A Theology of Non-Violence
The purpose of the reflections published on this site may be best described as an attempt to articulate a theology of non-violence. Given the power of theology to impart a deeper understanding of who God is and how he is involved in the redemption and transformation of the world, our vocation to be a society of non-violence and peaceful imitation of his image becomes clear.
Since Jesus Christ brings to light our highest calling, a theology of non-violence represents a radical critique of the nihilist-ic refusal of contemporary culture to glance, even momentarily, in the direction where true peace may be found.
Over the last twenty years, mimetic theory in its application to an ever-widening range of disciplines, including biblical interpretation and church history, has proved to be an astonishingly productive hermeneutical instrument, far beyond what anyone could have imagined.
As one of Girard’s interpreters has noted, the genius of Girard's work has so effectively integrated literature, the human sciences, and theology that those who have applied his insights to their respective fields of enquiry found themselves in regions far beyond the limits they had come to regard as natural.
In biblical interpretation, mimetic theory has exposed the one proposition that has, at least since the fourth century, strongly influenced Christian teaching and praxis: God is somehow violent and vengeful. However, if Jesus was indeed God incarnate, and if we are committed to a trinitarian view of God, then the Creator of heaven and earth is absolutely non-violent and non-retaliatory. The latter, not the former, is the good news as exemplified in the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus.
In other words, mimetic theory points us unambiguously to the revelation of God’s self-giving love in Jesus Christ, and at the same time, to what it means to be fully human. Thus, Jesus’ announcement "Peace I give to you ..." (John 14:27) made to those to whom he appeared after the resurrection, becomes paradigmatic for the existence and proclamation of the church, grounded as this proclamation is in the inner trinitarian dynamic of positive mimesis that characterized the life and work of Jesus.
Thus, peace — as the fundamental proclamation of reconciliation between God and humanity in Jesus Christ — is the only viable hermeneutic of what it means to follow Jesus. In a pertinent article Michael Harding writes: "[T]he integration of mimetic theory and theology creates the conditions for a real hearing, because a real telling, of the gospel. As we see it, modern humanity is faced with one simple question: “Must God be violent?” What if, in fact, we were to come face to face with the Creator and find out that our only experience is that of love and forgiveness?"
Therefore, speaking peace in today’s world belongs to the apostolic mandate. It calls the church to grasp afresh the significance of proclaiming the peace of a God whose image is purified of vestiges of human projection and mythology, which always hides its violence behind the notion of the sacred.
However, most biblical interpretations are based on an admixture of myth and gospel. The definition of 'myth' used throughout these articles follows that of René Girard. Myth is a story that covers up original acts of violence against victims to whom collective guilt is attributed and who are later sacralized; whose victimization grounds not only the surrogate peace of the community, but also its religion and culture. Gospel, on the other hand, is the unveiling of this violence as well as of the innocence of the victim. In short, gospel as revelation is the antithesis of myth.
By relying on a dualistic reading of its texts, Christianity has obscured their revelatory power, which, I argue, is one of the reasons why the church has barely begun its essential task of proclaiming peace. Yet, in a world where violence has reached almost apocalyptic proportions, no other task is more urgent and important. For without this proclamation, worked out in commensurate praxis by the church, the world will not be able to see God as he exists in his relation to us in Jesus Christ.
Christians certainly do not have a monopoly of building a new and better society. They have not been the first to attempt it either. In relation to the pressing issues of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, others have gone ahead and taken upon themselves responsibilities which Christians have often been slow to even recognize. However, we cannot overlook the grave consequences that have sprung from their attempts to build a better world without love, without Christ, and with the elimination of God.
It may be rightly observed that religion, love, justice and peace become mere words when they are cynically betrayed by those who ought to have been their custodians. However, it is even more correct to say that a society which attempts to create justice and peace – and even human rights for that matter – at the price of eliminating God, will commit even greater injustices, and become addicted to rivalry, cruelty and violence.
The reasons are not hard to find. For, those who desire to build a better world without God, must suppress the spiritual dimension of human existence. They must, instead, trust money, military might, technology and power, together with the whole gamut of modern organization. While economic production will reach unprecedented levels (at least in the West), the outcome will be a mass culture of monstrous proportions, which will, under the tag of equality and political correctness, lure humanity into such depth of acquisitive imitation that will make escalating violence inevitable. Instead of improving the world, they will make it worse. These and similar concerns will be explored in these pages.
