It’s been a month since my last meditation on violence but a final item keeps turning over in my mind. Its a short passage from the Gospel of Matthew, a saying of Jesus remarkable for its surprising imagery and – for me, at least – inscrutability. John the Baptist’s disciples have come to double-check with Jesus that he is indeed the “one who is to come” or whether they should continue waiting for the Messiah. After reassuring them in his typical story-telling manner, Jesus turns to the surrounding crowd and begins to talk up his cousin John. And then, in Matthew 11:12, this: “From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been subjected to violence, and violent people have been raiding it.” (There’s a parallel passage in Luke 16 which seems more straightforward, though the emphasis is different than in Matthew’s account.)
Matthew records Jesus beginning his ministry with the simple command, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven in near.” This kingdom is described in the following chapter when Jesus begins his famous sermon with the Beatitudes. In the kingdom of heaven it is the poor in spirt, the meek, the merciful, and the peacemakers who are blessed. Of course the world of oppressed Jewish peasants and conscripted Roman soldiers didn’t work that way any more than does ours. Those listening to Jesus’ teaching knew it was the powerful and the violent who appeared most happy, most fulfilled. In our time we pay special attention to the recent winners of the multi-million dollar lottery because we assume that such wealth brings with it the power necessary to achieve the good life. We don’t imagine that coming to possess such power will lead to our exacting violence on others (or ourselves). Rather, it must certainly protect us from the violence that has thus far hindered our happiness.
Jesus’ vision of the kingdom of heaven in the Sermon on the Mount is stark in its opposition to the status quo. In this kingdom neither the power of Rome nor the winning lottery ticket nor any other access to power is given credence. None of these lead to life. The holder of power must protect it – for without it, what is left? And so, violence is invited, first as a last resort and then, over time, as the way things simply are. Camouflaged, it blends in and is almost impossible to detect or even feel the distaste one would hope to experience when confronted by violence.
Yet Jesus’ words arrest the chameleon characteristics of violence and we can begin to imagine a kingdom in which the will to power has ceased. There is a different sort of power at work here and it turns its citizens outward, vulnerably exposed toward one another yet without the fear. Murder, adultery, and revenge – each a violent grasp for power – are all subverted within this kingdom.
Which makes what Jesus says about the kingdom of heaven being subject to violence and violent raiders even stranger. This is a peaceable kingdom, is it not? Yet there it is: even here, within God’s kingdom coming, there will be violence. Jesus words appear prophetic a few chapters later when John’s disciples again seek Jesus, this time to inform him that his cousin had recently been beheaded by king Herod.
How can this alternative kingdom of heaven, the place where we pray God’s perfect will would be known as in heaven itself, be subject to violence? It is so because Jesus, himself the King of the Kingdom he came proclaiming, was subject to violence. Like his cousin, Jesus’ body would be the casualty of powerful men’s violence. God doesn’t exempt God’s Self from the violence inflicted by and to his creatures. Jesus subjected himself to the world’s violence along with all of its evil sources as a lamb led to slaughter.
But there is something important in both Jesus’ teaching and in the way he died that help us imagine how we might live within the kingdom of heaven peaceably even as violence besieges it. Jesus’ teaching and crucifixion reveal that it is King and kingdom (and, but extension, citizens of the Kingdom) that are subject to violence. Yet, as Sermon on the Mount makes clear, such grasping for power is unknown within the kingdom of heaven. Jesus knows the full force of violence without resorting to violence and as such exposes the final powerlessness of violence. His kingdom too will know the onslaught of violence without believing for a moment that the power it claims as ultimate is actually so. As in the Sermon on the Mount, citizens of this kingdom can know violence, can even be temporarily harmed by it, without ever being claimed by violence, without succumbing to its deadly narrative.
I think this is the last of these meditations on violence. After all of these words I can hint at a summary: Jesus was overcome by violence so that our violent selves wouldn’t be.