2016-06-30
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.

But this does not lead to a counsel of passivity or nonresistance in the face of evil. I believe that Jesus neither taught nor practiced nonresistance to evil. This is a historic misunderstanding. Yet neither did he seek to defeat the world's evils through the world's own strategies.

Instead, he came preaching the kingdom of God and inaugurated it in his very person. He did this not only through his saving death and his resurrection, but also through his moral teachings and practices. Christians are those who not only receive the eternal benefits of his atoning death, but also joyfully participate in advancing God's reign--the deliverance of the world from every kind of evil, including violence and murder, a deliverance initiated by Jesus at his first coming and to be consummated by the same Jesus when he comes again.

When Jesus taught enemy-love and cheek-turning and going the second mile, he did not teach his followers to allow evil to reign. He himself resisted evil and the evil one every day. But he did so, as people like Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. noticed, by practicing and teaching the overcoming of evil through courageous, creative, and transformative resistance--through a kind of resistance that refuses to settle for evil as the means to resist evil.

Matthew 5:39 should be translated: "Do not resist by evil means"--but do resist. It makes a good summary of Jesus' approach. It's how evil is defeated and the reign of God advanced.

Practically, in this situation, the Christian has various responsibilities before God, such as the work of praying for the enemy and acting on behalf of the victimized. We also have a particular witness to government. I think it should include the following exhortations:

  • Take appropriate steps to ensure the basic security of innocent civilians in their daily lives.
  • Discover who exactly was responsible for this terrorist attack and see to it that they are held fully accountable for their deeds and their network is destroyed so that it can never harm innocent people again.
  • Exercise sober restraint in whatever use of violence may be necessary to accomplish these goals with special attention to avoiding civilian casualties.
  • Open improved lines of communication to the Middle East in order eventually to understand the grievances that some hold against us and address legitimate concerns in appropriate ways, including acknowledging any wrongs done on our side.
  • Work to strengthen ties to Middle Eastern states in order eventually to increase mutual understanding and cultural contacts.
  • Discourage any form of racial/ethnic stereotyping or hatred of Arabs or Arab-Americans.
  • Reaffirm the cardinal values of democracy, human rights, and religious liberty both in our own response and in the interactions we undertake with other nations.
  • Double-check our own judgment as to how to proceed through conversation with friends, allies, and representatives of the international community.
  • Maintain a dignified tone that reflects the best of our national moral heritage.
  • Perhaps the very gravity of the evil inflicted on so many innocent people last Tuesday can shock us out of the too-comfortable categories we usually apply to issues of war and violence.

    Suffering so deeply ourselves, perhaps we can contemplate the effects of imposing harm and suffering ourselves, and ask what a resistance beyond retaliation would look like.

    If mere retaliation were a sufficient response to perceived or actual wrongs, then the daily headlines coming out of, say, the Middle East, would look a lot different than they have for the last 50 years or so. The cycle of "An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth" leaves a lot of people without eyes and teeth, and the initial problem no closer to solution.

    Retaliation is a deeply instinctive reaction to being wronged. But mere retaliation, even when justifiable as it would be here, is not a strategy for an enduring, secure, and just peace. Jesus--God in the flesh, after all, the one who knows better than anyone God's design for us--shows us a better way.

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