Question: There’s a lot of violence in the world today. In recent months we have seen violence erupt in American cities in response to police brutality against black men. We see violence in other parts of the world, often because of sectarian strife. We see terrorist attacks all over the world. It seems that human beings have a propensity to resort to violence to settle differences. What does the Bible teach about violence? Is there a theological answer to violence?
Frank Answers: You are right. The daily news rubs the world’s violence in our faces: riots against police brutality in Ferguson, MO and in Baltimore, MD; children being gunned down in gang warfare in Chicago; the beheading of Christians and Western hostages by members of the Islamic State; home-grown terrorists and disaffected individuals going on shooting rampages and gunning down their fellow citizens in schools and workplaces. Violence occurs in race riots, riots against assumed police brutality, sectarian strife, terrorist attacks, domestic abuse and in many other instances.
The above photo is of the riots in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Watts in August 1965, fifty years ago, which was particularly violent. The arrest of a black motorist on a charge of drunk driving turned into a riot that lasted six days and claimed 34 lives, more than a thousand injuries, thousands of arrests, and over $40 million in property damage due to arson and looting. Containing it required 4,000 California National Guardsmen in addition to the entire City of Los Angeles Police Department. The riots were first blamed on outside agitators and then on high unemployment, although a later investigation also highlighted police racism.
The Bible is full of violence, beginning with Cain’s murder of his brother Abel. The exodus of Israel was accomplished by violence against the Egyptians—the death of all the firstborn of Egypt and the total destruction of Pharaoh’s army of chariots, charioteers, and horses. Some people lose their faith when they read the stories of the Holy Wars in the books of Joshua, Judges, and Samuel—wars in which the God of Israel is the general and no mercy is to be shown to the inhabitants of the land of Canaan, whose practices were an abomination to the Lord. The land that Christians call “holy” has been rife with violence since well before the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948.
Christianity was born in violence—the passion of the Christ: stripped, whipped within an inch of his life, nailed to a cross and left hanging there in excruciating agony until he died from exhaustion.
The flogging or scourging of Jesus has been included as an article of faith in the Apostles Creed when we say that “He suffered under Pontius Pilate.” Flogging was a prelude to all Roman executions. If execution was by means of crucifixion the intensity of the scourging determined how long the victim would linger on the cross.
Judicial corporal punishment by caning or whipping is officially practiced in more than 30 countries in the world today. About a dozen countries, mostly Muslim, allow the flogging of women, although not on bare skin. The Romans were humane enough to exempt women from flogging.
The body was stripped naked for Roman floggings and crucifixions. In his painting entitled “Crucifixion” (1969), Mario Donizetti portrayed a historical reconstruction of a Roman crucifixion from archaeological evidence. The body was fastened to a crossbeam that was hoisted up on a post set in place for other crucifixions. The feet were nailed to the sides of the post through the ankles. The victim was perched on a small seat that kept the body from lunging forward from lack of support. Victims could linger for days in this position until they expired from exhaustion, as portrayed in this painting by Mario Donizetti (1969).
The church was nourished by the blood of the martyrs (that’s why church doors are painted red). The first three centuries of church history are sometimes called the Age of Persecution. All of the apostles except John died a violent death. Thousands followed them to deaths in the arenas as entertainment for pagans.
Crucifixion of St. Peter by Caravaggio
The twentieth century saw even more martyrs than the first three as millions of Christians died with others in the concentration camps of the Nazis and Communists. Violence against Christians continues today. Islamic attacks on Christians have risen dramatically across Sub-Sahara African and the Middle East to Southeast Asia, with church burnings and imprisonments and killings.
Sectarian violence occurs in many places in the world today. Not so long long there were deadly clashes between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland. In recent years Hindus have hounded Christians and Muslims in India. Buddhists have harassed Muslims as well as Christians in Myanmar. Many of the conflicts in the Middle East are clashes between Sunni and Shite Muslims. Islamic State violence has been as much inflicted on Muslims as on other religious groups, just as riots in African-American communities inflicts most of the damage on their own communities.
