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.

Repetition – an Explanation

I’ve posted two “Repetitions” here, and it occurs to me that some of you may be wondering just what I’m doing.

Well, it all began back in college, when Dr. Meadors had us read Soren Kierkegaard, including Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing and Fear and Trembling/Repetition.

I have to admit, some of Kierkegaard’s writing went right over my head.  Other parts of it challenged me (the knight of faith, the teleological suspension of the ethical as seen in the story of Abraham and Isaac).  But one part slipped, almost unnoticed, into a little empty space in my mind, and hid, almost unnoticed, for many years.

Repetition.

In the beginning of Repetition/Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard re-tells the story of Abraham and Isaac several times.  And each time it’s different.  One time, it focuses on Isaac’s broken trust in his father.  Anther time, it focuses more on Abraham’s pain and dread of what he has to do.

But what struck me was this: the Bible gives us an outline, a story in a form much shorter than what we are currently used to.  It tells us what happened, but we must infer or imagine the feelings, the reasons, the details.

And so we do.

There’s a huge sub-genre of Christian fiction retelling Bible stories in novel form, but even those of us without literary agents rewrite the stories into modern-style narratives within our minds.  And that’s good, because it makes it more than just a brief passage, an efficient chronicle of something that happened long ago.  It helps us make the story real to ourselves.

But it’s important to remember that we don’t know how Jacob or Ruth or Abraham felt (at least I don’t).  It’ s important to know that those details (the ones that didn’t make the canon) could go any number of ways.

And so, when I retell stories from the Bible, as I will sometimes do here, I never just tell them once.  That would be an “answer,” and an answer I am surely not qualified to give.  But by writing the story again and again, using different possibilities, different approaches, I can keep myself engaged with the questions, with the Bible itself.

How did Jacob feel when he wrestled the angel?  Why did he stay behind at the Jabbok ford?  Who started the fight?  If Jacob hoped to live, what did he base that hope on: his gifts and plans, God’s protection, or Esau’s mercy?  Did he ever fear the angel would kill him?  Did he even know what he was wrestling?

I don’t know.  But it helps me, sometimes, to imagine.

Repetition: Jacob and the Angel, Part 2

Eugene Delacroix, Jacob Wrestling the Angel (painting)

Jacob Wrestling the Angel by Eugene Delacroix, detail, 1861

Jacob stood at the edge of the water, waiting.  A hot breeze blew through the desert night, drawing water from the Jabbok, making the air strangely wet and heavy.  For a moment, Jacob wondered if this was what it was like to drown.  The moon shone down, one bright, impassive eye in the heavens.

In his mind, he replayed every detail.  The gifts would arrive: first the goats, then the sheep, then the camels, then the bulls, then the donkeys, each sent with the same message, “These belong to your servant, Jacob.  They are a gift sent to my lord Esau.  And he is coming after us.”  He smiled.  The mind that stole the birthright and spotted Laban’s flocks knew that one gift, no matter how rich, might be rejected out of anger.  But few men could reject gift after gift, each more valuable than the last.

Jacob heard – or more accurately felt – a sound.  Just below the range of hearing, thunder rolled.  He turned his head, glancing back at the visitor with a smirk.  “Who are you, Esau’s angel?”

“Why do you want to know?”  The stranger asked.  The voice seemed to speak within Jacob’s mind, yet echo off every hill in Canaan.

Jacob turned fully to face him.  This stranger was no man, clearly.  The moonlight seemed to dance across his body, as if buoyed by a greater source.  “What do you want?”

The stranger merely tilted his head and smiled.  Perhaps he was not Esau’s angel.  Perhaps he was one of the small gods the Canaanites worshiped, Ba’al or Dagon or some such.  He did not look like the house idols, but why should he?

“Are you simple?” Jacob said, his neck tensing, his hands closing into fists, “Or did you just come to stare, to gawk at the mortal whose own brother may kill him tomorrow?”  He stepped forward, fear and frustration boiling into a rage that pushed past all reason, a rage that might drive him to attack a god. “Answer me!”

The stranger sank into his knees, just a little, and spread his hands wide.

