Thursday, June 04, 2009

Why Nonviolence? Part IV

I have a feeling that this post will be shorter than some of the previous posts, and for that I must again point to my own shortcomings. The issue of “holy” violence in the Old Testament is one which has frustrated Christianity for centuries. How can the New Testament point to one solution while the Old Testament shows that violence was implemented over and over by both the people of God, and at God’s own hand?

  Again, my answer is incomplete, but I feel like I might have an answer which can point in the right direction.  The corollary to me is slavery. Slavery is an issue which I think teaches us a lot about how God deals with a broken and fallen humanity.

  As I see it, slavery was clearly seen as a negative and oppressive thing in the life of the Israelites while they were in Egypt, and later while they were in exile. It was also taken for granted as a way of life. God delivered the Israelites out of slavery, which I think gives us the first clue that it is not a part of his plan.

  Slavery was also a large part of society when Christianity was in its beginnings and both Jews and Greeks were brought into the family of God. Paul handles the issue with an interesting juxtaposition of concepts though. In Galatians 3:28 he makes his famous declaration that human boundaries crumble in light of the Kingdom. The kingdom refuses to recognize delineations between male & female, Jew & Greek, and slave & master. Instead, entry into the Kingdom is open to all, who become one in Jesus Christ. Philemon is another example of Paul pointing towards the fact that Slavery is not a part of God’s Kingdom.

  But then we turn over to Colossians and we hear Paul entreat slaves to remain under their masters. Why does he do this?  I think not only is this because we are meant to yield to others in submission and service, but also because at this point in time, human oppression of others has not been banished yet. Paul recognizes that the reality is that we live in a time when humans are pitted against one another in efforts to seek power. As Christians called to serve all others out of love, we submit to their will, even at the sake of receiving violence.

  Now, I think we can turn back to the Old Testament. God works with us as we are, and in ways which the world will recognize. While Jesus would come to be the first step towards the Kingdom of Peace, God did indeed utilize violence in the time before him. I will not explain it away as not having come from him. I will say that God is the only being who has the authority to judge its rightness or wrongness.

I believe Karl Barth is a man who was against war almost exclusively. I say almost, because he had to allow that since God is something completely outside of human experience (except for when he chooses to bring his revelation to us), the door had to be left open that God could call us to arms some day. I think this is very unlikely, but I do appreciate the notion that God could call us to anything, including things we may find contrary to what we know about him.

 Despite all of the violence in the Old Testament, I think the prophets do teach us that God is pointing even then to a time of peace and nonviolence. One need not go very far into Isaiah (2:4) before we learn that

4     He shall judge between the nations,

and shall arbitrate for many peoples;

they shall beat their swords into plowshares,

and their spears into pruning hooks;

nation shall not lift up sword against nation,

neither shall they learn war any more.


Brad Foster said...

The slavery issue is an interesting one that I've looked at alot. Paul is sometimes less progressive in some of the things that he says than modern people would like. Why doesn't he come out and say that all slavery is bad, and hereby abolished, period. I think the main reason for this is propriety. Paul is responsible for maintaining Christianity's good reputation in a culture that embraced slavery. I think Paul emancipated slaves where he could get away with it. I think he had slaves stay under slavery when he couldn't get away with it. In fact he even says that he could have ordered Philemon to release his slave Onesimus. (Philemon 1:8). Regarding Old Testament violence, and this is just a guess. Maybe the norm for all society at the time was so violent that even a peace-loving God's solution temporarily included violence. The expression of worship that came most naturally to them was killing livestock after all. Maybe God's solution for the violent culture was more violence temporarily so that He could pave the way for a peaceful future. Like picking the lesser of two evils. Just a thought.

rheimbro said...

I would agree with that, and like I said I still have a lot to work through on OT Violence in my own understanding.

I also am not totally sure that slavery was the right corollary, but decided to go ahead with it. I don't like to think of it as a purely pragmatic tactic by Paul and/or God, but I do think there is a patience God has with humanity that can allow things which are contrary to the Kingdom to linger until the time is ripe to remove it.

I mean, slavery is still something that continues today despite the church's best efforts. I don't expect violence to ever disappear. It is embedded in human relations. But I don't think God is content to leave it at that either.

The bigger point for me is that for both slavery and violence I think neither represent all that God has for humanity. He is not content to leave us in a place where those are part of how we interact with others.