Violence is bad.
You didn’t need me to tell you that, I’m sure. Every time you hear about yet another mass shooting in America, you recognize the evil of senseless violence. Everytime you read another story about a terrorist bombing, you recognize that violence as evil and wrong. When we read news stories about the death of thousands in natural disasters, we feel that sick feeling in our stomach that reminds us that human life is sacred, and its loss is tragic.
But violence is ubiquitous. The history of humanity is a series of violent conflicts. Violence is a central theme in our TV shows, movies, sports, and even music. Violence is carried out by governments and by individuals, for a variety of motives using a variety of methods. Like it or not, violence is a part of the human experience.
But is that how it should be? Are we really doomed to an existence of violent conflict after violent conflict, or is there an alternative?
Over the next few weeks, I want to examine the idea of Christian non-violence. I want to look at different aspects of what it means to be a follower of Christ who disengages from violence in pursuit of justice.
Non-violence is not always a popular stance in our violent world. When violence is the way the world functions, those who refuse to use it can seem useless and impractical. But I think by examining the teachings of Jesus, we can start to experience a reality where non-violence is both practical and effective.
It’s not my intent for this conversation to be political, although some of what we talk about over the next few weeks may have political implications. I’m not interested in changing laws or policies. Christians have never needed a governmental system to tell us how to be followers of God, and I don’t think it’s what we shold rely on now.
Most of the people I know will disagree with many of the things I write over the next couple of weeks. That’s okay. The conversation is important, even if we don’t see eye-to-eye at the end of it.
At the very least, I think most of us can agree that the world would be a better place if there was less violence in it.
After all, human beings are not wired for violence. That seems crazy to say, since human beings are capable of horrific acts of violence on each other. But we pay a high price for those acts. Millions of cases of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder are diagnosed each year because people have close encounters with violence. War veterans have recurring nightmares about their time in war decades after the war ended. There’s something about violence that changes us.
Violence violates what it means to be human.
Genesis 1 tells us that human beings are made in the Image of God. Genesis 2 tells us that the God who created us breathed into our lungs in order to give us life. We are products of the Author of Life, made to carry that life with us. When we engage in destruction, we contradict the image of God within us.
But what about the times when we hear stories of violence that sound good to us?
When we read news stories about drone attacks in the Middle East that destroyed a terrorist base, many people experience a sense of relief, safety, and justice.
When news reached us that SEAL Team 6 had killed Osama bin Laden, people in America rejoiced that bin Laden received justice for his orchestrations of attacks on American people.
When we read in the Bible about the times God fought on behalf of the Israelites and slaughtered their enemies before them, we nod in approval at God’s justice.
The evil of violence doesn’t seem as evil when it is repaying other violence. Retributive violence seems good to us because it appeals to our sense of justice.
But is it actually justice?
I’m not so sure that it is.
I mean, if justice just means fairness, then sure, retributive violence could be considered justice. But fairness is a stunted understanding of justice. There’s far more to it than that.
In both Hebrew and Greek, the words for Justice and Righteousness are the exact same. In English, we may have some nuance in our understanding of them, but they’re the same word in both Greek and Hebrew. So when the Bible talks about what is just, it is also talking about what is right. And when Christians talk about seeking justice, we’re talking about making things right.
And violence can’t accomplish that.
Violence is one of the worst things a human being can do to another human being, because it is an injustice that can never be completely put back right. Even if the offender gets exactly what’s coming to them, it doesn’t set everything right. If anything, it multiplies injustice by creating even more broken families and inspiring even more violence.
Retributive violence doesn’t alleviate injustice, it just passes injustice on down the line.
Over the course of history, humans have passed injustice on. The wheel of violence continues to turn, as humans seek justice for themselves at the expense of their enemies, only managing to create more injustice in the process. When it comes to violence, the only way to create justice is for someone to bear the weight of injustice without passing it on down the line.
That’s what we call grace.
And we’ve already had it modeled for us. God revealed grace to us by becoming the recipient of horrific violence on the cross, and refusing to pass it on. In Jesus, God contradicted the nature of the cross by stopping the cycle of violence and restoring Creation to righteousness.
Which means that the only time that violence has ever resulted in justice was when God was the recipient, not the actor.
God made justice out of injustice, without resorting to violence. And followers of God should seek to do the same.
But that doesn’t mean we need to be passive. God uses God’s followers to enact justice in the world today, God just doesn’t need us to resort to violence to do it.
Christian non-violence doesn’t excuse us from acting to bring justice for those who need it. To the contrary, it compels us to become Christ to our neighbors, and bear their suffering with and for them. By following the example of Jesus, we bring justice by bearing injustice. We trust in Christ to sustain us as we bear the weight of injustice, and we usher in the day when God will make all things right.
We enact justice by becoming the recipients of injustice for other people. When others experience violence and injustice, Christians are called to take up their cross and bear that violence on their behalf. We identify with the oppressed and the marginalized, and we take on their struggles as our own. We become the oppressed and marginalized, seeking justice through solidarity, rather than retribution.
And that’s a better way.