I’ve been thinking a lot about violence, Jesus, and the strange fact that American Christians are among the most pro-war, pro-gun and pro-death-penalty of Americans (I even count myself in that second category, though not in the others).
In thinking about violence, I noticed four types of violence in the Bible, and I thought I’d talk briefly about each.
Retributive – violence committed in response to a wrong or perceived wrong. In ancient days, an incident could start a war between tribes. Such vendettas could continue until one or both tribes were extinct.
The rule of proportional retribution (“an eye for an eye,”) did not promote revenge, but limited it. “An eye for an eye” ended these feuds and put the responsibility for retribution and punishment in the hands of the society’s legal system, whether that is an official court system or a council of elders.
The apostle Paul reaffirmed this in the Christian era in his letter to the church at Rome [Romans 12:17-21, Romans 13:1-7] Rome was no paragon of justice and righteousness, but even so, retributive violence was to be left to its courts.
Sometimes, God used nations to bring retribution on other nations, including using violent, polytheistic nations to deliver judgment to Israel when its people fell away from His ways, when they worshiped other gods and exploited the poor, rather than caring for the widowed, fatherless, and those stranded far from home.
If you read the major and minor prophets, this happens so much that there’s really no point in referencing specific verses. The list would be too long.
However, the nations that were used to scourge Israel were often, themselves, broken in retribution for the harm they caused. Babylon was a prime example, especially King Nebuchadnezzar, who ended up eating grass and braying like a mule [Daniel 4].
Again, there is no reason to believe, short of an angelic visit, that any of us as individuals, or the nations of which we are a part, have been chosen as instruments of God’s judgment.
Even those nations that were described as being such in the books of the prophets were generally not aware of their role. From their perspective, they were waging wars of conquest.
In theory, revenge should be a no-brainer. In Romans 12:19, God specifically forbids it. “Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord.” (NASB).
And most of us don’t actually ‘grab a gat or a baseball bat’ and go take revenge on our enemies. But… we get social revenge, always seeking to bring someone else down for the ways they’ve offended us.
And we love revenge movies, from The Outlaw Josey Wales to The Crow to I Spit on Your Grave to the aptly named TV series Revenge. We read and write and watch and hear revenge. It’s a huge part of our cultural narrative.
And it makes sense. A people who love revenge, even fictional revenge, will be far more willing to support a war that’s framed in those terms. Or an execution. Or the torture of suspected terrorists.
Rome has a big reason for us to love revenge. But I don’t think our hearts can love revenge and Jesus at the same time. I think every heartbeat we spend uncritically entertaining thoughts of revenge – even fictional revenge – is a heartbeat we don’t spend on our creator, redeemer, and sustainer.
–A Note on Context–
I’ve been thinking about violence, justification, and the “kingdom of heaven” a lot lately. I’ve written a lot, too, but nothing I’d be comfortable publishing. But I’ve also been reading some things I wrote previously. I wrote this four-part look at violence back in 2011, and I’ve done only a little editing since.
Think of this as a time capsule as I struggle with the larger implications of the issue.
The four categories are completely of, for, and by me. They are not the product of theologians or biblical historians. They don’t have roots in Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek. They’re just something I noticed, and felt the need to work out.