I am of the opinion that if you read the Bible thoroughly and honestly, you will run into stories which don’t seem to align with who you think God is or seem to contradict what you believe to be God’s nature. Somewhere along the way, I think we’ve told ourselves it’s wrong to question anything in the Bible, it’s wrong to question our faith, and it’s wrong to question the theology and actions of the church as an institution (local, denomination, body, etc). However, these questions which arise, when asked from a genuine heart, not from rebellion/frustration/anger, are critical to the betterment of our own faith and the theology and actions of the church as a whole. These questions cause us to look deeper and seek greater understanding. God gave us brains, and we should use them.
One such question which has been the forefront of my thoughts (and apparently many others recently) is the issue of violence, especially how violence pertains to the Christian faith. For me, personally, I see the gospel as a story which ultimately chooses nonviolence as the better way to live. I think my story begins with hears Sister Helen Prejean (Catholic nun, wrote Dead Man Walking, seeks for the end of capital punishment) speak when I was 15 or 16 years old. There are many reasons to oppose the death penalty–the racial injustice, the waste of finances, the number of wrongfully accused who continue to be sentenced to death, the long years individuals have to wait on Death Row before actually receiving the ultimate sentence. While all of those reasons are important to consider, as a Christian, I think there is only one, which should be at the forefront of our minds–forgiveness and love should always trump vengeance and retaliation. Even on the cross Jesus forgave, both his executioners and the “sinner” on the cross near him. In fact, other than the injustice that becomes plainly apparent when you research capital punishment in the US, the one thing that stuck out to me then and continues to remain in my thoughts are the stories of forgiveness–families of victims, told both by Sister Helen and by the families themselves who travel with her, who fight tooth an nail for a life sentence instead of a death sentence, families who chose forgiveness in spite of their pain.
However, the path of nonviolence is a long one, and it is not always the popular one. I have long opposed the wars our country has gotten into. I’m a supporter of stricter gun control. The list goes on. While many of these issues are quite political in nature, for me, the are born from the notion that active love does not involve killing the enemy. Does that mean evil men should be allowed to run free and do whatever they want? Of course not. However, our sense of judgement and justice is faulty, at best. Living a nonviolent life in a violent, evil, fallen world is difficult. Some say it may be impossible–How can we live nonviolently with terrorists? I honestly don’t know, but I know there is always a better way.
It is easy to get bogged down in the practicalities and miss some of the more important questions which deal directly with our faith and theology. The easy questions are:
“Did Jesus really mean we should turn the other cheek? What does that look like in practice?”
“What would the story of the adulterous woman in John 8 (Let he without sin throw the first stone) look like in our own lives?”
“Did Jesus really mean we should go the extra mile?”
I truly believe the story of nonviolence in a violent world is evident in the New Testament. Those three “easy” questions I just asked are just a few of the many which point the way to nonviolence. For me, it is harder to deny the message of nonviolence than to find it. If you are willing to see it, the message is quite clear. However, I will be first to admit the issue of nonviolence does bring up a lot of questions. The Bible is quite violent, some of which was approved, if not commanded, by God. The Old Testament is full of war, genocide, rape, deceit, murder, taking land from indigenous people/original inhabitants, the killing of women and children. In the law, death is the punishment for many sins, even simply disrespecting your parents. How do balance our modern, NT view of God as loving, forgiving, gracious, with the OT God seems to be down right blood thirsty at times? Despite how you feel about nonviolence, this is a difficult question, especially if part of your theology includes God never changing. Jesus on the cross seems to be a contradiction to God ordering the death of every man, woman, child, and live stock of multiple tribes in the OT.
Over the years, many people have struggled with this contradiction in various ways. Here are a few:
- If God ordered the death of entire people groups, then obviously war is necessary to protect people and to fulfill God’s plan
- Our definition of “inspired” as it relates to scripture and how it was written was flawed–God didn’t actually command the destruction of those people groups
- The destruction of entire people groups was ordered because those tribes were actually nephelim
While there are many others, I think these three outline the three main ways people deal with this contradiction–avoidance, denial, and the need for concrete answers. The first, avoidance, completely ignores the fact that the contradiction exists–it ignores the fact that Jesus commands us to love and pray for our enemies. A lot of people also point out that many of the tribes which were supposed to be completely eliminated were particularly evil (child sacrifices, etc), and, thus, deserved to be killed. Though, this logic still does not agree with the message of Jesus. The second, denial, suggests the contradiction is man-made and that the stories of God commanding the destruction of people groups were actually political ploys to influence the military decisions of whoever was king at the time the story was written. However, this idea doesn’t quite fit–think about all the stories of destruction in Genesis and Exodus, which were written by Moses. Who was Moses trying to influence? He was already the leader. Also, if you go down this path, which says the authors of these stories were not guided by God, saying something was commanded by God when it wasn’t, then what stops us from scrutinizing the rest of scripture when we have no real way of determining what was “God breathed” and what was not? The third highlights our human need for concrete answers. For those of you (probably most of you) who have not heard the theory about the nephelim, it comes from a verse in Genesis which suggests the nephelim were still present on earth after the flood (Goliath’s height is often thrown in for evidence). However, this reason as to why God ordered some tribes to be annihilated while others should be simply “driven out” gives us an easy out. It gives an answer which cannot be disproved by scripture (the fact that it can’t exactly be proven either doesn’t seem to be a problem), and it gives an answer in which Christians can then feel OK with the murder of children.
Avoiding the issue, denying the issue actually exists, or creating stories to make us feel better do us more harm than good. First, we should be OK with feeling uneasy, with not understanding, and with not having answers. Second, we shouldn’t be afraid to acknowledge what we don’t understand or have an answer for. I think adding a little honesty into the discussion, admitting we don’t know, will go farther than pretending to have an answer. Third, we shouldn’t get angry when people disagree with us over how we, as a body, should handle the notion of violence. Fourth, and most importantly, just because a story is in the Bible does not mean the actions are OK–I don’t think we have the liberty to use scripture to support our actions when those actions bring harm, destruction, or anything that isn’t “good news.” Ultimately, the Bible is a story of redemption and the ultimate love. If nothing else, that story should be evident in our own lives–both that we have been redeemed and loved, and that we value redemption and love over vengeance and hate.