Christianity and Violence

The United States faces a unique problem: unparalleled violence among developed nations. While American Christians widely repudiate violence, the slaughter of innocents, and the abuse of power, many also assert the inviolability of individual rights involving potentially violent acts—especially regarding restrictions on assault weapons. No small part of the varied Christian responses to violence stems from cultural location. Traditions (even, or perhaps especially, political ones) shape Christian self-understanding.

This raises a fundamental question: How can Christians initiate change in the American culture of violence when so many Christians are unable to agree on the nature of the problem?

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Consider Jacques Ellul’s provocative assessment of American history in Violence: Reflections from a Christian Perspective (New York, 1969):

“Americans have it that the Civil War was an accidental interruption of what was practically an idyllic state of affairs; actually, that war simply tore the veil off reality for a moment . . . Tocqueville saw the facts clearly. He indicated all the factors showing that the United States was in a situation of violence which, he predicted, would worsen. As a matter of fact, a tradition of violence is discernible throughout United States history—perhaps because it is a young nation, perhaps because it plunged into the industrial age without preparation. (This tradition, incidentally, explains the popularity of violence in the movies.) And it seems that the harsher and more violent the reality was, the more forcefully were moralism and idealism affirmed” (88–89).

Ellul traces the American culture of violence not to slavery or the civil war, but “the slow, sanctimonious extermination” of Native Americans, the competitive methods of capitalism, and the annexation of land in Texas and California. “All this,” he explains, “and much besides show that the United States has always been ridden by violence, though the truth was covered over by a legalistic ideology and a moralistic Christianity” (88).

Violence permeates the fabric of American culture. The problem, however, as recent events have shown, is not a matter of international war or the abuse of governmental authority alone. Many Christians, far from denouncing the culture of violence, willingly embrace the principle of “an eye for an eye” as the solution to the problem. Instead of repudiating the culture of violence, we often assert an illusory notion of individualism and justice based on the primacy of the self.

I am not suggesting that there is no place for national defense, local government, or individual participation in the political sphere. American sports involve violence, too, and I remain uncertain how to assess that aspect of the larger problem. The task, in short, is immense.

Let’s be clear: Violence may sometimes be deemed necessary, but it is certainly not a Christian value. Violence stands outside of the freedom found in Jesus Christ—the one who bore the violence of the world for our redemption. Violence is marked by fear, doubt, and unbelief. Violence reminds us of the brokenness of our world. Violence demands repentance.

Christians must challenge the churches to reexamine pervasive cultural assumptions. The causes of violence in American society are undoubtedly complex, and it is tempting to assert that there is no viable solution to the problem. Christians will continue to disagree on the best political methods to curb violence in our nation, but the ability to see the face of violence in our nation requires courage acquired “through faith and hope in Jesus Christ” (Ellul, 91).

American Christians must find the courage to reject the instinctual appeal to violence. Violence belongs to the Fall, to the curse of sin, and to a world separated from God. While perfect peace belongs to the eschaton, Christians who follow in the path of Christ must discover—through fellowship and proclamation—the promised hope found in Christ.

The culture of violence in America will not change in a moment, a decade, or even, perhaps, in a lifetime. Christians are called to lead their communities in acts of reconciliation, even at the expense of self-interest and the risk of individual well-being. Those who profess to follow the way of Jesus Christ ought to renounce the temptation to take up any other means to solve those ills that face us, and determine instead to know only love in word and deed until “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 anymore” (Isa. 2:4).

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17 thoughts on “Christianity and Violence

  1. This is where I hope to see the discussion among Christians go. We have as a whole a very undeveloped understanding of what we mean by “Christian values,” which I think tends to be (at least discursively) at the center of Christian self-understanding. When I hear that it tends to lean heavily upon behavior or it serves as a way to define Christians from others. “Christians don’t do that or watch that.” Or it is too general: “Christians are for life,” etc.

    I would love to see more interrogation (it doesn’t have to be complex) of the kind you model here: Asking ourselves hard questions about how being a Christian actually informs and transforms our lives, considering what we might be a party to (individually and corporately, historically and currently) and repenting if necessary, and above all, seeking the Holy Spirit’s strength to act even when it grates against the culture we have helped to create.

    • Yes. I believe we must have serious conversation about these ideas. The current model in practice involves Christians arguing about parties and political principles, with little real conversation about the beliefs and practices that should ground such debates. Thanks for commenting!

  2. I really appreciate the way that this was written. I touches on some of the most difficult, most disturbing aspects of our own values and history (far more so than debates about gun laws, or lack there of), but does so while avoiding the sort of rhetoric that tends to cause people to check and become defensive. It refocuses the discussion away from guns and to the values that lie behind all of that.

    This is especially true of one of your primary assertions: “Violence may sometimes be deemed necessary, but it is certainly not a Christian value.”

    I agree with Amy Hughes above. Productive discussion about this problem would be much easier if it was approached like this.

