Jesus, the church, and non-violence (Part 1)

I recently saw a movie that was powerful in the way it dealt with some of these issues. Steven Spielberg’s Munich is a retelling of the events of the 1972 Olympic Games held in Munich, Germany. It was during these games that members of Black September, a Palestinian terrorist organization, took hostage members of the Jewish Olympic team. One or two were killed during the initial hostage-taking when they resisted the terrorists.

Within 24 hours all of the hostages and all save three of the terrorists would be dead. Long story short, the German police attempted a rescue, which went badly wrong largely because it was poorly planned. When the hijackers realized the trap, they killed the hostages.

Within a month, the remaining captured terrorists were released after other members of Black September hijacked a Lufthansa airliner and demanded their release. They were released to Libya where they were treated like celebrities.

The movie itself deals with the Israeli response to the attacks. Golda Meir, the Israeli Prime Minister decided that the response ought to be swift and large enough in scope to serve as a deterrent to future attacks. Over the next several years Israeli assassination units killed dozens of high profile Palestinians and Arabs across Europe.

The movie follows the leader of one of these squads. It chronicles the toll that on-going vengeance took on one person. One man who killed to avenge the deaths of his fellow Israelis. By the end of the movie he is barely functioning in normal life as a result of the on-going stress and pressure of functioning covertly in a high stakes games of assassinations.

Interestingly, one scene frames the underlying conflict. The Mossad bomb-maker finally gives expression to his feeling that all of this killing is somehow in conflic with the values of Judaism. He notes that Jews are called to be holy and righteous. “We are not like the other nations.” Their actions as warriors seem to be in stark contrast with their values of Torah. A couple of scenes later, he is killed presumably by Palestinian terrorists who are now seeking the Israeli assassins. As Jesus said, “Those who live by the sword shall die by the sword.”

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The role of the Christian church in the world is to be a counter-culture, a new society that is based on the values of the kingdom and shaped by the teaching of Scripture and headed by Christ himself, a new Israel. It’s important to note that the role of the church and of the state is not the same. The function of the state is to restrain evil and to promote good.

Nowhere is the vision of this new counter-culture more compellingly communicated than in the Sermon on the Mount.

This is especially true when it comes to enemies and war. I’d like for us to explore these topics by looking at two passages of scripture from The Sermon on the Mount.

In Matthew 5:38-42 Jesus talks about retribution. Since Jesus doesn’t talk that much about war and since our enemies are mostly enemies since they’ve done something to us that we think is unjust, we’ll use this passage to think a little about how we respond to people who wrong us.

We will also look at Matthew 5:43-48 where Jesus talks about how we relate to our enemies. 

War and Violence: When to resist (Matthew 5:38-42)

38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ 39 But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. 40 And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. 41 If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. 42 Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. (TNIV)

Jesus offers a response to the culture of the day (part 1). An “eye for eye, tooth for tooth” (v. 38) was a principle of limiting retribution to what is a just amount (the punishment must fit the crime). The purpose was to avoid the sort of blood feud that could embroil multiple communities in generations of senseless violence.[1] By the time Jesus spoke these words, it was common practice to impose financial sanctions rather than physical punishment.[2]

Jesus is speaking to Jews who have come to view him as Messiah. It seems that his words are aimed at reforming and renewing Jewish society through this new movement of Christ-followers. They are a grass-roots source of influence that will bring change about outside of the normal structures of power and influence.

Jesus was not opposing brutality or physical retribution since these weren’t the common responses to injustices in the ancient world of Jesus’ time. Instead, it seems that He is opposing the principle of insisting on legitimate retribution, specifically using legal means to settle a score with another individual.[3]

Jesus says, “do not resist…” (v. 39). This is wider, however, than simply insisting on not getting even. It is really, in the affirmative, a willingness to accept ill treatment and even to participate in it (by turning the other cheek, or giving your coat away, or walking a second mile). And it is not limited to simply physical nonviolence. Instead, what is said here also refers to the use of legal means to “resist” an unjust action.[4]

The cases in point are all cases in which an individual comes into contact with another individual who does something wrong or unjust. Jesus is not outlining responses to evil in the abstract. These are concrete responses to concrete examples of wrongdoing. As a result, they’re not really verses that are meant to be applied to society as a collective. Many Christians have traditionally made a distinction between the actions of individuals and the actions of the state. Elsewhere in the NT we are told that the state has the power of the sword. That power, however, is never vested in individuals.

