The New Testament and Violence: Part 1

Saturday, September 06, 2014

On this blog we’ve been spending a lot of time wrestling with violence in the Old Testament. Beginning with this post, I'd like to turn our attention to the issue of violence and the New Testament.

There are two key issues here: human violence, and the violence of God. Both are important issues, but the obvious place to begin is with ourselves and what we do. So in this post I'll address the issue of human violence in the New Testament, and I save the issue of God's violence for a future post.

Now, while the Old Testament clearly does command human violence in the name of God, most people (including the vast majority of New Testament scholars) recognize that the central teaching of Jesus and the New Testament is enemy love, which entails a rejection of violence as a means of bringing about God's will.
However, there are some Christians who not only defend the violence in the Old Testament as good and right, but who argue that Christians should continue to commit violence (through the state's use torture, drone strikes, assassinations, etc) in God's name, based on the New Testament.

This is not a fringe position, it is a common view among conservative evangelicals who believe that when the state commits acts of violence, that this is all endorsed by God and what a "Christian" nation looks like. They have this view because they are convinced that it is good and right. This is a view that reflects the ethos of our nation which connects violence with justice and goodness.

So before we launch into a Bible study here, we need to first take a step back and take a look at ourselves and what we bring to the text as we read: I want to propose that the real reason people, and especially we Americans, struggle with the question of whether the NT endorses human violence as good is not because the New Testament is not clear, but far more because we don’t like what we read there.

We believe in violence. We trust in violence. We trust in violence not because we are bad people, but because we love. Because we love, we want to have our loved ones protected and safe, and we believe that violence is the way to do this. We trust in violence because we want justice, and want to end the injustice, oppression, and suffering we see in the world. Again, we believe that violence is the only way to do this. Violence is how we believe we can bring about peace in the world. That’s why we Americans have put our faith in violence.

That's why we struggle so much with what Jesus says about loving our enemies, just like we struggle with what he says about giving all our money to the poor. The big elephant in the room here is that we just don't agree with Jesus. We think it would be bad to do these things.

Now let me say two things about this:

First, let me say very clearly that I believe we should love and protect the vulnerable. I am NOT advocating neglecting to care for people who are being threatened (I don't think Jesus was either). I also want to insist that we should work to end suffering and injustice and oppression, and again am not suggesting that we should just sit passively by with our hands folded in our laps. That would be wrong. I think we all can agree on that. We can all agree that it is good to protect the vulnerable, to care for those we love, and to work to end oppression and injustice. We can all affirm that these are good desires. The question is how we accomplish this.

Secondly, I also want to stress that I am not calling for blind obedience. I do not want to say “Well, Jesus commands us to love our enemies, so even if that seems wrong to you, even if it seems like you would be failing to protect those you love, you just have to obey.” That’s a fundamentalist way of thinking (or, really, of not thinking) which is morally deeply problematic because it inevitably leads to abuse and hurt. On the contrary, I would stress that we must seek to understand. There can be no obedience without understanding because we can only rightly obey when we understand how.

That means that part of our stepping away from our trust in violence needs to involve recognizing that there are other ways to keep people safe, other ways to work to end injustice, which do not act to perpetuate and add to the cycle of hurt and devastation that violence reaps.

In other words: We need alternative ways to meet those good needs for safety and justice. Until we do, we will continue to reach for the only tool we know: violence. So as long as the conversation continues to be using violence on the one side versus abstaining from violence on the other side, we will remain in a deadlock. We need to be aware of other ways to solve our problems. Again, until then, we are we will always return to the one way we know.

Now, with all that said, I do want us to notice the rather large blind spot we bring to the table as we read the Bible: We deeply believe that violence is how we bring about good. We trust in violence to keep us safe. So when we find statements in the New Testament that confront our faith in violence we look for ways to tone them down, and when we find other passages that seem to affirm violence, we cling to them.

Jesus uses a whip in the temple. See? Jesus must be okay with violence, right? Jesus said “I have come to bring a sword.” See? That means the way of the sword is the way of Jesus, right? All that stuff about love of enemies? Well, he didn't know the enemies we face today. Besides, look at Revelation!

