How are we to think about violence in the New Covenant? What does it mean to love our enemies? In a recent exchange with some friends on Facebook, they argued (Biblically) in defense of the idea that we can take pleasure in the killing of our enemies, at least, assuming those enemies are actually wicked, and thus deserve to be killed. I sought to emphasize that, whether or not this was appropriate in the Old Covenant, Christ’s command to love our enemies, and his example of sacrificing himself for them, demonstrates that we are to grow up out of such attitudes. Even if killing enemies is something that must sometimes be done, for the protection of the helpless, it must be done in a spirit of regret and grief, always desiring the best, not the worst, for the one who is slain. This was part of the response I received:
“First, Jesus makes himself out to be pretty ruthless in his own parables. In the Luke’s version of the parable of the talents, he calls himself a hard master and ends by commanding the execution of his political enemies before his face. No shyness there.
Second, Revelation makes him out to be the same way and tells us how his martyrs see their martyrdom. In chapter 6 the martyred saints cry out impatiently to God for justice. “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” They are told to wait just a little while longer. Their blood is then soon avenged and God’s praises are sung for it. There is no remorse or pity or hesitation when it comes. See 11:17-18, 15:3-4, 16:5-7, and 19:1-4. I will quote from chapter 16: “Just are you, O Holy One, who is and who was, for you brought these judgments. For they have shed the blood of saints and prophets, and you have given them blood to drink. It is what they deserve!”
That’s new covenant stuff. What Jesus does, when he comes back in all his glory, is akin, mechanically speaking, to what the Marine Corps does. He sheds blood. Lots of it. We shouldn’t be ashamed of it. Jesus isn’t that nice. We don’t need to be, either.”
This problem is not quite as simple as we would like it to be. In involves reconciling two clear and seemingly contradictory pictures we have in the New Testament. On the one hand, we have a clear picture of Jesus as coming to die on behalf of those who are his enemies, to receive all the evil they can throw at him and to overcome in love, and teaching his followers to do the same. On the other hand, another picture, more familiar from the Old Testament, clearly remains: that of a righteous God who must judge His enemies, and whose righteous judgment we are to hail and rejoice in. The saints in Revelation have done both: they have followed Christ and received martyrdom for witnessing to their foes, and yet now they call for Christ to come and judge these foes, and rejoice in that judgment. How can we love our enemies and desire their salvation, while also desiring or at any rate rejoicing in their destruction?
Ultimately, this comes down to very fundamental theological questions about we reconcile God’s justice with his mercy. When we look at only one side of the matter, they can appear to work well together–God’s justice consists in his merciful intervention on behalf of the oppressed. But then we find that this means being very unmerciful to the oppressors, which bothers us…and even if that’s necessary, it doesn’t seem like something we should be happy about.
I won’t try to answer the fundamental theological questions about how justice and mercy relate in God himself, but I’ll try to make sense of the question about how we’re to respond to and imitate both. First of all, we could argue this way: there is a difference between on the one hand, accepting the righteous judgments of God as in fact righteous and praising Him for them, and other the other hand desiring and rejoicing in them before they happen. Indeed, on one level, we are to learn to praise God for all that happens, even, for instance, the death of a loved one, trusting that His will is right; on the other hand, we do not thereby take joy in the prospect, and we pray that God’s will might be otherwise. To praise God’s justice once it has manifested itself in the destruction of the wicked is to accept that God’s will is always right; but to desire to see the wicked destroyed and to rejoice in the prospect of that destruction seems contrary to Christ’s commands that we are to love our enemies, and seek their good and their conversion. Could we distinguish this way–we don’t desire the deaths of the wicked, but if they are slain, we rejoice that God’s will is done?
It would be nice if we could solve the problem this simply, but I don’t know that it is that simple. Certainly in the Old Testament, there is plenty of praying for the destruction of the wicked, and as my friend pointed out, this does not disappear entirely in the New Testament–the martyrs in Revelation do not merely praise the judgment that has already happened, but actively call upon God to enact His vengeance in Rev. 6:9-11. Does the Sermon on the Mount then merely mean that we are not to take vengeance ourselves, but we are still to secretly desire vengeance against our enemies, and call upon God to enact it? This interpretation, however, runs counter to the standard interpretation which tries to rescue the legitimacy of self-defense from the Sermon on the Mount–”Jesus doesn’t really mean not to resist evil, or to accept the violence of the wicked against us, only that we should be willing in our hearts to do so, free from all malice and vindictiveness.” Is Jesus talking about heart, outward actions, or both? To me, it seems it must be both.
The tension we are wrestling with also appears in Romans 12:19-21: “Beloved, do not avenge yourselvesm but rather give place to wrath; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord. Therefore, ‘If your enemy is hungry, feed him: If he is thirsty, give him a drink; For in so doing you will heap coals of fire on his head.’ Do not be overcome with evil, but overcome evil with good.” Interpreters have been deeply divided on this passage for centuries, and the hinge is what we understand by “coals of fire.” The majority of interpreters have understood this as a metaphor for “burning shame” or something along those lines (and there are good reasons for such a reading); others, however, have insisted that it must be divine judgment, as the most natural reading of the image would suggest. The latter then read the passage as saying, more or less, “Do not take vengeance on your own account, rather, do good to your enemies so that you may heap up more judgment against them, so that God can let loose on them in his wrath.” The former, however, insist that such an attitude turns the doing good into a wicked hypocrisy, and doesn’t sound like overcoming evil with good at all; the reminder to leave vengeance to God is not then to be understood as desiring that vengeance upon the foe, but rather, of leaving the matter to God’s vengeance in confidence that He will be more merciful than we would be inclined to be.
