The world can be a violent place. That much is easy to see. What are Christians called to do about the problem of violence? This question is much more difficult to answer.
In church, I learned very early about terms and themes that, whether coming from Sunday School songs, Sunday morning hymns, or Bible passages, used military sounding language and concepts. We sang “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” (little did I know then which republic that hymn was originally referring to)” and Onward Christian Soldiers.” We memorized verses from Ephesians 6 that talk about putting on armour and preparing to take a stand. I had images of a struggle in my mind long before I had ever thought about what such a struggle might entail.
There is language running throughout the biblical texts that refers to the competing priorities between the people of God and the rule of earthly authority in terms of conflict, whether potential or actual. The fact that humans were created by God for relationships with God and with other humans that is supposed to be peaceful. However, human self-interest has become rebellion, and erupted into a perpetual state of conflict that seems to make peace an impossible ideal. The pervasiveness of sin seems to mandate that some form of violence is a necessary check to keep violence from plunging the world into utter chaos. Didn’t even Jesus kick some butts when he cleared the temple?
The choice for Christians is often presented as being between embracing violence (albeit with grim resignation), or avoiding conflict and embracing peace (otherwise known as doing nothing — perhaps praying, or something deemed similarly ineffective). But is this a faithful articulation of the available options? I think not, and i think the greatest problem lies in the presumed association of conflict with violence.
The failure to distinguish between conflict and violence represents one of the greatest problems facing the North American church. I see the problem playing out in one of two ways. On the one hand, evangelicals who have embraced the use of violence are fatally compromising the ethics of the Kingdom of God. On the other hand, Christians who associate conflict with violence are fleeing genuine opportunities to let their missional voices be heard.
Conflict and violence are not the same thing. Violence is a form of conflict, but conflict is not a form of violence. Violence entails intentional harm, or the intent to cause harm. Conflict may cause pain, but not harm (permanent damage). The Kingdom of God will cause conflict in this world. The choice to make is what the conflict needs to look like (and what it doesn’t), and how to allow for conflict while still embodying the love of Jesus. Can we at least agree that this precludes the killing or harming of others by Christians? That, for me, would be a great start. It might even help us make more sense of Jesus — all of the things he did and said — and help others make sense of the loving actions we say we are taking in Jesus’ name.