Mark Driscoll’s Rhetoric of Violence

Cain and Abel“Something’s wrong when our pastors condemn our peacemakers to hell.” That’s what I tweeted earlier today when I re-posted an old blog I wrote on Christianity and Violence. Rev. Mark Driscoll’s “Is God a Pacifist?,” has been getting a lot of attention lately. Continue reading

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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).