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Sunday, July 16, 2006

Word For The Week

In light of the current goings-on in and around Israel and some of the conversations that I've had over the last couple weeks regarding this round of fighting within the context of the previous rounds of fighting, I believe this would be a good time to revisit the question of whether or not the Christian is required to be a pacifist. Required?

- God

Any questions? How about Matthew 22:37-40? Does anyone desire to be killed? Isn't it rather difficult to love your neighbor as yourself when you're killing him? Didn't Jesus speak directly to this in Matthew 5:38-48? Anybody care to argue with Jesus on that point? Maybe it would be easier to argue with Paul. Couple that with Romans 12:17-21 and I have to ask the question: How can a Christian justify war?

The pacifists' position is alluring to the Christian because of our desire to live at peace with all men. We believe in and strive for harmonious relations with all people everywhere such that we may bring them the good news of our salvation. We try to emulate Jesus who, when taken by the Romans to be accused, beaten and crucified, never said a mumbling word. Given this, war is a difficult proposition for the Christian. It does not, however, preclude our support for and participation in just wars. As we seek to emulate Jesus Christ we must emulate his entire character, not just one aspect of it. As we seek to fulfill the commands of God we must reflect God's entire character and nature. God is indeed forbearing, bearing the transgressions of sinners for ages, but God is also just, bringing justice upon the heads of transgressors. Yes, God pours out His mercy upon those who will repent and receive it, yet God also pours out His wrath upon the unrepentant. You cannot have one without the other, we cannot divide God's character into sections we like and sections we'd rather not speak about - we must take God as He has revealed Himself to us, the whole enchilada. That said, how can Christians possibly justify war? Isn't the Bible straightforward on this point, particularly in the passages already mentioned? Let us look at these verses in detail.

Exodus 20:13 says, "You shall not murder." It does not say, "You shall not kill." What is the difference? The original Hebrew conveys the idea of laying-in-wait, what we would call 1st degree murder. Further illuminating the idea of this passage is the case law that followed it, the practical application of the Ten Commandments. Consider Exodus 21:12-14. This is a clarification of the "You shall not murder" command, highlighting the point that the prohibition is against, contemporarily speaking, sneaking up on somebody and shooting him in the back of the head. On the other hand, if they happen to encounter each other and get into a fight and one dies (2nd or 3rd degree murder), the survivor was to go to a safe haven where no vendetta could be carried out against him. The point here is fairness - do not sneak up on someone to kill him but give him a fighting chance by dealing with him face-to-face, man-to-man. The point here is justice, doing that which is just.

We see even more clearly that God was not prohibiting all taking of human life by His reaction to the Israelites' apostasy a few chapters later in Exodus 32:25-29. Clearly, God didn't have a problem with men killing other men.

But that's the Old Testament, what about the New? What about the Sermon on the Mount? Could Jesus have been any clearer on the pacifistic nature of the believer? The truth is that we must interpret Jesus' words as He intended them in this passage - hyperbolically. Hyperbole is exaggeration for effect, a literary device used to draw attention to an important point. When a suitor tell his lover, "I'll die if I don't see you today" he is exaggerating to make the point that he wants to see her. He knows that he is exaggerating and she knows that he is exaggerating. However, when the doctor calls you and says, "You'll die if I don't see you today," that is not hyperbole and you'd better take that literally.

So how can we tell the difference? One way is to see if literal interpretation would achieve the stated objective. Consider the passage just before the "eye-for-an-eye" section, Matthew 5:27-37. Would ripping out your eye keep you from lusting? Would cutting off your hand keep you from committing adultery? How long would it take for all of society to be handless and eyeless? Days? Minutes? Seconds? Is that the objective of the passage? Obviously not. Furthermore, where in the New Testament do we see anyone plucking out eyes or cutting off hands? Did those who heard these words of Jesus interpret them literally or did they understand them to be hyperbolic?

How does divorcing one's wife make her to commit adultery? Does the simple fact that her husband left her make her an adulteress? Again, this is hyperbole. Marrying one who has been divorced would be adultery if the previous man were still considered to be her husband, however Jesus seemed to take a different view with the Samaritan woman in John 4. If Jesus took the position that only her first husband was her true husband then in verses 17-18 He should have said, "You have incorrectly said, 'I have no husband' for you have broken faith with the husband of your youth and have been with five different men since leaving your husband." However, that is not what Jesus said. Jesus actually affirmed the fact that she had no husband in verse 17. If she has no husband then she does not commit adultery when she marries someone. Clearly, Matthew 5:31-32 is hyperbole as well.