The reasons for these examples of violence are many and complex. They include nationalism and ethnic cleansing, oppression of minorities by majorities or by those in power, and the oppressed striking out against their oppressors, and sometimes sectarian rivalry.
Violence is so endemic in human relationships that it was inevitable that someone would theorize about it. That someone was the French-born social philosopher Rene Girard. Girard’s theories of violence are complex but tightly argued. They can be reduced to these points:
- mimetic desire: all of our desires are an imitation of other people;
- mimetic rivalry: all conflict originates in mimetic desire;
- the scapegoat mechanism is the origin of sacrifice and the foundation of human culture, and religion was necessary in human evolution to control the violence that comes from mimetic rivalry.
- The Bible reveals the three previous ideas and denounces the scapegoat mechanism.
Reduced to utter simplicity, here’s how it works. Let’s say two children are playing. One of them reaches out to get a toy that neither of them had been playing with. The other child sees the first child reach out to get the toy and imitates him. He also now desires the toy. He reaches out to get the toy. If the first child insists that it’s “mine,” conflict erupts. They fight over the toy. Of course, the first child could have let go and the second child might have imitated that behavior too. We might call this the “turn the other cheek” method of avoiding violence. It can certainly be traced to Jesus. It is the basis of non-violent responses to potentially violent situations, practiced by such people as Mahatma Gandhi in the campaign for Indian independence, Martin Luther King, Jr. in the American civil rights movement, and Nelson Mandela in the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa. Non-violent resistance has worked.
Another thing that can happen, however, is that potential rivals join forces against a third party, whose existence may have nothing to do with the problems experienced by the other parties. This is scapegoating. Rivals become allies, if not friends, by together scapegoating someone else. The scapegoat bears the sins of the others. This was the point of the scapegoat of the Jewish Day of Atonement and it is the theological basis of the atoning sacrifice of Christ.
But the Bible points out that there is to be no other scapegoat. The sacrifice of Christ is proclaimed as a once-for-all sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the world. There is to be no other sacrifice of atonement to reconcile God and humanity and humanity and humanity with each other. Any further scapegoating is therefore anathema—rejected.
Scapegoating has led to violence against the Jews, against the Arabs, against African-Americans, against the police, against immigrants, against America and the West by Islamic terrorists, and many others. The list is very long. And those who are scapegoated often strike back.
At the heart of the Christian faith are the deeply held convictions that the sacrifice of Christ alone is the basis of our justification and salvation, and therefore there cannot be any further atoning sacrifice, and therefore no other scapegoat is needed. The job of Christians in promoting peaceful coexistence between people of different races, ethnicities, and religions is to model non-violence in the hope that others will imitate it, as indeed the Hindu Mahatma Gandhi did in India—even against the (Christian) British raj. (See the following photo of Gandhi leading the salt march in Indian in 1930 – a non-violent demonstration.) Gandhi said he learned non-violence from Jesus. So said also Martin Luther King, Jr. (who was also inspired by Gandhi) and Nelson Mandela (who was inspired by King). This strategy worked successfully in the Indian struggle for independence, in the American civil rights movement, and in the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa.
Gandhi leading the salt march in India in 1930
But sometimes police and military force is justified to protect defenseless people, for example, against gangs in our cities and against terrorist operations such as those of the the Taliban, Al-Qaeda, and now the Islamic State. It’s not a happy choice, because there are always negative consequences (as we have experienced with our American military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq). If local police are acting unjustly or with prejudice toward a group of people (the source of the “Black Lives Matter” movement), higher law enforcement agencies of the state or federal government must be called in to investigate and deal with civil rights violations. Government is also an order of creation (God’s left hand) and, as Martin Luther wrote in a tract, “Soldiers, too, can be saved.” Police must protect black lives even as blacks are assaulting them. Using force can be a righteous response to violence to protect the innocent. But God help us for fighting violence with violence. Kyrie eleison.
Pastor Frank Senn
Black Lives Matter demonstration in New York City in solidarity with Ferguson, MO, encouraging a boycott of Black Friday Consumerism.
Muslim anti-Islamist demonstrators in Pakistan