Asking all the questions…
I’ve prepared the following reflection on Preston Sprinkle’s new book, Fight: A Christian Case for Nonviolence as part of the Patheos Book Club.
I have been thinking a lot lately about the question of our response to the violence of this world as self-proclaimed followers of Jesus. Perhaps my thoughts have gone down that path because of my recent trip to Israel and the West Bank or maybe it is all the reading I am doing to prepare to preach on the text in Judges 4 and 5 as part of our series at Calvary on “The Men of Judges“. But as I finished up my reading of Regina M Schwarz’s book The Curse of Cain I jumped at the chance to read Preston Sprinkle’s new book.
As I opened it and read the first few pages, my initial response was, “Oh, I’m not going to like this…” But that response was totally off-base. While I cannot say that I agree with everything (or even most of) what is contained in the pages of Fight: A Christian Case for Nonviolence, there is much to respect and much to ponder here. Sprinkle takes on one of the most difficult aspects of the relationship between faith and secular society, specifically, how faith informs our attitudes toward and participation in the violence of the world that surrounds us. He gives this question a very thoughtful and faith-based examination. Diving into the massive undertaking of examining this issue from a Biblical standpoint, Sprinkle maintains an inquisitive and respectful tone throughout despite taking a firm stance against the standard American Evangelical pro-war, pro-militaristic themes.
That’s right. Sprinkle comes out eloquently on the side of nonviolence as the only possible response for those who call themselves followers of Christ:
We are called to be different, to give our allegiance to Jesus’ not-of-this-world kingdom. Worldly kingdoms flex their muscles to rule the earth; Jesus kneels to wash feet. Gentiles lord it over other people; Christians become servants to everyone. Rome crucifies those who threaten its power; Jesus endures crucifixion as a pathway to resurrection glory (pg. 128).
His analysis starts carefully, with a very specific definition of just what Sprinkle means by violence, taken from the work of ethicists Glen Stassen and Michael Westmoreland-White: “Violence is destruction to a victim by means that overpower the victim’s consent (pg. 31).” He focuses most specifically on physical violence and even more narrowly on that physical violence that occurs in the context of war (mostly). His premise that human society evolves in its ability to understand and live to the ethical standards demanded by God, and that God, being forgiving and all embracing, just deals with that by taking what improvement He can get from us in each generation is an interesting one, but I think, serves to let humanity too much off the hook. He does a good service by placing the tales of violence in Deuteronomy and Judges well within their cultural context; I lose him a bit when he compares the Israelites conquest of the Canaanites to the type of purge of the ungodly that God undertook with the Deluge. And theologically I just can’t embrace his heavily Christological interpretation of Isaiah nor the idea that the coming of the Kingdom of God on Earth will look a lot like the Eden humankind abandoned by eating the apple. But the careful placing of Jesus in His own historical context, that of Jewish rebellion under the Maccabees and the constant violent response to Roman oppression of His own day and the early days of the Christian faith is to the point. Sprinkle gets just how radical Jesus’ message was, and is for us today:
Jesus takes a familiar Old Testament command (“Love your neighbor as yourself”) and stretches it to its limits. The Old Testament commanded Israel to love their neighbors (i.e. fellow Jews) and to care for outsiders. However, the law never explicitly commanded Israelites to love their enemies and pray for their persecutors. Jesus therefore takes the law’s incremental steps to the top of the mountain, and the mountaintop looks a lot like Eden. The Old Testament allowed Israel to use violence against their enemies (in some circumstances), but this wasn’t the ideal. Loving your enemies is the ideal. It’s no wonder that this command became the most-often-quoted verse during the first four centuries of the Christian church (p. 142).
In the end, what I like most about this book is this: Sprinkle is not afraid to ask ALL the questions about this difficult topic — everything from what did war look like in the ancient world to should America follow Ancient Israel’s war policy to what about Hitler to what do you do when someone breaks into your house to kill your family — and he struggles to answer each of them from a Biblical context. And if necessary, he lets one question force him to ask more questions. And he is seems to be okay with not having all the answers.
It is a very good thing that people of faith are willing to ask questions and live without answers. That is what theology is all about, after all. And it is time for all of us to take the kind of look at the role of violence in our human society that this author has been willing to take.