These are terrible misreadings of the text, but they gain traction with us for the simple reason that we deeply trust in violence as a tool for good. It’s what we want to hear.

Rather than reading the Bible for what we want to hear, I’d like to see if we can read it to make us better, more moral, more compassionate. I’d like us to read it in a way that cuts past our hard hearts, and challenges our worldly and sinful assumptions, leading us to a way that is better and more life-giving. I hope we could open our hearts to Jesus showing us a better way, a way that may at first seem upside-down and foolish, but in fact is deep and wise and full of life. I pray that we could open our hearts to the good news of Jesus.

The New Testament was not written in a vacuum. It is addressed to a people who deeply believed in the goodness of violence. Not only do we see violence as good in the Old Testament, violence is also at the heart of the Pax Romana, the Roman Empire's idea of peace through violent conquest.

Rene Girard points out that what is unique about the Hebrew tradition is that--along with the idea of seeing violence as good and deserved, which was common to all cultures-- it contains alongside this a voice of protest that questions violence. Girard says we find in the Hebrew Bible for the first time the voice of the victim being heard. We see this in the Psalms and Job, and we also see the Prophets challenging the injustice of the authorities.

The New Testament continues in this tradition of protest. It is spoken to a people who assume that violence is good, that suffering is deserved, that God wants us to hate our enemies. When we understand this context, the deep-seated assumptions of the goodness of violence that characterized the time, we can see why the people got so mad at Jesus. For example Jesus, quoting Isaiah, declares,

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and the regaining of sight to the blind,
to set free those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19)

That sounds really nice. So why is it that the crowd responds by trying to throw Jesus off a cliff?  Luke tells us,
"When they heard this, all the people in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, forced him out of the town, and brought him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they could throw him down the cliff" (vv. 28-29).
The reason they were so furious that they wanted to murder Jesus is that they realized that he was extending God's grace and love not only to them, but also to their enemies, the Gentiles. The common expectation was that the messiah would come as a warrior king who would destroy Israel's enemies. Salvation would come through "good" violence. Evil and injustice would be overcome by violence for God. This was what Jesus' audience had put their hopes in, and why they reacted with rage to his message of grace.

This context of "virtuous" violence is also the stage that the parables of Jesus are set in. His parables begin with the common world of his audience--a world populated by kings and slaves, and by torture and violence. Jesus begins in that common world and then pushes his hearers one step closer to the kingdom of God by adding a little twist that challenges their assumptions. So when we find Jesus using words like "torture" in his parables, this is not an endorsement of violence, but simply the common trappings of the world into which Jesus was speaking. What we need to pay attention to is not where the parables begin, but where Jesus takes them (you can read more on this here).

Broadly speaking, we can observe that the New Testament represents a major protest against the way of virtuous violence. It goes beyond the Old Testament's protests in that it introduces an alternative way to bring about God's salvation, to bring about goodness and justice which does not come through violence and the sword, but is instead characterized by radical forgiveness and enemy love. This way of enemy love was radical and new then, and it remains radical today.

At the same time, it's critical to understand that the NT represents the first steps in the way of enemy love. Those were huge steps forward, but it means that we also see that the New Testament represents the beginning of that way rather than the end. For example, we see in the New Testament statements that affirm the value of slaves as human beings. We hear Paul say that in Christ there is "neither slave nor free," and yet the New Testament does not call for the abolition of slavery. The institution of slavery continued, just as empire continued. Both slavery and empire entail violence, injustice, oppression, and suffering.

We can argue that the NT points us towards the eventual abolition of slavery, and I would agree. This is the idea of reading on a trajectory. Rather than reading the Bible as an eternal record of God's will that we cannot ever question or change, it instead recognizes the direction that it is headed and continues along that same course. This led us to abolish the institution of slavery in the past, and it can also lead us away from Rome's model of state violence as the means of bringing about justice and good, replacing this instead with the way of Jesus.

Just as in the past many argued that we should keep slavery, appealing to the New Testament, so too people argue today for the goodness of state violence, likewise appealing to the New Testament. Again, the particular problem with violence (as opposed to slavery) is that we view it as the only way to protect from harm. Therefore in order to forsake it, we need to understand how the way of Jesus provides us with viable ways to address the very real problem of evil, how the way of Jesus provides a way for us to work to end suffering and injustice and care for those we love, including our enemies.

