Christian Pacifism and New Testament Understandings of the Death of Jesus
There is a paradox with the human religious experience. On the one hand, religion is a main (perhaps the main) dynamic in death-dealing violence in the world. Yet, religious faith also often provides the main basis for the fruitful rejection of death-dealing violence.
Christian pacifism has always held that the story of Jesus points toward rejection of all violence. However, the question of how to overcome violence confronts everyone with renewed urgency. René Girard asserts that, in the light of contemporary weapons of mass destruction, human beings are essentially faced with a choice: total destruction or total renunciation of violence.
The Christian response to violence, even among Christian pacifists, has not taken seriously enough the centrality of violence in the Bible. The biblical materials portray violence as something central to human reality. At least some of those materials ultimately show that at the very heart of God, the very heart of reality, violence has no place. As Walter Wink puts it: “The violence of Scripture, embarrassing to us, [actually] became the means by which sacred violence was revealed for what it is: a lie perpetuated against victims in the name of a God who, through violence, was working to expose violence for what it is and to reveal the divine nature as nonviolent.”
A major ingredient of the Bible as a resource for peacemaking is actually that part often seen as most problematic—the Bible’s portrayal of violence. One important instance is the portrayal of Jesus’ death. Here, the two sides of the paradox of religion come into focus. On the one hand, Jesus’ death reveals a great deal about religious ideology as a major dynamic in death-dealing violence. On the other hand, Jesus’ death reveals much about religious faith as a source of freedom from the cycle of violence.
I want to consider Jesus’ death in relation to several issues—his relationship with religious institutionalism (use of institutional power in oppressive ways) as portrayed in Mark in relation to the Temple; Jesus relationship with cultural exclusivism (policies and actions that exclude people from kingdom blessing) as portrayed in Paul’s letters in relation to the law; and Jesus relationship with political authoritarianism (policies and actions that oppress and kill people) as portrayed in the Book of Revelation in relation to the Roman empire.
Jesus’ cross is significant more for its narrative content than as a basis for an ideology of sacrifice. The narrative significance is the shameful death of a good person through an act of violence on the part of the established order. Jesus’ death does not destroy these social structures. Instead, though leaving them intact, it reveals their true nature, providing a basis for withdrawal of credibility and allegiance.
When we focus on the narrative content of Jesus’ death, and how New Testament writers apply that content, we find two main themes. First is the story’s exposure of the violence of major social structures. This exposure undercuts the authority given to these institutions and in this way enables freedom to break the spiral of violence. Second, the life of Jesus, especially the way he faced the violence of these institutions points to freedom from violence.
Jesus Exposes Institutionalism (The Gospel of Mark)
The stories in the latter part of Mark’s Gospel leading up to Jesus’ crucifixion highlight Jesus’ conflict with the religious institution of the temple.
As Mark’s drama approaches its climax, Jesus enters Jerusalem (11:1). This begins the last week and final stage of Jesus’ life. First (11:11), Jesus visits the temple. We see the conflict: Jesus versus the religious leaders, the temple authorities. The conflict escalates as Jesus returns to the Temple a second time and drives “out those who were selling and those who were buying in the Temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves; and he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the Temple” (11:15). With these actions, Jesus judges these actions as defiling the temple’s true purpose.
Mark brackets this confrontation in the Temple with a two-part account of Jesus cursing a fig tree and causing it to wither (11:12-14; 11:20-21). The fig tree symbolizes Israel and its fate reflects the fate of the Temple. Jesus, with his challenge to the Temple, is actually acting out God’s judgment on the Temple. The problem with the Temple is that it has failed to be “a house of prayer for all the nations”. Instead, the Temple had become a center for religious exclusivism and economic exploitation.
We are told that in response to this so-called cleansing of the Temple, “the chief priests and scribes…kept looking for a way to kill [Jesus]” (11:18). These people, the religious leaders, were, for a time, restrained by the popularity Jesus had with the crowds. But they fully intended to do away with Jesus because he threatens their purity-based system of religious control. He not only has shown himself to be cavalier towards the purity regulations, but he also was widely known and popular. These factors alone were cause for alarm. Added to these was his direct confrontation with the Temple.
