Jesus is Cruciform, Not Octagonal (A Response to Mark Driscoll)

Is Jesus a pacifist?  Apparently not, according to Mark Driscoll.

In a recent post (“Is God a Pacifist?”), the mega-church pastor actually presents the person and work of Jesus as evidence against the idea that God is a pacifist.  My advice to anyone who is not immediately taken back by this statement?  Read the Gospels.  That Jesus (in the Gospels) embodies and commands a posture of nonviolence appears to me to be an axiomatic truth.

However, Driscoll accuses “those who want to portray Jesus as a pansy or a pacifist” as “prone to be(ing) very selective in the parts of the Bible they quote.”  He goes on to say that, “If we want to learn all about Jesus we have to read all that the Bible says about him.”  He thus quotes a particularly gruesome passage from Revelation (14:14-20) that seems to suggest that Jesus will one day command angels to crush his enemies until their blood flows miles high into the sky.  Here is definitive proof, says Driscoll, that “Jesus is no one to mess with” and that God is not a pacifist.

I disagree with Driscoll’s assessment of Jesus’ attitude towards violence.

As a quick response, allow me to highlight three immediate problems with Driscoll’s argument:

1. In fact, there are many viable nonviolent interpretations of the book of Revelation.
(Greg Boyd has a nice bibliography of such readings here.)  Indeed, there are even ways to read Revelation 14 nonviolently (perhaps the topic of another post).  It is likewise worth noting that even with the abundance of violent imagery one finds throughout Revelation there is an equally obvious message that nonviolence is God’s way of conquering evil.  Jesus is repeatedly praised as worthy to rule the universe precisely because he is nonviolent (he conquered by his blood) and his people are repeatedly told to likewise endure suffering nonviolently even until death.  Even if one is not convinced by a nonviolent interpretation of Revelation, the abundance of world-class scholars who read it in this way should alert us that passages such as the one Driscoll quotes above are not as clear-cut as he’d like them to be.  The accusation that pacifists are falsely making Jesus out to be a “hippie” can easily be turned around on Driscoll, who seems to make Jesus out to be the embodiment of his ideal, Americanized version of masculinity.

2. We should not be so quick to ignore the (clear) nonviolent picture of Jesus in the Gospels in order to embrace a (seemingly) violent portrayal of Jesus in Revelation.
I find it nonsensical to imagine that one should attempt to read the four Gospels through the apocalyptic (and wildly confusing) imagery of Revelation.  Would it not be more appropriate to read Revelation through the (much clearer) picture of Jesus we receive in (not just one, but four) Gospels?  Driscoll appears to think that he can hold the tension together by positing a fundamental change in Jesus’ relationship to evil between his first coming and second coming.  But I think this is grossly inconsistent and mistaken.  Jesus had the option to destroy his enemies by violence (Matthew 26:52-53) and he explicitly rejects it.  What has caused him to change his mind since then?  To reject or ignore Jesus’ refusal to fight evil with evil during his lifetime is to not take the Gospels seriously in their portrayal of how Jesus inaugurated God’s Kingdom.

3. Driscoll is making the same mistake that Jesus’ contemporaries made: desiring a militaristic Messiah who will shed blood (like a UFC fighter).
Jesus rebuked many during his lifetime for wanting God to deliver Israel (and through them, the world) through violent means.  This is a consistent theme throughout the Gospels (particularly Mark).  At the end of his post Driscoll says, “Some of those whose blood will flow as high as the bit in a horse’s mouth for 184 miles will be those who did not repent of their sin but did wrongly teach that Jesus was a pacifist.”  What he fails to realize is that the sin of desiring to bring God’s Kingdom by violence is actually one of the primary sins that Jesus calls people to repent of throughout his lifetime. As N.T. Wright so often points out, repentance should be understood as Jesus’ call to “abandon our own ways of bringing about God’s will and adopt his.”  His way of bringing God’s Kingdom is nonviolent. Yet somehow along the way, we’ve forgotten that we can trust the revelation we have received in the person and work of Jesus as presented in the Gospels.  We’ve forgotten that Jesus’ life shows us exactly who God is and what he is like (John 1:14-18, Hebrews 1:1-4).

