In the opening chapter of his book, Fight, Preston Sprinkle writes:
…what has shocked me … is how outraged Christians get toward those who disagree with them on [how one should respond to warfare and violence]. If you ever want to stir up your Bible study, ask the other people if it’d be okay to join the military, kill an intruder, or assassinate Hitler if you had the chance. Ask them if they wept or cheered when bin Laden was killed. The question themselves make people angry. I’ve dealt with many issues over the years- free will and election, spiritual gifts, the end times- but I have never seen such heated discussions erupt as when issues of war, violence, and nationalism come up. Never. Disagreement over these issues pricks something deep in the heart of us.
Needless to say, Sprinkle is poignantly correct. I have personally experienced the backlash of moving away from a futurist view of eschatology, but there is nothing like getting in a debate with an American Christian when it comes to violence. It can quickly evolve from a disagreement over the Bible to a matter of nationalistic pride and vigor; something us Americans tend to take very seriously.
It’s because of this that I’ve learned to be more graceful in the way I present my views and theories, but even still, I am constantly faced with people telling me that living a life of non-violence may be “nice in theory, but useless in practicality”. I mean, if we don’t fight against the bad guys, who will protect America? Who will defend justice and honor? Do we really want to let the lives shed for this country be in vain?
While I understand the sentiments of these questions (and others), the one thing that I keep returning to is Jesus on the Cross. According to Paul in 1 Corinthians, the cross is foolishness to those that do not understand God, yet to Christians, it is a demonstration of His power (1:18).
Think on that for a minute.
The cross: the self-sacrificing event when God-in-flesh gave up his own body in order to redeem mankind, to disarm the principalities and powers of this world…
This is the power of God.
In Paul’s mind, it was not when the entire universe was created, nor was it when God flooded the world, separated the waters for Moses, or even the walls of Jericho fell. It was when his own blood was shed in order to preserve and sanctify the blood of the people of this world. I don’t know about you, but this verse gives me chills. And I’m not complaining.
To be fair, I haven’t always thought this way. Growing up in an LDS household, there was never a dichotomy between military and faith. Both of my parents served in the Air Force, and in the fall of 2012, I had considered joining as a chaplain. I was raised with the knowledge that there were guns in the house, and I even went to a few firing ranges when I was younger and enjoyed it. I spent several years wrestling in school, not to mention nearly getting in a fight at church when a kid was mocking me for not being “worthy” to take the sacrament. (I also remember my dad saying that if I had beaten him up, he wouldn’t have been mad at me.)
So when I became a Protestant in 2009, there was no reason for me to change my mind on this matter. The pastors I did read/listen to had no problem with violence; Mark Driscoll seems to thrive on the idea that he can’t beat up Jesus, and John Piper believes that it is “right for God to slaughter women and children anytime he pleases. God gives life and he takes life. Everybody who dies, dies because God wills that they die.” Even C.S. Lewis has a chapter in The Weight of Glory dedicated to why just war is supported by Christian ethics. So yeah, I never really gave it much thought. I never planned on hurting anyone, but I had no problem with the thought of having a gun in case someone broke into my home. (Granted, I would have tried to aim for his knees rather than a killing shot, but still.)
The change in my life didn’t come from a pastor or author, however. Even after reading The Cost of Discipleship, I thought that Bonhoeffer was an incredible example of how Christians should live, but I mean, he eventually tried to kill Hitler; being a pacifist doesn’t work when you have people like Hitler in the world. The change actually came when I had to choose a research paper topic for my Intermediate Writing class, and I decided to write on hell. Although the paper was not centered on the violence aspects of eschatological judgment, doing these studies began to open my eyes to how the two are related, and it was a jarring experience, to say the least. Here’s the second to last paragraph:
To those who do believe in a Hell that consists of eternal punishment and torment, however, it is very beneficial for them to see how this plays out practically in their lives, whether in their homes or in their political endeavors. According to a New York Times article published on January 20, 2006 by Charles Marsh, “87 percent of all white evangelical Christians in the United States” agreed with President Bush’s decision to enter into war, whereas “recent polls indicate that 68 percent of white evangelicals” are still in agreement that the war at the time was justifiable. What this means in practicality is that even though a large majority of these people believe Hell is eternal and an undesirable place to end up at, they are still willing to support a war against a strongly non-Christian area of the world, which means that for every person there that dies without believing in Jesus receives a full-ride to Hell, not to mention any soldiers in the American Army that die without faith in Jesus as their Lord and Savior, as well. This year, a survey showed that approximately half of the nation is pro-life in relation to abortion, a view held by many Christians, which means that while these Christians are pro-life in relation to American unborn children, their choice of being pro-war results in the death of any child that is killed in the process of war. Factor in American Christian’s 74% support of the death penalty, and one may see that for a people who claim that Hell is evil, there is a glaring contradiction in their beliefs and their attempts to save people from this impending doom.
