A Virtuous Violence

1.  The Violence Of The Cross

Late one night, over Dunkin Donuts and coffee, I made this offhanded comment about the crucifixion to my college roommate, “At least he [Christ] didn’t have to hang there too long.”  My friend was indignant, “What?!  John, let me tell you a little bit about a crucifixion!” And he went on to describe the horrors of the cross in great detail.  Everything about a cross-death was designed to cause maximum suffering.  It is, perhaps, the cruelest tool of human torture ever devised.  The word excruciate is derived from Latin words that mean “out of the cross.”

At some point during the description, I cut him off.  I was embarrassed and alarmed.  I still cringe when I think of the ignorance and foolishness of my comment.  Jesus endured the worst kind of suffering while hanging there.

At that time, I had already trusted Christ’s cross-work on my behalf.  I had placed my faith in the paradoxical power of the cross to remove the penalty and guilt of my sin.  Sin’s curse (inherited from Adam) had been removed and my broken relationship with God the Father had been restored.  However, I had not wrestled with the fact that God had accomplished my rescue and restoration by means of unspeakable violence.

The bible says, through the prophet Isaiah, that Jesus “was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities” and “…he [Jesus] had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth.  Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him…”  Christ’s innocence, our violence, God’s wrath and mercy—they all come together at the cross to bring new meaning to death and life.

Years later, I would begin to see how the violence of the cross of Christ gave meaning to my own struggle with violent attitudes and behaviors.  God would ask me to look more closely at the cross-work of Jesus and he would pry open a door in my heart that I had tried to keep ever closed.  He would show me how the cross gave meaning to my violence and freed me from the bondage and guilt of it.  And, he would show me how me was remaking my violence for his good purposes.

2.  The Denial Of Violence

It was in a seminary lecture on violence that God spoke, quietly and clearly, “John, violence is a problem for you.  You need some help.”  I went to my professor after class and told him about some of my failures.  Later, we met and he told me to participate in an anger management group and other counseling if I wanted to continue taking classes at that school.

I was embarrassed and alarmed again.  But I followed his recommendation and began to see how my angry, vengeful violence could be changed; that, in fact, the very meaning of my violence could be changed.  The only meaning I intended was revenge, harm, or spite.  But God intervened for me (and in me) to change the meaning of my violence and bring good from it.

God used my violence to make me desperate, humble, and dependent.  He allowed me to behave violently (for a time) in order that I might see more clearly and feel more acutely the hurt and pain it caused.  He caught me in the horror of my violence and made me want to ask for, receive, and respond to help from others.  He cornered me and insisted I turn from the denial and hiding I used to maintain a façade of peace.  My admissions to the seminary professor were the first sign of a crack in that façade.

Though I usually appeared to be a non-violent person, my thoughts were prone to violent anger.  Sometimes my actions aligned with my angry thoughts and came out as violence. Only God could humble me in the right way.  My humility was often false, but his humility rang true in my heart because it was the virtuous humility of Jesus.

I titled this essay A Virtuous Violence for that reason.  As for my humility, it is defective.  I refused to humble myself.  I lived in denial and hid my violence problem from myself and others.  But God chose to intervene for me.  He broke into my denial of violence and applied the virtuous humility of the cross-hung Jesus.  Jesus’ virtue changed the meaning of violence in my life.

3.  The Violence Bearer

To recap, there is no virtue in me that changed the meaning of violence in my life.  But there is Jesus, who was subjected (in humble reliance on his Father’s goodness and loving-kindness) to the collective brutality of every sin.  On the cross He absorbed every violence that ever was, and ever would be.  By doing this he enabled the forgiveness of every sin (past, present, and future) for everyone who would call on him for forgiveness.

After all, every violation of God’s good law is ultimately against God and his son Jesus (and the Holy Spirit).  The historical figure of King David makes this very clear in his response to the prophet Nathan’s rebuke of him for killing Uriah and taking Uriah’s wife, Bathsheba.  When confronted with his violence and covetousness David says, “I have sinned against the Lord [God]” (2 Samuel 12:13).

All of my sin (my specific violent acts and thoughts included) is ultimately against Jesus.  He is blameless and completely undeserving of my attacks against him.  Because he is blameless, he is ever willing to forgive my sin against him.  And only he can forgive me in a complete way.  Sure, I am required to ask forgiveness from people when I harm them.  It is part of the recovery process to confess my failings to those I fail and commit to do better in the future.  But I do it because the other person is a Jesus-image-bearer, that is, they are a person created to be like Jesus in significant ways.  Ultimately, I attempt to destroy the very image of Christ in a person when I commit violence against them.

