“Through violence you may murder a murderer, but you can’t murder murder. Through violence you may murder a liar, but you can’t establish truth. Through violence you may murder a hater, but you can’t murder hate. Darkness cannot put out darkness. Only light can do that.”
~ Martin Luther King, Jr.
There’s no denying it, violence is a daily celebrated and lamented reality in our world. It gets confusing real quick, which “side” to be on. For most people with a moral conscience (not even speaking spiritually), there are “just” types of violence and “unjust” acts of violence. Genocide is evil and must be stopped, therefore, we may believe the use of violence is necessary to overcome violence, and we call this just. We imagine scenarios where we might be called upon to use violence to protect loved ones, or innocents, or ourselves - scenarios where, though not our preference, we wouldn’t question the justification of violence. We have many young men and women courageously and sacrificially fighting wars in other parts of the world, on our behalf, for the causes of peace and freedom and democracy and justice, and we would never want to dishonor them. So we draw a line down the center of a page and place these acts on one side, under the column “Just war” or “Redemptive violence.” And on the other side, under the heading of “Unjust war” or “Unlawful violence” or whatever we deem it, we place the murder of innocents, sexual violence, genocide, violent dictatorships, and torture (though not always in this column), to name a few. We live in complicated times, we say, so we cannot afford to be idealistic.
Though I understand this line of thinking, and indeed, have adopted this line of thinking for many years, my adherence to it the past several years has been tenuous. There is a tense line between idealism and reality. And I wonder if, in getting caught in the crossfires of that line, we lose sight of the third way. The way of the gospel, the good news, that Jesus announced through his entrance, life and death in this world, and then in his resurrection. The way of the gospel that proclaims, not idealistically, but through unleashing a new reality, that “another world is possible.” What is impossible for humankind to accomplish on our own is possible with God. In fact, Jesus assures us (one of his often used phrases, “Most assuredly, I say to you...”), another world exists, even now, and we are invited into it not only in the afterlife, but here and now. His way is not the way of redemptive violence, and I think there is much to support this - much more than I’ll touch on here.
With Jesus’ arrival on the scene of humanity (though he was always present, just not in the flesh), he lays the groundwork for a new kind of kingdom, different than any kingdom humanity has ever known. Jesus plainly stated shortly before his death, “My kingdom is not of this world”, and then went on to say that if it were, his followers would be fighting to protect him from arrest (see John 18:36). Instead, his way of fighting is to go to the cross. In this kingdom, Jesus is the King (not some other god, or all gods sharing the same throne), and all are invited to enter into this realm, leaving behind all other kingdoms, including the culture of whatever empire we came from (e.g., consumerism, imperialism, legalism, materialism, racism, idolatry, etc.), and fully embracing the culture of the new kingdom. When we enter this new kingdom, we receive a new identity: “You should no longer walk as the rest of the Gentiles walk, in the futility of their mind, having their understanding darkened, being alienated from the life of God, because of the ignorance that is in them, beacuse of the blindness of their heart; who, being past feeling, have given themselves over to lewdness, to work all uncleanness with greediness. But you have not so learned Christ ” (Eph. 4:17-20). In this kingdom, Christ alone is our model of perfection, and we learn the ways to walk by entering into intimate, dynamic relationship with him and allowing him to transform our mindsets and our lives.
In this kindgom, Jesus warns that “those who live by the sword will die by the sword” (Matt. 26:52). Jesus irrationally instructs his followers to love their enemies, instead of hating them (see Matt. 5:44), and I don’t know that anyone can make a solid argument for killing enemies in the name of loving them. In this kingdom, we are told that our enemies are not of this world, and therefore, neither are our weapons of war (see Eph. 6: 12; 2 Cor. 10:3-5). In this kingdom, the ways of humility, gentleness, and love are demonstrated in power through the King himself establishing his kingdom through voluntarily shedding his own blood, instead of shedding the blood of others or dominating through force. This is scandalous and foreign to us. And taking it a step further, those in his kingdom are called upon to have the same mindset as the King (see Phil. 2:5-8).
Instead of using force and violence to protect the innocent (or our ideals, freedoms, lives, etc.) and fight evil in the world, we are called upon to choose another way, a higher way. Again and again, in the teachings of Jesus and the early church leaders, we are called upon to live peacefully with others, to “turn the other cheek” when someone strikes us, to not defend ourselves when someone speaks wrongfully against us, to bless those who curse us. We are encouraged not just to endure suffering and trials patiently, but to expect them. A close reading of the teachings of the New Testament show us that it is radical love, not violence, that quietly, progressively takes the world by force and overthrows the strongholds of evil. This way of love is often not the quickest, most expedient, most practical way; but in the long run, it is the only effective way. After all, Jesus is not building a quick-fix kingdom; He’s building a kingdom that will last. When everything else has been destroyed, it will be the only thing still standing (see Heb. 12:28).