(Prepared for a World Council of Churches (WCC) study group on violence)
In what follows I would like to recall and develop certain biblical concepts and images that provide elements for a Christian “Theology of Power.” We shall consider two interrelated topics: 1) Violence in the modern world and in Scripture, together with the question whether violent action toward conflict resolution is ever legitimate; and 2) Jesus’ use of Power and Authority, and the problem of translating the biblical witness into today’s “culture of violence.”
I. Violence in the Modern World and in Scripture
1. Modern expressions of “violence.”
The term “violence” has a negative connotation: it implies the use of abusive force (physical, emotional, spiritual) with the intent to cause harm. Nevertheless, attempts are often made to justify violence in the cause of self-defense, to protect personal or communal values, or to preserve wealth and other resources (personal property, national territory). The question is, is “violence” so defined ever “legitimate,” i.e., does its use in conflict resolution ever conform to the will of God?
Since its Fifth Assembly (Nairobi, 1975), the World Council of Churches has focused largely on violence in warfare (esp. jus ad bellum, just criteria for resorting to war, rather than jus in bello, rules governing the conduct of war). This needs, to be expanded — as the “World Convocation on Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation” (JPIC) tried to do at its meeting in Seoul, Korea, 1990 — to include the vast range of sanctioned violence in various cultures today: e.g.,
- economic (globalization of industry that favors wealthy nations, child-labor and “sweat- shops,” sexism in the workplace…)
- sexual (harassment, rape as military policy, trafficking in women and children for sexual slavery, pedophilia and other forms of child sexual molestation…)
- racial (ethnic conflicts and tribal warfare, urban ghettos, inequality in education and the job market…)
In addition to international conflicts and civil war, we need to consider violence committed against others and against the self. What are the origins of each?
- Re. “others”: see René Girard’s concept of “mimetic violence” with its need for the ritual sacrifice of a scapegoat. “Violence is not originary; it is a by-product of mimetic rivalry… Violence is generated by this process; or rather violence is the process itself when two or more partners try to prevent one another from appropriating the object they all desire, through physical or other means.” (The Girard Reader, ed. James Williams [NY: Crossroad, 1996], pp. 9, 12). Girard attempts to correct a traditional Christian emphasis on the “sacrificial” character of Christ’s death. He died not as a sacrifice per se, but to end all sacrifice: to transcend violence through non-violent witness. His death was therefore “the ultimate rebellion against the culture of violence” (J. Walker. See esp. Gil Bailie, Violence Unveiled [NY: Crossroad, 1995], who argues persuasively that the growing empathy with victims and rejection of victimization in Western culture is due to the influence of the Christian gospel: “an empathy for victims awakened by the biblical tradition is crippling the ‘surrogate victim’ system upon which humanity has depended for social solidarity since culture began,” p. 58).
- Re. the “self”: Needed is an in-depth study of the neuro-psychological correlates of self-inflicted violence. Recent discoveries concerning brain chemistry, together with insights from “family systems dynamics” and related therapeutic techniques, provide important insight into the root causes of self-destructive patterns of behavior.
Such research needs to stress the interconnectedness between violence to others and violence to the self. The basic biblical guideline is Jesus’ commandment to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Mk 12:31 //s). Violence against the other (the “enemy”) is destructive of the self, just as violence against the self is destructive of the community, and particularly of the Church as the Body of Christ. Like sin, the violence of one member affects, and in some way implicates, every member of the Body.
Scripture offers a perspective essential to the overcoming of violence, namely the inherent sacredness or sanctity of the human person: the eternal value and integrity of the human creature that transcends all racial, ethnic, national, tribal and gender-specific interests. Accordingly, we shall focus on the biblical image of the person, not as a corrective but as a complement to the political, social, economic and other corporate or communal aspects of human life emphasized by numerous WCC position papers.
2. Various WCC responses to the problem of violence.
As a world body representing churches of many different countries and cultural environments, the WCC has focused primarily on conflict and conflict resolution at the national and international levels (war, civil-war).
The foundation of much of its reflection is the Eisenach-Avignon Resolution of 1928-29, which condemned war as an institution for conflict resolution, calling it irreconcilable with the Gospel of justice, peace and love.
Konrad Raiser (Corrymeela Consultation, 2 June, 1994) summarized divergent views of various member churches concerning warfare as an instrument for resolving conflict. He cited three opposing positions regarding conflict resolution that represent differing ways of considering the relationship between church and state.
