Peace as Redemption from the Violence of Sin

The Gospel of non-violence is not simply non-violence tacked onto a typical evangelical or Catholic understanding.  The NT involves a radical sort of belief system characterized throughout by a peace that surpasses human capacities to implement or apprehend.  The peace of the Gospel is attained by a reordering of the world and every aspect of the world (which indicates the pervasive nature of both violence and peace).  Peace stands over and against violence as the key descriptor of the alternative inaugurated in the kingdom of God. It is an alternative mode of social interaction built upon an alternative understanding of God working itself out in an alternative understanding of the atonement. The doctrines which branch out from this Gospel all bear the vitality of peace as life-blood and fruit.

The peaceable Kingdom (ecclesiology) makes peace a lived possibility through a holistic alternative to the pervasive violence (the historical dialectic/conflict, the eternal return to war, the personal agonistic struggle) which marks thought and human interaction in the kingdoms of this world. Just as violence characterizes the principalities and powers of this world and is descriptive of the work of sin, salvation is a peaceable counter Kingdom which serves as the formative basis for a new humanity.  Peace is a discipline to be learned, a form of thought to be implemented, an ethic to be inhabited, and a form of inter-personal relationship to be attained in and through this kingdom.

Paul, in Colossians, equates being in the body of Christ with the rule of the peace of Christ in the heart (Col. 3:15).  Inward peace of the heart cannot be disassociated from the corporate peace of the body of Christ.  Both are directly linked to “letting the word of Christ dwell richly within you” and this in turn is connected to worship, teaching/learning, and the cultivation of thankfulness.  Paul ties “whatever you do in word or deed” to letting this peace rule (Col. 3:16-17). Peace is a holistic descriptor of the economy of salvation and all that it entails.

A hermeneutic built upon a necessary violence (which misses the centrality of peace) will ground this necessity in the person of God (God invokes and uses violence for salvation) worked out in the death of Christ. This violent gospel depends upon a hermeneutic which displaces both the ethic of Christ and the Gospels as interpretive frame. The love of God and the anger of God, in this understanding, are in a conflict which can only be resolved through the death of Christ.  Sin and salvation pertain primarily to a problem and resolution in the mind of God.  God himself directs violence against Christ so as to satisfy his righteousness.  Violence, in this gospel, has an ontological ground and origin surpassing the finitude of humanity.  Divine anger is infinite as is the required payment. Peace is subsequent to this original violence and consists of having achieved a balance in the most primordial of conflicts.  To reverse John Milbank’s description of the peaceable heavenly city, this economy is built on the virtue of resistance to anger and its ultimate domination. The death of Christ is a coercive resolution to a reigning legal necessity.  This heaven is simply the hell of humanity projected into the economy of salvation.

A hermeneutic built upon peace, to the contrary, finds this peace as original to the person of the Trinity.  It will read the death of Christ as the end point of human sin and violence (rather than a result of God’s wrath).  This hermeneutic will, of necessity, be Christocentric in its reading of the NT as the peace of Christ is the only lens which provides this key insight into the immanent Trinity.  In other words, peace describes a reading of the NT which touches upon sin, salvation, the doctrine of God, the doctrine of the Church, hermeneutics, and anthropology.

As Milbank describes it, in the heavenly city come to earth virtue is not the virtue of resistance and domination but it is grounded in the original peace of God.  Peace is basic to human experience because it is basic to God.  Peace poses the possibility of an alternative life based upon a reconstituted personality in the image of God.

One way of getting at this is the alternative thought form which breaks out of the dull regularity posed by violence.[1]  Divine creativity knows neither the bounds of formulaic thought nor the rut of a personality given over to compulsive repetition. As Ro. 8:2 puts it, “For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus made me free from the law of sin and of death.”

The law of sin and death describes a law of violence binding to dissolution and death.

All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.” “Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive.” “The venom of asps is under their lips.” “Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.” “Their feet are swift to shed blood; in their paths are ruin and misery, and the way of peace they have not known.” (Ro. 3:12-17, ESV)

In Paul’s genealogy of sin, violence and peace mark two paths. Violence begins with the organs of speech being caught up in deception and turned against God and this gives rise to murder.

In his detailed depiction (in Ro. 7) of the impetus behind this violence the split ‘I’ (doing what it does not want and unable to do what it wants) demonstrates how the law holds out a fullness of being – promising life (wholeness or completeness as the object cause of desire) but ending only in an agonistic struggle to the death (7.16-20).  This struggle is all consuming, and in Paul’s description, it seems to include corporate humanity represented by Israel and individual persons represented by Adam.  Paul describes this life in the flesh as a life of slavery to fear, deception, and violence, and life in the Spirit is posed, over and against this way of violence, in chap. 8 as the way of peace.

The fear and slavery under the law of sin and death, with its work through deceptive desire aroused by the law, became ‘another law’ (ἕτερον νόμον).  This law, however, is voided (along with all of its violent machinations) by Christ.  The punishing effects of the law of sin and death no longer bind, as God has condemned the law of sin through the death of Christ (8.1-3) who ushers in the law of life in the Spirit. This then will result in the capacity to ‘walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit’ (8.4).

This walk is characterized in all of its phases by the power of life which Paul characterizes as the path of life and peace (8:6).  Paul describes this new mindset as one that one is enabled to suffer and absorb violence so that those who suffer with Christ will be glorified together with him (8.17). We may be subjected to violent futility and death but this violence no longer defines the Christian.

 Just as it is written, “For Your sake we are being put to death all day long; We were considered as sheep to be slaughtered.” But in all these things we overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loved us. (Ro. 8:36-7, ESB)

The Spirit of life is a departure from the universally binding law of violence and death. Christ’s death defeated death and we participate in this defeat as we absorb violence.  We conquer by turning from participation in the violence of the world through the love of Christ.

[1] Thus, the typical conversation in opposition to non-violence – the “what if” scenarios which present a situation in which violence is seemingly the only resolution – are themselves a proof that there is a logic which constrains its bearers rather than the other way around. Thought is reduced to something on the order of mechanics so that the capacity to imagine an alternative world is demonstrably foreshortened.  The dull regularity with which the “what if” scenarios repeat themselves is on the order of a neurosis.  The compulsion to repeat, which Freud found was the consistent indicator of neurosis, binds thought in an imprisoning pattern.  Rather than an avenue for understanding, creativity, and growth, thought begins to cannibalize its host through its constrained regularity.

[2] New American Standard Bible: 1995 update. (1995). (Ro 8:36–37). La Habra, CA: The Lockman Foundation.

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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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