The Peace-makers: War, violence, and the response of the Church Fathers. Part 4

This will be the final installment of this series, and indeed the shortest post of them all. If you have stuck with me thus far, thank you! If not, stop reading now, and go to part 1, then read part 2, and part 3 before going any further.

Today we will end with some tangible thoughts on how I think these ideas and facts intersect with modern Western Christianity. I will offer some critique for the modern church that, though it might sound a bit harsh, is said out of a love for her and her mission in this world.

The Slow Fade Into Worldliness

In the pre-Constantinian age, the voices of Tertullian, Origen, Cyprian, Justin, and Hippolytus spoke in unison, condemning the use of violence and military service in the kingdom of God. The idea of taking up the sword to defend the church was never in the minds of the early Christians, for they knew that the most potent weapon they wielded against the empire was their peace, their pacifism. It was not until the time of Constantine that the lines between the empires of earth and the kingdom of God began to blur. It was when Christians inherited the power to command earthly armies that Christians began to meld these two worlds together, and rather quickly, the cross itself, the antithesis of the sword, began to be emblazoned on weapons of war, shields, and helmets. As Christianity merged with Emperor Constantine’s rule and began to receive the benefits of power, it also began to shift its views of the use of violence. Eventually, pure pacifism would give way to a ‘just war’ mindset. The change a slow and gradual one, but once the cross and the sword had been united, Christians would not be able to regain the courage to separate them again until this very day.

Critiquing the Modern Church

It seems that most of the world has always understood that Jesus taught non-violence; most, that is, except for Christians. For many in the modern evangelical church, the answer to violence in the world today is more violence, and the gun has replaced the sword. The now infamous words of the President of the National Rifle Association, Wayne LaPierre, (a self-proclaimed Christian) are forever seared in our collective minds: “The only thing that can stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun!”. And the majority of white Evangelical Christians in American seem to agree with this sentiment.

In American Christianity, the firearm seems to have risen to occupy an almost sacred position. The government-sanctioned right to “keep and bear arms,” as the 2ndamendment words it, “shall not be infringed,” and in some Christian circles, these government-given rights are spoken of as “God-given” rights. This divine infused language is not necessarily absent from the very words of the American constitution itself, which argues the “self-evident” truth that all people are “endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights,” such as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. These ideas presumably necessitate the use of personal and deadly force against all those who would threaten those ideals. Like Rome, American ideals are upheld by the sword; by violence. And this scenario has once again put the church in a precarious situation.

Many American Evangelicals are so immersed in the American philosophy of life that it never occurs to them to seek the counsel of the church fathers or the writings of the Apostles to ascertain biblical instruction as to what Jesus Christ reveals about Gods will for his children. Much like in Tertullian’s day, some still point to the Old Testament violence as evidence that the people of God are free to use violence to purge the earth of those who would threaten them and our land. “If you don’t agree with what Jesus believes about violence,” they might say, “you can always use the Bible to try and find a loophole;  you could point out the violence of 1 Samuel 15:3 to ‘Go and attack them with the sword and destroy all they have. Do not spare them, but kill men, women, children, and babies;’” And as Tertullian pointed out, that it is what some Christians will do. However, when we use the bible to silence Jesus in this way, we are using an account of the actions of an unfinished people (Israel) to silence the complete revelation of God in the world: Jesus. This is the same Jesus who said to Pilate, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my servants would be fighting” (Jn 18:36).

The readiness of the modern church to prepare for war, to use violence, and to join in with the military operations of earthly empires is particularly troubling in light of the faith of the early church. The insinuation is that the martyr has no place in the 21st-century church; that the martyr is simply a fool without a gun whose life has been cut short for lack of firearms training. There seems to be no place in the modern church for the one who utterly refuses to kill, the one who believes that there are things far worse than death (like destroying the imago Dei in another). But if there is no “blood of the martyrs,” as Tertullian would call it, then how will the world see the power of the cross to truly save?

The Christian, according to Tertullian, is the “son of peace.” She/he is the one who has traded the ways of the world for the ways of Christ, trading the sword for the cross.  If the kingdom of God is to be present in the world, the bride of Christ must once again discover the cross’s power, for it is the power of God unto salvation.

Thus, as the Christian and Latin poet, Commodianus, declared, the Christian must “make thyself a peace-maker to all men.”[1]

 

[1]C. John Cadoux. Early Christian Attitude to War, (Kindle Locations 1460-1469).

The Peace-makers: War, violence, and the response of the Church Fathers. Part 2

READ PART 1: HERE

This week we are diving into the theological arguments of the Early Church Fathers regarding the use of weapons (the sword in their day, the gun in ours) and their use (or lack thereof) to the Christian in responding to evil.

Tertullian’s Argument from Gethsemane

The theological argument for the pacifism of the church fathers comes directly from scriptures, and Tertullian made much of the interactions of Christ with weapons of war in his day.

