For those who don’t know, “T” is a first name of a regular reader, commenter and writer for this blog. Here is the 4th in his series on pacifism.
We’re continuing our discussion of some of the New Testament’s most central themes, attempting to lay a proper, Christological foundation for discussing issues of how Christ’s followers are to deal with violent people. You can see the prior posts and the posts that triggered them here. Today I want to consider the issue, from a Christologically rooted perspective, of how good triumphs over evil. This “lens” for the discussion could be called “story” or “plot” or even “strategy.” Every epic story is a story of good vs. evil, and the Story of God’s activity in and for the world is no exception. The question is how does God plan to defeat evil according to what he reveals and does in Christ.
Unlike our previous posts, today I want to discuss not only the typical civilian Christian, but the full range of God’s strategies for dealing with evil people. Paul tells us that the kings of this world are given the sword “to punish” the evil-doer. For today’s discussion, I want to take this at face value and assume that God has (and has always had) a standing calling upon human governments to punish or at least restrain and deter evil behavior by people. Given that, I want to ask these questions:
What is the strategy that God has revealed in Christ for good to win out over evil (and not merely restrain or deter it)? Is force a “winning” strategy according to the NT witness? Is the “do good to the aggressor” strategy one that is merely the best that can be offered to a powerless and minority movement such as early Christianity (or to an outgunned Christian today), or is it emphasized in the NT because of its superiority in some way, whether its morality, mercy, or effectiveness in overcoming evil? Similar to our “cross” discussion, is this a strategy that begins and ends with Christ himself, or does his body continue to play a role in this most important of struggles? If so, how do Christ’s disciples best deal with evil in the world today? Who are the players and how do they fight this battle? What are the “weapons” to overcome evil? Are some more powerful than others, even on the same team? Is there an “A-bomb” equivalent for the weapons of good? What would it be? How do the teachings and example of Christ, or even his whole story (i.e., the gospel) shape our answers to these questions?
I agree with the famous line from Burke, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” But that only begs the question: what, according to Jesus (as opposed to Mohammed or the Founding Fathers or Hollywood action movies, or even Moses), should the good man do? I am concerned that too many Christians have too much faith in the sword to accomplish God’s will, and too little appreciation of God’s intention to redeem the evil doer as well as the power of Christ’s means (even our cross, willingly carried) to achieve that intention.
As I alluded to in the title of these posts, I am not a pacifist. I see in Paul (and in Peter, etc.) a clear role for human use of force at the governmental level. That said, I find too many Christians miss the clear emphasis of Christ’s own teachings, example and call. We also fail to realize how critical kindness to evil people is to God’s epic plan for the defeat of evil, redemption of evil people, and the “coming” or expansion of Christ’s reign on the earth, which is at the heart of our prayer. I also believe such a mission is at the heart of the troublesome Sermon on the Mount that Scot mentioned just recently. If we want to join Jesus in the redeeming sinners business, in the business of getting evil people to hate their sin and cry out for help, then it’s “kindness that leads to repentance.”
Our calling is not, according to the NT, mere restraint of evil, but overcoming it with good. That we might lose blood or money in that effort is well understood by Jesus and discussed in blunt terms. But we are told not to fear, to count that cost, and follow. We follow the one that bleeds because of sinners and for sinners, but is not permanently harmed, but rather glorified. In sum, it is appropriate to see that Paul takes the “same-old, same-old” calling of kings as a given, and that John the Baptist does not tell the soldiers who are asking what to do to stop being soldiers, but how to do their job rightly, such as it is. But Christ is not sent to merely restrain evil, but to destroy it. His people are given the same path to follow and continue that work. The real battle has been revealed, and the real weapons and people of victory with it.
I would like to offer an analogy for additional consideration and discussion. Divorce is permitted and even ‘ordained’ in God’s law. But Christ makes it clear that divorce was ordained only as a concession to our hard-hearted wickedness. It is not God’s preference or ultimate intention by any stretch of the imagination, even though it can bring a measure of “peace” to a warring couple. God hates divorce, even though he has it as an option in is law, and even Jesus permits it, in limited cases.
How much is violence, even violence by a human government, the same as divorce in God’s eyes? Consider how much God was willing to take upon himself in order to have real reconciliation, not just between sinful man and himself, but also among “warring” men? Is this a helpful or appropriate analogy? Why or why not? How does this analogy change our view of “sanctioned” or “ordained” violence, whether it be war or the death penalty?