June 09, 2010

Blogging Nonviolence: WWJD?

Last time, I explained that while I hope to address the strongest pro-violence arguments directly, it only makes sense to do so in a biblical context. That is, if an argument cannot be supported biblically, or if it is contradicted by the Bible, then it has very little to bring to a discussion of Christian nonviolence. I concluded by stressing the importance of working out an understanding of what the Bible actually says about violence.

As I mentioned before, the current series was inspired by a series posted last summer by Nick Loyd. I'll be continuing my discussion with the 2nd of his series, which I encourage you to at least skim right now before meeting back here to go on. I'll assume you've read it as I proceed below: God's Character in Reverse

Jesus is Normative

So, now that we have established scripture as the definitive element of our discussion, we can establish the definitive way to read scripture, which is, as Loyd says, "through the eyes of Jesus." This isn't new to the discussion if you read the long excerpt by Richard Hays from a few posts ago. As he says near the beginning, "the New Testament's witness is finally normative. If 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."

In other words, whether we're talking about the character of God or the moral life of the Christian, Jesus is the gold standard. He isn't the only standard in the Bible, of course, but all other standards are measured against him. There shouldn't be anything radical about this assertion at all. If you've been a Christian in America during the last fifteen years or so, you are aware of the saturation of "What Would Jesus Do?" (or, more commonly, "WWJD") on every possible form of merchandise.

You would, I hope, be hard pressed to find a Christian who didn't acknowledge that this is what we're all about. The question is almost childishly simple (this quiz is open-book). Why, then, are we so bad at answering it correctly? I'm less interested in answering that question than I am in clearly establishing that we have been incorrect, but it might be useful to suggest some possible answers nonetheless.

The Myth of Redemptive Violence

It doesn't get any simpler than this statement by Walter Wink: "Civilization is hooked on violence." His so-called "myth of redemptive violence" ("the belief that violence saves, that war brings peace, that might makes right") is, if not the defining myth, then certainly one of the defining myths of human civilization.

Consider how many creation myths begin with murder, treachery, or rebellion. Societies arise out of violent upheaval, and govern and sustain themselves by violent means. Small wonder, then, that Jesus' lone nonviolent example, central as it is to our faith, tends to get swallowed up by thousands of years of racial memory and ongoing conditioning (affirmed over and over by Christ's Church for over a millennium and a half), with no end in sight.

That Pesky Old Testament

Now, those of you who have been having discussions with me for many years might be a little on edge, recalling some flippantly dismissive comments I might have appeared to make about the first half of the Bible in the past. Let me reassure you, at least somewhat, by noting that I intend to address this at some length later, and that my interpretive model does not seek to abandon the Old Testament, but rather to read it exclusively in the context of the New Testament.

In any case, I suppose that heading might more accurately say "Those Pesky Old Testament Readers." The Old Testament is one of the most dangerous books in the world, partly because it is a complex, ambiguous, and powerful work, and partly because most of its many readers tend to go crashing clumsily around in it without really knowing what they're doing.

Like the Israelites in Judges 21:25, everyone interprets what is right in their own eyes, cherry picking which guidelines to take seriously, and pretending that they aren't being inconsistent. What emerges, unsurprisingly, is a Bible that supports whatever your view of the world happens to be, whether you're a 13th-century pope who wants to raise an army, a 19th-century Southern plantation owner looking for cheap labor, or a 20th-century Midwestern preacher with a homophobic streak a mile wide.

The Jesus I'd Rather Know

Of course, this sort of thing isn't merely the province of Old Testament interpretation. As renowned New Testament scholar Scot McKnight explains in a recent piece for Christianity Today, "To one degree or another, we all conform Jesus to our own image." It doesn't matter if you're a conservative Tea Party protester, or a liberal advocate of social justice (will that be regular or extra Beck?), your Christ will probably be more you-like than you are Christ-like.

It's only natural that our deities should become mere extensions of ourselves. We all have sociocultural baggage to deal with, values and ideas that we are bombarded by from all sides from the moment we enter the human community. Ancient peoples imbued their gods with all sorts of undesirable human qualities. They raped, pillaged, quarreled amongst themselves, were petty and vindictive. So, when you think about it that way, maybe it isn't so strange that some of us seem to think our God is on board with all sorts of mayhem, death, and destruction. Understandable . . . but no less silly.

Log in Your Eye, Much?

"How convenient," you're thinking now. "This guy is some kind of pacifist, and suddenly Jesus is, too." Well, if you weren't thinking that, you should have been. It's a fair point. However, no, the title of this post doesn't stand for "What Would Jared Do?" (although ultimately you'll be the judge of that). I should note that I began to question my interpretation of the Bible regarding various aspects of nonviolence long before I was prepared to act accordingly. In some ways, perhaps I'm still not.

Suffice to say, though, I didn't set out to come to a particular conclusion. The conclusion just wouldn't leave me alone. Maybe this is the wrong instinct, but I feel like ending up in a place that is counter-intuitive to human nature is a good sign. In any case, I do believe that McKnight is right to find everyone guilty of re-imagining Jesus to a greater or lesser degree.

There are a few ways to make sure that your degree is lesser. Mainly, it helps to be aware of the problem. Just as I need to know my own biases when I do research, knowing about this makes it possible to compensate accordingly. And, really the only way to compensate is to go back to the source, over and over, while doing the grunt work in concordances and commentaries to make sure that you're getting it right.

According to Who?

That brings us full-circle back to the main point, so I'll conclude with a brief discussion of a passage that Loyd quoted:

"See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ. For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have been filled in him, who is the head of all rule and authority." Colossians 2:8-10 (ESV)

Loyd, of course, is emphasizing the "whole fullness of the deity" bit, which is certainly key (as he explains at some length). However, I have included the context that he omitted, which strengthens the point even more. Paul is talking about the importance of staying grounded in the teachings of Christ rather than the philosophies of human tradition and "elemental spirits" (the actual Greek word here, stoicheion, means "basic principles"). What human tradition is older or principle more basic than selfish acts of violence?

Going by the biblical account alone, by the third chapter of Genesis, mankind is basically at war with his environment. By the fourth, the first murder has been committed. Two chapters later, "the earth [is] filled with violence" (Genesis 6:11). And we were just getting started. Of course, Paul isn't addressing that directly in this passage, but the general principle is clear: Live your life according to Christ, even if he contradicts your personal traditions and principles. If you're doing it right, eventually he will.

Next time we'll be taking a look at what the red letters, which we have hopefully established as the clearest, most complete biblical expression of God's character, have to say on the subject of violence. Everything so far has been mostly groundwork. It's time to start building something on it.

Posted by Jared at June 9, 2010 01:38 AM | TrackBack