Religion Prof: The Blog of James F. McGrath
The Blog of Dr. James F. McGrath, Clarence L. Goodwin Chair in New Testament Language and Literature at Butler University, Indianapolis
Today's Non Sequitur
Apparently it needs to be pointed out: In heaven no one will be breaking into your house and trying to murder you, etc, etc, etc.
Out of curiosity, do you think Jesus was in favor of killing those who were trying to murder or rob from you?
That’s a good question, though it conflates two actions that should probably be kept separate, i.e. “rob you” vs “murder you”. I think that (i) it would be difficult to harmonize the act of killing someone for mere robbery with NT thought, yet (ii) it would be equally difficult to justify the condemnation of a Christian for using lethal force to defend himself or his family against a murderer.
I’m curious to hear how you’d answer your own question. As a liberal Christian who believes that the Bible represents man’s thoughts, not God’s thoughts, and who believes that many of the sayings that are attributed to Jesus were put in his mouth by his chroniclers, what is your answer, and upon what is it based?
There seems to be a fairly consistent depiction of Jesus as one who taught his followers to not use violence either to defend their property or to defend their lives. I do not judge those who depart from such an ideal harshly, and will honestly say that I do not trust myself that I would stick to such an ideal if my family were in peril. But if I were to ever resort to violence for any reason, I hope I would honestly acknowledge that I was failing to adhere to the teaching of Jesus, rather than trying to find Biblical justification to excuse myself.
There is a general depiction of Jesus as non-violent, yes, but there doesn’t seem to be much that applies to the specific question: Can a Christian use lethal force to defend himself or his family against an immediate aggressor intent on killing him/them?
What I’m trying to get at, though, is what guides your decisions regarding what biblical teachings are binding and valid for Christians (e.g. non-violence) and what biblical teachings you’re willing to disregard becuase they don’t line up with your preferred liberal ideology (e.g. homosexual relationships) to the extent that you even criticize those who adhere the biblical teaching? You seem to treat the Bible like a smorgasbord, but how do you know which bits are healthful and which are junk food?
Do you rely solely on your own reasoning ability to determine what biblical teachings should be considered binding and which can be discarded? It seems so, in which case the question emerges, how do you avoid worshiping a God made in your own image?
There is no way to avoid using one’s reason in thinking about how to interpret and apply the Bible. Anyone who claims to be doing that is lying – and typically goes on to use their own human reasoning about the Bible to make the case that they aren’t!
Unless one foregoes thinking about God, one will think about God within the confines of their limited human understanding. It is precisely for that reason that my approach is not to simply use my own reasoning ability, but to join in a collective conversation that includes other scholars past and present, the Biblical authors, and others. The best we can do to mitigate the limitations and constraints of our individual reasoning, in my opinion, is to be open to input from others.
Let me add that your caricature is unhelpful. When I have a view on a matter that departs from the view of earlier Christians, I typically offer a case for why I have adopted the view that I have which relates the matter to both Biblical principles and the contemporary considerations that affect my view. Below are some examples, to refresh your memory.
If you disagree with my conclusions, you are free to do so, but to suggest that what I’ve done is to “disregard because they don’t line up with your preferred liberal ideology” is dishonest.
“If you disagree with my conclusions, you are free to do so, but to suggest that what I’ve done is to “disregard because they don’t line up with your preferred liberal ideology” is dishonest.”
Not at all, James. Observing that your liberal mindset affects how you interpret not only the Bible, but politics and life in general isn’t “dishonest” but honest. Everyone — whether they be conservatives, liberals, radicals, or lunatics — allows their ideology to effect their conclusions about many things. If you are a human being, then you are as subject to this failing as the rest of us. Time to accept it.
It didn’t sound like you were saying “your liberal viewpoint is reflected in your conclusions” and the same is true for everyone else. It sounded like you were saying that my liberal presuppositions lead me to ride roughshod over the obviously true conservative interpretation of the text. Sorry if I misunderstood you!
No problem, I probably should have chosen my wording more carefully. I’m opposed to any number of conservative interpretations myself, including the notion that Jesus is God himself, that those who believe in conditional immortality are “gagging God” (Carson), that America and Capitalism are “Christian”, etc, etc, etc.
And my view of Christians and violence is very close to that of folks like Gregory Boyd and John Howard Yoder (and therefore you as well!), which is probably surprising in light of my initial response to this blog entry:-)
This is a bit of an after thought, James, but how do you square your view that Christians should be non-violent with your concomitant claim that Barack Obama is a Christian?
