From New Wineskins: Jesus’ Way Doesn’t Work

New Wineskins coverKeith Brenton, editor of New Wineskins magazine, asked me for a contribution for this month’s issue on Violence and Vulnerability.

Here’s the article I sent him, which is on the magazine’s website today:

JESUS’ WAY DOESN’T WORK

Jesus’ way doesn’t work.

I thought we should clear that one up right off the bat. We live in a pragmatic society, that tends to judge things based on their practicality. Because of that, it’s worth repeating: Jesus’ way doesn’t work.

That goes for a lot of the things that Jesus said and did, but it especially goes for what Jesus taught about self-defense, revenge, and dealing with violent enemies.

It just doesn’t work.

Look at the facts. The way Jesus dealt with his enemies led him to a violent death. Of Jesus’ twelve closest followers ten were killed by their enemies, one committed suicide and only one died of old age (if traditional history can be believed).

Over the next few centuries, the church suffered ten periods of intense persecution. Christians were killed in horrible ways. There is little indication that they fought back or resisted the evils being enacted upon them.

For, you see, Jesus’ way doesn’t work.

According to the norms and standards of this world, Jesus’ way is a complete and utter failure. It offers little to no protection to its followers. It’s manner of dealing with evil men does little to dissuade them from their immoral deeds. It gives us no sense of vindication, no gratifying undoing of the wrongs of men.

By men’s standards, Jesus’ way doesn’t work.

That’s why so few would be willing to turn the other cheek, for example. They want turning the other cheek to stop the violent man in his tracks. They want submission to aggression to cause the aggressors to repent of their ways and begin to defend the innocent.

Turning the other cheek doesn’t work.

Loving enemies? Completely impractical. Do good to those that hate us? That will only make them take advantage of us all the more.

Jesus’ teachings do not fit in the real world.

When Jesus offered impractical teachings about money, Luke tells us that the Pharisees scoffed at him (Luke 16:14) Then Jesus said something that should make us stop and think: “What is highly valued among men is detestable in God’s sight.” (Luke 16:15)

Just as Jesus’ way doesn’t fit the real world, the world’s way doesn’t fit Jesus’ kingdom. In the Kingdom of God, the world’s way doesn’t work.

In the Book of Revelation, we find God’s people in the Roman province of Asia struggling to know how to deal with an evil ruler. This wasn’t a question of high taxes, oppressive legislation or immoral practices. Christians had been killed, and all evidence suggested that more would be killed. How should the church respond?

One option was to flee. The Apostle Paul fled danger on more than one occasion (Acts 9:25, 30); it was possible that God wanted his people to emigrate to an area more tolerant of their religious views.

Or maybe they should fight. Gideon and three hundred men had defeated a foe that couldn’t be counted. If God wanted his people to fight, numbers wouldn’t matter. Maybe God wanted them to take up swords and punish the evildoers around them.

God sends an angel with a message for his church: the Book of Revelation. And the instructions of that book were to reject both of the above options.

In Chapter 5, John is before God’s throne. God holds a sealed scroll, one that no one is worthy of opening. Then John is told that the Lion of the Tribe of Judah is able to open the scroll.

What happens next redefines everything. It tells us how to read Revelation. It tells us how to understand the Old Testament in terms of the cross. It tells us how to respond to the evil in the world around us.

Turning to see the Lion of Judah, John sees “a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain.” We can’t overstate the importance of this. The Conquering King, the heir of David, the awaited Messiah is a Lamb, not a Lion. Not only is he a Lamb, but he’s a slain Lamb.

In case we miss the significance of this, John spells it out for us by quoting a heavenly chorus: “You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased men for God from every tribe and language and people and nation.” (Revelation 5:9)

Jesus is worthy because he was slain. He is the faithful witness (Revelation 1:5) because he held true to his identity all the way to the cross… and beyond. He can call his followers to “patient endurance” (Revelation 1:9; 13:10; 14:12) because he has already walked that path.

“If anyone is to go into captivity, into captivity he will go. If anyone is to be killed with the sword, with the sword he will be killed. This calls for patient endurance and faithfulness on the part of the saints.” (Revelation 13:10)

The church heard Jesus’ message. They didn’t run away. They didn’t fight. They endured patiently. For more than two hundred years. They suffered. They died. They loved their enemies and prayed for them. They turned the other cheek. And they were killed for it.