In the parable of the vineyard that immediately follows (12:1-12), Jesus likens the vineyard to the people of Israel, the watchtower to the Temple, and the tenants to the religious leaders. God intended the Temple to be a center for justice among Israel, but instead became a center for injustice. God sent messengers to restore the vineyard to its intended purposes. But the tenants murdered those messengers—analogous to the fate of prophets throughout the history of Israel. Finally, the master sends his “beloved son,” who is also murdered. This is the last straw for the owner, and he promises to come to “destroy the tenants and give the vineyard to others.”
These tenants (the religious leaders) have shown that they are in actuality rivals to the owner (God). The practices of the Temple are not faithful responses to God’s wishes but rather efforts to usurp God’s place as Israel’s object of worship.
Jesus makes a harsh critique. The parable is patterned after Isaiah’s Song of the Vineyard (5:1-7) that was itself a strong critique of unfaithful eighth-century Israel. The parable ends with a quote from Psalm 118:22-23, a Temple Psalm. Temple imagery thus pervades the parable. That the parable meant to critique current Temple practices and the religious leaders is seen in their response. “When they [the chief priests and scribes of 11:18 and 11:27] realized that [Jesus] had told this parable against them, they wanted to arrest him” (12:12).
Jesus speaks in Mark 13 of the destruction of the Temple. One of the disciples exclaims regarding the greatness of the Temple: “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” The Temple, constructed by Herod, was famous for its splendor. This exclamation likely reflects just the sense of security about the great Temple as guarantor of God’s ongoing protection for the chosen people that Jeremiah critiqued in the text Jesus earlier quoted. These wonderful buildings were seen to symbolize God’s presence with Israel.
Jesus, however, was not impressed. “Do you see those great buildings?” he replied. “Not one stone will be left here upon another. All will be thrown down” (13:2). This in part is an allusion to the impending physical destruction of this great edifice. Perhaps, too, it reflects that the spiritual authority of this institution was collapsing. Immediately after the discourse of chapter 13, we are told again that “the chief priests and the scribes were looking for a way to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him” (14:1).
Finally, they do arrest him and bring him to trial. A main charge against Jesus is that he allegedly said he would destroy the Temple (14:58). This charge is false on the surface. Jesus did not say that he would destroy the Temple. Yet, ironically, it is true in the sense that Jesus’ actions and words render the Temple’s functions meaningless.
Mark’s Gospel does not picture Jesus as actually threatening to destroy the Temple. However, the centrality of the accusation (and 15:29 indicates that the accusation stayed with Jesus) shows that Jesus’ enemies did understand him to be a such threat.
Mark’s treatment of the Temple concludes in 15:38. When Jesus died, “the curtain of the Temple was torn in two, from top to bottom.” The significance of this final event, in part at least, is connected with what immediately follows, the Roman centurion’s confession that “Truly this man was God’s Son” (15:39). The torn “curtain of the Temple” juxtaposes Jesus and the Temple as alternative places of divine presence. It provides perspective on what follows, the centurion’s confession. The death of the Servant opens the way to God for all the world by exposing sacred violence and depriving the Temple of its mystique.
For Mark’s Gospel, there is a clear connection between Jesus being put to death and Jesus’ conflict with the Temple, Jerusalem’s center of religious institutional power. In several cases—the cleansing of the Temple, the parable of the vineyard, the apocalyptic vision, and the accusation before the tribunal—we see a connection between Jesus being perceived as a threat to the institution and the promise that he will be killed for this.
In the end, though, Jesus’ death does not for Mark signal that the religious authorities are victorious. Jesus’ death actually signifies the opposite. The Temple curtain is torn. Jesus, even on the cross, fulfills what the Temple was meant to and did not—engendering worship of God by Gentiles as well as Jews. The centurion confesses that “surely this was God’s Son” (15:39).
