The death penalty has been on my mind quite a bit lately. One reason is that I am teaching a course on Christian Ethics, and the topic came up as a part of the curriculum. Another reason is that there is a case currently in the headlines about a woman on death row who has, by virtually all accounts, made a complete change in her life and has become a Christian, and has been doing remarkable work with other inmates as she has contact with them. Many, both in the secular and the religious worlds, are working for the commutation of her sentence so that she be spared her execution.
I try to keep abreast of arguments on both sides of this issue. One of my mentors (by distance, and now only through his writings as he has passed away) was an avowed anti-death penalty advocate. I read his arguments closely, and while I agree with some of his logic, there are some other aspects of his (and the entire anti-death penalty movement) that I have great difficulty in accepting. So, I write this post as both a statement of my current position, and as a refutation, or a challenge if you will, of some aspects of the anti-death penalty moment that I would like to see clarified or explained.
As I understand the main theological objection to the death penalty, Jesus established in the Sermon on the Mount, and through later teachings as well, that his disciples are to forgive, are not to employ any means of violence, are not to retaliate in any way, and are to bear with any injustice, all for the sake of the Kingdom of God. This is a strong argument, and cannot be dismissed with the flippant attitude that many pro-death penalty advocates demonstrate. In this line of thinking Jesus has abrogated the Old Testament permission to take “life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth.” While this is a strong argument, I believe there is an inherent flaw – a contradiction that weakens the argument significantly, if not totally.
The primary Old Testament passages relating to capital punishment (especially in relation to murder) are Genesis 9:6, Exodus 21:12-17, and Numbers 35:9-34. There is another key passage that must be included in the discussion, and that is the law relating to false witnesses, Deuteronomy 19:15-21. These passages reveal several critical components of capital punishment that I believe are NOT addressed by many anti-capital punishment advocates.
First, the basis of capital punishment is not revenge, retaliation, or retribution. The basis – the foundation – for the use of the death penalty in the case of murder is that murder violates the nature of God himself. Murder certainly is a violent crime – as is rape and kidnapping, other crimes for which the death penalty could be used. Murder violates the bond of humans in community, as does rape, kidnapping, and the sexual sins for which a person could be executed – adultery, bestiality, even homosexuality. But, while all of these crimes and violations of the Law violated God’s holiness, only the crime of murder violated his nature. Thus, the only crime for which there was no chance for a substitution was the crime of murder (Num. 35:31).
Second, to reverse the rationale or the exercise of capital punishment is to tacitly admit that the God of the Old Testament was a vengeful, angry, violent God, but the God of the New Testament is a kind, loving, forgiving God. It is to tear apart the Trinity – Jehovah is the God of the Old Testament, a warring, violent God; but Jesus is the God of the New Testament, a kind, gentle, forgiving God. This is a separation of the nature of God that I simply cannot accept. God is clearly described in the Old Testament as a forgiving God who seeks the restoration of a broken relationship with man. God is just as clearly described in the New Testament as a God who will ultimately judge the disobedient and unrepentant sinner.
Third, and directly related to the last point, when we turn the God of the New Testament into an exclusively kind, gentle, loving, forgiving God we create a god in our own image. We are just so kind, so loving, so forgiving, so much more mature than those bloodthirsty Israelites that we need a god who looks and acts like us. We need a compassionate god – and a god that condones capital punishment simply will not do. So, we create a new god – an anti-capital punishment god, and we do everything that we can to separate him from the God of the Old Testament. But this is pure idolatry. When we say we worship the God of the Bible, we must let the Bible describe who God is, and then we either accept that God or we reject that God. We cannot create him in our own image.
That leads me to my last point. I have a suspicion that one reason so many are so afraid of allowing that God can still condone the use of capital punishment is that we fear our own punishment. If murder (and other sins, to be perfectly honest) demand the death penalty, then hell is a very real possibility. But, if God utterly and totally reversed himself on that blessed night in Bethlehem when a little baby was born to the virgin Mary, then maybe there really is not a hell after all – how can a God who has abolished the death penalty actually use the ultimate death penalty?
As I said above – I continue to consider this question deeply. I know that in the United States we have employed the death penalty very unevenly and very unjustly. We certainly do not apply the penalty as it is described in the Bible. To pause for a season to make sure our system does not perpetrate the sins of our past is a wise move. However, our very human and very broken use of the penalty does not in and of itself eliminate the just and proper use of the penalty.
I am certainly open to the possibility that Jesus did, in fact, abolish the use of capital punishment. However, in order for me to be fully convinced, the objections that I have raised above must be answered. If murder in particular so violated the nature of a life creating and sustaining God, and if God in his divine justice system created such an explicit and carefully nuanced method of determining guilt and the protection of the innocent, how can we, as mere mortals, claim that justice system is unfair? Is it not OUR system that is unfair?
Just another flight through the thick fog of our broken humanity, and trying to see the light of God’s word clearly and faithfully.
Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good. (Romans 12:9, NRSV)
My thoughts turn to a dark theme today – Christians who hate. I have been tasked with a speaking engagement that really has made me do some thinking. It is obvious in this world there are many who claim to be followers of Christ who hate. Many of these, regrettably, stand behind pulpits and lecterns every Sunday morning. With the blessing of leaders who hate, is it any wonder that we are creating more generations of “Christians” who hate?
When challenged with such an accusation many who fit the above description would respond sharply, “Well, in the Bible we are told to hate that which is evil and cling to that which is good.” Their quotation of Scripture is far better than their exegesis. How do I know, you ask? Well, for one thing, take a look at what they hate:
- Democrats, especially Barak Obama, Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid. Many “Christians” have a pathological hatred of the leadership of the Democratic party.
- Anyone who is pro-choice. You obviously cannot be pro-choice and be a Christian, therefore I am fully empowered to hate anyone who is pro-choice.
