Rhetorical Violence & The People of God

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To illustrate how far down the wrong path many Christians have gone, consider the following not-so-far-fetched, hypothetical situation: Christian protesters stand in opposition to one another. All carry picket signs that read, “Thou Shalt Not Kill.” One group is against abortion. The other is protesting the death penalty. But get this. Each group is opposed to the other’s issues. The pro-lifers believe in capital punishment, while the anti-death-penalty folks are pro-choice. They begin to mock and scream at one another with such vehemence that some folks begin to beat each other to death with their “Do Not Kill” signs.

Can you picture this scenario? It’s not so crazy, is it? Does it make sense to be so opposed to death that we are willing to kill for it? Is the rage some Christians display towards other Christians justified? Is this hostile situation at all compatible with what God envisioned for the people of God or with what Jesus hoped for from his followers?

After Adam and Eve were cast out from the Garden, we find the story of Cain and Abel. The text does not adequately explain why Abel’s gift was more pleasing to God than Cain’s. There are good possibilities: Abel brought his best while Cain gave something average; Abel’s heart was in the right place while Cain’s was not; and so forth. In reality, we don’t know. The narrator only tells us that Cain’s gift was not regarded by God. There’s no clear rationale.

The reason, however, is irrelevant. This tale is not primarily about how to offer a pleasing gift. This story, rather, is about what happens when anger and jealously grow within us as they did in Cain. His rage was so great that God actually confronted Cain, to no effect. In Gen 4:8, Cain killed Abel. Anger tends to produce violent intentions, and these spiteful desires can cause us to lose sight of the sanctity of life.

In Jesus’ only recorded commentary on the 6th commandment, he warned against anger. “You’ve heard that it was said, ‘Whoever murders is liable to judgment,’ but I tell you that you’re liable to judgment if you just get angry at your brother or sister” (Matt 5:21-22).

Like murder, anger is destructive. Anger, whether verbally revealed or secretly hidden, violently rips at another person. This doesn’t just harm the individual. It’s an attack on the entire community: both on the trust & security that people feel as individuals, and on the very way of life they share together. It’s not the way God intended for us and is certainly at odds with Jesus’ teaching about the shared life of his followers.

You might counter that we live in a Cain v. Abel world, not Eden, and that this demands real responses to harsh realities. Ours is a fallen world, you might respond, not the ideal world where we can all live in peace, love and joy. Even Jesus got angry in the temple, you say, and told his followers to grab a sword and to hate their parents.

For starters, those comments from Jesus are taken out of context with no appreciation for Jesus’ overall message. And his anger in the temple is consistent with his anger against those who oppressed the poor, broken, and downtrodden in the name of religion. There is room for anger for the right reasons and in the proper circumstances.

But the thought that we must stoop to the dysfunctional and hate-filled level of our broken world is far from consistent with Jesus’ teaching—or the Bible’s overall message, for that matter. Jesus was given the chance in Matthew 19 to endorse the broken reality of the world, but he refused to take the bait. They asked him, “Is it okay for a man to divorce his wife for any reason?” The underlying assumption behind this question isn’t just about divorce and remarriage. It’s about whether or not we believe that the brokenness of this fallen world is as good as it gets.

And how did Jesus answer? He pointed back to Genesis 2, to the world before the fall, before sin entered the picture. “Have you not read . . . ?

Have we not read? Have we not paid attention to the key message of Jesus’ teaching? The key message is that God wants us to strive for a paradisaical way of living and behaving here on this earth. And if there’s one place that this should be most possible, that’s within the community of faith. If the people of God can’t begin to resemble the ideal state of things, then who can? Yes, God provides grace for those who don’t measure up. Yes, none of us will ever be perfect. Yes, there is none who is righteous, no not one. But that doesn’t mean God is content with us being lazy, angry, slum-dwelling morons who never attempt to amount to anything.

God wants us to live—as much as possible—as the first humans lived in Eden: in harmony with one another and with God. It sounds suspiciously like the two greatest commands and like Paul’s summation of the law in Romans 13:8-10.

If the people of God can’t live with love, mercy and compassion for one another, then who can? This has to begin with us. And it has to apply to how we treat one another, even in the most contentious issues of our day. If we can do it, then maybe—just maybe—the prayer of Jesus in John 17 will be less of a pipe dream and more of a reality. And the rhetorical violence of our world will no longer be a mark of the people of God.

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