Four Types of Violence, Part One: Conquest

David slaying Goliath, painting by Peter Paul Rubens circa 1616 AD

David Slaying Goliath by Peter Paul Rubens, c. 1616 AD

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.

Conquest, or Selfish Violence – violence committed for personal gain, self-aggrandizement, or to satisfy an appetite, urge, or emotion (such as hatred).  This is the typical robbery and murder that is prohibited by all civilizations and most pre-civilization human societies.

We’ve known this was wrong since before God chose Abraham, but Christ did add something new to even this obvious, black-and-white case: we are not righteous if we only avoid committing the act of violence.  We must also resist the contemplation, the fantasizing, the hate itself that underlies the act [Matthew 5:21-22].

That said, there was one exception in the Old Testament: the Hebrews’ conquest of the Promised Land, which was specifically ordered by God.

Soren Kierkegaard had a term for such things: “the teleological suspension of the ethical.”  That is, the “Knight of Faith” may be asked by God to do things that would not, under other circumstances, be right, like wage a war of conquest or take his only son to the top of Mount Moriah to be sacrificed.

There is no reason to believe that, short of a divine revelation of the sort Moses received, that any later wars of conquest can be justified from a Christian perspective.

This seems so obvious to say, but the thing is, whatever war we’re currently contemplating always sounds like the “exception,” whether it involves a full-scale invasion or just bombing a technologically inferior enemy back to the stone age.

I’ve spent too much time talking politics lately, so I’ll just say this. As Christians, we must have some kind of belief that limits violence. We can make an argument for total pacifism. We can make an argument for just war theory. But we cannot, as Christians, argue for Clauswitz’s idea that war is, essentially, just another form of diplomacy. We cannot promote war for “national interests” alone.

We can’t say that whatever country we’re living in deserves our support for all its wars, uncritically. We cannot say, “my country, right or wrong.” We have to be willing to be considered “bad Americans,” “bad British subjects,” or “bad Russians” if that is required of us by Christ.

And if our theory of war never seems to find an “unjust war,” if it justifies every war that our nation desires, then we have a problem.

–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.

An Old-Fashioned Kind of Love

Something to keep in mind when reading biblical passages about marriage, love, and sex:  for most of human history, consent was a foreign concept, and love was an afterthought.  Women were effectively their father’s property, and were “given away” to the husband upon marriage (often in exchange for a “bride-price” or to seal a treaty or agreement).

But it wasn’t all wine and roses for the groom, either: husbands-to-be often had as little choice in the matter as their brides.  The parents arranged the marriage, usually for monetary or political reasons, and the people getting married basically had to deal with it.  Of course there were exceptions (Ruth and Boaz, for example), and of course the practice varied over time, culture, and geography.  But the pattern was pervasive.

One thing the groom did have going for him was the definition of adultery. Adultery didn’t mean cheating on your spouse. It meant sleeping with another man’s wife. A married man could visit prostitutes or any other unmarried non-virgin he could bed, and it was a-okay, even in the first century. The legal double standard persisted into the reformation (King Henry the VIII of England killed two wives for adultery, but always kept a mistress on the side. Funny, that). The societal double standard exists to this day.

This only started to change in the last two or three hundred years.  We’ve all read Jane Austen (or at least seen the movies).  But Austen wasn’t writing safe, posh romances. She used the romance novel to criticize arranged marriage, hypocrisy, and materialism in early nineteenth-century Britain. She wasn’t the first or only person to speak out, but it took a long time to get from arranged exchanges of property to what we currently think of as marriage.

And eighteen hundred years earlier, when the Apostle Paul was writing?  Or twenty-five hundred years earlier, when Queen Esther would have been alive? Forget about it. The wife was the husband’s property.  So were the kids and the slaves.

Nobody cared whether the bride wanted to get married. Nobody cared whether the slave wanted to become the husband’s mistress.  Nobody cared whether the male slave wanted to become the husband’s ‘lover.’ And though they weren’t slaves, nobody cared whether the 12 year old boys in ancient Greece and Rome wanted to have adult ‘mentors’ with a side order of pederasty.

So why does that matter today? Because it affects how we interpret the Bible. If we see marriage in our modern, 21st century light, or even in an idealized 1950’s light (as the complementarian movement does), we don’t see the reality. Biblical marriage, biblical adultery, biblical homosexuality – these things are all fundamentally different than their 21st century counterparts.

That’s not to say the Bible doesn’t speak to us today on these issues. It absolutely does. But if we ignorantly superimpose our own culture on the biblical text, we will fail to understand. We have ears, but if we cover them and sing 21st (or mid-20th) century love-songs, we will not hear. And as Christians, we must hear what the Bible says. We simply must.