- Dare I add anyone who sees homosexuality differently than I do?
- Anyone who sees common sense efforts to curb gun violence as being a worthwhile endeavor. Because God so clearly established the 2nd Amendment to the Constitution, if you want to challenge that inspired legislation you are obviously worthy of my hatred.
- In fact, anyone who can be labeled as a “pacifist” is deserving of my hatred, because God specifically created the American Armed Forces to be his “sword of Gideon.”
- And, let us not forget that we are fully permitted to hate those of other religious groups, even and especially those who consider themselves to be “Christian,” if they do not fit my definition of what it means to be a Christian. Everybody knows the Pope is the anti-christ, right? Who can I hate if I cannot hate people who refuse to interpret the Bible the way I do?
Do you see a common theme here? I have heard, and overheard, conversations where people who fit in these categories (and more!) are viciously excoriated – all with the assumed blessing of God because we are commanded to “hate what is evil and cling to that which is good.”
It is beyond comprehensible to me that people who quote (either verbatim or in spirit) Romans 12:9 are so totally unaware of the context in which the passage is found. Note, for example, how Paul begins the chapter:
I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect. For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. (Romans 12:1-3, NRSV)
Did you catch that? Did you see how Paul begins this new section (Paul clearly wants these verses to be the beginning of a new section, cf. 11:33-36)? Present your bodies as a sacrifice to God. Do not be conformed to this world; be transformed. Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment. Then, in v. 9, let love be genuine, hate what is evil, cling to the good – which Paul clearly states in v. 2 is the will of God!
That which we are to hate has nothing to do with other people! We are to hate the powers and the destructive tendencies in our own lives that make our actions putrid in God’s sight. All of these issues are inwardly directed, not outwardly directed! If we cannot see this in Paul’s intention, maybe we can see it if he makes it blatantly clear:
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. (Romans 12:14, NRSV)
Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all (Romans 12:17, NRSV)
Do not be overcome with evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:21)
You see, those “Christians” who hate Democrats, Pro-lifers, Pacifists and Popes all stand self-condemned, and the great tragedy is that they will go to their judgment thinking that they have followed God’s command to “hate what is evil.” That’s what Saul of Tarsus thought too, until God gave him three days of pitch black quietness to think things over (Acts 9:1-9).
So, the next time you are tempted to “hate” anything – stop and take a really long, hard look at the object/person/situation that you are supposed to hate. It might be that God is actually calling on you to be a blessing to that person/situation instead of hating it.
For our own soul’s salvation, it is at least worth considering.
9.11 is always a tough day for me. A dozen years ago I was a pilot. I was flying an FAA mandated check ride, flying between Albuquerque and Las Cruces, NM. We, my check pilot and I, had overheard some chatter about some planes hitting some towers, but with only one ear on the radio and never once considering that the “towers” were anything more than some radio towers we never even turned the radio up.
What a difference 15 minutes can make.
I’ve blogged about this before, and probably will every year. 9.11 changed everything – the way we navigated, the way we identified ourselves in the air, the way we thought about airplanes. It even changed what we as pilots could carry onto our airplanes.
You would think, if you were a sober person and not intoxicated with the wine of global superiority, that in the dozen years since 9.11.01 we would have learned a thing or two about making and keeping peace. But you would be wrong. We are just as war mongering today, if not more so, than we were 12 years and 1 day ago.
Even as I type this our “Nobel Peace Prize” winning president, the Grand Poobah of stupidity, is preparing to throw the United States headlong into another senseless civil/religious war that we have no business getting involved with. Adolf Hitler was wrong on so many things, but on one thing he is reported to have said he was absolutely correct. Every generation needs its own war. It seems even winning a Nobel Peace Prize does not keep a power hungry maniac from starting his own war.
So, every 12 months America will pause to remember the tragedy of 9.11.01, and every year hundreds, if not thousands, of young men and women will put on the uniform of the United States Army, Marines, Navy, Air Force and National Guard. They will train relentlessly with the most up-to-date methods for exterminating entire nations of people. Our politicians will strut like a bunch of little Bantam Roosters and throw around empty phrases like, “preserve the peace” and “defend our nation’s honor,” all the while being complicit in the deaths of thousands of innocent civilians a half a world away whose only crime is that they live in a different country and speak a different language.
There is no national honor in killing children and old people with guided missiles shot from unmanned arial drones.
We live in a schizophrenic country. We claim to follow the Prince of Peace, the crucified Lord of life, and yet our most fervent prayers and most solemn national holidays all revolve around our ability to kill soldiers of other nations. The closest holidays we have that might possibly relate to spiritual thoughts are now all about football and “Black Friday” and greed and consumerism. There is not enough Christianity in modern day celebrations of Thanksgiving and Christmas combined to fill up a decent sized worship service. And that is being generous.
So, to make a too-long post even longer, every year I remember 9.11.01 – but not in the way that most people do. I observe it with regret; regret that we have not learned any valuable lessons from that horrible day. Regret that I, too, was sucked into a poisonous nationalism. Regret that our civil leaders will still send young men and women to their deaths for no other purpose but to buttress a “national honor” that has become tarnished. Regret that after 12 years we still have to carry bright young men and women home in stainless steel coffins covered with an American flag.
We need those young people at home. We need them to be safe. We need them to be working on principles of peace rather than strategies of death.
9.11.13 – God, in your infinite wisdom and your immeasurable patience, please give us the courage to follow your Son and his way of the cross. We need that message today more than at any time in history. We are so close to destroying not only ourselves, but this incredible world you have given us. Lord, as in the days of your servant Jeremiah, please bless us with a humiliating defeat so that we may once again learn to trust only in you. Humble us, strip us, starve us until our bodies and our souls long only after you. And then, having chastened us with a pure and holy love, please restore us to your healing presence, for it is only in you that we live, and move, and have our very being.