And it is Jesus’ rule in my own life that I shun when I take vengeance into my own hands.  It is like saying to Jesus, “I am unwilling to wait for you to make things right (as I have defined right).  I have decided how I want things to go and, if I deem it necessary, I will use violence to accomplish my will.”  He died from that brutalization.  I did not have to be physically present at the cross for my violence to affect him.  God crushed Jesus with the violence from my hand and the hand of every human being who had, or ever would, live on earth.  And Jesus cried out because he knew he had been forsaken by his Father in this way.

But then God changed everything.  He raised Jesus from the dead by his terrible, unfathomable, delightfully incredible power.  And Jesus makes it possible for violence to become virtuous.

4.  The Meaning Of Violence

The birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ makes it possible for violence to be used by God for his good and virtuous purposes.  By Jesus’ virtuous/violent death, the meaning of my violence is changed.

When the brutalized and risen One pursued me, caught me, turned me toward himself and joined me to himself by his Spirit, he immediately and fundamentally changed the meaning of violence in my life (among other things).  He removed the wrath of God from me.  I was no longer a child of wrath, but a child of righteousness.  My identity and nature were changed.

From that point, I no longer needed to exercise violence for brutality’s sake, for I had been forgiven.  My relationship with my Creator had been restored.  The bitterness that drove brutality had been uprooted by Christ.  And He began to persistently (and slowly) remove the vestiges of wrath (brutality) that were the essence of my previous nature.  I was still capable of being brutal, but I was no longer a brutal person identified by wrath.  Brutal behavior no longer fit the person I had become and was becoming.  I was freed to use violence in a new way.  It started to become my servant, instead of my master, and could now be used for reconciliation, unity—even peace!  Now, I started to withhold violence when appropriate, and to exercise it with patience, expecting God to accomplish his purposes in me and others according to his plans and time line.

Outside of my union with Christ, I may have been able to set aside my brutal behaviors and attitudes.  But on my own, I would never have been able to change the very meaning of the violence.  It is Jesus Christ in me who does this.

Sometimes I am aware of how God uses my violence to confront or expose.  When I am aware, I am often also very uncomfortable.  I feel exposed, like I am the one being confronted!  And herein lies a paradox of God’s ways.  He uses us with all our weaknesses and fears to violate another person’s will for their sake as well as ours.  He surprises us by making us confrontational.  He causes us to detest sin, and uses the means of human confrontation to violently (and lovingly) remove it from us.

This process often feels like death because we still cling desperately to some of the comfort and familiarity of our old nature.  But the vestiges of brutality must be removed for our good.  And if Christ had to die on a cross of torture to initiate this process, then surely the continuation of the process is going to involve violence.  Outside of Christ, violence is brutal and causes harm.  But in Christ, violence can be for my good and the good of those with whom I relate.

I want to stop here and acknowledge that my discussion of violence may be quite confusing to the reader.  If you are nodding with agreement at this acknowledgment, I don’t blame you.  I frequently get confused when I try to think carefully about what God is doing with my violence.  At any given point, I’m unsure if God is eradicating my violence, making it different, redirecting it, or doing something else.  However, I believe he is redeeming it, or remaking it, as he is remaking me.  I further believe that the remaking is a long slow process.  And I further believe that the thing he wants to remove from me is brutality, not violence (for not all violence brutalizes).  I don’t have a full grasp of what is taking place in my heart.  But I write about what I believe because I want to understand better and I want others to journey with me into an exploration of violence.

I also want to acknowledge that it may appear I am only using words to manipulate the meaning of violence, and perhaps I am doing that in places.  Please know, it is not my desire to be merely clever (though I have a taste for the clever), but to ascertain truth in every area of life and as much as possible.  I am convicted that God, in Christ, has made me a less brutal person and, at the same time, increased my desire to see evil people come to a violent end.  The implications of this are astounding and I am only just beginning to realize them.

Violence is an uncomfortable topic and we have very little training in our culture for how to talk about it and how to use it.  But learning the meaning of violence is essential for all who hold a biblical Christian worldview.  In the next post, I will begin to explore the idea that violence can actually help our society.

5.  The Desire For Violence: It Can Hurt Us, Could It Help Us?

Vi-o-lence (noun): intense, turbulent, or furious and often destructive action or force.