While I would nuance a few of those statements after a year of reflection and learning (hindsight is 20/20, after all), the point still remains that although we as American Christians use war and violence as means of self-preservation, we are, inevitably, ending the lives of others; lives of people that are still made in the image of God, despite religious beliefs, social conditions, etc. This, when coupled with the idea that we are to “give up our lives for Jesus” and “die to ourselves”, seems to be contradictory, especially when Jesus is our “example” and he willingly laid his life down for his enemies (note: us).
With this mindset in tow, reading the Bible was a new experience for me. Although I was initially haunted by the violent, God-endorsed happenings in the Old Testament, I was confident in John’s testimony that knowing Jesus was knowing the Father; that the author of Hebrews was right in saying that the Son is the perfect representation of who God is. This isn’t to say that the Old Testament isn’t reliable, or that these violent events didn’t happen, but that everything needed to be filtered through who God is, and we see that most clearly on the cross.
Think about it this way: if you were to read Lord of the Rings, beginning with the Hobbit, with no foreknowledge of the plot and/or ending, you might be a bit confused in why Bilbo let Gollum live. This is drawn out immensely in The Fellowship of the Ring, when Frodo becomes exasperated over his uncle’s mercy towards Gollum.
“But this is terrible!” cried Frodo. “Far worse than the worst that I imagined from your hints and warnings. O Gandalf, best of friends, what am I to do? For now I am really afraid. What am I to do? What a pity that Bilbo did not stab that vile creature, when he had the chance!”
“Pity? It was Pity that stayed his hand. Pity, and Mercy; not to strike without need. And he has been well rewarded, Frodo. Be sure that he took so little hurt from the evil, and escaped in the end, because he began his ownership of the Ring so. With Pity.”
“I am sorry,” said Frodo. “But I am frightened; and I do not feel any pity for Gollum.”
“You have not seen him,” Gandalf broke in.
“No, and I don’t want to,” said Frodo. “I can’t understand you. Do you mean to say that you, and the Elves, have let him live on after all those horrible deeds? Now at any rate he is as bad as an Orc, and just an enemy. He deserves death.”
“Deserves it! I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends.”
Now, I’m not quoting this simply because Gandalf seems to be saying something that supports my views here. Rather, it’s because while Bilbo’s act may not make sense at this point, it becomes more than clear at the end of The Return of the King.
“Well, this is the end, Sam Gamgee,” said a voice by his side. And there was Frodo, pale and worn, and yet himself again; and in his eyes there was peace now, neither strain of will, nor madness, nor any fear. His burden was taken away. There was the dear master of the sweet days in the Shire.
“Master!” cried Sam, and fell upon his knees. In all that ruin of the world for the moment he felt only joy, great joy. The burden was gone. His master had been saved; he was himself again, he was free. And then Sam caught sight of the maimed and bleeding hand.
“Your poor hand!” he said. “And I have nothing to bind it with, or comfort it. I would have spared him a whole hand of mine rather. But he’s gone now beyond recall, gone forever.”
“Yes,” said Frodo. “But do you remember Gandalf’s words: Even Gollum may have something yet to do? But for him, Sam, I could not have destroyed the Ring. The Quest would have been in vain, even at the bitter end. So let us forgive him! For the Quest is achieved, and now all is over. I am glad you are here with me. Here at the end of all things, Sam.”
The reason I bring all of this up is because when anyone starts the Lord of the Rings series for the first time, this entire story is new to them. Even with potential spoilers, the way Tolkien weaves you in and out of the canon of Middle-Earth keeps you on your toes and doesn’t let you hold onto your assumptions too tightly (as we have seen with Gollum). Nevertheless, once you are finished with the book, the entire story changes for you. You don’t look back at the events from before in the same light, and you surely wouldn’t read the books again with the same “naiveté”, so to speak, as you had before. To do so would be irresponsible and hinder you from gaining anymore insight from the books in front of you.
In the same way, this is what the cross does for Christians. We look at the Old Testament (and life in general) with the knowledge that Jesus is the perfect revelation of God’s character, and that even though there may be things we don’t understand, we do know what God desires for us, and it is to love as God loves; to love the way Jesus did on the cross.
To me, this puts everything in a new light. The Beatitudes go from rules that people will inevitably fail (as some Christians view them) to being announcements of “the arrival of the kingdom of God”; as our “Bill of Rights”, so to speak. Things are changing, Jesus is saying, and this is what it looks like to be God’s people. It matters no longer where you were born or how well you keep the law, but in the way you love God and others, and this comes from making peace and living self-sacrificially.
