Ben Askins and I are friends and have been for the better part of a decade. We have worshipped together on Sundays, worked together as EMTs, and graduated together as seminary students. Supposedly, we both listen to hardcore music, although I’m not convinced he knows the difference between hard rock and hardcore. We are friends and brothers who also disagree about the place of violence in Christian ethics. Ben has written a response to John Piper’s recent response to Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University address. I will be responding to Ben, but I will not necessarily be defending John Piper. Piper and I come to similar conclusions about Christian nonviolent ethics, but we get there by slightly different routes.
First things first, I have labeled Ben’s position “just violence ethics.” I have chosen this term because it brings with it the tradition of just war theory espoused by Augustine, Aquinas, and others, but it also broadens the ethic from Christianity and war to Christianity and personal use of violence. As I understand Ben’s position, he is arguing that violence has a place in Christian ethics in which there are situations where a Christians can be justly and virtuously violent. I have labelled my own position as “nonviolent activism”, “aggressive pacifism”, or “nonviolent ethics.” I will use these terms interchangeably, but they all refer to the same moral vision: An active and vigorous ethic that is fundamentally committed to love of enemies, forgiveness of sins, and the ministry of reconciliation. My argument can be concisely put as follows:
1) The ethics of the people of God exist to fulfil the purpose of the kingdom of God.
2) The church is the eschatological kingdom of God anticipating the fulfillment of the kingdom at the second coming of Christ.
3) The purpose of the church is to be the kingdom through which all the other kingdoms will be blessed.
4) Christian nonviolent ethics exists to aid in the fulfilment of the purpose of God’s kingdom to gather the scattered kingdoms of this world into the kingdom of God through the ministry of reconciliation.
Ben has argues that Marcionized Christianity is wrong and dangerous. I agree, and unfortunately the vast majority of those who have argued for a nonviolent ethic have done so at the expense of the Old Testament. The kingdom of God is in the whole of Scripture, not just the New Testament, so I am going to spend a fair amount of time examining the kingdom of God across the canon. In a way, I am compensating for the majority of pacifist readings of Scripture that ignore or revise the Old Testament in favor of the New.
The Kingdom of God in Scripture
The kingdom of God is the reign of God over the realm of God. It began with Adam in Eden and will be completed at the second coming of the second Adam in the New Jerusalem. In the beginning, God created a realm, and on the seventh day God rested in his enthroned reign over that realm. He set a man and a woman as his king and queen over his kingdom. He gave them an ethic and a mission. Don’t eat of the tree of knowledge, do fill the earth and rule over it. Peter tells us “People are slaves to whatever has mastered them” (2 Pet. 2:19). Adam and Eve were mastered by a desire for life and a fear of death (Jam 1:15, Heb 2:15), and so the king and queen became slaves of desire, domination, and death (Gen 3:16-17; cf. Gen. 4:7). Thus the kingdom of God fell through the fall of the rulers into slavery and the fall of the realm into decay (Rom. 8:22).
The first death recorded in Scripture was by the sin of murder. Cain killed Abel. After killing his brother, Cain went out and became a builder of kingdoms, but these kingdoms, like Cain, were filled with violence. God then declared war against the violence of all humanity, and bent his bow against every single inhabitant of the earth. In one fell stroke, God rained down judgement and killed every person on earth, all except for one family. Noah was righteous, so God saved him and his family from the waters of his holy war. God hangs his war bow in the sky as a sign of his promise to never again destroy all the inhabitants of the earth. Noah’s family was given the same kingdom commission that Adam and Eve had been given: Be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth (Gen 9:7). The earth is again filled with a multiplying kingdom, but they don’t fill the earth. Instead, disbelieving the promise of God to never destroy the earth again with a flood, all the postdiluvian inhabitance stayed in one place and build a high tower. Josephus, the Jewish historian, notes that this was done in order to escape any further deluge. So God confused their language and scatters the kingdoms all over the face of the earth.
Here is where the kingdom of God reemerges. God elects an unrighteous, idol worshipping man and makes a surprising promise to him, “I will make you a great kingdom…and in you all the kingdoms of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen. 12:2-3). Abraham’s great grandchildren are the twelve sons of Israel that become twelve tribes of Israel. They become slaves in Egypt, and the cry of God’s people fills God’s ears. God declares holy war on Pharaoh and the gods of Egypt. With ten plagues God unmakes creation, tears apart the gods who are meant to bring life to Egypt, annihilated the Pharaoh’s army in the Red Sea, and delivers the Israelites out of slavery. He makes a covenant with the twelve tribes, defines them as a kingdom of priest, himself as their Great King, and promises to give them the land that their forefather Abraham sojourned in. The purpose of the kingdom of Israel is to be a light to the kingdoms showing them the ethics God has entrusted to them, so that the kingdoms will know that the one, true God is in Israel (Deut 4:5-7).
