Confronting Violence as Churches of Peace
I always get a little frustrated when the topic of pacifism comes up as it inevitably leads to someone assuming that the word passive is an automatic synonym. Here is something worth shouting though: there should never be anything passive about pacifism. I’ve actually gotten frustrated enough that I don’t really say “pacifism” anymore; I prefer an actual synonym like nonviolence. It doesn’t carry quite the same (often negative) connotation and actively leads towards a response that’s wholly different than what is typically expected (that being a response rooted in violence).
Violence seems to be a given in the world we inhabit: the lion attacks the lamb, husbands beat their wives, governments abuse their people and wars against other nations are the natural way of things. Strictly speaking it clearly might be the way things are but it’s not the original intention of God. His vision has lions laying with lambs in the garden, with humans walking together unencumbered and unashamed, and God walking with His creation as benevolent ruler and friend. Humanity’s sinfulness forced us out of this garden unfortunately into the harsh landscape of the world we currently inhabit (ruled as it is by the powers of evil). God uses our circumstances for His good though (for example, even as the nations mess up wielding the sword He’ll continue to draw things towards a renewed garden that looks like a city). We though have been given a pretty clear choice as to which kingdom we would live in: that of the world or that of the kingdom of God.
Personally, I have a significant issue with actively choosing to walk in the violence of the world. For one thing, violence tends to feed off of the weak, the marginalized, the oppressed and the afflicted. It’s very nature destroys the image of God in others rather than calling it out. And for those that wield it: it corrupts us through the dulling of our hearts toward the other. Further, it encourages separation rather than unity. It emboldens our own power base rather than putting ourselves in a posture of service to others. And perhaps most significantly it reaps what it sows: violence begets more violence. It’s a myth that it’s somehow redemptive. The tendency of violence is escalation until utter destruction. Yes one side will typically come out ok (losses aside) but what about the other?
For the purposes of this post though I’m less interested in the affects of violence and more interested in our response to it. So I’ll start with this base premise: A person passive in the face of violence, no matter how severe, is of little benefit to the world around them. I agree with those that decry passive-ism; we don’t want to be an apathetic people. Intentionally choosing not to act in any way isn’t helpful and doesn’t actively build the Kingdom of God. Thankfully nonviolent, kingdom-minded resistance is never passive.
I’ve encountered elements within the peace loving tradition that claim the extent of the churches role in confronting the violence within society is modeling an alternative way. They can be quite sectarian, separating themselves from the world, establishing their own little kingdoms, and having little to no lasting impact unless the world seeks them out1. Their impact, though, is typically limited to those circumstances directly affecting their communities rather than spilling out into an active, regular and consistent peace building within the broader communities of the world.
The churches role in the face of an ever violent society though can’t simply be one of modeling when violence threatens it. It actively must find a way of confronting the existing violence of society or else it ceases to operate fully within the scope and power of the kingdom of God. And it must confront it in a way that’s redemptive choosing sacrifice rather than violence. Put in another way it must choose service rather than force. It must choose to take seriously Jesus’ command to put away the sword.
So how? That is the question of the day. The world we live in begs us to fear and lash out violently to destroy. Even in the supposed greatest country in the world violence seems to be the dominate attitude. Just a couple of weeks ago a man was shot at church in an argument over a seat. Some see guns as an answer to prayer. Pastors are promoting them by example. Yet we have this call from Jesus to love our enemies. To actually pray for those that persecute us (rather than praying for a gun). And to actively return good for evil. Vengeance was never ours. Walking in the kingdom of God we know longer hold the right to act violently.
So what then? How do we as church let Jesus’ ethic of peace prevail in how we live and in what we do?
To start we need to start seeing active nonviolence play out by choosing to love. This happens when we stop condemning the Syrian refugee because they’re muslim and instead choose to welcome them to our dinner table with open arms. It happens when we listen to the marginalized and the sinners and engage from that point of listening. It’s like Jesus calling Zaccheaus down from a tree and then choosing to eat with this most hated man. Or seen in how he graciously healed the woman who had bled for so long. Or how he intentionally engaged the promiscuous woman at the well.
We also see it when we challenge the kingdoms of the world with the ethic of the kingdom of God. As we see in Jesus’ example where a man walks an extra mile or when the man gives the shirt on his back to another. We see it when we openly choose to turn the other cheek rather than lashing out in kind. Actions like these actively critique and call into question the ways of the world.
We see it again when we choose to live generous lives that actively bless the one another around us, as the church of Acts did when it shared all that it had. Or as the church under Roman occupation did when it chose to stay with and help plague victims and the sick from other communities.
And we see it when we intentionally lay down our weapons of war and choose to beat them into plowshares. When we engage through sacrifice rather than force. When the pastor lovingly engages the man that comes into the church gun in hand rather than lashing out in force. And we see it when we are willing to unashamedly critique the violence that the kingdom of the world brings, regardless of the government at the head.
It must be noted and understood deeply that we are not always guaranteed to win, particularly in the way that the world outside the church understands winning. We are never promised an easy or care free life. We are never told that suffering won’t come, that persecution won’t happen, that things will be entirely too easy; truth be told we are often told in the Bible that the opposite is true. More often than not a win actually means death. Our blood though acts as seed to spread Jesus’ kingdom throughout the earth. We are here because of Jesus’ blood and the willingness of the martyrs to enter into His death with Him. We are here to sacrifice and a commit to nonviolently love those around us regardless of the cost.
I realize not everyone will likely agree with me and that’s OK. We all live according to an ethic (of some sort). Nonviolence happens to be at the heart of mine because of the example of Jesus and what He has called me to. Post Constantine the world saw the collaboration of church and state and the creation of a justified ethic of violence; today that church is moving away from this just war theory to a just peace theory. But if you are in this place of “Just War” then I hope you still take seriously the call to love our enemies and neighbors and to return good for evil. We might not agree on what good means in that circumstance but we can still agree to be brothers. I hope.
In this, they can have quite an impact as exemplified in the response of the Amish to a school shooting in 2006. But there is so much more that could be on offer.↩