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.
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.
There are two myths that have captured the imagination of many American Christians. The first of these is the “myth of a Christian nation.” 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. 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.”
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.
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.” 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…
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.
. 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).
 See: Richard Lee, The American Patriot’s Bible (Nashville, TN.: Thomas Nelson, 2009).
. Robert Jeffress, Hell? Yes!: And Other Outrageous Truths You Can Still Believe (Colorado Springs, Colo.: Waterbrook Press, 2004), 174.
. Boyd, The Myth of a Christian Nation: How the Quest for Political Power Is Destroying the Church, 98-99.
. Wink, The Powers That Be: Theology for a New Millennium, 43.
. Ibid., 48.