Matthew Henry John Bartlett

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Wednesday 12 October, 02005


by Matthew Bartlett @ 12:06 am

Richard B Hays’ The Moral Vision of the New Testament is the most beautiful book I’ve read for a long time. It’s sharper than ye olde two-edged sword:

One reason that the world finds the New Testament’s message of peacemaking and love of enemies incredible is that the church is so massively faithless. On the question of violence, the church is deeply comprimised and committed to nationalism, violence, and idolatry. (By comparison, our problems with sexual sin are trivial.) This indictment applies alike to liberation theologies that jsutify violence against oppressors and to establishment Christianity that continues to play chaplain to the military-industrial complex, citing just war theory and advocating the defense of a particular nation as though that were somehow a Christian value.
   Only when the Church renounces the way of violence will people see what the Gospel means, because then they will see the way of Jesus reenacted in the church. Whenever God’s people give up the predictable ways of violence and self-defense, they are forced to formulate imaginative new responses in particular historical settings, responses as startling as going the second mile to carry the burden of a soldier who had compelled the defenseless follower of Jesus to carry it one mile first. The exact character of these imaginative responses can be worked out only in the life of particular Christian communities; however, their common denominator will be conformity to the example of Jesus, whose own imaginative performance of enemy-love led him to the cross. If we live in obedience to Jesus’ command to renounce violence, the church will become the sphere where the future of God’s righteousness intersects – and challenges – the present tense of human existence. The meaning of the New Testament’s teaching on violence will become evident only in communities of Jesus’ followers who embody the costly way of peace.

25 responses to “1001”

  1. Matthew Baird says:

    Interesting. Where do we take this? Somebody sells faulty goods, do you return them? Your employer underpays you and mistreats you, do you take it to the proper authorities or suffer the punishment in peace? These are complex issues methinks. Though I like the spirit of what is said.

  2. Ben Hoyt says:

    It seems like he’s arguing for a superficial non-violence, that is, pacifism. I’m convinced we’re not called to pacifists. I’d have hated to be one in WWII Holland, or when the slave-traders came to my tribe in Africa. (I’m not at all advocating militarism; that’s at least as bad.)

    Saying it’s wrong to defend a “particular nation” just shows how he’s given in to globalism. Our family and our home is very important, as is our home territory, our nation. When America or China or whoever start bombing NZ, I’m going to defend my home and my neighbour. But I’m not going to go half way round the world and attack them just because I think they may possibly attack us some day.

    Incidentally, the other day I discovered that Jehovah’s Witnesses are pacifists. Franci was talking to a JW about this, and she asked whether he’d use force to defend his family if his kids were being hit and his wife raped. He said no, he wouldn’t.

    This is wrong, and (I think) cowardly. The Bible allows for forceful self-defense. The same Bible says we must be at peace with all men. But it’s superficial to think we can’t do both.

    However, two other (younger) JWs I was talking with said they’d definitely defend their family, but not get involved in any “political violence”. That’s at least a saner pacifism.

    Chesterton had some strong things to say against both pacifism and militarism. Read more on

    Incidentally, is the word “violence” used in Scripture? Where is Jesus’ command to renounce it?

  3. Ben Hoyt says:

    Matt’s blog was being too clever :-) and something funny happened above with that Chesterton link. Here it is loud and clear:

  4. dennis bartlett says:

    America’s deisre to stay isolated in the 30’s
    and let Japan have her way in China eventually led to greater violence and world war….don’t you think

  5. Ben, that quote was the conclusion to a longish and well-argued chapter. I guess I’ll have to either internalise RH’s points well enough to argue it, or else get photocopying.

  6. anna says:

    i like it very much matt – especially the bit about creatively finding other ways of approaching these issues – i’ve always been so surprised at how quickly xians get into this whole nationalism/patriotism rubbish as if it’s a biblical imperative. it’s something i’ve mostly always thought, altho when I was in NZ that kind of thinking in ref church youth circles was always looked down at condescendingly as if somehow it meant your theology wasn’t right. glad to see this post. see you in december xx

  7. Tim says:

    Sorry, Matt, I strongly disagree. There is a time for violence. Ben’s ‘family being attacked’ point is a good one. In fact Ben’s comments on the whole are good. In conclusion, what Ben said.

  8. david says:

    hey matt, nice post. I’d be keen to read more about it… maybe even read the book if you still have it?

    Ben, I don’t think the author of the above will be against a husband protecting his wife and child from an attack. From what I can tell, this is dealing with violence on a bit of a different scale than just defending oneself if you are being beaten up. Would that be a fair understanding matt of what this author is aiming at?