- “classical pacifism,” rejecting violence and warfare under all circumstances;
- “classical ethics of the state,” allowing for the use of force in defense of justice, what could be termed a “licit militarism”; and
- rigorous application of “just war” criteria, concluding that the development of “weapons of mass destruction” (WMDs) renders modern warfare intrinsically illicit, since their use can never be construed as “an act of justice.”
Since its First Assembly (Amsterdam, 1948), the WCC has stressed the need to seek “peace with justice.” This has led to more serious consideration of the position of the historic Peace Churches (Brethren, Mennonites, Quakers) and their teachings on pacifism. Yet this leaves open the question of effective conflict resolution in the face of active aggression.
- Nairobi (1975) and Vancouver (1983) Assemblies called upon the churches to “emphasize their willingness to live without the protection of armaments.”
- JPIC Convocation (Seoul, 1990) called for “demilitarizing international relations and for promoting non-violent forms of defense.”
- Johannesburg Consultation (1994) reiterated the “need to confront and overcome the ‘spirit, logic and practice of war’ and to develop new theological approaches, consonant with the teachings of Christ, which start not with war and move to peace, but with the need for justice.”
The issue has been complicated by WCC concern to support those individuals and movements that seek liberation from institutionalized injustice and oppression. Two models have been developed over the past decades: revolutionary conflict, and non-violent resistance. WCC position papers support the latter, modifying it, however, in light of the highly effective witnesses of M.K. Gandhi and M.L. King. Termed “active non-violent action,” it presents a new model that avoids the weaknesses of both pacifism and militarism. At present we need to broaden this model so that it applies not only to racism and social oppression, but also to all forms of injustice spawned by our “culture of violence.”
In order to achieve such a broadening, we need to develop a Scripture-based “Theology of Power” that shifts the focus from abstract concepts of “peace,” “justice” and “equality” to the sovereignty of God and the sacredness of the human person. This is the indispensable foundation for assuming “active non-violent action” that can promote an authentic “peace with justice.”
Steps to be taken include the following: 1) examine the concept of “violence” in Scripture, to determine if it is ever justified; 2) maintain a crucial distinction between “violence” and the exercise of “power with authority”; then 3) suggest practical applications at national, communal and personal levels.
3. Violence in Scripture: is it ever justified?
In the Old Testament, “violence” translates the Hebrew expression gezel or, more frequently, chamas (to do violence, harm, wrong; as a noun it signifies cruelty, damage, injustice).
- It is a synonym of sin and human corruption against both God and men: e.g., Gen 6:11-13, “Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence” (cf. Prov 4:17; Isa 59:6; Ezek 8:17 re. idolatry).
- God saves his faithful from violence (2 Sam 22:3, 49, David’s song of deliverance from the hand of Saul: “Thou, O Lord, savest me from violence!”; Ps 72:14, God saves the weak and needy from oppression and violence; cf. Ps 18:48).
- The opposite of violence is “peace,” described as “salvation” and “praise” (Isa 60:18). Such peace necessarily involves justice (mishpat) and righteousness (sedaqah); cf. Jer 22:3 and Ezek 45:9. Note that these are eschatological values of “the Age to Come” or Kingdom of God.
In the New Testament there occur very few usages of words signifying “violence” per se. The term bia (force, violence) for example, appears only in Acts (5:26; 21:35; [24:7]; 27:41) to express violent handling of the apostles by authorities, or the pounding of waves against a ship.
More helpful are images of violence in Jesus’ teaching and passion, together with his forceful exercise of authority. We return to this in Part II, to provide a foundation for a biblically based “theology of power.”
Two NT passages, however, need to be considered: passages often cited in defense of the use of violence. They are Mt 11:12 and Lk 16:16. The two come from a common tradition and employ the same key verb, biazetai, yet the passages are very different in meaning.
(i) Mt 11:12, “From the days of John the Baptist until now, the Kingdom of heaven biazetai (either passive: “has suffered violence,” or middle: “has been coming with violence”), and men of violence take it by force (biastai harpazousin autên, possibly “seize it,” cf. Phil 2:5, ouch harpagmon êgêsato).
The difficulty here is that biazetai could be either middle or passive voice. Middle: “uses force, comes with force”; passive: “suffers violence.” The chief question is whether the “force” or “violence” is positive or negative. Are “men of violence” those who seek the Kingdom of God fervently? Or are they enemies of God’s faithful, raising up violence against God’s rule? (Recall that basileia can signify either “realm/Kingdom” or “reign/rule.”)
Both Matthew and Luke received the logion from “Q” or another independent source of oral tradition. The ambiguities of language led Luke to resolve the problem by opting for a positive reading.