Was Jesus against oaths? When He was brought before the High Priest he said not a word. However, when the High Priest put him under oath, Jesus responded. Look at Matthew 26:62-64. Jesus broke His silence because He was placed under oath and He respected it. Jesus' teaching was not that oaths were invalid but that their use to obfuscate commitments was invalid. Look at Jesus' correction of the Pharisaic abuse of oaths in Matthew 23. Jesus' teaching on oaths was not that oaths were innately wrong but that men must not try to weasel out of their commitments. Jesus' teaching on divorce was not that divorce is the unpardonable sin but that men ought not divorce their wives. Jesus teaching on lust was not that men ought to mutilate themselves but that they should control themselves. Jesus used hyperbole to communicate these truths in this section of the Sermon on the Mount as He continued to the end of the chapter.

Jesus was also correcting the additions to the Law and misinterpretations of the Law by the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Scribes. The concept of "Eye for an Eye" had been mangled from its original intent of proportionality. Look at Exodus 21:22-25:
If men struggle with each other and strike a woman with child so that she gives birth prematurely, yet there is no injury, he shall surely be fined as the woman's husband may demand of him, and he shall pay as the judges decide. But if there is any further injury, then you shall appoint as a penalty life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.
This clear command for proportionality in justice had been misrepresented to mean that each person is entitled to personally seek vengeance for any and every wrong suffered. Jesus demolished this misrepresentation by saying that not only do you not avenge yourself eye for eye, tooth for tooth, but instead you turn the other cheek - exposing your other eye and the rest of your teeth. Jesus used hyperbole to expose the wrongness of the teachings of the teachers of the Law.

The teachers of the Law also misrepresented the command to love your neighbor by adding, "and hate your enemy." Jesus wiped this one clean by retorting directly, not hyperbolically, that we must love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. He proceeds to explain why we should do this in verses 45-48, ending the section of hyperbole as He moved into a mode of didactic teaching. Thus, the passiveness inferred by pacifists from this passage is not a norm for all of life. We are to love our enemies and pray for those who would bring us harm, but we are also to defend ourselves.

Consider Luke 22:35-38:

And He said to them, "When I sent you out without money belt and bag and sandals, you did not lack anything, did you?" They said, "No, nothing." And He said to them, "But now, whoever has a money belt is to take it along, likewise also a bag, and whoever has no sword is to sell his coat and buy one. For I tell you that this which is written must be fulfilled in Me, 'AND HE WAS NUMBERED WITH TRANSGRESSORS'; for that which refers to Me has its fulfillment." They said, "Lord, look, here are two swords." And He said to them, "It is enough."
Did Jesus tell them to get rid of their swords? No. Did Jesus remind them about turning the other cheek? No. Jesus said, "It is enough." There is debate over the exact meaning of this passage, but one thing is clear: Jesus did not oppose self-defense here. Even in the garden of Gethsemane when Jesus rebuked Peter for attacking the servants of the High Priest Jesus notes that He could call legions of angels to fight for his defense. Look at Matthew 26:52-54:
Then Jesus said to him, "Put your sword back into its place; for all those who take up the sword shall perish by the sword. Or do you think that I cannot appeal to My Father, and He will at once put at My disposal more than twelve legions of angels? How then will the Scriptures be fulfilled, which say that it must happen this way?"
Jesus said that he could have angels fight on His behalf if He so chose - clearly not a passive or pacifistic statement. The pacifist will undoubtedly point out verse 52b, "for all those who take up the sword shall perish by the sword." Once again, we see hyperbole at work. Obviously, there are those who have made a living by means of the sword and have died fat and happy; Joseph Stalin is one example out of many. Generally speaking, however, taking up the sword long-term is hazardous to one's health - especially when taking up the sword against the strongest military power in the world, as the 1st century Jews were beginning to do. They felt the brunt of the truth of Jesus' words in 70 AD when Rome sacked Jerusalem and over 1 million people died. So the question remains, "Is it ever just to take up the sword?"