  3. Thanks for the post, Jeff. Your blog came up yesterday in a discussion I had with Melissa after watching Zero Dark Thirty. We were debating whether or not it was ever justified to use torture. Your line about Christians engaging in acts of reconciliation even at the expense of self-interest and at the risk of personal well being came to mind.
    I really struggled coming to grips with violence in our American society after Newtown. The victims were very similar in age to my oldest daughter, and the most ‘prominent’ victim (Emilie Parker) looked a lot like her. Like most Americans, I felt like something needed to be done or something needed to change.
    Your post rang true and helps explain why we live in such a violent society. I hope that we as Christians embrace the challenge of engaging in acts of reconciliation and discussing ways of reducing violence.

    • Thanks for the comment, Mark. I’m glad the post was helpful in thinking through these issues. I’m hopeful that Christians can have a more constructive conversation about the moral stances we hold. Beginning there will help us to make clearer decisions about political mechanisms–including the use of torture. Thanks again!

  4. Hello,
    Just curious but I wonder if you have read “An Ethic for Christians and other Aliens in a Strange Land” by William Stringfellow. I have just recently rediscovered it sitting on my shelf where its been for ten years. He says that past justifiable involvements of Christians in violence (like Bonhoeffer) “…points to what is deficient in traditional pacifism or in any other attempt to ideologize the gospel, namely, the attempt to ascertain idealistically whether a projected action approximates the will of God. The stereotype pacifist answer to the issue of Christian participation in violence is inherently misleading and in error because an inappropriate and indeed, impossible question is being asked. It is a query which seeks assurance beforehand of how God will judge a decision or an act…no decision, no deed, either violent or nonviolent, is capable of being confidently rationalized as a second-guessing of God’s will.”
    It does seem to me that he is on to something here. He makes me think of “The Patriot” by Mel Gibson where his character is strongly resisting being drawn into planned violence, knowing that it always breeds more evil than is planned, yet needing to decide whether sitting back in the face of present evil as the alternative? Any thoughts?
    Thanks, Bryan

    • Thanks for the comment. I haven’t read it. I wonder, however, if there isn’t already a judgment being made about ‘past justifable involvements.’ I also wonder if it is true that no future act of love can be ‘judged’ legitimate (even if only within the confines of our finite knowledge). At the least, my post aims to question the commonplace belief that violence as response to violence is a properly Christian belief or instead something we use to justify our perceived need for violence in particular circumstances. Thanks again!

      • Hi and thanks for your answer. I was hoping you might be familiar with him. It is hard to get him in context by just this quote I gave you. I think he would probably agree with you. But he is not equating an non-violent act as necessarily love, because the loving thing may imply violence as in Bonhoeffer. Stringfellow would probably say amen to your implication that a Christian response of violence should not be “commonplace” or a “given” and I think that is the motivation of his agnosticism regarding the pre-justification of violence. I hear you about what may be a hidden problem of post-justification but I think he was “agnostic” about that also.
        I think the danger today in America is that we are not even close to him and can too easily justify violence. Easy justification definitely means that “Houston…we have a problem.”
        Thanks again,
        Bryan

  5. Pingback: Mark Driscoll’s Rhetoric of Violence | Jeffrey W. Barbeau

  6. “Violence may sometimes be deemed necessary, but it is certainly not a Christian value.” I hear ya, Jeff. I get what you’re saying. But maybe your bolded conclusion is an erroneous ideal as much as it is righteously convincing? What if the real historical problem of systemic violence in America is not merely rooted in the theological fundamentalism and literalism of “an eye for an eye”, but is , instead, rooted within the very fibers of our being, that which goes much deeper than the fabric of a narcissistic nation? And what if violence is, therefore, a very necessary part of its eradication? Not a violence turned loose upon life; but a violence turned loose upon that which is “already dead in Christ”, viz. us Christians? The violence I’m talking about is not some misguided self-flogging found within pietistic practices of self-righteousness. I’m talking about the cruciform life—and its inherent violence. In other words, what if we as Christians are called by God to absorb the violence inherent within our brother’s “old nature”, and transform it as Christ did, and so many martyrs have done? And what if opposing violence through reasoning and intellectual pinpointing, though it may feel good, is about as productive as masturbation—because it fails to engage another in meaningful vulnerability; the kind of vulnerability that can open a person up to the violence within the very fibers of another person, and the resurrection life of Christ within the very soul of the other? I’m thinking here that Jesus promised his followers, “greater things will ye do”! Simply put, you can’t argue (reason) with the Devil inside any man or woman no matter how philosophically astute or profoundly persuasive the rational might be; but you can provoke a devil with Good News until it beats you to death—and then meets resurrection life through the process. Isn’t that how the Apostle Paul was converted from one who rendered violence to a saint who took the violence of others upon himself? Not a “Victim” but a victor through the violence of a victorious cross. We can’t end the violence by educating it away, but we can convert it for good if we’re willing to die, lay down our life. BTW: I’m still deciding if I want to be a Christian cause I think it’s gonna kinda hurt some.

    • Danny,
      Thanks for the comment! I think that much of the vision you refer to, especially the transformation of violence through martyrdom, etc, is quite compatible with some varieties of Christian pacifism. Pacifism, as I undrstand it, certainly does result in considerable individual and community costs–the price of such witness is high. However, until we address the cultural assumption that violence is necessary and inevitable because we live in a fallen world, we will go on propagating violence in the name of God and avoid the difficult and creative work necessary to develop other practices of faith. Thanks again!

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