An Incomplete Theology of Violence
Turn from anger; search for restoration
Note: The following essay is an attempt to articulate a personal position based on my own experience and drawing heavily on a generational Protestant tradition.
Here, I’m defining “theology” as the story God is telling about himself by way of his creation, his ongoing work in and through it, and the collection of accounts and letters in the New Testament of the Bible.
I’m using “violence” to mean behavior intended to cause physical harm to another human. And I think we must also consider the sorts of words and ideas that lead to violence. I am neither a Bible scholar nor a seminarian. I welcome correction, critique, and conversation. Here, between memory and possibility, I hope to challenge my own assumptions and gain from the wisdom of others.
I possess a swift and severe sense of what I wish could be called justice. This impulse manifests in my roles as son, big brother, husband, father, colleague and friend. Those who know me have seen me provoked quickly to violence — in word and deed — when threatened or offended. I have a propensity for it. And I have had to stretch and grasp for mercy, whereas anger is always close at hand. It sweeps across my brow like a storm, flashing in my eyes and thundering in my chest with terrible swiftness.
The good news is that the man of whom I am speaking is wasting away. His slow death within me is welcome and, I’m sure, a relief to those around me. Along with decades of apologies and repentance, this dying man has bequeathed to me a vivid imagination for the way a person suddenly finds himself standing over a vanquished foe— or worse.
For many years, I’ve been intrigued by the clarity of Christian non-violence and pacifism as a worldview. It seems remarkable to me that the revolutionary teachings of an obscure Jewish rabbi a couple millennia ago invited adherents to indelibly subvert the natural order of our world with three simple words: Love your enemy.¹ This idea floated around the Mediterranean, exploded throughout the Roman Empire, and embedded itself in the grain of modern civilization. Within living memory, it formed critical aspects of the civil rights movement here in the American South.
Recently though, I’ve been confounded by these questions at new and troublesome scales. I’ve watched dear friends wrestle with a bewildering mix of violence in their own lives and places. How should adherents to the teaching of Jesus think about these things? Is violence sin? I’ll attempt to probe these questions within five spheres of my own personal implication:
As subjects of an empire
Like the Apostle Paul, we often have a position from which to speak truth to power. We should use this agency to establish and reform systems to be evermore just and equitable, but also merciful. In a republic, this means we have a moral obligation to consider and select representatives who will uphold human dignity and expand security, wealth, trade and the rule of law through only the least violent means possible. I don’t think American Christians have the luxury of washing our hands of the works of government, particularly when they are extra-national, or outside the domain of our Constitution.
We should advocate loudly against war and a culture of war-making. I think (with a few exceptions) the American church has embarrassed itself in this regard. If we order our allegiances properly, we will put the peace of God before any call to militarism. Empires respond to provocation. The Lusitania. Pearl Harbor. 9/11. Christians should not be counted among the hawks.
For some of us, that’s the easy part. Vote and don’t beat the drums of war — got it. But we must also continually renounce an imperial culture of death. Christians confess a strange faith that claims all humans are made and sustained in the image of a living God. It culminates in the murder of a revolutionary peasant and rests in the hope that he was God and that he rose from the dead and, in doing so, defeated death for all eternity.
In light of that, I don’t believe Christians can support — actively or through indifference — any policy that results in the state-sanctioned termination of human life.
God made his opinion of empires quite clear.²
As citizens of a nation
If, like me, you’re fortunate enough to be a citizen of a creedal nation-state, your responsibilities around violence may shift and sharpen. Citizens have unique opportunities to shape rights and laws. We can and do change our Constitution in ways that intersect with violence.
Just war theory proposes three broad categories for evaluating whether national violence is justified. Jus ad bellum (our right to go to war), jus in bello (righteous conduct in war), and jus post bellum (post-war settlement and reconstruction). This framework of before, during and after is a good way to consider a theology of violence, even at smaller scales.
Before going to war, Christians should be the vanguard for limiting force and minimizing death on all sides. Our lack of concern for material things and possessions should give us clear eyes in assessing costs and priorities. Christians enlisted in the military should discharge their duties within a unique tension: they must loathe violence, while also remaining ready to defend the innocent and act as the sword of the state.
In wartime, Christians should clamor for violence to end swiftly. It is heartbreaking to think of the U.S.’s open-ended conflicts and the American church’s deafening silence. Love of enemy can never include this kind of war-making. We are to seek peace.
In that spirit, I believe the real opportunity for Christians at a national scale is immediately following a war. There is no better context for our particular brand of radical love than in the open wound of a defeated enemy. We have the opportunity to extend grace to our would-be oppressors as our Lord did to his executioners. Reconciliation, material aid, mental health services and spiritual restitution should all be the hallmark of Christ’s church in the wake of national violence.
