if you follow my facebook feed, you’ll know that leading up to this holiday season i spent some time defending my counter-cultural suggestion that since the jesus of the gospel narratives is quite clearly against killing people, folks who claim to follow him ought to be as well.
though it’s not the first time an impassioned disagreement has taken place in my world, i was surprised that the most vitriolic – sometimes even violent – responses came not due to my previous suggestions that the gospel is far better news than what we learned in church; or that the family of God expands beyond the walls of religion; or even that accepting syrian refugees and muslim immigrants is a christ-followers’ ethical and moral responsibility; but the assertion that christians shouldn’t kill people.
i don’t say so lightly. such an assertion flies in the face of the faith and family in which i was raised – and not just because we used to sing, ‘onward christian soldier, marching off to war…’ during children’s church.
for me, it started on the day i was born.
the day i came out of my mother’s womb, i received two gifts from my paternal grandfather. the first was a leather-bound KJV bible with my name and birthdate inscribed on the front.
i still have it.
the second gift was a shotgun. because ‘Murica.
thank you, grandfather.
while i’m aware not every child is endowed with that particular present combination to commemorate their arrival into our world, the fact remains that our nation’s little boys are consistently encouraged to play ‘war’ or ‘cops and robbers’ or ‘cowboys and indians’ well before their adult years (overlooking the horrific genocide of indigenous people on this continent as the foundation for our so-called ‘christian’ nation, of course).
more often than not, these formative ‘games’ are played with toy guns which can be bought nearly anywhere – not just at select pro-gun toy retailers, but even in the tiny walgreens’ or CVS, and even the dismal toy section at any dollar store.
our country worships the second amendment to the point that even our smartest politicians and so-called thought leaders are completely dumbfounded on how to minimize our nation’s epidemic of mass shootings.
we’ve frankly refused to engage in serious conversation and are abhorred at the idea of taking cues from other civilized countries (like australia or great britain) who simply don’t have these types of problems.
as the gun control debate rages on, guns control america – and regardless of whether that’s because the NRA has a kickass lobby or because the value of the right to bear arms has been embedded into our culture since the revolutionary war, that fact doesn’t seem to be changing any time soon.
but this post isn’t about gun laws.
it is, however, about the connected and deeply embedded ethos from which rhetorical questions are asked whenever one makes a case for non-violence ::
• ‘what about world war II? should we have just let the nazis keep killing the jews?’
• ‘what about ISIS? shouldn’t we fight to protect others and ourselves?’
• ‘what if someone broke into my home to harm my family? what then?’
fear-based responses to such questions have led even well-intentioned, knowledgable and intelligent folks astray from the teachings of the jesus they claim to follow.
our constitution and culture preaches that we have a right to ‘defend our homes and nation,’ and that to not do so makes us weak. that’s the message of our empire, and we’re indoctrinated into that belief from birth.
sadly, this false gospel doesn’t merely come from the podiums of our american politicians; it’s often preached from the pulpits of our pastors and teachers as well.
in this context, it’s entirely understandable that even church-going-folk would believe we have a right to ‘defend our homes and nation’. that’s par for the course for american citizens – yet ironically, many evangelical christians are quick to forget that our citizenship and loyalty lies elsewhere – outside of the notion of empire. we’re supposed to be, by definition, people of the gospel.
recently a former student of mine asked what the gospels had to say about killing. and that, my friends, is an entirely different question.
in a culture built upon and committed to violence in everything from our entertainment industry to our shared ethos to our domestic and foreign policies, it’s difficult to have a sane discussion about self-defense and just war-theory. our national insecurity gets in the way.
but if we take our cue from christ in the gospels…it’s really quite simple.
not only does jesus tell us to turn the other cheek and bless those that persecute us – not only does he paint the broad strokes of telling us to simply trust that we will be protected and provided for according to our need (even our shelter, clothing and our daily bread – which kind of puts a damper on the goal of spending every day working for the purpose of saving up for our retirement with extensive stock portfolios and a robust 401k), but jesus gives us one basic commandment – love one another.
other times, he says to love our neighbors. when he’s asked who, exactly, is defined as our ‘neighbor’ – a clear question of who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’ – jesus makes up a story in which the samaritan is not only the neighbor, but the hero.
suggesting a modern day equivalent to the samaritan in jesus’ parable could be a muslim from ISIS controlled territory isn’t too much of a stretch.