Even the idea of the cross was transformed for me. Instead of being the moment where God was the most “wrathful”, we see God shedding divine blood in order to redeem mankind. As Paul so beautifully wrote, “God was reconciling the world to himself in the Messiah, not counting their transgressions against them. […] The Messiah did not know sin, but God made him to be sin on our behalf, so that in him we might embody God’s faithfulness to the covenant” (2 Corinthians 5:19, 21, KNT, emphasis mine).
There is no wrath here. Only love. And according to the author if 1 John, “This is how we know love: he laid down his life for us. And we too ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters” (3:16).
To be honest, I originally considered writing an article where I argued against every scripture/idea (that I knew of) that promoted “violence”, but honestly, I no longer have the energy or desire to do so. I’ve found that while deconstruction is necessary for learning, there are people out there that do a much better job at that than I do, and I’m okay with that. Rather, the reason I’m writing this is because I believe there are very good reasons to adopt a lifestyle of non-violence, even though it may not seem to be logical.
I mean, I do understand the logic. We want to have the freedom to protect our families (and ourselves) when danger comes our way. We like the liberties we have here in America, and if anyone threatens that, we obviously feel the need to retaliate. And let’s face it: there are definitely people that are morally corrupt in this world. There is justice that needs to happen, and for some people, the method is through violence. I get it.
But the thing I don’t understand is we always talk about how Christianity “doesn’t make sense”. We go on and on about how the world “just doesn’t understand”, and according to the passage I quoted at the beginning in 1 Corinthians, the cross is foolishness, so one would be right in saying that Christian beliefs aren’t going to be logical. However, the element Paul is coupling with foolishness isn’t just Christianity: it’s the fact that even though Rome and the Pharisees thought they had won by crucifying the “so-called” Messiah, that even though Jesus refused to raise a finger against them, God ultimately vindicated Jesus by raising Him from the dead.
God had the last word in that argument, and it was that even though the powers and authorities of the world used violence to “win”, it would be an act of self-sacrifice that would truly triumph.
All I ask is that through this article, you reflect on the way you love people. If we believe that everyone is made in the image of God, then that should make us pause in whether we want to lay a finger against them or not. If we believe that we are called to “lay our lives down for the Lord”, then why are we more willing to end someone else’s life than give up our own? If we believe in the idea of an afterlife that is defined by eternal, conscious torment, then why are we supporting decisions that make life hell for people, here and later? If we are “already saved”, then wouldn’t it be more cruel to seal the fate of someone else’s salvation compared to extending grace and mercy? And, most importantly, if our greatest commands are to love God and to love our fellow man, then how can we do that by hurting and killing another? If Jesus died for all mankind and showed us that we have a worth that is beyond comprehension, then can we really say that our life is more important than anyone else’s?
At the end of the day, I side with Walter Wink when he says, “So while I do not believe that Christians have a vocation for violence, and should actively oppose its use, we are also not permitted to sit in judgment over those who resort to violence. God can take care of that.” Everything I’ve written here is meant to inspire genuine and somber reflection and prayer. I’m not an apologist by any means, but I’ve seen the fruit of violence in my own life, and I can say that there is more joy to be found when I make peace and not war. I know not all of you will agree with me on this, and that is fine. Again. All I ask is that you consider what I have written here and deeply pray about it. This topic is so much more than just being “theologically correct”. It’s about the way we love others and proclaim that Jesus is Lord.
“My kingdom isn’t the sort that grows in this world,” replied Jesus. “If my kingdom were from this world, my supporters would have fought to stop me from being handed over to the Judaeans. So, then, my kingdom is not the sort that comes from here.” (John 18:36, KNT)
 I still believe that Bonhoeffer never did attempt to assassinate Hitler, despite the claims that he did. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/jesuscreed/2013/10/28/bonhoeffer-was-he-really-involved-in-the-attempt-to-kill-hitler/
 Zylstra, S. (2008). “Capital doubts.” Christian Century,52 (3). 20.
 Tolkien, J.R.R. (1984*). The fellowship of the ring. New York: Ballantine Books. 92-93
 Tolkien, J.R.R. (1984*) The return of the king. New York: Ballantine Books. 276-277
 Zahnd, B. (2012). Beauty will save the world. **: Passio Publishing. 186.
 Which I don’t.
 Wink, W. (2003). Jesus and nonviolence: A third way. Minneapolis: Fortress Press. 86.
* My editions don’t make it clear when they were published.
** I cannot find the physical address for Passio Publishing, but they’re a subset of Charisma. If anyone could provide this information, that would be appreciated!