Violence: My View from the Fence

Stop War By somewheregladlybeyond
Stop War By somewheregladlybeyond
I’m quite aware that I’ve not laid my cards on the table (or perhaps you think I have?!) about my own view on pacifism, and I don’t intend to reveal them fully quite yet… The truth is, over the years I’ve swung like a pendulum between various views, and my current position feels about as stable as an ostrich on stilts.

But in all my toing, froing, reading, thinking, backtracking and obfuscating, I’ve made a couple of observations, which I’ll try to unpack in this post. There are weaknesses and potential pitfalls in both the pacifist and non-pacifist positions, which give me cause for concern. I want to highlight just one of each. I’m thinking primarily not on a large, philosophical scale but on the level at which our assumptions filter down through popular expressions in our churches. So if you’ll allow me to comment from my elevated position, perched firmly on a fence as I am, I’d like to offer a word of warning to both sides.

Words of War
In evangelical charismatic settings, often our prophetic rhetoric (or prophrhetoric, if you’ll allow me to coin a new term – I doubt it’ll catch on!) is very often suffused with war imagery. It is not uncommon for a large number of people’s prayers and prophecies to be aggressive in tone and military in content.

You know the kind of stuff I mean: The Church is an army. We do battle through prayer. We talk about armour and soldiers and weapons and shields and taking ground and rising up and charging forward and storming strongholds and so on… ad infinitum (ad nauseum!)

My question is this: If war falls short of the ideal of God; supposing the pacifist reading of Scripture is correct; then might we be co-opting the language of sin in our church vocabulary? Might the way in which we express ourselves through prayer and prophetic contributions rely on language and concepts that God (let alone those of a non-violent persuasion) finds morally distasteful?

Now let me be clear: I am not arguing that describing the Church as an army is sinful. Paul uses warfare imagery to describe the Christian life (Ephesians 6:10-20; 2 Cor 10:3-5), Jesus talks about the gates of hell not being able to withstand the advancing Church (Matthew 16:18) and so on; but it is one of many metaphors, and I think it is fair to say it’s not even a primary metaphor.

I suggest we need to carefully consider the way in which we use language, and the impression it gives to onlookers. Consider the unbeliever, or the woman, or the child, or the new Christian, or the pacifist in your congregation. Consider what goes through their mind when you shout phrases which sound more like Braveheart than Jesus. Think about how your language may play into the hands of the New Atheists, whose attack on the God of the Old Testament as provoking believers to violence and barbarism may well be the most significant apologetic challenge to us today1. Do they find fodder in the evangelical vernacular?

War language is never neutral language, because whatever your position on the possibility of a Just War, you must admit that it is not God’s ideal for the world, and we long for the day when war will be abolished forever (Isaiah 2:4). So we should be careful about how we employ it.

This has knock-on effects on our view of masculinity, to which I alluded the other day. Our aggressive prophrhetoric runs the risk of making our meetings feel very manly, and a particular brand of ‘manly’ at that, as if they’re saturated by the presence of testosterone rather than the Spirit! But at the same time, many churches are finding it difficult to attract and keep men, and we need to think carefully about how we deal with this. I want to create a church culture where masculinity is valued and expressed clearly, where men feel comfortable and challenged to step up and be godly, but I believe it has got to be possible to do so without giving the impression that true men should value violence.

So I’m not saying drop all the war language in favour of doves and daisies; use it to the degree in which the Bible does. I’m just saying be mindful of it. Think about the atmosphere it creates, the values it implicitly espouses, and the theological positions it may reinforce.

Doing violence to the Cross
One of my concerns with the Pacifist or non-violent position is perhaps more serious, since it goes beyond rhetoric and affects doctrine. It has been my observation that many (though not all) of those who hold a non-violent position can end up denying or seriously modifying the doctrine of Penal Substitutionary Atonement. The trajectory goes something like this:

  • We reject the myth of redemptive violence: the idea that violence has a positive, redeeming effect. Think of a passage like Judges 15:3-11, in which things so quickly spiral out of control such that what began with one person led to the burning of crops, then murder, then mass murder, and ended with 3,000 men being involved and 1,000 Philistines getting pummelled to death with a donkey’s jawbone! The futility of it is shocking; violence achieves nothing.
  • We recognise that there is a strong political dimension to Jesus’ teaching, challenging not only people’s hearts, but the oppressive structures of the day. Political structures, legal structures, religious structures and spiritual structures; Jesus’ mission was to oppose in a non-violent way, ‘the Powers’. Perhaps evangelical Christians have failed to see or preach this sufficiently, and so we strive to recover and restate it.
  • Holding these two observations together causes us to rethink what was achieved at the cross. It is more than simply a spiritual transaction of sin for righteousness, it can’t be the will of the Father to inflict violence on the Son (for we know that violence begets only violence and can redeem nothing), so we have to find other ways of interpreting the events of Calvary. And thus the cross becomes a display of power in weakness, or a political statement, or a model for suffering virtuously, or something… anything other than a wrath-bearing substitutionary sacrifice.

I hardly need to name Christian thinkers who have thus weakened the doctrine of Penal Substitution. Sadly, many of them also hold to a theology of non-violence, and I don’t think the link is entirely coincidental. It feels to me that Yoder is heading in this direction when he writes,

The Powers have been defeated not by some kind of cosmic hocus-pocus but by the concreteness of the cross; the impact of the cross upon them is not the working of magical words nor the fulfilment of a legal contract calling for the shedding of innocent blood, but the sovereign presence, within the structures of creaturely orderliness, of Jesus the kingly claimant and of the Church who herself is a structure and a power in society. Thus the historicity of Jesus retains, in the working of the Church as she encounters the other power and value structures of her history, the same kind of relevance that the man Jesus had for those whom he served until they killed him. (Yoder, p162)

One of the greatest challenges for non-violent theologians is to hold together the political and spiritual elements of Jesus’ mission and self-understanding. It’s not either/or but both/and. He resisted the genuine temptation towards violence and went to the cross because he was our perfect, sinless Passover lamb, and without his death on our behalf, our sins could not be atoned for, and we could not receive his righteousness.

In Conclusion…

I don’t imagine that these thoughts have furthered the discussion an enormous amount, or helped you decide where you stand, but I hope they have highlighted two dangers which can all too often lurk in the shadows at the side. Whilst we do battle over particular verses, or interpretations of Church history, or hypothetical ethical dilemmas, we can be blissfully unaware of how our language might sound to others, or what direction our assumptions may take us when applied to other related doctrines such as the Atonement.

My appeal to you is this: wherever you fall on the spectrum, be mindful of your rhetoric and the kind of picture of masculinity it conveys, and please do not go soft on the cross. True masculinity and godliness are displayed by the suffering servant who is also the victorious warrior.

He was pierced for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his wounds we are healed. (Isaiah 53:5)



This post forms part of a dialogue on violence and pacifism between Liam, Matthew Hosier and Andrew Wilson. Check out the whole series: 

Who Would Jesus Punch? by Liam Thatcher
War & Peace, Part 1 by Matthew Hosier
“The Right to Bear the Sword the State Has” by Liam Thatcher
War & Peace, Part 2 by Matthew Hosier
Violence: My View from the Fence by Liam Thatcher
Just War? by Andrew Wilson

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