Articles, Essays & Sermons

We’ve a story to tell to the nations

The nonviolent war cry of the people of God

by Ken Sehested

“[V]iolence is the behavior of someone incapable of imagining other solutions to the problem at hand.”
—Vicenç Fisas

            New Testament scholar and activist Walker Wink provides one of the most helpful frameworks for understanding the addictive appeal of violence as a way to right wrongs. The “Myth of Redemptive Violence,” he wrote, “not Judaism or Christianity or Islam, is the dominant religion in our society today.” [1]

            “Redemptive violence” is a myth not because it is fictive but because it is a compelling animator of human longing and labor for the commonweal. Except in rare cases of pathological personality disorder, the impulse to vengeance is rooted in the desire for moral coherence, i.e., the desire to make things right. The perception that one has been harmed may be accurate or delusional; but the felt experience is the same.

            Then, somewhere along the way, the desire to make things right escalates in both intensity and scale when fear enters the equation to exaggerate the needed response to injustice. Eventually you have the ingredients for “holy” war, carried out to protect personal reputation, or dignity of the tribe, race, or nation, and ultimately the honor of God.

            There is no effective means of reasoning against the assertion that God’s future is at stake. The justification of violence is never less than the earnest desire to make history come out right. The claim that “God told me to” submits to no cross-examination. This is when religion turns toxic. It is understandable that some, especially in the modern age, wish to sideline, if not eliminate, religiously-informed appeals to peacemaking. But as Soviet despot Joseph Stalin demonstrated, appeal to utopian aspirations (e.g., “scientific materialism”) need not involve god-talk.

            In Laying Down the Sword: Why Christians Cannot Ignore the Bible’s Violence Verses, religious historian Philip Jenkins points out that contrary to much popular opinion, the Bible has far more directives urging violence than the Qur’an, some actually genocidal and coming directly from the mouth of God. [2] This is an important question for people of faith to acknowledge and wrestle with, and I know of no quick or satisfactory conclusion. I love the sharp-witted comment by Rev. William Sloan Coffin—“The Bible is a mirror with true reflection. If an ass looks in, don’t expect an apostle to look back”—but it’s not an adequate response to the scandal of what appears, at least in a flat reading, of divinely-directed violence.

            My purpose here is different, and it is this: The most overlooked fact in the so-called “holy war” tradition in Hebrew (and some in the newer Christian) scripture is the repeated insistence that victory is not secured by superior firepower or any form of human ingenuity. [3] “Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord,” wrote the Prophet Zechariah. [4] No nation’s war-fighting doctrines reference the story of Gideon (Judges 7), who was instructed by God to radically reduce his fighting force; or the tactical merits of boy-warrior David’s slingshot against the giant Goliath’s lance and spear (1 Samuel 17); or the battle for Jericho, subdued by rams’ horns and liturgical procession (Joshua 6). So it was from the beginning of the Hebrews’ escape from Pharaoh’s army, when God’s military strategy was his instruction to Moses to fear not, stand firm, lift your staff to part the sea (Exodus 14:13-14).

            It is this latter text that begins a lengthy, and largely ignored, tradition in scripture instructing that in the face of threat, the friends of God are to “be still (be quiet, stand firm)” and “fear not” to “see the deliverance that the Lord will accomplish for you.”

            The “be still/fear not” refrain is, in the wonderful words of Lois Barrett, the nonviolent war cry of the people of God in the midst of turmoil and threat. [5] It is granted not in settings of leisurely pastoral bliss but “in the presence of my enemies” (Psalm 23). “Be still and know that I am God” implores the psalmist on the Beloved’s behalf (46:10), precisely when the mountains tremble, for it is within such turbulent crises that the assurance of the bow’s break, the spear’s shatter, and war’s cease is foretold.

            In the midst of raging storm, earthquake and fire Elijah is assured by a “still small voice” (1 Kings 19:11-13). When enemies surround, “stand still and see the thing the Lord is about to do” (1 Samuel 12:16).

            Such stillness breaks out in the child’s fearless countenance though positioned between wolf and lamb, cow and bear, atop the viper’s very den (Isaiah 11). “[Q]uietness and trust shall be your strength” (Isaiah 30:15). “And the effect of righteousness will be peace; and the result, quietness and trust” in “quiet resting places” (Isaiah 32:17-18). “Be silent” is the command from God’s rousing (Zechariah 2:13), “keep silence” before God (Habakkuk 2:20).

      In sharp contrast, the prophets castigated the Israel’s national defense strategies.

      • “Woe to those who go down to Egypt for help and rely on horses, who trust in chariots because they are many, but do not look to the Holy One of Israel" (Isaiah 31:1).

      • "Some boast of chariots, and some of horses; but we boast of the name of the Lord our God" (Psalm 20:7).

      • "A King is not saved by his great army; a warrior is not delivered by his great strength. The war horse is a vain hope for victory, and by its great might it cannot save" (Psalm 33:16-17).

      • "But I will have pity on the house of Judah, and I will deliver them by the Lord their God; I will not deliver them by bow, nor by sword, not by war, not by horses, not by horsemen" (Hosea 1:7).

            Jesus repeatedly assured his disciples to “fear not,” even though “In the world you will have tribulation. But take courage [be of good cheer]; I have conquered the world” (John 16:33).  Such tribulation, when faced with all prior named virtues in the Beatitudes, qualifies the meek rather than the mighty for blessing (Matthew 5:10-11).

