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The New Testament and Violence. Part One: The Violence of Jesus

[What follows is my submission to the series on “Violence and Christian Holy Writ” that has been running for the last number of weeks over at the blog of Cynthia Nielsen.  Up until today, I was under the impression that my post had been accepted but Cynthia has since notified me that (for reasons I won’t go into here) my submission has been rejected.  Therefore, I thought I would post it here because I am genuinely interested in what others might think of this topic.  I envision three follow-up posts exploring this theme in the New Testament — the nonviolence of Paul, the sectarianism of John, and a concluding post on the importance of respecting and employing the diversity of tactics we encounter in the NT.]
The Violence of Jesus
For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places – Eph 6.12
In what follows, I will argue that some Christians should embrace a certain kind of violent action in order to faithfully follow Jesus within our present context. By making this argument, I will be situating myself within an uncomfortable ideological location – rejecting the (often imperialistic and murderous) Niebuhrian position on violence as a “necessary evil,” and standing outside of the (often superficial and self-serving) pacifism of Anabaptist-inspired Christians, there is every chance that both parties will be ill-equipped to hear what I am saying.
This is why it is essential to examine the words and actions of Jesus before we embrace any ideology related to non/violence. Rather than asking, “Is violence (whatever that is) right or wrong?” it is better to ask “How did Jesus act and what might it mean to faithfully follow Jesus today?” Pursuing this question, helps us to escape from ingrained theological or cultural perspectives that have prevented us from recognizing what the Gospels actually say on this subject.
When studying Jesus, a few important points stand out. First, although Jesus sometimes verbally abuses others – referring to Peter as “Satan” (Mk 8.33), calling a Gentile woman a “dog” (Mk 7.27), and saying a whole host of nasty things about the scribes, Pharisees, and teachers of the law (cf., for example, Mt 23.1-33) – and although he seems to expect some sort of future divine violence to be enacted against people, in part, because of the way they treat him (Mt 11.20-24, 23.35-38, 25.1-46, 26.24, etc.) – Jesus never engages in any act of physical violence against another person. Furthermore, when people do engage in what could be legitimate forms of violence against others, Jesus is quick to counteract their actions (as when he heals the fellow whose ear is lopped off by one of the disciples [cf. Lk 22.49-51]).
The concomitant of this rejection of acting violently against others is Jesus’ ongoing action to heal, forgive, accept, and touch others – especially, the poor, the sick, the sinners, and the ostracized. Thus, while some may be fated for the experience of divinely-imposed violence in the future, at the moment of Jesus’ ministry all people are offered God’s gift of new and abundant life.
Here we get to one of the fundamental points of Jesus’ ministry: Jesus was acting in the service of the God of Life, offering life to all, and thereby also actively resisting all the Powers that acted in the service of Death (Powers that included demons, sin, sickness, loneliness, deprivation, and the theopolitical authority of Rome and Jerusalem). This is why, despite his sometimes violent rhetoric and his threatening scare-tactics, Jesus cannot act in a way that harms anybody else. To be in the service of life for all, means that one cannot physically harm anybody else. One must love even one’s enemies, and loving one’s enemies means that one cannot harm them, even if they seek to harm you. Here, the Anabaptist-inspired Christians are right, and the Niebuhrians and the “just war” theorists are wrong. Physically harming any other person falls outside of the range of actions appropriate to contemporary followers of Jesus.
However, that is not the end of Jesus’ engagement with violence, and this is where the Anabaptist-inspired Christians tend to get things wrong. What is almost universally neglected in Christian conversations regarding non/violence, are Jesus’ actions of violence against private property. This is the second point that needs to be highlighted (indeed, that this point is neglected by both sides of the debate demonstrates that both parties tend to share a common class interest and bias – i.e. people on both sides tend to hoard a great deal of private property).
