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The Gospel of John was composed...

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Prince of Peace; Lord of War (Part 1) - Le Donne

[Update: this is a series on Jesus' complicated  relationship with nonviolence that I began several months ago and neglected. Before I pick up this thread, I thought I would re-post.]

There are several modern notions of Jesus circulating out there – who he was, what he was all about, what he taught. This has been on my mind because I’ve been reading Stephen Prothero’s American Jesus. Wonderful book. Prothero focuses on modern American portraits of Jesus, but I imagine that these bear some resemblance to those circulating outside America as well. (Of course, I’m American, so my imagination is quite limited; for example, I’ve always pictured Jesus wearing Rocky’s stars-and-stripes trunks and a NASCAR pit-crew jacket.)

One particularly “American” understanding of Jesus is that he was all about teaching people to love one another. This Jesus beckons the children hither and totes a lamb around with him and such. I call this portrait the Sunday school portrait of Jesus. It’s not difficult to find passages in the New Testament to support this portrait. Of course, this is a very selective reading of the New Testament and few (I’m aware of none) New Testament scholars promote this interpretation.

But the Sunday school portrait of Jesus overlaps in large part with the hippie, non-violent, anti-establishment Jesus. This is the turn-the-other-cheek Jesus, and the love-your-enemies Jesus and this portrait has many more supporters in New Testament Studies. I must admit that I am tempted myself. There is much in the New Testament to support such a notion. Again, admittedly, this is also a selective reading of the New Testament. Of course historical reconstructions are always based on selective readings. Selectivity isn’t, by itself, an indictment; but we generally want to make the best sense out of the data at hand when defending a thesis.

One of the longstanding notions in historical Jesus scholarship is that Jesus’ primary message had much less to do with love and lilies of the field and much more to do with pronouncements of final judgment. While this might seem perplexing to your average Sunday school-educated American, the notion of a Jesus who shouted “the end is near!” is not all that scandalous among Jesus historians. Sure, it’s a disputed notion, but it’s a very old argument. This Jesus, it would seem, has much less in common with the lamb-a-licious Jesus. Was Jesus a herald of holy war? The notion that Jesus preached about a (not so far off) day of final judgment makes him seem much less like a Prince of Peace. If this camp is right, Jesus believed that God was on his way to start a revolution. Old kings get tossed out; new world orders are established; outsiders are punished; insiders are rewarded. That old tune.

Was Jesus a Prince of Peace reminiscent of Isaiah 9, or was he a Lord of War reminiscent of Revelation 19? In Pulp Fiction terminology, we might ask: was Jesus more like the pre-conversion Jules, or the post-conversion Jules? It would be silly to think that these are the only two options, but they happen to be two very popular notions. In segments two and three of this series, I’ll explore a few avenues toward a possible answer. In the meantime, I’ll solicit your help by way of comments. Initial thoughts?

-anthony

20 comments:

  1. Initially I think Jesus may have been quite comfortable with the God of Israel enacting a work of vengeance on the world, but he thought that it was God's war to initiate and no one else. This wouldn't be the universally pacifistic Jesus that we'd like. Maybe he shared a similar philosophy to whoever put together the War Scroll in that it seems like a war is coming, but God's angels must march before the people. This would make sense of a Jesus who says that one who lives by the sword dies by it yet who could speak of judgment and who could be framed by later followers as the Jesus who rides a white horse into battle. Those are my initial thoughts.

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    1. I like this whole "vengeance is mine, says the Lord" paradigm - and thank you for bring up the War Scroll (of Qumran / Dead Sea Scrolls association); this seems quite appropriate.

      Although I wonder (and this is a sincere curiosity)if the word "vengeance" is the best category here. I wonder, how does Judgement relate to vengeance?

      Thanks for kicking this thread off Brian - I'm quite interested to hear other chime in.

      -anthony

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  2. correction: "...bringing up the War Scroll" - apologies for my haste.

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  3. I've always struggled with Jesus' comment, "I have not come to bring peace on earth, but a sword." (Matthew 10:34) As a believer in non-violence and in crediting the beginning of this movement to Jesus, it seems, much to my chagrin, to be a battle cry to the just war theorists, and abortion clinic bombers, KKK members etc.

