There are few things more puzzling in Jesus’ teaching than his radical call to non-violence and forgiveness. It seems counter-intuitive to nature to not return violence with violence. The principle of lex talionis— “an eye for an eye” is fundamentally the law of nature. In fact, in many cases, violence seems inevitable, and sometimes it is.
One is immediately prompted to ask, what about World War II and the Nazi regime? What about Napolean Bonaparte? These were clearly aggressor-dictators whom without the armed resistance of Wellington and the British Army, and the Allies in WWII, the world would not only be a very different place but clearly the worse off.
Perhaps it is appropriate to make a distinction between a restrained defensive stand and the violence that springs from vengeance. Christianity has long since Augustine possessed a well-articulated just-war theory, namely that the human has the right, albeit sometimes the duty to resist the evil person and their violence with counter-violence. This is especially true when it comes to protecting family, wives, children, etc. To not defend the vulnerable under your care would be another cowardly evil of its own kind.
The Circle of Violence
There is also a circular, if not spiraling downward process of violence that we are often sucked into. You can see it in small ways in a put-down match when folks quarrel; one biting comment is met with another until it escalates or peters out. You may also see it more profoundly in a situation like the Yugoslav Wars of the Balkans that took place throughout the decade of the 1990s. An estimated 140,000 died in what included genocidal war crimes.
There are many motivations that flow into a conflict between persons, people groups, nations, and so on. When violence is committed, on the one hand, one of the primary motivations to respond is vengeance. In this way, every act of violence instigates another act of violence, and so on—a process we watched play out on our TV sets throughout the ’90s
Love Your Enemy
It is into such situations and conflicts that Jesus’ call to “love your enemies” comes as such a shock. How exactly does one do this? Again this does not mean we are going to lay down our weapons when someone is invading our homeland our home or assaulting our spouse or kids. But Jesus’ ethic does call us to a path and pattern to stop the circle of violence.
The big question is when the initial violence has stopped, what do we do as we sit in the ashes of the aftermath? What do we do with the consequences of another person’s evil deeds? When lives have been lost, humans wounded, and rights violated, what do we do next? This is where we meet with the choice of forgiveness or to hold onto the sin and hold it against them.
A Violence of Heart
The circle of violence is the offspring of a heart that has embraced the violence it received. A violent heart is a heart of unforgiveness and vengeance toward the perpetrator. It also has everything to do with one’s long-term mental and emotional health. When we choose to hold on to the anger, we are germinating the seeds of vengeance. We must understand that revenge begins in the human heart and psyche. There it grows like steam in a pressure cooker until it explodes upon the original perpetrator, or more sadly, upon the innocent bystanders of his own family, friends, or comrades.
Breaking the Chain
One of the steepest hills in Jesus’ ethic of forgiveness is the question of justice, that is, will the perpetrator get what he or she deserves? Will the wrong be righted? This is exacerbated all the more when the original perpetrator shows no signs of repentance or remorse for what was committed.
There is an amazing thing that happens when someone shows genuine grief over their actions and begs forgiveness. It is atoning and lifts a toilsome burden from the victim. A weight is lifted making it all the more liberating for the victim to forgive. But what about when they don’t? What about when they harden themselves in their position—when they actually defend their atrocious actions? This is all the more galling. It causes us to look upward and say, “God what are you going to do about this? Really?—You are just going to let that atrocity and their arrogance go?” That is what we often think and the typical path to being angry with God as well.
The thought of the perpetrator entering into the next life, scott-free, getting a pass, and never be judged for their actions is appalling to us. And it should be. God is a God of justice. He contends that he will judge every “idle word.” The pretexts for most vengeance is a humanly attempt to balance the scales of justice by our own power. But this usually only results in tipping them all the way to the other side, making us now the perpetrator.
The God of Justice
At the heart of the Gospel is the judgment of the world. So is it for the Apostle Paul and his preaching?
“But by your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed. For he will render to every man according to his works: (Rom. 2:5–6)
It stands at its very center, the very same center where you will find the crucified God. The death, burial, and resurrection of Christ is God’s answer to “an eye for an eye” and “life for life.” It is precisely the judgment of God that put Jesus on the Cross. It is the sin and atrocities of all of us that necessitated his death so that we might be forgiven.
The death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus from the grave mean one of two things for every human who will ever walk this terrestrial ball: (1) If he hardens his heart, does not repent and believe this message, he or she will be eternally judged. (2) If she or he does repent, and embrace the forgiveness of God in the Gospel, she or he will be eternally blessed. This means nobody gets a pass. The penalty has to be paid. We will either try to pay it ourselves, or we will humbly accept payment on our behalf by Jesus. There is no other way. And above all, no evil deed will ever go unpunished.
God’s Providence and Forgiveness
The question is do we believe that? There is no way to forgive and stop the cycle of hatred and violence without the providence of God. He is either a good God who will one day set all things right, or not.
The big question is this: How can we forgive those who do evil against us if we do not believe God is just and will right every wrong? If all people are independent automatons floating meaninglessly in a vast universe of chance, how will those who hurt us pay for what they have done? How will the wrong be righted?
On the one hand, people today have a gag reflex to the idea of a just and holy God who judges sin. It is distasteful and offputting to most. But that is simply the result of not thinking it through. If we are here by chance, and there is no God of justice to set things right, then the Holocaust was meaningless. If there is nothing more, then millions of Jews who died were meaningless too and the Nazi’s like so many other butchersome warlords will get off free. It means every life, whether suffering or prosperous, is without meaning.
Deep down, none of us want a world like that—a world where there is no justice, no answering, no accountability, and no reckoning. We just tend to shrug it off when we think about it in regard to ourselves standing there. We do not like the discomfort in the thought of standing before a holy God.
The Providence of God, the trust in his divine care, and the outworking of his justice in the Gospel are mission-critical to breaking the chain of anger, vengeance, and violence. Without it, we might as well just take it into our own hands. Only by trusting that there is an eternally just and good God can we hand the anger, the wrath, and hatred over to him. We can unload our burdens upon God. When we do, Jesus shoulders them on the cross. There every wrong, every fury, every hurt, and every pain was crucified there with him and in him.
It is that the God and Father of Jesus Christ is in control which frees us to “turn the other cheek.” We then deliver all our cares to him, and he takes care of us. In the safe haven of his providence, we leave the judgment of our adversaries, oppressors, and abusers to him. It is no longer ours to carry. And whatever judgment falls upon them will be perfect justice from a perfect hand.