GOD AND HUMAN VIOLENCE
MOSES AND SOCIAL CONTROL
Every city has its police and every nation its army for the purpose of controlling violence. When all else has failed, the bottom line is to meet violence with greater violence. Moses reformulated the basis of social organization as a revelation from God on how to build a peaceful society.
However, the Bible is not primarily a revelation of laws, but rather an invitation to relationship with God. In the Biblical story God’s nature and character are revealed through his interactions with humans. The first lesson to understand is that God has given life, and the authority to take it belongs to God’s alone.
We begin with God’s self revelation at Mt. Sinai where the law was given. In Egypt Pharaoh was king and god. Pharaoh was ascribed to be Horus, one of the Egyptian deities. At Sinai, Yahweh was now the Hebrew’s God and king in place of Pharaoh. This is not what one normally would expect. The human leader would normally become the new king, but in this case Moses was not the king, but only the King’s messenger.
A king normally has two responsibilities, national defense and economy. At Mt. Sinai God told the Hebrews, speaking directly from heaven, that He was now their God, and if they kept his 10 commandments, he would always be their God, and would assume Pharaoh’s responsibilities for managing defense and the economy. If they didn’t follow his laws, he would abandon them, let nature take its course as to the economy, and they would have no defense. They were to be a nation of priests (Exodus 19:6), not of warriors, and the two roles are incompatible. One cannot be a priest, reconciling other people to God while fighting with them.
When the textbook on Moses was reedited after the time of King Josiah, a list of Mosaic kingship regulations was included, very possibly found in the ancient scroll of God’s laws found hidden in the temple during Josiah’s temple restoration. The material was assumed to have come originally from Moses. These regulations from Deuteronomy 17 included the following restrictions:
1. The king is forbidden to stockpile weapons in preparation for war.
2. The king may not multiply wives, and is thereby deprived of making peace and mutual defense arrangements with other governments. At that time defense agreements included the delivery of a princess to the king’s private brothel as the seal of both a royal (so called) marriage and a vassal covenant of peace. This was forbidden.
3. The king may not acquire wealth above that of the citizens, and is thereby deprived of the power to raise taxes for royal prestige and enhancement.
4. The king must study God’s law and know how to apply it. He must live as humbly as any other man.
These regulations would enable Israel to be a nation of priests rather than a nation of warriors.
The outworking of this system is described in the book of Judges. Under God’s direct administration, there were wars, but Israel never had to pay taxes or needed a supply of weapons for survival. National defense was God’s business, and at no time could Israel brag about how tough and invincible their army was. God alone wielded the power of life and death, and the dignity and glory of victory belonged to God and God alone.
At the end of a period of 400 years (according to Biblical chronology) the Hebrews became disillusioned with the system and demanded a “real” king to provide better security. After that things got worse before they got better (involving a bloody civil war), and when they got better, the Davidic Empire lasted for two generations during which the army was built up and slavery flourished. The glorious empire (humanly speaking) disintegrated after Solomon and continued in a state of recurring wars that ended in 586. In that year Babylon’s army brought the kingdom down in flames like every other empire that has ever existed.
WHAT WE LEARN ABOUT GOD FROM THIS STORY
God’s command for Israel to live as an unarmed state in full dependence on God has relevance for us, but Jesus is greater than Moses or any of the other prophets, and we need to look at Jesus next.
JESUS AND VIOLENCE
This weekend is the sacrifice of Eid for Muslims, but for Christians, Jesus is the lamb sacrificed for the peace of the world. Christian faith originated from an act of violence against Jesus, and the death of Jesus was an indictment of not only Jewish religion, not only Roman justice, but in fact, an indictment of all human justice as currently practiced. Now we will examine the trial of Jesus and the violence against justice itself that took place.
PILATE AND ROME ON TRIAL- John 18:33-19:16
In Jesus trial Pilate, the Roman governor asked the political question, “Are you a king.” A king has authority over life and death, and there can be only one such authority. If Jesus claimed to be king, either Jesus or Pilate would have to die.
Jesus responded, “My authority does not derive from this world. That is why my disciples have not made violent revolution against you… My authority derives from outside this world. I bear witness to the truth that I was born to be king, and all who value truth recognize my authority.” Pilate scoffed. The truth for Pilate was that Pilate had an army and Jesus apparently didn’t. He saw no threat from the unarmed Jesus, and pronounced him innocent.
The Jewish authorities recognized Jesus to be a threat. He had thousands of people following him. When the Jewish authorities threatened to complain to Caesar that he had failed to remove another claimant to the throne, Pilate buckled. In spite of Jesus’ innocence, Pilate couldn’t afford the political risk of a complaint against him to the Emperor.
WHAT DO WE LEARN ABOUT GOD FROM THIS STORY?
