A Theology of Violence

In the United States, violence is something that used to happen to someone else. It was something reserved for urban areas and gangsters or third world countries and oppressive regimes. But in the midst of the suburban American dream, violence was something you observed on television or in the newspaper.

All of that has changed in recent years. Violence has come home.

There has been a lot of bizarre news in the United States in 2012, and all of it has been violent. During the summer there were two – TWO! – strange stories of cannibalistic violence with people actually attacking and eating others. At the opening of The Dark Knight Rises in Aurora, Colorado, an insane man loaded all the weapons he could find and just started blasting away in a theater, killing a dozen people and injuring another eighty-five.

The past week has seen two very violent mass shootings in two suburban settings not usually associated with violence. In Happy Valley, Oregon, a lone gunman walked into a shopping mall and with apparent abandon, started blasting away at holiday shoppers. Then yesterday in Connecticut, a twenty year old man shot his mother and then went to the school where she worked and mercilessly killed her kindergarten students – her kindergarten students. Both shooters then turned their weapons on themselves.

The scope of these tragedies cannot be overstated. It simply boggles the mind that someone would be so messed up that slaughtering children seemed like an appropriate response to – well, anything.

A lot of people have been asking where this impulse of violence is coming from, and they have been coming up with all kinds of answers. Perhaps it comes from not having strict enough gun laws, or perhaps it comes from banning the Ten Commandments in schools. Perhaps it is a sign of the end times, or perhaps it is because of violent video games.

No one seems to be taking any time to consider what the Scriptures have to say about man’s violent nature.

Let’s consider for a moment just how violent human beings are.

It certainly is nothing new.

In Genesis 2, God creates man. In Genesis 3, man sins. In Genesis 4, man begins to murder his brother. In Genesis 6, we read these words:

Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence. And God saw the earth, and behold, it was corrupt, for all flesh had corrupted their way on the earth.
Genesis 6:11-12 (ESV)

Mankind fills any situation with violence, and the more of us there are, the more potentially violent we become. This is something that the author of this part of the Genesis narrative knew over 6,000 years ago at the beginning of human recorded history.

Behold, the wicked man conceives evil and is pregnant with mischief and gives birth to lies.
        He makes a pit, digging it out, and falls into the hole that he has made.
His mischief returns upon his own head, and on his own skull his violence descends.
Psalm 7:14-16 (ESV)

Violence is part of our sinfulness. It is multiplied and magnified in the “wicked man” but the potential exists among all of us. We need to understand that violence is part of the human experience – a natural consequence of the sin nature that lies within all of us.

And what does God say to all of this? The words he gave to the prophet Jonah echo his desire for mankind to lay down his violent nature:

Let everyone turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands.
Jonah 3:8 (ESV)

Jonah was speaking to the Assyrians in Nineveh in the 8th century BCE. This was a culture that used violence to good effect. They were renowned for cruelty and destruction. And yet, God points out to Jonah that there are at least 120,000 children in the city of Nineveh (Jonah 4:11). Judgment would have come on these children as well as their parents, and why? Because of their violence?

One of the promises God gives to David (around 1000 BCE) about the kingdom of Israel is that “violent men will waste them no more.” (1 Chronicles 17:9)

The reality is that violence is simply a matter of our existence here on earth. It is part of life. It has been a part of life for a long time.

We Americans seem to view violence from a distance, believing that somehow we have bettered human nature and have overcome the innate violence of our nature. Sometimes it seems like we have the underlying belief that we are better than those “other” people who are so violent.

Christians tend to think we have done this through moral law codes and sermons. Humanists think we accomplish it through just “being” better people.

But the reality is that we are not any different from Cain who killed his brother in an envious rage. We are no better than the Assyrians. We are still violent, and violence will continue to happen. Human beings don’t evolve and improve. We’re still just as sinful as Cain was.

A world without violence is an illusion. We can clean up the streets and pay more police officers, but we cannot get rid of the violence that resides in the heart of sinful man.

Perhaps nothing better illustrates our need for a Savior, for someone to take our violence upon himself. Christ’s crucifixion was a cruel, awful death; and yet it was a death invented by man to be inflicted upon man. What better way to illustrate how our violent and sinful natures torment the heart of God? What better way to show us the violent grace we receive through Christ?

Does Christ remove the violence of the world? His own words indicate that persecution and violence will continue until his return (Matthew 24:6).

If there is a theology of violence, it is that violence will always be present in sinful man.

If there is an answer to our violence, it is Christ.

No laws will change that. Teachers can’t change it. We cannot improve ourselves enough to eradicate the darkness of the sinful condition.

So, what to do?

We must answer violence with compassion, war with peace. The Church must be the peaceful rocks of truth that the waves of destruction crash upon and we must continue to love.

