Last week’s killings of Americans in Libya has sparked new reflection on the relationship between religion, politics, and violence. Among many thoughtful responses to the attacks that challenge the mind-numbing cravenness of the Romney campaign’s response, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s remarks have perhaps most clearly defined the intimate relationship between religious faith and peacemaking at the heart of both political diplomacy and world religions:
In times like these, it can be easy to despair that some differences are irreconcilable, some mountains too steep to climb; we will therefore never reach the level of understanding and peacefulness that we seek, and which I believe the great religions of the world call us to pursue. But that’s not what I believe, and I don’t think it’s what you believe either here tonight. Part of what makes our country so special is we keep trying. We keep working.
Yet, though violence on the international stage has now captured our attention, our continued efforts toward peace surely being at home, where in the space of just a bit more than a month, from July 20 to August 24, 33 people were killed and another 99 were wounded in a series of mass shootings—a summer of the gun.
On each deadly occasion, there have been passionate, if woefully brief, conversations about the need to reexamine gun regulation in the United States, particularly with regard to the lapsed ban on assault weapons and laws protecting interstate and, by extension, online ammunition sales.
Perhaps Chris Hedges is right: “We have created and live in a world where violence has become the primary form of communication.” Which leaves us where with regard to a national conversation on violence? Dead in the water?
The Armor of God?
Oh, if only there were a place where people could gather on a regular basis to talk about causes, effects, and solutions for escalating public violence, I thought on my way to church recently. It turned out to be a Sunday when most Catholics and Mainline Protestants were reading, in the Apostle Paul’s “Letter from a Roman Jail to the people of Ephesus,” a paradoxical inversion of the rhetoric of violence as pervasive in the first century as the twenty-first:
Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. … Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. (Ephesians 6:10-17)
Now, of course, other religious traditions have highly developed theologies and philosophies of nonviolence. But, in the West, it is Pauline Christianity which has most deeply shaped both rhetorics of hate and violence and counternarratives of justice and nonviolence. So, understanding what Paul might have been up to and how he has been misread in influential passages such as the one above is particularly important not only for the majority of self-identified Christians who populate the United States, but also for those who must contend with the various Christian ideologies and practices that remain, despite cries of an encroaching anti- or post-Christian secularism, deeply embedded in the culture.
The “armor of God,” too often turned to violent purposes, is comprised of truth, righteousness, and peace. Paul’s “helmet of salvation”—that which protects the center of human thought and reason—and “sword of the Spirit” are not of course acts of aggression, but words. Hence, likewise, the sword of justice wielded in the Revelation of John (Rev. 19:11-15)—the New Testament book most often cited in violent, apocalyptic Christian fantasies—extends from the mouth of the white-robed representation of the risen Christ. He slays the forces of cosmic evil not with physical aggression, but with the same “Word of God” that Paul calls out as the fundamental instrument of Christian faith, righteousness, and peace.
Christians, we seem to forget in all the clucking over the extent to which fried chicken sandwiches do or do not represent ideological preferences, are meant to use words, and to use them in particular for peace. This peace—the “Peace of Christ” in Christian tradition—is the heart of Christian teaching and practice, upon which rests everything from faithful stewardship of creation, to economic justice, to the rejection of violence as a solution for personal, familial, social, or political disagreements.
So why am I not hearing about this much in Sunday sermons?
One reason is that there is a complex theology behind the Gospel message of activist, transformative nonviolence that is easy for a homilist to set aside in favor of God-loves-you! Sunday messages that demand little from believers beyond robust self-esteem and a vague acceptance of God’s expectation that we generally do right by others. Thus, dusted off during Lent and the Easter season, the premodern language of sin, suffering, sacrifice, and salvation, as Marcus Borg has argued and Pew researchers have tracked, are poorly understood by Christians themselves.