and then – as if he hadn’t yet been clear – jesus says to love our enemies.
as if that weren’t clear enough, he did more than just talk about it – he lived it, even to his death. jesus submitted himself to extensive torture and execution at the hands of the jewish and roman authorities without so much as lifting a finger or a offering one harsh word in response, even at the point of death.
even as he’s breathing his last breaths, he forgives those who nailed him onto the cross.
in fact, jesus was so committed to the practice of non-violence that he rebuked peter for using his sword to cut off a servant’s ear in the garden during his arrest, and then offers healing in the midst of this object lesson.
remember, it was jesus who had asked the disciples if any of them had a sword – and when the response came that there were just a couple, he said, ‘that’ll be enough.’ jesus knew there’d be a showdown with the authorities, and he wanted to leave his disciples with the message that ‘he who lives by the sword, dies by the sword.’
violence inevitably creates more violence. only love can create true peace – and i imagine it’s hard to appropriately love someone when you’re killing them.
to put it bluntly, jesus is against violence. yes, all violence. even retributive violence, or the myth of so-called ‘redemptive violence.’ the jesus in the gospels simply isn’t a fan.
< brief side note :: this obviously gets into some conversations about what exactly transpired during jesus’ death at calvary, and begs the question of whether or not God is violent in and throughout the hebrew scriptures; or against his own son at the cross; or even, as some have suggested, upon his return in the book of revelation…but these are different questions, for a different time.
if you’re interested in that discussion, i’d recommend brian mclaren’s ‘a new kind of christianity :: ten questions that are transforming the faith (one chapter is entitled, ‘is God violent?’) as well as tony jones’ recently released, ‘Did God Kill Jesus?’>
but the fact remains – the person of christ in the gospels – the anointed one, God incarnate… the One proclaimed by the apostle paul to be the visible image of an invisible God and by john the beloved as the very thought, voice and word of God made flesh…that guy? he’s a pacifist.
jesus doesn’t use power or violence to protect himself.. and he doesn’t become so attached to – or better, possessed by – his stuff or relationships that he blurs the lines between his own will and the will of the father.
jesus is against violence. jesus is against killing. it’s impossible to argue otherwise from the gospel narratives with any amount of intellectual integrity.
so if we’re serious about following jesus – and if we believe in a God that looks like jesus – then we don’t have the luxury of relying on our personal stockpile of pistols to protect and defend what’s ‘ours.’
of course, this line of thinking causes one to grapple with the reality that nothing is really ours anyway…and in so doing, i suspect we get just a little closer to the kingdom of God.
perhaps we move closer to the kingdom here and now in the midst of the liberation from the grip of our material goods and possessions (remember, jesus said that the love of money is the root of all evil – i think he might’ve been onto something). when we begin to think something is ‘ours’ or ‘belongs’ to us, it seems to twist our theology into all sorts of strange patterns – just as our ‘right’ to safety and security causes us to justify war and killing and murder and capital punishment; i believe our enslavement to the ‘right’ to protect and defend our families and properties does the same.
it seems this teaching provokes vitriolic and violent responses.
a violent response makes sense – an understanding of power enslaved to the empire of this world cannot tolerate the subversive and peace-filled rebellion of the kingdom of God.
it never has, and it never will.
the truth is there are far fewer folks living into the kingdom than there are professed christians. perhaps that’s part of what jesus meant when he said, ‘narrow is the way, and few find it.’
i believe the best story wins. i believe if christians live their lives the way jesus did; if we teach what jesus taught and love as jesus loved, then we won’t need to worry about ISIS or foreign militaries or robbers or criminals or our own police or government agents or anything else, for that matter – we don’t need to be afraid. as jesus said, we need not fear those who can only kill our bodies.
if we’re people of the resurrection, i’m willing to guess that death doesn’t matter.
‘where o death is your victory? where o grave is your sting?’
if i believe christ truly did defeat sin and death at the cross, then it follows that i would be willing to believe his way of following YHVH trumps the arguments of our politicians, our patriarchs and even our pastors whom erroneously imply christ could’ve done better at calvary if only he had a concealed carry license to shoot pontius pilot and start a uprising.
christ let himself be killed….and his subversive living – even in his death – did far more for human history than any violent riot or rebellion could have.
again…i think he might’ve been onto something.
what about you? what do you think?