Jesus, as interpreted by Mark, challenged the dynamics of institutionalism head on. He does so by denying the ultimate legitimacy of his culture’s central religious institutions. He does not answer the religious leaders when they have him on trial (14:61). This refusal to answer, in effect, is a statement that he rejects their legitimacy as representatives of God.
Mark contains several references to Jesus’ mission to the nations in the context of the conflicts in the Temple. The Temple in Jerusalem, in its cold institutionalism, had lost touch with God’s will that the word of mercy be expressed to all peoples. Jesus came to express that word and met only with hostility from the religious leaders. So, in effect, the old Temple must be torn down, and a new, open and inclusive Temple based on Jesus himself must take its place (as Revelation 21:22 states a few decades later: “I saw no Temple in the city, for its Temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb”).
As Mark tells the story, Jesus’ witness led to his death. However, in facing death as he did—fully committed to the life of the Spirit and free from dominance by spirit-denying hierarchies and religious ideologies—Jesus points to an alternative to life lived in obeisance to the sacred violence of religious institutionalism.
Jesus’ Death and the Law of the Spirit (Paul’s Letters)
Paul treats some elements of Jewish law as implemented by his opponents as aspects of sacred violence. This is especially evident in his letters to the Galatians and the Romans. Paul essentially argues that the central issue is one of trust. He contrasts trust in “works of the law” as an approach to salvation with trust simply in God’s mercy apart from rituals, boundary markers, and other forms of cultural exclusivity.
My view of Paul and the law is shaped by James D. G. Dunn. In Dunn’s view, “‘Works of the law’ are not understood, either by his Jewish interlocutors or by Paul himself, as works which earn God’s favor, as merit-amassing observances.” “Works of the law”, rather, play the role of indicators which show that the Jews are God’s people. They are done in order to demonstrate covenant status. “They are the proper response to God’s covenant grace, the minimal commitment for members of God’s people.” Paul, though, sees adherence to “works of the law” as too exclusive. He denies that God’s justification extends only to those who wear the badge of the covenant.
Throughout its history, Israel had placed a high priority on the law as a key element distinguishing her from the nations. Two centuries before Paul’s time, the Maccabean crisis had pushed a few key elements of law-observance to the forefront as key boundary-markers crucial for Jewish self-identity. Two of the most important were circumcision and food laws, and they remained central in Paul’s time for the same reason. Hence, when Paul speaks of “works of the law” he in particular has circumcision and food laws in mind. “Not because they are the only ‘works’ which the law requires, but because they had become the crucial test cases for covenant loyalty.” They maintained Jewish identity as God’s special chosen people. They marked the boundary between who was in and who was out.
For Paul, such an emphasis on “works of the law” as required for Christian faith was unacceptable. Because they put so much emphasis on cultural exclusivity, these “works of the law” are no different than “works of the flesh” (Galatians 5:19). “These works of the law in effect imprison God’s righteousness within a [cultural, a] racial and national, that is, [a] fleshly, framework.”
This trust in “works of the law” focused on particular boundary markers—circumcision, food purity regulations, and Sabbath observance. Such a focus led to an emphasis on clearly demarking who is in and who is out. Resistance to such demarking, which was a hallmark of Jesus and, to some degree, of the early church, met with great hostility from those zealous for “works of the law.”
Paul identifies himself as having been one such zealot. In his zeal, he was “violently persecuting the church of God and trying to destroy it” (Galatians 1:13). In fact, he was one of the most zealous of the zealous, and, as he wrote, “advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age” (Galatians 1:14).
Paul zealously defended Israel’s covenant distinctiveness, using the sword. He intended to enforce his conviction that salvation is only for Israel—and no one else. He wanted to draw a tighter, stricter line round the “righteous,” to mark them off even more clearly from the Gentile “sinner.” This was why he was so violent to the early Hellenist Christians. They were opening the door to Gentiles. Paul persecuted Christians out of his “zeal for the law as a boundary marking off righteousness with God as a special privilege to be promoted and defended.” The Hellenist Christians likely threatened Paul’s own identity as a covenant member with their inclusiveness.
