News of jihadist brutalities in establishing an Islamic State (Isis) in Iraq and Syria has impacted me deeply. Beheadings of American and British prisoners, reports of violence against Kurds, Christians and even fellow Muslims with differing views is appalling and invites response. How do we respond to the current climate of terror and unrest in the Middle East that is in alignment with Jesus’ teaching and example of suffering, saving love?
Retired US Marine Corps General John R. Allen’s recent call to arms must be recognized as incompatible with Jesus’ way:
“The execution of James Foley is an act we should not forgive nor should we forget. It embodies and brings home to us all what this group represents. The Islamic State is an entity beyond the pale of humanity and it must be eradicated. If we delay now we will pay later.”
Many who value tolerance and peacemaking are at a loss as non-violent approaches appear impotent before those imposing a fundamentalist theocracy in the Middle East, and their military opponents led by the United States.
President Obama’s strategy to build a broad alliance to destroy the Islamic State enjoys broad support—especially since drones and bombing campaigns rather than ground troops are killing with reputed accuracy.
Yet these airstrikes are taking the lives of growing numbers of young men and women from many countries drawn to Islamic State in the prime of their lives—each one a beloved child of the God. This growing “human sacrifice” is empowering an escalation of hatred that will lead to far more death and destruction in the Middle East, Europe and beyond. Might we be on the verge of a Third World War? What might those who follow Jesus offer as an alternative approach to resisting violence on all sides?
When the chaotic and violent world tempts me to despair, Pascale’s Wager: Homelands of Heaven is a light in the darkness that revives my spirit.
Anthony Bartlett, Girardian theologian and hope-timist extraordinaire, is the author of this eloquent, riveting story of rebellion against conformity, compassion in the face of cruelty and hope in the midst of despair. In a future world that has been brought to the brink of destruction by global warming, life is sustained in a technologically-engineered frozen wasteland by a system of rigid order. Religion is a control mechanism, and dissent is forbidden and deadly. In this stifling atmosphere, Poll, an inquisitive troublemaker, and Cal, a perspicacious seeker, dare to pierce through the façade of the cultural myth that holds their tenuous society together. Pulling back the veil of lies incurs the wrath of the powers that be, but also tests the courage, resolve, and creativity of our two heroes in astonishing ways. Inspired by one-another, Poll and Cal are each thrust onto separate but parallel journeys of survival and self-discovery in which a kernel of faith is nourished and grows in accordance with their unique personalities. Amidst their perilous circumstances, each of our heroes push the limits of their potential, defying odds, encountering love in surprising places and people, and changing their worlds permanently and inexorably.
Editor's Note: Derek Vreeland serves at Word of Life Church in St. Joseph, Missouri and is the author of Primal Creedo. Herein, Derek responds to Trevin Wax's critique of Richard Hays' book, The Moral Vision of the New Testament. Wax's critique can be viewed HERE.
Three responses to your three-point critique of Hays’ view on violence.
First, the application of Romans 13 into our modern American context is indeed complex. I agree with Hays that the church (since Constantine) has struggled with the sin of nationalism. American Christians (in general) have to acknowledge the idolatry of nationalism, repent of it, and begin to form an identity in Christ separate from our national identity. Once we define ourselves by Christ first and foremost, then we subordinate our love for the nation below our love for Christ. Some will see this as hate, but it is just a subordinate kind of love (see Matthew 14:26). Only within this critical distance of identity can we clearly apply 1 Corinthians 13. Yes God has given the sword to the State, but how would Jesus speak to the US Government, the pentagon, or the industrial military complex (the masters of war)? Would he not preach to them enemy love? Should the ruling authorities who are represented by the citizens they govern defeat the weak and innocent by thwarting evil-doers? Yes, of course. The question is how? How would Jesus instruct them? Would he instruct them in the ways of war or would he instruct them in ways of making peace using the utmost consideration for the loss of life including the life of the enemy? It seems to me he would instruct them in the latter or perhaps he would instruct them in some other way?