(ii) Lk 16:16, “The law and the prophets were until John, since then the Kingdom of God is proclaimed (euaggelizetai) and everyone enters it violently (pas eis autên biazetai).” In Luke, this is an independent saying inserted among others with no intrinsic connection among them. By using the term pas (“everyone”), Luke implies that the first period of salvation history was that of the former Covenant, from creation through the ministry of John the Baptist. Christ brought the Kingdom, thus inaugurating the second or “hinge” period (H. Conzelmann, Die Mitte der Zeit ; Eng. tr., The Hinge of History). The third period is that of the Church: this is the “eschatological now” when the Kingdom of God is announced or proclaimed (passive voice: euaggelizetai).
Everyone who enters the Kingdom does so biazetai. Again we have two possibilities: middle (“uses force” or “forces his way in”), and passive (“suffers force” or “violence”). Apparently Luke understands either voice to express not “violence” but zeal, a passionate fervor or desire: “Everyone who enters [the Kingdom] does so with zeal or passion.” Alternatively, the meaning might be: “Everyone who enters it is pressed to do so,” that is, pressed by God himself, i.e., is irresistibly drawn or even compelled to enter it (a possible ground for the notion of “predestination”).
The fact that Luke stipulates that “everyone” enters the Kingdom in this fashion makes it clear that his understanding of the force of biazetai is positive, whether it be translated as a middle or a passive verb. Whether the sense is “enters with zeal” or “is pressed or drawn to enter,” Luke’s reading excludes the negative interpretation according to which those who enter are enemies of Christ and his Kingdom. In his understanding, the saying stresses the reaction of the faithful to the preaching of the Good News: they strive (or are pressed) to enter into eternal communion with God. (A similar positive sense is expressed in Lk 13:24, “Strive [agônizesthe] to enter by the narrow door; for many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able [ouk ischusousin, “will not have the power to do so”]; cf. Lk 14:23, “compel [anagkason] them to enter” the Master’s house.)
That Matthew’s version is the more original form of the saying is indicated by its context: a series of related logia concerning John the Baptist (Mt 11:7-15 constitutes a single group of sayings that Matthew received in a block, whereas Lk 16:16 has no connection with its context and represents an attempt on the evangelist’s part to produce an “easier” reading).
If we accept Matthew’s version of the saying, however, the question remains: who are those who “take the Kingdom by force?” There are two possibilities: (i) they are enemies of Christ and the Kingdom (e.g., members of the violent Jewish Zealot party, or, considering the Gospel’s context, more likely Pharisees who claim the Kingdom for themselves while hindering others who would enter into it — cf. Mt 23); or (ii) they are faithful believers who use violence against the Kingdom in an effort to make their way in (cf. katischusousin, Mt 16:18, which should be read “the gates (i.e., the power) of hell shall not triumph over the Church” rather than “shall not withstand the onslaught of the Church”). This latter interpretation of the biastai is implausible, however, since members of the Christian ekklesia — as the Matthean beatitudes make clear (5:3-12) — could hardly be described as “violent men” who “grasp,” “seize” or “snatch away” the Kingdom of their Lord (the verb harpazô expresses a violent action and, with the exception of divine intervention [Ac. 8:39; 2 Cor 12:2,4; 1 Th 4:17; Rev 12:5], occurs in a negative sense in the NT). We are left, then, with the former choice: the biastai who take the Kingdom by violence are enemies of God and his people. John the Baptist came as the new Elijah, to prepare the coming of the Messiah. The response to his preaching (“repent, for the Kingdom is at hand!”, 3:2) was to cast him into prison with a sentence of death. Just as John suffered violence at the hands of worldly authorities, so the Church endures violence at the hands of its enemies. And thereby the Kingdom itself suffers violence, the supreme example of which will be the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.
Conclusion: neither Mt 11:12 nor Lk 16:16 can be used to defend violent action, whether from an historical or an eschatological perspective. In the NT as well as the OT, violence is regarded as negative, contrary to divine law and the divine will. Its “intentionality” to inflict harm makes it unacceptable as a means for attaining ends, either political or spiritual. On the basis of the texts already examined, then, we can conclude with reference to the title of this section: Scripture never sanctions violence as a means for achieving ends.
This means that any use of force to resolve conflict must be grounded not in acts of violence, but in a proper use of power and authority. Power or force (dynamis) and authority (exousia) can only be properly understood with respect to Jesus’ own teachings and actions. It is there that we find the elements basic to a Christian “theology of power.”