God has shown himself to be a warrior, declaring holy war against violence and oppression, and a God of justice – caring for the poor, sick, and foreigner in Israel. When the Israelites reach the land of Canaan, God sends them into Canaan to do what he has done to Egypt through the plagues, Sodom and Gomorrah through fire and brimstone, and the whole world through the flood. The Israelites are to destroy all combatant Amorites because the sin of the Amorites is filled up to the brim. We are not told what the sin of the Amorites was, but we are given three previous examples of holy war in Scripture – the world with Noah, Sodom and Gamorrah with Abraham, and Egypt with Israel – we know that God hates violence and oppression and only brings destruction to a kingdom when the outcry of the oppressed has filled his ears for far too long.
In the land of their inheritance, the Israelites are told not to act like the Amorites by worshipping false gods and oppressing the poor and needy. God anoints David as Israel’s christ; the king to rule the people in the realm they have been given. He makes a promise to David, that his kingdom and throne will be established forever (2 Sam. 7:11-16). The christ of Israel is the judge of Israel. The one who “will destroy all the wicked in the land, cutting off all the evildoers from the city of the LORD” (Ps 101:8).
The kingdom of Israel breaks in two, and God sends the prophets to the divided kingdom. The prophets expose Israel’s systemic injustice and idolatry. “People are slaves to whatever has mastered them” and the kingdom becomes enslaved to sin, Satan, and the nations of Assyria, Egypt, and Babylon. The Old Testament ends with Israel returning to her land and rebuilding the foundation of her temple. The New Testament begins with Israel in their homeland, but they are in enemy occupied territory awaiting the christ who will rule Israel and deliver them from the power of Rome.
Like Moses before him, Jesus gives instruction on a mountain. Turn the other cheek. Love your enemies. Judge not lest you be judged (Matt. 5-7). This is a political act (Matt 7:29). Jesus is establishing the new covenant. Defining himself as the law giving king over the people of God and redefining the people of God from those who are the biological children of Abraham to all who possess the faith of Abraham. Jesus calls all to follow him by taking up the cross to die and rise with him (Matt. 16:24). At the Passover feast, Jesus establishes a new covenant meal in which he is the sacrificial lamb who will cover and cleanse his people through his death. Jesus is killed by Romans who saw him as a political insurrectionist and by Jews who saw him as a blasphemer. After three days, Jesus rises from the dead, appears bodily to his disciples, and ascends the heavenly throne to rule the nations. He sends his kingdom into the kingdoms of the world to announce his reign and baptize his followers into the new covenant (Matt. 28:29).
At Pentecost, the dispersion of the kingdoms at Babel is reversed as the kingdom of heaven gathers the kingdoms of the earth together by proclaiming the reign of Christ in the native language of the kingdoms of the world (Acts 2:11). The promise made to Abraham is being fulfilled, as Paul tells the Galatians, “Therefore, be sure that it is those who are of faith who are the sons of Abraham. The Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, ‘All the kingdoms will be blessed in you.’ So then those who are of faith are blessed with Abraham, the believer” (Gal. 3:7-9).
Through the resurrection, the reign of those who weaponized death – sin, Satan, and Caesar – has being overthrown. Caesar and all sociocultural leaders wield death as a weapon, but unlike sin and Satan, the rulers of this world have been entrusted with that sword (Rom. 13:4). Jesus is the King of kings and Lord of lords, and thus Caesar’s power is delegated power to be used in accordance with the reign of Christ.
Christians are to offer prayers to God for rulers “that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way” (1 Tim. 2:2; Jer. 29:7). Christians are to be subject to the governing authorities, “For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God” (Rom. 13:1; cf. Prov. 8:15, Dan. 2:21). Honor is given to but not sought from Caesar (1 Pet. 2:17; Rom 13:7; Matt. 22:21). And while Christians pray for peace, they are not surprised when Caesar acts in accordance with sin and Satan using death as a weapon against the followers of Jesus. When this happens Christians are to follow the example of Christ, “When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly” (1 Pet. 2:23; cf. 4:16; Heb. 10:34).
Like the Israelites with the Amorites, the church is a warrior people. We do not battle humans but lies that have mastered human minds and hearts, enslaving them to the reign of death (2 Cor. 10:3-4; Heb. 2:15; 2 Pet. 2:19). They are the ministers of reconciliation in the broken and bitter family of humanity (2 Cor. 5:18) who overcome evil with good (Rom. 12:21). The church is the kingdom of God anticipating the fulfillment of God’s kingdom. We still await the day when the Lord shall return, vindicate his people, destroy sin and death, judge the nations, and annihilate all those who have loved and practiced a lie (Rev. 22:15).
It is not the purpose of the kingdom of God to seek political power amongst the kingdoms of the world, but to speak truth to power. “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. What does the LORD require of you? Do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God” (Mic. 6:8). We remind the rulers that our God reigns, and Christ will judge the nations. Our citizenship is in heaven, and we await the day when we will receive our inheritance, the New Jerusalem that will descend from heaven. Until that day, the church is a polity without a polis, a kingdom without a nation, comprised of sojourners and exiles, who like Abraham, live as strangers in the lands they will be given as an inheritance (Heb. 12:28, 1 Pet. 1:4, 17, 2:11; cf. Jam 1:1).