My question to Driscoll, and to you, is this:

 Is Jesus’ (and thus God’s) character more fully revealed on a cross (dying as an act of forgiveness for his enemies) or in an octagon (killing his enemies in an act of vengeance)?

 “But love your enemies, and do good, and lend,
expecting nothing in return, and your reward will
be great, and you will be sons of the Most High,
for he is kind to the ungrateful and evil.
Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.”
– Jesus of Nazareth

Update [10/24/13]: You can find a continuation of my “Response to Mark Driscoll” here: Interpreting the Violent Imagery of Revelation.

21 thoughts on “Jesus is Cruciform, Not Octagonal (A Response to Mark Driscoll)

  1. “Some of those whose blood will flow as high as the bit in a horse’s mouth for 184 miles will be those who did not repent of their sin but did wrongly teach that Jesus was a pacifist.” This statement by him is especially worisome. At this point he’s basically saying that he wishes Jesus would just kill peace-loving Christians. I usually try to give him a break but this is just… wow.

    • Ian, I agree. I did a double-take when I first read that statement. Apparently not only is Jesus violent, but he is SO violent (and pacifists are SO wrong about him) that he can’t wait to spill the blood of pacifists. (I can’t help but imagine a UFC fighter mercilessly beating MLK or Ghandi… And I guess this is how Driscoll pictures the King of Peace?).

  2. So I guess Jesus is coming back to kill all the Quakers, even though they’ve been active in world missions and spreading the Gospel for decades. Yikes. I went to a Quaker college and even though there was a definite pacifist/non-pacifist divide between the Quaker and non-Quaker students (which led to some lively debates, of course!), we all considered each other Christians first and foremost. How did we get to the point where a so-called follower of Christ makes these kind of jaw-dropping statements?

    • Thanks for the comment. I couldn’t agree more with you.

      In my mind, Driscoll is just an iteration of a “new fundamentalism.” He hated the previous generations fundamentalism in regards to beer and cussing, but now he is simply perpetuating a fundamentalism of different sorts (neo-Calvinistic theology). Anyone who disagrees with him (/the systematic theologies he regurgitates) is anathema. Ridiculous.

  3. Not sure the author totally comprehends the Gospel when he asks:

    Is Jesus’ (and thus God’s) character more fully revealed on a cross (dying as an act of forgiveness for his enemies) or in an octagon (killing his enemies in an act of vengeance)?

    The Son died on the cross because the Father demanded blood and vengeance. The correct answer is “both”.

    • Jim,

      Why do you think that “the Father demanded blood and vengeance”? Are Jesus and the Father not fully the same? If Jesus does not demand blood and vengeance, then how can the Father whom he is fully revealing to us?

      There are other ways of understanding the atonement that don’t make God out to be so bloodthirsty (such as Christus Victor), and I think those fit much better with the biblical narrative. They also avoid the tendency which I pointed out above, positing a weird disjunction between the members of the Trinity (particularly Jesus and the Father).

  4. My view does not illustrate a “weird disjunction” between the Father and the Son at the cross, but rather a full cooperation between the two. Accomplishing both justice and mercy.

  5. Ronald Farmer has an interesting commentary on Revelation where he argues for a reading of Revelation where God and Jesus in fact use no violence. He make a lot of good points, though I can definitely understand someone getting the impression from the text that God is using violence to punish his enemies and I’m not completely sold on Farmer’s interpretation myself. The important thing though is that the author doesn’t envision Christians living on earth as pursuing God’s vengeance for him.

    On Jesus and pacifism, should we not see a certain amount of hyperbole in Jesus’ statements about turning cheeks and living by swords? admittedly one cannot be sure on any given statement whether Jesus said it or whether it is a late addition. So while turning the other cheek is found in Q, his statement about living and dying by the sword and his advice to the apostles to go buy swords are from Luke and Matthews special material and who knows if they go back to any authentic saying. The overall impression is that Jesus didn’t like indulgence in hatred and vengeance, but would he really object to self defense or defending another from harm? If he would, that would seem to preclude Christians from calling a cop, because then one would just be outsourcing violence to another. To say you only dialed 911 would be as much a cop-out as saying you only pulled a trigger, we all know how police deal with violent people. The completely pacifist Christian upon seeing a child being assaulted not only would not personally intervene but wouldn’t call a cop. In behaving so, then the pacifist would be putting their own personal holiness above someone else’s well being, which seems decidedly unchristian. What do you think, if Jesus heard a woman screaming rape on the street outside his apartment, would he call a cop or turn the other cheek?