I read just this morning, via an Associated Press story, that both the United States Senate Armed Services Committee and the House of Representatives Armed Services Committee have passed legislation that bars the military leadership in the Pentagon from closing any more military bases/installations (at least in the United States, I am not sure if that includes foreign bases or not.)
Sometimes I, ever the most loquacious one, am struck utterly and profoundly speechless.
Here we have the grand poobahs of boom-boom and bang-bang saying they don’t need all the guns, tanks, planes, ships and runways that we currently are paying to keep shooting and flying and swishing around in the oceans. So, the military brass says, “Hey congress, you guys are short on money, here is a win-win situation – you get to keep more money and we get to off-load some extraneous stuff we no longer need.”
And the Senate and House of Representative knuckle-heads join together in one unified chorus and yell back, “Put your proposal in the garbage disposal.”
All across America countless heads are bowing in thanks and countless “amens” are heard as people realize that their precious army, navy or marine base will stay open, at least for the next few years. And the reason why – well, its the economy, stupid.
You see, even though the country is experiencing billion dollar annual deficits and we are buried in trillions of dollars in debt, we cannot afford to give up our military. We need to create, maintain, and endlessly practice using the implements of death in order to live.
Sometimes hypocrisy is so blatant even the most hardened cynics cannot see it. Thankfully, since apparently cynicism is one of my specialties, I am immune to this particular form of blindness.
Just stop and think about it for a minute. Every Sunday, if not every single day, thousands, if not millions, of prayers are offered up in the name of the Prince of Peace begging the God of all reconciliation to please end all wars and “bring the boys home safely.” We pray for our leaders to make wise decisions about the use of our tax dollars. We pray for love and charity to overwhelm the powers of hate and evil.
And we scream like a bunch of scalded dogs when the military suggests that we no longer need the base down the street. (I was going to use more colorful language, but decided against it.)
Christian brothers and sisters – can we not stop and think about this for a moment? Of what earthly or heavenly good does it do to pray for peace, of what earthly or heavenly good does it do for us to pray that God end all wars if we proudly and stubbornly refuse to turn our swords into plows? And why, among all peoples, are disciples of Christ among the most vociferous defenders of our killing machines?
Can we not, just for a moment, stop and think about the mixed message we are sending?
In the name of everything that is high and holy – can we not see the blatant hypocrisy here? Christians should be the ones begging for guns and tanks and planes and ships to be mothballed. Turn them into museum pieces. Tell our children what it used to be like when men and women had to go to war and actually kill each other. Instead of this ridiculous love affair we have with our modern day “horse and chariot,” should we not be learning to lean upon the outstretched arm and mighty hand of God? (Consider the book of Isaiah if you need Biblical evidence.)
We just observed the 69th anniversary of the D-Day invasion of the beaches of Normandy. I do not think the men who died on those beaches, nor the men who survived, were fighting so that their children, their grand-children, and their great-grandchildren would be caught up in an endless cycle of war-truce-war. I believe they fought so that their descendants would never have to fight again. In my most benevolent spirit I believe every war veteran comes home saying the same thing, “May God grant us the wisdom to never go to war again.” Maybe I am wrong. Maybe scarred war veterans actually want their sons and daughters to experience the hell of seeing their buddies die in unfathomable ways.
But, dear Christian brothers and sisters, as long as disciples of Christ are the ones who are most loudly beating the war drums and demanding that the military spend money it does not have on products it no longer needs, there will be no peace. And at some point another generation of young men, and now women, will be sacrificed to the god Mars.
Are we not a smarter people than that? If not smarter, are we not more faithful?
“Why are you afraid?” Jesus asked. “Have you no faith?” (Mark 4:40)
June 6 1944. D-Day. The day the world had been waiting for what seemed like an eternity. Hitler and his minions had been stopped at the English Channel, but for how long? Would the war sink into another interminable volley of punch and counter-punch, or would one side finally gain the upper hand? The allies had carefully planned this day for months, and had been practicing for weeks. Literally thousands of army, marine, navy and air force troops would face their destiny on this day. All of the remaining pictures of that day are old and grainy. Nothing can accurately or adequately describe those harrowing hours.
Every day now we lose dozens of those brave men who turned the tide of the war against tyranny. Soon all we will have left are those old grainy pictures and the written words of those who survived. We have not done a good job of carrying the memory of those war years forward. History has a way of washing over the past and distorting the reality of what occurred. World War II was masked by the Korean “conflict” and that was further distorted by the Vietnam “war” which was never really declared a war. Now we have “operations” – not wars. We had Operation Desert Shield which became Operation Desert Storm. Then we had Operation Iraqi Freedom. The current commander-in-chief does not even want to use the word “operation.” He just launches missiles from secret drones in what is referred to as “surgical strikes” to kill suspected terrorists.
Everything has become so neat, so tidy. Notice the progression. We went from “war” to “conflict” to “police action” to “operation” to “surgical strikes.” We are not fighting wars or killing people now, we are becoming world wide surgeons, removing diseased or vestigial organs.
And every year the memory of June 6, 1944 fades a little deeper into the collective amnesia of a nation. That day was not neat. It was not tidy. It was not surgical. It was brutal – hell on earth. When the last army private, the last paratrooper, the last sailor who survived the “day of days” finally passes from this life an entire generation will be gone. A generation that was called upon to make a genuine sacrifice, and a generation that heard and answered the call.
I hate war. I hate the thought of war. I hate what war does to people – both soldier and civilian. But I stand in honor of those men who stepped out of those airplanes and who crawled down those rope ladders into those landing craft on that foggy June 6 morning. For so many it would be the last morning they would see.
And I am alive and breathe the air of freedom because of what they were able to accomplish that day – and for basically the entire next year. I cannot fathom their courage. I cannot comprehend their strength.