    After much thought and research on the non-violent movements, I've justified the passage with the belief that Jesus knew that the non-violent ideas that he was teaching (and expecting his church to be built upon) would bring the sword down upon the movement, not the other way around.

    I have to believe in the peace-loving hippie Jesus or I can not believe in him at all. A war-loving, vengeful Messiah is not one I can give my allegiance to.

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    2. Thank you for your honesty anonymous. I have to say that I relate. At the same time, I must resist my urges to see too much of my own reflection in Jesus when I study him. I must resist (and I speak only for myself here) forcing every saying attributed to Jesus into my neat portrait of him.

      That said, I think the "sword" saying need not undermine every other indication in the Gospels that Jesus taught (at least at one point in his career) non-violence.

      -anthony

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  4. The totality of Christ is He is a Divine warrior. He has used massive physical destruction when that was His only option and He has used self sacrificial pacifism on the cross and He used massive destruction in 70 AD after the cross in judgment again.

    The judgments have most often been with His own people. Be mindful, IF God does not act as He has, He fails to provide Messiah and fulfillment for Genesis 3:15, the Jews are destroyed just as almost all the ANE people groups were. Evil people have to be dealt with eventually or others perish.

    I'll take the violence myself and thank Him for it. Because I feel He had no option or He would have avoided it using the logic of Jesus' prayer on the cross. Evil humanity did not and should not have a veto over God's love and integrity and they would have had He left them to their own devices.

    That Matthew verse likely is alluding to the metaphorical "sword coming out of His mouth" that represents the Word of God dividing between the wheat and the chaff in passages like Revelation, IMO.

    Jesus spoke in a lot in metaphors. I think it's Matthew 13 where Matthew says, "Until now, all He spoke in was metaphors".

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    1. Anonymous (1:53PM), I'm not sure what is more offensive in your comment, the implicit anti-Judaism or the lack of intelligibility of your argument. You seem to be constructing a God who is forced into only two options: (1) using violence means or (2) allowing evil people to have their way.

      Most folks who appeal to substitutionary atonement (as you are) as gospel truth at least recognize that there is something mysterious in such divine motivations and actions. You seem to be drawing from multiple biblical theologies haphazardly.

      But, while my knee-jerk reaction is to be offended, you are certainly entitled to your opinion. I hope that we can clarify it a bit further in conversation.

      For me the violent depictions of God in the Bible are deeply troubling.

      -anthony

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    2. One need not look to the Bible or even people to recognize that God's creation, if not God Himself, is extremely violent. I remember watching Mutual of Omaha Wild Kingdom as a kid. There's some violence right there. Oh? That's due to the Fall? In a nice, idyllic "heavenly" setting the lion lies down with the lamb, right?

      Volcanos and earthquakes are very violent. Nuclear fusion (our nice warm sun) is an extraordinarily violent phenomenon. I seriously doubt that any form of life can exist without there being the presence of violence. Life is violent. The opposite of violence is complete and utter death.

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  5. Hi Anthony, this is probably a tangent but should we look to the actions of the Jesus before His incarnation as well... would that help us understanding Him a little better? That of course depends on if the Angel of YHWH is the 2nd person of the trinity (theopany?), I know that a few scholars disagree (or maybe all... I am not really knowledgeable in current scholarly opinion on the matter), and whether other events in the OT relate to Him.

    If they are then we can see the protective measures done by Him of His/our people (i.e. the true believers throughout history), like the slaying of the Assyrian army, leading of His people in the wilderness, etc.

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    1. Thanks Matt,

      This whole "finding Christ in the Old Testament" is very precarious business indeed. I don't know if I want to venture down this path myself. I would say, however, that I things properly named is a very important rule of the road. In this case, I do not feel comfortable calling "the Angel of the Lord" Jesus because this figure is not called Jesus.

      anthony

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  6. If Jules were responding he may say, “defining the exact nature of Jesus and his work throughout history is not important. What’s important is that God got involved.”

    Obviously, that’s not sufficient — it sounds like an evangelical that wants to cling to the excitement and joy of conversion rather than wrestle with the questions and problems the Bible causes.