    • Michael,

      Thanks for the thoughtful comment. I’ll have to look into Farmer’s commentary. I just posted a few thoughts on nonviolently interpreting Revelation: http://bit.ly/16tOdjG. I echo your sentiment in that, even if all such readings are not fully convincing, we should at least explore the options. One of the problems in the church as I see it is that our interpretive imaginations are often incapable of seeing texts outside of our limited doctrinal presuppositions.

      I think its fair to wonder whether there might be hyperbole involved in some of Jesus’ statements. I do think that your examples only work under the assumption of a false dichotomy: inflict violence or allow evil. I think Walter Wink does a good job demonstrating how Jesus modeled and taught “non-violent resistance” (what he calls a Third Way). That is, there are plenty of ways to nonviolently stand up to evil – see MLK, Ghandi, etc etc (I even hear examples somewhat frequently in the news. Someone talking down a shooter, etc).

      In my opinion, if you take the implied logic of your examples further, one would have to conclude that Jesus is the most evil person to ever exist. He had ALL the power to stop ALL of the evil happening during the first century (surely he wasn’t ignorant to the evil and injustice of his day). He even knew that his friends and family would be persecuted. But he was not willing to use violence to stop those evil acts. Is Jesus then responsible in the same way I might be if I decided not to use a gun to stop an elderly person being beat, despite the consequences?

      Obviously there aren’t easy answers. But, you bring up good questions. I appreciate your input and would love to keep the dialogue going! What do you think of my response?

      • I’ll have to take a look at your post on Revelation. Regarding taking down shooters, I would have to argue that tackling someone is violent. IT isn’t as violent as shooting someone, but it is hardly turning the other cheek and if you used tackling to end a conversation, you would be charged with assault.

        Regarding Jesus’ refusal to use his omnipotence to stop suffering on Earth, its my view that that was not an option for him because he was not omnipotent. But without getting into a discussion of Christology, I would argue that even if that was an option he had, for Jesus to decide that he was going to use his power to end suffering on earth when God his father had not would show a lack of faith. If I told my dad that I had faith in the family farm and then sold it to shopping mall developers as soon as he gave me ownership, that would be a profound lack of faith. Effectively, Jesus using his power to end suffering on earth would be brining judgment day ahead of Gods schedule. Now the Bible does have some problems that I haven’t worked out about Jesus use of the miraculous to heal the sick and cast out demons, but I would assume that to the people of the time their was a distinction between the limited actions that a holy man might achieve and the unlimited actions of God. that would be a whole other discussion.

        Regarding the New Testaments view of violence to solve problems, I would argue that Jesus is using a bit of hyperbole and that his non-violent approach to the situation of his time, was like MLK and Gandhi, in fact based on that specific condition. That is MLK and Gandhi were dealing with leading a movement for recognition of human rights from people who were basically humane, rational, and sympathetic to justice. Had they been Jews in Hitler’s Europe, the non-violent protest would have been meaningless. Gandhi’s advice that the people of Europe should confront Hitler with non-violent resistance was foolish, and if he was aware of the situation, would have been vile. To tell defenseless people that they will just have to suffer until their enemies are tired of torturing them because you have a higher morality that won’t allow you to bring harm or constraint to their persecutors just doesn’t seem like goodness to me. it would seem more moral to say you wont help because your afraid.

        Back to my point, Jesus’ situation was a bit like Gandhi and MLK’s. Many of the spiritual movements in Jesus world were focused on ousting the foreign invader. Now I think Roman rule was no more cruel than Jewish rule under the Hasmonean kings, so the opposition was primarily based on ethnic pride. Jesus rejected this thinking and his movement seems to be focused instead on defeating the evil that is in your self. I think that Jesus’ is asking people to not think with hate or the desire to avenge slights done to ones self. In a time when lots of people wanted to wage war to avenge slights done to them by Rome and landlords and tax-collectors, a very forward stance on nonviolence was needed. This is the same dilemma faced by MLK and Gandhi, there were those that believed in violence to throw out England and to gain recognition of for the rights of blacks, but given the power imbalance this would have taken a lot of violence and given their reasonable, rational, and humane foes the right to fight back with force. Now Jesus does not seem to have been leading a passive resistance campaign against Rome, he is essentially telling Jews to fix their own house first before thinking about fighting Rome. Had Gandhi and King been faced with 50 British or KKK persons oppressing them rather than a nation, then rather than try and get that handful to stop hurting people with passive resistance, they may have just thrown them out.

