December 01, 2009

The New Testament Repudiation of Violence, and What It Means

This is rather a long excerpt for me, but I started transcribing and just couldn't stop . . . really good stuff. This is roughly the final quarter of a chapter from the case studies section (part IV) of another book that was recommended to me in preparation for my paper on redemptive violence in film. I am told it is a standard seminary text. After devouring this and a few of the other chapters (the chapter on homosexuality is a refreshing balance of rigorous exegesis and compassionate but agendaless discussion), I can see why.

I have picked up after an extensive exegetical analysis of Matthew 5:38-48, followed by a systematic examination of all of the key portions of the New Testament (with some attention to the Old Testament, as well) which could be or have been interpreted to pertain to its view of Christians and violence. You can read most of it on Google Books. At this point, Hays has essentially established what the New Testament actually says on the subject. He will now discuss what we ought to do about it.

Taken on its own terms, the Old Testament obviously validates the legitimacy of armed violence by the people of God under some circumstances.

This is the point at which one of the methodological guidelines proposed in Part III must come into play: the New Testament's witness is finally normative. If the irreconcilable tensions exist between the moral vision of the New Testament and that of particular Old Testament texts, the New Testament vision trumps the Old Testament. Just as the New Testament texts render judgments superseding the Old Testament requirements of circumcision and dietary laws, [...] so also Jesus' explicit teaching and example of nonviolence reshapes our understanding of God and of the covenant community in such a way that killing enemies is no longer a justifiable option. [...]

[...] The vocation of nonviolence is not exclusively an option for exceptionally saintly individuals, nor is it a matter of individual conscience; it is fundamental to the church's identity and raison d'etre. Mainline Protestantism has usually treated this matter as though it were a question of individual moral preference, supporting the "right" of the individual conscientious objection but also generally sanctioning Christian participation in war. In light of the New Testament's call to the community as a whole to embody the teaching of Jesus, however, this position is untenable and theologically incoherent. The church is called to live as a city set on a hill, a city that lives in light of another wisdom, as a sign of God's coming kingdom. That is one reason the examples of individual "good soldiers" in the New Testament weigh negligibly in a synthetic statement of the New Testament's witness. Clearly it is possible for a Christian to be a soldier, possible for a Christian to fight. But if we ask the larger question about the vocation of the community, the New Testament witness comes clearly into focus: the community is called to the work of reconciliation and--as part of that vocation--suffering even in the face of great injustice. When the identity of the community is understood in these terms, the place of the soldier within the church can only be seen as anomalous.

[...] When the New Testament canon is read through the focal lens of the cross, Jesus' death moves to the center of attention in any reflection about ethics. The texts cannot simply be scoured for principles (the imperative of justice) or prooftexts ("I have not come to bring peace but a sword"); rather, all such principles and texts must be interpreted in light of the story of the cross. The meaning of dikaiosyne ("justice") is transfigured in light of the one Just One who exemplifies it: Christ has become our dikaiosyne (1 Cor. 1:30). When we hear Jesus' saying that he has come to bring not peace but a sword, we can hear it only within the story of a Messiah who refuses the defense of the sword and dies at the hands of a pagan state that bears the power of the sword. The whole New Testament comes rightly into focus only within this story. Whenever the New Testament is read in a way that denies the normativity of the cross for the Christian community, we can be sure that the text is out of focus.

None of the New Testament's witness makes any sense unless the nonviolent, enemy-loving community is to be vindicated by the resurrection of the dead. Death does not have the final word; in the resurrection of Jesus the power of God has triumphed over the power of violence and prefigured the redemption of all creation. The church lives in the present time as a sign of the new order that God has promised. All of the New Testament texts dealing with violence must therefore be read in this eschatological perspective. [...] Otherwise, "Turn the other cheek" becomes a mundane proverb for how to cope with conflict. But this is ridiculous: if the world is always to go on as it does now, if the logic that ultimately governs the world is the immanent logic of the rulers of this age, then the meek are the losers and their cheek-turning only invites more senseless abuse. As a mundane proverb, "Turn the other cheek" is simply bad advice. [...]

This is the place where New Testament ethics confronts a profound methodological challenge on the question of violence, because the tension is so severe between the unambiguous witness of the New Testament canon and the apparently countervailing forces of tradition, reason, and experience. [...] I set forth the guideline that extrabiblical sources stand in hermeneutical relation to the New Testament; they are not independent, counterbalancing sources of authority. That is to say, tradition, reason and experience come into place in enabling us to interpret Scripture; they cannot be used simply to overrule or dismiss the witness of Scripture. How does that guideline work itself out in normative deliberation about the problem of violence?

Although the tradition of the first three centuries was decidedly pacifist in orientation, Christian tradition from the time of Constantine to the present has pre-dominantly endorsed war, or at least justified it under certain conditions. Only a little reflection will show that the classic just war criteria (just cause, authorized by legitimate ruler, reasonable prospect of success, just means of conduct in war, and so forth) are--as Barth realized--neither derived nor derivable from the New Testament; they are formulated through a process of reasoning that draws upon natural-law traditions far more heavily than upon biblical warrants. It is not possible to use the just war tradition as a hermeneutical device for illuminating the New Testament, nor have the defenders of the tradition ordinarily even attempted to do so. Thus, despite the antiquity of the just war tradition and its fair claim to represent the historic majority position within Christian theology, it cannot stand the normative test of New Testament ethics [...] the New Testament offers no basis for ever declaring Christian participation in war "just." If that be true, then our methodological guideline insists that the church's majority tradition, however venerable, must be rejected and corrected in light of the New Testament's teaching. At the same time, the church's tradition also carries a significant and eloquent minority cloud of witnesses against violence, beginning with the New Testament writers themselves and extending through the writer of the Epistle to Diognetus, Tertullian, St. Francis of Assisi, the Anabaptists, the Quakers, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King, Jr., and on into the present time. These witnesses--characteristically appealing primarily to the New Testament and the example of Jesus--have spoken out firmly against all war and killing and have declared such practices incompatible with following Jesus. Such witnesses have had a historic influence vastly disproportionate to their meager numbers, because their vision resonated so deeply with the New Testament and because their Christian witness therefore possessed such evident integrity. [...]