Matthew 26 records an incident in the garden of Gethsemane when Jesus and his disciples were directly confronted by men with swords (1st-century form of law enforcement) seeking to arrest Jesus and have him tried on trumped-up charges. One of the disciples, in an attempt to defend Jesus using violence, draws his sword, and according to Luke, striking a soldier with it. Instead of commendation from Jesus for standing his ground in defense, he receives a rebuke and a command to put the sword away.

So why did Jesus tell them to bring a sword if they weren’t allowed to use it? Luke (22:36-38) informs the readers that the reason he carried the sword was to fulfill the prophecy of Isaiah 53:12 (that the Messiah would be seen as a violent insurrectionist), and so that he could teach them that the kingdom of God would not be established through the sword, but rather through the cross.

Tertullian, referring to this episode in Gethsemane, says: “But how will a Christian man war, nay, how will he serve even in peace, without a sword, which the Lord has taken away? For albeit soldiers had come unto John and had received the formula of their rule; albeit, likewise, a centurion had believed; still the Lord afterward, in disarming Peter, unbelted every soldier.”[1]

Skeptics will point out that chapter nineteen of Tertullian’s “On Idolatry” pertains explicitly to military service. However, Tertullian’s argument is not merely that a Christian cannot serve in the military because it is a rival master (although that argument is made there as well), but rather that a Christian cannot serve in the military because the Christian cannot bear the sword. The problem is not merely idolatry, but the use of violence against the image of God in others.

In Tertullian’s day, as well as our own, some choose to look past Christ to the Old Testament in order to justify the use of violence for modern Christians. We can see from his writings that some were arguing that, since Moses carried a rod, and since Aaron carried a buckle (to secure a weapon to his side), and since Joshua led a warring army, then it follows that the Christian might find it acceptable as one of Gods people to also engage in military service.[2]

However, Tertullian will not allow Jesus to be silenced by the Old Testament. He points to Jesus, who heals the soldier that Peter struck with his sword and proclaims: “Put your sword back in its place, for all who draw the sword will die by the sword.” [3]

For Tertullian and the early church fathers, Jesus is the full expression of God, and he has revealed God to be completely and utterly non-violent; choosing to go to the cross rather than to wield the sword.

A Unique People in the World

It is a fundamental understanding of the ancient church in the first two centuries that the Christian community is to be sanctified, set apart from the ways of the world. Paul, speaking directly to the church in Rome, did not diminish the importance of the uniqueness of the Christian life. In Romans 12, Paul explicitly instructs both Jewish and Gentile Christians gathering there to “not conform to the pattern of this world but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is.”[4]

Paul is expectant that the follower of Jesus will live a life that is remarkably different from the Roman culture that they are immersed in every day. For Paul, this uniqueness of life comes from the revelation of Christ, whose response to sin and violence leveled against himself on the cross was a willingness to forgive and restore.

Like Paul, Justin Martyr reflected on the words and the revelation of Christ. He describes the church as:

“we who hated and slew one another, and because of customs would not share a common hearth with those who were not of our tribe, now, after the appearance of Christ, have become sociable, and pray for our enemies, and try to persuade those who hate unjustly, in order that they, living according to the good suggestions of Christ, may share our hope of obtaining the same from the God who is Master of all.”[5]

Justin considers the rejection of violence and the ability to forgive and pray for enemies as one of the marks of God’s people; it is a part of our unique identity in the world.

Elsewhere Justin references the prophecy of Isaiah and says that Christians have “changed the instruments of war, the swords into plows and the spears into farming implements, and we cultivate piety, righteousness, love for men, faith, (and) the hope which is from the Father Himself through the Crucified One.”[6] The implication here is that the church is a kingdom without weapons of war, for the church does not see war as a tool of any use to the world that they are working towards.

The fundamental answers that the church has to offer the world in response to evil is not the same answer that the kingdoms of earth are offering. If the church’s answer to evil is war, bloodshed, and violence, then our king is not unique, and our kingdom is just as “of this world” as any other. The church fathers understood that the power of the church to bring restoration to the world was rooted in its other-worldly answers. The strange dichotomy of the gospel is that victory comes through defeat, that life comes through death, and that peace comes through the cross, and not the sword.

Next Week:

We will look at how the sacrificial deaths of many of the early church fathers and church members stand as the ultimate display of pacifism in the ancient world, and indeed became the most effective tool in neutering the power of the sword of the empire.

 

[1] Tertullian, On Idolatry,XIX.

[2] Ibid.

[3] The New International Version. (2011). (Mt 26:52). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[4] The New International Version. (2011). (Ro 12:2). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[5] Justin, Apologia I, XIV. 3.

