Friday, October 06, 2006

On Non-Violence

See thread over at Scott Freeman's place.

A couple of other thoughts, since folks always obsess over the temple incident:

(1) maybe Jesus lost his temper and was human - not setting an example for us,

(2) perhaps there are things Jesus can do, given his deity that we are not capable of sufficient power or judgment to attempt to do (e.g., die on a cross for the sins others; walk on water; raise the dead…) - and perhaps having the right and the wisdom to drive people from the temple is not an example of how to handle anger (remember, this was _not_ self-defense on Jesus' part), but an example of God's affront at sin…

(3) could it be that our focus should be on all the things Jesus said and did and taught and instructed as well as all of those disciples who wrote in His name afterwards - not on a single incident that, based on the comments above, we have little contextual understanding of.

Again, I refer you to the Moriari. Or the Amish.

Ultimately, violence is always about two (2) things that operate in a vicious, deteriorating cycle:

(1) Fear - we are afraid; the greater the violence, the greater the fear that drives it; and we are afraid of our fear - afraid to admit it; or to accept it - which is the only way to eliminate it, by the way. So instead we seek…

(2) Control - we long to suffer under the delusion that we have the slightest control over what happens to us - see comments above about protecting our families - we really want to believe that we can protect ourselves and those we love from sin, evil and pain. Of course, we cannot. And the only protection of ultimate value is love and surrender. But as Greg notes, we do not believe - or, at least, we don't believe enough.

It all comes down to these two things: we are afraid and we long for control. Jesus' answer to humanity was to trust God, to love God; to surrender the lust for control and the self-deception that we can obtain it by our own power, wisdom and might. Because such self-deception will lead to idolatry, self-obsession, injustice, lack of mercy, and, of course, more violence.

All the Dukakising is pointless, too. If I had a gun in my hand and my daughters were attacked, I think I would not hesitate to fire. Of course, this is irrelevent on both moral and political grounds. The question is not what would I do, but what would God have me do.

Then let's think about what God has done.

Take the temple. Some cite Jesus' rage as an example of his authorization of violence. But does that even make sense as an example of righteous anger or vengeance or self-defense? Wasn't it under God's sovereign rule that the Romans were occupying Jerusalem at that time? That the Israel of the OT was under the bootheel of the Emperor? Wasn't it under God's watchful eye that Israel , before and since Jesus' outburst at the temple, suffered unbelievable torment, devastation, torture and violence practically beyond comprehension? If the temple outburst is an example of God's rage on behalf of the righteousness of Israel, if anything, it constitutes the most anemic response in human history. More likely, this was more about political provokation for God's ultimate purposes than anything else.

Now broaden the perpsective to all of humanity.

God didn't protect nearly three thousand innocent people from the rabid acts of September 11th. He hasn't violently intervened to protect over three thousand American soldiers engaged in a war ostensibly designed to stop the kind of violence unleashed on September 11th.

Nor the six million Jews exterminated in Europe only a few decades ago. Or the Japanese women and children erased by the atomic bombs thereafter.

Or the innocents in Rwanda and Darfur.

He doesn't protect the innocent women and children in the path of raging tsunamis or hurricanes or cyclones.

He didn't protect his own child being tortured and killed.

Nor those who would come after Him in His name…

He gives us no instruction to "keep and bear arms".

No instruction to fight injustice with anything other than prayer and love.

No marching orders but humility and sacrifice and long-suffering.

Those wishing to construct a picture of a retributive, vigilante God - a God who responds to injustice and violence with force and calls his followers to his example - are simply lacking in any evidence for it beyond a couple of apocryphal citations in Acts or the writings of warring tribes in ancient Mesopotamia.

In fact, God seems to be totally silent (unless we count the lengthening list of despots throughout history who claim to speak for Him) on the idea of "fighting back" in either self-defense or "pre-emption".

Do I like that? No. I want a Bruce Willis God - a God who diverts the paths of the madman's bullets to protect those innocent Amish girls. A God who slams the would-be assassins with heart attacks or massive aneurysms or a passing bus before they board the planes. I want a God who obliterates cancer; who protects the innocence of children.

But, folks, where is that God?

And if we're supposed to be acting in his stead in that regard, what an incredibly lousy job we're doing - and how utterly unprepared and ill-equipped He has left us to that task! No instructions, no encouragement, no directions in that regard whatsoever. Humility, love, forgiveness, mercy, the other cheek have not proved to be effective weapons in the war on terror. At least not as we measure effectiveness.

We focus on outcomes - we live and believe the ends justify the means. God, on the other hand, seems utterly, totally and enragingly unconcerned with what we perceive as the outcomes (the course of the disease; the results of the surgery; the wake of the bullet, the usefulness of the extracted information) and entirely obsessed with our means along the way.