It is more difficult to know what to say about reason and experience on the matter of violence. On the one hand, some interpreters [...] believe that Christians are sometimes forced by the ambiguities of human historical experience to employ violence to secure the contingent peace of the civitas terrena. To do otherwise [...] is to ignore the consequences of our choices and actions (or inactions) and thus to abdicate moral responsibility for the world in which God has placed us. [...] This approach reckons very seriously with the historical fact that the social and political context for Christian moral decision has changed dramatically from the time of the New Testament writers. If the Sermon on the Mount was addressed to a marginal community outside the circle of power, its teachings cannot be directly applied in a context where Christians hold positions of power and influence, or where they constitute the majority in a democratic political order.

On the other hand, an equally serious case can be made that, on balance, history teaches that violence simply begets violence. (Inevitably, someone raises the question about World War II: What if Christians had refused to fight against Hitler? My answer is a counterquestion: What if the Christians in Germany had emphatically refused to fight for Hitler, refused to carry out the murders in concentration camps?) The long history of Christian "just wars" has wrought suffering past all telling, and there is no end in sight. As Yoder has suggested, Niebuhr's own insight about the "irony of history" ought to lead us to recognize the inadequacy of our reason to shape a world that tends toward justice through violence. Might it be that reason and sad experience could disabuse us of the hope that we can approximate God's justice through killing? According to the guideline I have proposed, reason must be healed and taught by Scripture, and our experience must be transformed by the renewing of our minds in conformity with the mind of Christ. Only thus can our warring madness be ovecome.

This would mean, practically speaking, that Christians would have to relinquish positions of power and influence insofar as the exercise of such positions becomes incompatible with the teaching and example of Jesus. This might well mean, as Hauerwas has perceived, that the church would assume a peripheral status in our culture, which is deeply committed to the necessity and glory of violence. The task of the church then would be to tell an alternative story, to train disciples in the disciplines necessary to resist the seductions of violence, to offer an alternative home for those who will not worship the Beast. If the church is to be a Scripture-shaped community, it will find itself reshaped continually into a closer resemblance to the socially marginal status of Matthew's nonviolent countercultural community. To articulate such a theological vision for the church at the end of the twentieth century may be indeed to take most seriously what experience is telling us: the secular polis has no tolerance for explicitly Christian witness and norms. It is increasingly the case in Western culture that Christians can participate in public governance only insofar as they suppress their explicitly Christian motivations. Paradoxically, the Christian community might have more impact upon the world if it were less concerned about appearing reasonable in the eyes of the world and more concerned about faithfully embodying the New Testament's teaching against violence.

Let it be said clearly, however, that the reasons for choosing Jesus' way of peacemaking are not prudential. In calculable terms, this way is sheer folly. Why do we choose the way of nonviolent love of enemies? If our reasons for that choice are shaped by the New Testament, we are motivated not by the sheer horror of war, not by the desire for saving our own skins and the skins of our children (if we are trying to save our skins, pacifism is a very poor strategy), not by some general feeling of reverence for human life, not by the naive hope that all people are really nice and will be friendly if we are friendly first. No, if our reasons for choosing nonviolence are shaped by the New Testament witness, we act in simply obedience to the God who willed that his own Son should give himself up to death on a cross. We make this choice in the hope and anticipation that God's love will finally prevail through the way of the cross, despite our inability to see how this is possible. That is the life of discipleship to which the New Testament repeatedly calls us. When the church as a community is faithful to that calling, it prefigures the peaceable kingdom of God in a world wracked by violence.

One reason that the world finds the New Testament's message of peacemaking and love of enemies incredible is that the church is so massively faithless. On the question of violence, the church is deeply compromised and committed to nationalism, violence, and idolatry. (By comparison, our problems with sexual sin are trivial.) This indictment applies alike to liberation theologies that justify violence against oppressors and to establishment Christianity that continues to play chaplain to the military-industrial complex, citing just war theory and advocating the defense of a particular nation as though that were somehow a Christian value.

Only when the church renounces the way of violence will people see what the Gospel means, because then they will see the way of Jesus reenacted in the church. Whenever God's people give up the predictable ways of violence and self-defense, they are forced to formulate imaginative new responses in particular historical settings, responses as startling as going the second mile to carry the burden of a soldier who had compelled the defenseless follower of Jesus to carry it one mile first. The exact character of these imaginative responses can be worked out only in the life of particular Christian communities; however, their common denominator will be conformity to the example of Jesus, whose own imaginative performance of enemy-love led him to the cross. If we live in obedience to Jesus' command to renounce violence, the church will become the sphere where the future of God's righteousness intersects--and challenges--the present tense of human existence. The meaning of the New Testament's teaching on violence will become evident only in communities of Jesus' followers who embody the costly way of peace.

--Richard B. Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament (1996)

Hays is telling the absolute, unvarnished truth here. I simply don't see any way around it that doesn't involve either distorting the text or contorting your mind. This is what the Bible teaches. If you see things differently, feel free to explain why. Alternately, if you find it difficult to argue with anything here, but still aren't willing to concede the point, perhaps you might take a crack at explaining your own reasoning.

Posted by Jared at December 1, 2009 02:50 PM | TrackBack