The most obvious example of this type of violence is the “direct action” Jesus takes in the Jerusalem temple (John 2.13-16; cf. Mk 11.15-17; Mt 21.12-3; Lk 11.45-46). This event is interesting because it is the closest Jesus comes to employing physical violence against others. Indeed, the reason why the buyers and sellers fled the temple was because of the perception that physical violence might be employed against them. However, the texts seem to suggest that violence was only actualized against property. Here, property is not only damaged, it is probably also stolen, and violence is used to facilitate that theft (to imagine the scattered coins being left for the money changers to gather is a bit implausible).
Two points are usually overlooked here: first, although a detailed exegesis is employed in order to demonstrate the likelihood that Jesus’ violence was restricted to property and not people, the point that Jesus actually does engage in an act of violence against private property is not appropriately emphasized. Secondly, this passage tends to be cited as the only example of Jesus engaging in a physically violent act, but this overlooks other passages demonstrating Jesus’ willingness to destroy private property or approve of others doing so.
To choose a second example, one can also recall the healing of a certain demon-possessed man (cf. Mk 5.1-20; Mt 8.28-34; Lk 8.26-39). In this action, Jesus casts a “Legion” of demons into a herd of about two thousand pigs (the pig, it should be remembered, was a symbol of one of the Roman legions that destroyed Jerusalem in 70CE). These pigs rush into a lake and are drowned. This prompts the locals to plead with Jesus to depart from their region. This response is a bit puzzling until one remembers that Jesus had just destroyed an expensive herd belonging to a wealthy but absent land-owner. This land-owner had entrusted his herd to the locals and would be furious at his loss. Therefore, the locals likely wanted Jesus to leave before he could do any more damage and further threaten their safety.
As a third example, we can recall Jesus’ tacit approval of those who damaged the roof of a private home in order to have their paralyzed friend healed by him (cf. Mk 2.1-5; Lk 5.18-26).
Again, the clash between serving life and confronting that which is death-dealing is at the core of Jesus’ actions in these three cases. When private property is linked to that which is death-dealing or prevents that which is life-giving, Jesus is not afraid to destroy it – regardless of the laws that exist to protect it.
This carries some important implications for those who seek to follow Jesus today and pushes us in an interesting direction. Instead of asking, “Is violence right or wrong?” followers of Jesus should be asking, “What is life-giving and what are the death-dealing things that stand in the way of abundant life for all?” Answering this question requires us to move beyond theory to action, perhaps even militant action. What we may need is a Christian militancy that is willing to destroy idolatrous and death-dealing private property (an enemy not of blood and flesh), while simultaneously holding out the offer of abundant life to all people.
Exploring two partially flawed Canadian examples may stimulate our imaginations in this regard (note: no people were harmed in both cases). First, recall the “Heart Attack” protest that occurred in Vancouver during the 2010 Olympics (cf. here for video of that protest and for information on why the Olympic Games are death-dealing – although you should read Helen Lenskyj or watch this documentary for more detailed analysis). During that protest, some windows of a Hudson’s Bay Company store were smashed (the HBC has a long history of brutality against the Canadian aboriginal peoples, and Vancouver exists on unceded and stolen Coast Salish land). Although I questioned the tactical value of smashing those windows – and raised those questions not from a distance but as one of the thirteen arrested that day – the smashing of those windows did not strike me as immoral. It may very well have been a Christ-like action.
Second, we can recall how an anarchist group (two fifty year olds and one thirty-five year old) firebombed a branch of the Royal Bank of Canada in Ottawa (our capital) prior to this year’s G8/G20 Summits (cf. here for footage and a glimpse into RBC’s brutal history). This may very well be a contemporary example of what it looks like to overturn the tables of the money changers.
This helps to clarify the true “cost of discipleship.” It reminds us that bearing the brand-marks of Christ on our bodies means living with bodies that are scarred by the disciplinary actions of the authorities who operate in the service of Death. We can no longer fool ourselves: our commitment to abundant life for all might lead us to be condemned with a terrorist (lestes) on either side of us. Only then will we be able to journey no further into union with the crucified Christ.
Fire on Babylon. Lord, have mercy.

