One cannot help but be deeply disheartened and disturbed by the barrage of violent headlines: two men pulled over at traffic stops and brutally shot, police officers targeted and killed, terrorist attacks around the world, rancor and fighting among ourselves over politics, economics, or petty offenses. As one event piles onto another, I wonder aloud over the apparent love of violence by human beings. With all the heartache and despair left in the wake of these kinds of tragedies, why won’t people tire of violence?
Unfortunately, violent events are no longer a shock or a surprise. In fact, they are often as familiar to us and our world as our exercise routines. Yet, perhaps the familiar reminder of violence brings to our attention that something is very wrong in this world. If we are honest with ourselves, we know that evil is not just out there, apart from us, but dwells all too closely within our own hearts. The ancient prophet Jeremiah understood this dark reality of human nature: “The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked; who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9).
While I wish Jeremiah’s indictment was for everyone else out there—murderous assassins or political rivals—I know too well my own heart’s violence. It comes naturally to be quick to make a judgement, to grow irritated at minor offenses, or to feel the rage that emerges when my way, my plans, my agenda is thwarted. How often I wish I could take back all of the careless words spoken in anger against my loved ones? When might I tire of violence?
Jesus, like Jeremiah before him, understood humanity’s violent tendencies. He understood that violence is not something ‘out there’ but something within us. He told his disciples, “It is what comes out of a person that defiles. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come… and they defile a person” (Mark 7:20-23). Jesus didn’t say these words from the cross of violence that took his life, but he very well could have. Indeed, his offering of himself and his death on a cross is the very embodiment of his teaching in the Sermon on the Mount:
“But I say to you who hear, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who mistreat you. And if you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. But love your enemies, and do good and lend, expecting nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons and daughters of the Most High; for God is kind to ungrateful and evil men. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”(1)
Jesus endured the violence that ultimately led to his crucifixion. And even though the cross didn’t end the violence that would continue in human hearts, Jesus’s bearing of violence offers another way in our violent world. As one scholar has noted:
“The Christian view of human nature is wise precisely because it is so very extreme: it sees humanity, at once, as an image of the divine fashioned for infinite love and imperishable glory, and as an almost inexhaustible wellspring of vindictiveness, cupidity, and brutality. Christians, indeed, have a special obligation not to forget how great and how inextinguishable the human proclivity for violence is, or how many victims it has claimed, for they worship a God who does not merely take the part of those victims, but who was himself one of them, murdered by the combined authority and moral prudence of the political, religious and legal powers of human society. Which is, incidentally, the most subversive claim ever made in the history of the human race.”(2)
The curious way of Jesus challenges not merely the ferocity of a violent world, but our own complicity to embrace violence in large and small ways. Here is one we somehow encounter both as the lion and the lamb, one who comes near enough to be slaughtered by us and is yet somehow fierce enough to bear our violence. The transformation he offers is our only peace.
Margaret Manning Shull is a member of the speaking and writing team at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Bellingham, Washington.
(1) Luke 6:27,28,32,33,35,36.
(2) David Bentley Hart, Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009)17-18.