Where does that leave us?

As an aside, on the topic of Hell, I think we've also got some ancient and pagan ideas that have been syncretized/baptized into our concepts there. I'm not taking a theological position here, but read, as food for thought, C. S. Lewis' The Great Divorce.

Is Defending the Defenseless a Biblical Mandate to Disciples?

Where is that either commanded for believers or demonstrated by God's behavior? God and Jesus seem utterly unconcerned with stopping the injustice to those around them. As individuals, we are not commanded to step in and by force defend the weak. Rather, we are commanded to love and serve them and treat them with respect. But no violence or force is commanded, mentioned, exemplified or justified.

As I mentioned in a previous post, I don't think it's so much that God "saw the light" as that humanity finally "grew up" and we can look back now on that war-like, bloody civilization and be thankful we've shaken off that sinful behavior - along with slavery, gender inequity, age inequity and race inequity - though on the latter three we still have a ways to go, I suppose.

Just to further make the point, isn't God the ultimate person "who [is] able to protect those who are not" able to protect themselves?

Yet He does not.

Why is that example less compelling - given that it's immeasurably more demonstrable and substantial - than the example of Jesus' rage at the temple?

It's less compelling because we want to be able to express rage and anger and enact vengeance. Though Jesus was probably doing none of these.

What about the reference Jesus makes to the person who would harm a child – that they'd be better off with a stone tied round their neck and cast into the sea – isn't that violent?

On Jesus' statement about the person who harms a child, it's easy enough to see that Jesus is referring to the state of that person's soul - a la Epictetus: "You ask what punishment there is for those with such a spirit? There punishment is to be as they are." Jesus is saying that anyone with a spirit that would harm a child is already in Hell - the soul of a person with such brokenness and distortion is a living torture - they would be better off to not exist than to exist with such a spirit of evil. He is decidedly not advocating violence of the summary execution by drowning of evildoers!


Isn't Jesus' outburst at the temple a reaction to the injustice he sees there?

What was going on at the temple was minor compared to the injustices being suffered all around Jesus at the time - folks being slaughtered by the Romans; Jews under military rule by the Emperor, etc. But none of that inspired anger in Jesus? He's worried about some poor sap marking up doves by a few denarii to make a living?

This is what inspires Him to intervene?

No, this was not about righteous indignation - we're misappropriating Jesus' action to rationalize our own prejudices.

It is just preposterous to say that God is unconcerned with stopping injustices.

First, I agree. But remember that this discussion is about whether violence or forceful intervention is justified by God. So my legitimate question is that in light of the undeniable presence of overwhelming evil and injustice in the world, why isn't God intervening in some manner to stop it - if forceful intervention is a God-like characteristic. Please note that last.

If you have evidence that God is stamping out evil and righting injustices and eliminating suffering and protecting children, I'd love to see it.

I absolutely believe God is powerful, all-knowing and loving. I also believe He is not intervening to stop evil because that is not His way. Ergo, not our way. More on this below.

I think we're wrapping our thinking up in that one misinterpreted example of Jesus' actions at the temple. I'll wait for Scott's post on that next week.

Where does Jesus teach, encourage, authorize or use force or violence as a model of discipleship? Where does Jesus tell his disciples, after the temple incident, to "go and do likewise"? This is just our rationalization.

We want it to be true because the other way doesn't make sense to us…

If Jesus saw a child molester, would he just let him pass by – with no punishment – no seeking to right the injustice?

I ask in reply, where was God when the molestation took place? Did He lack either authority or power to intervene? Did He not care?

We're continuing to ignore the elephant in the room.

God lets this stuff happen not once or twice, but millions of times every day. Yet no one is stricken dead. No one drops over before the act is accomplished. The police are blocked in traffic; the parent leaves the child alone too long, etc. All these opportunities for God to directly intervene or to grease the skids for someone else to. But He doesn't. The gunman could've run out of gas on the way to the school house. A freak hailstorm might've knocked him unconscious. And so on…

If you had 1/1000th of God's power - and the knowledge of a child molester about to molest, and the power to intervene - even non-violently, would you? Wouldn't you believe it would be sin to not do something?

So why does God fail to do so thousands of times every day? Where is the defender of the defenseless?

The options comes down to some pretty tough choices (with thanks to David Hume): (1) God doesn't have the power, (2) God doesn't care (Jon's concern above), or (3) God has a different way of seeing the world that places those events in a radically different perspective. (And free-will defenses of God's inaction don't work because that would apply to you and me as well. And as for us being responsible to intervene - Jesus didn't; and last time I checked, none of us can stop hurricanes or tsunamis or see into the future or a person's heart or be everywhere at once…)

So if you choose (3), then it gets really tough to justify violence in the name of justice since God doesn't give us any example or direction to follow that path.

