Nonviolence as the Essence of Christianity

The orientation to death which is sin shows itself in systemic (religious, nationalistic, tribal) sadistic or masochistic violence.  The violence of war, the violence of sacrificial religions, the genocidal violence of tribalism, the violence of nationalism, or suicidal or murderous violence, are all manifestations of a singular structure – sin – the diagnosis of which is given to us in Christ.  This is a claim which requires substantiation (only initiated and not fully developed below) and which is posed over and against theological systems which presume violence is a necessary part of redemption. Such systems cannot equate sin and violence (though they might picture an overlap between the two) but, I would claim, they are inherently incapacitated in recognizing the root problem.  Should this argument prove to have any value, the implication is that certain theologies and forms of Christianity, in incorporating violence, are in danger of practicing sin under the guise of righteousness and of perverting the image of God by projecting evil onto God. 

The cumulative evidence from the N.T. as it references the O.T. in explaining the work of Christ is that the messiah (as suffering servant, stumbling stone, or rejected corner stone) subverts “the covenant with death” (Is. 28), exposes deification and reification of death (e.g. Is. 8), and assuages overwhelming fear of death and shame (systematically throughout the O.T. and N.T.).  The practices connected with misdirected fear (fear of the enemy, fear of obliteration at the hands of evil men, or simply and most basically the fear of death) have to do with the art of war (accumulating chariots and horses and amassing armies), the practices of idolatrous religion (including human sacrifice), and the attempt to find life in and through death (as in ancestor worship, necromancy, or a turn to law as an end in itself).  In each instance the attempt to ward off death involves a violent dealing in death, whether in war, sacrificial religion, or simply in a violent self-antagonistic law keeping.

This might be summed up as kingdom building as human kingdoms and all they entail are the attempt to secure some form of salvation. This misdirected effort borne out of fear explains why the O.T. often does not distinguish between the gods of the idolatrous nations and the nation.  The nation and all it entails can be summed up in its misdirected fear reified in the deity it serves. Typically, fertility, the sun, war, or various forces of nature, are deified in that it is presumed that they hold the power of life and death, and religion is bent on gaining life through death by manipulating these forces.  The presumption is that of a zero-sum game in which the worshipers are willing to trade the life of some “Other” (the life of infants in the case of Baal worship) so as to gain life for the self.  Life, through human sacrifice, is literally given over to death so as to secure more life.  This describes, however, the economy of the entire system as one spends life on securing it from death in every manner of activity (building towers as at Babel, securing wealth, fashioning chariots, or simply procreating).  All of life is aimed at warding off death.  This accounts for Jesus description of the human predicament as one of attempting to save the self and in the process of losing the self.  Life is given over to and oriented to death so that death is the determining factor in all of life.

So, when Paul or the writer of Hebrews sums up sin as slavery to fear of death this fear should not be reduced to a feeling; rather this describes and explains the activities, orientation, and life course of the race. This fear of death is the impetus behind the human project which may or may not succeed in repressing fear from conscious awareness.  (It is the Bible and not Freud which first posits the notion of an unconscious all-controlling fear.)  Thus, the first step in understanding the inherent violence built into the human project is to recognize that it arises from a misdirected fear which presumes life can be violently extracted from death.  I am convinced, though, that this small first step is actually an impossible step to take without taking in the whole of the Gospel.  That is, sin can only be understood from the perspective of salvation – especially when it is understood that the nature of sin is an all-inclusive deception.  The cross is the hermeneutic lens which the writers of the N. T. use to get at the lie of absolute death and necessary violence.

The writer of Hebrews, in typical fashion, layers a reference to Ps. 22 (which Jesus quotes from the cross and which foretells his crucifixion) on top of a reference to Is. 8 which describes the practices of necromancy while also containing a reference to the messianic “stone of stumbling.”  The writer references these two passages, seeming to presume that we too are to draw from them the conclusion that Jesus’ life and death releases us from bondage to the fear of death (Heb. 2:14).  The layered reference provides the key as to how this exodus from slavery to fear is to work.  Is. 8:12-13 begins by sorting out a proper sort of fear: “And you are not to fear what they fear or be in dread of it.” What they immediately fear is that Assyria will conspire to destroy them, but they are missing the point: “It is the Lord of hosts whom you should regard as holy. And He shall be your fear, And He shall be your dread” (NASB). They imagine they can get to the bottom of things by consulting Mot or death. “When they say to you, ‘Consult the mediums and the spiritists who whisper and mutter,’ should not a people consult their God? Should they consult the dead on behalf of the living?” (8:19).