In this first post on violence and the New Testament I've attempted to set the stage by showing how the New Testament continues in the tradition of protest begun in the counter-witness of the Old Testament, presenting the way of Jesus--in contrast with the way of virtuous violence as the means of God's salvation and kingdom--as an alternate and superior means of overcoming evil and bringing about God's good will for all of humanity. Violence is therefore not a marginal side-theme in the New Testament, but central to the New Testament's new and radical understanding of salvation in Jesus.

In Part Two of the series I'll address the central proof-text used by Christian proponents of violence in God's name today: Romans 13.

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At 5:54 PM, Blogger Mark James said...

So I agree in general that the NT rejects violence, and I applaud the call to creatively and persistently seek understanding rather than 'blind obedience.' No doubt you're right that we trust violence (especially the ever-improving technologies of violence the OT labels 'chariots and horses') and that it's hard for us to conceive of alternatives, let alone put them into practice.

My concern is only with a tendency among certain progressive evangelicals and pacifists to make the rejection of violence a universal rule that covers all cases, rather than a merely general rule that covers most cases, but permits certain exceptions. Your tweet comparing ISIS to Nero implies this kind of exceptionless and universal approach to violence, as do those of e.g. Brian Zahnd. (This post, I should say, is less overtly universal: more on this in a moment).

My feeling is that part of what motivates this absolute pacifism is a sense that Jesus' commands about violence, esp. in the Sermon, are mind-numbingly obvious. 'Turn the other cheek,' 'love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you' seem so clear: as you tweeted, 'The reason people struggle with whether the NT endorses human violence isn't because it isn't clear, but because we don’t like what we read.'

My claim is that this sense of mind-numbing obviousness cannot always be trusted. The proverb 'Do not answer a fool according to his folly' seems clear enough, but when it is juxtaposed with its contradictory (Prov. 26:4-5), you start to realize: there is a lesson here about how to read proverbs. They permit of exceptions.

And the same lesson, I suggest, can be drawn from Jesus' teachings about divorce. Mark 10:12, 'whoever divorces and remarries commits adultery' seems plain as day. And yet Matthew adds 'sexual immorality' as an exception to this, and Paul ('I not the Lord') adds the case where an unbeliever wants to divorce a believer. Again, I infer: Jesus' commands may seem clear, but they sometimes admit of unstated exceptions.

So just as someone who seeks a divorce is not NECESSARILY defying the command of Jesus, neither is someone who thinks certain exceptional cases justify the use of violence. Actually, I think the logic of this post points in the same direction. The very fact that the NT only sets up a 'trajectory' is a tacit acknowledgement that in some cases, its ideal approach to violence cannot be realized. (Perhaps you agree with this?)

As you've probably guessed, that's where I come down. I think pacifism may be a pretty good general principle, but I also believe it admits of exceptions in extraordinary circumstances (and I'd point to the usual suspects here: Hitler, ISIS, etc.). Which is to say that even 'turn the other cheek' cannot be applied without wisdom formed in the disciple, without attentiveness to context and particulars. It's an old truism that no rule can legislate for every case, but that doesn't make it any less true.

In short: the difference between universal rules and merely general ones is both subtle and all-important, and that's what I'm trying to defend here.

At 8:54 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

Hi Mark,

Let me begin by saying that I think we are basically in agreement here in broad stokes. What I’ll try to do is address some of your questions, and articulate my approach along the way...

“My concern is only with a tendency among certain progressive evangelicals and pacifists to make the rejection of violence a universal rule that covers all cases”

I hear ya, and also have a problem with what seems to me a fundamentalist approach to pacifism that amounts to a kind of teetotaling where violence is rejected universally.

The main problem I see here is that this approach comes down to either
a) doing something (violent action) or b) doing nothing (rejecting violence)

Now, violence is a means to an end, for example it might be a means to getting someone to stop hurting us. So if we are not going to use violence, this begs the question: How will we solve the problem then?