Paul constructed his life around exclusivist works of the law. He did so out a heartfelt desire to do good, serve God, remain faithful to “the traditions of [his] ancestors” (Galatians 1:14). However, on his way to Damascus, he had his system turned upside down. Paul was so shattered by this confrontation with the risen Jesus that he could not see nor speak for days (Acts 9:1-9). Paul realized that in the name of service to God’s law, he was actually a murderer. The way to faithfulness to God was not via trust in “works of the law” but simply through unadorned trust in God’s unconditional mercy—especially as expressed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.
Paul came to see that trusting in “works of the law”, even when done in the name of purity and out of zeal for living faithfully to God actually led one into slavery to sin. Even while delighting with one’s heart in the law of God, when one is focusing on “works of the law” more than all-inclusive mercy, one’s practices actually reflect one’s captivity to the law of sin (Romans 7:21-25). Such captivity in actuality is captivity to sacred violence, where in the name of purity and holiness, one excludes, boasts, and even literally persecutes and kills.
Paul came to believe that the law is indeed of God but has always been meant to be secondary to the promise. The point of the law was (and is) to order life in the community of those who have received God’s promise and trusted in God’s mercy.
Appropriation of the law becomes problematic when it becomes a basis for restricting God’s mercy only to people who follow certain rituals and observances. Such an appropriation is contrary to the God-given purpose of the law. It reflects trusting in “works of the law” for one’s standing before God—not trusting in God’s unconditional mercy. Such an appropriation of the law leads to cultural exclusivism based on boundary markers which have become rigid, absolute, weapons to be used against outsiders, and means to buttress boasting and pride.
Paul affirms that Jesus Christ points to a different way—trust in God’s mercy, not works of law. Life in the Spirit replaces life focused on the flesh. And, in fact, such a life leads to fulfillment of the genuine purpose of the law—living in love (Romans 8:4).
The law itself could not bring freedom from the way of sin and violence. When people live as if it could—trusting in “works of the law” and placing priority on boundary markers as the basis of identity—then the law becomes another of the “elemental spirits” which binds people and actually separates them from God’s mercy (Galatians 4:3).
The law itself is of God. The law is good and useful to human well-being when understood properly. However, it all too often is appropriated as “works of law” that are trusted in as the foundation of people’s identity as God’s chosen people. As such, it becomes “weakened by the flesh” (Romans 8:3). Then, the law not only cannot set people free from bondage to sin and violence, it actually only tightens those chains. It becomes a cause of more sin and violence. Paul knew this from bitter personal experience, both as a chief persecutor himself and, later on, as the recipient of such sacred violence by those defending the “truth.”
For Paul, when the law is appropriated in ways that become forms of nationalism, bases for cultural exclusivism, and driving forces in setting up and enforcing rigid boundary markers, its appropriation has actually entered the world of idolatry. Paul’s claims are drastic—that law observance actually can become idolatry. But he himself knew only too well that drastic measures were required to uncover the powerful hold which this idolatry had on religious people.
When Jesus asserted that the Sabbath was made for human beings, not human beings for the Sabbath (Mark 2:27), he exposed this idolatry. An institution that justifies violence against human beings in the name of principles, rules, and regulations actually worships those regulations and rules more than the merciful God. God desires mercy much more than rituals and sacrifices.
The alternative to trusting in works of the law is simple trust in God’s mercy, in God’s promise. Paul develops this contrast in Romans 4 by discussing Abraham, who he asserts was “reckoned righteous” before the beginning of the rite of circumcision. It was not Abraham’s obedience to this regulation that justified him, but his simple trust in God’s unconditional mercy.
Paul knew from his own life that his new approach to the law would bring about a violent response. The perspective that turns “works of the law” into cultural exclusivism, as Paul himself had done, is based on deep-seated, often hidden, violence.
Paul quotes Deuteronomy 21:23: “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree” (Galatians 3:13), implying that Jesus was seen as a covenant breaker. Jesus violated boundaries set by the law, and he suffered justifiably violent consequences. Paul came to believe, though, after his Damascus road experience, that, in fact, God affirms the one the so-called law cursed. Jesus brought sacred violence to the surface, thereby revealing that the law as Paul had understood it was not God’s actual law. Paul had focused on “works of the law”, and this led him to commit acts of violence. He had failed to see the law as serving God’s mercy, making it serve cultural exclusivity instead.
