The Logic of Religious Violence

I was reading 1 Maccabees the other day and was struck again by Mattathias’ call to arms in 2:40-42.

After the report of a slaughter of fellow Jews who had refused to fight, Mattathias and his friends are despondent.

And each said to his neighbor: “If we all do as our brethren have done and refuse to fight with the Gentiles for our lives and for our ordinances, they will quickly destroy us from the earth.” So they made this decision that day: “Let us fight against every man who comes to attack us on the Sabbath day; let us not all die as our brethren died in their hiding places.” Then there united with them a company of Hasideans, mighty warriors of Israel, every one who offered himself willingly for the law.

It seems to me that this turn to violence perfectly captures the logic that drives so much rhetorical and physical violence on the part of religious people, Christians and non-Christians.

The feeling is that the honor of God and the existence of God’s people (our survival!) are at stake.  Because of that—because the stakes are so high—we must put aside some of the central convictions of our faith.

Christians, however, must draw upon God’s grace to remain in the shape of the cross even when our survival appears to be at stake, or when things appear to be out of control in our culture.  Remaining in the shape of the cross (refusing to retaliate, returning evil with good, loving those who hate us, controlling ourselves to speak kindly to those with whom we disagree) embodies faith in the resurrection and trust in God’s sovereignty.

God is, after all, the just Judge who will judge righteously.  God is, after all, the one who will take vengeance and will do so with perfect justice.

Sadly, an election season turns up the rhetorical temperature in an already over-heated culture war.  Christians find themselves engaging in rhetorical violence against this or that candidate, verbally blasting this or that supporter of this or that party.

Let’s remember that cruciformity is the only way of hope and promise for those who confess loyalty to the Lord Christ.  The way of violence (rhetorical and physical) is only and always the way of death.

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12 responses to “The Logic of Religious Violence

  • BradK

    Your post assumes that a strict refusal to engage in violence even in self defense is a central conviction of the Christian faith and that a willingness to engage in defense of one’s self or loved ones is not cruciform and does not embody faith in the resurrection and trust in God’s sovereignty. It should be obvious that these are both highly debatable assumptions.

    Also, “rhetorical violence” is far different from physical violence, is it not? Was John the Baptist not being cruciform when he called the Pharisees a brood of vipers? Was Paul not being cruciform when he told the Galatians that he wished his opponents would emasculate themselves? Or maybe those are not examples of “rhetorical violence”?

    • timgombis

      Viz. your first point, BradK, my post does not assume that at all.

      To your second point, I wouldn’t justify rhetorical violence on that basis, though I’m aware that many don’t share my hesitance.

      • BradK

        So which central convictions of our faith do you see the Maccabeans setting aside in their turn to violence, Tim?

      • timgombis

        Hope in the resurrection. We are told not to retaliate when persecuted for our identity as God’s people, and that we’ll be raised from the dead on the last day if we are faithful to Jesus. The wording and logic of that statement in Maccabees is crucial.

  • Andrew T.

    Violence is a product of the human condition. That said, Jesus was hated (and killed) because he testified the world was evil. I can’t see why religeon should get the blame for violence as a product of fallen man. Besides, in all liklihood violence and strife with Christians at least, may just be a natural out-working of evangelism, knowing how the world responds to Christ, and His Gospel.

  • Andrew T.

    Also, if there’s one place its really evident the Greek word ‘ethnos/ethne’ should absolutely not have been translated ‘Gentiles’ (not sure why we capitalize that) it is here.

    In Maccabees, Mattathias and his mates weren’t warring against ‘Gentiles’, but nations, some of whom were heathenized Israelites of the House of Israel (google leuco-syrians and compare to [1 Peter 1:1])

    For example
    Γαλατίας (G1054 Galatikos) =
    Γαλα + τικός.

    – τικός (tikos) is a well know Greek suffix meaning “characteristic of”
    (antibiotic from antibioticos, meaning characteristic of destroying life .. etc)

    Γαλα is the Hebrew גלה ( gala H1540 ).

    So Γαλατίας is characteristic of being an exile; the Israel of God [Gal 6:16]

  • Travis Knipple

    I always consider things this way.
    The God I know says “vengence is mine”.
    He’s big enough to take care of himself. For most of human history, there have been different people groups trying to wipe out the followers of Jehovah and Jesus Christ, yet the church endures.
    My God is big enough to defend himself.
    So, I should trust Him and turn the other cheek, acting in love towards everyone.
    It is easy to love those who love you, but I tell you to love your enemies and pray for those that persecute you. :)

    Glad I came across your blog. Not sure if you remember me, but I was at Cedarville and met with you and Jewish Mike a couple times in the Hive.

  • An Explanation | Soli Deo Gloria

    [...] words above, along with Dr. Tim Gombis’ words in “The Logic of Religious Violence” are at the front of mind as I pursue these issues. Christians, however, must draw upon God’s [...]

  • Patrick

    It is not as easy to decide for me anyway. If someone wants to break my skull for general principles, I think God supports me breaking his first to prevent it.

    My logic is Jesus did tell His 12 to arm themselves when He departed and Paul wrote Romans 13 indicating we of Christ are to support the use of force on criminals when need be .

    Peter escaped jail, Paul escaped Aretas to avoid persecution, so it is not clear to me it is our role to always sit by and accept murder like Nero did it.

    IF I am already in custody and faced with the choice of worshipping the US President or Christ, then I’ll decide to worship Christ and face the consequences(I hope).

  • Kevin

    It is always interesting to me when people point to Luke 22:36, but then fail to note Luke 22:38. Two swords amongst the twelve, yet that is enough. Should that not shape our understanding of verse 36?

  • uspatriot55

    Tim, it’s worth mentioning that this is often the same logic of non-religious violence: “the stakes are so high!” I’m reading through William Cavanaugh’s The Myth of Religious Violence right now and that is a point he makes over and over. I’m not finished yet, but it’s a good read.

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