Killing in the Name of…

Killing in the Name of… July 19, 2019
Mark Stelmack / Flickr

Today’s blog is something that has been bubbling in my reflective consciousness. I’ve decided to toss it out for you to think about and critique. The question I’m wrestling with has to do with change that is birthed in violence. The main question is this: should we be surprised when change that is birthed in violence fails to fulfill our hopes?

Violence on the Brain

In part, this is on my mind because I am currently preaching a series on Genesis 1-11. This week we’ll begin looking at the flood narrative. Genesis makes the problem that precipitated the flood quite clear: violence.

The flood narrative begins in chapter 6. The first thing mentioned is the origins of the Nephilim. The text says that these people were “heroes of old, warriors of renown.” In other words, they were men of violence. A few verses later, the assessment of the world’s condition is stated succinctly. “The earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence.”

Seeing this condition, God is grieved that he made mankind. Violence has corrupted God’s good creation. Therefore, God decides to scrub the earth clean and, well, we know the rest of the story.

Violent Heroes

Contemporary entertainment makes it pretty obvious that we still make heroes of warriors. Action movie stars are men and women who accomplish their goals through violence. The superhero genre celebrates justice and the abolition of evil by means of violence. Of course, we don’t even need to get into the gaming world.

Not much has changed since Noah’s time. There is still a basic human impulse that remains the same. It’s the belief that violence, performed by the right people for the right cause, can bring good results.

I wonder…

Violent Origins

I’m going to ask a really tough question. It might offend some of you. Nevertheless, I believe it must be asked. Here it goes. Is it possible that the ongoing race problems that persist in our country are the result of the violence that was used to end slavery?

Make no mistake. I am happy that slavery was abolished. However, it was accomplished through violent means. The post-slavery era emerged bathed in blood. Former slave owners and others who supported the policy did not embrace the new era. They were not persuaded by the abolitionist argument. Their hearts were not changed. They merely yielded to coercive forces that threatened further violence. Since their hearts weren’t changed, bitterness and resentment found a foothold and the effects continue to resonate. Violence characterizes race relations to this day.

I’m not a fatalist. I’m not arguing that the violent origins of the post-slavery era means that racial peace is not achievable. However, it may be necessary for all sides to address and repent of this origin before true reconciliation can be achieved. I’m sorry to say, I’m not holding my breath.

The Means Determines the End

I expect the world to continue to embrace violence in the name of whatever end it thinks justifies the violence. My word here is for my fellow Christians. If I’m right in my assessment, violent means bring about violent ends. You can’t separate them. Therefore, we must reject them. Scripture is clear that this is not God’s way.

God’s kingdom suffers violence enacted against it, but it does not employ it. It doesn’t look for superficial change in behavior. Rather, God’s kingdom begins with the heart and works out from there. Hearts can only change through persuasion. True heart change can only happen if there is freedom, real freedom, to not embrace change. There must be choice. The threat of violence suppresses choice.

The world seems content to live with the broken system. It will exchange one set of brokenness for another.  It doesn’t seem to realize that the peace it craves cannot emerge out of bloodshed. In fact, it seems surprised by this very fact. There is only one act of bloodshed that brings peace. That is the blood of Jesus Christ. All other blood shed will corrupt the results those who shed the blood hope to achieve. Violence breeds violence. Bloodshed breeds bloodshed.

God’s kingdom works differently. We can only be God’s Kingdom if we embrace and display its methods. Violence is not one of them.

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  • Great stuff, Ron. It made me think of a the entire biblical trajectory. Israel’s downfall was, at least in part, its violence. I wonder to what extent their participation in the conquest of Canaan started them on a trajectory they couldn’t recover from. God did a lot to work against this. He won the battles for them, he built them without a standing army, he framed the battles in sacrificial language that required divine authorization and power, etc. But still, they used violence to drive the Canaanites out of the land. And then they became a violent people.

