“Do not avenge yourselves, beloved, but give place to rage, for it is written: “If you will not execute judgment for yourself, I shall execute your judgment, says God” – Romans 12:19 (Aramaic Bible in English).
France is in shock and in mourning. French President Francois Hollande vowed to attack the Islamic State group without mercy as the jihadist group claimed responsibility Saturday for orchestrating the deadliest attacks on France since World War II. Not unlike after the horrific attacks of September 11th, President George W. Bush’s statement in response to those attacks that he would lead the world to war “against terror.” The popular call seems to be mounting —“this time it’s all-out war.”
Our world is filled with violence – like a plague, an infection, a pandemic of people killing people, and people killing themselves. Violence is an undeniable part of creation. It arises in the opening chapters the Book of Genesis when Adam and Eve, due to their sin, became required to kill animals for food and clothing. While permitted by God as necessary for their survival outside of the Garden, it introduced violence to humanity.
As the story of Creation continues, violence quickly shatters the human family. Enraged by fear that his little brother Abel would find greater favor with God, and thereby take advantage and power over Cain, the older brother violently defends his position and prominence in the world with the brutality of fratricide. Throughout the Biblical narrative, violence continues with horrific consistency. Power is defined by the sword, forged in vengeance, lived in dominance, and blessed by presumed fidelity to God. Yet, even when sanctioned and blessed by God, the stain of violence is one for which God is not pleased—a brutal reality of humanity’s brokenness and sinfulness. Even King David, a man after God’s own heart and one truly blessed by God, was forbidden to build the Temple because he had blood on his hands.
God in His Son Jesus reveals that violence is neither holy nor redemptive. Jesus demonstrated to us a different path—a peaceful and non-violent path. When calls arose for the Messiah of God to take up arms and vanquish the enemy with the force of military power, Jesus responded as a sheep being led to slaughter. Upon witnessing violent bloodshed in his defense by those who loved him, Jesus chose to heal the wounds of the enemy and condemn the use of weapons in the fear-driven anger of violence. Ultimately, rather than succumb to the lie that is redemptive violence, Jesus allowed the demonic powers to prevail in such a way that a new path may be known—the path of love.
Even in the evil that Jesus endured, he consistently challenged the myth of redemptive violence. He looked into the eyes of those killing him and called on God to forgive them. He loved his enemies and taught his disciples to do the same. He often said things like, “You’ve heard it said ‘an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth’… but I want to say there is a better way” and “You’ve heard it said, ‘love your friends and hate your enemies’… but I tell you love those who hate you… do not repay evil with evil’.” Jesus challenged the prevailing logic of his day, and of ours. He insisted that if we “pick up the sword we will die by the sword” – and we’re learning that lesson all too well.
Orthodox Catholic Christianity throughout history has had a powerful critique of violence in all its ugly forms. One of the early patriarchs, Saint Cyprian, as African Bishop in the third century, critiqued the contradictory view of death so prevalent in our contemporary culture where we hypocritically call killing evil in some instances and noble in others: “Murder, considered a crime when people commit it singly, is transformed into a virtue when they do it en masse.” Violence in any form is evil, and evil is inconsistent with our faith. The message of the Cross remains one of peace—a peace that passes all understanding and a peace that does not come as the world believes it ought. Christ’s peace transcends the false myth of redemptive violence, for redemptive violence gives way to violence as an end in itself.
When one of Jesus’ disciples picks up a sword to defend him and cuts off a guy’s ear, Jesus scolds his own disciple, picks up the ear, and heals the wounded persecutor. Christian theologians have said Jesus teaches a “third way” to interact with evil. We see a Jesus who abhors both passivity and violence and teaches us a new way forward that is neither submission nor assault, neither fight nor flight. He shows us a way to oppose evil without mirroring it, where oppressors can be resisted without being emulated and neutralized without being destroyed. We can take courage that Jesus understood the violence of our world, very well. At one point he wept over Jerusalem because it didn’t know the things that make for peace. No doubt Jesus is still weeping. And lots of us are weeping with him – from Boston to Kiev, from Damascus to Paris. Perhaps it’s time for a united, nonviolent assault on the myth of redemptive violence. Perhaps it’s time for us to declare that violence is always evil – period. There is always a third way.
*Compiled from multiple sources.