Wednesday, October 01, 2008

random thoughts on violence

I will begin where I last started: with exegesis as understood by Yoder. As I said prior, it is the general rule of proper textual interpretation that a text should be read for what its author meant to say and what its first readers o hearers would have heard it say.

Therefore, the question of Just War in the OT is not a valid question. Whether taking human life is morally permissible or forbidden under all circumstances was not a culturally conceivable question in the age of Abraham or that of Joshua. It is therefore, illegitimate to read the story of the Joshuanic wars as a document on the issue of the morality of killing. Although the narrative of the conquest of Canaan is full of bloodshed, what the pious reader will have been most struck by in later centuries was the general promise according to which, if Israel would believe and obey, the occupants of the land would be driven out little by little (Ex. 23) by the angel or the terror or the hornets of God, or the most striking victories of Joshua over Jericho (josh 6), or Gideon’s defeat of the Midianites (Judges 7) after most of the volunteers had been sent home and the remaining few armed with torches in order not to let Israel think military strength or numbers had brought the victory: To believe meant, most specifically and concretely in the cultural context of Israel’s birth as a nation, to trust God for their survival as a people. This theme then entered into the theologically oriented re-writing of history which we find most clearly stated in the exilic/post-exhilic books of Chronicles.

It had thus become a part of the standard devotional ritual of Israel to look over the nation’s history as one of miraculous preservation. Sometimes this preservation had included the Israelites’ military activity; at other time no weapons at all were used. In both kinds of case, however, the point was the same: confidence in YHWH is an alternative to the self-determining use of Israel’s own military resources in the defense of their existence as God’s people.

And so to ask the OT to answer our question is ludicrous! It does not know of our modern times. In fact, when the much of the OT was written, during the exile, there is no way the authors could have know of a source of destruction so great as to wipe out all humanity. Israel was unconcerned with these matters of just war of their military. They were only concerned with obeying God’s command. And as already said by Berman, this is no longer the case for the NT church. And therefore, instead of applying our modern questions and understanding to Just War theory, as Tom has done, is completely inappropriate. The only Just War is war that is conducted and commanded by God.

As for the armed disciples. It only makes sense. Again, let’s not put our modern understanding to the text, instead let’s ask what the readers heard. They heard that the disciples lived in a time in which they believe the parousia would happen sooner than later. The apocalyptic battle, as understood for Jewish Christians would have meant a final battle. It appears that the disciples, especially Matthew, the gospel writer, expected this to happen sooner than later.

The cross becomes the weapon by which the Powers would be defeated. It is the cross we are called to bear. Our baptisms mark us and threaten us, not because of some magical, mystical forces are out to get us, but because we are a threat to the Powers and Principalities as we call them down and name Jesus Christ as our Lord. That is the real threat! The believer’s cross is, lie that of Jesus, the price of social non-conformity. It is not, like sickness or catastrophe, an inexplicable, unpredictable suffering; it is the end of the path freely chosen after counting the costs of discipleship. It is the social reality of representing in an unwilling world the Order to come. Jesus knew it.

Paul thought so too. Colossians 1:15-17 wrote: He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. He is before all things, and all things subsist in him.
The word translated “subsist: in verse 17 has the same root as the modern word “system.” The apostle Paul says that this is the share of Christ in creation. In Christ, everything “systemizes,” and holds together for the NIV fans. It is the reign of order among creatures, order which in its original intention is a divine gift. Most of the references to the “Powers” in the NT consider them as fallen. It is important therefore to begin with the reminder that they were part of the good creation of God. Society and history, even nature, would be impossible without systems, order. God provided for that need.

Yet they remain fallen. They are no longer active only as mediators of the saving creative purposes of God; now we find them seeking to separate us form the love of God (Rom. 8 ); we find them ruling over the lives of those who live far from the love of God (Eph.2); we find them holding us under their tutelage (Gal 4). These structures which were supposed to be our servants have become our masters and guardians.

Yet even in this fallen and rebellious state the working of the Powers is not simply something limitlessly evil (in spite of what you thought I believe prior to this statement). The power, despite their fallenness, continue to exercise an ordering function. Even tyranny (Rom. 13) is still better than chaos and we should be subject to it. The Law is even righteous and we should obey it (Gal 4).

Look Romans 13 is correctly interpreted this way:

1) The powers were created by God to bring a network of norms and regularities to offer some semblance of order to the chaos. Since the beginning, according to our Jewish story, God has been concerned with ordering the chaos.

2) The powers, with all creation, have rebelled and are fallen. They claimed for themselves an absolute value and knowledge that attempts to co-opt God. They have thereby enslaved humanity and our history. We are bound to them. We are slaves to them as we are outside of Christ. In both the OT and the NT, slavery is our common language for obedience to either Christ or the powers. The Israelites were never fully free, they would be slaves to Egypt or slaves to God. Today, the same remains. We are either slaves to Jesus and His divine will or we are slaves to the Powers and the culture.

3) Despite their fallen condition, the Powers cannot fully escape God’s prevenient grace and sovereignty. God is still able to use them for good.