        While they are of secondary importance to understanding Jesus, Jesus’ speech to the disciples in Luke advising them to buy swords and Paul’s endorsement of the basic goodness of Rome’s rule I thing are educational for understanding how early Christians understood Jesus’ message (that is if Luke invented this saying and was not privy to a reliable source for this) Paul does not seem to have a problem of Rome using force to deal with crime or even its right to rule foreign people. So if Christians say that because of their pacifism, they will not fight wars or punish criminals, then does that mean Christians need Satan’s government to keep people from suffering?(more on that later) On Jesus’ instruction to the disciples to buy swords, interpretations vary and I have heard pacifist reading of this, but I think the most simple is that Jesus is telling his followers that in hard times they cannot trust in the kindness of others to keep them well. They need a travelling money and they need protection, and this may well have been the experience of missionaries on strange roads. I think Jesus’ response to that is enough on their producing two swords is a response to their haste in producing them. Jesus has been trying to instill that the kingdom of God won’t come from swords and the apostles doubt him. I think Jesus is disappointed that the apostles are way ahead of him on obtaining swords. These guys were hoping for action and Jesus is exasperated.

        Back to Satan’s government. I do think a Christian attitude toward force and violence is that its use is a sad failure of the human condition. it is not to be celebrated of its self, and so Even if I think it is right for a Christian to call the police, or to serve as a soldier, cop, or judge, the use of force is not a cause for joy but repentance.

  6. While I do not agree with Driscoll’s sentiments, I think he, like so many (perhaps), are frustrated as there are some who use the pacifist image of Christ as an excuse to look the other way when it comes to fundamental truths of scripture. Thus allowing our current society to live as they choose.

    Jesus never advocated for violence, yet he was able to speak truth with love. So, why is it so difficult for the church to do the same today? More and more the church is under attack, and it seems as though our response it just to call names and mock those who disagree. So incredibly frustrating.

    As a believer I have struggled for several years now with those in the pulpit who literally mock other individuals and their beliefs (which differ from Christianity) and the congregation just laughs. I wonder, “How does this convey our message of love and truth?”

    Sorry, not sure I’m on track with the discussion, but I guess I empathize Driscoll’s underlying sentiment of Jesus was ultimately not a pushover in the sense that he was not afraid to speak the truth.

    • Lori,
      Thanks for the comment! I agree with you in regards to speaking the truth in love. Jesus was definitely not a pushover. He did make people mad enough to kill him, after all (which is always something worth considering when we try to imagine what Jesus was like!).
      Hope you are well!
      Mike

  7. Excellent discussion thread here. I think Lori’s comment points out the need to distinguish “pacifist” from “pushover.” Being non-violent often involves an incredible amount of courage (just look at the lives of Martin Luther King, Jr. or Ghandi as Mark pointed out). But non-violence is not necessarily the same thing as non-action. It is a different method of action that chooses to make changes–to society, to laws, to people’s understanding of truth, the list goes on–through non-violent means. On a personal note, I have often felt the tension between non-violent philosophies and the need to take action in a fallen world. I attended a Quaker college and was heavily influenced by pacifist views, though I could never bring myself to fully embrace them. Still, I think this is a tremendously important discussion to have in the Christian church. It seems that most of the teachings of churches I have attended (full disclosure: mostly evangelical churches) emphasized the importance of modeling our lives in the manner of Christ only on a personal level. The broader implications for society and the nation either aren’t discussed or are viewed more through a lens of Old-Testament style retributive justice. Just my experience, of course. I would be curious to learn about other’s experiences, especially in churches outside the evangelical sphere.

  8. It seems to me the question centers on what the motive is for discussing this. Is it a springboard to something political or something spiritual? If I view Jesus as a pacifist or “activist” what’s the impact of either choice?

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