4. Does Scripture support a “pacifist” or a “militant” approach to conflict resolution?
(A) Many elements of Jesus’ teaching and examples of his action appear to support classical pacifism: total renunciation of force on a personal or collective level. Jesus’ teaching:
(i) The Sermon on the Mount (Mt 5-7; cf. Lk 6)
- The Beatitudes of Mt 5 present pacifist attitudes and approaches as virtues to be striven for in Christian life: “blessed” are the poor in spirit, the meek, the merciful, the peacemakers, those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake.
- The Matthean “antitheses”: “Do not kill” becomes “Do not be angry”; “an eye for an eye” (lex talionis) becomes “Do not resist one who is evil” and “Turn the other cheek” (5:39); “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy” (not in the Hebrew Bible; a vestige of Qumran?) becomes “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”
- Forgiveness: “If you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (6:15). –
- Judgment: “Judge not, that you be not judged” (7:1).
(ii) On personal ambition and competition: the guiding principle is the frequently repeated, paradoxical affirmation, “The first shall be last and the last first.”
(iii) Interpersonal relationships are to be governed by the Great Commandment of love for God and neighbor.
(iv) Jesus’ actions: The clearest example is the Passion .
- The Garden of Gethsemane: “Father, if this (cup of suffering and death) cannot pass unless I drink it, Thy will be done!” (Mt 26:42). In 26:52f Jesus admonishes Peter to put up his sword and renounce force to protect his Lord. “Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?”
- Jesus’ trial and crucifixion: He accepts all voluntarily. [Cf. the anaphora of the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom: “In the night in which He was given up -- or rather, gave Himself up for the life of the world -- He took bread...”].
(v) Pacifism also appears to be supported by the Epistles and Acts:
- Romans 13:1, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority (exousia) except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.” Cf. 1 Peter 2:13-17, which concludes, “honor the Emperor!” A similar theme appears in John 19:11, Jesus’ word to Pilate: “You would have no power (exousian) over me unless it had been given you from above” (anôthen, a technical term signifying divine origin); cf. Jn 3:3-8). The implication is that all earthly power is given or instituted by God and receives its mandate from him, whether it is used justly or unjustly.
- Acts 16: Paul and Silas refuse to jeopardize the jailer’s life by escaping from prison once the doors are miraculously opened. Paul’s authority, on the other hand, is demonstrated by his insistence that the magistrates release them publicly (16:37). This worldly authority, conferred by his Roman citizenship, contains a “spiritual” aspect insofar as the apostle makes his demand for the sake of his witness to the Gospel.
If we had just these words and images, pacifism for Christians would be mandatory. Yet other New Testament elements — both words and actions of Jesus and the disciples — suggest that force (physical and spiritual) is acceptable, even necessary, in certain specific circumstances.
(B) Jesus’ apparent use of force or violence.
(i) The most obvious: Jesus’ Cleansing of the Temple (Mk 11:15-19; cf. Jn 2:13-21). This is the only example of physical “violence” used by Jesus in a conflict situation. (ii) Exorcisms of demonic powers, esp. Mk 5, healing of the Gadarene demoniac; cf. Jn 12:31; 16:11!
(iii) Verbal violence expressed in Jesus’ Parables of Judgment: Mt 25 et al., the wicked are cast into outer darkness or Gehenna; Mt 22, the parable of the Wedding Feast: the guest with no wedding garment is cast into outer darkness “where men will weep and gnash their teeth.”
(iv) Condemnation of the scribes and Pharisees as “hypocrites!” (Mt 23; Jn 8).
(v) Acts 5:1ff, Ananias and Sapphira are condemned for “tempting the Spirit of the Lord,” leading to their immediate sentence of death with no appeal.
(vi) 1 Cor 5:5, where Paul orders that the incestuous man be “delivered to Satan!” 1 Cor 16:22, “If anyone has no love for the Lord, let him be accursed” (anathema; cf. Gal 1:8). (vii) Jesus’ resurrection itself could be construed as an act of violence: overcoming powers of sin, death and corruption through the “harrowing of hell.” Cf. Mt 16:18, the “gates of hell shall not prevail against it,” an allusion to the ongoing violent conflict between heaven and hell, Satan and the Church.
(viii) Book of Revelation’s cosmic battles: the woman and the dragon; Michael and his angels in combat with the dragon (ch. 12); plagues and other symbols of God’s wrath (chs. 15-16); the destruction of Babylon/Rome (ch. 18); the resurrection of the wicked to judgment and destruction (ch. 20).
(C) How, then, do we reconcile (A) with (B)? Is Jesus pacifist or militant? This is in fact a false question. Jesus’ exercise of power must be seen in its eschatological context (not adequately perceived, either by Liberation Theology or by certain WCC statements).