Jacob grinned, mirroring his stance.  “Wrestling, then?”  He said, “Good.  I’ve been doing that since I was formed in the womb.”

 

Jacob hit the stranger with all his strength, crouching low, trying to pull him off-balance.  But the shining man sidestepped, shaking off the hold.

“Don’t laugh at me!” Jacob snarled, shouldering into the visitor wildly.  At the last moment, he slipped his foot behind the stranger’s calf, tripping him.  Momentary surprise flashed across the stranger’s face.  Then they hit the hard, stony ground, with Jacob solidly on top.

Jacob struggled to pin the stranger, tossing one leg across his chest.  The visitor locked arms with him, shoving back with a strength even Esau never equaled.  Jacob’s arms burned with the effort, while his lungs labored against the Jabbok river mist.  The stranger, of course, seemed not the least bit tired.

“Submit,” Jacob said, “you’re beaten.”

The stranger bucked like an unbroken mare, tossing Jacob to the ground.  Jacob’s fingers clenched and squeezed painfully, struggling to keep hold on the stranger’s, then failing.  Jacob scrambled to cover his adversary, but the visitor was too quick, and rolled out of reach.

Both men scrambled to their feet in the fading moonlight.  Jacob stared, trying to formulate a plan between ragged, painful breaths.  But the stranger gave him no time, hitting him like a raging bull, bearing them both to the ground.  It was all Jacob could do to keep conscious.  By luck or miracle, his head missed a jutting rock that would have certainly broken his neck.  The outcropping grazed the strangers head, stunning him momentarily.

Jacob tried to escape, but by the time he regained control of his body, the stranger had as well.  Knowing his adversary’s inhuman strength, Jacob held tight, his rage flagging to fear.  He no longer cared if he won or lost, no longer dared to think he could bow this being’s head in defeat.  He only hoped he could occupy the stranger’s hands so he could not strike him.

Jacob imagined the shining visitor rising above him, raining blows upon his head like fire on Sodom, leaving him as dead as that cursed city.  That thought, that fear, gave him strength, and he locked up the stranger’s arms with his own, pulling him tight against his chest, too close to strike or even slap.  Jacob held tight, his fear giving him endurance almost beyond measure, until the silver moonlight had gone, replaced by the faintest orange glow of the morning sun.

“Let me go!”  The stranger cried out, “The day is coming!”

“No,” Jacob said.  All his plans seemed like desperate grasping.  Esau might forgive him, but his life could still end here.

The stranger moved his hand downward, twisting against Jacob’s grip, until his fingertips rested against the mortal’s hip.  Jacob’s eyes grew wide and he screamed as the muscles in his thigh ripped apart.  His face turned pale, and cold sweat drenched him, but his arms only clenched tighter.

“I said let me go.”

“No,” Jacob gasped, breath ragged, “Not until you bless me.”

“What is your name?”  The stranger asked.

“Jacob.”

The stranger smiled.  “No longer.  You shall be called Israel, for you have wrestled with God and with man, and have prevailed.”

Jacob released his grip and lay back, his breath coming in shallow, ragged gasps.  The pain in his thigh had subsided, but its memory alone was enough to set him shuddering.  “You – you could have done that all along.”

The stranger nodded.

“You could have done that to my neck,” Jacob whispered, slowly pushing himself up to a sitting position, his breath slowly returning to normal, “You could have killed me with a touch.”

Once again, the stranger nodded.

“But you did not.”

The stranger smiled gently, then touched Jacob’s forehead, offering a blessing greater than the one Isaac had offered, greater by far than the one that had set this enmity in motion.

“Who are you?” Jacob said, his voice small and awestruck, “You are not one of Laban’s idols.  Are you a servant of my father’s God, or are you -”

“Why do you want to know?” The man said, rising to his feet.  “Go, Israel, and be blessed among nations.”  And in a moment he was gone.

Jacob rose slowly, hope rising in his heart like the warm light of the morning sun.  “I will call this place Peniel,” he said, “for I have seen God face to face, and I live.  And I will live.”

