[What follows is my submission to the series on “Violence and Christian Holy Writ” that has been running for the last number of weeks over at the blog of Cynthia Nielsen. Up until today, I was under the impression that my post had been accepted but Cynthia has since notified me that (for reasons I won’t go into here) my submission has been rejected. Therefore, I thought I would post it here because I am genuinely interested in what others might think of this topic. I envision three follow-up posts exploring this theme in the New Testament — the nonviolence of Paul, the sectarianism of John, and a concluding post on the importance of respecting and employing the diversity of tactics we encounter in the NT.]
The Violence of Jesus
For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places – Eph 6.12
In what follows, I will argue that some Christians should embrace a certain kind of violent action in order to faithfully follow Jesus within our present context. By making this argument, I will be situating myself within an uncomfortable ideological location – rejecting the (often imperialistic and murderous) Niebuhrian position on violence as a “necessary evil,” and standing outside of the (often superficial and self-serving) pacifism of Anabaptist-inspired Christians, there is every chance that both parties will be ill-equipped to hear what I am saying.
This is why it is essential to examine the words and actions of Jesus before we embrace any ideology related to non/violence. Rather than asking, “Is violence (whatever that is) right or wrong?” it is better to ask “How did Jesus act and what might it mean to faithfully follow Jesus today?” Pursuing this question, helps us to escape from ingrained theological or cultural perspectives that have prevented us from recognizing what the Gospels actually say on this subject.
When studying Jesus, a few important points stand out. First, although Jesus sometimes verbally abuses others – referring to Peter as “Satan” (Mk 8.33), calling a Gentile woman a “dog” (Mk 7.27), and saying a whole host of nasty things about the scribes, Pharisees, and teachers of the law (cf., for example, Mt 23.1-33) – and although he seems to expect some sort of future divine violence to be enacted against people, in part, because of the way they treat him (Mt 11.20-24, 23.35-38, 25.1-46, 26.24, etc.) – Jesus never engages in any act of physical violence against another person. Furthermore, when people do engage in what could be legitimate forms of violence against others, Jesus is quick to counteract their actions (as when he heals the fellow whose ear is lopped off by one of the disciples [cf. Lk 22.49-51]).
The concomitant of this rejection of acting violently against others is Jesus’ ongoing action to heal, forgive, accept, and touch others – especially, the poor, the sick, the sinners, and the ostracized. Thus, while some may be fated for the experience of divinely-imposed violence in the future, at the moment of Jesus’ ministry all people are offered God’s gift of new and abundant life.
Here we get to one of the fundamental points of Jesus’ ministry: Jesus was acting in the service of the God of Life, offering life to all, and thereby also actively resisting all the Powers that acted in the service of Death (Powers that included demons, sin, sickness, loneliness, deprivation, and the theopolitical authority of Rome and Jerusalem). This is why, despite his sometimes violent rhetoric and his threatening scare-tactics, Jesus cannot act in a way that harms anybody else. To be in the service of life for all, means that one cannot physically harm anybody else. One must love even one’s enemies, and loving one’s enemies means that one cannot harm them, even if they seek to harm you. Here, the Anabaptist-inspired Christians are right, and the Niebuhrians and the “just war” theorists are wrong. Physically harming any other person falls outside of the range of actions appropriate to contemporary followers of Jesus.
However, that is not the end of Jesus’ engagement with violence, and this is where the Anabaptist-inspired Christians tend to get things wrong. What is almost universally neglected in Christian conversations regarding non/violence, are Jesus’ actions of violence against private property. This is the second point that needs to be highlighted (indeed, that this point is neglected by both sides of the debate demonstrates that both parties tend to share a common class interest and bias – i.e. people on both sides tend to hoard a great deal of private property).