  9. Tim, OTOH, when Jesus was being taken away to be killed he stopped his disciple from defending him (surely the most justifiable ‘violence’ imaginable) and told him off “he who lives by the sword will die by the sword”.

  10. Matthew Baird says:

    Is it not true however, that Peter was atleast partly in error because he had failed to realise the need for Christ to be delivered up. Thus I would state that while it might be extremely empathisable violence, it is not extremely justifiable. Although I am of tending to agree to the point tho.

  11. richface says:

    Not sure I’m tending to agree with the point. Not sure ‘he who lives by the sword dies by it’ is a clear directive for passivism — more likely to be a statement of fact. Anyway use of sword is not equal to living by the sword. That might be an important distinction.

  12. Tim says:

    So Matt would you violently defend your wife if she was being raped?

  13. Tim, well at this stage I’m trying to figure out whether or not the NT is for or against that.

  14. D says:

    I think most of us dream of non-violence and peace – in our own lives and relationships, in our country and globally.

    And I’m deeply impressed by the example of people like Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Gandhi and Jesus. From time to time I’ve debated (at times, hotly) whether pacifism is an essential message in the Bible (for those in the know, Rance Darity has a lot to say on this).

    Increasingly though it seems to me that non-violence of the type we find in the words and actions of Jesus is a response to a particular contingent situation – that is, the Jewish nation was heavily subjugated and it was simply foolish to rebel in what was already a tense political environment in the 1st century AD. That’s a good part of what the Sermon of the Mount seems to be saying. And while much of early church history seems to be pacifist, (perhaps due to the impossibility of the contrary in any effective way?) post-Constantine this changed significantly and has remained so until the present day. To say that Jesus was speaking to the situations we now find ourselves in seems to strain credibility and distort his words and the context he was working in.

    And while the Christian tradition seem ambiguous, the overall picture is even more so when we focus on the Jewish Scriptures, not a small part of which seems to include a divinely sanctioned “commitment to nationalism” and violence.

    Perhaps it is most fair to say that the Bible simply doesn’t unambiguously teach either non-violent pacifism or “just war”. That the community of the people of god were to embody peace I would affirm, but the responsible for people today to do that is less obvious.

    For myself, I’d say that the most perfect resistance is non-violent. And sometimes that works – for it to work it generally requires a powerful, prophetic vision which imagines a different way of life and inspires and empowers others to rise up and say “No more!” in a way which cannot be ignored. In this non-violent resistance there is a certain “power of powerlessness” which is beautiful and effective. Alas – sometimes it has no effect and still worse, sometimes it brings about more blood-shed. Sometimes the tanks roll out and we have Tianamen Square. Sometimes it is not enough to love those who through their injustice make themselves your enemy. Sometimes they must not be allowed to perpetuate any more wanton violence.

    Sometimes, to be non-violent is to bring about more violence. That sometimes blood is spilt and sometimes it is not seems to me almost incidental. Violence is the damaging of human life, breaking and tearing, ripping and shredding. And sometimes it is (dare I say it) good and just for violence to be used against the unjust. Sometimes this anarchy is the most responsible way to deal with our obligations to those around us. So I also respect the example of people like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Old Testament characters like Ehud, King David and his son Absalom (on a slightly unorthodox reading).

    What it comes down to is that I do not believe there is any a priori law, command or governing principle which will tell us how to act.

    Part of the problem of living down here, from below without specific advice from God, the Spirit (I am thinking of the Hegelian Spirit here) or Being (a la Heidegger) is that we are stuck in the factical, existential moments of our lives. We must do as best as we can using the traditions, wisdom and guidance that have been passed down to us – in all their ambiguity and confusion. (And to those who think we have been given specific advice from the Bible, that still requires interpretation and as far as I can tell those who are apparently “in the know” are also hopeless in contradiction of each other while being sincere, honest and genuine in their approach to the Bible).

    I do not believe it is possible to remove violence from nonviolence, to decontaminate it. Pacifism and absolute nonviolence are beautiful theories, grand dreams, as it were fabulous dreams, fables. Maybe one day… when the Messiah comes… (as if he could come)… … and all will be made new…

    But for now, it is a dangerous dream, for it establishes a certain way of life which may well legitimate evil. When a certain way of life becomes “natural” or “true” or “God’s will for us” or “the way we were made” then we can easily blind ourselves to the damage we do. Look at British colonialism, apartheid in South Africa, slavery, treatment of gay people and women for many centuries. I could easily imagine non-violent resistance helping to bring about evils like these (just as the silence of Christians in South Africa in obedience to “the authorities” helped bring about apartheid)

    So in response to Richard Hays position, which I respect and consider very defensible, I would say that way of peace is costly. Sometimes more costly than the moral high ground of a principled non-violence, sometimes so costly that our conscience is scarred, our hands bloody and our lives broken that those after us might not suffer as we have.

