days?
Good question. Let's take a look at that shall we...
God was dealing with a people who had completely given themselves over to violence. You killed my cow? I will slaughter your whole herd man - and then I'll kill all your chickens just for good measure!
So, just as God allowed divorce though it was not His will, He began to move them away from unlimited violence towards limited violence, and ultimately (in Jesus) to non-violence.
In the Old Testament, God gave the Hebrew people a clever limitation - to take only ONE eye for an eye, ONE tooth for a tooth, in order to reign in the blood lust that erupted whenever his people sought revenge.
He started by limiting their violence. But He wasn't content to stop there...
Later, Jesus brought a new commandment in the same Spirit — “You have heard it said, an eye for an eye - BUT I SAY TO YOU - love your enemies...turn the other cheek...do good to those who persecute you...” He was inviting them to embrace non-violence.
Clearly the commandments are not the same, but as Dave Andrews writes:
“the intent behind both of these different commands was the same—and that was to limit the level of retaliation taken in a world caught up in relentless cycles of revenge.”
From the Old Testament, to the coming of Jesus in the New Testament, God was moving his people over time from unlimited violence, to limited violence, to non-violence. That is the pathway we see through the Bible. And it's the pathway we are invited to take as Christians.
So, whenever we have any confusion or doubt, we don't look backwards, but we look forwards to Jesus - ahead of us on that pathway - as the very best picture we have of God. Cos Jesus trumps everything else.
2. But it's only right to defend ourselves. Do you want me to be a doormat?
In first-century Palestine, Jesus and his people suffered under the oppression of the brutally violent Roman Empire. If anyone had a right to defend themselves violently it was the people listening to Jesus.
Yet Jesus did not confront his enemies by riding into Jerusalem on a military-style war horse (as they were expecting), but on a humble donkey. He did not teach his followers to seek revenge when they were wronged, but to “Love your enemies... For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it."
One of the greatest lies about non-violence is that it means we need to become a doormat. That we should just roll over and let folks do whatever they want to us. Or even worse, stand by while atrocities are being carried out against the weak.
Jesus would HATE that idea. Time and time again he called out injustice, he turned over tables, he railed against exploitation - and he taught his followers creative ways to interrupt injustice.
The notion that our only two choices are violence or passivity betrays the true failure of our imagination. What we need now are Christians radically committed to sacrificial, creative, non-violent interventions in situations of war and injustice. We need to be active. We need to be direct. And we need to be non-violent.
(Or as one wise man puts it, “It is only when a mosquito lands on your testicles that you realize there is ALWAYS a creative way to solve a problem without violence.”)
3. But governments can do what individual Christians can't, right?
Clearly many Christians today are happy for their government to have blood-soaked hands on their behalf - and even to proudly serve the interests of that military.
A 2009 Pew Research poll found that 6-in-10 white American Evangelicals support their government's use of torture.
But this compartmentalized stance is actually a modern position, that we imagine allows us to have our cake and eat it too. Killing is forbidden, BUT if you are working for the government then anything goes, right?
The earliest followers of Jesus discouraged military service by Christians and were committed to pacifism. These were the very people who had sat under Jesus' teachings and tried to apply them in their own lives and vocations - sometimes as government servants.
Read here a collection of quotes on violence from the earliest church leaders and make up your own mind. Here are a few to consider:
"We no longer take ‘sword against a nation,’ nor do we learn ‘any more to make war,’ having become sons of peace for the sake of Jesus..."
~ Origen (185AD – 254AD)
"The professions and trades of those who are going to be accepted into the community must be examined. The nature and type of each must be established… brothel, sculptors of idols, charioteer, athlete, gladiator…give it up or be rejected. A military constable must be forbidden to kill, neither may he swear; if he is not willing to follow these instructions, he must be rejected. A proconsul or magistrate who wears the purple and governs by the sword shall give it up or be rejected. Anyone taking or already baptized who wants to become a soldier shall be sent away, for he has despised God.”
~ Hippolytus (170AD – 236AD)
“You cannot demand military service of Christians any more than you can of priests. We do not go forth as soldiers with the Emperor even if he demands this.”
~ Origen (185AD – 254AD)
“If you enroll as one of God’s people, then heaven is your country and God your lawgiver.”
~ Clement of Alexandria (150AD – 214AD)
"It is not right for a Christian to serve the armies of this world.”
~ Mercellus the Centurion, spoken as he left the army of Emperor Diocletian in 298AD.
“Christ, in disarming Peter, disarmed every soldier.”
~ Tertullian (160AD – 220AD)
The earliest Christians were committed not to advancing and protecting the kingdoms of this world, but to God's Kingdom ONLY. Whenever those two things clashed, God's Kingdom and his call to stop killing people was supposed to win.
How far have we modern Christians drifted from that position today?
One day, Jimmy came to me, really worked up because someone had called him a “Fuckin’ Goof.” Now, in Downtown Eastside Vancouver, “goof” is the most offensive insult that anyone could ever use.
When I first moved into the neighbourhood, I thought “goof” sounded trivial, like Dumb-Dumb or Silly-Billy—one of the names little kids call each other in the playground. But people in the Downtown Eastside have been killed over the word “goof.”
I bit my lip, worried about what Jimmy might have done to the poor fool who called him a Goof. “You didn’t…hurt him, did you?”
“Nah—you’ll be real proud of me, Craig. I only punched the guy ONCE in the face.” He beamed proudly. “Just once, Craig! Normally I would beat him to a pulp!”
Jimmy had taken an eye for an eye—no more, no less. I patted him on the back. “Good one Jimmy!”
We celebrated each movement in the right direction—each decision to ‘limit’ violence rather than unleash ‘unlimited violence.’ Over time, as Jimmy embraced ‘limited violence,’ he gradually moved towards the non-violent way that Jesus encouraged his followers to walk.
Jimmy and I walked this journey together, because I was deeply aware of the violence that still lurks in my own heart, ready to erupt at any moment.
As Jesus said, “Blessed are the peace-makers...” For they shall diffuse “situations.”