Some pacifists would say that we do not, and so people would just die. I do not think this is acceptable, and I think most people would agree with me that it is not acceptable.

Therefore, if we want to make rejecting violence a universal rule, it begs the question: “What can we do instead specifically here to solve this problem instead of resorting to violence?” If we do not know the answer to this question, then we are at an impasse.

This gets at a really big point: I am not advocating doing nothing, I am advocating finding alternative ways to solve problems that do not harm anyone.

“I think pacifism may be a pretty good general principle, but I also believe it admits of exceptions in extraordinary circumstances”

What I would like to suggest is that if our goal is to find higher ethics then rather than looking for what the possible exceptions might be, a better approach would be to instead ask: What would be a good way to solve this? Let’s take divorce as an example:

Would it be justified to get a divorce if your spouse was unfaithful? Yes, it would be justifiable. Heck, even Jesus said that, right? But would a professional marriage counselor automatically recommend divorce? No, they would not. Instead they would work with the couple, giving them the tools and skills to heal their negative interactions (including betrayal) so they can break out of the cycle of hurting and getting hurt they are both caught in. The fact is, unfaithfulness is very common in marriages, but it does not always need to end in divorce. If a couple can learn to work through the crisis, they can come out on the other end with a marriage that is even stronger than before.

Now of course a professional marriage therapist would not forbid anyone to divorce. But divorce is also not desirable if it can be avoided. If people lack the tools, they might think that their only option is to stay in a miserable marriage or to divorce. A couples therapist opens up the possibility of instead saving the marriage.

Similarly in a conflict, people may think the only option is to be a victim or to retaliate with violence. I want to instead find a way to resolve the conflict.

“Your tweet comparing ISIS to Nero implies this kind of exceptionless and universal approach to violence”

I don’t think that’s the case. What I am saying is that even with really difficult cases we still need to look for solutions. It’s like finding cures to illness: It may be hard to cure Ebola, but we still need to try. Now what I am not saying is “I don’t know how to help your marriage, but you still can’t divorce” nor am I saying “I don’t know what to do about ISIS so you must let yourself be killed.” We need to provide real and viable solutions.


At 10:54 PM, Blogger Danielmarkbowman said...

Thanks for your thoughts Derek. Yet another great post.

At 5:45 AM, Blogger Mark James said...

Derek, I think you're right that we're basically in agreement, although we each see certain things particularly clearly as God has given us particular eyes to see. I am sensitive to over-general claims -- no doubt an allergy I developed growing up in mega-churches. Your discussion of divorce is spot on, except that I do believe, once again, that in exceptional circumstances, a wise counselor might say, 'this is tragic, but I believe you have tried everything else and divorce is the best option here.'

In your other post, I think I agree with everything except the sentence 'violence does not stop violence...' which sounds too universal. (If that were always true, you would not need to leave open the possibility for short-term violence...) Actually, I'm even happy to apply my hermeneutic of 'allow for unstated exceptions' to your words as well. But while Jesus lived in a context where people were used to 'wisdom' sayings, legal reasoning, etc., our modernist minds have been trained on universals, and my sense is that in most cases, our wise teachers have to be more overt about the limits of their claims. So why not just say: 'in nearly every case, violence leads to more violence?'

Thanks for all this, and God's blessings on your good work.

At 11:29 AM, Blogger sfierbaugh said...


Another outstanding and insightful post. Thank you. I just got back yesterday from a region of Africa that is awash in violence. It occurred to me that you might like to hear what Sunday morning worship is like.

First, Christians here have a universal belief that the militants are explicitly targeting Christians, and any people of other faiths are just random victims that were in the wrong place at the wrong time. This is not completely accurate. A well-regarded academic source for casualty statistics documents that about two-thirds of civilian casualties are of another major religion. But it is certainly true that both churches on Sunday morning and mosques on Friday afternoons have been explicitly targeted by bombers and gunmen. It is dangerous to worship God in this country.

Last Sunday, I worshiped with neighbors who attend a relatively affluent congregation. The car in front of us was just pulling through the heavy metal gate as we got there. It was quickly slammed shut, even though they probably see this car almost daily. One guard carefully used a mirror and flashlight to examine underneath the vehicle while the other guards watched from a small window in the gate.