The same way I square it with the claim that Constantine was a Christian, and Martin Luther, and many others, including George W. Bush to give at least one recent American example. And the same way I square it with the claim that I am a Christian myself, even though I know that I not only fall short of ideals I consciously dedicate myself to, but being prone to self-deception, have certainly in some areas managed to persuade myself that I am following the right course when I am not.
The alternative is to say, as I believe Neitzsche did, that there has only ever been one Christian, and he died on the cross. But personally I find it makes more sense to allow that people are not always consistent or faithful to their own expressed ideals, or to important teachings of their belief system that they may have allowed to sit in blind spots of their vision.
And of course, the question of whether we could ever have say a Mennonite Christian as a president of the United States, committed to never, ever, under any circumstances engaging in military action, is an interesting one. I’d love to see someone actually write a story about such a thing, as it might give a great opportunity for reflection on the relation between consistent committment to Christian teaching vs. the realities of the world we live in.
Thank you for your response, James. It was a leading question, and so here is the follow-up part: Why have you not offered posts such as this one criticizing Barack Obama for his failure to live up to the ideal that caused you to implicitly criticize those who believe that it’s acceptable to own a firearm for self protection? Could it be the liberal ideology that I mentioned? I’ve pointed out before that you do not balance your criticism of non-liberals with criticism of those from among your own.
One reason I’m pressing this is because one could argue that Christians are not to engage national wars. Didn’t John Howard Yoder offer a compelling case for reading Romans this way? So, there is biblical evidence that becoming a soldier and participating in national military conflicts is wrong, yet the evidence that a Christian should not use lethal force to protect himself or his family against an immediate aggressor seems less clear. But you chose to criticize the latter group. It’s curious.
I suppose I feel that the latter is in fact clearer in the Gospels than the former. Jesus’ teaching is most naturally understood to apply to all of Jesus’ followers as individuals, but one could argue (rightly or wrongly) for the fact that soldiers are not told to stop being soldiers , or from Paul’s reference to the ruler bearing the sword, implies an acknowledgment of a legitimate place for secular power, including the military, for such time as it exists.
I think that I have focused on defending the president as a Christian because so many have denied that he is one. I think that, if there were not so many attempting to depict him as something else, I would probably have simply offered appreciation and criticism when I felt there was reason to, in a more balanced manner. Indeed, it is hard for me to believe that there are still people saying that Barack Obama isn’t a Christian! I would have thought that I could drop that subject and start criticizing him like a president deserves by now!
“but one could argue (rightly or wrongly) for the fact that soldiers are not told to stop being soldiers , or from Paul’s reference to the ruler bearing the sword, implies an acknowledgment of a legitimate place for secular power, including the military, for such time as it exists.”
I think the point is that the powers God allows the ruling authorities to wield is power that he allows _the ruling authorities_ to wield, and in context, per Yoder, with which I agree, those are powers the Christian to be in subjection to, but they are not to join in enforcing them, particularly when they contradict God’s expectations for a Christian.
I think you are mistaken in thinking that it isn’t clear that participation in military actions is against God’s will for Christians. There is a qualitative difference between defending oneself or one’s family against an immediate aggressor and joining in a national military conflict. In the former circumstance, you have some control over your response. You can choose to seek a peaceful solution if you infer that such might prove successful, and if not you may be able to change gears and resort to lethal force. But once you join a national military service, you’ve given up your control of your responses — and your responses are YOUR moral responsibility — and handed it over to your commanding officer. You may be ordered to bomb a village that has innocent men, women, and children, and you are expected to follow orders. You’ve thereby put your moral standing before God in another man’s hands.
So non-Christians should assume the risk of damnation by joining the military while Christians demur to preserve their right standing before God? That’s fair. Of course, this is far from the reality. The military is so Christianized that it’s a become a first amendment issue. Only recently a story appeared in the news about a cadet, an atheist, who dropped out of West Point just months before graduation because he was so fed up with the religiosity of military culture. There have been many such reports in recent years about pressure to convert, particularly to the evangelical wing.
Bombing a village inhabited by innocent men, women and children is ultimately traceable to political decisions. One way to avoid this is not to elect officials with reckless and romantic notions of empire who gain power by pandering to…Christians.
My point was not to try to defend militarism, but to indicate that Jesus’ teaching is most naturally applied to his individual followers rather than to professional soldiers, and that this is how some have justified allowing Christians to be in military service. The early church’s discussions of the subject are fascinating, as are more recent ones by Yoder and others.
I was just trying to explain why there are the differences of opinion on this that there are, and not to defend or advocate for that viewpoint.
BTW, you may enjoy an older treatise on non-violence, called “It Is Not Lawful For Me To Fight”, by Jean-Michel Hornus. The original edition is out of print, but Wipf & Stock has reissued:
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