The most obvious example of this type of violence is the “direct action” Jesus takes in the Jerusalem temple (John 2.13-16; cf. Mk 11.15-17; Mt 21.12-3; Lk 11.45-46). This event is interesting because it is the closest Jesus comes to employing physical violence against others. Indeed, the reason why the buyers and sellers fled the temple was because of the perception that physical violence might be employed against them. However, the texts seem to suggest that violence was only actualized against property. Here, property is not only damaged, it is probably also stolen, and violence is used to facilitate that theft (to imagine the scattered coins being left for the money changers to gather is a bit implausible).
Two points are usually overlooked here: first, although a detailed exegesis is employed in order to demonstrate the likelihood that Jesus’ violence was restricted to property and not people, the point that Jesus actually does engage in an act of violence against private property is not appropriately emphasized. Secondly, this passage tends to be cited as the only example of Jesus engaging in a physically violent act, but this overlooks other passages demonstrating Jesus’ willingness to destroy private property or approve of others doing so.
To choose a second example, one can also recall the healing of a certain demon-possessed man (cf. Mk 5.1-20; Mt 8.28-34; Lk 8.26-39). In this action, Jesus casts a “Legion” of demons into a herd of about two thousand pigs (the pig, it should be remembered, was a symbol of one of the Roman legions that destroyed Jerusalem in 70CE). These pigs rush into a lake and are drowned. This prompts the locals to plead with Jesus to depart from their region. This response is a bit puzzling until one remembers that Jesus had just destroyed an expensive herd belonging to a wealthy but absent land-owner. This land-owner had entrusted his herd to the locals and would be furious at his loss. Therefore, the locals likely wanted Jesus to leave before he could do any more damage and further threaten their safety.
As a third example, we can recall Jesus’ tacit approval of those who damaged the roof of a private home in order to have their paralyzed friend healed by him (cf. Mk 2.1-5; Lk 5.18-26).
Again, the clash between serving life and confronting that which is death-dealing is at the core of Jesus’ actions in these three cases. When private property is linked to that which is death-dealing or prevents that which is life-giving, Jesus is not afraid to destroy it – regardless of the laws that exist to protect it.
This carries some important implications for those who seek to follow Jesus today and pushes us in an interesting direction. Instead of asking, “Is violence right or wrong?” followers of Jesus should be asking, “What is life-giving and what are the death-dealing things that stand in the way of abundant life for all?” Answering this question requires us to move beyond theory to action, perhaps even militant action. What we may need is a Christian militancy that is willing to destroy idolatrous and death-dealing private property (an enemy not of blood and flesh), while simultaneously holding out the offer of abundant life to all people.
Exploring two partially flawed Canadian examples may stimulate our imaginations in this regard (note: no people were harmed in both cases). First, recall the “Heart Attack” protest that occurred in Vancouver during the 2010 Olympics (cf. here for video of that protest and for information on why the Olympic Games are death-dealing – although you should read Helen Lenskyj or watch this documentary for more detailed analysis). During that protest, some windows of a Hudson’s Bay Company store were smashed (the HBC has a long history of brutality against the Canadian aboriginal peoples, and Vancouver exists on unceded and stolen Coast Salish land). Although I questioned the tactical value of smashing those windows – and raised those questions not from a distance but as one of the thirteen arrested that day – the smashing of those windows did not strike me as immoral. It may very well have been a Christ-like action.
Second, we can recall how an anarchist group (two fifty year olds and one thirty-five year old) firebombed a branch of the Royal Bank of Canada in Ottawa (our capital) prior to this year’s G8/G20 Summits (cf. here for footage and a glimpse into RBC’s brutal history). This may very well be a contemporary example of what it looks like to overturn the tables of the money changers.
This helps to clarify the true “cost of discipleship.” It reminds us that bearing the brand-marks of Christ on our bodies means living with bodies that are scarred by the disciplinary actions of the authorities who operate in the service of Death. We can no longer fool ourselves: our commitment to abundant life for all might lead us to be condemned with a terrorist (lestes) on either side of us. Only then will we be able to journey no further into union with the crucified Christ.
Fire on Babylon. Lord, have mercy.