Paul himself had joined with the forces who had put Jesus to death. By challenging exclusivity and boasting, Jesus lay bare the reality that a system so characterized was based on violence. And when such a system is challenged, the underlying violence becomes explicit and overt. In Jesus’ case, this violence contributed to his death.
The sacred violence inherent in the law understood primarily as cultural exclusivity is revealed in the murder of Jesus, the one who Paul came to see as actually a genuine upholder of God’s true law—the law of love. Paul came to know Jesus and his way as, in fact, the revelation of the true God. Hence, he came to see that the death of Jesus uncovers the violence of the way of trusting in works of the law, the violence of cultural exclusivism. For Paul, Jesus’ death also points toward life. Jesus’ death, followed by resurrection, makes God’s mercy more apparent and the Spirit more accessible.
In light of the life Jesus witnesses to, Paul asserts that the genuine law is the law of love, living freely in light of God’s mercy and showing that mercy toward others (Romans 13:8-10). This love is modeled after the very heart of God. For Paul, Jesus’ death reveals the sacred violence of trust in works of the law leading to cultural exclusivity. And Jesus’ death reveals violence-free living, through which is experienced blessings of appropriate law-observance.
Jesus’ Death and the Powers That Be (Revelation)
Jesus’ way as critique of the Empire is a central theme in the Book of Revelation. John, the author of Revelation, presents an image of the Roman empire as a demonic Beast.
The most direct reason John would express such antipathy was the Roman demand that people render to Caesar and to the state that which belongs to God alone. Such demands compelled the early church to resist the empire, even to the point of death.
John uses another image for Rome: “Babylon.” John’s Babylon represents political authoritarianism. For first-century Jews and Christians, Babylon stands in for Rome. Babylon and Rome each destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple.
John encourages Christians to faithfulness in face of political authoritarianism. John argues that the Lamb that was slain genuinely has power and reveals God’s ways with the world. Jesus’ death is crucial for John’s case in several ways.
(1) Jesus’ death brings to the surface the actual nature of the Beast. John’s revelation strips off the mask of benevolence and reveals, beneath it, the true spirit of Rome. He sees a monstrous deformity bent on supplanting God (Rev 13) and a harlot seated on Rome’s seven hills who seduces kings of the earth (17:1-18 ).
The empire is violent, the force that nailed Jesus to the Cross (16:4-7; 18:24). John presents evil, not as the threat of anarchy, but as the system of order. This system of order institutionalizes violence as the foundation of its way of being. Jesus was a threat to order, so he was eliminated. As Walter Wink points out, the new insight here is that order is not the opposite of chaos. Instead, the empire’s order is actually the means by which a system of chaos among the nations is maintained. Empire is not, then, the bulwark against disorder. Empire actually is disorder epitomized.
(2) Jesus’ death also points to a way to break free from the spiral of violence. In response to the violence of the Beast in chapter 13, John calls upon the “relentless persistence and fidelity of the saints” (13:10). The only way to opt out of the dynamic of an eye taking an eye taking an eye is simply to refuse to retaliate, simply to refuse to add fuel to the fire. What this relentless persistence means is non-retaliation, even in the face of death. Retaliation inevitably adds to the spiral of violence and ultimately adds to the power of the demonic.
One’s identity as a child of God has to do with living with relentless persistence in the ways of love. For Jesus, and his followers, living consistently with this identity provides power to accept even the utmost suffering. Such living breaks the spiral of violence.
(3) Jesus’ death also engenders encouragement because, with it, God’s loving involvement with human beings was not destroyed. In Revelation, John uses various images to symbolize that the Lamb who was slain lives. God in Christ conquered death through resurrection. Death lost its sting and the relentless persistence of Jesus in the ways of peaceableness was vindicated.
To support this understanding of John’s argument, I want to look at two texts: 5:1-12 and 19:11-20.