We must not be a marching army, determined to conquer the violence of man’s heart. Instead, we must become the heart of society – the clear voice of the gospel in the midst of voices of chaos, rage, guilt, fear and pain. To be the body of Christ is to be the peacemakers.

We must do this although the strength to do it is not present in our own spirits. We must rely upon the Spirit of God, upon the direction of our grieving Creator who wishes to see His creation reconciled. It is not enough to mourn injustice or to lament violence. We must become the agents of His peace, in whatever ways we can.

Violence will not cease as long as their are sinful human beings.

So, grace must not cease. The Church must never cease to be Christ’s peace and grace.

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Learning Exercises (ugh!)

One of the key reasons I don’t do conferences is that inevitably someone wants you to do some kind of “learning exercise.” I am a high-brain, verbal learner which means that I learn best by taking in information and teaching others, and most “learning exercises” do nothing for me. At the Biblical Imagination Conference we attended this weekend, we were asked twice to put our feelings on sticky notes and post them on a board. The first time, I actually wrote, “I don’t know what to write because the Gospel isn’t about me.”

Seriously, I wasn’t there to learn about myself. I was there to absorb the Gospel of Mark, to look at it in a different way; and that’s exactly what the teacher did. I felt engaged in Mark and felt that he really took the book to a fascinating place that will have me thinking, praying and changing for weeks. But it wasn’t about me. It was about Jesus. I wanted to learn about Him – from Him; and that was enough for me.

Anyway, the final “learning exercise” was to place ourselves in the place of Bartimaeus on the road out of Jericho. (Bartimaeus’ story is in Mark 10:46-52.) I think the purpose of the exercise was for us to think creatively about how the Gospel pertains to us. In reality, we are all blind like Bartimaeus; and the only thing we can ever ask Jesus for is mercy, which is what he does.

I get the idea. I really do. And when people started standing up and reading their “paradigms” as they were called, there was definitely a vibe of “Jesus saved me from ______.” I did not write about that at all. I think being “saved” is easy; but being transformed and remade is not.

When Jesus healed Bartimaeus, he literally remade him. Jesus did not simply make the man’s eyes work. He reactivated, repathed and reconnected millions of neural connections in his brain. Jesus implanted in Bartimaeus’ mind, body and soul the ability to not only receive light through his eyes but also how to interpret that light in meaningful ways. Jesus imputed into Bartimaeus a wholeness that otherwise would have been absent.

But there’s the thing. Bartimaeus was not the blind guy on the road. That was not the true Bartimaeus. When Jesus comes along and Bartimaeus cries out for mercy, Jesus recreated Bartimaeus as he was intended to be. For the first time, Bartimaeus was wholly Bartimaeus.

Too many of the “paradigms” I heard were essentially, “I AM the blind beggar, but Jesus made me a better version of that blind beggar.” This is the way Christians often share their testimony, and it is not an indictment of anyone who was there. They dwell on the person they once were – that broken, sinful person, and they imagine that Jesus somehow just improved upon that person.

Jesus does not improve or renovate. Jesus recreates. Bartimaeus was no longer the blind beggar. He was the seeing disciple. And when we cry out to Jesus for mercy and he recreates us, he does a NEW thing. He makes us as we are meant to be, the new creation. He is the NEW ADAM, the one who gives life.

We need to shift our thinking and stop defining ourselves as what we were before Jesus showed up with a little extra that Jesus is doing. We need to realize the new creation he has done and embrace the present reality of his workmanship in us. We must no longer be defined as ME+something Jesus did, but rather as Jesus+A NEW CREATION.

It is hard to communicate the emphasis, but consider it as if we mumble that we were blind and then SHOUT that we can see. The NEW CREATION is the reality, and the old broken person was just the shadow. The people who would not follow Jesus were those who embraced the lie of their current reality, who could not imagine that Jesus could make them truly new (the rich young ruler, the Pharisees, etc.). Don’t believe Satan’s lie that you ARE the sinner, the broken, the defeated. That is not who you ARE. You ARE who Jesus, in his mercy, makes you.

Those things have passed away, and BEHOLD he makes all things new.

Does that make sense?

A Question of Faith

Recently, I spoke on Luke 8:4-18 – what is known as “The Parable of the Sower.” The passage deals with the complex issue of why some people are “saved” and others are not, and as I expected there were a lot of questions about the nature of salvation.

Particularly, someone asked about the meaning of “hearing the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart” in verse 15. The actual question was:

What will be the results of those who have never heard The Word or care to abide by it but are “decent” people. Will they be “saved”? And we all know that no one, outside of the Trinity, is perfect and can put The Word into “perfect practice”. I know I need to work a lot harder to be a better listener and see-er. I really have no idea if some people will never be saved.

This is a great question, and it is also a very common one that believers struggle with. If I might rephrase the question, it is something like this:

Is there any hope of salvation for those who do not receive “the Word”?