[6] Cadoux, Cecil John. 2015. The Early Christian Attitude to War: A Contribution to the History of Christian Ethics. Kindle Location 1954.

Heaping Burning Coals on Their Heads

Today I want to look at a strange verse in Romans. It goes like this:

Romans 12:19-21

“Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thristy, give them somethign to drink; for by doing this your wil heap burning coals on their heads.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

These verses were very peculiar to me in my youth. A strange mixture of emotions. Both call to love enemies and also an affirmation that we do indeed hate our enemies and have a desire for them to suffer. There even seems to be a moment of gleeful and narrow-eyed satisfaction as your enemy is overcome by anger at the very thought of you doing something nice for them!

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I have heard this passage become a method of revenge instead of a path towards reconciliation. I’ve even used it as such in my early pastoral years. There should be satisfaction when the two warring parties are brought together, but this passage seems to encourage bringing the other to a point of burning rage. A victory in the public relations realm. They come off looking bad, and you come off looking like a hero, rising above their petty sinfulness.

The Christian, then, can walk away with everything: both the piety that comes with righteousness and the smug comfort of revenge. But deep inside we know that this can’t be Christlike. What kind of God would take pleasure in the shaming and seething bitterness that others might carry for us?

It seems to be promoting exactly what modern psychology warns against being driven by, “I’ll show them” instead of “I’ll make things right with them.” The former being an unhealthy pattern of behavior that leads ultimately to failure, and the latter being healthy and life-giving.

One piece that we are missing in our interpretation of this passage is the simple picture that a first-century reader might have in their minds as they read about “heaping burning coals” atop the heads of their enemies.

So where do we begin to interpret this passage? Simple, we always start by trying to understand the mindset of the writer before we do any actual interpreting at all!

Paul is quoting a Proverbs possibly written a thousand years before the time in which he lived. It is found in Proverbs 25:21-22

21 If your enemy is hungry, give him food to eat;
if he is thirsty, give him water to drink.
22 In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head,
and the Lord will reward you. 

This was a time when Israel was likely still carrying with them the imagery of Egypt, from where they came. After generations of slavery, the symbols and patterns of Egyptian temple worship worked their way into the language, the worship rituals, and the spiritual writings of the people of Israel. And some of these ideas stuck with them all the way into the time of the New Testament.

The picture of “burning coals atop the head” actually finds its origins in the ancient Egyptian repentance ritual (J.D.G. Dunn, 1998). In those days in Egypt, someone who wanted to make amends with someone else would carry coals of fire in a dish on their head as evidence of genuine repentance. It was the emotional act of someone who wanted to be forgiven for the wrong they had committed.

In this scenario, the person with the coals on their head is not angry, they are not bitter or envious or you, and they are certainly not wallowing in shame.

This text is meant to be taken in a positive sense, not a negative one. Any idea that the other should be shamed falls out of line with the love and grace of the previous paragraph that is firmly rooted in Jesus teachings in the sermon on the mount.

This passage is a call to love and to genuinely seek the flourishing of those who would desire to harm us. The love that flows from the heart of God is the only thing that can genuinely seep into their hardened shell and bring them to a place of repentance. It is a proclamation of hope for all those who simply cannot find peace with another. Paul is saying “it can be done, commit yourself to love and hold out hope that one day they will come walking towards you in a public act of repentance, seeking your forgiveness and embracing you as a friend!”

Loving and serving your enemy is not some psychological form of revenge. It is not meant to piously raise you up above them in order to “win.” These types of interpretations allow the hate within us to remain and even to grow.

The point of humbling ourselves to meet the needs of our neighbor is to bring them to a place of softening and eventually repentance. The desire of Christ is always reconciliation. Paul understood it as an expression of outgoing love seeking only good for the enemy, and this is how we should see it as well.

How to Use a Commentary: 4 ways to get the most out of your daily study.

FYI: Skip to the bottom for my list of recommendations

Reading a commentary while you study the scriptures is the best way to ensure that you are correctly interpreting the text. There is no shortage of people, even pastors, interpreting and teaching the Bible without any help from biblical scholars who have devoted their lives to helping you better understand the text and interpret it the way that it was meant to be interpreted.

First off, you might be asking “what is a commentary?”. Well, it is a book (usually pretty large) that is written about a single book of the Old or New Testament. They move chapter by chapter and verse by verse through the text and are often times the culmination of years of arduous and intense scholarly work. It’s like having an expert in biblical interpretation walking you through the text, pointing out things that you might never have seen.

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A good commentary will equip you with the tools that you need to read the text in a way that is well-informed and even life-changing. When the text is rightly interpreted, it can make you a more loving and content person and a blessing to those around you. When it is misunderstood and the meaning is simply guessed at or even twisted to fit our own agenda, the Bible can easily become a dangerous book that can bring out tribalism and even promote idolatry that hurts the world at large.

