killing is normal?
My wife Cheryl is from a Mennonite heritage and it has been interesting for me to learn about the hardships endured by her grandparents and previous generations. Mennonites are notable in history for being forced into various stages of migration through Europe and North America in order to escape religious persecution. The primary reasons for their unpopularity had to do with their beliefs about baptism (yeah, seriously) and more significantly, their refusal to participate in war.
Imagine that … attacked for refusing to kill people.
Mind you, Mennonites took up arms in other, humanitarian ways: volunteering as medics on the front lines (see the movie Hacksaw Ridge), leaving home to join wartime work crews in factories and farms, and establishing and staffing hospitals. Literally picking up the pieces of those who believed war was righteous. ¹
Not murdering other human beings seems fairly reasonable until you consider how tightly government and religion are wound together. Augustine originated the ‘just war theory’ as a way of navigating through the perilous relationship between church and state. Throughout history monarchs/nations have almost always gone to war with the support of the religious hierarchy of the day. Of course the common denominator has been that average citizens did the dirty work of killing and dying on the battlefield because it was brave, patriotic, righteous, and … well, expected.
Standing against violence is usually considered cowardly or unpatriotic. I still remember how ‘draft dodgers’ during the Vietnam War were viewed as traitorous because they objected to being conscripted to kill people on the other side of the planet for philosophical reasons. Or remember how Colin Kaeperneck was vilified (and remains unemployed) simply for kneeling during the National Anthem to protest racial discrimination? ²
There is a notable segment of Christianity that justifies, even craves, ‘righteous’ violence. I’ve written previously that a shocking percentage, particularly evangelicals, advocate harsh solutions like military strikes, muscular policing, clubbing protesters, the death penalty, even torture. Like everybody else, they absolutely adore it when the good guys exact righteous revenge on their enemies.
The Trump years have ‘outed’ evangelicals, revealing their willingness to embrace all sorts of aggression – from insults to lying to physical force – in order to normalize their own view of the world. ³
Blood runs in our theological veins. We’re taught that the Bible condones bloody solutions to sin and that we are christian soldiers marching into battle for the Lord. We christians love us some blood.
I recall a conversation with someone who was struggling with the idea that God demanded death sacrifices to atone for sin. A pet lover, this woman found it particularly offensive that a blood thirsty God would institute a system of redemption that required the gruesome slaughter of innocent animals. (The Talmud speaks of single-day Temple sacrifices of more than a million animals and blood flowing up the legs of the priests. So yeah … gruesome.)
As I recall, my answer had something to do with the awfulness of sin, Jesus taking our place, God seeking an alternative to sacrifice … the usual. I also remember that, in the deepest corners of my mind, those easy answers felt incomplete.
After all, God is love. Always has been. And if you look more closely, he hates violence and bloodshed.
What makes you think I want all your sacrifices?” says the LORD. “I am sick of your burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fattened cattle. I get no pleasure from the blood of bulls and lambs and goats. – Isaiah 1:11
In the Bible, the first humans to offer sacrifices were Cain and Abel, the oldest children of Adam and Eve. Where does God tell them to offer sacrifices, you ask? Nowhere. You would think it would be important to it jot down somewhere, but there’s no record of God asking them to have a bloodbath to keep him happy.
Whose idea was it? Did they learn this from mom and dad? Did blood feel like the only reasonable price for forgiveness?
Then there are the stories of Israel being instructed to kill every Canaanite man, woman, child, animal, chunk of chattel and breath of air they could find – genocide, in other words. This subject has many angles but among them is God’s directive to wait for him to expel their enemies naturally (Exodus 23:27-30). Again, there is reason to believe he didn’t tell them to kill their enemies – they just assumed he did.
Killing is what violent people do in a violent world because it seems like the only solution to the problem of enemies.
God helped Samson destroy a large group of Philistines by pushing down their temple, right? Well, you could read it that way, but looking closer we see that God didn’t ask him to do it. Samson was motivated mostly by revenge and probably figured God would be okay with his final heroic act because he was one of the good guys.