But I can honor them.
And the best way I know how to honor them is to teach that we should never again be faced with the need for another June 6. Let’s pray that we can rise above the insane desire to destroy ourselves through another world wide war. Or, another surgical strike, for that matter.
Just Peacemaking: The New Paradigm for the Ethics of Peace and War (Cleveland: The Pilgrim Press, 2008) 234 pages including end notes.
I have not mastered the art of making proficient book reviews. If you have read any of my other reviews they are basically extended comments about why you should obtain the book for yourself. A proper book review includes summaries of the author(s) main arguments and an evaluation of the strengths and weaknesses of the book. Like I said, I’ve never really been taught how to do that exceptionally well, and I’m lazy to boot. But, that having been said, I will try to evaluate this book a little more carefully.
How is that for brevity? I was guided in a study of Dietrich Bonhoeffer by Dr. Stassen as a part of my Doctor of Ministry work at Fuller Theological Seminary. I read and loved his Kingdom Ethics. I appreciated his Living the Sermon on the Mount although it was written on a much more popular level and I felt like he oriented the book a little too much toward the popular reader. I was excited to purchase this book, which Dr. Stassen edited, as a continuation of his discussion on the importance of “Just Peacemaking” in a world that has basically gone mad.
This book simply disappointed on so many levels. I will attempt to share with you some of my frustrations.
The book begins with a 40 page introduction that needed an introduction. It was kind of like turning on the TV and hearing the announcement, “We now return to our regularly scheduled programing already in progress…” There are five names associated with the writing of the introduction, and it genuinely reads like the product of a committee. The first eight pages contain a rambling discussion of terrorism with no real context to frame the discussion. It is not until page nine that a coherent discussion of Just Peacemaking begins. The rest of the introduction is valuable, but perhaps overly lengthy. The purpose of an introduction is to introduce the subject. At 40 pages the introduction was a chapter in and of itself. As I said, the introduction needed an introduction.
The first chapter, “Support Non Violent Direct Action,” written by John Cartwright and Susan Thistlewaite, was, in this blogger’s estimation, simply dreadful. Not only dreadful, but profoundly contradictory. The authors state as the lead of the second paragraph, “Nonviolent direct action is a strategy that lances the festering boil of violence and produces healing without resort to war.” (p. 42) All well and good, if not a little flowery in the language. What “nonviolent” actions do the authors recommend? The first is boycotts, which they define as “…a concerted action designed to isolate an individual, group, or nation in order to express disapproval and to coerce change.” (p. 44) I nearly gagged on my coffee when I read that sentence. Let me get this straight – we are to lance the festering boil of violence by isolating and coercing people that we disagree with into behaving the way we want them to. It gets better. The lead of the next paragraph reads, “After 1880 the term soon came into common use, broadening to describe and include all forms of nonviolent intimidation.” So, now the priests of nonviolence have encouraged their followers to use isolation, coercion and intimidation to achieve their goals. I almost put the book down right then, but I soldiered on. (Pardon the pun).
The next nonviolent action the authors recommend is a strike. They suggest that, “Strikes have often met with considerable violence on the part of both business owners and government.” (p. 47) I suppose the authors have never heard of, nor read about, the horrific violence that strikers have used against business owners and non-workers alike. Oh well, if you are going to advocate coercion and intimidation, a little violence might not be too bad. Except that the whole point of the chapter was supposed to be “nonviolent” actions. This chapter was clearly the worst of the book, and if you can get past this entry, the rest of the book is not that bad.
The next chapter, “Take Independent Initiatives to Reduce Threat” by Glen Stassen is quite good. It is brief, to the point, and well written – all hallmarks of Dr. Stassen’s expertise. The third chapter, “Use Cooperative Conflict Resolution” is a little bit longer, but still valuable. I found the fourth chapter, “Acknowledge Responsibility for Conflict and Injustice and Seek Repentance and Forgiveness” written by Alan Geyer and Donald W. Shriver to be particularly valuable. Once again the chapter was direct, fairly brief, full of legitimate examples, and the concepts espoused fit directly into the title of the book, Just Peacemaking.
In the second (chapters 5 and 6) and third (chapters 7 – 10) sections of the book the second major flaw of the book was revealed. These chapters read like a manifesto produced by the Democratic party of the United States. The only American Presidents who received any positive mention were Democrats, and Jimmy Carter was clearly the favorite of all the authors. Ronald Reagan was vilified at every opportunity. Likewise, the Palestinians and their cause received all the positive comments, whereas the Israelis were never described as anything other than land hungry war mongers. I do not doubt but what the Palestinians have a legitimate complaint against the colonization of their land. But the one-sided nature of the treatment in this book made it sound like the suicide bombers and the indiscriminate missile firing of the Palestinian terrorists are somehow justified. The political stance of the authors was utterly transparent. And that was unfortunate in a book that was designed to be about Just Peacemaking. You cannot be a peacemaker if you are lobbing verbal hand grenades at your political opponents.
After finishing the book, especially the last sections, I could not help but think of the irony that the authors of the book really needed to read chapters 2-4 of the book and put those principles into practice in their own chapters. The authors of chapter one just need to re-write their chapter from scratch.
Okay, so I am not an accomplished book reviewer. I usually only review those books that I genuinely love and want others to read. I made an exception here, not that I do not want people to buy this book, but only that if you are interested in the title of the book that you purchase it carefully. If your politics are even moderately left-of-center you will probably love the book. The more left-of-center your politics the more you will like the book (if you can get past the theological arguments and the references to the Bible). But, if you are like me and have somewhat to moderate right-of-center politics and you are fairly conservative in your theology, this book is a frustrating read.
