Violence breeds violence. It’s a pattern described in scripture, recorded in the history of most cultures. It’s what is experienced in our own time. Revenge leads to revenge. Retaliation produces retaliation. On and on and on and on.
While it is undeniable that people of faith – including Christians – have committed terrible acts of violence in the name of God, there is a post-modern assumption that religion itself promotes violence. We hear it so often from secularists that we almost fall for this straw dog. In fact, statistically, there is no evidence that faith – of any sort – is the genesis of most violence, including genocide and war.
Sometimes the scriptures have been so routinely misinterpreted that we hear “violence” when there was no or at least less. “Spare the rod and spoil the child” (Proverbs 13:24) has been routinely used to condone violence against children, ignoring that the proverb refers to the rod of the shepherd who – of course – would not use beat his sheep. When Jesus says “you have heard it said an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” he isn’t referencing a passage that initially advocated retaliation. The passages he mentions are in Leviticus and Deuteronomy and actually encouraged the practice of proportional justice. (Leviticus 24:20; Deuteronomy 19:21). That is, the punishment should fit the crime not be greater than the crime. Yet, Jesus is going father and putting aside that guidance in favor of meeting violence, cruelty or hatred with love.
But it is undeniable that in Hebrew scriptures, God prescribes the death penalty in some instances (e.g. Exodus 35:2; Leviticus 21:9). At others, God’s anger and wrath come down as punishment on God’s people in ways that shock us (e.g. 2 Samuel 24), and at times God commands the Israelites to commit genocide (e.g. Deuteronomy 20:16–18).
Encountering such texts reminds us that it is good to have a firm grasp on respectful, careful, historically accurate and culturally sensitive biblical interpretation. Then we can recognize that the Bible, as a whole the inspired Word of God, was written by human beings whose understanding and experience of God was shaped by their culture, their theological assumptions and the time in which they lived. The guidance of our own denomination is very helpful here. We are encouraged to use Jesus’s words and the witness of his life, as a lens through which to see all of scripture, we’ll see that these violent passages in scripture contradict not only the great commandments but the very life and ministry of Jesus who is the Living Word of God.
It is with humility and grief that we witness violence in our world and in ourselves. We are left wondering why people – including you and I –speak and act in violent ways.
Those who study and work with people who commit acts of violence which are unethical or illegal recognize “voices” that flood the minds of individuals influencing them to engage in violence. Lisa and Robert Firestone say these “voices” aren’t hallucinations but systematic patterns of negative thoughts against the self and hostility and suspicion toward others. (5) If we think of biblical stories of violence, events through history, occurrences we hear of in the news – domestic violence, psychological violence, murder, mass shootings, bias-motivated actions, or war – we may see how each fit into a pattern of responding to these violence-producing voices.
Most of us, though, are healthy enough to monitor and manage the voices in our heads – the patterns of our thoughts and our hearts.
It is clear that Jesus has a positive pattern of thoughts that lead to peace. He speaks with a voice that is dramatically positive toward the self and others – including perceived enemies. Jesus offers his own voice to light up our brains, our hearts, our vision and our compassion.
When Jesus said, “You have heard it said, ‘You shall hate your enemy’” He is identifying those violent voices. It certainly isn’t a word from scripture. But we recognize the instinct for payback. When we argue with a family member, our repeatedly unsuccessful strategy is to match one another blame for blame, as though if we could only convince them they are wrong, things would be set right. We inevitably walk away angrier and more alienated from the other person.
Now multiply this hurtful result by a factor of the distance between strangers or enemies and we know where this leads. Bullies emerge at school. Colleagues are estranged. Palestine and Israel act as if the way to peace is to kill their enemies until no one is left on the other side. People contend that the majority in America is injured when the minority is empowered.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus turns the familiar voices of violence around. He offers us a voice that speaks of redemption instead of retribution, a voice that is radically collective instead of isolating, a voice that affirms the worth of each individual instead of just a few. “I say to you: love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven”
Jesus Christ offers a voice that breaks the cycle of human vengeance and violence. In Jesus, God is doing the very thing that Jesus asks us to do. Instead of expecting perfect behavior, right reactions, God comes to us just as we are. God forgives us first, not waiting for us to ask. God loves us while we are still enemies to God. In Jesus Christ, God makes a loving appeal to win our hearts and make friends out of enemies. Jesus changes the pattern.