What Is the Christian Response to Violence? Reflections for an Interfaith Panel
Ten years ago today, my wife Elizabeth and I were living and working in a Palestinian village in theWest Bank. This fact has colored my experience of that day in ways that continue to change me. In short, we were very much at home in a place that many of my fellow countrymen now considered “behind enemy lines.” We were Western American Christians living among an Arab Palestinian Muslim majority. And yet, what we experienced was sympathy – friends dropping by to know if our family was OK; the organizing of candlelight vigils and blood drives.
There was a simple lesson we learned that day: skepticism is good; because life is far more interesting and complex than our assumptions would have us believe, especially those assumptions about other people.
But at a deeper level, what we learned was our faith is a resource, the deepest of deep wells. It is not only a tool for coping with difficulties, but it provides some sense of both meaning and direction.
That is where I’d like to address the question for this panel today. And as a way to talk about what Christianity says about peace, I’d like to do so from the side by answering this question: What is the Christian response to violence?
There are typically two answers to this question from the Christian tradition that many of us would be familiar with.
First, there is what is known as the “just war” theory, first developed in a Christian sense by St. Augustine in the 4th and 5th centuries. Without going into too much detail, it is the theological rationale that there is such a thing as permissible violence, but within a very clearly prescribed set of circumstances that limit behavior during war and also limit the reasons for going to war. In short, the good must outweigh the bad.
Second, there is pacifism, which roots itself in Christ’s teaching to “turn the other cheek”. It had its proponents in the early church, and has continued as a Christian way of thought. We know it best in the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., who employed it as both a strategy and a way of life.
But in both cases, what is not an option is revenge. It is not a Christian value. There is no justification, from a Christian perspective, for getting even.
Instead, whether we end up as proponents of just war or pacifism, the Christian response to violence begins with repentance. Repentance means “turning to God”. It is an examination of the self, of one's society, of one's participation in that society.
This is best illustrated by a story from Luke’s gospel. Jesus has arrived in Jerusalem and comes across a crowd talking current events. They are discussing two stories in particular: The first is the murder of Jewish worshipers by Pontius Pilate, or as the story says graphically, the “mingling of their blood with that of their sacrifices”. The second is the death of eighteen under the weight of a collapsing tower. In some ways, it is the story of both a human-caused and a natural disaster. The assumption at the time would have been that violent deaths were caused by violent lives. The worse the sinner, the worse the death. I wish this viewpoint had disappeared with history, but it was in the wake of 9/11 ten years ago that Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson put forth the opinion that the terrorist attacks were God’s punishment for Americans’ godlessness.
Listen carefully to Jesus' response to the crowd: "Do you think these suffered in this way because they were worse sinners? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did."
In that, I hear Jesus issuing a warning: lives lived without repentance – without the humility and honesty of acknowledging wrongdoing – are destined for tragedy. And not in the sense that either Falwell or Robertson might believe.
Repentance is, after all, a turning to face God. It is a shining of light on that which is shrouded in darkness. It is painful, but it is restorative. Before anything else, there is the need to confront our brokenness, our imperfections, the evil we harbor within ourselves. And repentance is not confined to the individual. It is a collective responsibility. How are we complicit? How do we participate in systems which allow violence to flourish?
It is my conviction that it is the asking of these difficult questions that begins the Christian path to peace. It is the moral consequences of the answers that give us direction.
The interfaith panel was sponsored by Oglethorpe University's Coexist group, featuring Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and Sikh speakers followed by thoughtful round table conversations.