Chapter five is the key to the entire book. We are shown a scroll. The content of the scroll reveals God’s redemptive intentions for the creation. However, at first, the scroll cannot be opened. “Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?” (5:2). No one. So John “wept much” (5:4). Presumably, without the scroll being broken, the promised healing will remain ineffectual. The spiral of violence will remain intact.
One of the elders, however, tells John not to weep. Someone has been found. “The Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered” (5:5). What John hears—the traditional Old Testament expectation of military deliverance—is reinterpreted in 5:6 by what he sees—the historical fact of Jesus’ death. He sees a “Lamb” who bears the marks of slaughter, which are explained by the heavenly choir later: With his lifeblood he has set free “for God people from every tribe.” The “Lamb” is the symbol of suffering and redemptive love. And the Lamb is “standing,” an image of resurrection.
The lamb’s death is not weakness and defeat, but power and victory. God’s power and victory lay in suffering love (in contrast with Satan’s power, Satan, whose Beast looks like a lamb but speaks like a dragon 13:11).
The Lamb, through his death, is called “conqueror.” The Lamb conquers (3:21; 5:5; 17:14), as do faithful Christians (2:7,11,17,26; 3:5,12,21; 12:11; 15:2; 21:7), through relentless persistence, even to the point of death. “Conquering” results from suffering love, not destructive judgments on enemies. John sees Jesus’ death as powerful even over against the empire.
Many of Revelation’s visions picture the fall of the Beast, and of Babylon the great, due in large part due to the effects of the death of Jesus. One such vision is found in 19:11-20. The vision begins with Jesus riding a white horse (19:11), that symbolizes victory. The rider is called “Faithful and True”; that is, “the faithful and true witness” of earlier in the book (1:5; 3:14). He remained faithful and true even when it meant death. That is how he gained the white horse.
In verse 13, the rider approaches this battle “clad in a robe dipped in blood.” The blood has been shed before the battle begins. This alludes to Jesus’ blood in his death, and is the reason why no actual battle takes place here. Jesus can already ride the white horse. The actual battle is over. Jesus won it through his death. He faced the violence of political authoritarianism and refused to retaliate, remaining faithful to the God who loves enemies.
The Beast and the kings and armies are all ready for battle (19:19). They genuinely are deceived to think that one will occur. However, the battle is past. Jesus simply captures the Beast and false prophet and throws them into the fiery lake (19:20). There is no battle.
John provides a picture that reveals that the “order” of our seemingly all-powerful political structures may well have about it a strong element of the demonic. That is, the order of Babylon is actually chaos. It is the power of chaos, not authentic peace, which puts to death one such as Jesus. This revelation can help those with eyes to see to discern that Caesar does not have the sovereignty he claims. John points out the Beast’s role in Jesus’ death. He pictures this type of violent response to God’s messengers of peace as endemic in the ways of the Beast. This stands as a reminder to remain wary of all claims that the Beast might be changing its spots.
John’s visions also encourage his readers not to accept the Beast’s definition of reality. Revelation 13 talks about a second Beast, the first Beast’s false prophet, an ancient allusion to what we today call propaganda. The legitimacy of the Beast depends upon the masses believing in it. If we see what happened to Jesus as typical of the ways of Beast, we will grow a great deal in our skepticism toward the propaganda we are fed.
As Walter Wink writes: “When anyone steps out of the system and tells the truth, lives the truth, that person enables everyone else to peer behind the curtain too. That person has shown everyone that it is possible to live within the truth, despite the repercussions. Living within the lie can constitute the system only if it is universal. Anyone who steps out of line therefore denies it in principle and threatens it in its entirety.”
The death of Jesus, as understood by John, engenders resistance to the Beast by bringing to the surface the Beast’s violence. Hence, this violence becomes visible for those with eyes to see. Such sight undercuts the Beast’s claim to be the people’s “benefactor.” Jesus’ way of facing death also provides encouragement by pointing to the power of relentless persistence. Trust in that kind of power is the key to breaking the spiral of violence.