Because Jesus’ way doesn’t work. It doesn’t protect your from suffering. It doesn’t protect you from death. (well, not immediately) It doesn’t bring your enemies to their knees. It doesn’t protect the weak nor avenge the innocent. In the eyes of the world, Jesus’ way is a complete failure.

If you’re looking for something that works, don’t look to Jesus’ teachings. But remember one thing: if you choose what makes sense to men, you’re choosing something that God despises. If your views line up with the views of your non-Christian neighbor, you’re probably not using God’s values. If your outlook is that of the Democrats or the Republicans or the Tea Partiers or NPR or the NRA, then you’re probably not following Jesus’ way.

Which is just as well. Jesus’ way doesn’t work.

12 thoughts on “From New Wineskins: Jesus’ Way Doesn’t Work

  1. I believe Jesus’ way works. I believe you can follow Jesus’ way and still serve your community as a faithful policeman. I think you can trust Jesus and still serve your country as a soldier. That role is affirmed in the New Testament. I believe one can actively use an instrument to protect or defend innocent children from vicious violence and still belong to Jesus. Jesus himself used a weapon (a whip of chords) to drive out money-changers, animal-sellers and their animals. The New Testament speaks of governing authorities ordained of God to wield the sword against evil doers. It also calls us to personally love our enemies. Much depends on context and circumstances and the Spirit of Jesus can apply in those various circumstances, and sometimes in different ways. I believe that Jesus’ way works.

  2. Tim, my brother, please tell me I’m wrong that you believe that because I’ve chosen to carry a concealed weapon I’m negating Jesus’ way? Please tell me I’m wrong that you believe that because I’ve chosen a weapon to protect my family I’m negating Jesus’ way? Please tell me I’m wrong that you believe that as a Christian it serves no purpose to protect the precious God given life that that has been entrusted to me? What we often overlook, especially with Revelation, is that the book was written specifically for those followers of Jesus who would be persecuted and killed “because of the cause of Christ.” This is the context of Jesus’ words regarding self defense in the New Testament and to take them out of this context is not practicing good hermeneutics. When the soldiers come to arrest Jesus, Peter responds with a weapon and Jesus tells him to put it away because and I’m literally translating from the greek text, “how then should be fulfilled the scripture that this it is necessary to take place.”
    (Matthew 26:54) The reason Jesus rebuttals resistance is that it was God’s plan for what was about to happen and nothing should interfere with it. Drawing a message of non resistance to crime and violence in our society is not supported by this text nor by Revelations, especially the one you quote. John is specifically talking about those who would be killed because of their beliefs in Christ. If I’m walking at the streets of my neighborhood as I often do, spreading the word of Jesus and someone attacks me because they despise what I’m doing, so be it. I pray everyday that whoever commits this crime will find the forgiveness that only Jesus can give. But If I’m in the parking lot of the local grocery store loading groceries with my family and a person runs up to me shooting because he wants my money, it will take me just a few seconds if I have them to bring him down. I will shed many tears of regret and I pray every day that this never happens but that’s the society we’ve created to live in. If you chose not to protect yourself, that’s certainly your choice. But please don’t tell me with scripture in hand that because I’ve chosen to protect myself I have negated Jesus’ way. May the power of Jesus help us in our struggle to find a better way.

    Con Mucho amor,
    -raf

  3. Rafael, I’m not saying any of those things that you are afraid that I’m saying. I’m saying that, as we analyze the words of Jesus and the path that he taught, we can’t expect it to put an end to violence by others nor to provide protection for us.

  4. I will say, however, that I don’t agree with discounting the Sermon on the Mount merely because it mentions persecution. Had Jesus also taught violent response to those that would do us harm, I’d be more inclined to agree.

    And I think the principle that the Lion of Judah is a slain Lamb is an important one for all times.

  5. And in case anyone wants to raise a “Yes, but…” about sharing in the way of the empire, they should read on through to the end of Revelation and ask who, when the new heaven and earth appears, lives on in victory with Christ…those who are faithful to Jesus and his way or those who share in the way of this world’s empires?

  6. No where in my statement will you find me saying Jesus taught violence neither am I promoting ending violence. It is with us from the time of Cain and Abel.

    Lovingly,
    -raf

  7. Rafael and Tim,

    Violence is with us from the time of Cain and that is important to recognize. When comparing the Genesis creation narrative (prior to the fall of Adam and Eve and Cain killing Able) against other Ancient Near Eastern accounts of creation (e.g., Babylonian, Sumerian), one of the things that stands out in the Genesis creation account is the absence of violence. That is because scripture wants us to understand that violence is a result of the fall (sin) rather than the way God intended for his creation. Consequently, since God is at work in Christ redeeming creation from its fall and restoring it to its created intent.