Jesus was not attempting to reform the legal code, but is suggesting an attitude that is loose on rights and entitlements. As I mentioned before, it is an attempt at changing attitudes and subverting the dominant values of a society.

Concrete examples:

  1.  “…turn the other cheek” (v. 39b) A backhanded slap to the face was an expression of contempt and extreme abuse…punishable by a fine.[5] Jesus’ disciples are asked to accept the contempt and abuse without recourse to their legal rights in the situation.
  2. “…hand over your coat as well” (v. 40) The OT Law forbade the confiscation of the coat on humanitarian grounds (Ex 22:25-7). If it was taken as collateral, it had to be returned by sundown so its owner could sleep in it.
  3. “…go two miles” (v. 41) The reference is specifically to the practice of Roman soldiers commandeering local citizens to serve as porters to carry cargo, etc. Instead of telling his disciples to resist members of an occupying force, he tells them to do more than required. This would have been very controversial and set Jesus apart from the Zealots who attempted to drive Rome out of Israel.
  4. “…give to those who ask…” (v. 42) Matthew’s retelling has in mind a specific instance. The verb he uses refers to a single act. The principle is that we ought to place the needs of others before our own convenience or our own rights.

R. T. France notes, “A willingness to forgo ones personal rights, and to allow oneself to be insulted and imposed upon, is not incompatible with a firm stand for matters of principle and for the rights of others. Indeed the principle of just retribution is not so much abrogated here as bypassed, in favor of an attitude which refuses to insist on one’s rights, however legitimate.”[6]

There will be times when we as followers of Christ are entitled to use legal means to compel someone else to stop doing something to us that is wrong. However, Christ here suggests that we shouldn’t consider our entitlements and our legal rights as supreme. There will be times when we are called on essentially give up our rights in an instance and give to the other person something they don’t deserve. 

 


[1] R. T. France. Matthew. TNTC. 125

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid, 126.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Jonas, NTT, 239.

[6] Ibid.

Five reasons the church should care about the arts

The dominant narrative around evangelicals and the arts is one that pits populist evangelicals as standing in opposition to or judgment upon the arts. Think: Thomas Kincade more than Rembrandt; Jenkins and La Haye, Left Behind more than Tolstoy’s, Anna Karenina.

It’s true that evangelicals have a mixed history when it comes to valuing the arts. Thankfully there is some movement towards engaging and valuing the contribution the arts make to the creation of both a good life and a good society. One example is the organization, Christians in the Visual Arts (CIVA). CIVA explores the relationship between the arts and the Christian faith. I’m fortunate to know several people associated with this organization including its Executive Director, Cam Anderson.

The evangelical church must make significant progress in valuing and embracing the arts as well as artists. This is the case both because the arts are inherently valuable (they’re valuable because of what they are) and because the arts play a critical role in the formation of culture.
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Here are five reasons that why the evangelical movement needs to take seriously God’s call to be stewards and supporters of the arts:

  1. Art is an echo of God’s creativity and an expression of our nature as image-bearers. We create because our creator has endowed us with the ability to do so. We are, as Tolkien pointed out, sub-creators. Our creativity is contingent upon and flow from God’s creativity.
  2. Art engages our imagination, our primary faculty. In a technological age, it’s tempting to believe that rationality is our primary faculty. As G. K. Chesterton observed, “The only truly rational men are all in insane asylums” (that’s a paraphrase). His point is that being human means more than being rational. C. S. Lewis observed, “Reason is the natural order of truth; but imagination is the organ of meaning.”
  3. Art reflects and interprets our present moment–it helps us to see ourselves. Art is the product of reflection upon our moment. Artists generally create in response to something that they perceive either in their own life or in the life of the community or nation. Reading art can help us to see our collective self through the eyes of another–an immense gift.
  4. Art communicates truth in a way that surpasses rationality. Rationality was king in the modern era. Today it will increasingly be important to communicate truth through forms that are adequate to the task and that also by-pass the epistemological uncertainty of our post-modern society. It’s very difficult–although perhaps not impossible–to argue that a piece of art is “untrue.” 
  5. Art expresses possibilities for the future. The arts can also help us to imagine what the future could be like. The arts often critique, but they are also able to communicate a positive vision for the future.

Let this be a call to the evangelical movement to value the arts as much, if not more than, we have traditionally valued things like missions–art is, in its own way, an extension both of discipleship and of mission.