Jesus’ death exposes the tendencies of these three powers (religious institutions, cultural ordering systems, and political structures) toward fueling the spiral of violence. Religious institutions ask at times for loyalty that values the survival of the institution above the well-being of human beings. Cultural ordering systems ask at times for loyalty which excludes outsiders; even blames or scapegoats outsiders as the cause of the culture’s problems and as legitimate recipients of “sacred violence.” Political structures ask at times for loyalty that buttresses power politics and treats with violence any who threaten the status quo’s peace and tranquility.
Jesus bumped up against all three areas of social life. He brought to the surface their intolerance of people who resist their demand for highest loyalty. Jesus—by acting deeply in harmony with God’s will for peace and compassion for all people—revealed the deep-seated violence in the major structures of his society.
Jesus’ fate helps show how these structures work. So much of their power is the power of belief, of trust. If people believe in, trust in, the supremacy of religious institutions, of cultural systems, or of empires, they provide the basis of much of the power these structures have. But Jesus’ fate—for those who do see him as embodying God’s will for human beings—reveals these structures to be unworthy of such trust. These structures did violence to Jesus, the Son of God. When people no longer give supreme trust to these structures, one of the main elements of the spiral of violence will be broken.
The thinking might go like this: The Roman state nailed Jesus to the cross. I realize now that most states do that kind of thing, so maybe I’ll no longer let my state tell me to kill for its sake. Or: The strictest defenders of the religious institutions sought for ways to kill Jesus because he was, to them, a heretic—I realize now that most religious institutions are capable of focusing on ideology and survival at all costs, and willing to scapegoat and sacrifice so-called heretics. So maybe I’ll no longer let a religious institution define my enemies.
Jesus’ death also points toward life. Jesus modeled a life lived in the power of the Spirit right up to the bitter end. The powers of death did not conquer him because he chose not to respond with an eye for an eye, he chose to live (and die) free from the spiral of violence.
When Peter fought back and cut off a soldier’s ear in Gethsemane, Jesus challenged him: “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword. Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?” (Matthew 26:52-53).
In effect, this was the temptation Satan gave Jesus in the wilderness back at the beginning. Exert your force and make things work out right. But that would only add more violence to the spiral. Jesus’ life in the Spirit throughout, witnesses to the possibilities of not adding to the spiral. That life was vindicated when God raised Jesus from the dead. Jesus shows that the power of the Spirit of life remains vital despite the all-out assault of the powers of death.
1. This chapter originated as a paper presented to the conference, “René Girard and Biblical Peace Theology,” Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary, Elkhart, IN, June 1994. An earlier version was published in Willard M. Swartley, ed., Violence Renounced: René Girard, Biblical Studies, and Peacemaking (Telford, PA: Pandora Press US, 2000), 49-69.
2. See Douglas Gwyn, George Hunsberger, Eugene F. Roop, and John Howard Yoderr, A Declaration of Peace: In God’s People the World’s Renewal Has Begun (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1991).
3. René Girard, Violence and the Sacred (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977), 240.
4. Walter Wink, Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), 147.
5. James D. G. Dunn, “The New Perspective on Paul,” in Jesus, Paul, and the Law: Studies in Mark and Galatians (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1990), 194.
6. Dunn, “New Perspective,” 210.
7. Dunn, “New Perspective,” 199-200.
8. James D. G. Dunn, The Partings of the Ways: Between Christianity and Judaism and the Significance for the Character of Christianity (Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1991), 121-22.
9. Paul’s harsh criticism of trust in “works of the law” and the violence that he sees likely to follow from such trust must not be interpreted as a blanket rejection of the law or of Judaism. One of the greatest tragedies of human history is how Paul’s words were interpreted in ways that supported the exact evils that he was trying to counter—sacred violence in the name of cultural exclusivity (in this case, Christians doing violence to Jews—a mirror of what he had done as a “zealot”). A legitimate Christian appropriation of Paul’s critique of trust in “works of the law” would lead to a critique of Christian versions of such idolatrous trust, not to a Christian critique of Judaism and certainly to sacred violence against Jews.
10. Wink, Engaging, 90-91.
11. Wink, Engaging, 98.