After we were let in and parked, the first thing everyone did was go to a handwashing station with a powerful disinfectant. The nearest case of Ebola is 1000km away, and this country has managed to contain the outbreak. Despite this, everyone is on alert for the disease. School was supposed to start last week, but was canceled nationwide. There is debate whether or not this was an over-reaction.

Every Sunday morning, the entire town is on high alert. Traffic is a nightmare because one lane of most roads are closed in front of all the churches. They block them off with cars turned sideways or other obstructions. They have learned the hard way to make it difficult to pull a car bomb up to the front of the church.

Last year when I was here, the tensions felt higher, even though the insurgency is much bolder now. Back then, on Sunday attack helicopters from the local air force base hovered over the town on Sunday mornings. Now, the same helicopters are probably in use to the northeast.

Like the church in Acts, which met in locked upper rooms, the local churches here usually lock the heavy gates at the start of the service. If you are late, you don't get in. They use hand-held metal detectors on everyone because militants would smuggle weapons in under their clothes, and then start shooting as soon as communion or the sermon began. Two years ago, the church I attended had a teenage girl laughing with her friends as she wanded people at the gate. "That's not going to stop someone with an AK-47," I pointed out to my host. "True," he replied, "but they will shoot the girl and that alerts everyone else to run out the back." This was not hyperbole, but a simple literal acceptance of fact.

Visitors are identified at the start of the service. Big burly deacons give you an escort to seats of honor right down front, and you are invited to introduce yourself and tell where you're from. Not so coincidentally, visitors end up seated close to the elders and away from the children.

The service is usually long on prayers and songs of supplication for God's protection and mercy, as well as announcements and reminders concerning what to do if you notice someone casing the building. One past Sunday, I listened to the girls' choir sing, "Why, why, why do you hurt me? I am a child of God!" The church here is facing violence with forbearance and love.

At 12:48 PM, Blogger ofgrace said...

Derek, you don't seem to imply this in your post, but I have read progressive Evangelicals who seem to imply the lack of a call for the abolition of the institution of slavery represents a flaw in the Scriptures' teaching. Would you go so far as to say the Apostles should have put a command to abolish the institution of slavery in the Scriptures for the NT Christians? Or is your acknowledgement that the apostolic principles taught in the NT were responsible for the eventual historical dissolution of the institution of slavery in the Roman Empire also an acknowledgement that the NT teaching in this regard was appropriate in its context and adequate for putting God's purposes in this regard into effect?

At 12:00 AM, Anonymous Derek said...

Wow Stephen that's intense. Will keep you in my prayers my friend. Please stay safe!

At 7:44 AM, Anonymous Derek said...


What we find in the NT when it says "slaves obey your masters" is not a timeless truth underpinning the institution of slavery as God-ordained, but a specific instruction to followers in that situation at that time written in a letter to them. They were following Christ the best they were able in their context where they simply did not have the power to change he institution of slavery. The same is true for statements like "obey the king" which do not mean "God likes monarchy and so don't form a democracy" but is an instruction to those who are subjects in a monarchy.

Paul says that he "saw in part" and "understood in part" just as we do today. So while I do see that the NT teaching on slavery does point us in the direction of its eventual abolition, I don't know that they were thinking "eventually this will abolish slavery hundreds of years from now, but we should hold back for now." It paves the way for it in the same way that Isaac Newton paved the way for Einstein, but that does not mean that Newton envisioned what Einstein did. The main point of science is that we keep growing in knowledge. With the NT the main point similarly is that we keep moving towards building a world that increasingly reflects Christ and his kingdom values.

The key is to identify what is a timeless truth (example: love your enemies) as opposed to what are specific applications of that (slaves obey your masters) and how we can apply this in our own situation today, which may be different to how they applied it in their very different situation then.

At 9:42 AM, Blogger ofgrace said...

Thanks, Derek. It seems to me we're on the same page here.

At 9:33 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

Your clear and charitable presentation of the best arguments of the "other" side is admirable. Keep up the good work!

At 9:37 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

Thanks Jonathan!


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