Nonviolence 101 – Jesus is Irrational! [2 Myths - Christian Nation & Redemptive Violence] (part 7)

The following is part of a fairly long series on the theology and practice of nonviolence.  If you would like to read all of the posts, you can do so here.

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Now that we have thoroughly explored a theology of nonviolence, based on the New Testament witness, we need to address the common hurdles to holding this as truth.  For most of my life, nonviolence seemed so irrational that I thought: This couldn’t be what Jesus actually meant? This defies all common sense!  In fact, it is foolishness!  And after finally embracing my Anabaptist roots, I now realize that accepting nonviolence does not make it any less ridiculous.  But, believing such may offer something to the world that it is starving to find, a counter-cultural kingdom community that operates so irrationally that it is attractive.

Reflecting back, I think that there are two myths and two “what ifs” that were roadblocks in my journey.  For this reason, I want to briefly explore these and then offer a new way forward as radical bringers of peace.

2 Myths

There are two myths that have captured the imagination of many American Christians.  The first of these is the “myth of a Christian nation.”[1] This is the belief that the United States of America is a Christian nation.  And there is some justification for why this is ingrained in many folks’ consciousness.  Many of our founders held to some kind of belief in God (although many were deists) and claimed to found this nation on Biblical principles.  Not only so, but in our day we have slogans such as “in God we trust” and have in our pledge of allegiance, “under God.”  This belief is further reinforced by many conservative pastors and leaders who preach a God and country gospel.  The greatest evidence of this is found in the newly published: The American Patriots Bible.[2] Or consider this statement from Robert Jeffress from a chapter called “America is a Christian Nation:”

…Our ancestors built their dream of a new nation on the bedrock of Christianity.  John Quincy Adams, sixth president of the United States… offered this assessment of the linkage between Christianity and the founding of our country: “The highest glory of the American Revolution was this; it connected, in one indissoluble bond, the principles of civil government and the principles of Christianity.”[3]

There is this inherent belief that the United States is a Christian nation and that what is good for the country is good for God’s purposes in the world.

Pastor and Theologian Greg Boyd questions this thesis.  He argues that Christian conservatives who are fighting to take this country back for God, are wasting their time, because this nation was never Christian.  New Testament faith demands allegiance primarily to the kingdom of God.  No nation outside of such a reign can ever be properly deemed Christian.  And besides, when was America establishing itself as Christian? When the settlers and founders conquered the native peoples and used violence to steal their land?  Or perhaps when these same people sent ships to Africa to enslave human beings?  Maybe that was part of the Christian founding?  The point is that to call any nation Christian is to miss the kingdom of God.  God’s nation is beautiful, self-giving, nonviolent, and ready to suffer at the hands of enemies.[4]

The second myth is called the “myth of redemptive violence.”  As children, we grow up watching television shows that train us to believe that violence can lead to just outcomes.  So, Batman beats up the Joker, GI Joe defeats Cobra, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles fight the foot-clan, and the list goes on.  Walter Wink notes that all of these have in common, “an indestructible hero [who] is doggedly opposed to an irreformable and equally indestructible villain.  Nothing can kill the hero, though of the first three-quarters of the comic strip or TV show he (rarely she) suffers grievously and appears hopelessly doomed, until, miraculously, the hero breaks free, vanquishes the villain, and restores order until the next episode.”[5] Wink goes on to summarize this myth:

In short, the Myth of Redemptive Violence is the story of the victory over chaos by means of violence.  It is the ideology of conquest, the original religion of the status quo.  The gods must favor those who conquer.  Conversely, whoever conquers must have the favor of the gods.  The common people exist to perpetuate the advantage that the gods have conferred upon the king, the aristocracy, and the priesthood.  Religion exists to legitimate power and privilege.  Life is combat.  Any form of order is preferable to chaos…  Peace through war; security through strength: these are the core convictions that arise from this ancient historical religion…[6]

In the kingdom of God, living as though the myth of redemptive violence is reality, negates the calling to be people of creative imagination, who strive to find “third way” kinds of solutions to conflict.  This myth undermines God and distorts the character of the divine by using him to legitimize the civil religion of the empire.

