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.

Blood Shed

Pascal Lamb by Josefa Cordeiro, circa 1660-1670

Pascal Lamb by Josefa Cordeiro, circa 1660-1670

I was in church tonight, and something the preacher said struck a nerve.  He said the animal sacrifices offered in Temple Judaism were not what brought about the forgiveness of sins, but rather an outward, physical reminder of repentance.  That got me thinking.

I don’t want to get into the theology of remission of sins.  Hebrews 9:22 says, “according to the law, one may almost say, all things are cleansed with blood, and without shedding of blood there is no forgiveness,” but that was within a Christians framework. Ultimately, the writer was pointing his readers toward the blood of God Himself, in the form of Jesus crucified.

What I want to look at is the second part, the reminder.  I think sometimes we find it easy to justify our sins, to make things easy on ourselves.  Sometimes we can’t see the consequences of our actions.  Other times we’re able to turn a blind eye to them.   I know I do.

But those consequences are real, even if we don’t see them. Every cold-hearted word, every missed opportunity to do good or turn the other cheek affects somebody.  Cruelty, moral cowardice, apathy, self-righteousness and callousness corrode our souls, sear our consciences, and make us like salt that has lost its savor.

The ancient Jews didn’t have that luxury.  Their sin offerings came from their own flocks, so they felt a financial impact.  But more than that, their sin offerings bleated and cooed and struggled with their bonds as they were lifted onto the altar.  Their sin offerings were often animals they’d fed, and raised, and sheltered.  Some of their sin offerings may even have had names.

And then the knife fell, and the blood poured from the wound.  When they watched the animal die, they knew their own actions, their own misdeeds, had brought about its pain and death.  They knew, long before gospels or epistles were written, that “The wages of sin is death.” [Romans 6:23].

No, I’m certainly not advocating a return to animal sacrifice.  Jesus was our sacrifice, once for all time.  But I do think it would do us good to think back, to put ourselves in their sandals. I think it would be good to remember what it cost our spiritual ancestors, and what it cost our Lord, Jesus. It would be good to remember that actions have consequences, even if we don’t yet see them.