True and False Peace
In this reflection, we ponder the distinction between true and false peace. What distinguishes one from the other? The first has spiritual roots; the other is grounded in human myth-making. Which it is will be exposed in the crucible of life, for the origin of the peace we claim to possess is integral to its durability. Every time our circumstances become difficult or painful, and we resort to blaming God or others for our trouble, true peace eludes us. We have neither peace with God nor with our fellows. The truth is, we are trying to serve two masters, God and ourselves, and this double-bind causes our perplexity. However, true peace will come only when we depend entirely on God.
Jesus speaks peace and, in such speaking he makes peace because his words are “spirit and life”(John 6:63). This reality challenges us with the question whether we have ever received the words of Jesus — “My peace I give to you …”(John 14:27). When, in the context of an intimate relationship with him, we receive into our spirits the undisturbedness of his Spirit, we participate in his peace.
Are we perplexed right now? Then let us with “unveiled faces” (2 Cor 3:18) present the matter to him and receive his peace knowing that he is ever ready to be gracious to us individually and as a believing community. St. Paul exhorts us: “Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace …” (Col 3:15). Here the divinely ordained repository of peace comes into view, the people of God called to reflect the peace of God — free from rivalry, resentment and violence.
In the Hebrew tradition, the notion of shalom is closely associated with the idea of perfection. As an attribute of God shalom is descriptive of a momentous cosmic principle, and hence also of human wellbeing. When individuals and their communities fulfill the obligation to pursue peace, peace appears on earth as divine blessing that overcomes strife, social tensions, and war.
However, to be ethically efficacious in the world, peace must be tempered by justice and truth. As ancient rabbinic wisdom has it: “By three things the world is preserved, by justice, by truth, and by peace, and these three are one: if justice has been accomplished, so has truth, and so has peace.”
Such a conception of peace is very different from the bumper-sticker slogan “Peace is a teddy bear”. True peace is made of sterner stuff. Those who have tasted God’s shalom purify their hearts of resentful and rivalrous desires knowing that, if these remain unconquered, they will be vented somewhere in society — in the home, in the church, or among the nations — only to accelerate the destructive vortex of retaliation and violence. Whoever has honestly faced the dark urges of their own hearts will resist, and seek to set in motion contagious peace instead.
At the same time, they know that, in the final analysis, their own transformation, and that of the world, does not depend on human effort alone. Mere shifts of consciousness or reliance on social contracts are of no avail against the entropic mythical forces that lurk deep within the human psyche. They know from experience that the redeeming love of God is manifested wherever the pacific imitation of Christ — the most potent force on earth — is arraigned against the power structures of domination, enslavement and violence . True peace is indeed able to transform the world.
Urgent Need for New Wineskins
The church of the 21st century faces unprecedented challenges, which place extraordinary demands on its leadership at all levels. A new stage in history is in the making and if the church wants to fulfill its mandate of giving shape to it, the church must be willing to enter the fray with heightened spiritual activity.
God confronts the world with its own condition, e.g. 9/11; man-made climate change; inner city disasters; world hunger; widely publicized institutional corruption and breakdown, from which the church is not exempt. This confrontation will also bring new revelation as to what the church needs to be and, as a result, enormous change. I believe that the historical turbulence we are experiencing is God’s megaphone. He summons the church corporately and individually to a fresh and intensified engagement with Him and with His creation, calling for new forms of church leadership that will rise to the task of pioneering never-tried-before ways of relating to the world. In short, the church is being summoned into a place of significant, turbulent and history-making participation with God for the purpose of bringing the restorative dynamics of the Gospel to bear on the world. It is my view that this dimension must be kept constantly in mind in your deliberations and regularly be brought before the congregation lest we succumb to the temptation of clinging to the wharf while the Holy Spirit is calling us to undertake a voyage on the high seas.
It is the nature of God always to renew, to move on, to take risks, to have us enter uncharted territory. By contrast, human nature is to preserve the old. The church holds on to old wine skins (structures) hoping that they will be adequate for the new thing God is doing, only to find that these are too rigid to contain the vigor and ferment of new wine – both in the hearts of believers and in the ministry structures of the church. In Luke 5:36 Jesus warns that patching things up will not do. The incongruity of the patch will become obvious. Jesus declared to his contemporaries who could not see beyond the ministry structures of second temple Judaism, just as he is speaking at this time to the church across the denominations, especially to the traditional ones, “no one puts new wine into old wine skins; if he does, the new wine will burst the skins and the wine will be spilled, and the skins will be destroyed. But new wine must be put into fresh wine skins.” (Lk 5:37-38). Then he adds v. 39 – not as nodding approval of conservatism but as a stinging critique of “late adaptors” who have no taste for the new and reject it on the false assumption that the old is better.