I will recommend you purchase the book with the above caveat in mind. If you are interested in the “new paradigm” of Just Peacemaking (a concept, by the way, that I approve of whole heartedly) then this is a good resource. The middle chapters are good, and the later chapters do have some good points. I simply wish the authors had checked their politics in the coat room when they entered the conversation hall. It would have made the book much more valuable, and also much more enjoyable to read.
We live in a world of comparative justice – or comparative injustice if you will. By that strange term I mean that all we experience as justice, or injustice, is compared to others. We know what we think justice should look like, and “compared to _______” what we see is either very just or very wrong.
Jesus lived in a world of comparative justice as well. Consider the following:
There were some present at that very time who told him of the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And he answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners that all the other Galileans, because they suffered thus? I tell you, No; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen upon whom the tower of Siloam fell and killed them, do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who dwelt in Jerusalem? I tell you, No; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish. (Luke 13:1-5, RSV)
We know little, if anything, about the two incidents that Jesus referenced. But obviously they were current topics, and the people to whom Jesus was speaking understood them quite well. The first was obviously an example of murder – Pilate had a group of “Galileans” killed while they were offering their sacrifices (at the temple in Jerusalem?). Why they were singled out as “Galileans” we are not sure. Was it because they were insurrectionists, or believed to be plotting an insurrection? Or were they just “out-of-towners” who got mixed up in an ugly case of mistaken identity? And what of the unfortunate 18 who happened to be in or under the “tower in Siloam?” Were they meeting there as a part of a plot? Or did the tower just give way as they happened to be gathered in the shade of the tower?
We have a lot of questions to which we may never know the answers. But one thing is quite clear – Jesus does not buy into “comparative justice” or injustice. Twice he asks, “Do you think this group worse that another?” and twice the answer is “No.”
We watch Tim McVeigh detonate his bomb in front of the Murrah building in Oklahoma City and we recoil in disgust. We watch two airplanes being flown into the World Trade Center and we react with hatred and revenge in our hearts. We watch as two bombs are detonated at the finish line of the Boston Marathon and we are repulsed.
And every day bombs are detonated in crowded markets and in busses and in places of worship and we hardly notice. Every day (it seems like) President Obama agrees to use another secretive drone to bomb a target in Iraq or Afghanistan and scores of innocent bystanders are killed and if there is any reaction in the United States at all, it is simply to say, “Serves them right.”
I remember in some bygone conflict (Desert Storm I or II, or in Afghanistan, even I lose track) there was a member of the media that was killed. Dozens of American soldiers had already died with barely even a mention or without hardly a whimper raised by the TV talking heads. But when the media person was killed you would have thought the entire world had come to a crashing end. There were pictures on the TV, dozens of stories about how this person was trying to make the world a better place through journalism, about how it just wasn’t fair for such a young person to die, blah, blah, blah. Comparative justice. According to the TV types, it was okay for soldiers to die, maybe even expected, but it was NEVER expected or okay that a reporter or camera person to die.
In comparative justice, it is okay for our enemy to die, but never okay for one of ours to die. It is okay for other children to be cut in half by a roadside bomb, but never in America. It would be okay for our American President to use a secretive drone to bomb innocent bystanders into eternity, but what if it happened in Boston? Or New York? Or Dallas?
Jesus would not buy into the idea of comparing the value of deaths. A death was a loss of a human life to Jesus. There were no “greater” and “lesser” sinners in his eyes. There were none who did not deserve their deaths. No, for Jesus we all stand guilty. We all deserve the death that awaits us.
Or, I guess I should say the death that awaited us. Because, you see, Jesus stepped into the middle and “took the bullet” that was intended for us. We have the opportunity to live eternally because he died temporally (in time) on that cross. But his death was not without meaning; not without a warning.
“Unless you repent you will all likewise perish.” I don’t think Jesus was talking about physical death here and was telling us in to how we can avoid murderous tyrants and creaky towers. I believe he was using two tragedies to tell us that a far worse death awaits those who continue to live in rebellion to God’s Kingdom.
The bombings in Oklahoma City, New York, Washington and Boston were horrific, make no mistake. But let us also be very clear. God does not view the death of an innocent American as any worse than an innocent Palestinian, an innocent Israeli, an innocent Iraqi, or an innocent Afghan. Let us dispense with the comparative justice concept. The murder of any human being is a stain against the image of God – for every human was made in the image of God.
And that should make us be very careful as we consider our response to whoever it was that murdered and maimed those people in Boston, as well as the victims and the families of the latest drone attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Sometimes serendipity is serendipitous. I have arrived at this passage just as the state of Arkansas has joined several other states in allowing individuals to carry weapons into a church building. The irony of some local yokel carrying a loaded gun into a worship service for the purpose of “self-defense” is simply too vast for me to comprehend. I’m glad I’m not asked to make this stuff up.
The traditional teaching in this passage is easy to identify – “an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.” This is the lex talionis which allowed an aggrieved party to punish the guilty up to, but not exceeding, the range of the crime or affront. Although it is often viewed as permissive, or even mandatory (you must pay back an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth) the original intent was prohibitive. If someone knocked your tooth out, the most you could exact in recompense was a tooth. You could not retaliate violently for a minor offense. Of course, give humans an inch and they will take a mile; so the limitation soon became a freedom and then a requirement.
Jesus, however, not only slows down the descending chain of violence begetting violence, but he actually reverses it! Beginning in v. 39b he gives a series of imperatives that force people to react to evil in novel ways. A humiliating slap does not invite a responding insult, but the offer of further insult and humiliation. A lawsuit does not create a counter-lawsuit but a surrender of more than what is at issue. Forced labor becomes an opportunity for unexpected service. Begging becomes an opportunity for giving. These imperatives (commands, by the way) are so counter-intuitive. They are counter-cultural. They are radical. No one in the United States in their right mind would think of such bizarre behavior. Not today when the mantra is “Stand Your Ground” and “Bring Your Favorite Gun To Church Day” (with a potluck sure to follow).