    You asked if Jesus is more like the guy in Isaiah 9 or Revelation 19. It's hard for me to compare those two prophetic visions because Jesus in the NT turns out to be much different than the leader described by Isaiah, so I must wonder if the vision of Jesus in Revelation will also be much different. I think I'm more interested in how we synthesize the love-not-judgment Jesus of John 3:16-17 with the Jesus of Revelation? Specifically the historical, feet-on-the-ground man who loved and healed vs. the futuristic glorified god who defeats Satan and his demons and throws evil people into Hades.

    To me, I read Jesus as primarily devoted to love and peace, but also as a reluctant warrior. Just as God was reluctant to kick people out of the Garden, flood the earth, and (usually) go to war. But I may just be projecting my own values onto Jesus: if I'm to live out the Gospel here on earth, I want to focus on the love part; yet, I know that there’s a decent chance that someday God will clean up this mess.

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  7. I think the true portrayal of Jesus' purpose or rather his message( war or peace) can be seen in his constant concern for the hereafter. It seems hard for some people to believe Jesus' as this apocolyptic figure but is it hard to believe that he can be both, can peace and judgement both exist?
    from what I gather from matthews it seems that war and violence are imminent parts of the peace plan.

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  8. Thanks for this Cetoya,

    I guess I'm surprised to hear that Jesus had a constant concern for the "hereafter" - where do you find evidence for this concern?

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  9. Conflicting images of Jesus are included throughout the Gospels. Jesus often tells others to help the poor and the sick, and he emphasizes the goodness of the Good Samaritan. However, Jesus also says that he did not come to bring peace, but a sword. He says that his mission will pit family members against each other. He also tells his disciples that they must disregard their own families if they want to follow him. I think that these conflicting portrayals of Jesus in the Gospels has allowed for various interpretations of what his true nature was.

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  10. I myself have always seen Jesus with a robe in my head, likely stemming from my religion, but for some reason, when he speaks I hear a very white man, kinda like my priest in church, and he is very white looking in facial features.

    When talking about Jesus as the "Prince of Peace," this portrait of Jesus has to be the most accurate for describing the Jesus that I see in my head. For me, Jesus has always been something like the opposite of how I viewed God. I saw god as the vengeful God who wanted to be loved, and be seen as number one. In fact, God was always a figure that brought fear to my heart. But when I thought of Jesus, who is often seen as another part of the trinity, and thus also God, I often saw the kind part of God, the one that always would forgive you no matter what you did, similar to a brother or a father. I never felt fear when I thought of Jesus.

    It was not until I began reading the bible for myself, that I started seeing things that would depict anything other than the kind "turn-the-other-cheek" Jesus, in many of the stories, Jesus just seems witty, and at times quite cruel. It's actually quite interesting that the Jesus documented in the bible is not the same as the one that lives in my head. And placing the title of apocalyptic prophet on him makes me think of him as someone completely different. I find it difficult to accept or acknowledge this version of Jesus. He becomes someone else completely.

    For the different sections of the bible, specifically in this case Isaiah 9 and Revelation 19, I find that I end up doing the same as I do with the Gospels, I look at them as completely separate and unrelated to each other. A view from one man, and another view from another. Similar to how Jesus has stories that, while similar, are quite different in the Gospels, these two parts of the bible are simply prophecies of what people thought or wanted in my mind.

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  11. In Matthew 10:34-36 we find Jesus saying, "Do not think that I came to bring peace on the earth; I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I came to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a man’s enemies will be the members of his household."

    Moreover, in Luke 12:51-52, he also says, "Do you suppose that I came to grant peace on earth? I tell you, no, but rather division; for from now on five members in one household will be divided, three against two, and two against three..."

    When read just like that, I think we would see the Lord of War presented in Revelation 19. Here is a Jesus saying he came not to bring peace but a sword. Most people would relate a sword with war, with blood spilled. He speaks of family units being torn apart and family members being against one another.

    I remember hearing these verses and thinking, they must have it wrong. How could the loving, hippie looking Jesus bring war? As I reread these passages for class, I concluded that the division Jesus was referring to was in regards to faith. Some will believe and others will not. However, I do not think he literally meant that there would be blood spilling war.

    Right??

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  12. Jesus said some contrary things, to be sure, but the earliest surviving commentary on His teachings -- the letters of Paul -- emphasize the centrality of love. As a near-contemporary who knew some of the original apostles, I think his words ought to carry a lot of weight.

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