In ancestor worship and necromancy, which seems to be included among the practices described in Isaiah 8, there is an overt sacralizing of the gap of death.  Whether the Israelites actually created a god named death (Mot) or treat death like a god is not clear.  Either way, they have made death the controlling absolute on the order of a deity (if not an actual deity) which they will consult.  Their misdirected fear of death has caused them to turn to death itself as if it contains wisdom and security: “Offering sacrifices in gardens and burning incense on bricks; Who sit among graves and spend the night in secret places; Who eat swine’s flesh, And the broth of unclean meat is in their pots. Who say, ‘Keep to yourself, do not come near me, For I am holier than you!’ These are smoke in My nostrils, A fire that burns all the day” (Is. 65:2-5). Death is imagined to be more sacred and holy than God and the religion which deifies death reverses the faith of Israel (offering sacrifices to the dead rather than to God; sitting among unclean graves to perform purification before death; eating swine rather than the acceptable Passover meal; calling upon death as if it were God).

The messianic element is woven throughout the passage as Immanuel – the promised son and savior is the hoped-for salvation even as Israel is baptized in Assyrian dominance and destruction.  Add Ps. 22 to the mix, as Hebrews does, and the messianic sign of confrontation with death through crucifixion is complete.  The one who cries out in regard to his forsakenness is, in and through this forsakenness, made the first of many brethren: “Behold, I and the children whom God has given Me” (Heb. 2:13).  Death is defeated by the one who dies the worst sort of death and having been subjected to death becomes a refuge from the fear of death. As a result, “All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the LORD, and all the families of the nations shall worship before you” (Ps. 22:27, ESV).  Bondage to the fear of death is broken and this is the foundation stone of the children of God (and the stone of stumbling for everyone else).

Is. 28:15-16, likewise, describes the work of this new foundation stone as breaking the covenant with death: “Because you have said, ‘We have made a covenant with death, And with Sheol we have made a pact. The overwhelming scourge will not reach us when it passes by, For we have made falsehood our refuge and we have concealed ourselves with deception.” The key elements of the Fall (a lie regarding death, trust in this lie as providing true life) are here systematized into religion. The end result, as it is depicted in Is. 28 is similar to that of ch. 8 in that the grave is flooded: “And the waters will overflow the secret place. Your covenant with death will be canceled, And your pact with Sheol will not stand” (Is. 28:17–18, NASB). The alternative to trusting in the grave and being put to shame is the stone of Zion: “Therefore thus says the Lord God, ‘Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone, a tested stone, A costly cornerstone for the foundation, firmly placed. He who believes in it will not be disturbed (or put to, shame)’” (Is 28:16).

Paul references this passage in Ro. 10 as part of his depiction of the passage from shame to its cure – being made right by Christ (the theme of Romans). Early in his argument as to the universal nature of sin Paul makes the case that violence, with a family resemblance to the grave worship of Is. 28, is the characteristic practice of sin. Through a catena of quotes from the O.T., Paul explains that violence is a universal process enacted through a death dealing lie.  Paul’s contention is that “all are under sin” (3.9) – “captives to the deadly rule of sin.” He weaves together a picture of sin in which the organs of speech, due to taking up a lie, function as a grave and entrap and poison, leading to bloodshed and violence (3.10-18). Nothing or emptiness seem to have been taken up into the organs of speech, to become there a grave or a sarcophagus. Throughout the list the organs of speech deal in death: “Their throats are open graves; their tongues practice deceit” (3.13 quoting Ps. 5.9). Those who take up the lie literally engrave or cadaverize themselves so that death cannot touch them as they have become the power of death.  Where death is absolute those who deal in death have obtained the power of deity. Paul combines reference to Ps. 5 with a conclusion from Is. 59:7-8: “Their feet are swift to shed blood; in their paths are ruin and misery, and the way of peace they have not known.” There will be blood on this path of violence as, “There is no fear of God before their eyes” (Ro. 3:18 quoting Ps. Ps. 36:1, ESV).  So, in Paul’s key argument for the universal nature of sin, violence is the marker of sin in its orientation to death.  (Subsequent to faith in Christ, Paul pictures the death dealing organs transformed into instruments of peace and reconciliation. “For with the heart one believes and is made right, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.  For the Scripture says, “Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame” (Ro. 10:10 referencing Is. 28). The grave-like organs dealing in shame and death are transformed into instruments of peace, up to and including the feet: “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!” (Ro. 10:15).)