Perhaps we could settle things with a distinction like this: we must seek the good of our own enemies, not seeking vengeance upon them and instead desiring their good, but we may and should desire the destruction of God’s enemies. It is not for their own sake that the martyrs in Revelation desire vengeance, but for the vindication of God himself. I think we certainly want to affirm something like this, however, this still leaves us unsatisfied. Shouldn’t we desire the conversion of even God’s enemies before we desire their destruction, and aren’t we to lament if destruction is left as the only alternative?
Such appears to be the attitude of Jesus. My friend pointed me to the example of Jesus harshly commanding the destruction of his enemies in several parables, and while clearly this is present, we must not forget the grief with which Jesus anticipates this destruction. We musn’t forget powerful passages such as these: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the one who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, but you were not willing!” (Luke 13:34) or “Now as He drew near, He saw the city and wept over it, saying, ‘If you had known, even you, especially in this your day, the things that make for your peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. For days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment around you, surround you and close you in on every side, and level you and your children within you, to the ground; and they will not leave in you one stone upon another, because you did not know the time of your visitation” (Luke 19:41-44). Jesus brings judgment upon those that will not repent, but hopes for another outcome, prays for another outcome, and grieves that they will be slain, even though He himself will be the agent of that slaying.
Our attitude, it seems, cannot be any different from this. We desire the death of the wicked only as a we desire the amputation of a diseased limb; we would much rather that the limb be healed, and we grieve at the prospect of amputation. But if it will not be healed, we accept the amputation, and in a sense, rejoice in it. Living this out in practice seems difficult, but it seems that we must seek a mindset something like this.
There is a related question on this whole subject that deserves some investigation, and through which we can perhaps draw closer to an answer to this first question: to what extent can we see ourselves as agents of God’s wrath? (The original question on Facebook, I should clarify, was whether we could rejoice not merely in the death of enemies, but in our own slaying of them.) In the past, I have drawn something like the following distinction: there are pacifists who say that we shouldn’t kill because God is a God of peace, and there are pacifists who say that we shouldn’t kill because God reserves that right to Himself. I don’t really see how to reconcile the former with the Bible. I have tended to lean toward something like the latter, although never absolutely. I have argued something like this: the reason we can accept things like the purge of the Canaanites in the Old Covenant but can insist that we can no longer kill in this way is because we no longer are delegated with the task of exercising God’s judgment. The wicked deserve God’s wrath (although he often shows mercy), and in the Old Covenant, God calls upon the people of Israel to be instruments of that wrath. However, when Christ came, God as man, the Judge judged in our place, he took upon himself the task of judgment, and inaugurated the final judgment. Henceforth, God no longer delegates to us men the task of executing His wrath, but calls on us to leave that to him.
But I’ve always been somewhat uncomfortable with this paradigm, because it suggests that we have been demoted, rather than promoted, in the New Covenant. Rather than maturing and being given more responsibility, we hand back to God responsibility which He has entrusted to us. Peter Leithart suggests the opposite paradigm in the final chapter of his forthcoming book, Defending Constantine:
“The first covenant, the covenant with angels, was a childhood covenant. Swords are sharp, and fire burns, and so long as human beings were in their minority, the Lord restricted access to dangerous implements….With the coming of the conquering Seed of the Woman, the sword and fire of angels are given back to a man, to Jesus. In union with her husband and head, the church is a warrior bride, called to carry out his wars in and with him….In fact, we receive weapons even more powerful than the weapons of a Samson or a David. We have the Spirit of the risen and exalted Jesus, the Last Adam who has eaten from the tree of knowledge, and our weapons are not fleshly but Spiritual, powerful for demolishing fortresses and destroying speculations raised up against the knowledge of God. Our armor is righteousness, truth, faith, salvation, the Word of God and the gospel of peace.”
Perhaps this points us towards a solution. We still fight Yahweh’s wars for him against his enemies, but love is stronger than death, and now that Yahweh fights against his enemies by sending his Son to die for them, so we fight them by dying for them. We overcome them by loving them, and their overcoming is their conversion, not their death. These lines get blurred even in Revelation, where the sword that proceeds out of the mouth of the Son (19:15) tantalizingly suggests the Word that is sharper than any two-edged sword, and where the blood from the chalice given to the wicked to drink seems to recall the shed blood of the Eucharist. Of course, there is still vengeance; I don’t think we can get around that. But this vengeance still falls first of all on the Son who bears it for his enemies, and who laments when it rebounds back upon them.
If we ever do find ourselves having to slay the enemies of our God, first of all, we’d best make sure that they really are his enemies, and not just our enemies. And second, we must recognize this as a failure in some sense, a failure to have brought them to reconciliation before the final wrath of God’s judgment comes. When that day of judgment comes, we welcome it as a display of God’s righteousness, but in the meantime, we try to make sure that as few opponents of God as possible remain to fall under it.
This is not a complete answer, of course, but it seems to me to help us get in the right direction. I welcome any input or challenges anyone has on these questions.