Columbine High School, 1999. Virginia Tech University, 2007. Students opening fire on fellow students and their teachers, leaving some dead, many more wounded, and great pain. Everyone wanted to know: why did these things happen? All kinds of solutions were sought, but few wanted to actually explore society and its values to see if there was perhaps a corollary. The day of the Columbine massacre also saw the greatest day of bombing in the Kosovo campaign; the Virginia Tech massacre occurred in the midst of the violence surrounding the Iraq war. In reality, violence permeates our society in many ways. Let us consider the nature of violence and what the New Testament has to say about it.
Violence has been part of the world since the fall of man in Genesis 3. As anyone who watches nature show can attest, nature is a very violent place: animals kill other animals for food, status, or some other form of benefit. Most people see this from the safety of their homes; nevertheless, ancient persons had much to fear from animals, and the Bible records instances of people being attacked and killed by animals (1 Kings 13:24, 2 Kings 2:24). Furthermore, we humans often feed on other animals, and while modern man is often shielded from the violence, getting meat in nice sanitary packages at the grocery store, such has not always been so. There were in sacrifices and procurement of meat constant reminders of the violence necessary for humans to live and to have sin forgiven. Violence, then, is indeed part of the natural order of things, since it is present in nature and inherent in how we get our food. Nevertheless, such does not make, in and of itself, violent people.
In reality, our society is blameworthy. Unnecessary violence is everywhere. Violence is now a staple in movies: Saving Private Ryan can be shown on television with more people concerned about profanity than the extremely violent scenes permeating the film. The nightly news is little better: images of violence, both here and abroad, both “illegal” and “legal”, are carried across the airwaves daily. Children are not immune from this: video games continually simulate violent conditions and violent actions. It does not take long to become inured to violence in modern America; few, if any, think much about the violence to which they are continually exposed. “Real” or “unreal”, violence is portrayed as the norm: conflicts are to be resolved by violence, glory and honor are to be gained through violent means. Why, then, should we be surprised when people continue to act violently?
The Bible demonstrates that violence and bloodshed come as a result of a lack of knowledge of God in the land (Hosea 4:1-3). While violence was an unfortunate necessity in terms of physical Israel, God has no desire for members of spiritual Israel to engage in such violence. The Lord Himself said in Luke 6:27-31, 35-36:
“But I say unto you that hear, Love your enemies, do good to them that hate you, bless them that curse you, pray for them that despitefully use you. To him that smiteth thee on the one cheek offer also the other; and from him that taketh away thy cloak withhold not thy coat also. Give to every one that asketh thee; and of him that taketh away thy goods ask them not again. And as ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise…but love your enemies, and do them good, and lend, never despairing; and your reward shall be great, and ye shall be sons of the Most High: for he is kind toward the unthankful and evil. Be ye merciful, even as your Father is merciful.”
Jesus established similar truths in Matthew 5:38-47 and exemplified it in His own life, suffering the violence of others (Isaiah 53).
Paul provides similar instruction in Romans 12:14, 17-21:
Bless them that persecute you; bless, and curse not…Render to no man evil for evil. Take thought for things honorable in the sight of all men. If it be possible, as much as in you lieth, be at peace with all men. Avenge not yourselves, beloved, but give place unto the wrath of God: for it is written,
“Vengeance belongeth unto me; I will recompense,” saith the Lord.
But if thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him to drink: for in so doing thou shalt heap coals of fire upon his head. Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good.
Factors that lead to violence– enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, and envy– are all condemned in Galatians 5:19-21 as “works of the flesh”; that which makes for peace– love, joy, patience, kindness, goodness, self-control– are manifestations of the fruit of the Spirit, which ought to mark the Christian (Galatians 5:22-24).
There are also examples that put these concepts into practice. We have already seen how Jesus Himself suffered violence but did not act violently in return; Stephen, when he was being stoned by the Jews, did not himself pick up stones but asked for the forgiveness of those who were killing him (Acts 7:54-60). There is no example in the New Testament of any Christian accomplishing the will of God through violent means.
The New Testament, then, is extremely clear that Christians are not to be violent in any way toward their fellow man. Such invariably places Christians in conflict with the world, since the world currently operates on the premise that violence is the means to success. When the world would fight, Christians are to seek peace. When the world would persecute, Christians are to pray and bless. When the world would seek to do harm, Christians are to seek to do good. In so doing, we “heap coals of fire” upon the world, and hope and pray that some realize the error of the world (1 John 2:15-17).
Let us exercise love, peace, patience, goodness, and self-control, not repaying evil for evil, forsaking violent means so that we may be found pleasing to God!