If we take these two myths together, it is easy to see why nonviolence for Americans seems impractical and almost for some, immoral.  God obviously has used violence for his greater glory.  Yes, lives are lost in war, but think of how many more lives would be lost if we did not fight.  The right thing to do is to defend the innocent and bring democracy to oppressed lands. And as pure as “just war” advocates’ motives may be, this does not negate the fact that we are citizens of a nation that transcends borders.  The countries of this world have the right to use the sword to maintain order, but this is separate from anything having to do with being a Christian.  It is only when we buy into the two myths that we allow our imagination to be overhauled and our distinct witness to be tainted.


[1]. See: Gregory A. Boyd, The Myth of a Christian Nation: How the Quest for Political Power Is Destroying the Church (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2005).

[2] See: Richard Lee, The American Patriot’s Bible (Nashville, TN.: Thomas Nelson, 2009).

[3]. Robert Jeffress, Hell? Yes!: And Other Outrageous Truths You Can Still Believe (Colorado Springs, Colo.: Waterbrook Press, 2004), 174.

[4]. Boyd, The Myth of a Christian Nation: How the Quest for Political Power Is Destroying the Church, 98-99.

[5]. Wink, The Powers That Be: Theology for a New Millennium, 43.

[6]. Ibid., 48.

  • http://badchristian.org Sean Reid

    I've just started reading "Myth of a Christian" nation myself (http://www.badchristian.org/2011/01/20/book-review-myth-of-a-christian-nation/)
    and I particularly like the idea of Jesus demonstrating a "power under" (not sure if I'm using the exact terminology correctly) versus the current American method of "power over." I don't think I ever thought of Jesus as NOT being a top-down type of leader, however, if I look at his ministry it makes perfect sense. He demonstrated leading through service, which was, and still is, a huge paradigm shift. By opening the book with that concept it totally frames the discussion differently and disarms a lot of current mythology.

    I doubt many in Washington are really asking "how can we best serve the needs of the world" when they're discussing foreign policy. I think we'd be in a much better position on the world stage if they did.

    • http://ballymennoniteblogger.wordpress.com tristaanogre

      I appreciate the recognition of Jesus as not top-down. Kurt and I disagree on some political points and, if I remember correctly, this is one of them when it comes to living out our Christian life in American society. Any attempts to legislate morality or God's justice (right or left) feels and seems to me as "top down" kingdom building. Instead, as I see it, the Christian way is through service, through loving others and each other, and living in the Kingdom ourselves and transforming the world through a "bottom up" work. This seems to negate any need for legislation within the secular state when it comes to bringing the Kingdom to bear on this earth.

      • http://badchristian.org Sean Reid

        I'm a pragmatic minarchist/libertarian, which seems to be a fairly small pool amongst my fellow Christians. Depending on where you fall on that spectrum, you and I might agree regarding legislating morality.

        In a purely philosophical/sociological sense I think it's a fool's gambit. I'm not sure that any degree of punishment or legal measure has ever really eradicated an undesirable behavior. However, I do think that outreach, service and love all have a strong historical record of success (measured not by wartime "victory" but changes in attitudes).

        So, in that regard, we agree. We'll achieve more Kingdom "goals" by living like Christ than we do by establishing a "Christian nation."

        • http://ballymennoniteblogger.wordpress.com tristaanogre

          Well said! And yes, I think we DO agree on those perspectives. :-) I'm not sure about the term you applied but I agree, my views seem to be relatively small minority among Christians….

          • http://badchristian.org Sean Reid

            Philosophically I'm an anarcho-capitalist. Basically, I think that markets operate best when left to individuals to monitor their own transactions and there really is not a need for any government oversight.

            Pragmatically I'm a minarchist. Meaning that I always tend to vote for the smallest possible government I can, whether that be an actual reduction in size or in the amount of damage they can do (ie. supporting gridlock instead of bipartisanship).

            The only real difference is that the former would require a massive civilization "reset" button and the latter seems much more practical and likely to occur in my lifetime (but I'm willing to admit to being a bit of an optimist).