    So while I might hope and dream and desire it to be so that we could always find the more perfect non-violent solution to our problems, I am prepared, for the sake of non-violence to live with a little (hopefully not too much) violence.

    All the same, if we learned a little more of understanding and love and tolerance, maybe it wouldn’t have had to come to this…

  15. D says:

    uh… that should be “the responsible *way* for people to do that today is less obvious.”

  16. D, I appreciate your comments, but I don’t understand how non-violence resistance (and anyway, Hays is saying “do not resist the evildoer”) could help to bring about evils like apartheid, misogyny, oppression of gays.

    Resurrection is, for me, the corollary of nonviolence.

  17. dennis bartlett says:

    Is that the Nelson Mandela who planted a bomb that killed people at Pretoria railway station??

  18. Bryan Hoyt says:

    Maybe it would be good to separate violence and hate. I think in crimefighting circles they talk about use of necessary force, although I’m not sure what all is tied up with that concept.

    There’s lots of places in the bible where people are called on to be forceful—violent—without hate. Abraham being called to sacrifice his son is one outstanding example, and to me it shows that there’s a place for “violence” of some sort for reasons other than protecting your wife or your back lawn.

  19. Tim says:

    If you don’t defend your wife when she’s being attacked isn’t that like a sin of ommission…ie. by not defending you are allowing more pain to be inflicted.

  20. kat says:

    Just a thought – when I took at 1st year philosophy paper where we looked at just war theories there was a reading arguing for non-violent resistance that raised the question of what would happen if we put the same resources into pacifism as we do into the military. The basic argument was something like, how can we dismiss non-violence without giving it a real chance? What would happen if we took the defence budget of the USA and put it into training people in non-violent forms of resistance?

    Obviously this is a ridiculously complex issue and the bible is not going to give a ‘one size fits all’ answer, but my one thought for the day is that a passive pacifism is no use to anyone. ‘Blessed are the peacemakers’ to me implies an active way of life.

    Oh, and I like the resurrection comment.

  21. Matthew Baird says:

    Indeed, blessed are the peacemakers, hence we should strive to ensure peace with all men, between all men. However, not everyone is a peacemaker, and violence breaks out. And I agree that non-violence is almost always the best option A. violence should always be a last resort.

    This reminds me of the police and their policy (officially anyhoo). They seek to disarm the situation via a variety of non-violent means, principally communication, one only fall back on violence as a final resort to protect either themselves or a member of the public.

    “Resurrection is, for me, the corollary of nonviolence.” Howso?

  22. D says:

    Matt re: 17, people only do what they think they have the power to get away with. Does that help?

    As far as resurrection goes, the resurrection of the new body requires the death of the old body in 1 Cor 15 (and they seem to be different bodies…). I can imagine how the death of one person (even if it is not yourself) could bring life to others.

    Mixing metaphors, the death of Jesus may bring life for his followers, and the death of an oppressive, murderous dictator may bring life to the people of his country.

    These seem just as easily to be corollaries to me…

  23. david says:

    Matt, re 9. If I was with a group of friends in a park one night and the police came and took me away for no apparent reason, I don’t think that is justifiable reason at all for my mates to crack out their colt45’s and blow away the cops. Same as I don’t think it would have been justifiable for the disciples to use their swords to keep the authorities away from Jesus. So Jesus was right in what He said to them. But that does not mean He was telling them never to use their swords.

    If every day I settled any argument by shooting someone (living by the sword) then no doubt I most likely will end up dying in the same way. If I stood up to protect a child from being beaten to death by an attacker and used ‘my sword’, it does not necessarily mean that my life will end up being taken in the same way. On the contrary, I would probably be praised by men for protecting the innocent and restoring peace!

  24. Sambo says:

    re:19 Necessary force is a thing where law enforcers (or whoever) see there is no ther way to deal with a violent situation other than to dispurse it physically. So perhaps where D says live with a little bit of violence for the sake of non violence instead we could say necessary force for the sake of defense/protection/justice? The definition I have for violence is, “Physical force exerted for the purpose of violating, damaging, or abusing”. I dunno if defense/protection would fall into that sort of category?

    re:23 “A bullet to his head wont bring back the dead but it will raise the spirits of my people.” – ADF

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