Even the example of the child-molester offered above fails to ask the right question: "Would Jesus stop a child molester from molesting?" Why don't we ask that? Because we all know that Jesus isn't stopping the children being molested - and the evening news reminds us of it every day.

So instead we ask about what Jesus would do in the aftermath. Why? Because that's where we always are - standing over the wreckage and trauma and suffering - bathed in anger and doubt and fear and rage. And we want someone to pay.

But Jesus' only recorded responses regarding the punishment of criminals - in direct affronts to the penal justice system of the day - were "go and sin no more" and "today you will be with me in Paradise".

So much for Jesus as heavenly warden.

But we stiffen the punishment, lengthen the sentences, increase the executions - in hopes of slaking our rage and fear and controlling our future.

But we aren't in any final sense protecting others since all human existence is fraught with pain and suffering and ultimately death. (Interestingly, Lewis (see The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses) uses this same perspective to argue in favor of non-pacifism by saying that war does not quantitatively increase pain, since human existence is filled with pain anyway and we are all going to die, so war doesn't make that any worse).

Nor are we ultimately increasing the pain of evildoers.

And didn't Jesus "just let sinners go" all the time? Name one sinner he struck dead or had imprisoned. Instead He forgave them. Embraced them. Just because the sins mentioned in the NT are the "more understandable" ones we don't find totally repugnant (theft, adultery, drunkenness, etc.) doesn't unmake the point.

Jesus' response to sin and suffering was weeping, surrendering and dying. It was not retribution, punishment or violence. His reaction was not anger and violence.

Isn't it really naive to think that if we take the path of peace each and every time, everything is going to turn out okay?

I think it seems naive because we're convinced that we know what the right outcome is - even though God doesn't seem at all concerned with the "right outcome" from our perspective.

I agree that things would look radically different if the way of peace were followed. Look at the Moriari, for example.

But the question is whether we will trust God and follow His example precisely when it means that we don't know what's going to happen and especially when doing what He says results in unexpected (and, likely, unwelcome) outcomes.


JRB said...

This is very good and is joining some very persuasive voices that are transforming my thinking, and the Amish this week have been witnesses. What extraorinary teaching we are receiving from them.

A few thoughts, not necessarily following each other.

1. I have a slightly different reading of the temple tables story. Jesus is motivated by your #3 above, but I do not think that he was outraged or angry at injustice. As always, he was motivated by love. His love for the Father and love for the victimized worshippers motivated his violent act. He was not acting against injustice as injustice but from love in the 1st and 2d degree, and the temple was the crucible. This is a closer parallel to the proscription for those who would lead a child into sin, that it be better for him to be drowned with a millstone around his neck, surely violent imagery and death. This springs not from anger against the cursed but from love for the child. If we can wage war in love for the victims but not hatred of their oppressors, a tall order by any means, then we have a just war.

JRB said...

2. What an extraordinary observation that God seems unconcerned about the injustice throughout the world. I have been reading Isaiah this month and am stunned once again by the vehemence of His condemnation and wrath on the corrupt nations. This is macro damnation, and so far only Chap. 12 provides much solace.

Also, in Eccelesiastes, we see the Spirit of Wisdome acknowledging that the world is corrupt, violent and unjust, always has been and always will be. The message is pretty bleak with only two ideas which are not vain, first, walk with God, second, take care of each other. The Teacher does not aspire to social or moral reform and abandons the idea before even considering its worth.

Jesus said that we will always have the poor with us, then directs us unequivocally to care for them. Jesus did not charge the church to eradicate poverty but to take care of the poor. Jesus seems awfully disinterested in redeming a systemic landscape but terribly interested in redeming hearts within it. Paul didn't tell the Centurion to leave the army, to overthrow Rome or to rise politically, but he did teach him to follow Christ.

I saw a sign this week at a Catholic church that read, "God is pro-life," and I almost laughed thinking, "Go read Isaiah! Plenty of indescriminate death there!"

JRB said...

3. So what are we to learn? God has a very, very different view of death and life than we, even Christians, do. God has a very different view of suffering than we do. God has a very different view of injustice than we do.

Now, this is not to say that God revels in death, suffering and injustice. Indeed, he condemns it and weeps. Rather, God is saving us from our falleness for His Kingdom, not this kingdom. He demands of his followers love, hope and joy in the face of death, service to the suffering and advocacy for justice. We will not achieve whole justice here, ever, we can be sure, but He nonetheless would have us model Him and seek His will for His Kingdom: justice, mercy and humility.

