Jesus and Retaliatory Violence

How do Christians tread a path that honors Jesus' message?

It was totally predictable that the horrific terrorist attacks on our nation last week would elicit angry calls for punishment, retaliation, even a crusade against evil. It was also totally predictable that, while many Christians unequivocally joined in such calls, others hesitated because of their understanding of the life and teachings of Jesus Christ. The same pattern of response has existed for centuries. The difficulty is rooted in two primary sources: the complex nature of the biblical witness, and the question of where the loyalty of the Christian truly lies.

To the biblical issue first. It would have been easier if the Bible's stance on violence were clear cut. But the Scriptures offer us instead a mix of materials. The Old Testament, or Hebrew Bible, ranges from the idyllic peace of the Garden of Eden, to the holy-war motif in the book of Joshua, to the wars of self-defense in the later historical books, to the bitter lamentations over thedestruction of Jerusalem in the prophets, and then to the eschatological hope for and promise of peace in the last days.

The New Testament tells us that those last days have come in the person ofJesus Christ. Jesus himself teaches that the kingdom is dawning, that peacemakers are blessed, that his disciples are to turn the other cheek andlove their enemies. He rejected revolutionary Jewish nationalism and related humanely even to the Roman occupiers, whose leader ended up crucifying him without Jesus offering any physical resistance. The rest of the New Testament tells the story of a persecuted yet courageous band of evangelists who were always prepared to suffer but never to inflict suffering for the cause of Jesus Christ. The blood of those martyrs changed the world.

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No thoughtful Christian finds it easy to work out a synthesis of this diverse material.

The loyalty issue is just as difficult to disentangle. When Jesus was asked whether it was right to pay taxes to Caesar (that is, Rome), his response was cryptic. "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's" (Mt 22:21). Christians have sensed a tension between loyalty to nation and loyalty to God ever since.

So what does belong to the Caesars of our own time, and what belongs to God alone? A range of answers is possible, including a stark subordination of national loyalty, a stark subordination of religious loyalty, or some effort to accommodate or even marry the two.

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