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Jesus & Violence

Through the grit and grind of daily life in Judea and Galilee, there persisted a defiant hope: that one day, a Messiah would emerge to restore Israel's fortunes and defeat, through holy violence, the Roman Empire and all who opposed the purposes of the God of Israel.


An ancient poet phrased it like this:


'Behold, O Lord, and raise up for them their king,

the son of David, to govern your servant Israel

at the appointed time, O God.

Strengthen him with the power to vanquish unrighteous rulers,

to cleanse Jerusalem of gentiles

who trample her into ruins;

with wisdom and righteousness, cast out sinners from the inheritance;

shatter the pride of sinners

like a potter's jar;

break all their substance with an iron rod;

eliminate the unlawful nations with the word of his mouth.' (Psalms of Solomon 17:21–24)



This militant messianism isn't merely an innovation of first-century culture and theology but is deeply rooted in Israel's traditions, where violence was seen as redemptive and an obedient response to the commands of God.


If God demanded the suspension of mercy during the initial land conquest, then it shouldn't surprise us that violence was deemed necessary at other junctures in Israel's narrative. Furthermore, if God is portrayed as encouraging extreme violence, commanding the extermination of men, women, and children, it follows that the kingdom of God and the actions of the Messiah would also involve violence.


Consider this passage from Deuteronomy 7:1–3 (ESV):


'When the Lord your God brings you into the land that you are entering to take possession of it and clears away many nations before you... the Canaanites... and when the Lord your God gives them over to you, and you defeat them, then you must devote them to complete destruction. You shall make no covenant with them and show no mercy to them.'


While these ancient traditions may seem strange to us and perhaps even uncomfortable, it's worth noting that in our own day and age, the myth of redemptive violence remains potent.


This is particularly evident in the national church's unapologetic support and celebration of the armed forces, which is evident in our annual remembrance services. Here, we acknowledge that the violence witnessed and endured by the military, particularly in two world wars, was seen as necessary to establish peace and counter those who brought evil. Similar concepts of just war and redemptive violence come into play in contemporary conflicts such as the war on terror and the Ukraine crisis. As we move further into climate breakdown, with migration and food insecurity rising. the world will become more violent and questions of the redemptive use of violence, or the use of violence to restrain evil, will become particular pressing.


Returning to the first century and the historical Jesus we observe a radical departure from traditional messianic expectations, for King Jesus brings a non-violent, peaceable Kingdom that deals with evil and empire, violence and vengeance, through selfless, sacrificial love.


He assembles around him not an army armed with swords or guns but a 'band of brothers and sisters' who are to be his peacemaking and peace-loving disciples.


It is Jesus, the Prince of Peace, who declares, 'Blessed are the Peacemakers.'


It is Jesus, the Bringer of Shalom, who instructs us in Matthew 5:44 to 'love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,' and in Luke 6:27, 'Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.'


It is Jesus who says to his followers ‘Be merciful like your Father in Heaven .’


Moreover, Jesus practices what he preaches. He embodies his teachings.


In Jesus, we witness a peaceful King who, in a peace-inspiring display of power, prays with his dying breath, 'Father, forgive.'


In Jesus, we see a peaceful king who, through his death, deals a decisive blow to death itself.


In Jesus, we encounter a peaceful king who, through a defiant act of civil disobedience, is raised from the dead, shattering social norms and breaking the seal on his tomb, thereby declaring the dawn of a new day and a new creation.


As Brian Zahnd aptly puts it, 'the cross is shock therapy for a world addicted to solving its problems through violence.'


In a world filled with despots and tyrants, where structures and systems often legitimize evil and empire, Jesus calls his disciples to follow in his footsteps, to take up their crosses, and to follow him.


The challenge for the church is clear. Ever since Constantine, we have, in general terms, become comfortable with supporting the armed forces. We have often served as chaplains and cheerleaders for those who train others for acts of redemptive violence. We have prioritised the nation-state over obedience to Jesus.


To follow Jesus is to renounce violence and choose peace. This is the narrow path that leads to life. This is the way of Jesus.


Jesus said, 'Blessed are the Peacemakers.'"

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