    I find the Servant Songs of Isaiah particularly instructive here. After weaning them off of the violent kingship, the prophet anticipates a new peaceful era in world history that would be ushered in by God’s battered, broken, bruised, gentle servant. This servant language sometimes points to and individual and other times to God’s people as a whole. In doing so it anticipates Jesus who absorbed society’s religious and political violence and put it to death on the cross. It also anticipates the the nonviolent revolution that required his people to promote his kingdom nonviolently.

    It’s as if God realized that his people couldn’t handle a little violence without getting hooked on it, so when he renewed and relaunched his priestly people he did so without the sword, but with the power of embodied witness, verbal persuasion, and gift giving. His kingdom comes as a gift that people can accept or reject. They don’t have to embrace his new order; they are free to live and die in and for the old order that is passing away. The servant is thus fulfilled in Jesus (the individual) and the church (God’s people as a whole).

  • Mark Quinn

    Ron, I am curious how do you interpret that God answers the violence of humanity by violently cleansing the earth? It seems this would play into the myth of redemptive violence that drives the superhero genre and much contemporary American ( though it is probably true nearly everywhere around the globe) response to evil. We seem to take permission from Gods example and assume we are dealing out righteous indignation.

  • Ron Peters

    Thanks for taking the time to read and respond Mark.

    We rightly struggle with examples of violence in the OT, in particular violence that is enacted at God’s command. It’s a topic about which my thinking is very open.

    There is saying I’ve heard a few times, “The government has a monopoly on violence.” I understand it to mean that only government has the right to authorize the use of violence, whether in the form of national defense, of maintaining civil order, or the execution of justice. The average citizen does not have this right.

    From what I see in Scripture, God has this monopoly. I say this based on my reading of Scripture, which states that all life belongs to God. God alone sits in a position that gives him the right to authorize the taking of life. First, this is because God is the sovereign ruler of all creation. Second, because God has a perspective on life and death that humans simply do not possess. If he makes a decision to take life, he can do so in a way that reflects righteousness and justice, because he can see the situation in a way that humans cannot.

    Humans are too quick to take life in the name of justice (it makes me think of Gandalf’s words to Frodo in “The Fellowship of the Ring”). The problem is we are woefully ill equipped to make such a judgment. I think the story of Lamech in Genesis 4 illustrates this. In judging Cain, God demonstrates his righteousness, justice, and mercy. In God’s judgment, a just response to Cain’s offense does not require that Cain die. This suggests to me that if God judges that a situation requires the taking of life, his judgment is sound because he sees something in the situation that I don’t. By contrast, Lamech represents how mankind make that decision. Humans rush to violence and bloodshed, even though it is not just or righteous, and is disproportional to the offense.

    Additionally, for humans violence represents a power grab and a lack of patience. Violence gives those who employ it a sense of control over the outcome they desire to achieve, It’s the human attempt to play God. By contrast, change through heart transformation means we have no control over the outcome. Additionally, violence is a short cut. Heart change requires time and patience, which most people are willing to endure. Violence achieves the desired end faster.

    From what I can see, when God determines death is necessary, it’s not an act of justice nor is it a means to enact change. Rather, it is a cleansing process. He did not decree death for Cain, the murderer. By contrast, the flood and the Israelite conquest of Canaan were both characterized as a cleansing process. The inhabitants had become so corrupt that they were a cancer on the world. The world could only be spared by this extreme process. Again, humans are completely unequipped to make such a judgment. Only God can. Only he can authorize humans to be agents of this process. When they are, it will still be obvious that the outcome was achieved not through human strength, but God’s.

    This are my thoughts at this point. I’m interested to hear yours.

  • GaryLyn

    Adding to these reflections about God and violence in the Noah story, the case could be made one of the points of the stories is God’s own awareness that violence in response to wrongdoing does not ultimately work. In Genesis 8:20-22, we hear God say in his heart, “I will never again curse the ground because of humankind, for the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth, nor will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done.” Two statements about God’s decision never to destroy the earth again. Why? Because he realizes that the human hear is evil from youth!!??!! It’s as if God is saying, I must find a better way to deal with the inevitable sinfulness of humanity. And the way he chooses, here with Noah and really throughout the rest of the Jewish scriptures, is covenant.