The apparent pacifism expressed in the Sermon on the Mount, as in other teachings of Jesus, together with his Passion and Death, can only be correctly interpreted in light of the “in-breaking” of the Kingdom of God. (Here we need to resolve the artificial tension between “future” and “realized” eschatology. The Kingdom “has drawn near,” yet its fulfillment lies beyond history. Accordingly, Georges Florovsky spoke of “inaugurated eschatology,” stressing the “already but not yet” quality of life in the New Age of the Church.) What appears to be pacifism in Jesus’ teaching and actions is in fact various expressions of the “new law of the Kingdom”: love (agapê) in human relationships, which reflects the boundless love of the three Persons of the Holy Trinity.
The same must be affirmed of Jesus’ apparently “violent” teachings and actions: (i) The Cleansing of the Temple is a sign of the coming of a new locus of worship in Jesus’ person (cf. Jn 4:20, “Neither in Jerusalem nor on Mt. Gerazim, but in Spirit and truth.”). This is confirmed by the parallel passage in Jn 2. John has modified chronology to place the Cleansing at the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, rather than at its end, as in the Synoptic tradition. His entire Gospel is structured according to the rhetorical laws of “chiasmus” (concentric parallelism). By placing the Cleansing at this point, then linking it with Christ’s word, “Destroy this temple and in three days I shall raise it up,” John parallels this promise with the scene of Jesus’ crucifixion (ch. 19), when the locus of true worship, the Son of God, dies on the Cross, to be raised up on the third day. (Compare Mk 11:15-19; 13:1f; Mt 26:61 with Jn 2:13-2).
(ii) The exorcisms demonstrate God’s power and authority over the Archon or Prince of this world, esp. in Mk and Jn. Cf. 1 Jn 5:19, “We are of God; the whole world lies in (keitai, is in the power of) the Evil One.” Exorcisms (and healings in general) signal that the New Age of the Kingdom has arrived and that the powers of this world are defeated. (iii) Jesus’ parables also express eschatological themes of judgment against wickedness and unrighteousness, not so much in this world as in the world to come (Mt 25). The guest without a wedding garment (Mt 22) is to be understood in a similar vein. In Israel
the bridegroom provided wedding garments for the guests. This man, then, refused to “put his on,” thereby casting himself into outer darkness. (Cf. 2 Cor 5:2, where Paul speaks of our longing to “put on” or clothe ourselves in our heavenly dwelling).
(iv) Verbal condemnations of Pharisees and others represent a proleptic judgment pronounced on all sin. Rather than feed the hungry, clothe the naked and visit the sick, the Pharisees prevent the people of God from entering the Kingdom and thereby they bring condemnation upon themselves.
(v) Acts 5 (a notorious crux interpretum) is also to be understood in terms of “last things.” In the new age of the Church, all is under the authority of the Spirit for the mutual up-building of members of Christ’s Body. Ananias and Sapphira lie to God and “tempt” the Holy Spirit, thereby rejecting that divine authority. Consequently they, too, bring condemnation upon themselves; their death sentence is self-imposed.
(vi) 1 Cor 5, the man guilty of incest (probably with his step-mother) is delivered over not to condemnation but to salvation: “Deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.” That is, the day of final judgment. (We should recall that Pauline anthropology regards “the flesh” as the seat of the passions and the sinful acts that flow from them.) As for the anathemas, they are intended to protect the Christian community from various destructive influences (heresy, the refusal to love…).
(vii) Jesus’ resurrection marks the defeat of death, yet it brings grace, mercy and salvation to those who unite themselves to him in faith and love. The Church’s struggle against demonic powers constitutes the “Unseen Warfare” of Eastern ascetic tradition, a struggle of ascetic labor, grounded in the Word of God or “gospel of peace” (Eph 6:15).
(viii) Revelation’s images project this unseen spiritual warfare onto the cosmic scale, to represent the final Judgment with the defeat of sin, death and corruption: warfare essential to the realization of the New Jerusalem.
Each account, therefore, must be read in light of its eschatological setting. Jesus defends neither “pacifism” nor “militarism” in the sense of political or social policy. Every use of power, like every refusal to resort to force, serves the purpose of God for the world’s salvation: liberation from the demonic forces of sin and death, to enable believers to “become children of God” (Jn 1:12f). Accordingly, the language of “pacifism” and of “violence” is inappropriate. Neither corresponds to the reality Jesus accomplishes through his words and actions. Appropriate language is that of power and authority. These are of divine origin and serve the interests of God’s Kingdom, presently “inaugurated” but awaiting fulfillment in the Age to Come.