Repetition: Jacob Wrestles the Angel, Part 1

Jacob wrestling the angel by Alexander Lelior

Jacob Wrestling the Angel by Alexander Lelior

Jacob stood at the edge of the water, watching Rachel and Leah and all their children recede into the gathering dark.  Rachel glanced over her shoulder, a nervous I love you, a battlefield farewell.  He’d told her not to worry, told her he’d find a way out, just like he’d found a way out of Laban’s household and even out from under his anger.  But in her beautiful eyes, he saw doubt.

Esau was coming.

Whatever happened, Jacob knew he deserved it.  But the cunning mind that had stolen his brother’s birthright, his father’s blessing, had little time to spare for guilt.  The word of the day is survival, if not for him, at least for his children.  He’d sent gifts ahead.  He’d split his servants and herds in two, hoping to protect at least half his wealth.  And now he’d sent his wives and sons away.

Jacob stood alone, listening to the last sounds of his family vanishing in the distance, until all that remained was the lapping of the Jabbok river.  He shivered in the chilly desert night, as much from dread as cold.  In his mind he saw Esau as he’d left him; young, wild and strong from a life spent in the fields, the wide-eyed hunter towering above him.  He saw the rage, loss, and hurt twisting Esau’s ruddy features, heard him bellowing threats of revenge.  At the thought of his brother, Jacob spat on the ground, but his dry mouth sent only flecks of foam floating slowly to the ground in the still night.

He felt the stranger before he saw him – an inhuman presence, a roll of thunder like a god.  Jacob turned, barely bracing himself.  Without a word, the stranger was upon him, soundlessly bearing him to the ground.

Jacob snarled, future fears tossed aside by the here and now, his attention sharpened to the point of a spear.  He sunk his fingers into the stranger’s arms, struggling for a stronger grip.  Surprise rippled across the stranger’s body.  His satisfied smirk said it all.  So you will fight.  Good.  Jacob shot his right arm up, sliding past the stranger’s grip, under his arm, and wrapping around his shoulder.  With a sharp shove of his hips, he rolled his divine opponent over, slamming him to the ground, landing on top.  It occurred to him, mid-throw, that he’d learned to wrestle from his brother.  Even if he kills me tomorrow, he’s saved my life tonight.  Jacob almost laughed.

But the angel wasn’t beaten.  He arched his body and slung Jacob to the side, breaking his hold and tossing him roughly to the ground.  Both men recovered, their breath coiling and rising in the cold night air.  Jacob felt his muscles tearing, but fought on out of sheer desperate will.  Esau may kill me tomorrow, but tonight I will win.  The two men struggled, strained, and rolled until the sun’s pale rays lit the eastern sky.

The angel wrested one hand free and slammed it into Jacob’s hip, and pain shot through the man.  He cried out, but his grip only tightened.  He knew that wound would never fully heal, even if he somehow survived his reunion with Esau.  But it didn’t matter.  Pain didn’t matter.  Fatigue didn’t matter.  Despair and fear and guilt didn’t matter.  Right now, by the banks of the Jabbok, deep in the shadow of death, only victory mattered.

“Let me go!”  The stranger cried out, “The day is coming!”

“No,” Jacob said, his face red, his eyes leaking tears, “Not until you bless me!”

“What is your name?”

“Jacob.”

The man smiled.  “No longer.  You shall be called Israel, for you have wrestled with God and with man, and have prevailed.”  The shadow of death lifted, bringing with it the new light of dawn.

“What – what is your name?”  Jacob asked, leaning back, kneeling near his adversary.  He knew what he had wrestled was not a mere god, no Canaanite idol, but someone far greater.  He had battled a messenger of his father’s God, the God of Abraham.  Perhaps he’d wrestled that God Himself.  His throat tightened at the thought, and he dropped his eyes to the ground.

“Why do you want to know?” The man said, rising to his feet.  He reached down to touch Jacob’s forehead, bestowing a blessing far greater than the one he’d stolen.  And then, in a moment, he was gone.

Jacob rose slowly, peace and healing rushing over him like the warm morning sun.  “I will call this place Peniel,” he said, “for I have seen God face to face, and yet I live.”  He turned his face toward the west and, for the first time in many days, smiled.