And so, if our lostness implies a subjection to these rebellious powers, what does it mean to be part of Christ? Subordination to these powers is what makes us human, for if they did not exist there would be no history nor society nor humanity. If then God is going to save his creation in their humanity, the Powers cannot simply be destroyed or set aside or ignored. Their sovereignty must be broke. This is what Jesus did, concretely and historically. The cross is a victory, the confirmation that he is free form the rebellious pretensions of the creaturely condition. Differing from Adam, Lucifer, and all the Powers, Jesus did “not consider being equal with God as a ting to be seized” (Phil 2). Now, a restored humanity is possible. For the first time we are shown the example of what it means to overcome the powers… not being a slave to any law, or custom, culture, value, theory, or Power.

Now, we get the Church involved in this. Now the people of all ages, races, and nations are coming together in Christ’s fellowship and this is a proclamation to the Powers that their unbroken dominion has come to an end. (See Berkhof, Christ and The Powers). The very existence of the Church is a threat. We are not called to armed violence either by Paul or by any of the rest of Scripture. We are simply called into existence. Being the Church is our primary task (which is why I love Derek’s music). Therefore, any attempt to become lords of the state only compromises our very task. Instead being separate and calling the Powers to task today’s Christians are seeking to overtake the Powers. This is not at all what Scripture calls for.

Let’s consider the Eye for an Eye passages in the Sermon on th Mount.
This is from one of my old sermons, so I apologize if something doesn't come out quite right.

First, let’s consider the audience. “If anyone strikes you… wants to sue you… forces you to go an extra mile…” In all three examples the listeners of Jesus are not the ones who initiates hitting, lawsuits, or imposing forced labor. The followers of Jesus are those who would be subject to this dehumanizing treatment. Now that we know that let’s look at some details. Walter Wink in his book Engaging the Powers gives us the specifics about what this passage may be telling us.

Why the right cheek? To slap someone on the right cheek you would use your left hand. But in that culture the left hand was only used for unclean tasks. One would never use their left hand for such important business. Also the intent hear is not to injure but humiliate. Furthermore, to hit with the fist is to acknowledge your foe as an equal. So how would you hit someone lower than you. You can only backhand slap with your right hand. And the backhand slap was the usual way of admonishing inferiors. But what if one turned to you the left cheek? Can you backhand slap me with your right hand? You would be forced to use your left hand for the back slap.

As Ghandi taught, “The first principle of nonviolent action is that of noncooperationwith everything humiliating.” By turning the left cheek the inferior has forced the hand of the superior. Unable to use the left hand, if the superior hits with his fist he makes the other equal in the argument, acknowledging him as a peer. The point of the back of the hand was to reinforce institutional inequality. Now, the superior has been stripped of his ability to place shame on the subordinate.

The second example Jesus gives is set in court of law. Someone is being sued for their outer garment. Wink’s understanding of the Hebrew Bible states that these types of lawsuits were usually about outstanding debts that were owed. Now, only the poorest of the poor would have only their garments to give as collateral for the settlement of a lawsuit. Now imagine in public a wealthy land owner is suing a homeless man for an outstanding debt. The poor man not only gives the outer garment but also the inner garment. This leaves the poor man standing naked in the court.

Again the tables have turned. Now, the shame falls on the wealthy creditor who is standing there with the outer garment in one hand and the inner garment in the other. The poor man had no hope of winning the case but now the poor man has transcended the wealthy man’s attempt to humiliate him.

Nakedness too was taboo in Judaism, but the shame would have fallen less on the naked party than on the person viewing or causing the nakedness. The debtor parades that nakedness in prophetic protest against the system that has deliberately render him destitute. Are you starting to see how this works?

Let’s look at the final example, go an extra mile. The previous two examples were ways to shame the Jewish system of oppression. Now it is the Roman’s turn. According to Roman law, a Roman soldier could levy forced labor onto the common person. However, there were Roman laws that limited the amount of work a Roman soldier could force a commoner to do. Consider Simon of Cyrene carrying Jesus’ cross in the Passion narratives of the Gospels. There are historical accounts of whole Jewish villages that were forced to help transport military supplies from one town to another for the Roman army.

Jesus says, “go an extra mile.” Imagine the surprise of the Roman soldier when they reach that second mile marker and the Jew refuse to give back the pack. Now the Jew has taken the initiative. The oppressed has taken back the power of choice. Just picture a Roman infantryman arguing with a Jew to give him back his pack so he could carry it. The humor of this passage and this scene escapes us but to those disciples listening to Jesus they would have understood.

This is Jesus’ Third Way. Jesus was not saying simply be a pacifist. He was not teaching his disciples just to lay down and be beaten. Instead he was teaching His disciples to find a way to regain control… to show the oppressor, the violent aristocrat, the creditor, the Roman soldier, that they were not superior… they were equals. Jesus also did not say fight back. Jesus did not want evil to be returned for evil – to use the Words of St. Paul. No, Jesus encourages His disciples to take the initiative and show the oppressors the shame of what they are doing. The point is to find non-violent means… to turn the tables and respond to the evil that is dished out by the evildoers.


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