II. Towards a “Theology of Power”
The following represents elements basic to a Christian “theology of power.” It does not develop that theology as such, but is offered merely to further reflection on the biblical concept of “authoritative power,” as opposed to violence, exercised toward the resolution of conflict.
1. Power and Authority must be understood and exercised in light of the Cross.
God delivered Israel from Egypt “by his mighty hand” (Ex 3:19f; Ps 78:42; etc.). Acts 2:22 affirms that God’s “mighty deeds” for ultimate deliverance from sin and death are accomplished by the death and resurrection of his Son, Jesus Christ. “God raised him up, having loosed the pangs of death” (2:24); the Jews killed “the Author of Life” whom God raised from the dead (3:15).
According to Mark’s Gospel, the purpose of this redemptive death is to offer a “ransom for many” (a Semitism for “all mankind”). To whom the ransom is offered is not stipulated. Patristic commentary is divided: to God, to the devil, or (based on a Greek patristic interpretation of Rom 5:12), to “death” as the final demonic power that holds sway over human life. The primary focus, therefore, is not on the Cross (Luther’s theologia crucis), but on the Resurrection and Glorification of Him who “destroyed death by His death.”
Mark’s basic theme is that Jesus is victorious over demonic power: 1:21-28 (Lk 4:31-36), exorcism in the synagogue at Capernaum is a sign of Jesus’ authority and power over Satan’s minions; 3:27 (Lk 11:21f), Jesus must first “bind the strong man” (Satan) before plundering his house; 5:1-20 //s1, only Jesus is “strong” enough to release the Gerasene demoniac; cf. Lk 11:20, Jesus casts out demons by the “finger” or power of God, demonstrating that the Kingdom of God “has come upon you” (Mt 12:28; the phrase “by the Spirit of God,” is probably secondary).
Yet Mark’s Gospel has long been described as “a Passion narrative with a long introduction.” Its christology reflects apparent paradoxes: strength/weakness, victory/defeat, life/death. D. Trakatellis, Authority and Passion (Holy Cross Press, 1987), shows that Mark’s christology is grounded in the tension between these two. Jesus manifests his authority over demonic powers, but as a prelude to the Passion. Yet the Passion itself is fulfilled through exercise of Jesus’ divine authority that judges unbelief and culminates in the life-giving Resurrection.
2. Jesus’ uses of Power and Authority are based on the “Great Reversal” of human power and values.
(i) Jesus does not use human structures of authority and power. Rather, he empowers the person. Elements of that “empowering Reversal”:
- Jesus heals Jew and Gentile alike (cf. parable of the Good Samaritan, Lk 10:25ff).
- He calls for “love of enemies” in the “Matthean antitheses.”
- He blesses women followers, often giving them the role of “disciple”: Mary of Bethany (Lk 10:38-42; cf Jn 12:1-8), the image of true discipleship; Mary Magdalene (Mk 16:1ff; Mt 28:1ff; Jn 20:1ff), the first witness to the resurrection; the sinful woman (Lk 7:36ff, to be distinguished from Mary Magdalene), receives forgiveness for her great love; the widow of Nain (Lk 7:11ff): Jesus raises her son because he pities her; the Syro-Phoenician woman (Mk 7:24ff; Mt 15:21ff = Canaanite woman): Jesus heals her daughter because of her faith and humility; the adulterous woman (Jn 8:3-11): Jesus forgives her as a lesson to the “righteous”; the Samaritan woman (Jn 4:4-42): she becomes a witness to her people; the Myrrhbearing women at Jesus’ tomb, who are the first witnesses to his death and resurrection, and who remain faithful to the end; Jesus’ own mother Mary serves as intercessor (Jn 2:1-11) and as an image of the Church (“Behold your mother”, Jn 19:25-27).
Each of these women is empowered to assume discipleship as a witness to Christ and his Kingdom. Their “authority” is of divine origin, manifested through human weakness (cf. Paul, 2 Cor 12:10, “When I am weak, then I am strong!”). The paradoxical nature of this authority, and its accompanying power, needs to be continually recognized and acknowledged: it represents a thoroughgoing reversal of all human notions of power and authority.
(ii) Jesus transfers his own Power and Authority to the Church (i.e., to his disciples, the Twelve or the Seventy [two]). This includes the capacity to forgive sins, a capacity the Jewish religious authorities thought belonged to God alone: “the Son of Man has authority (exousia) on earth to forgive sins” (Mk 2:10). This power is also transferred to the Christian community:
- Authority to “bind and loose” (forgive or retain sins): Mt 16:19; 18:18; Jn 20:23.