A recent New York Times commentary by Colleen Oakley on the religious mullings of disidentified Christian agnostics makes clear that many Christians are hard-pressed to explain what it means to say “Jesus was the son of God,” or “Jesus died for our sins.” Even people who wouldn’t for a minute think of themselves as uninformed biblical literalists interpret these statements with an uncontextualized, theological flatness that would move you right to the top of the class at Liberty University.
This widespread ignorance among Christians—perhaps especially those who think of themselves as more progressive in their beliefs and practices—encourages cooptation by those with an appetite for domination, violence, and exploitation. At the same time, it invites wider misunderstanding and an understandable disdain among non-Christians for what appears as a valorizing of violence in the Christian tradition.
Theology is Complicated
Much of this has had to do with the slow evolution of normative Christian theology, particularly with regard to what is known as atonement theology—the explanation for why Jesus, at once son of God and “true God from true God,” was allowed to die a criminal’s death in a public execution. If Jesus is God, or even if Jesus was merely God’s son, people have asked through the centuries, why would God as Jesus himself or God as the father of Jesus not save himself/him from such a shameful, horrific death? And how, the questioning continues, does Jesus’ death effect the salvation of humankind that Christians claim?
This relationship between Jesus’ death and salvation is at the center of atonement theology and of Christian faith. Perhaps more importantly for those of us wondering how to address violence today, it is at the center of Christian practices of activist nonviolence. Christians are called to nonviolence, that is, not because God asks them to be nice people, but because of why and how the God they worship through Jesus Christ ministered in the world, was executed, and was resurrected.
The “do unto others,” “turn the other cheek,” “love your neighbor as yourself” philosophies that many Christians and non-Christians do identify as among the teachings of Jesus matter only when they are held against the reality of intolerance, injustice, and violence to which Jesus succumbed and over which, in Christian belief, he triumphed as the risen Christ. Absent the social and theological meaning of his violent death, Jesus’ teachings are merely the bumper sticker slogans of a hippy prophet and the resurrection is but the twisted magic trick of a sadomasochistic god.
The bullet-point version, if you will, of classic Christian atonement theories offers up five categories: ransom, satisfaction, substitution, moral influence, and solidarity. The first four go something like this:
• Ransom: Adam and Eve sold their souls to Satan when they ate of the Tree of Knowledge, tainting all of humanity with “original sin.” With Jesus’ death, God reclaimed humanity from the devil, human disobedience having been traded for divine obedience.
• Satisfaction: Jesus’ died on behalf of humankind, whose sinfulness offended the feudal Lord God, creating a debt of honor that humanity could not possibly repay. The death of Jesus is the only thing that could satisfy this debt.
• Substitution: This variation on satisfaction theology has it that humanity was so sinful that God should have wiped out the lot of us, but had made a covenant with Noah after the Great Flood not to do so. Thus, Jesus stands in for sinful humanity, allowing God to avoid violating the covenant while satisfying the debt owed to God.
• Moral Influence: Here, Jesus’ death was not seen primarily as a means to satisfy God, who needs nothing from humanity and whose mind is unchangeable, but to influence moral change in humans through the example of Jesus’ perfect obedience to God, including suffering death at the hands of sinful humans.
From the early church to the Reformation, these theologies of atonement, with various adaptations, made sense to most Christians. The language of “ransom,” “redemption,” “satisfaction” and “obedience” are shot throughout Christian liturgies, regardless of the ideological leanings of particular denominations. You are as likely to hear “Jesus was ransomed for us sinners” from the pulpit of a progressive Lutheran church as you are from that of a conservative evangelical megachurch.
The trouble, however, with all of the classic atonement theories is that they allow that violence is necessary to establish the authority of God and, perhaps more incomprehensibly, God’s love for humanity. Jesus may have been the wrong mark for Roman imperial violence tinged with anti-Semitism, but in these models of atonement, violence itself, injustice, and the abuse of power are presented as not inherently problematic. They’re merely misdirected.