The key to the passage is found in v. 39a. Dr. Glen Stassen, in his article “The Fourteen Triads of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:21-7:12) [Journal of Biblical Literature, 122/2 (2003) pp. 267-308] has a wonderfully brief but profoundly loaded discussion of this partial verse. The phrase is most often translated, “Do not resist the evil one.” However, Dr. Stassen notes that the Greek construction of the phrase can also legitimately be translated, “do not resist by evil means” or “do not resist violently.” The question is, is such a translation valid in this passage? Is Jesus telling us to never resist an evil person, or is he telling us to not use the tactics of the evil person to respond to a real or perceived injury?
First and foremost, if Jesus told us to never resist the evil one, then he clearly violated his own commandment. He resisted many evil beings, beginning with the Satan himself, and continuing through a ministry in which he confronted and resisted many individuals who were bent on evil. He scolded the Pharisees. He resisted Herod. He challenged those who would stone an accused adulteress. He cleansed the temple, throwing out the money changers and those who were taking advantage of the poor. He repeatedly cast out and defeated evil demons, or spirits, within helpless humans. Jesus clearly and often resisted evil and the Evil one. So, strike that option out.
Second, if Jesus taught that his disciples should not use violent tactics against the violent people, it would seem that we would find traces of that teaching throughout the remainder of the New Testament. Well, consider Romans 12:17, “Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Try to do what is honorable in everyone’s eyes.” Or how about 1 Thessalonians 5:15, “See to it that no one repays evil for evil to anyone, but always pursue what is good for one another and for all.” And then there is 1 Peter 2:21-23, “For you were called to this, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps. He did not commit sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth; when reviled he did not revile in return; when suffering he did not threaten, but committed himself to the one who judges justly.” (all quotations from the HCSB).
Nowhere is there a command of abject nonresistance. But everywhere there is the teaching of rejecting violent means to achieve retribution.
As such, v. 39a is a truncated form of the “vicious cycle” that we see throughout the rest of the sermon. But we can see the process playing out in front of our eyes every day. First you get in a fist fight. Then your opponent brings a knife. Then you bring a gun. Then he brings a bigger gun that shoots more rounds. Then you get body armor and a bigger gun with more violent ammunition. On and on the vicious cycle continues.
Jesus’ answer to this mayhem is simply to stop it at the first volley. If someone punches you, turn around and walk away. Don’t escalate the violence. If necessary, be the one willing to absorb the violence.
Jesus died on a cross, people. After telling his disciples to put their stupid swords away.
So, I’m just wondering where in the Bible, especially where in the New Testament, do we as disciples of the crucified one get permission to take up violent weapons and use them against perpetrators of violence. I am not speaking of duly sworn and highly trained peace officers. Check the statistics. The overwhelming majority of those peace officers spend their entire careers never having removed their weapons from their holsters. Many who do are traumatized for the rest of their lives by the experience.
Do we really want some “Dirty Harry” wannabe packing a loaded handgun into a crowded auditorium? Honestly?
And, with our ears focused on this radical sermon from the mouth of Jesus himself, dare we even suggest that such behavior would be a pleasing response in the eyes of our God?
Occasionally I think my atheist friends do have something to add to the conversation. Lord, save us from your followers.
As I have been working through the subject of pacifism and what it means to be a disciple of the Prince of Peace I have been struck by how easily the conversation can become one sided. That is, it seems a disciple claims to be either an absolute pacifist or a fire-breathing militarist. In my own journey I have come to see how Churches of Christ have moved from a general view of pacifism to a flag-waving, patriotic militarism. There were many reasons for this move, but the end result is that we have lost much of our early message. Now, we are just one small voice in a vast crowd. We have gained political respectability at the cost of biblical authenticity.
To speak of pacifism in the Church of Christ today is to be a lonely voice indeed.
But, on the other hand, to speak of the need for a strong defensive military is to be excluded from those who view any form of power to be a sin. Patriarchy, capitalism, the military – every “ism” that is seen as setting one person against another is a sin. To defend any use of power is to be a heretic in the church of the postmodernist.
So, you are sent to Hades if you do, and condemned to Gehenna if you don’t. That leaves a very thin margin if you want to be in the middle.
Disjointed thought #1 – is power always a sin? Let’s look at this another way. Is sex always a sin? Is eating or drinking always a sin? Is industry and hard work always a sin? The answer is no! Sexual relations, bounded by God’s intent and infused with his blessing, are never a sin. Outside of those bounds sexual relations are a sin. Eating and drinking, for the purpose of enjoyment and to replenish the needs of the body, cannot be described as a sin. Gluttony and drunkenness are sins. Working to provide for yourself and for your family is not a sin. Working to feed your greed and avarice is a sin. Why should power be viewed any differently? Power, when bounded by God’s intent and when infused with his blessing is a righteous gift. Power, used outside of that intent and devoid of his blessing is satanic. But the concept of power itself is neutral.
Jesus, while on this earth, exercised power. He taught his disciples. He cast out demons. He rebuked the Pharisees. He cleansed the temple of the money changers. He demanded allegiance from his followers. He rebuked Satan and Peter. He used the power God gave him, within the bounds God set for him, and for the purpose of achieving the goals set before him. Power in and of itself cannot be viewed as a sin.
A police force that uses its power to abuse, threaten and persecute the citizens it is supposed to protect has violated its invested power. A military that uses its weapons in an offensive, “strike first, kill them all and let God sort them out” mentality has violated its invested power. But a military unit, just like a police force, that uses its power to liberate an oppressed people, or to prevent war from breaking out or from escalating is using its power in a necessary manner. It would be far better to need neither a police force nor a military. But show me a city or town without a police force or county sheriff. It cannot be done. Sin exists. Violence exists. Rape, murder, theft, assault, even traffic violations exist. Remove the police and you would have anarchy and vigilantism. Remove a properly assembled and properly defined military and the same would result on a world-wide scale. Or, at least, that is how I see it.
