Well, it depends on what you think Jesus came to do. Let me explain.
If you think Jesus came because God is obligated by nature to punish sin by sending people to hell but he didn’t want to…instead sending the second person of the Trinity (the Son) to experience a type of hell in your place such that, if you claim a certain religious belief or perform a certain religious rite you are now forgiven and freed from eternal punishment…then sure. Most folks whose view of sin and salvation can be boiled down to this have no problem with doing violence—in fact—most folks who think of sin and salvation this way seem to assume that to be unwilling to do violence is immoral. The reason is the whole theology is wrapped up in a simple exchange between the Father and the Son on our behalf. Jesus’ life and teaching have little bearing on what it means to actually “be saved.” Salvation is all about having a certain status (that of “being saved”) and that status is achieved through the actions of someone else (Christ on the cross) and a simple religious affiliation (the sinner’s prayer or baptism) on my part. One might go so far (and many have) as to say that the central assumption in this theology is that God is, at his heart, a violent God who must atone for the sins of his people violently. And people emulate the God they claim to follow. Therefore, violence is the normative reality for these folks, rather than love.
This is the reason that people who think differently than these folks are often stymied when saying, “But what about Jesus’ teaching to turn the other cheek or to love your enemies?” The blank stares and mystified looks of those who hold to this view are a way of saying, “What does being a Christian have to do with any of what Jesus said? We like our view of the God of the Old Testament better anyhow. There’s a God who knew how to make things happen.”
However, if you think (as I do) that what Jesus came to do was not just a simple exchange, then…no. I (and many others like me) don’t believe that Jesus came to die in our place in the sense that people often think. He didn’t stand in between God and me, facing God’s wrath. He stood in between God and me, facing mine. Jesus on the cross was not man being killed by God, but God being killed by man. Yes, in the Old Testament, God worked around violence and sometimes acquiesced to violence. But, as Hebrews 1:1-3 says,
In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven (Heb 1:1-3 NIV).
In other words, “Jesus is the complete revelation of God. This is what God always wanted us to know about him. It supercedes what we take God to be in the Old Testament because God hadn’t revealed himself to us fully until Jesus.” And in Jesus, we see a God who would die himself rather than kill you to defend himself from you. Jesus is God dying in our place, but in a way different than we thought. He died because he loved those who hated him.
In this view, salvation is not about a simple exchange to keep you out of hell. In fact, the idea of salvation is full and robust. It is about the coming of God’s full kingdom to the earth, his will on earth as it is in heaven. Salvation is met out through a group of people who believe that Jesus’ way of doing life (a cross-shaped life) is the solution to all of the sin of this world (and all sin is a type of violence we do to ourselves, one another, or God).
“Salvation” for folks who believe this is about following Jesus on the way of the cross. It’s about saying, “If Jesus is God dying because he’d rather die by his enemy’s hand than kill his enemy, then I’m supposed to be a person who’d rather die by my enemy’s hand than kill my enemy—because I love my enemy the way Jesus loved me.”
And, yes, that means even someone who comes into your home to steal, rob, and destroy. And, yes, even if you have a family whom you love…because if we love our family we’ll want them to follow Jesus, too.
We believe this because we believe that it is the only hope for a world torn apart by violence. We believe that Jesus demonstrates that love is the true normative reality, not violence. And love is enacted on crosses, not with swords. And crosses are a daily way of life, where people serve one another rather than take advantage of one another; and those with little status are held in high esteem because God cares for all people, even those who the violent world has marginalized.
We can do all of this because we believe what the apostle Paul told us in Romans 8,
For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God. The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.” The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory (Rom 8:14-17 NIV).
We believe that those who die with Christ will be raised with him.
The first view of salvation is about hell and retribution.
The second is about cross and resurrection.
The first about violence and fear.
The second is about love and trust.
The first assumes violence is necessary and nonviolence has nothing to do with Christianity.
The second assumes that violence is unnecessary and that Christianity is about nonviolence in all forms.
The first is about a violent God who takes out his violence on the innocent to save the guilty.
The second is about a loving God who innocently receives the violence of the guilty and beckons them to follow him.
The first sees no tension between being a Christian and the pursuit of power of the Empire.
The second sees these two things in mutual exclusivity.
These two views are inherently incompatible.
A rift is coming.
So, what does this say? Can someone be a Christian and be violent? The answer depends on what you think Jesus came to do. If you are of the first camp, you say “yes.” In the second, “no.” But here’s the thing: a rift is coming. There is little about these views of Christianity that can be harmonized. I’m not sure I’m willing to say that those who believe in the first view “aren’t Christian.” But what I must admit is that I think what they believe “isn’t the Gospel.” And I suppose that what they must admit to themselves is that what I believe isn’t the Gospel to them either. And I don’t know what to do about that other than keep asking them to consider the Gospel I’ve discovered. And I keep doing so, and nearly all of them reject it.
Someone will say that this is judgmental. I don’t think so. Here’s what I think, though. As our world becomes more violent and as fear motivates people to think darker thoughts…as the country we live in turns more and more to guns and war…I think it will not be those who claim that Jesus calls us to active peacemaking who will be the judging aggressors.
We live in the most well-armed, richest, most well-defended society in the history of this planet. And I believe most people are more terrified than they’ve ever been. “More guns, more soldiers, more violence” is what I feel I see Christians saying over and over and over. I think the time is coming when those who believe in the first Gospel will take up arms against those who believe in the second. And those who believe in the second will have an opportunity to prove their faith as well. It will come when a peacemaker comes to the aid of someone perceived to be “the enemy,” and the violent Christian cries “traitor!” It’s coming.
Historically, it was certain Roman Catholics and certain Protestants who teamed up to torture and murder the early pacifist Anabaptist Christians.
This post is dedicated to my close friends Paul and Faith Axton. They were the ones who taught me the second view of the Gospel; that Jesus came to instate his peaceful kingdom here. I dedicate it at a time when they are enduring a type of crucifixion: being both fired from their place of work on the same day by people who were threatened by their beliefs about violence and salvation. They were, in fact, killed by those who have publicly stated that they believe that the heart of the Gospel is the will do violence, to harm the other to save self. Like Cain, they wielded their hateful rock and killed the people they were supposed to call “brother and sister.”
The Gospel is something that we are told will divide us, so perhaps we should not be surprised that it often does. I may be wrong in my view and I’m sure there are some who will think so. And I love my brothers and sisters who disagree with me. And I pray they will be moved. But let those who believe in a peacemaking Messiah and those who believe in a war-making Messiah understand that, though they may both call their Lord “Jesus,” they do not believe in the same God.