It’s literally taken centuries for most mainstream Christian theologians to move away from what for many Christians and non-Christians alike seem unfathomably cruel, violence-legitimizing interpretations of Jesus’ execution as ransom to Satan, satisfaction or substitution for a debt owed by sinful humanity to God, or as an abusive object lesson in obedience.
The trickle-down from seminary to pulpit may be slow, but the now common theological interpretation of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ moves well away from the idea of divinely sanctioned violence, the echoes of which have long been seen in justifications for aggression against non-Christians, non-Westerners, women, children, and so on. Since at least the late 1950s, liberation theologians like Leonardo Boff, Katie Geneva Cannon, Gustavo Gutiérrez, William Stringfellow, and Dorothee Sölle, have emphasized the solidarity with humans who suffer—the poor; ethnic, racial, and sexual minorities; women; the disabled; the sick and dying—as a result of sinful human cultural, economic, political, and religious systems as essential to any meaningful understanding of why God became human, ministered among those at the margins of society, and was executed at the hands of the powerful.
Atonement theologies that highlight God’s solidarity through Jesus with those who suffer eschew the structures and vocabularies of domination and violence that Jesus encountered in his life and that brought about his death. An enlightened, nonviolent version of classic moral influence theories, theologies of radical Christian solidarity argue that God became human as Jesus to make known, as only a divinity choosing to be present in human form could, the tragic vulgarity of the systematized human impulse to domination, exploitation, and violence.
Against this backdrop, Jesus’ teachings about the “Kingdom of God” available “on earth as it is in heaven” and his resurrection are much more than slick marketing brought home with a jaw-dropping divine parlor trick. They are powerful critiques of the social striving, accumulation of material wealth, religious self-righteousness, and the often violent means used to enforce elite status that corrupt human cultures. The lowly birth, bottom-up ministry, criminal execution, and miraculous resurrection of Jesus Christ are, likewise, for Christians proclamations that salvation is not a passive, ringside, spectator sport viewed from a mystical kingdom in the sky. Christians are called by faith in the here and now to be “all in” with regard to justice, compassion, and nonviolence—though the response to this call has been rare enough that those who have attempted to make it a way of life came to be called “saints” in a specialized way that St. Paul surely never intended.
Or, as the British Christian apologist G. K. Chesterton famously put it, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried.”
Demographically speaking, Christianity may well be on the wane, but self-identified Christians still make up nearly 80% of the U.S. population and Christian theologies and practices are deeply woven into the fabric of American culture. Given the violence that has shown itself in such a pronounced way over a long, hot summer of discontent across the country, it seems reasonable that Christian believers should be called—by Christians themselves and those of other or no faith tradition—to enact the commitments of their faith in the service of nonviolence and practices of justice and compassion that support it.
It’s been a more than a generation since Christian churches—black churches, for the most part—were seen, at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, as centers of nonviolent social engagement. For a remarkable season of dissent and meaningful, if incomplete, social transformation, the Christian gospels and the letters of St. Paul were the very soul of a lived rhetoric of peace and justice. This theology of solidarity and nonviolence did not fail to express its own maddened sense of frustration, disappointment, and outrage, but managed to do this without recourse to the gun-fueled violence, destruction, and death it often faced.
It is this tradition to which Secretary Clinton harkened in her remarks after the Libya attacks:
When Christians are subject to insults to their faith, and that certainly happens, we expect them not to resort to violence. When Hindus or Buddhists are subjected to insults to their faiths, and that also certainly happens, we expect them not to resort to violence. The same goes for all faiths, including Islam.
I can’t speak for other world religions. But, as a Christian and as an American, I can insist that it is time for Christians to begin living actively within this tradition of nonviolent peacemaking again. It is time for Christian churches—all of them—to start speaking and acting out of a zeal for justice and peace more than out of a desire for personal comfort as though that counted for spiritual meaning. It is time, that is, for Christian churches to atone for their own role in the culture of violence within which we all suffer by standing actively against it week upon week upon week in the pulpit and on the street.