Disjointed thought #2 – Can violence ever be redemptive? In other words, is violence always a sin, can nothing ever good come from violence? On the one hand this question seems so easy to answer. Never! Violence always begets violence. Spank a child and create a mass murderer (or so goes the common thinking). Violence and redemption are two diametrically opposite concepts, and never the twain shall meet.
Except, is that true? Or, more to the point, is it biblical? Does that thought come from the word of God?
Abram rescued Lot with violence. God “redeemed” the land by destroying Sodom and Gomorrah. God redeemed his people from Egypt in a series of violent interdictions. God punished the people of Canaan by the conquest of the Israelites. God “redeemed” his people by punishing them with the Assyrian and Babylonian armies.
And, the coup de grace, God redeemed the world through the violent death of his Son.
Yes, I know, that last example is one of selfless surrender on the part of Jesus. Jesus willingly went to the cross, and the crucifixion is hardly the example of a necessary police force or a military unit. But, you cannot speak of the atonement without coming face to face with the fact of redemptive violence. It just does not work. Without the cross there would be no redemption, and to argue that God could have worked it without the death of his son is specious. Yes he could have, but he did not. Jesus absorbed all the violence of the violent world to teach us that we should not have to resort to violence any more.
But the rapist and the burglar and the murderer and the drunk driver still exist. Therefore we need a functioning police force that has been given the right to use appropriate power to apprehend the rapist and the murderer and the drunk driver. And the Saddam Husseins and the Adolf Hitlers of the world still exist, and as much as we hate to admit it, they want to murder entire nations of people. Are we to let them exterminate the Jewish nation simply because Jesus said, “Love your enemy?” How exactly does loving Iran or Iraq mean that I have to hate the Jews?
Until someone can prove to me by reference to Scripture and by clear human experience that violence can never be redemptive, I will argue that while it should always be the avenue of last resort, sometimes violence must be employed to redeem an oppressed and victimized people.
Disjointed thought #3 – I see blatant hypocrisy on both sides of the issue. On the one hand are the militarists that claim to only want peace, but their actions prove that all they want is a new nuclear submarine or the carpet bombing of some third world country to solve a civil war in which we should not even be involved. On the other hand are the absolute pacifists who decry the use of any kind of military force, yet will call the local police to break up a domestic dispute down the street. Although hypocrisy is the blight of virtually all human endeavor, we must be constantly on the lookout for it, lest its hidden power rob us of our greatest arguments.
David Lipscomb was absolutely correct, in my opinion, in passionately arguing against the Civil War. Christians simply should not have gone to war and killed other Christians over what was, at least initially, a purely political question. However, beneath that political question was a deeply moral one, and that was the question of slavery. Had Christians followed the teaching of Jesus of Nazareth, there would have been no slavery question. Here is where I see the pacifist view as being the correct one. Those individuals most deeply imbued with the spirit of shalom had come to the conclusion that owning slaves was sinful. They freed their slaves and refused to do business with those who owned slaves. Slavery could have been ended without a single shot being fired. However, nationalism and economics trumped theology, and hundreds of thousands of Americans died trying to prove God was on their side.
I am not so sure about Adolf Hitler, Emperor Hirohito, Benito Mussolini and World War II. Perhaps it could have been averted. Certainly the allies did not have to levy such oppressive reparations against Germany at the end of the first World War. If the Christians in Germany had rejected Hitler the war would never have started. If Neville Chamberlain had stood up against Hitler maybe he would have backed down. If Winston Churchill had listened to Bishop George Bell and others maybe an agreement with the conspirators in Germany could have been reached and Hitler could have been arrested and tried on grounds of treason or insanity. If, if, if, if, if. Obviously the best time to end a war is before it ever begins. But, what happens when a war does start? What happens when the concentration camps start filling up? What happens when the rape camps open? What then?
I don’t have all the answers. I never claimed to have all the answers. I am reading some good books written by some devout Christians who are leading and shaping my thoughts even as I write this series of posts. My position will evolve over time as I am presented with arguments, both good and bad. I simply want to call for an end to the acrimony in this debate. The absolute pacifists need to declare a truce in their war on the flag waving militarists. And the war hawks need to put their swords back in their sheaths and quit beating the drums. Unless we start talking to each other our arguments are not going to have any effect.
As the preacher once said, (to paraphrase a bit), of the study of pacifism and militarism there is no end. However, at least for the time being, this series does have and end.
May God lead our conversations to the foot of the cross. Amen.
As we transition from the Old Testament to the New Testament we do far more than just turn a page from Malachi to Matthew. We change political, economic and cultural worldviews. The world that Jesus saw was controlled by the Pax Romana, the Roman peace, and it was bound together, however loosely, by the Greek language. “City nations” no longer existed as such, although the Romans did give a considerable degree of latitude toward local police forces, so long as the over-arching dominion of the Roman legion was maintained. All of this, at a minimum, must be clearly understood or when we start attempting to examine Jesus’ (and the apostles’) teaching on the Christian’s responsibility toward the government and toward militarism in particular we lose the overall message of the whole story of Scripture.
Let me digress just a moment because I feel this point is so important. While I believe completely that Jesus is the Christ, that he is the pinnacle of all human history, and that all Scripture must be interpreted through the lens of his life, I DO NOT believe that Jesus radically altered the message of God’s story. That is to say I DO NOT believe in a divine dualism, a bifurcation between the Old Testament God of war, hate and vengeance and the New Testament God of love, peace, and “can’t we all just get along.” I would suggest that at the core of an absolute pacifist’s understanding is a radical rupture of the fabric of Scripture. The Old Testament God of war and bloodthirstiness died on the last page of the book of Malachi, and the new God of gentleness, love, peace and kindness was born on the first page of Matthew. What occurred was a change in human culture, but not of the nature of God. If we confuse the two we lose the meaning of the Bible and all that remains is a neutered and fundamentally meaningless New Testament.
