It seems to me that violence is increasing in our society. Whether that perception is accurate, or is faulty and based on sensationalized news coverage, I don’t know. Regardless, the issue has led me to spend a lot of time recently pondering the best way to handle the problem of violence. In particular, I’ve been wrestling with the question, “Is violence warranted if it is used to combat evil?” Some actions perpetrated by some humans against others are so abhorrent and blatantly evil that violent resistance seems to be the only viable answer.
I wondered if Jesus had to face the same problem in his lifetime, and if so, what his response was. At first, I thought that he did not. Rightly or wrongly, I deliberately dismissed his willing submission to an unjust execution, because the violence wasn’t inflicted on others. Then some interesting thoughts occurred to me.
Before Jesus reached age two, thousands (presumably) of infants were slaughtered as King Herod purged the cohort of children that might include the foretold child king. Certainly, the Son of God, if He had infinite foreknowledge, would have known that this would happen. And violence was ingrained in the culture during his life.1 A few decades later, after Jesus’ departure from the earth, his followers began to suffer severe persecution, just as he predicted (John ch. 16). It is illogical to imagine that Jesus was oblivious to the rampant violence and oppression that surrounded him. Nor could he have been oblivious to the violent reaction that his message would have provoked.
Jesus’ message resonated with the downtrodden subjects of the Roman Empire, and when his message spread, persecution followed in its wake, from Jewish clerics, from Roman officials, and from avaricious pagans. Thousands of His followers were killed, many in horrible ways, because their allegiance belonged to the rightful King of the World rather than to power hungry tyrants. Small pockets of believers survived, and the Roman Empire eventually imploded under the weight of its own bureaucracy, corruption, and cruelty.
A counterfeit religion arose, based on a corrupted version of the message. This religion formed an incestuous relationship with the Roman government and later, with the European governments that succeeded the Roman Empire. The message, however, undermined the Roman Catholic monolith and the monarchies that symbiotically existed with the Catholic Church. As time wore on, the Church’s failings grew more evident. The Church, now a bastion of corruption, its power threatened by dissidents, launched a progressive persecution effort which included the Inquisition, witch trials, and military conquests. Eventually, the message took root and birthed a reform movement which decimated the influence of the Roman Catholic Church. Today, the Roman Catholic Church is a pathetic, divided institution, desperately trying to remain relevant in a world that has seen its failure and all but rejected it.
For 500 years, an alternative to Catholic authoritarianism grew. The alternative was Protestantism, which, at first, offered people spiritual freedom and a new perspective on the message of Christ. Yet not content with spiritual liberation, the Protestant movement ruthlessly divided itself into exclusivist, authoritarian sects and has been doing so since its inception. Wherever they spread, the sects allied themselves with the local government in an attempt to enforce their moral views, and they frequently used their political power to persecute dissenters. And yet, this movement which was born as a means of escape from spiritual bondage, became itself, a source of bondage, though it was generally less severe than that which was seen in the Catholic-dominated Middle Ages due to the relative freedom which often blossomed in conjunction with the Reformation.
Today, the message of Christ continues to quietly undermine our religious and political structures. The American version of the Christian religion is slowly but systematically being rejected because ultimately, it has failed to offer the forgiveness, healing, and freedom that the message of Christ has brought wherever it has been preached. Today in the United States, we are witnessing the culmination of the failed Protestant, Evangelical, Pentecostal, and other congregational churches which have almost universally aligned themselves with either the political right or left. And not surprisingly, although the founders of the United States formed what is probably the most freedom-oriented government this world has ever produced, our constitutional federal republic has also become corrupt, bureaucratic, and inept.
Abraham Lincoln, in his annual message to Congress in 1862, called the Union “the last best hope of earth.” Lincoln’s earnest desire was for a unified, free people; yet he relied upon human government to achieve this objective. The cost? Over half a million people died in the American Civil War. As barbaric, inhuman, and evil as slavery was, I have to question whether the costliest war (measured in human life) in American history was the best way to end slavery.
Over 100 years later, Ronald Reagan, a man whom I greatly respect, was elected President for a second term. In his second inaugural address, he borrowed Lincoln’s phrasing when he referred to America as the “last, best hope of man on earth.” Yet even Ronald Reagan, a man of lofty ideals, placed his faith in human governance, stating in the same speech that the American “system [of government] has never failed us.” I wonder if he would bear such strong faith in The System if he were alive today.
And while the kingdoms of men continually crumble, the message lives on. I expect that within the next 50 years, we will see another surge of violence against dissenting followers of Jesus, instigated by a desperate, political-religious alliance which will make a last-ditch effort to retain their authority and control over the masses. I fully expect that Catholic, Protestant, Evangelical, and Progressive Non-Denominational cliques will be largely unified in this effort. I presume and fervently hope that when the dust settles, a new era of freedom will be born which will make the American experiment pale in comparison.
Which brings us back to the question of how we should deal with the evil which is ever present in our society?
In his record of the vision he saw while in exile, the apostle John just might have been given the answer to this question. He received this answer from an innumerable crowd of people “made up of persons from every nation, tribe, people, and language” (Revelation ch. 7, NET Bible) who were either survivors or victims of the great tribulation. The answer: “Salvation belongs to our God.”
Later in his vision, after the world has suffered unthinkable calamities, John hears a voice stating that the members of the kingdom of God had overcome the Accuser “by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony.” They overcame evil itself through Jesus’ sacrificial death and by the power of His message.
Jesus knew that his message would inflame violence. Yet, his response to violence was love; and whenever this example was emulated throughout history, healing and freedom overcame violence.
The systems of man always tend toward violence. The kingdom of God brings peace. The systems of man always seek to increase their control over people. The kingdom of God always liberates people. I am forced to conclude that not only was Jesus’ response to violence effective, his response is the only viable way for humans to stem the tide of societal violence.
Perhaps we should reevaluate our tendency to rely on violence as our go-to response to evil and consider following the advice of the apostle Paul who encouraged us to not be overcome by evil, but to overcome evil with good.
1 Kiger, Patrick. “The World of Ancient Judea.” National Geographic. February 10, 2015. http://channel.nationalgeographic.com/killing-jesus/articles/history-of-jesus-era/