- Power/authority over demons (Satan): Lk 10:17-20, Jesus gives the Seventy “authority (exousia) to tread on all the power (dynamis) of the enemy.”
- When Jesus calls the Twelve, he sends them out to preach “and to have authority to cast out demons” (Mk 3:15).
- Accordingly, after Pentecost: “with great power the apostles bore witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and a great grace was upon them all” (Ac 4:33). Thereby they fulfill the promise made by the risen Lord: “You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you” (Ac 1:8), that they might become Christ’s “witnesses to the ends of the earth.”
(iii) The New Testament affirms that all true Power and Authority are the work of God himself in us as members of the Body of Christ, the Church.
- Rom 1:16, the Gospel is “the power (dynamis) of God for salvation…”
- 1 Cor 1:18, “the Word of the Cross is the power of God”
- 1 Cor 6:14, “God raised the Lord and will also raise us up by his power”
- 1 Cor 15:43, the human body is “sown in weakness, raised in power.”
This power derives from the Holy Spirit, bestowed upon the gathered community (Jn 20:22; cf. Eph 3:20). Yet it is also the power of Christ, the Son of God, who is at work in us and for us. He is the Pantokrator, the “All-Powerful One” (Rev 11:15-17; 12:10; in 2 Cor 6:18 the title kyrios pantokratôr is transferred from God [Isa 43:6] to Jesus [cf. Phil 2:9-11!]. Jesus is the risen Kyrios Pantokrator, who defeats “the world rulers of this present darkness” (Eph 6:12). Thus all true Power and Authority have their origin in God, are effected by God working in and through human persons, and serve the purposes of God for the salvation of his world. Yet because the Kingdom is “inaugurated,” God transfers his own power and authority to believers, who manifest them through acts of charity or works of love (Mt 25:31-46).
(iv) Thus all Power and Authority:
- derive from Jesus as Lord, who received them from his Father (Jn 5:19,30; 8:28; 14:10),
- are bestowed on men and women disciples (= the Church), to complete and fulfill Jesus’ own salvation-mission,
- are eschatological instruments of the Kingdom of God, rather than temporal/human,
- and therefore they are exercised paradoxically as “strength through weakness.”
This “Great Reversal” (power through weakness, life through death, victory through the Cross) is only comprehensible in an eschatological perspective, where every exercise of true power and authority is God’s work, within the human person and the community of the Church, for salvation and eternal life.
3. Reassessing common usages of biblical passages: the danger of “proof-texting.”
This eschatological perspective raises questions regarding certain WCC usages of key biblical passages that have been taken out of context and used as “proof-texts,” thus distorting their meaning. Examples:
(i) Jn 17:11,22, Jesus’ prayer that “all may be one.” As Jn 20:31 and related passages attest, this refers above all to unity in faith/belief, of which the end (telos) is eternal life. It does not refer to social or political unity, nor does it refer to “equality,” “justice,” or any other such concept understood from a human sociological or psychological point of view. Nor is the appeal for unity to be understood primarily as ecclesial or institutional. It is above all a summons to common belief in Jesus Christ as the Son of God and unique source of salvation (Jn 20:31; 14:6).
Accordingly, unity in faith must be the foundation and presupposition of structural and administrative unity within the Body of Christ. The unity of the Persons of the Trinity, grounded in love, is the model and source for all authentic unity among Christians. That Christians “be one,” then, refers primarily to commonly shared faith, and only secondarily to “visible” institutional unity.
(ii) WCC statements often appeal to Rev 21:1, the image (based on Isa 65 & 66) of “the new heaven and the new earth.” In his 1994 Corymeela address, Konrad Raiser declared: “Christians and the churches live by the promise of a new heaven and a new earth in which justice prevails” (The Program to Overcome Violence [POV], WCC Publications, 1997, p. 47). Then, referring to the OT concept of shalom, he speaks of the program for “peace, justice and the integrity of creation.” The context is that of non-violent social action and reconciliation among those who have long been in conflict with one another.
JPIC is certainly a noble and worthwhile enterprise; but is this appeal to Rev 21 justified? More faithful to the meaning of the biblical text is the 1996 Report of the Consultation on POV (Rio de Janeiro): “Many parts of the Bible make reference to the holy city, the heavenly Jerusalem (e.g., Rev 21:2). On the one hand, this vision of the holy city draws attention to the eschatological dimension of our faith [emphasis added]. God will one day create peace with justice in its full meaning. On the other hand, this vision of the heavenly Jerusalem is a means used, for example, by the prophets repeatedly to challenge unjust structures.” This is then used to conclude: “An initiation immersed in Biblical imagery and witness will encourage Christians to resist violence in all its forms.”