The Gospel in Vigilante Film

Harry Brown (2009) is a remarkable film. It powerfully captures the sad conjunction of individual and societal sin that creates the dark reality of life in many urban centers around the globe. What’s missing from the movie are the twin themes central to Christian belief–grace and redemption.

Harry Brown is an aging pensioner who lives in a central London housing estate. At the start of the film, his aging and infirm wife dies. She is buried next to their daughter who predeceased them. Every day Harry walks to the hospital to visit his wife. Every day he chooses, for his own safety, to avoid a pedestrian passageway that leads beneath a major London road. The reason: it is a hanging out place for part of London’s drug-dealing underclass.

The film is well-made with long shots and minimal dialogue, both of which highlight a major point of commentary in the plot. The England described in Harry Brown is one marked by the breakdown of social relationships. Harry Brown, a former Royal Marine who served in Northern Ireland, lives an isolated and lonely existence shared with two people–his unconscious wife and he best mate Len.

Similarly, the “hoodies” are not only marginalized from mainstream British society but are alienated from one another by their wickedness. As Augustine noted, evil is individualistic and precludes any real relationship–to the evil man all life, save his own, is expendable. Authentic relationships are based on mutuality–mutual self-giving–something  of which evil is incapable.

After Harry’s wife’s funeral Len confides that the delinquent youth of the estate have been bullying him. At the breaking point, he has started to carry a bayonet with him for self-defense and possibly for a last-ditch attempt to vindicate himself by doing violence. The police, claims Len, have ignored his complaints and left him vulnerable.

To make a long story short, Len is brutally assaulted and murdered. Harry’s life has been made devoid of its last meaningful relationship. This unleashes a Harry Brown unknown since the streets of Ulster at the heights of The Troubles. This Harry attempts to avenge his friend by rescuing the estate from the influence of the “yobbos” by tracking down and cold-bloodedly murdering them.

Where, you ask, is the Gospel in a vigilante movie? Vigilante movies communicate the Gospel in at least three ways:

  1. They bring us into a world we otherwise might not experience. For many success in life is defined in physical and economic distance from housing estates. It is, however, often that we see ourselves and our situations most clearly when we see ourselves in a foreign context. A movie like Harry Brown reminds us of our common humanity with all manner of people.
  2. They honestly portray the ugliness of sin. Sin in the suburbs is often “respectable sin” or “white collar sin.” In the eyes of a righteous God, sin is sin. Contemporary Christianity has lost much of a sense of the ways in which the holiness of God is offended by the ugliness of sin, yet the heart of the Gospel requires that we confront our own weakness and wickedness in order to see the beauty and the glorify of the new way of life offered to us in the Gospel of the KIngdom.
  3. They show the futility of the Law. Eye for eye and tooth for tooth (lex talionis-the law of retaliation) stands at the heart of the vigilante genre. Every wrong exacts a price–the life of the wrongdoer. There is no forgiveness. There is no grace. Mercy never makes an appearance. As we watch, we realize that there’s much appealing about such a system–when we’re not a part of it. In reality come to know once again how deeply and frequently we need the forgiving love of God in Christ and the forgiving love of others.

So while other vigilante heroes (think Charles Bronson in Death Wish and Clint Eastwood in Gran Torino) aren’t types of Christ, ironically they do help us see the Gospel more clearly for the miracle it is.

Purple State of Mind | Screening

I am heading over to North Carolina School of the Arts for a viewing of an interesting documentary, Purple State of Mind. Here’s how it is described:  

Welcome to a conversation between two old friends. Welcome to a real conversation about the things that divide and unite all of us: our memories, our identities, our beliefs, our choices.Craig Detweiler and John Marks have known each other for twenty-five years. When they roomed together as sophomores at Davidson College, they were devout Christians. It was Craig’s first year in the faith, John’s last. After college, they parted ways, and when they met again, years later, they never talked about what happened… until now…Their conversation starts as a bull session between pals and becomes a story about how people make friends, and how they lose them; how people change, how they grow, and how they deal with the big stuff: death, sex, the meaning of life, God. The conversation between Craig and John captures in all its intimacy and difficulty a one on one reckoning between two people who want to understand each other but won’t compromise their beliefs.At a time when the country is ever more divided over questions of faith and doubt, welcome to a new way of talking… welcome to a new territory of the heart. Welcome to a Purple State of Mind. 

I’ll write a review of it soon.