Paris, Jesus, violence, and the human heart
There is violence in the Old Testament. I understand that. And there are features of that violence that are troubling. Deeply troubling. Every fiber of my being wants to add a “but” at this point, and begin to explain the cultural context, the use of violence as a narrative device, the limits on violence that God establishes, etc. But I can’t, yet. There are too many bodies in the streets of Paris amidst the cry that “God is great!”
It’s not, of course, just the Old Testament. The central narrative of the New Testament is an act of state violence involving torture. Paul participates in an act of communal religious violence in the stoning of Stephen. Paul is, in turn, the victim of communal violence as he preaches in the Judean community centers of what is now Turkey and Greece. But there is a difference in these stories from the Old Testament, not least because we also have Jesus’ teaching to love your enemies, to forgive those who sin against you, to refuse revenge. Nevertheless, Ananias and Sapphira are struck dead for lying to the Holy Spirit. And what shall we say about the cosmic violence and suffering described in the visions of Revelations?
There is a literary and historical context for all of this. And there is an important distinction to be made between the message of scripture and the world of the narrative that bears that message to us. The scripture, read as a whole, and read in the light of the incarnate word Jesus, does not advocate violence. It’s just that violence seems to be our human condition. A frustrated child smacks his sister – or throws his toy at her. The disciplining parent seizes the child and, even when there is no spanking, uses their superior size and strength to forcibly remove the flailing child to his room. School children use tools of verbal and physical intimidation to gain their way, or to mock and belittle. Cities have police forces armed with deadly weapons. Countries build armies and armies built get used, even as weapons built get used.
The strong use violence against the weak – and the weak respond with a violence of their own. You can make a reasonable argument that police forces function as hired enforcers to protect the property and power of the wealthy.
We played cops and robbers, cowboys and Indians, and war as kids. At least my brothers and I. We didn’t have mock Uzzi’s. We used our finger or a stick, though I did once have a cap gun six-shooter, a holster and a cowboy hat.
We have snowball fights and the ritualized violence of football. We watch crime dramas that routinely begin with a dead body in ever more unusual locations.
Politicians talk tough about enemies foreign and domestic. Ralph Kramden joked about domestic violence. Jim Crow was a system of legally sanctioned cultural violence. Children came to watch lynchings.
And then there is rape and the many manifestations of sexual violence against women and children.
And then there is prison. Violence to body and soul.
Our language itself is full of scarcely acknowledged violence. We want our team to crush, beat, dominate, knock down, our opponents. There is war in the trenches. The game is a battle to the last breath.
Our answer to violence is superior force, so the SWAT teams comes in a black Humvee, dressed in black, with military grade weapons. Shock and awe. Flash bang. And failing all else there is the trusty nightstick to enforce your will on another.
It is not scripture that is violent. We are. We are caught in a hopeless cycle of violence. Someone told me this week that we could have won in Korea if the military hadn’t been shackled by civilians afraid to use nuclear weapons. I was too stunned to speak. Stunned by the faith in superior violence. Stunned by the imagination that violence would beget submission rather than more violence. Stunned by the willingness to use weapons of a frightful mass destruction.
Whatever else we do with scripture, for Christians the final word is God’s refusal to answer the violence of Rome with a violence from heaven. God could send legions of angels to defend Jesus. But God chooses not to. The answer to human violence is not divine violence, but a supreme act of mercy.
I don’t know what this means when terrorists are shooting up Paris. I just know that it calls us to a different path.
There are times like this I want to fully endorse the concept of unquenchable fire, though generally I prefer the imagery used by C. S. Lewis in his little book The Great Divorce, where hell is not a world of torment to which the wicked are consigned, it is the life they choose because they cannot endure the life of God. But I put my hope and trust in the crucified one – not because he is risen as if the death were not real, but because of the promise that he who renounced violence is our world’s true Lord, because of the promise that he can reign now in me, because of the promise that he will come to rule in all, because of the promise that swords will be beaten into plowshares and all humanity feast at one table – with twelve baskets left over.