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  1. Gut reaction, is that you are promoting violence, and violence is wrong, and so I should be against violence. However, you’re setup for this article was perfect, because really, anything that destroys something or is wrong to one person is considered violence, so my terms have to be defined.
    What if violence was something that was un-Christlike and destructive. Destruction isn’t always morally wrong, the destruction of the Berlin wall, the destruction of an abusive relationship, the destruction of an oppressive business, these aren’t morally wrong, but in many circles the way these things came about may have been “violent.”
    So I think you make a valid case. I forget where I read it, I think maybe Naomi Klein or Bill McKibbon, but they tell a story of a group who would continually dissemble the construction of a new Mcdonalds that was going up every evening. They ended up getting arrested I think, but the point being is that I have a feeling that it was a very Christ-like action to do that kind of violence.
    I enjoyed it, and I appreciate how your tone is changing about how you are arguing for this, you may not see it, but you are coming across as less hyperbolic and helping give a more down-to-earth explanation of what you are arguing for, because this isn’t really one of those arguments you want to get that wrong 🙂

  2. While I can see your reasoning I’m not totally convinced (but maybe you can persuade me).
    I think there are some important things that have been left unsaid.
    To be sure, the violent acts of Jesus that you’ve mentioned (and really, there aren’t that many which leads me to wonder if the ground upon which your argument is built is really all that solid) aren’t just any old violent acts. Rather, they are *particular* acts that serve the larger purpose of judgment (as far as I can tell). In the Temple, Jesus judges a particular religious ideology that is inherently oppressive. In the scene with the demoniac Jesus is again pronouncing judgment, but this time on what is to be considered clean/unclean. In the instance with the man being lowered through the roof, well, while this perhaps isn’t judgment I don’t think this “violent” act is even the focus of this story. The focus seems to me to be on the identity/authority of Jesus. Who can forgive sin? And this leads me to my next point.
    Jesus was able to do these particular acts because he was a *particular* person. As the Son of God, Jesus was in a position to judge which we are not in. As a pure thought experiment, I wonder what Jesus’ reaction would have been if it was Peter who turned over the tables in the Temple? To be sure, Peter is not in the same position as Jesus. He does not have the same authority to pronounce judgment.
    Like I said, I’m not fully convinced. But this doesn’t mean that I’ve reached conclusions on either side of this. There seems to be a particular Marxist undertone that I’m hearing that I don’t think jives with the gospel. And I get that we’re to follow Jesus and suffer the repercussions of that. I just happen to think that God is able to make certain judgments that we are not and is, therefore, able to act in ways we are not.

    • Hey JT,
      Briefly stated, the problem with your argument (and with the argument Andrew makes about the Temple action being a manifestation of Jesus’ kingly authority) is that one could make the same argument about any action Jesus takes. Thus, we become free to pick and choose (or allow previously established ideologies) to pick and choose what parts of Jesus we choose to imitate and what parts we do not (convenient, no?).
      As far as I can tell, however, anybody who claims to have the Spirit of Christ can and should seek to imitate Christ in all areas.

  3. Although I prefer to use the language of non-violence, since I believe that there´s a fundamental difference between killing a human being (and/or a bunch of pigs…, multiple layers of meaning intended) and throwing away one´s broken TV or smashing up the office of a weapon´s factory. Those acts don´t have enough similiraties in order to make them worthy of the same word (violence). But for those (like you, and loads of other people) that thinks of property destruction and sabotage as violent, I agree that following Jesus today demands an openess to the use of violence.

  4. Dan I understand the point you are trying to make, and like JT do not necessarily follow your argument too tightly..
    I would be in harmony with your sentiment here. Nonviolence as believed by some Anabaptist is usually coupled with some other theology which makes them complicit in the death-dealing ways of empire.
    I am reminded about certain argument Yoder pointed out that Patristic fathers used to justify themselves to the Roman imperial establishment. I think of Origen who instructed Christians to pray for Roman victory over the barbarians or Justin Martyr who argued that the Christian responsibility was to give worship to Christ alone but obedience to Ceasar in all else. In both cases the two remained in a classically Christian position when it came to violence but their theologies were becoming gradually more ambivalent to the use of Roman power, sometimes blessing it outright.
    I’d be more interested to see a case for rebellion against authorities being Christ-like rather than property-destruction specifically. I think if you would be able to present the former the later can make more sense.

    • Sometimes I forget that “a case for rebellion against authorities being Christ-like” isn’t a given. If you’re looking for a strong example of those who make this case, I suggest you read the New Testament! 😉

      • True… but most people who read the New Testament have a presupposed reading of texts like Romans 13 that make such rebellion incomprehensible to them.
        I think maybe looking at the history of this reading would be appreciated, I’ve mentioned Yoder’s work but also looking at, say, the recently published “Christ and Empire” can also help.
        Good essay though.

