by Rachel Held Evans
The myth of redemptive violence—the notion that we can kill our way to peace— is a powerful one, and I'm constantly amazed at how it sneaks into our culture, the Church, and even my own heart.
We saw it stated rather overtly when Sarah Palin, a Christian, declared to a roaring crowd at the National Rifle Association annual meeting that true leaders “put the fear of God in our enemies,” and that if she were in charge, those enemies would know “that waterboarding is how we baptize terrorists."
The myth was perpetuated again last week by President of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary Al Mohler who, in response to Clayton Lockett’s botched execution in Oklahoma, wrote a post for CNN entitled “Why Christians should support the death penalty.”
“In a world of violence,” he argues, “the death penalty is understood as a necessary firewall against the spread of further deadly violence.”
Violence to stop violence to stop violence to stop violence.
And on and on it goes...
I found it telling that in making his case for the Christian view on capital punishment, Mohler does not once consider the teachings of Jesus Christ. Instead, he supports his position by primarily citing Old Testament law, which he neglects to mention prescribes the death penalty not only for murderers, but also for adulterers and disobedient children.
And it is ironic that Mohler, who has been a tireless advocate for young earth creationism on the basis that “the straightforward and direct reading of [Genesis] describes seven 24-hour days,” does not seem to think that a straightforward and direct reading of Jesus’ teachings regarding violence is necessary.
In his famous Sermon on the Mount, Jesus confronted the myth of redemptive violence head-on:
You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.”
And when Jesus was given the opportunity to participate in the execution of an adulterer, he refused, challenging those who had gathered around the woman to drop their stones and walk away.
Funny how it’s easy to favor a “straightforward reading” of the text until the text says “love your enemies.”
Since he’s a brother in Christ, I’ll give Mohler the benefit of the doubt and assume he didn’t quote Jesus because he believes Jesus’ teachings regarding violence are intended to be applied exclusively at the personal level without affecting public policy. (While Old Testament law still applies?) He’s entitled to that opinion, of course, but I do wish he would stop accusing Christians who don’t interpret Genesis 1 as a literal, scientific text as having a “low view of Scripture” when his piece reveals that his own literalism is as selective as the next guy’s.
(Reality check: We’re all selective about what we interpret and apply literally from Scripture. And most of us are doing our best to honor the meaning of the biblical text while also considering its original context, culture, genre, and language. Disagreements don’t have to reflect a high view vs. a low view. Most simply reflect different views.)
Still, when we have folks declaring that support for torture and the death penalty reflect the Christian position on justice, I think it’s worth asking a seemingly obvious question: To what degree does Jesus inform our Christianity?
A recent Barna poll showed that only 10 percent of practicing Christians in America believe Jesus would support the death penalty for criminals. And yet a much higher percentage (42 percent of Christian Baby Boomers and 32 percent of Christian millennials) support the death penalty themselves.
That’s a pretty significant disconnect.
And I suspect it exists because we have created a culture in which Christians tend to see Jesus as a sort of static mechanism by which salvation is secured rather than the full embodiment of God’s will for the world whose life and teachings we are called to emulate and follow.
Basically, we believe that Jesus died to save us from our sins, but we haven’t yet embraced the reality that Jesus also lived to save us from our sins.
We haven’t embraced the reality that following the ways of Jesus leads to liberation and life more abundant - not only for ourselves but also for the whole world.
Instead, we tend to think of the Sermon on the Mount and the stories of the gospels as interesting backstory to Jesus’ march to the cross, where the penalty for our sins was paid in full. We flatten out the words of God-In-Flesh—(God eating and drinking and walking and teaching and laughing and crying among us)— and give them equal (or often lesser) value to those of the apostle Paul or Old Testament law.
But the Bible isn’t flat. The Bible reaches its culmination, indeed its fulfillment, in the person of Jesus Christ. So it seems like we ought to listen to what he had to say….and what he’s saying still.
But here’s the rub:
It’s easy for me to spot Al Mohler’s Sarah Palin’s inconsistent application of Jesus’ teachings, but the minute I turned to the Sermon on Mount to load up with proof texts against them, I was hit by this zinger:
“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder,and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell."
That word, ‘raca,’ basically means “idiot,” and when I think of all the times I’ve muttered that word under my breath in response to folks with whom I disagree, it’s a little convicting.
….Okay, a lot convicting.
(Seriously. Every time I go to the Gospels to mine them for a theological point to use in an argument, I end up walking away saying, "Dang it, Jesus! WHY!?!?")
The truth is, Jesus doesn’t always inform my Christianity either. In fact, sometimes I’m not sure I want to follow Jesus. I'm not sure it’s possible to be a healthy, well-adjusted person and go around loving your enemies and giving without expecting anything in return and turning the other cheek. For all my well-intentioned advocacy against the death penalty, I'm not certain I'd oppose it if the person on death row had killed my mother or my sister or my husband.
But if Jesus is really God-in-flesh, if he really shows us the way to live, then I need the Church to help me figure out what it looks like to do that faithfully. I need the Church to help me wrestle with these teachings, not ignore them.
And I think that begins by putting Jesus at the center, not the periphery, of what it means to be a Christian.
(See also, "Everyone's a biblical literalist until you bring up gluttony." And check out Zack Hunt's post on this as well. And also Jonathan Merritt at The Atlantic with "Would Jesus Support the Death Penalty?")
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