Once again we have been lulled out of our state of complacency by an act of horrific violence. The methodically planned and orchestrated mass murder in Aurora, Colorado last week stands as a testimony to the fragility of life and human propensity to do evil. But if we just looked at the statistics–12 dead and 58 wounded would normally never even make it out of local news. In Chicago there were 27 murders in the first 18 days of July. A bombing in the Middle East needs to clear a death toll of 50 before it hits the news in the US. Hundreds need to be massacred in Syria before it rolls across the bottom of your favorite news channel. There is no doubt in anyone’s mind that we live in a violent world. But are all acts of violence evil?
In a recent article titled, The Myth of Redemptive Violence, Shane Claiborne states, “Perhaps it is also time that we declare that violence is evil, everywhere — period.” For Shane and other neo-anabaptists, violence has only one face. It is that of James Holmes, who opens fire on unsuspecting moviegoers, or Timothy McVeigh, “who committed the worst act of domestic terror in U.S. history, [and who] said that he learned to kill in the first Gulf war.” But if there is not such things as redemptive violence and all violence is evil what manner of justice can be applied to Holmes and McVeigh?
Shane’s answer is typically neo-Anabaptist, look to Jesus. Shane writes,
“Even in the face the evil that Jesus endured, he consistently challenged the myth of redemptive violence. He looked into the eyes of those killing him and called on God to forgive them. He loved his enemies and taught his disciples to do the same. He often said things like, “You’ve heard it said ‘an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth’… but I want to say there is a better way” and “You’ve heard it said, ‘love your friends and hate your enemies’ … but I tell you love those who hate you … do not repay evil with evil.'” He challenges the prevailing logic of his day, and of ours. He insisted that if we “pick up the sword we will die by the sword” — and we’ve learned that lesson all too well.”
Aside from tragic exegesis, who can dispute this?
The point of contention lies not in whether we as individuals should act according to the teachings of Jesus, but how does this apply corporately. At the heart of this divide is the question of authority. Does my individual obligation to forgive a murderer negate the obligation of the governmental authority to carry out justice. St. Peter tells us to submit to governmental authority “who are sent by [God] to punish those who do wrong and commend those who do right.” Similarly, St Paul writes, “If you do wrong, be afraid, for [the governmental authority] does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.” If there is no such thing as redemptive violence then both Peter and Paul are misleading the church.
What is misunderstood by the neo-Anaaptist is that all governmental authority is by nature coercive, meaning potentially violent. None of us pay our taxes out of benevolence but rather obligation. At the end of every law is a sword-bearer demanding compliance. If Shane were consistent and truly radical he would demand the end to ALL political authority, not just the big bad military, but police, prison guards, EPA officials, dog catchers, IRS agents, parking meter attendants, social services workers, mayors, etc. The whole structure which allows Shane the ability to fly all over the world and speak about being “holy troublemakers, fools, and tricksters,” is itself fundamentally violent. Would Shane be so quick to fly if his chances of being blown up was dramatically higher? He can thank the violent TSA agents for keeping his airplane bomb free.
Jesus does not do away with earthly political authority. He instead offers a different kind of political authority–one where he is King. Jesus rejected the coercive political authority offered to him by Satan, and the notion that his Kingdom would be established by violence when he tells Peter to put down his sword. Jesus offers citizenship to all who willfully choose to submit to His rule and authority. Through Him we have the power to love our enemies and forgive those who have hurt us.
We who have chosen to submit to the authority and Lordship of Jesus become “Saturday people,” living between the victory over death which is Good Friday and the Resurrection and “making all things new” of Sunday. We participate in and submit to coercive earthly authority because we recognize that, just as God uses sinful, finite, broken people to carry out acts of mercy and love, God also uses sinful, finite, and broken governments to carry out his justice through redemptive violence. To declare the myth of redemptive violence is to declare that earthly political authority is a myth too. Good luck explaining that next time the TSA agent tells you to take off your shoes.