            Seems like every time angels appear their first words are “fear not” (Luke 1:13, 30; Matthew 1:20; Luke 2:10, Matthew 28:5), because the circumstances surrounding their arrival are treacherous. When the storm threatened and the disciples wailed, Jesus spoke to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” (Mark 4:39). “Rejoice in hope,” Paul told the church in Rome, “be patient [still] in tribulation” (12:12). The Spirit of God “does not make us timid [fearful], but gives us power, love and self-discipline” (2 Timothy 1:7), and “perfect love drives out fear” (1 John 4:18).

            The image of faith as a kind of fight is commonplace in the Newer Testament, nowhere more vividly than in Paul’s letter to the church at Ephesus, where he urged that little flock of Jesus to “put on the whole armor of God,” enumerating each of the various essential pieces of battle gear (6:10-17).

            During Jesus’ arrest, when Peter grabbed a sword to resist, Jesus rebuked him saying, “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword. Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Abba, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels (Matthew 26:52-53).” In John’s fantastical vision, when in heaven all are gathered around the sacred scroll, sealed seven times over, the narrator weeps that none are worthy to break the seals. But then one of the elders cries out, “Do not weep. See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll. . . . Then I saw” the narrator continued, “a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered” (Revelation 5:1-6). Without explanation, the Lion had transformed into a Lamb.

            Seen this way, our Eucharistic practice is a form of fear-displacement therapy. Followers of the Way discover their power in the ability to relinquish life, rather than take it, in service to the Beloved Community.

            In the days following the horrific terrorist attacks on 11 September 2001, John Paul Lederach began asking himself (as many of us did) “how do people reach this level of anger, hatred and frustration?” He reflected on the “generational anger” that builds over time, generated by the history of Western powers’ political machinations in the Middle East (of which most know preciously little). Then he prophetically wrote:

            “They [terrorists] expect the lashing out of the giant against the weak, the many against the few. This will reinforce their capacity to perpetrate the myth they carefully seek to sustain: That they are under threat, fighting an irrational and mad system that had never taken them seriously and wishes to destroy them and their people.”

            Then he concluded, “What we need to destroy is their myth, not their people.” [6]

            The novelist and social commentator David James Duncan says it better than anyone on this point. “The only way I know to pluck from the hearts of enemies their desire to destroy us is to remove from their lives the sense that, for their own physical and spiritual survival, they must.” [7]

            Some may think it reckless or inappropriate to speak about a “nonviolent war cry” or other use of militant language, out of fear that the very use of such imagery will compromise the substance of nonviolent commitment. I disagree.

            Until we acknowledge that the life of faith is a struggle—that peace, like war, must be waged—our feet will forever be trapped in withdrawal and passivity in the face of conflict. To be sure, we have committed to limits on our struggle. We use different weapons. And the levels of our struggle are always multiple—Gandhi said his struggle was on three fronts: with the British, with his own people, and with himself.

            For those convinced that Jesus severed the root of this spiral of violence in his words, his life, his death and resurrection, our greatest need is a more compelling narrative replicated in our words and lives. Remember Paul’s important note that the struggle is “not against flesh and blood” but against “the spiritual forces of evil” (Ephesians 6:12). The fight is not to dehumanize and thus claim justification for the destruction of our enemies but to challenge and overcome the “myth” that is itself the source of carnage.

            This makes me think of that old missionary hymn, “We’ve a Story to Tell to the Nations.” Conflicting stories are what drive personal and communal violation. Odd as it sounds, the nonviolent war cry of the people of God inaugurates our proper evangelistic vocation, to incarnate a good news story, that destruction is not fated, that dystopian futures are not destined, that another world is not only possible but is actively moving in our direction.

            So our work is to figure out what that story looks like, sounds like, lives like. How does it mobilize and animate? What implications does it have for the ordering of our communities? What are the possible economic configurations and political arrangements of this story? What indigenous cultural traditions can be leveraged? What social capital can be wedded to structural policies which together go about the work of restoring right-relatedness, both within the human community and with creation itself?

            Furthermore, what is the civic significance of forgiveness? What are the material results of repentance? What is the judicial shape of restitution and reparation? Can we be revived to what the book of James (1:27) indicates is the nature of pure religion—attending the needs of widows and orphans, of all who lack access to the table of bounty and dignity, thereby reflecting God’s preferential option for the poor?

            Can we image such a daring story, one that “shall conquer evil and shatter the spear and sword . . . and Christ’s great kingdom shall come on earth, the kingdom of love and light”? [8]

            Vicit agnus noster, eum sequamur. The lamb has conquered; let us follow.

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[1] “The Myth of Redemptive Violence

[2] Take this short quiz to test your own familiarity of violence text in the Bible and in the Qur’an, “30 Most Violent Exhortations from the Bible and the Quran,” Valerie Tarico, AlterNet.

[3] Millard Lind's Yahweh Is A Warrior: The Theology of Warfare in Ancient Israel is a rigorous study of this question.

[4] Zechariah 4:6. For a few of the texts that explicitly rule out military power as the source of national strength, see Psalm 20:7; Psalm 33:16-17; Isaiah 31:1; Hosea 1:7.

[5] See Lois Barrett, The Way God Fights: War and Peace in the Old Testament (Harrisonburg, VA: Herald Press), 1987.

[6] “The Challenge of Terror: A Traveling Essay,” The Center for Justice & Peacebuilding

[7] “When Compassion Becomes Dissent: On the post-9/11 struggle to teach creative writing while awaiting the further annihilation of Iraq,” Orion Magazine, Jan-Feb 2003

[8] H. Ernest Nichol composed this 19th century hymn.