There is a violence that brutalizes.  And there is a violence that benefits (more on that later).  In this culture we are used to thinking of violence only in terms of brutality.  We do not wish to be associated with it.  But we are enchanted by it.  We celebrate it in film, sport, novels, and Sunday School lessons.  We tune in daily to get our dose of terrorism, rape, murder, and other violent acts on TV and radio news.  We are deeply intrigued by the harm humans affect on one another.  We appreciate brutal violence because it titillates and excites; it mesmerizes and numbs.  It is woven into the fabric of our society and we can’t seem to get our fill of it.  Yet, we also live our lives in fear—fear that the next victim might be us.

None of this is surprising.  Few, if any, have avoided violent victimization of some sort.  Thus, we are understandably wary of the power of violence.  We desire to protect ourselves and so we promise to never again expose ourselves to the brutality we experienced.

We also experience violent desires within.  Many parents willingly mount a violent defense of their children when necessary.  Violent sports and violent movies resonate with us.  We want to crush our rival.  We are glad, and experience a vicarious pleasure, when a violent perpetrator gets a taste of his own medicine.

One easy way to spot our own violent tendencies is to consider how quickly we wish to take revenge on anyone who wrongs us.  Sometimes vengeful thoughts flit through our minds quickly and are gone.  Other times we meditate on the destruction and elimination of our enemies.

I have often caught myself thinking brutal thoughts about a person who threatened me.  The threat might be minor or non-existent (I am afraid they are smarter than me, for example), but my hidden mental and emotional response to the perceived threat may be disproportionately violent, and even monstrous at times.  If you don’t think you’ve ever experienced this, perhaps you are blessed to live free from most fears.  But many who deny the regular presence of violent thoughts have simply never done the hard work of taking a good look at themselves.

In my opinion, our cultural over-fascination with violence is largely a result of the failure to examine ourselves carefully with an eye to violence.  Violence can be very unsettling if we see it in ourselves.  It is appealing to think of an evil or perverse person being violently taken down, but it is offensive, appalling and overwhelming to think of ourselves as the kind of person who deserves a violent response (or violent end).

We are aware that violence begets violence and we are tempted to believe this means our actions should never be motivated by violence.  If we fail to acknowledge (or take responsibility for) our own violent desires, we are likely to live in fear of being overtaken by them.  We fear harming ourselves or others and we learn to hate the violent aspects of ourselves.  We wish they would go away.  But they don’t, and so we deny their existence and focus on the rest of the world’s problem with violence.

This is to our detriment, for violence and violent desires are central to human life.  To those who claim to hold a biblical Christian worldview I say we must reflect on our own violent desires and think carefully about the role of violence in our everyday lives if we expect to make a meaningful impact for the gospel in our societies.

How many times have you heard a person say, “I just can’t believe someone would do that,” referring to a violent news story they heard or read.  They say they can’t believe it because they must protect themselves from the reality of human brutality if they are to continue denying their own violent desires.  Facing the reality of violence in others entails facing the reality of violence within.  There is a tension within that makes it hard to know how to deal responsibly with violence in our society and in ourselves.  We want violence for some, but certainly not for ourselves.

I believe each of us has a propensity for violence.  It is part of who we are as humans.  I don’t believe violence is a result of the fall, but that it became twisted and broken by the fall.  It was good, but it became ugly and brutal.  God, in Christ, is “unbreaking” the effects of the fall through his people and it is the Christian’s responsibility to learn, day by day, how God is unbreaking violence just as he is unbreaking all of creation.

Violence manifests in differing ways and each of us must take responsibility for the way violence comes out of us.  We must learn the good purposes of violent desires, learn how to deflect or defend against disproportionate violence (brutality), and learn the appropriate subjects, objects, and contexts for violence.

It is possible to nurture a strong desire for violence without brutalizing oneself and others.  Violence can be directed for the good of relationships and communities.  I am not suggesting that we would benefit the community by starting fist fighting clubs (though an argument could be made for such clubs).   I am suggesting we would be people of greater strength, courage, and conviction if we listened more carefully to our violent desires (instead of denying them) and sought to understand how they are prompting us to make a fierce stand for good in our families and communities.

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2 Responses to “A Virtuous Violence”

  1. randy middeke November 1, 2009 at 8:59 pm #

    Reminds me to confront my demons. Day to day, I usually don’t. “Run to the roar.” – Tammy Faye

  2. Joffre February 25, 2010 at 10:16 am #

    I think you and I would benefit from sharing a cup of coffee!

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