Last revised: February 18, 2012
My Core Convictions:
Nonviolence and the Christian Faith
Part III: ‘Nonviolence or Nonexistence’ as the Message of Jesus the Apocalyptic Prophet
Nonviolence or nonexistence. We arrive at the second of my two stated theses: that the posing of alternatives “nonviolence or nonexistence” conveys the meaning behind Jesus’ apocalyptic preaching.
Here, I need to begin with a preliminary thesis about New Testament interpretation: contemporary scholar N. T. Wright is in the process of revolutionizing much of what has passed in the last century as faithful scriptural interpretation but, according to his assessment, has been wide of the mark. I heartily agree with the overall thrust of Wright’s project, that goes by the overarching title of “Christian Origins and the Question of God,” and is thus far four volumes.1 Volume 2, Jesus and the Victory of God, Wright’s foray into the Historical Jesus movement, is the cornerstone effort in his project and is most pertinent for my thesis here. The following is a summary of Wright’s main theses in this book:
- Modern scholarship must bypass Rudolf Bultmann‘s overshadowing influence last century in interpreting the New Testament, and instead go back to his predecessor Albert Schweitzer‘s correct categorization of Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet.
- However, Schweitzer’s attempt at sketching the Historical Jesus, written in 1906, did raise the scandalous possibility that Jesus was simply wrong in his predictions as an apocalyptic prophet — wrong about his second coming and the end of the world as events about to happen.
- Bultmann’s response, though, compounded Schweitzer’s error, by counseling a radical change of emphasis from Schweitzer. Bultmann said that we cannot know the Historical Jesus anyway, so let us focus instead on the “Christ of faith” that we meet in the Gospels. Bultmann’s counsel was basically accepted by the vast majority of New Testament scholars last century, with the results of a basic underlying skepticism toward the picture of Jesus in the Gospels. Wright argues that it is high time to seek a new method from Bultmann’s. The whole point of the Christian faith is to know Jesus, not simply Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John’s faith in Jesus. We can trust that the genius behind their basic picture of Jesus is Jesus himself — basically, the apocalyptic prophet which Schweitzer proclaimed him as in the first place.
- Wright’s method, which he calls “Critical Realism,” addresses shortcomings of both Bultmann and Schweitzer. Wright doesn’t want to turn back the clock on the modern awareness of how pure objectivity is impossible. But that Bultmannian awareness became, in the post-modern age, an almost complete mistrust of sources, making historical study a farce. Yes, it’s true that the evangelists did not give us a purely objective picture of the Historical Jesus. But, says Wright, if the historian does a thorough job of investigating Jesus’ historical context, namely, First Century Judaism, then he or she can make hypotheses not simply about the history of the evangelists and their communities, which is where Bultmann left off, but also how much of the evangelists’ picture of Jesus can be corroborated by other sources. We can make judgments about the accuracy of their picture of Jesus.
- Thus, rather than rejecting Schweitzer altogether, we need to more thoroughly do our homework on the history of the time, especially the Jewish context. Specifically, we need to correct Schweitzer’s description of what an apocalyptic prophet would have meant in First Century Judaism. If we are thorough in our picture of First Century Judaism, then Wright argues that we can make excellent sense of the evangelists’ overall picture of Jesus. We don’t need to largely discard the evangelists in order to reconstruct the Historical Jesus primarily from other sources — say, that of Hellenist Cynics, as John Dominic Crossan does.
- The key to Wright’s historical construction, then, begins with a renewed understanding of Jewish apocalypticism as firmly rooted in the language of the great prophets. The apocalyptic language of the prophets uses metaphorical language to depict ‘earth-shattering’ events — specifically, for example, that reliance on militarism will end in cataclysms of violent downfall. Consider Jesus’ words in Mark 13:24-26:
- “But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory.”
- Wright skillfully shows how Jesus was simply using the same kind of language that the great prophets used, not to predict the end of the world and his own second coming, as Schweitzer thought, but instead predicting events of momentous changes about to happen in the course of history.