As residents of a place
Of far more practical consequence than our citizenship is our residency. These are my neighbors — the intended beneficiaries of my submission to the greatest commandment.³ How can we think justly about violence in the places we work, live and travel?
Here, we come to what I think might be a useful hypothetical: What would have happened if the Samaritan had come along while the robbers were still beating the Jewish man depicted in Jesus’ parable?⁴ Would he have waited until they were finished to come to his aid? Or would he have intervened?
I believe the Samaritan would have acted to stop the beating. When Luke wishes to convey the wickedness of Saul, he describes Saul standing idly by as Stephen is stoned to death.⁵ I don’t think Christians can hide behind non-violence in allowing conspicuous abuse. But I don’t think the Samaritan would have brandished his six-shooter and committed homicide, either. He would have shouted. Then threatened. Then employed non-fatal physical means of dispatching the bandits.
Christians in community have a moral responsibility to protect individuals, particularly those marginalized and under attack. This may include enacting violence to express a love that always protects.⁶ But, the shape of our violence should baffle the world. It should have nothing to do with anger. And it should paradoxically coexist with gentleness. Christians should always seek to employ the minimum amount of force necessary, and doing so should break our hearts.
We must also cry out against violent excess in the preservation of our own domestic peace. Police brutality, militarization and execution are all outside the scope of righteousness, and I believe the church has a duty to denounce them.
Perhaps most controversially, Christians should decline to use violence as a form of entertainment. When we are indistinguishable from the world in our apparent enthusiasm for violence, it undermines our ability to be agents of shalom. There has been valid criticism of Christians who have supported President Trump even when he is shown to be a violent man. I would apply the same critique to the media we so eagerly consume.
It is a tasteless sort of salt when Christians go to cheer at the Coliseum.⁷ Where should the church draw the line? Action films? Video games? MMA? Boxing? Wrestling? Football? I would suggest that a transformed mind will have no appetite for any of these.⁸
As members of a household
Of even more importance than our place is our home. I think a theology of violence at this level mostly looks like repenting of and renouncing our own anger. We cannot be angry at the TV. Or the dog. At our spouse or our children. Our teacher is devastatingly clear about this.⁹ Turning away from anger and demonstrating grace — received and then given — is a primary work of the Christian household.
We have a duty to protect our homes, and specifically the other humans in them. Home defense should take a very different shape within the church. When Jesus drove the sellers out of his house with a whip,¹⁰ his violence was bound up in preserving the sacredness of a dwelling and not allowing it to be further defiled. His escalation was in direct proportion to his need to clear the space. We should make efforts to learn various ways of expelling evildoers, avoiding permanent injury and death if at all possible. This applies equally to a Christian police officer, shopkeeper or full-time parent.
Lastly, our homes should be dispensaries of shalom. Visitors of all appearances, means and world-views should be greeted humbly and warmly. We should be supernaturally gracious. Our children should learn that much violence can be avoided when offense is not taken, material possessions are not tightly held and the work is done to view ourselves and others as beloved children of God.
On that note, disciples of Christ should actively seek the renewal of our minds. We are so quick to objectify ourselves and others. Increasingly, I believe objectification is the primary animator of violence. Prayer, study and contemplation can and does remake our brains. Keep the sacraments and devote yourselves to quiet, unseen acts of astonishing love. Give what you have away without anyone noticing. Turn away from your fear, shame and guilt and receive mercy so you can quickly extend it to all those who wrong you.¹¹
Finally, we underestimate our own chance to participate in changing the patterns of this world. Recognize radical opportunities to break old cycles and start new, generative ones. This is what Jesus describes when he instructs us to love our enemies.
Handing a thief more than they demand disables fear. Turning the other cheek breaks the insidious cycle of shame. Blessing those who curse you undermines guilt. When the same Saul, now called Paul, describes love in action to the church in the heart of the Roman empire, he proclaims, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”¹²
It would be easier to just pick a side. The Christian pacifist has a clear dogma: never commit any act of violence at any scale. Violence is always sin. The empire has a clear dogma: Take what you need and defend what you have. Objectify and hate your enemy so you can kill them when necessary. Most in the American church seems to espouse an incoherent mixture of the two.
I propose considering our responsibilities within different spheres of influence and returning often to words and actions of Jesus.
Peace be with you.
- Matthew 5:43–48
- Mark 12:16–17
- Mark 12:28–31
- Luke 10:25–37
- Acts 7:54–60
- 1 Corinthians 13:4–8
- Matthew 5:13–16
- Romans 12:2
- Matthew 5:21–24
- John 2:13–16
- Matthew 18:21–35
- Romans 12:9–21