          • http://ballymennoniteblogger.wordpress.com tristaanogre

            One thing I heard someone say that I agree with on principle. In a nation that has, as a majority, people with Christ centered values, the institutions of that nation should necessarily reflect those values. That is a philosophy that I hear from Jim Wallis and Ron Sider. And yes, I agree with it.

            However, that assumes that we live in a nation that has, as a majority, people with Christian values. As Kurt points out in his article and as Boyd points out in his book, this is not necessarily true. To then expect the laws and such in our nation to either reflect those values or even be accepted by the populace is then, itself, a falsehood. Put a law on someone when they don't like it, they will find a way around it.

            But change their attitude through service, mercy, and love, and then not only will the accept the law, but the law will no longer be necessary because the actions will flow naturally without legislative action.

  • http://ballymennoniteblogger.wordpress.com tristaanogre

    I appreciate this in your statements:

    "The countries of this world have the right to use the sword to maintain order, but this is separate from anything having to do with being a Christian. "

    This is a key point to remember. Many people criticize our nation for it's right to use the sword to maintain order. This is something, though, that we need to recognize as something that is important within a national structure.

    However, as you said, we are called to a DIFFERENT Kingdom, above and beyond the nations of this world. I believe our task, then, is to try and temper the use of the sword by speaking for truth and God's righteous justice and mercy. Until the consummation, though, we have to expect that nations will continue to use the sword to maintain order and, in light of that, accept that sometimes, when the values of God's kingdom are in conflict with the values of our nation, we may ourselves feel that sword against us as we act within God's kingdom.

  • Joey Stevens

    Good stuff Kurt. The Gospel truth always upsets the paradigm. I too read Boyd's "Myth of a Christian Nation" and must admit it saved me from potentiallyleaving the church. I hear a lot of nationalism and faith blended into one and it never makes sense to me. I'm not married to the Republican/conservative party and that alienates me from many of my Christian friends. I agree with The Kingdom of God being a "power under" kingdom; one that cannot be established with any version of the kindgom of the world because of the worldly kingdom's nature to rule over people. I also appreciate Boyd's breakdown on civil religion. Many Americans are civil religious and not Christ followers.

  • kimberly quinn

    Maybe I'm not catching something here, but it seems you have combined two different issues and not shown the linkage.

    • Kurt

      Kimberly…

      If you believe that this is a 'Christian nation' and you believe that violence is redemptive… Then the God YHWH is on the side of the Christian nation to legitimize the 'necessary' bloodshed for some kind of greater good for the 'national security' interest which is therefore God's interest (because it is HIS nation). These two Myths worked together, for an unpopular example, to enact the Revolutionary War (which was about taxation issues and psuedo oppression). Hope I didn't frustrate you by bringing up the 4th, but that is a good example of how these two things worked together in the past of our nation's history. A person uses God's favor for a nation to reinforce the need to kill another nation believing that in the end it will all be 'redemptive.'

      Now, this is not to say that the long term benefits of US being free are not apparent. But simply to serve as one example of how it can work.

      For a more drastic example from our history, see if you can connect the dots from the story I use in this post about the Native Americans:
      http://thepangeablog.com/2010/05/27/whose-kingdom

      Blessings! Its been great having you as a conversation partner this past month!!!!!

  • Luke Thomas

    "The countries of this world have the right to use the sword to maintain order, but this is separate from anything having to do with being a Christian. It is only when we buy into the two myths that we allow our imagination to be overhauled and our distinct witness to be tainted."

    I have a question from your view Kurt, does this mean as a Christian should support a war that maintains order, but not be involved? So a war where Germans were killing Jews, I can support my government, but not be involved in fighting the army myself?

    If we are a nation made up of mostly Christians that should vote nonviolence than would the country ever be able to maintain order or police itself? Would it reject all war, capital punishment, physical punishment?

    Does abortion fall into a nonviolence category in the same way as war?

    I am assuming that you consider yourself not a duel citizen, but I am just guessing their. I agree with Boyd more than I disagree with him on the Myth of a Christian Nation. I struggle much more with the being no redemptive violence. That is while I would say war is inhumane, gross, something that would want to be avoided, am I really supposed to say that the Jews were not "redeemed" in some way in World War II. In the Old Testament, does not God use war to redeem his people? I do not see all war as redemptive and G.I. Joe is over the top (but come on TMNT has great theological significance), however has some war been redemptive for the unjust?

