Jesus and Retaliatory Violence

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

BY: David P. Gushee


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 the destruction 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 of Jesus Christ. Jesus himself teaches that the kingdom is dawning, that peacemakers are blessed, that his disciples are to turn the other cheek and love 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.

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.

In the week since Tuesday's horrible attacks, we have seen all of these responses, though clearly the latter has predominated. Yet isn't it true that for Christians Jesus Christ alone is Lord? If so, what would we do if his will for our lives didn't seem to match up with the will of our own leaders, or the sentiments of the nation as a whole? Would we even be willing to acknowledge that this conflict of loyalties could possibly occur?

By framing the discussion in this way I have hoped to clarify the difficulty of these issues and move us away from any focus merely on retaliation itself. Any Christian who feels no tensions here, either in terms of biblical interpretation or loyalties, is missing something pretty important. But still, a response is needed.

Choices must be made. What counsel would I offer to those attempting to navigate these treacherous waters?

I would begin by saying that while the whole biblical witness is authoritative, the witness of Jesus must be the final word. Similarly, while loyalty to nation has an appropriate place, our loyalty to Jesus Christ as Lord must also be, on that matter, the final word.

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