I am convinced that God will act on his own word and not pour new wine into old wine skins. This ‘no’ of God will shake the old structures under the dynamics of history until the people who inhabit them become convinced that God means business, that the old must be left behind and that his people must move to higher ground. This shaking will bring his people to their knees to seek his face with ever greater intensity for in our present state He cannot invite us into the privilege of ushering in the renewal of the church and of his creation. In order to catch what God is saying “in such a time as this”, it is necessary to earnestly pray, listen, consult with and learn from church leaders across a wide range of denominational and spiritual experience.
Jesus’ teaching on wine skins highlights that the wine comes first. The wine skins, that is, structures of the church while necessary, are secondary (and temporary) in comparison to the all-important effervescent and eternal wine of the Holy Spirit. This brings us to the question what the wine skins or ministry structures ought to be like to be able to contain the wine:
– Jesus himself is the model and measure of what it means to be ‘church’. He gives us an incarnational model not an organizational one.
– It is the purpose of incarnational wine skins to offer to every generation the full and fresh taste of the new wine, the full charismatic expression of the Gospel. Making this possible is the task of church leadership. Dysfunctional or dry skins need to become “new.”
– Faithfulness to the creative genius of God and to the vision he inspires will mean change. But change will scandalize the comfortable, whose resistance must not be allowed to prevail. At the same time, wise ministry must protect the elderly for whom change is more traumatic than beneficial.
Pick up any report on growth in the traditional churches and you are in for a dismal reading. Even in localities where the population is growing, the church is not. Spontaneous expansion, as we see it in the Book of Acts and it has been experienced by other denominations in the course of history, seems to be unknown. This suggests that the traditional churches are self-limiting. To my mind, the question needs to be asked whether local churches have the leadership resources and “political will” to break out of the self-limiting pattern that inheres in the denomination. Already thirty years ago, Joseph McCulloch, an Anglican minister, wrote in his My Affair with the Church:
"… imprisoned and confused by its past, locked within outworn systems of thought and structure inhibiting that elasticity and freedom of action upon which its effective ministry in the modern world entirely depends. In the existing world there is too little room for the Spirit of God to move among the dwindling number of those who still huddle within its spiritually stifling confines. "
I leave it to you to assess whether much, if anything, has changed. Yet, the church ought to be in the growth business. Growth must occur both in terms of maturity and membership. It is the sign of life – no growth, no life. If a congregation is not growing, it is stagnating, even dying.
Since God is always calling us to a higher place, I believe that before there can be growth in membership, there must be growth in maturity, which means we must cut deeper channels for the Holy Spirit in our lives. The best way to remove a logjam is to raise the water level. Since growth means discomfort and change, embracing growth becomes a special problem for aging congregations.
To overcome some of these problems, my denomination (Anglican) has tried various antidotes like avoiding clerical dress and vestments, ordination of women, etc. As Michael Harper pointed out already thirty years ago, this is just pruning the branches. Even the charismatic renewal movement could not change the Anglican wine skin. In less than forty years, the wine was lost. At present, vibrant church growth seems to occur in Pentecostal churches. But these are not without problems.
When we look at the Book of Acts, we see another dynamic altogether. In the first church, the Holy Spirit was sovereign. A community inspired by the Holy Spirit engaged in extraordinarily creative missionary experiments, and became “a church on the move” directed by the Pentecostal Spirit against which neither the gates of prisons nor the gates of hell could prevail. The Holy Spirit also affected the way the church conceived of ministry.
The New Testament clearly outlines the fivefold ministry of the church. It is apostolic, prophetic, pastoral, didactic and evangelistic. Let me say a word on each. The apostolic function is the “roving representative” function of ministry, which does not apply to the immediate context.
The prophetic function is primarily that of listening to the voice of the Spirit. It must learn to retreat from the world and its busyness and become quiet enough to perceive the voice of the Spirit and pass on the word to others. This has nothing to do with exegesis of Scripture. The focus is on intimacy with the living Spirit who imparts to listening hearts what is pertinent for the hour. The prophet then relates his insights faithfully and courageously to those who need to hear what the Spirit is saying to the church or churches. In the early church, ordinary men and women functioned in that capacity. However, as Michael Green has pointed out, this function, which was so effective in both preaching and evangelism, declined when the episcopate grew in influence in the third century.
