Two weeks ago we tackled the violence in the Old Testament, and last Sunday we took on the violence in the New Testament. I don’t know if that makes us brave or foolish, but it I’m pretty sure it leaves us in need of some light relief. Thank goodness we have a retreat planned soon!
The three passages we looked at did not contain any acts of violence, but rather violent language and violent imagery, and they were chosen because they appear to endorse or allow violence, and open up difficult questions about fairly weighty topics. We were never going to resolve holy war and eternal damnation and oppressive institutions in one evening, but I at least wanted to suggest some hopeful readings of some troublesome passages. By the end of the evening it was clearly that I largely succeeded in opening a large can of worms and giving everyone a nasty headache.
I can’t put the worms back in the can, and we’re going to need to come back to at least one of these issues in greater detail, but for now it may be helpful for me to explain why I said I was more comfortable with these passages then I had been a week earlier.
“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.”
Sometimes reading the Bible feels like eating grapes. It’s all going well and then you comes across a sour one that sets your teeth on edge. This verse is definitely a sour grape, as it appears to make the way of Jesus a path that leads to violence, against everything we have come to expect.
However Matthew goes on to say that family members shall be set against one another, and while it is possible for relatives to come to blows, I would be suprised if the Roman authorities permitted Jewish households to keep weapons, which perhaps suggests that the sword is not literal, and that this is more about disagreement than violence.
Then there is the fact that the verse does not say who wields the sword, and we know that persecution was the reality of the early church, all of which makes we wonder if Jesus was prophesying opposition to believers, rather than permitting or promoting violence against nonbelievers.
It’s also important to balance this verse against Jesus’ promise that “peace I give to you…not as the world gives” in John 14:27. Perhaps the truth is that he cannot promise the peace that is an absence of conflict, which is the best the world can do, but he can offer a peace that is the presence of God, which is something far greater.
I don’t feel easy about the idea of persecution, and I would resist any tendency to accept division between Christians and others as inevitable on the basis of this verse, but I do at least feel satisfied that this is not a call to arms, and that it does not deny the ultimate promise of shalom.
“They will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
This passage is one of the most troubling in the whole Bible, as eternal torment is the most extreme violence imaginable, and yet it is preached on street corners with an alarming glee. The notoriety of the hellfire-and-brimstone brigade means it is virtually impossible to be ignorant of this imagery, but it also means that may of us have trained ourselves to walk past it.
The phrase “weeping and gnashing of teeth” appears several times in Matthew but only once in any other gospel, and so some scholars suspect that it reflects the perspective of the gospel writer more than the message of Jesus, that Jesus perhaps used it once and the gospel writer liked it so much he added it as an interpretation to a number of Jesus’ other sayings. I can’t say if that is true or not, but we only have to look at the variety of theologies in the church to see our tendency to take an idea and run with it, so it is at least plausible. We would still have to deal with the fact that Jesus said those words at all, but a single usage wouldn’t justify an entire theology of hell, especially as we know that Jesus was prone to rather colourful language that was never meant to be taken literally, the eye-gouging and hand-chopping of Matthew 18 being a key example.
I also find it interesting that all other instances of this phrase imagine the weeping and gnashing happening in an outer darkness rather than a fiery furnace, and in the Psalms the wicked are said to gnash their teeth at the righteous. That makes me wonder if this is the place where those who reject God are not punished, but rather left to their own devices. It still sounds like a deeply unpleasant fate, but implies less violence on God’s part.
Most significantly for me, there are a number of other passages which suggest that God wishes for all to be saved. 1 Timothy 2:4 and 2 Peter 3:9 both suggest a universalist desire, and although these do not come directly from Jesus and so must be weighed accordingly, they do reflect the expansiveness implied by Jesus’ insistence that he came for whoever would believe. And so I wonder if the fiery furnace and the outer darkness are a hypothetical future that will not be realised. In order for faith to be meaningful it has to be a choice, and so there has to be an alternative, but perhaps in the end no one will choose it.
I want to believe that all will be saved, that (as one theologian whose name I can never remember put it) there is a love so strong that in the end nobody can reject it, and while this verse and others like it trouble that hope, they do not extinguish it.
1 Peter 2:18
“Slaves, in reverent fear of God submit yourselves to your masters, not only to those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh.”
This verse has always made me uncomfortable, because it does nothing to challenge the violent system of slavery, but in fact seems to endorse it by setting out rules as to how to live within it. Paul does marginally better in Ephesians 6:9 by calling masters to show kindness to their slaves, but it still seems woefully inadequate.
This is where context is important. Dating New Testament letters is tricky, but they were likely written in the years leading up to or following on from the First Jewish-Roman War. It was a dangerous time, and rebellion ultimately led to disaster in Jerusalem. Whether the letter writers had learnt from the destruction of the temple or could see catastrophe on the horizon and wished to avoid it, it seems likely that this was a call to bear with difficult circumstances until they could be changed without causing greater harm, rather than a lasting instruction or ringing endorsement of slavery.
The other thing that makes me uncomfortable about this verse is the knowledge that it took a long time before the church challenged the institution of slavery because of passages like this, and the certainty that there are other institutions and ways of thinking that we have similarly failed to disrupt. Perhaps we have forgotten that the Bible contains a trajectory towards liberation and a promise that the Spirit will lead us into all truth, both of which point to there being more for us to learn and change.
Setting this passage in context encourages me that this was not an endorsement of slavery, and while I am left with a sharp discomfort at the idea of all that remains to be challenged, it feels like a positive one as long as it leads me into action.
Bonus: Revelation 19:21
The rest were killed by the sword of the rider on the horse, the sword that came from his mouth; and all the birds were gorged with their flesh.
I was asked on Sunday night about violence in Revelation, and I had to confess that I wasn’t even close to getting my head round that. It may be hypocritical of me to ignore the bits of scripture I struggle with, but it also feels irresponsible of me to introduce passages about which I have nothing constructive to say. However, I have done some reading on Revelation this week, and these are my initial thoughts.
Firstly, the churches are praised for meeting persecution with endurance, suggesting that retaliation would be seen as wrong, and therefore that human violence is to be discouraged. Whatever else Revelation might be, it is not a manifesto for a holy war waged by human hands.
Secondly, while divine violence is portrayed in fairly graphic terms, it is truly redemptive and the endpoint is the shalom of the new heaven and new earth. I would like to think that redemption can happen without violence, and that the battles of Revelation are purely metaphorical and written for dramatic effect, but if evil must be met with violence then this complete victory is the only thing that could justify it.
Revelation is a really dense book, and it relies heavily on symbolism and context that is not apparent to a twenty first century reader, so it would be a significant project to try and get a handle on it, but that glimpse has at least made me a little less frightened.
The passages we have looked at over the past few weeks are ones I have worried over for years, and have largely tried to ignore in the hope that…well I’m not sure what I was hoping for really.
Tackling them head on has been difficult, and there is still work to be done, but I do at least feel confident that my instinctive discomfort with these texts is justified, that readings which glorify violence are not true to the God I know and worship, and that alternative readings are possible.
So that is why, even though I may not be entirely comfortable with every aspect of these passages, I am more comfortable with them than I was a week ago.