So as an avid commentary reader and one who has made a daily habit of expanding my Biblical literacy, I wanted to write some advice to put you the path to well-informed biblical interpretation. My hope is that you will eventually come to stand on your own and not rely on the interpretive skills of others, even more so, I want you to be able to spot bad interpretation in a sermon, a small group, or in the media. Too often we say to ourselves “that doesn’t sound right,” but we simply don’t know why. Well, read these tips, grab a cup of coffee, and start interpreting.

#1 Choose a commentary from the last 25 years.

While certain long-established segments of Christianity tend to read commentaries from the 19th century, and all the way back to the medieval time period, I would recommend reading something much newer. Biblical scholarship has made huge strides in the recent half-century. With the translation of recent archeological finds like the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Naag Hamadi Codices, many things have changed:
– Our understanding of Judaism in the first century has been vastly altered, which affects how we read books like Romans and Ephesians.
– Our understanding of the Greek language has been greatly expanded. And with a deeper understanding of casual greek, many words have taken on more complex meanings.
– This is just the tip of the iceberg here, there are so many things that historians and archeologist have brought to the table, and this work is still being done, so try and keep up!

Despite what you have heard, biblical scholarship and how we understand the work of God and the church really does change with the academic work and scholarship of every generation. It interacts with the sciences like linguistics and archeology, and it comes to new conclusions about how different texts should be read and understood. Newer commentaries will be interacting with both the theology of the past and the newer discoveries of the day.

#2 Ignore the Words in Parenthesis (at least for now).

Some people start reading commentaries, but they get confused and discouraged by the constant parenthetical text. For instance, you might be reading Craig Keener’s commentary on Matthew 11 and suddenly, in the middle of a sentence, see something like this:

(Jos. Life 66; Theissen 1991:36).

This can get confusing because you might worry that you are missing something. Don’t worry, you aren’t. In fact, go ahead and assume that if you don’t know what it is, then it’s not for you.

But here’s a quick crash course anyways: The first part (Jos. Life 66) is letting you know that he learned what he just wrote from Josephus’ book The Life of Flavius Josephus, page 66. The other part (Theissen 1991:36) is simply referencing a scholar named Theissen’s writing on this passage from 1991, (called, The Gospel in Context: Social and Political History in the Synoptic Tradition) page 36.

Remember, you are not missing anything. Don’t feel like you are stepping into the middle of a conversation. If there was something important to know, it would be written in the text.

In time, you will learn to move right on by without even noticing them. And if you keep reading, one day you will see a reference to a scholar that you’ve already read in those parentheses, and you will suddenly say to yourself “I’ve read that scholar!”. It’s a great feeling!

#3 Don’t get bogged down in the details.

Most commentaries start with an introduction to the passage, then they move to a verse-by-verse analysis, then they end with a summary and some thoughts. The introduction and summary are often the most important parts. That is where the scholar is bringing it all together.

The middle verse-by-verse will often be difficult to read. It will contain ancient Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic and will talk about how those words were used in their day. It will also often times take part in a debate with the commentaries that were written before them; some ideas from different scholars will be challenged, and others will be given more argumentative support. It is okay to skip these parts if they are arduous and boring for you and move to the meat of the applicable material.

#4 There is no Rush!

For some reason, many Christians are in a hurry to get somewhere, and their study habits tend to reflect that. They typically want to study large swaths of scripture in short periods of time. But the reason I love commentaries is that it forces you to slow down and take in the scenery of each paragraph. Walking slowly through the text and resisting the urge to rush through is a spiritual discipline that yields a ton of fruit.

So if you find yourself considering picking up a commentary (I highly recommend that you do!) Here are a few on my current commentary reading list on the book of Matthew which is what we are studying in the church where I minister (Watermark Tampa).

Craig Keener:
The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary
(Thorough and contextual, but a bit pricey)

Donald A. Hagner: Word Biblical Commentary Vol. 33a, Matthew 1-13
(Very affordable, more scholastic. Focus on the Intro’s and Summaries of each passage)

Leander Keck: The New Interpreter’s Bible: Matthew – Mark (Volume 8)
(Well rounded and accessible, I would recommend this for a wide range of people)

Rodney Reeves: Matthew (The Story of God Bible Commentary)
(A personal Favorite. Very easy to read!)

N.T. Wright: Matthew for Everyone, Part 1: Chapters 1-15
(Great for Beginners)

William Barclay: The Gospel of Matthew Volume I (The New Daily Study Bible)
(Inexpensive, super easy to read, can be used as a daily reader.)

Brian K Blount: True to Our Native Land: An African American New Testament Commentary
(Covers entire New Testament in small bites from an African American Perspective)

 

Bruce Malina: Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels
(Covers entire New Testament, fascinating social study of 1st century Culture, not theologically focused)