God spares none of us from pain, spares none of us from death and spares none of us from mourning. These are universal to the human experience, and we cannot undo them. Instead, He promises love, mercy, grace, forgiveness, hope, joy and peace, in Him and His Kingdom, and nowhere else.

Lewis's "The Great Divorce" and "The Last Battle" both give us an inspired picture of God's point of view. After death, if we even notice it, these things which consumed us, which we feared and loathed, for which we craved and pined, will wash away. We will see this life as He sees it now, only birth pains, only our gestation before we begin to live.

Further up and further in!

JRB said...

4. This has more significant implications on our discussion of universalism, and these observations and thoughts drive me more in the direction I'm hearing. That, however, is a different post.

CJR said...

JRB - RE:the Temple passage, Scott Freeman has on this passage with a very different reading than is traditionally attributed to it.

Len said...

Interesting thoughts. First let me state that I agree that the pathway of Christ is one of non-violence. As I mature as a Christian and the mind of Christ is formed in me violence will not even be something I consider. Suffice it to say I am not there yet.

The problem I have with what you are saying is that it seems to me you have gone too far with the analogy that God could do something about the wrongs of this world but He hasn't/doesn't so why should we? If we took this to an extreme degree then why would we speak out against injustice anywhere. The one sin which God condemns more than any other (and by an amazing margin) is the sin of injustice. God does care when people are done wrong and He does want something done about it. Not through violent means, but through forceful means perhaps. Isn't it the role of the church to be God's voice for those who cannot be heard?

Maybe I am misreading you, but I just felt you went too far in this one arena. Some clarification perhaps.

CJR said...

Len - Excellent point. No, you did not misread me. One of the arguments people always bring up in favor of the use of violence is that we are to defend the defenseless. My counterpoint was to demonstrate that God never seems to intervene on behalf of human suffering and, in fact, the existence of injustice and evil and suffering itself proves that either God doesn't care, can't do anything or is willing to allow this pain and evil to exist - i.e., to not step in and "defend the defenseless".

But you've pointed out the weakness in that comparison: God doesn't seem to do anything on a material scale about injustice - violent or otherwise, so if we're using God's intervention (or lack thereof) as a model, we shouldn't do anything either, right?

But as you rightly point it, we're clearly called to be instruments of peace, mercy, grace, love and justice. So it seems that we are to intervene, even though God seems absent (at least in the direct sense).

So where does that leave the argument?

I believe it leads us right back to Jesus' example and teaching. Jesus came to show us the right way to be in the world without being of the world. And his way was always, consistently and uniformly, non-violent.

JRB said...

God did intervene. He is not absent. Jesus' incarnation, death and resurrection is the intervention.

I'm studying Isaiah, whose outlook on life is rather bleak, at least in the first 30 or so chapters. Tonight, though, I read Chap. 25 which follows a tortuous trail of devastation and condemnation, and God invites all people from all nations to a feast on the mountain side where he "swallows death," wipes their tears and erases their disgrace. In I Cor. 15, Paul says that we all will be transformed, and in that moment, the twinkling of an eye, death will be defeated, thanks be to our Lord for Jesus Christ.

So, Jeff, I assume that when you say that God has not interveneed or has not intervened materially, you mean that he does not stop the temporal transgressions of injustice or abuse. True, but do not go so far as to say that he hasn't done anything. What I am learning most this week in this and other conversations and readings is the lesson that we are short-sighted beings, out of touch with God's design and heart. He weeps for us in our pain and injustice but knows that we will join him on the mountain top where he will wipe away our tears.

Perhaps that doesn't help the pacifist / just war / non-violence determination because these are more immediate issues. However so, this "already but not yet" appreciation of our salvation should inform our understanding of Jesus' consistent actions too.

CJR said...

Well, I think what I'm saying is that evil occurs right in front of our eyes all the time everyday and in ways that we can envision a being with even moderate powers intervening to prevent harmful outcomes (see the thread over at Scott Freeman's blog for more of my thoughts on this). Yet intervention does not occur.

What you are talking about is faith that God knows what's going on, that God sees some view of reality we don't see that makes all this tragic mess worthwhile, and that God will ultimately act at some point in the future to right the wrongs.

I believe all that, but I also recognize that if I had the power to divert the paths of that madman's bullets before they struck those innocent Amish girls, I would have done so. And if I had that power and did not intervene, I would consider my inaction to be an immoral act.

All this to say that there must be a context in which non-violence and the endurance of incredible injustice and suffering and the refusal to forcefully intervene in the commission of injustices is not only a moral option, but a moral imperative. Otherwise, God is immoral or impotent.