Jesus’ authority from heaven is of a totally different nature than currently exercised on earth. The authority of this world is ultimately based on overwhelming, violent force. Jesus controlled his followers by a different form of motivation altogether, and managed to handle his enemies as well, as his various confrontations with them demonstrated.
When they arrested Jesus, they didn’t recognize that he had orchestrated the entire affair. In this confrontation, it was not Jesus on trail at all, but rather Pilate himself and the justice of Rome on trial. Rome’s ultimate authority derived from its military force, and in this indictment of Rome, the entire human political order is under still under indictment up until today.
CAIAPHAS AND THE RELIGIOUS SYSTEM ON TRIAL- John 11:43-54; Matthew 26:59-66
Shortly before Passover week when Jesus was crucified, Jesus raised a man named Lazarus from death. At this Jesus popularity went ballistic, and the Jewish authorities were terrified of the revolutionary chaos his followers might attempt. In council Caiaphas, the high priest, argued for Jesus to be eliminated, as it would be better for one innocent man to die than for the whole nation to go up in flames. Killing Jesus would be the lesser of possible evils to come. Any contemporary government today would make the same decision, and in God’s court, come under the same condemnation.
Later in Jesus’ trial before Caiaphas, the entire Jewish religious system was indicted. “Are you the Christ, the Son of God,” Caiaphas asked. “Just as you said,” Jesus answered, “and one day you will see me ruling at God’s right hand (the chief administrator of heaven).” The Sanhedrin declared Jesus guilty of blasphemy, and in that decision the Sanhedrin voted against itself. Jewish justice was tried and found to be at fault, for it failed to recognize the presence of the God it professed to serve. Forty years later the war Caiaphas thought he could avert by killing one innocent man came anyway and destroyed the temple Caiaphas served.
THE MEANING OF THE STORY
Jesus applied Moses’ kingship regulations and initiated a new nation of priests according to the Mosaic vision as follows:
1. He demonstrated what complete submission to God in terms of obedience. “He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth (1 Peter 2:22).
2. Jesus came to bring reconciliation. He had the capacity to settle the differences between Rome and Israel if even one side would have given him the chance.
3. He served as God’s priest/king who brought reconciliation rather than conquest by forgiveness for his enemies. “When he was insulted, he did not insult in return; when he suffered, he made not threats, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness (1 Peter 2:23-24).”
Human social organization that relies upon violent force as the ultimate means of security derives from the Darwinian order of competition and survival of the fittest. This is the natural world.
However, God created us to rise above the natural world, to manage it and not to be managed by it. This is the job of the kalifa (Islam) or the human sons of God who are the image of God (Christianity/Judaism). The capacity to govern was lost when Satan deceived the human race into giving up its authority to the deceiver, Satan, and self government without coercion became impossible.
In forgiving his enemies, Jesus demonstrated the kind of forgiveness necessary for true reconciliation among peoples to happen with the consequence that Jews and Romans would be able to live together in mutual trust and appreciation, and this happened on a limited scale inside the newly established church. As Jesus died, his love enveloped both the thief next to him (a Jew) and the centurion who crucified him (a Roman), and under this influence both declared their faith in Jesus, as the power of Jesus’ love overwhelmed their distrust and cleansed from their conscience every evil impulse.
The authority of Jesus’ love is the only authority in the universe capable of controlling the violence of the natural world in which we all are intimately enmeshed. It is the only foundation upon which permanent peace and social control can be built.
The rule of overwhelming, violent force was the only known guaranteed method of effective social control in all human history up until Jesus, and its social configuration created the triangle of monarchy, patriarchy, and slavery that ruled every civilization of people. Monarchy, patriarchy, and slavery is the shape of Satan’s kingdom on earth governed by natural law. Jesus destroyed the foundation of Satan’s kingdom and since Jesus resurrection monarchy, patriarchy, and slavery began to unravel. Today the application of violent force accomplishes nothing but the exponential acceleration of violence. Humanity has come to expect something better.
My own Anabaptist ancestors in the 16th century gave forgiveness to the other Christians who tortured them to death and preached Jesus to the gawkers who came to watch. Their powerful message was often so effective with the audience that their persecutors decided to cut out their tongues to stop the preaching. Thousands lost their lives because of this witness.
The refusal of Europe to listen to the message led to a century of death and destruction in Europe from the wars of religion that followed, a situation profoundly similar to what Islam experiences today. Today bullets and bombs do not stop violence; they only diffuse it into new directions where it erupts again. The old system no longer works, and the choice for humanity today is Jesus or hell on earth.
In the Quran the one sin that cannot be forgiven is shirk, ascribing partners to God.
In New Testament faith, the one sin that cannot be forgiven is the failure to recognize Jesus for who he is and submit to him and his way of doing things.
If we could choose one person in all of history as the most impartial authority over life and death on earth, for whom would you vote? The New Testament teaches that God chose Jesus and describes the path of submission and obedience Jesus walked to be qualified for the position.