The kingdom of God is gathering the scattered kingdoms of Babel into one kingdom under Christ through the public testimony of the gospel. “Our God reigns! Christ has defeated death – the weapon of sin, Satan, and Caesar. The Father has exalted him above every power in heaven and on earth and given him the name that is above every name – Lord. All those who come to the Lord in faith are forgiven their sins through his sacrifice, and they are given the Holy Spirit making them citizen of his kingdom and heirs of the new creation. This new creation has dawned in the sons and daughters of God and will be complete when the Lord returns to judge the whole world, both the living and the dead.”
Christian nonviolent ethics exists to aid in the fulfillment of the purpose of God’s kingdom in gathering the scattered kingdoms of this world into the kingdom of Christ through the forgiveness of sins, the love of enemies, and the ministry of reconciliation. Christians overcome evil with good, and when wronged they do not avenge themselves but look to their king to avenge evil. The kingdom of God is a warrior kingdom, but their war is not with humans and kingdoms but against the reign of death in the lies of idolatry and oppression of the powerless. Thus the ethics of the people of God exist to accomplish the purpose of the kingdom of God.
By the blood of Christ, the citizenship and ethic of every Christian have been ransomed from the idolatrous ways inherited from their forefathers (1 Pet. 1:18; cf. Rom. 12:2). But throughout history, whenever the church has been nationalized with the state, the ethics of the kingdom of God have become conformed to that nation’s ethics. Ben has rightly recognized a gaping problem in traditional pacifist reading of Scripture: A red letter prioritization of the New Testament over the Old Testament. Yes, that is a wrong reading of Scripture, and so is a reading of Scripture that fails to see the church as the kingdom of God. That kind of reading is easy prey to a nationalized Christianity that abdicates its unique ethic for the ethic of the state. When this happens, the mission of the kingdom of God is hindered.
Fight, Flight, or Nonviolent Activism
I love the painting entitled The Third of May 1808 by Francisco Goya. In that painting, the fight or flight response to violence is depicted. On one side there are those with power, using violence to destroy their enemies. On the other side there are the powerless, who are being destroyed by violence. The light shines in the darkness away from the firing squad to a man on his knees in the posture of the cross. Unlike the others, he is not cowering from the guns, rather his eye are fixed on those who would be his enemies. The look on his face is not hatred but intercession, raising his hands in prayer, “Father, please forgive them, for they know not what they do.” He is a witness, testifying to the very end that Jesus Christ is Lord and sin, Satan, and Caesar are not. In the background is a church building placed squarely in between the two groups – the powers and the powerless – asking the church a question: With whom will you stand?
It takes the heart of a lion to be committed to nonviolent activism. Neither the fight or flight instinct – just violence or pacifism – are a truly Christian ethic. The church is called to be witnesses who testify in word and deed that Jesus Christ is Lord. To modify a statement by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “We are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice, we throw our bodies into the spokes of the wheel itself.” That kind of moral vision makes no sense if we live under the reign of death, but if Jesus Christ is Lord then death is not.
The powers of sin, Satan, and Caesar are threatened because the reign of Christ infringes on their realm. Which is precisely what makes the gospel subversive.
In conclusion, I will answer two common questions about aggressive pacifist ethics, and ask two questions of just violence ethics.
Two common questions for nonviolent activist are: 1) Can a Christian kill a rapist who is violating his wife in his home? 2) Can a Christian join the army and kill ISIS?
In answer to the first question: Yes. However, There are few hostile situations that would ever call for a Christian to take a life, and if every Christian who holds to just violence ethics was consistent to their own moral tradition in which violence is only to be used as a last resort when every other option has been exhausted, then every just violence Christian would be a functional pacifist. But rules have exceptions, and Exodus 22:2 is one of those, “If a thief is found breaking in and is struck so that he dies, there shall be no bloodguilt for him.” That being said, often it has been the oppressors of the people of God who become followers of Christ through Christian witness in suffering. For instance, in the Gospel according to Mark, the first person to recognize the identity of Jesus as the Son of God is a soldier who is hanging him on the cross. And Saul who would become Paul, the greatest Christian missionary of the church, murdered Stephen, the first Christian martyr. At minimum, this should temper the eagerness of a Christian to take the life of someone causing them or their family harm.
Can a Christian join the army and kill ISIS? No.
Can a Christian serve in the military? Yes. As long as they don’t kill anyone.
I imagine most people will be surprised at this answer, but I am espousing the minority position of the early church. The majority believed that a Christian could not fight in the army at all. They believed this for two primary reasons. First, Jesus called Christians to love their enemies and the early church took this to mean that they therefore can’t kill their own enemies or the enemies of Rome. Secondly, to be a soldier in the army of the Roman Empire, one had to pledge allegiance to Caesar as lord, and a Christian cannot do that because Jesus is Lord. This point raises the broader question for every Christian in America:
Can a Christian pledge allegiance to America? No.
Jesus Christ is Lord is the Christian’s pledge of allegiance to God’s kingdom, and the kingdom of Christ brooks no rivals.
My two questions for just violence Christians:
Which kingdom is constructing your moral vision?
How is just violence ethics rooted in the gospel?