So, what DOES Jesus have to say about pacifism, (the seeking of God’s shalom) either in word or deed? Actually, surprisingly little in a direct sense, and an amazing amount in an indirect sense. I will assume, for the sake of argument, that we are all familiar with the teaching of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount concerning our need to love our enemies, his command to turn the other cheek, and to go the extra mile. I will cover these topics in my next post, but for the present I want to stress the theme of engaging evil in the New Testament, whether in a spiritual or physical manifestation.
Note first – in his “first sermon” in the gospel of Luke, Jesus read from Isaiah 61:1-2 where the evidence of the coming of the kingdom of God was “freedom for the prisoners, recovery of sight for the blind, release of the oppressed, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Now, in good Evangelical American fashion we have spiritualized each of these components to mean “prisoners of sin, those blind in sin, the oppressed in sin, and the year of the Lord’s favor in saving people from their sin.” However, this was not the way the first audience of Jesus heard these words, and it was not the way Luke intended them to be read. The entire gospel focuses on exactly those individuals who needed “redeeming” in a physical sense – the poor, the outcast, the physically infirm and, interestingly enough, women. Luke’s gospel is a gospel of liberation – from sin to be sure. But a “spiritualized” reading of the gospel is a heretical one, and I am sorry to say that we have prefered the heresy to the truth to a dangerous extent.
Second, in the Sermon on the Mount, the piece de resistance of the absolute pacifist, Jesus links peacemaking with persecution. This point should not be lost in translation. Peacemaking is hard and sometimes dangerous work. It involves putting oneself in-between two (or more) parties who are in conflict and that is never a safe or comfortable position. All too often we end up getting pasted from all sides. The ministry of Jesus bears this out – he was hated by the demons he cast out of their victims and he was hated by the religious leaders for doing so on the Sabbath. If you involve yourself in the movement for peace you will get hurt – and very likely from every side in the conflict that you are trying to heal.
Third, notice that Jesus was no opponent of conflict. The cleansing of the temple (Matt. 21:12-13 and parallels) reveals to us that physical intervention is not, in and of itself, a sin. Once again, we commit the heresy of a dualistic Christ if we hyperbolize this event into a “casting of sin from the life of the Christian” or if we excuse the event by saying, “well, yes, Jesus did this but he was the Son of God and we are not.” Each gospel records this event – one of the few that receive attention by all four gospel writers. We must include this event, and its meaning, into the discussion.
Fourth, the healings of the demoniacs often involved physical descriptions that indicate a violent releasing of the victim. There are shrieks, moans, throwing to the ground, etc. When Jesus confronted the forces of evil it was a battle. Jesus did not compromise with the demon and propose a “can’t we just all get along” method of dealing with the demon possession. Paul says that Jesus has or will destroy the forces of evil (Rom. 8:37-381 Cor. 15:24-25, 1 Tim. 1:10).
Fifth, in Jesus’ confrontations with the Pharisees, Sadducees and Scribes, the gospel writers never portray him as searching for a middle ground, a place of compromise where his message could stand alongside theirs. It was either His truth, or no teaching at all. He came to interpret God’s will, not the Pharisees’ tradition. Some truths simply cannot be negotiated away. We cannot back away and surrender truth in the name of “peace.” Peace, when it means the surrender of truth, is no peace at all.
Sixth, in James 2:14-26, the “servant of the Lord Jesus Christ” makes the explicit claim that, if a person has the power and the ability to effect the “redemption” of a person (either by food, clothing, or other form of intervention) and he or she does not do it, then he or she cannot claim to have faith! Two examples from the story of faith are given as examples – Abraham and Rahab. And, note: both examples include a form of violence – Abraham in the willingness to sacrifice Isaac, and Rahab in the protection of the spies in a time of war. Marcion and Luther were (and are) not the only people who want to erase the book of James from the canon, whether literally or just by never mentioning it. However, as a “servant of the Lord Jesus Christ” I believe James had something of value to add to the texture of the biblical story. And what he added was an admonition to use the power that we have when it is appropriate and needful that we use it.
Seventh, and finally, in Philippi Paul did NOT invoke his Roman privilege against unjust imprisonment and punishment, but in Caesarea he did. Why? Is there not a meaning to his method? Does it not mean that in some circumstances it is appropriate to “turn the other cheek” and in some circumstances it is appropriate to exert legal defences? How else can you read the text? That Paul was right in one circumstance and wrong in the other? In other words, I believe that in some circumstances I can, by the leading of Scripture, act in one way and be confident in the grace of God and in another similar circumstance I can act in a completely different manner and still rest in that same grace of God. The difference is not in the situation (I AM NOT A SITUATION ETHICIST!), but rather in my interpretation of the situation and in how I can best present the gospel at that moment.
As an all-too-brief summation, I want to stress again that I want to incorporate the entire “warp and woof” of Scripture in my understanding of pacifism and the disciple’s response to evil. It is bad theology and inappropriate hermeneutics to take one passage of Scripture (even a saying of Jesus) and build one’s entire lifestyle on that verse. I want to accept at face value what Jesus said when he said, “Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.” But I also have to accept that when Jesus was faced with evil (either spiritual or physical) he confronted it, and if necessary he defeated it. The apostles were just as forceful. Where light shines in a dark world, the darkness is defeated, not negotiated.
There can be no equivocation between the message of Christ and the power of Satan. To suggest such is to surrender that which is ultimately good to that which is evil. Now, how I have come to understand that reality in my own personal life will be the topic of my next post.