- And a crucial insight that Wright isn’t afraid to keep repeating is that the “end of the world,” so unfortunately common among Christians, could never be a Jewish hope. God’s chosen people remained anchored in a faith in the one true God who is creating the world and is still a force behind its history. This God would never bring the world to an end, in the sense of destroying it, but rather bring it to an end in the sense of fulfillment.
- So what was Jesus prophesying? Jesus was essentially correct as an apocalyptic prophet in his prophecy that the way of armed rebellion against Rome would bring an end to the Temple, and thus to Judaism as it was known in first century Palestine. Jesus’ apocalyptic language of coming cataclysmic events pointed, in other words, to the true prophecy of the events in his disciples’ lifetimes of the Roman defeat of Jerusalem in 70 C.E. His coming to Jerusalem as the Son of Man (in other words, his first coming to Zion, not a “second coming”); his prediction of the Temple’s downfall; and his own passion and resurrection together constituted the true representation of the choice before his own Jewish people: learn the way of nonviolence, or suffer consequences that would drastically change their history as a people. It is not altogether different, for example, from Isaiah using similar language to predict the downfall of Israel at the hands of the Assyrians, or Jeremiah predicting the exile of Judah to Babylon.
- But Jesus’ message and personhood also went beyond that of the great prophets. Jesus also came to lead a battle as the Messiah. But his battle was not against flesh and blood (cf., Eph. 6:10ff.). We must understand that the real enemy is not Rome or the Judean leadership — or even Assyria and Babylon before them — but the real enemy is the satanic power of righteous violence behind them.
- When this is understood, then it is easy to see that the way to peace is not through killing Romans or corrupt Jewish leaders, who are but instruments of “the satan” (Wright uses the article “the” to indicate a title akin to “the accuser”). Instead, the way to victory is by suffering at the hands of these satanic powers, only to have the resurrection reveal that Jesus’ nonviolent suffering is the Way to ultimate victory, to ultimate peace and life.
It would be difficult to overestimate what I believe is the importance of Wright’s project to the Christian faith. In the terms of this essay, I believe that he has essentially given us a picture of Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet whose basic message was, “Nonviolence or nonexistence.” Jesus urged his own people to learn the way of peace or ultimately be destroyed. He urges us still today.
Doesn’t Wright’s work also make sense of the unique call of Jesus to love our enemies — and the theology of Paul which emphasizes a God who has loved us even while we were still enemies? Jesus could call on his people to love even Romans because they aren’t the real enemy. Satan is. Similarly, God can still love us as sinners because the real enemy is Satan.2
What is the ultimate outcome when we resort to violence to stop our enemies? We can kill our enemies, but Satan will simply find another instrument for his brand of righteous violence. Any peace will only be temporary.
Consider the flood story of Gen. 6-9. It is essentially a story of God resorting to violence to stop human violence. In the mythical time before history, God tried the way of violence, wiping out all living things except Noah, his family, and the animals in the ark. But it is a fruitless slaughter because humankind quickly falls right back into distorted desire and the violence that goes with it. Thus, the conclusion to the story is the real point. The rainbow carries the promise that God would never again resort to the strategy of violence to stop violence. With Abraham and Sarah God establishes a people who begin to discover a different God than all those other gods who resort to violence. History finally begins — namely, a gradual way out of the “eternal return,” the cyclical view of time in most cultures.
History is essentially the gradual way out of the endless cycles of “Satan casting out Satan.” In the second verse of the biblical history proper (Genesis 1-11 being a pre-historical prologue), God gives us the basic formula of covenantal love: “I will bless you, so that you will be a blessing” (Gen. 12:2). Opposite to the satanic trajectory of expelling someone in order to achieve communion — a solution always doomed to fail in bringing a full and complete communion, a Holy Communion, of all of God’s children — ‘blessed to be a blessing’ to others has a trajectory of always reaching out to include others within the bounds of God’s family.