As Paul depicts it, there is the attempt to establish righteousness apart from God on one’s own power (or tapping into the power of the law) and this can be equated with a living death (Ro. 7:7ff; 10:3). Sin and death describe this effort (or the place of rebellion), yet Christ has brought his Lordship to bear even in the abyss – or the place of the dead (Ro. 10:7) and even in the midst of sin and death. He is the one who rescues from this dynamic of death (Ro. 7:24).  As the writer of Hebrews concludes, “Therefore, since the children share in flesh and blood, He Himself likewise also partook of the same, that through death He might render powerless him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and might free those who through fear of death were subject to slavery all their lives” (Heb. 2:14–15). In a parallel passage, Paul depicts this slavery to fear as life under the law, resolved through adoption into the family of God as a sibling of Christ (Ro. 9:15).  John depicts this familial love as casting out all fear (I Jn. 4:18).  The writer of Hebrews, likewise, draws together incorporation into the family of God and sanctification: “For both He who sanctifies and those who are sanctified are all from one Father; for which reason He is not ashamed to call them brethren” (2:11).  Through this new family there is freedom from slavery to fear of death.

The universality of the Gospel is to be found in that it addresses enslavement to this fear.  The death of Christ has universal appeal as it addresses this root cause of sin by confronting the one who would manipulate us through fear: “Now is the judgment of this world, now shall the ruler of this world be cast out; and I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto myself” (Jn. 12:31).  Crucifixion is not inherently appealing but crucifixion combined with a life which continually confronted the death dealing principalities and powers and which culminates in a death which defeats the ruler of these powers has universal appeal.  This death demonstrates control over these powers and combined with the resurrection and ascension, exposes the lie of absolute death and the necessity of violence (the supposed necessity that put Christ on the cross).  Death is not to be resisted, reified, deified, or consulted as it has been defeated.  It is defeated, not through the violent resistance of death denial, but on the basis of death acceptance: “For whoever wishes to save his life shall lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s shall save it” (Mk. 8:35 see Math. 10:39; Lk. 9:24; Jn. 12:25). In this understanding, violence serves the covenant with death or reification and absolutizing of death and this describes the universal human predicament from which Christ saves.

The way of peace can be equated with the Gospel while the way of violence is that taken by the enemies of the cross of Christ. It should be oxymoronic to speak of “violent Christianity” or “Christian warfare.” Christianity, by definition, opposes violence.  Yet every form of evil, from genocide to systemic violence against those deemed “Other” has been and is carried out in the name of Christ. Christians have proven willing to go to violent extremes –  further than many of their non-Christian neighbors – in terms of violent oppression and suppression of the Other.  It would seem that it is time to draw a line, following the teaching of the N. T., to separate out this violent form of religion.  This is, after all, part of Paul’s purpose; to sort out the enemies of the cross – those who would reverse the Christian faith (whose glory is in their shame, who set their minds on earthly things). Those who would bow the knee to Mot and resort to violence seem to be operating under the covenant with death – this can be equated with Christianity only at the expense of the essence of the N.T. This is not the faith of the crucified but of the crucifiers. His is not the way of bloodshed of the Other but of blood shed for all so that the sacrifice of the Other would cease. Taking up the cross is the overcoming of the fear of death and a relinquishing of the power of violence for the self-sacrificial power of love – and this is at the heart of N.T. picture of salvation.


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Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.

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