    Enjoyed the posts all in all. I appreciate the anabaptist view even in parts I do not agree.

    • Kurt

      Luke,

      Great insights/questions.

      On the war question. Christians are not called to support war but are to have a witness of peace. Tomorrow, I will in detail deal with WWII as that is the number one question. Although you may not agree with nonviolence in the way I expound it, I hope that you will find my answer to this "what if Hitler" kind of question.

      Luke, the reality is that our nation is not mostly Christians. If we are, it sure doesn't look like it in practice. Many are "christian" in the same way they were born "american." I think you agree with that. My point in this series is to say that if we took this exegesis to its natural result, Christians would pray for the police and army but would not take part in them. And in the scenario you speak of, if we truly were almost all Christians (which wont happen), then our crime would be way down, etc. I am an advocate of restorative justice programs that lead to reconciliation and rehabilitation. But, in any case, we are sojourners in America with an allegiance to a True Kingdom.

      Abortion is detestable violence. One of the greatest injustices of modernity. It breaks the heart of God. The only bit of wiggle room I could see here is if the life of the mother was threatened (and this should also take prayer and discernment). LIFE is precious to God and to take it is contrary to the way of Jesus.

      Dual citizen… yes. I am ok with that as long as I can do with my US citizenship what Paul did with his… used it for the advantage of the kingdom of God. It got him out of some big binds, but did not serve a deeper (identity forming) purpose for him. It does not for me either.

      Although I talk about the MYth of REdemptive Violence, I still enjoy films that endorse such… but now, I use my filter to not allow any story to inform me more than the Jesus story. TMNT is still a joy. Luke, on your statement about some violence being redemptive, let me simply say that it is only the case when Christians have not acted as such, which led to circumstances that were out of control. — still gotta say, see tomorrow's post!

      Thanks for your complements, and even those who may not buy into every part of this series, I hope they will be challenged to look at the biblical evidence before forming opinions about violence and its use. One thing Anabaptists have in their favor besides the first 300 year of Christianity being nonviolent (for the most part) is that they start in the text first.

      • Luke Thomas

        I will look forward to the post tomorrow. Sorry to steal so much time on what you were anticipating the answer.

        I will have to note: at the Mennonite Brethren school I work the historic or current Anabaptist movements are lost completely as part of the stories. To even start talking about the issues cause a great amount of cognitive dissonance. I may not agree with you on Nonviolence. I do think that Christians can participate in government activities (police, soldier, etc.). I also think our nationalism is way over the top. I take just war theories and still take most of the wars in U.S. history as unjust. As Christians we must be able to speak into the injustices of our government is making. Thanks for the posts.

  • http://nailtothedoor.blogspot.com Dan Martin

    @Luke said I take just war theories and still take most of the wars in U.S. history as unjust. As Christians we must be able to speak into the injustices of our government is making.

    You're exactly right, Luke. One does not have to buy the complete nonviolence perspective (though I largely do) to still find good reason to challenge our systems. One concern I've had for a long time is that in the absolute preaching of nonviolence, Anabaptists (and among them I count myself) have failed to challenge OTHER Christians to consistently apply even the "just war" tenets they claim to support. I'm not sure any war America has ever fought really fits the criteria Augustine proposed for just war…though different of our wars have violated different of the criteria. Christians ought to challenge the narrative that justifies violence, and show it for the sham it is.

    And that's one place (though not the *only* one) where I have to take issue with @Sean's "minarchism." While the notion of libertarianism and minimal government may sound great in the abstract, empirical observation demonstrates that left to themselves, people *don't* do justice and markets *do* screw people. Libertarians wage war too–not least because their demand for "liberty" often stops at our own border and doesn't consider the "liberty" of the rest of the world to act against American self-interest. As Christians, I believe we need to consider the consequences of our actions, including our votes. When those actions result in an injustice committed or not prevented (and when we can remedy them without ourselves violating Jesus' teaching), I believe we are obligated to act. Reread the prophet Amos…


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