And the climactic moment of history comes when God shows us the way of unconditional love through Jesus Christ, the way of forgiveness rather than vengeance. It is a way that challenges much that passes for “family values” based on satanic over-againstness as providing an incomplete peace. Jesus’ family consists in this: “Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother” (Mark 3:35). Whoever lives in the Holy Spirit finds themselves able to live God’s will from the beginning of history — namely, the call of Gen. 12:2 of being blessed to be a blessing to others, which is a “spirit of adoption” as God’s children (Rom. 8:15). Anything less will always bring a merely temporary peace, something less than our final hope (of which Romans 8 has much to say).
Or, in pondering the outcome of always resorting to violence to cast out violence, consider Jesus’ parable of the Wheat and Weeds in Matthew 13. The evil one has sown weeds into the midst of the wheat, but the owner of the field counsels his servants against resorting to a violent weeding out before the harvest. Let them be, forgive them.3 The weeds will be sorted out in the harvest.
Finally, I would like to call upon one more witness from Scripture, the Book of Revelation. Strangely, it is the book in the New Testament most often called upon by Christians to justify their views of sacred violence, misinterpreting it as a vision of God someday performing the ultimate sacred violence on all the wicked. I would like to invite the reader to see the Book of Revelation as, instead, the most graphic revelation of human sacred violence under Satan’s power. It represents such violence as the Beast who has always had the kingdoms of this earth completely deceived by its powers. To thus see in John’s vision a divine sacred violence as putting an end to our human violence is a misreading of colossal proportions.
John the Seer’s vision, then, is the final defeat of the Beast — but at the hands of whom? The “Lamb slain since the foundation of the world” (Rev. 13:8).4 The revelation of the Lamb will lead to the eventual defeat of the Beast as it ultimately sinks into its own hell-hole, its own lake of fire. When this happens, the heavenly way of God’s nonviolent love will descend and merge with the earth to make both heaven and earth into a new creation.5
In short, satanic violence is ultimately self-defeating. It is a kingdom divided against itself which cannot stand, just as Jesus predicted in his first parable of “Satan casting out Satan” (Mark 3:23-26; see §5 in Part I). It might be added, however, that from the perspective of Revelation this “self-defeat” required the help of Jesus revealing it, not just in parables, but finally through incarnating it on the Cross as the Lamb slain since the foundation of the world, and by God revealing it fully as the way to death through the eternal power of life in the Resurrection. Because of the latter, all the white-robed martyrs who have suffered the ordeal as victims of sacred violence, “from all tribes and peoples and languages,” have a place before the eternal throne of God, where God will wipe away every tear (Rev. 7). Death will be no more; mourning and crying will be no more, for the first things (namely, satanic violence since the foundation of our human worlds) will have finally passed away (Rev. 21:4).
I cannot here offer a thorough reading of the Book of Revelation as a call to nonviolent discipleship of the Lamb,6 but allow me to at least present a couple of key moments. The first involves the Lamb’s first appearance in Rev. 5:6. John is told by one of elders to look up in order to see the lion of the tribe of Judah. In other words, he expects to see that symbol of victorious righteous violence. The lion is the classic mighty Beast. Instead, John sees the Lamb standing slaughtered. It is the Lamb who will thereafter be the dominant figure in this drama, appearing twenty-nine times in Revelation.
At crucial moments of victory, it will always be the Lamb who is most prominently present. The best example is in chapter 12, where Michael and the army of angels win a decisive victory in heaven against the dragon. How is the dragon characterized? Revelation 12:9-10:
The great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world — he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him. Then I heard a loud voice in heaven, proclaiming, “Now have come the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Messiah, for the accuser of our comrades has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God.”