To answer the question, we need to make sure that we carefully define the term The Word. According to the Gospel writer John, The Word is Jesus himself, revealed as a part of the divine godhead – the Creator and Redeemer of all things (John 1). The Scriptures themselves reveal to us the Living Word, and I would go as far as to say that if Jesus is not the Living Word then the Written Word is empty and meaningless. As Paul points out:

And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied. (1 Corinthians 15:17-19)

The Scriptures, Christianity – they have no meaning without Christ, and therein lies the answer to the question. At its core, the Christian faith is grounded in the idea that Jesus is the living Word. He is the written Word’s fulfillment (Matthew 5:17) and the satisfaction of all earthly requirements of salvation (Galatians 2:22-29. He is, as the author of Hebrews put it, “the author and finisher of our faith.” Without him, there is no salvation. (Acts 4:12)

The Christian faith is inherently exclusive. This offends some people, but there is no way around it. Christianity not only excludes those who have no exposure to the Scriptures but also those who look to the Scriptures but deny Christ.

Jesus’ parable of the sower was addressed directly to those who claimed to the know the Scriptures but denied Him as the Word of God. It is a universal statement, pertaining to those who appeared to be His disciples as much as to those who would never be exposed to His Word. While one of the soils he mentions in the parable never receives the Word, two of them do receive it but then let it die within them – burnt up and dry because of the rock or choked out by the weeds.

Now, having made such exclusive statements, let me offer some hope. Throughout his letter to the Romans, the apostle Paul makes it plain that those who would receive Jesus as the Word will be given opportunity. Revelation will reach them, and those who will follow Him will be given the opportunity. This is why the Church has a mandate to “make disciples of all nations”. We are called to work to share Jesus Christ with as many as will hear, knowing that not all will receive.

The more we allow God to expand our vision, the greater the opportunity the Church has to be a part of the harvest he has prepared. (John 4:34-38, Acts 10:34-43) One of the great sins of the Church is that we narrow God’s vision and restrict the scope of what He can do through us. We dismiss classes of people because they do not fit our idea of “good soil.”

To bring these thoughts full circle to the original question, are there some people who will “never be saved”? I believe that from our human perspective, we do not have the right to say “never.” God’s vision transcends our ability to perceive, and those we might dismiss as “unreachable” may turn out to be “good soil”.

Jesus’ parable of the sower was not absolute. In other words, it was not predeterminative. Jesus was not saying that all people are always in one of the four categories, but rather that every time we are exposed to the Word (and remember, he meant himself) we can be one of the four. Just as Simon Peter and James could not be able to grasp that all nations could receive the gospel and needed Paul to preach the gospel to them afresh (Galatians 1), we sometimes lose sight of Jesus and our growth dries up or is choked out.

People are not in irreversible spiritual state until death. As long as their is breath in their lungs (a breath that comes from God, by the way – Genesis 2), there is hope. As long as they can be exposed to the Word, there is potential for them to be “good soil.” We must never give up the hope that God can do the miraculous thing.

Blessed Nudity?

Of Dust and Kings had an excellent article on the nakedness of Adam and Eve in Genesis 2.

It is worth considering since this passage is the root of so many ideas in Genesis, and it really links into some of the Torah passages that deal with sexual immorality. A good understanding of Genesis 2 will help us better understand the rest.

Babel

In Genesis 11:1-10, the Genesis author provides an explanation for the profusion of languages in the world. Whether you belong to a tradition that interprets this historically or not, you have to admit it is a pretty good explanation.

  1. It emphasizes universal humanity. All nations are united in constructing the tower and the city (vv 1-4) which implies that no type of human being is necessarily or genetically better than any other.
  2. It revolves around universal sin. No one group protests the construction of the tower, which shows us that all mankind is equally sinful.
  3. It illuminates God’s sovereignty over all of us. When God chooses to act, even the united front of all of mankind is not enough to deter Him.

The faith of the Genesis author is quite unique from even Judaism because of the emphasis on universal humanity. At the time, most religions of the region provided for the distinction between slaves and freemen, between genders, between language groups; but this passage lumps all of humanity together. Even if it isn’t meant to be historical, it is certainly meant to be didactic – to teach us that all mankind is the same, equal before God.

This theme of universal humanity resonates throughout Genesis. Cain is still shown mercy (Genesis 4:15) and all nations are blessed through Abraham’s seed (Genesis 18:18). Only sin creates divisions of jealousy and enslavement – as embodied in the story of Joseph.

Right now, I am teaching through the Gospel of Luke, which emphasizes the universal nature of Jesus’ work on earth – that all mankind is called to redemption through Him. It is easy to think this is something that was unique to Jesus, but it is actually present in Genesis. The original religion of the Genesis narrative (whatever you want to call it) was uniquely universal, embracing all of mankind.

Jesus again fulfills the Law and the Prophets, rather than replacing them.