Second, where do we see the “righteous anger” of Jesus resulting in violent killing? We don’t. Jesus had the option of zealotry, the Maccabean-approach to embodying the kingdom of God, but he rejected it. When James and John asked Jesus if they could call down fire from heaven to consume a Samaritan (enemy) village, Jesus rebuked them. Indeed anytime Jesus was tempted by violence he refused it. The just war theory is based more in reason and experience, than a synthesis of New Testament ethics. A theological question that I find helpful in synthesizing NT ethics on the matter of violence is this: “Will there be war in the age to come?” Answer: no. Granted we live in the overlap of ages, but aren’t we (the church freed from nationalism) called to embody the values of the age to come? In this overlap of ages we understand that SOME acts of violent force will be necessary to thwart “evil-doers,” but shouldn’t the church be the voice of moral constraint, when the state wants use war-like tactics to thwart “evil-doers?” If God has given the sword into the hands of the State, then the church should be the voice of Jesus to Peter saying put away the sword? Yes the State has the metaphorical sword, but wouldn’t Jesus lead the State towards constraint? After all, according to Isaiah, in the rule of Messiah we will beat our swords into plowshares and learn war no more. The fullness of the kingdom of God is no sword, no war. So is Jesus leading humanity towards this kingdom-come, teaching us the ways of peace, or is Jesus teaching humanity how to use the weapons of war in order to kill?
Third, the self-giving love of God is in no way contrary to the justice of God, but what we mean by justice is to be interpreted by what we mean by love. God’s love is not the co-dependent kind of love allowing human beings to do whatever they want to do and saying, “It’s all ok.” God’s acts of judgment (both present and eschatological) flow from his love. God is not a mixture of 50% love and 50% anger/wrath/hate. God is 100% love. Indeed God cannot be perfectly loving and not hate evil, but does this hate of evil mean his judgment includes the violent killing of God’s enemies? Jesus didn’t say “Love your enemies *wink* *wink* because I am coming back to kill them.” He said “Love your enemies because in doing so you will be sons of God who is kind to evil-doers” (Luke 6:35-36). Kindness to evil-doers does not mean we allow them to perpetrate acts of violence. We do everything we can to stop them, using force when necessary, but not trying to kill them. Revelation shows us the reigning Christ who rules and judges not by slaying his enemies but by being slain. He judges by the words of his mouth not the violence of his hands. The sword in Revelation 19 is in his mouth; not in his hand. Jesus will come again to judge the living and the dead and there will be those who go into eternal punishment and those who go into eternal life, but again this act of judgment flows out of God’s love not the petty human emotion of anger we too often want to thrust upon him.
I realize these comments do not answer the heart of the question: “Is it ever God’s will for Christians to employ violence in defense of justice?” I suppose my answer would be far too complicated because “God’s will” and “violence” are too broad of categories for a concise answer.
What I would like to do is take a closer look at one of our most-used prayers, “O heavenly king,” giving special attention to the words, “cleanse us from all impurity.” But first please stand up for a moment and let’s say the “O heavenly king” prayer together, using the New Skete translation:
O heavenly king, consoler, spirit of truth, everywhere present and filling all things: treasury of blessings and giver of life, come dwell within us, and cleanse us of every stain, and save our souls, O good one.
Not many words — less than forty. This is one of the oldest Christian prayers. It’s a prayer especially associated with Pentecost — the descent of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Truth, on the Apostles — when at last Christ’s followers understood what they had witnessed and what Christ had prepared for them to do. It’s a prayer most Orthodox Christians know by heart, used in the home even in the shortest offices of morning and evening prayer. It’s also placed at the beginning of the Office of Oblation that precedes the Eucharistic Liturgy. We say and sing the words so often that they recite themselves. I am guessing that all of us who use the prayer have moments when one or another phrase hits us like an arrow shot into the center of our heart. And because it’s the prayer connected with every liturgy as well as morning and evening prayer, it is a prayer of prayers, a prayer that creates community.
