Violence 6: People Have Been Raiding It

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.)

Beheading of St John the Baptist by Sano di Pietro
Beheading of St John the Baptist by Sano di Pietro.

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.

A Faith Not Worth Fighting For

A Faith Not Worth Fighting For by Tripp York and Justin Bronson BarringerIn recent days we’ve learned about President Obama’s role in deciding which terrorist suspects are selected for the “kill list.”  Inclusion on this list all but guarantees the subject will be the target of a supposedly secret and increasingly common drone strike.  While the story seems dramatic from every angle, from the president’s intimate involvement to the technology that makes possible remote control warfare, the response has mostly been hand wringing about how the story was originally leaked.  The issues under consideration aren’t the so-called kill list and new technologies that allow for its implementation but rather the fact that these things are now public.

If this seems backwards it shouldn’t be surprising.  Ours is a nation that cares about immediate outcomes.  Presidential involvement with targeted drone killings is a non-issue as long as it works.  This commitment to metrics and measurable results is wide-ranging: my public school teacher friends lament that curriculum is increasingly limited to whatever leads to higher standardized test scores.

American churches have long breathed this pragmatic air, measuring success through numbers like attendance, membership, budgets, campuses, and so on.  We often ask the same question as our fellow-Americans: What works?

The best thing about A Faith Not Worth Fighting For is how little the contributors care about this question.  This collection of essays “addressing commonly asked questions about Christian nonviolence” covers a range of concerns while sharing a common disinterest in theological pragmatism.  In his chapter Greg Boyd makes this especially clear.  He writes, “What sets the kingdom pacifist apart, I will argue, is that his or her primary motivation for embracing nonviolence is not ethical, political, or in any way utilitarian.  It is rather rooted in the Lordship of Christ and the transforming experience of the Holy Spirit.”

Elsewhere contributors refer to nonviolence as confessional or, as Stephen Long identifies it, christological pacifism.

The pacifism that has haunted and always will haunt the Christian Church…assumes that we have seen and heard God’s purposes for creation in Jesus.  The pacifism I cannot discredit, and have not yet been able to deny, is the pacifism that claims that we are called through our baptisms to participate in the life of Christ and bear witness to the world as God has borne witness to us.  It asks us, what happened to us at our baptisms into the life and death of Christ?

This non-pragmatic approach will frustrate some readers.  While the contributors don’t shy away from the common and challenging questions commonly put to pacifists – What would you do if someone were attacking a loved one?  What about Hitler?  What about war and violence in the Old Testament – they do not show how the nonviolence leads to preferred outcomes.  Instead the essays work to show how, regardless of the situation, Biblical reference, or theological question, nonviolence is always the most faithful response to our life in Christ.  In this regard a book that promises answers winds up posing one consistent question: What if nonviolence is inseparable from faith in Christ?

Editors Tripp York and Justin Bronson Barringer have identified the right questions for this sort of book and pulled together thoughtful contributors.  Given the subject it’s not surprising that Stanley Hauerwas and John Howard Yoder are referenced throughout.  Neither is it surprising that the contributors share similar starting points and to their credit they are gracious with their theological sparring partners.  As Shane Claiborne quips in the afterword, “Our critics are not bad people…they are just wrong.  And hopefully they think the same of us.”

There are two things that could have made this very good book better.  First, I wish some of the essays were edited for more accessibility.  Many of the chapters can easily be read and digested by a wide audience but a few seem directed towards a smaller, academic crowd.  Second, I hoped for more engagement with the practice of nonviolence that comes from African American churches.  In these historic churches we have the witness of people who rejected the pragmatic course for a faith that required great risk and sacrifice, even as they hoped and prayed that their actions would lead to change.  It seems to me that any discussion about nonviolence within the American church must make significant room for the testimonies of these saints.

This book deserves a wide audience and I’m grateful to the editors and contributors for it.  I’ll come back to these essays again as I grapple with the violence in our nation, our city and within my own heart.

I received a review copy of this book from the publisher.