    That also has implications for the church. The church of Jesus Christ is all those who have already been redeemed from our fall and now is the people through whom God is revealing his wisdom — his redemptive work in Christ (cf. Eph 3:10ff). The church can only participate in this mission of God when it lives as people redeemed rather than as people who still belong to the fall. In other words, the church must live as representatives of what life will be like when God’s kingdom is fully at hand. Thus, just as the church cannot do this when it continues to live in sexually immorality, dishonesty, etc…, it cannot not live up to its calling when it continues to champion and/or participate in the violent ways of this fallen world that is coming to an end. That is why Paul urges the Christians in Ephesus saying, “You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness” (Eph 4:22-24, NIV).

    I hope that helps the conversation move forward.

    Grace and Peace,

    Rex

  8. Amen, Rex and amen again. Make sure you make a distinction between “living like the world” and “living in the world.” Also be careful in assuming that because the “existing record” of creation excludes violence, whatever definition you’ve chosen for that word in the Christian account, that it never existed. Let’s also make sure we understand Ephesians in it’s context. One of the greatest tragedies of the denominational world and which has also creeped into the churches of Christ, is ignoring the context of the Christian scriptures as they were originally intended to make blanket applications.

    -raf

  9. He who has ears to hear . . . this article threw me for a loop. It completely convicts me on not having the thoughts God has and not having the ways God has. Turning off my carnal perspective is an ongoing battle. My thirst for human justice breaks my heart every single day because for humans there is only one justice and we will not see it until Christ’s return. Those who do not have ears to hear will not understand what you are saying. Wisdom is foolishness to them. Thank you for a spiritual smack upside the back of the head. I needed that.

  10. I am commenting as one who has wrestled with this issue, as others here have. I do not want Tim or anybody else thinking it is directed on their position. It is not. This is me talking in the mirror as I have studied and thought:

    Regarding “violence” for the defense of others (i.e. my children, wife, abused members of society, etc.) I think we need to bring the condition of the heart into the matter as well as take care not to strain out a gnat while swallowing a camel. I don’t believe the way of Jesus includes standing idly by while watching a homeless man being beaten, or your child being abused (, or ). While we believe in and walk the Way of peace, to not do something (including physical defense/protection) can be just as sinful as doing something in another case. The fact of the matter is, we have zero record of how Jesus would react in such a situation concerning others. Every time He discussed peace or the cause of martyrdom it was in reference to Himself and His mission (to the cross), or the church in response to governments or other outside forces (Revelation). We simply cannot conclude that Jesus would not have used physical intervention to rescue someone else from an obvious injustice because there is no record of such a thing taking place in Scripture where He would have had to respond. There is a difference between walking in the way of peace and non-violence in regards to the church and how the Kingdom is advancing, and defending the lowly or weak.

    We can be a people of peace, righteousness, and Godly-heart – and it is precisely because of those attributes that we would do well to throw an attacker out the window as an act of love for others and not hatred for said attacker. This is the heart side of things.

    For the ” straining out a gnat while swallowing a camel POV;” to take “turn the other cheek” and make that into a blanket rule of “don’t resist violence with violence” is obeying one part of the Law of Christ while disregarding the greater picture of that Law: The Law of Love. It is un-loving to keep the defenseless defenseless without offering the physical defense (“violence”) if I am in that position to do so.

    As it is written: “So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.” ~James 4:17

    Grace be with you –
    Jr

  11. Interesting perspective, Jr. I appreciate the thoughtful words and the tone.

    I think this is precisely why I haven’t been able to reach a set-in-stone decision about issues regarding defense of others.

    This article is really intended to say that pragmatism can NEVER be our guide. Sometimes what’s right doesn’t work.

    I will say that one of my biggest concerns is with the extrapolations that are made from the scenarios you mentioned. I would defend a homeless person, therefore I have the right to defend anyone in the world who is under attack, therefore I have the right to attack anyone who could be able to harm someone else, therefore I can use drone missiles to kill someone who looks like someone who might someday attack someone else. (I know that you aren’t making those arguments, Jr)

    That’s why I’m comfortable holding up the standard of peace and non-violence, reminding us that every step away from that must be made with great caution and with a desperate drive to not stray too far from the standard.

    Grace and peace,
    Tim

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