  5. On further thought, still in a lot of ways what you are wondering about is how well direct-straightlined-right handed power is effective at bringing forth a better way of life by destroying death dealing ways of living.
    I’m becoming more and more inclined that this direct confrontation is the more uncreative, and easier way to deal with death dealing issues. Rather, isn’t a church, modelling a life-giving alternative lifestyle, a better way to accomplish destruction of the empire? So while I’m not opposed to breaking windows at a bank because it is violent, I might be more inclined to argue that starting alternative economic models and including those that are oppressed by current ones is a better way to overturn the tables of the money changers. It is less instant and certainly a lot more work, but seems more in line with actually bringing the kingdom here and now rather than destroying any traces of anti-kingdom that we see.

    • No need for an either/or here. I think a both/and is required.
      Also, if you have any experience of direct confrontation, you will have quickly realized that it actually does take a great deal of work and creativity in order to produce and negotiate that situation well or successfully. It’s easy for those who don’t do this work to say “oh, that’s the easy way out” but if you give it a go, you might find something rather different.

  6. Excellent! However, I am sceptic about labelling property distruction as a form of violence. As I understand the pacifist tradition (and civil disobedience in particular), violence refers to physical damage to human beings. In this sence, jesus is alla-through non-violent.

    • Alf (and Jonas),
      To be honest, I don’t really care if property destruction is called “violence” or is said to be a “nonviolent” act. Some think one way, some think another and I’m not interested in a discussion of definitions or semantics (a standard means by which conversations around this topic end up production inaction). Instead, I’m looking at specific actions taken by Jesus (however you want to define them) and asking what it might mean to imitate Jesus’ actions today.

      • Dan. I agree in a sense. But since the discussion is up for negotiation in anarchist circles, it´s hard for me not to care at all. And as I have read you, it seems quite important for you to respect and acknowledge the anarchist tradition and context. It seems to me that it hasn´t been without importance for you either to come down on the anti-non-violence side of the discussion. But I might be wrong about that ofcourse.

    • I agree alf… it is too easy to treat language issues as ‘semantic’ and thus cut short the reflection process. To label an action violent is a powerful rhetorical move and one that is not purely self-evident… as becomes clear when we think about how violation of people might be related to violation of property. I think we need to ask about the moral status (i.e. status as an act of discipleship) of the violation of a violent process or practice.

  7. Dan,
    I’m a Regent Student that started in Fall 2008. I met you briefly telling you that my friends follow your blog (to your surprise). You probably don’t remember our short discourse.
    I’ve recently started reading every single post on your blog. I’ve finished all of 2004 and 2005 so far including the papers.
    I’d really like to get your email. I’d also really like to meet with you before I leave Vanouver and Regent. This is my last semester (MCS- Church History).

  8. Dan – you have a good point there, semantic discussions might (and mostly does) lead to inaction.
    For me this distinction is practically important in order to underline that violence against humans always is unacceptable. In this way, sorting out the semantic misunderstandings helps encouraging direct action, but in a way that does not physically harm others (which, as jonas points out, is important in collaboration with other anarchists that are more violent-oriented).
    In either way, I was really inspired by your text and I am looking forward to number 2 in the violence-series.

  9. Fascinating stuff. Glad you posted it here even though it didn’t go up in the series on Per Caritatem.
    Has anyone pointed out the similarities between your position and that of Tyler Durden from Fight Club? Dissimilar of course in that Tyler Durden was willing to hurt people as well as things… but I think there is some fruitful pop-culture discourse there.
    A couple problems I have with the thesis –
    #1 Jesus seemed to privilege voluntary separation from private property over theft or sabotage. He invited people to give up everything they have and follow him. I can’t think of any case of him actually stealing anyone’s stuff so they could be his disciple. He praise people who only went part way, as well – like Zacchaeus. He wasn’t a complete zealot on this point, in other words. He could have ordered the crowds to go up and start tearing down the temple, but instead he settled for a symbolic action that was probably set back to normal the very next day.
    #2 The first disciples don’t seem to go about doing much property destruction. They notably preach, heal, and teach in the manner of Christ, but don’t seem to carry on this aspect of his ministry, so it doesn’t seem they regarded it as central to his proclamation.


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