What about Paul's words on the subject? Unfortunately, Paul's words are often taken so far out of context that Paul would probably have trouble recognizing them himself. The passage that says, "for though we walk in the flesh, we do not war according to the flesh, for the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh" is usually quoted in isolation from its context. Look at the whole context:
Now I, Paul, myself urge you by the meekness and gentleness of Christ-- I who am meek when face to face with you, but bold toward you when absent! I ask that when I am present I need not be bold with the confidence with which I propose to be courageous against some, who regard us as if we walked according to the flesh. For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war according to the flesh, for the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh, but divinely powerful for the destruction of fortresses. We are destroying speculations and every lofty thing raised up against the knowledge of God, and we are taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ, and we are ready to punish all disobedience, whenever your obedience is complete.
In context Paul is talking about correcting ignorant speculations and beliefs about God. This passage has absolutely nothing to do with pacifism. It has everything to do with discipleship. How about the passage in Romans 12:17-21? Verse 18 is as conditional a statement as you will ever find, "If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men." "If possible" - it may not be possible. "So far as it depends on you" - you may not have a choice. A straightforward reading of the passage gives the clear meaning - do not cause trouble.

But is it ever just to take up the sword?

Paul seemed to think so in Romans 13:3-4. Apparently, sword-bearing is not innately evil, but actually can bring God's wrath upon the one(s) who practice evil. The writer of the book of Hebrews links sword-bearing to the faith of the saints. Addressing the saints of the New Testament Church, the writer of Hebrews gave instances of Old Testament saints conquering kingdoms, becoming mighty in war, and putting foreign armies to flight as examples of faith in God, not as the faithless hardening of their hearts. They engaged in war because they believed in God - "who by faith conquered kingdoms..."

Furthermore, if bearing the sword were inherently evil, i.e. sinful, then Jesus would never be presented in that fashion. In Revelation 19:11-16 John sees the conquering Christ:
And I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse, and He who sat on it is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness He judges and wages war. His eyes are a flame of fire, and on His head are many diadems; and He has a name written on Him which no one knows except Himself. He is clothed with a robe dipped in blood, and His name is called The Word of God. And the armies which are in heaven, clothed in fine linen, white and clean, were following Him on white horses. From His mouth comes a sharp sword, so that with it He may strike down the nations, and He will rule them with a rod of iron; and He treads the wine press of the fierce wrath of God, the Almighty. And on His robe and on His thigh He has a name written, "KING OF KINGS, AND LORD OF LORDS."
Is Jesus ever portrayed as a murderer? Of course not, because murder is innately wrong. Is Jesus ever portrayed as an adulterer? Of course not, because adultery is innately wrong. Is Jesus ever portrayed as a thief? No - his return is portrayed as a thief comes at night, i.e. stealthily, but Jesus is never compared to the thief himself. Notice that the passages that refer to Jesus' return being as "a thief in the night" never talk about Jesus stealing anything. Yet in this passage in Revelation Jesus is presented as a warrior who strikes down the nations. If bearing the sword in this fashion were innately evil and sinful then Jesus would never be presented in this fashion. Moreover, one of the highest words of praise that Jesus had for any human being was for a soldier in Matthew 8:5-10:
And when Jesus entered Capernaum, a centurion came to Him, imploring Him, and saying, "Lord, my servant is lying paralyzed at home, fearfully tormented." Jesus said to him, "I will come and heal him." But the centurion said, "Lord, I am not worthy for You to come under my roof, but just say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I also am a man under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to this one, 'Go!' and he goes, and to another, 'Come!' and he comes, and to my slave, 'Do this!' and he does it."

Now when Jesus heard this, He marveled and said to those who were following, "Truly I say to you, I have not found such great faith with anyone in Israel."

If Jesus was a pacifist then He certainly would have taken a moment to make a point here, yet He did not. One of the first Gentiles to convert to Christianity was a centurion and his household, and the man after God's own heart, King David, bore the sword to significant success. Both the Old Testament and the New Testament confirm the fact that there are times when it is just to take up the sword - the Lord is the same yesterday, today and forever - so clearly, pacifism is not mandated from the Bible.

But Jesus is the Prince of Peace, and inasmuch as we seek to live in harmony with one another, to be sympathetic, loving as brothers, compassionate and humble, not repaying evil with evil or insult with insult, but instead blessing those that curse us, pacifism is certainly allowable from a Biblical worldview, it just isn't necessarily the best way to go when someone is threatening to kill your friends and family, when someone is currently trying to kill your loved-ones, when someone has tried at least three times to eradicate you from the face of the planet then the pacifistic option might not be the one for you. If you have no enemies, if you have no interactions with others, if you are isolated from the rest of the world then it is much easier to be a pacifist.

As for me and my house, we will fight back.

May the LORD bless you and keep you;
May the LORD make His face shine upon you and be gracious to you;
And may the LORD,
Who wants you to accept the full characted of Christ,
May He turn His face toward you and give you peace.

Emancipated by Athanasius @ 11:00 AM

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