The pastoral role of the church is multilayered and is the one area of ministry that requires organization if it is to be done properly and effectively. Moreover, it involves “knowing the sheep”. Pastoral care needs to extend to all parts of their lives and is very practical. It sees to it that their marriages are functioning along biblical lines, is in touch with their attitude to work, to finances, to the raising of children, to stewardship over time and resources, teaches how to deal with temptation, how to pray and how to receive guidance from God. Here the didactic role of the church nicely blends with the pastoral. On all aspects of life, teaching needs to be offered so that the saints will grow in maturity and learn how to walk in the Spirit. Moreover, they need to be equipped to operate in the gifts of the Spirit – prophecy, healings, words of wisdom and knowledge etc. Then, under the oversight of wise and experienced leadership, they must be given opportunity to practice their gifts and find their proper place in the body.
Unless its members are in their correct place, its evangelistic function will be hindered. While the first church knew the office of evangelist, it is important that the church as a whole becomes evangelistic and not confine its outreach to a specialist ministry function.
In sum, this calls for supernaturally gifted leaders like prophets, pastors and teachers who model these qualities before their congregations. Characterized by relational style that creates a sense of belonging, they call people beyond their comfort zone and release their gifting. They know how to speak heart-to-heart with God and with their people. They easily self-disclose and openly share with others how God is leading them personally. They are experienced in the operation of the gifts of the Spirit and thus able to ignite the hearts of their congregations with a passion for a Holy Spirit-empowered life. When wine skins are thus renewed, the new wine will not be missing and spontaneous growth will be the result.
If congregations have experienced over the years the opposite, then in order to see our impotence to be the church in the traditional mode that we may learn how to rely on the Spirit alone for growth and empowerment. These observations lead to several implications:
1. Sustained seasons of prayer, accompanied by appropriate teaching, during which the church is particularly called to seek God’s face for the empowering of the Holy Spirit.
2. Critical reviews of personal and church practices with special attention to those that hinder the freedom of the Holy Spirit in the church.
3. Urgent clarification whether Anglicans earnestly desire the full charismatic expression of the Gospel. If so, this vision should be declared, preached and pursued through every avenue of learning, teaching and ministry with the aim of establishing congregations in the experience of the Holy Spirit so that his transforming power may turn us individually and corporately into new wine skins. If not, such a conclusion should also be communicated as an expression of spiritual honesty.
4. Acceptance that people outside the church care more about experiencing the reality of God and his goodness than about the Anglican tradition (this wine skin is temporary by comparison with the wine). Consequently, we must strive to move from “religious” mode towards the presence and power of God. We must lift our vision of what worship means, reconsider liturgical practices so that its meaning becomes explicit while admitting that “religion” is opposed to the Kingdom of God. (Religion turns the cross into an ornament, sings about Christ’s suffering, but complains about the slightest hurt or inconvenience. Such false piety needs to be uprooted lest we crucify Christ again).
5. Give high priority to the question of how spiritual momentum is initiated, built and sustained.
6. Owing to the multi-layered nature of the pastoral ministry, special attention needs to be paid to its organization. For instance, a paradigm of “growth in maturity” and “all-of-life-ministry” would mandate that congregations go beyond the limits of present arrangements.
7. The ministry of worship and the role of prophetic music need special attention (to elaborate would require another paper).
8. The processes leading to leadership/ministry appointments and accountabilities need to be more fully understood. It is proven reality that when gifts and roles are not well matched in critical areas, costly problems arise for both incumbents and for those to whom they minister. Mismatches lead to frustration, disappointments, underperformance and neglect of vital areas.
9. As the New Testament does not give us a blueprint that answers all questions of ministry and its organization, we must experiment. Yet, it is clear that leadership is a ministry to the church as well as a gift of the Holy Spirit. When this gift is allowed to function properly its manifestations are clearly discernable:
+ Casting of inspired and inspiring visions.
+ People hear in the voice of the leader the voice of the shepherd that makes them secure.
+ Initiatives are taken, teams are fired up, and people’s efforts are galvanized into a unified whole.
+ Those who follow their leader’s vision, experience the love of the leader. They are set free to take risks knowing he covers their mistakes. They feel the momentum of a forward movement towards inspired goals.
+ Where these characteristics are not conspicuous, absence of gifting is the defining issue. Its absence cannot be corrected by training as is often falsely assumed. Ministry at whatever level can only be done out of God-given abilities.
In submitting these reflections, I trust that they will not only stimulate discussion, but also impact the way we “do church” in the 21st century. Jesus’ call for new wine skins is beyond dispute, especially in such a time as this, if the church is to meet the extraordinary demands the next stage in history places on it and on its leadership.