The prayer does two things.
First it expresses the focus of all our prayers. It names names. In addressing the Holy Trinity, we are reminded that the Holy Trinity, the community of three Persons within the One God, is the focus and center of our lives. This is what our Christian lives are all about. This is a prayer that puts us all on the same page.
Second, it’s a fervent appeal that sums up all we are seeking. We want God to come and abide in us, to cleanse us from every impurity and to save our souls. It’s a prayer for a deep healing. We cannot cleanse ourselves or save our own souls, not without God’s help.
The first part can be broken down into three points: The first phrase — “O heavenly king, consoler, spirit of truth — answers the question: Who are we praying to? The second — “everywhere present and filling all things” — answers the question: where are you? The third — “treasury of blessings and giver of life” — answers the questions: what do you do?
The beginning of the prayer reminds us that we are not people lacking a ruler. We have a ruler — a heavenly king — to whom we are uniquely responsible and whose demands on us have absolute priority. God has given us — not laws, in the usual sense — but a few commandments.
For example there is the Sermon on the Mount. It opens with the Beatitudes, which the Russian Church refers to as “the commandments of blessedness.” The Beatitudes are in fact a very brief summary of the Gospel. Each Beatitude has to do with aspects of living a Paschal life — that is a life not shaped by death. One way of reading each Beatitude is to use the phrase “Risen from the dead” at the beginning of each verse — for example, “Risen from the dead are the poor in spirit.”
There is also the command to forgive, and not just once but seventy times seven. Even once is rarely easy.
I am an unworthy man, unworthy to be called an Orthodox Christian, not to speak of the priesthood, and I write, admittedly, from the comfort of my Mount Pleasant, SC, home. There is no Mount nearby, but it is, indeed, a pleasant seaside community on the East Coast of the United States.
As such, I ask myself: how to deal with ruthless, pitiless, pitiful souls who are so darkened that their life is spent taking the life of others—and worse, thinking that they are doing this at the direction of and with the blessing of God himself, with eternal reward?
Perhaps I will be criticized for my suggestion, sitting in my pleasant, mountless town, but we read recently that we must receive the Gospel as a child; and even a child will ask how could murder be returned by murder. Is violence—individual or large-scale—a possible Orthodox response?
What were the apostolic and post-apostolic, and later saint’s reactions to such vicious, vile, demonic actions?
How did the disciples respond to the beheading of John the Baptist, which we commemorated on August 29?
On the precipice of martyrdom, St Stephen, the Proto-martyr begged God to forgive his killers. Was there an apostolic uprising following that?
Hieromartyr Eutychius, disciple of St John the Theologian, was beheaded after starvation in prison, an attempt to burn him alive, and cruel beatings with iron rods…which were made to cease by his prayers. There is no account of retribution.
Simple: It demands the least of us in terms of both compassion and creativity. Rather than sacrifice our time, resources, rights or comfort in an effort to resolve a conflict, violence allows us to foist the total cost of a conflict onto our enemies. Think of it as the fast food of conflict resolution. The path of least resistance. A cacophony of sugar, salt and fat that gives us a momentary shot of euphoria and sanctimony but whose long-term effects are subtle, cumulative and self-destructive.
Of course, even though our enemies bear the brunt of our violence, the residual costs of violence remain, not the least of which is the brutality it elicits in those who deploy it. But such costs are easily mitigated or deferred through technology, which allows us to remain several steps removed from the consequences of our actions, and myth-making, which helps us convince ourselves and others that although the violence of our enemies is brutal, barbaric and unprovoked, ours is surgical, minimal, and, above all, necessary for the greater good.
One might argue that violence also demands a certain level of creativity. After all, an MQ-1 Predator Drone is a far cry from a spear or a club. It is a highly sophisticated piece of technology that required several years, hundreds of millions of dollars and dozens of people to develop. However, the mental framework in which the drone is deployed hasn’t changed since the first murder–a desire to strike a blow from which there can be no reprisal. As Walter Wink says, “Violent revolution fails because it is not revolutionary enough. It changes the rulers but not the rules.”