Notice how Satan, the dragon, is characterized as the Accuser. And how is the victory won? Through the superior militaristic might of Michael and the angels? No, Revelation 12:11 gives us the answer: “But they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they did not cling to life even in the face of death.” In short, sacred violence loses its place in heaven by the revelation of the Lamb slain, and by all those witnesses (martyrs is the Greek word for “witnesses”) who do not cling to life even in the face of deathly violence. It is the same kind of moment marked by Jesus when he says, “I see Satan fall like lightning from heaven” (Luke 10:18; the title of one of René Girard‘s most recent books).
Just before the final defeat is described in Rev. 19:11-20:15, the marriage feast of the Lamb is proclaimed (Rev. 19:7-10). Then, it is a new character pictured who actually brings the defeat, a rider from heaven on a white horse who “makes war.” But, again, how is this war waged? Through superior firepower? It would seem not. For the rider is described, even before entering into the battle, as “clothed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is called The Word of God” (Rev. 19:13). Again, it is the witnessing of martyrdom, the “testimony of Jesus” (Rev. 19:10), the Word of God, that wins the victory. The decisive word of God’s loving forgiveness in Jesus Christ ultimately results in the self-defeating event of satanic violence sinking into its lake of fire.
Let me conclude this essay portion, then, with the direct call to nonviolence from John the Seer. It is the one moment when he takes time-out from recounting his vision to speak directly to you and me, his readers:
Let anyone who has an ear listen: If you are to be taken captive, into captivity you go; if you kill with the sword, with the sword you must be killed. Here is a call for the endurance and faith of the saints. (Rev. 13:9-10)
John’s call to faith is essentially a call to ‘nonviolence or nonexistence.’ We are called to either faithful discipleship of Jesus the Lamb in the way of nonviolence and life, or to the ultimate consequences of the way of violence and death.
1. The ELCA publishing house, Augsburg Fortress, has thus far been the publisher of N. T. Wright‘s project, under the overall heading of “Christian Origins and the Question of God”: Vol. 1, The New Testament and the People of God (1992); Vol. 2, Jesus and the Victory of God (1996); Vol. 3, The Resurrection of the Son of God (2003); Vol. 4, Paul and the Faithfulness of God (2013).
2. Wright‘s emphasis on “the satan” as “the accuser” goes extremely well with René Girard‘s presentation of evangelical anthropology when he expresses it in the language of the Gospels. See especially his recent book I See Satan Fall Like Lightning and his essay on “Satan” (excerpts) in The Girard Reader. Wright’s fleshing out of “the satan” as an anthropologically generated power, however, is quite thin (basically covered in only a 17-page section, pages 446-463 of Jesus and the Victory of God) and could benefit greatly from the support of Girard’s evangelical anthropology.
3. Matthew 13:30: “Let them both grow together until the harvest…” The word for “let them,” aphete, is the most common Greek word used to say, “Forgive them.”
4. John’s actual word order in Rev. 13:8 in the Greek is: en to biblio tes zoes tou arniou tou esphagmenou apo kataboles kosmou. The King James Version faithfully repeats this exact word order: “in the book of life of the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world.” The NRSV — wrongly, in my opinion — switches John’s word order around to: “from the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb that was slaughtered.”
5. John also adds the strange note that “the sea will be no more” (Rev. 21:1). Why? My suggestion is that the sea is often a metaphor for the chaos and disorder of human/satanic violence. See, for example, Psalm 69, in which the metaphor is made explicit.
6. It is becoming increasingly common, outside of more conservative circles, to interpret the Book of Revelation as a call to nonviolence. Here’s a short list of examples: J. Denny Weaver, The Nonviolent Atonement (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2001), 20-33; Richard B. Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament (HarperSanFrancisco, 1996), 169-185, 332; G. B. Caird, The Revelation of St. John the Divine (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1966. Finally, see my sermon “Faith Is Trusting that the Satanic Violence Is Self-Defeating” for another wholistic reading of Revelation. See also my bibliography on “Nonviolence and the Book of Revelation.”