Think of him as a Bronze Age suicide bomber.
David had the grand idea to build a home for Yahweh (God); he thought it would be appropriate to build a beautiful house … a temple. But you may recall from 2 Samuel 7 that Yahweh responded to the idea with, Wait, what? But I didn’t ask for a house! Still, David plowed forward, assuming he was doing the right thing because that’s what all the gods demanded. So Yahweh protested again: I don’t live in houses made by humans. I am God, I can’t be contained.
In the end, Yahweh acquiesced to David’s deafness and adjusted the narrative. But notice that, while God allowed David to have input on the Temple, he didn’t allow him to build it because he was a warrior with bloody hands.
Christians who justify violence inevitably rush to the story where Jesus had a temper tantrum and kicked people out of the Temple. But read the story more closely and you will see something different. Yes, he aggressively interrupted the profiteering system but his aggressive act was merely to shoo the sacrificial animals out of the building. In other words, Jesus demonstrated his distaste for blood and his intention to end the system that stood between God and people.
Ultimately every Christian knows that Jesus took God’s anger on himself and was crucified to pay for our sins, right? Um … maybe. Or maybe Jesus’ death was the inevitable outcome when violent people were confronted with someone whose life exposed their dark hearts.
Oh, that’s right … Jesus
As I recall the Crucifixion story, Jesus took all the violence into himself and didn’t strike back. He absorbed their (our) sin and anger, then emptied its power by responding to it with love and forgiveness.
Shockingly, that view of the Cross doesn’t make sense to christians so they insist on believing that God committed violence. But remember that we should view God through the lens of Jesus and he said to “turn the other cheek” and to pray for our enemies.
But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. – Matthew 5:44-48, NIV
It’s a sinful instinct we have, you know – the need to blame and lash out at what is wrong in our world. We do it because it seems fair; it seems right. We strike at others without understanding that our violence is a judgement on ourselves – it reveals the hatred hiding in our core.
So. Does God support bombing our enemies or does it just make sense to us? Does God want more weapons, soldiers, police, lawyers, or do we just think they are the solutions to our problems? And why are christians so enamoured with aggression?
Let me push it further: Does God ask us to fight culture wars or do we just assume that’s what he wants? Is refusing to wear a mask an inconvenience or an act of violence toward our community?
We over-rate what attacking our enemy accomplishes, but we under-rate what it costs. We believe aggression is the answer to aggression – it’s just good sense. But you know what? That’s why the world is still violent.
Yes, I hear you … I acknowledge this isn’t a complex discussion of the topic but my point is simple: aggression of any kind is only destructive, never constructive; it can only tear apart, it can never build up. Attacking our enemies is anti-Gospel.
Of all people, Christians should understand the healing potential that flows from God’s Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
It’s time to stop forcing the Ten Commandments on other people, and start enforcing the Sermon on the Mount on ourselves.
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¹ By the way, I am not anti-military. I believe in training, equipping, respecting, and caring for those who protect us with their lives. Unfortunately we tend to focus more on sending them to be soldiers than on caring for them as people.
² Have you ever wondered why we have national anthems at every sporting event? Or why warplanes fly overhead before playoff games? Or why countries have military parades to show off their big, shiny weapons of destruction? Or why patriotism and flags are, in effect, worshipped?
Think about it: we fight over arbitrary lines drawn on the ground, laying partisan claim to the earth’s resources. We are motivated by pride, shiny medals, pieces of cloth and we spend enormous sums of money that could substantially improve the nutrition, housing, clothing, and health of our citizens. (Discuss among yourselves…)
³ Many fundamentalists are fuelled more by racism, testosterone, and tradition than by Jesus. See this brief summary by historian Kristin Kobes Du Mez: https://religiondispatches.org/no-rush-limbaugh-did-not-hijack-your-parents-christianity/