This past summer I was able to spend a week in Southern Ontario in the Bay of Quinte area where at five years old in 1949 I emigrated to from Holland with my parents and three older brothers. We lived there for about four years before moving a few hours’ drive further west along Lake Ontario’s North shore. My primary purpose in the visit was to reacquaint myself with this historical region for my remembering in my attempts to capture some of the influences that have shaped me during my “impressionable years” for my memoirs. It was here that my father died of cancer one year after our arrival, by then we had already moved three times not counting emigration itself. Much has changed, I have changed; but much has stayed the same. I touched buried 65 year old emotions ruminating on age-old questions of the meaning of life, of evil, good, and justice.
My father died of cancer in a small old house just down the hill from a historic cemetery, the Orser Cemetery, established in 1831on the Schoharie Road as a Loyalist military plot. The house, now torn down, was a small labourer’s dwelling at Warings Corners, on what is now the first traffic circle on the historic Loyalist Parkway which runs through the county. The Parkway is dotted with villages and clusters of buildings all dating back to the time that the United Empire Loyalists settled and developed in this region at the turn of the 18th century. The Orsers had been among the first group of Loyalists to arrive in this area to, before there were roads at all. They and the 200-250 early loyalists, some were even Quaker Loyalists, that arrived came from New York by ship under command of Loyalist, Captain Peter Van Alstine. After overwintering in Sorel Quebec they arrived in Adolphustown in 1784 on the Eastern side of the Adolphus Reach off Lake Ontario. Mrs. Orser’s husband had died on route, and now as widow she was left to manage life in this frontier (many Loyalist settlers had been widowed in the war waged by the American Patriots for independence). The house in which my father died has been now torn down to make way for luxurious bed and breakfast accommodations including wine tasting at the Historic Waring House. The Warings had been Irish Quakers who had joined many other Quakers from New York who had followed their Loyalist relatives and neighbours in New York to this area. Many who came here had themselves been recent immigrants in the colony of New York having emigrated- sought refuge- from many different European nations to the Hudson Valley before they trekked north to find safety and land on Lake Ontario’s north shore. The early years had been hard for the early and the later Loyalists, but over the years they prospered and the houses and buildings they built are still standing and many have been nicely restored for the tourist trade. The Bay of Quinte region is now a wonderful destination point for tourists seeking some bliss.
As a student of theology and the scriptures, I read hundreds of books on the topics of biblical studies and hermeneutics. Few authors catch our attention when writing varying thoughts on reading the bible. For my own tastes, too many are often too “literal” in their approach and ignore a broader meaning to be found by reading things a little more openly. What Peter Enns has managed to do in his new book “The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending Scripture has Made us Unable to Read It” is nothing short of a miracle. Enns held my attention from page 1 with humor, history, and heart. Where many fall flat by simply making derogatory remarks about the scripture, Enns manages to keep the scripture in high regard as well as read it openly—no small feat. This book needs to be on the shelf of every serious student of the bible, referenced often, and re-read as frequently as possible. From cover to cover this book holds the attention of the reader. It made me laugh out loud on several points, take a second look at texts I thought I knew well, and reinvigorated my passion for studying the texts of the bible. I don’t often recommend that everyone “rush out an buy this book” but I can say with full assurance, you will not be disappointed if you do.
My next book is coming out at the end of August and the title is The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It.
I lobbied for Pete Enns Tells Me So: Why Arguing with Pete Enns Is Futile (by Pete Enns), but the legal team at HarperOne would have none of that (using words like “sales figures,” “stupid,” and “get help” in their email).
The book is just over 65,000 words long, and I am proud of each and every one of them. All that remains for me now is to arrange them in the right order and make sentences out of them (at which time I will give an exerpt or two).
Until then, here are some of the words that will appear in the book, some more than once.