This, however, is a non-sequitur: the conclusion is not supported by the quoted textual evidence. It is another example of proof-texting: taking biblical images out of context and forcing them to support an argument that is foreign to the original (that is, the “literal”) sense of the text.
As Isa 65:17-25 and 66:22 show, the image of the new heaven and new earth is of the future paradise of “the age to come,” when all things will be radically transformed. Now Israel’s holy cities lie in ruins (Isa 64:10); then, in the earthly paradise (where “the wolf and the lamb shall feed together,” 65:25), all earthly dynamics (sin, retribution, violence) will be transformed into everlasting peace. This, in Jewish thought, is the Messianic Age that follows the “Day of the Lord.” In a Christian perspective it refers to the Parousia or Second Coming of Christ in glory. It is truly eschatological, not temporal/historical.
The same must be affirmed regarding Rev 21. This passage cannot be interpreted legitimately as an image of social or political “justice” and “peace,” to be striven for and realized in this present age. Such an interpretation does violence to the text, by transposing an eschatological image into a penultimate context. The Eschaton in some sense is already present, yes; but its fulfillment will only be achieved beyond the bounds of time, space and history. The New Jerusalem, in other words, is not an earthly state of “peace with justice.” It is both the realm and the reign of God, in which “death
shall be no more…for the former things have passed away” (Rev 21:4).
(iii) A final example concerns use of John 14:27 and similar passages: “My peace I give to you.” K. Raiser ends his excellent address with this quote, using it as a biblical confirmation of his call for reconciliation among previously hostile parties. His theme is the building of a “culture of peace” to counter the present “culture of violence.” “How best can we continually affirm that our first allegiance is to Jesus Christ, and to all God’s people,” he asks, “refusing the nationalism which so frequently breeds xenophobia, racism and discrimination of many kinds?”
My quarrel is not with Raiser’s praiseworthy call for peace and justice, against xenophobia, racism and violence. It is rather with the facile linkage he makes between the “peace and justice” theme he puts forth, and the biblical notion of “peace” as Jesus expressed and conveyed it. As Jn 14:27 itself declares, the peace Jesus gives is not “that peace which the world gives” (this is the only reasonable interpretation of the phrase ou kathôs ho kosmos didôsin). The peace Jesus gives, grounded in the Hebrew shalom, is salvation (see R. Brown, The Gospel According to John xiii-xxi [NY: Doubleday, 1970], p. 651). It is the same peace Christ bestows on his disciples the night of the resurrection (Jn 20:19-29). In Pauline language, it is “the peace of God, which passes all understanding” (Phil 4:7). This is not “the world’s peace” of justice, racial harmony, etc. It is the eschatological gift of salvation, embodied in and conferred by the risen Lord.
We need to beware, then, of proof-texting: of misusing biblical language and imagery to support a particular cause or agenda, however noble and “Christian” it may be.
I am not, of course, arguing t hat Scripture does not call us to oppose injustice, racism, poverty, oppression, etc. To support that call, however, we need to use a different biblical language: not of “peace, justice and social harmony,” but of love for the enemy, indeed, love expressed toward every human person, created in the image and likeness of God. Those who exercise that love are the true “children of God,” united in Christ by common faith or belief, rather than by race, gender, ethnicity, or the like.
And we need to use different biblical images: the parable of the Last Judgment (Mt 25), for example; of Jesus healing the blind, the demon-possessed and other marginalized members of society; of the apostles building the Church out of Jew and Gentile, rich and poor, freemen and slaves, men and women, saints and sinners. This language and these images are more than adequate to express — with hermeneutic accuracy and integrity — the truth that God calls all persons and all nations to “active non-violent action,” in defense of “peace with justice.”
Nor does this mean that we must discard passages such as Jn 17 and Rev 21 that speak of authentic “peace.” These and similar texts certainly justify and inspire our struggle toward (relative!) unity, justice and peace in this life. We must not, however — as many have done — obscure the eschatological perspective of these passages, which recognizes the absolute sovereignty of God over all human affairs (personal, social, economic, political), together with the fact that fulfillment of “peace with justice,” like ultimate “unity among Christians,” will only occur beyond the sphere of temporal, historical existence, in the eternal Kingdom of God.
In biblical terms, “violence” is ultimately the destructive power of sin and death, unleashed in relations among people and nations. Peace, then, is the fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:22), of the eschatological transformation known as the New Creation, that begins in this life with baptism into Christ (2 Cor 5:17) and comes to fulfillment in the Age to Come (Rev 21:1ff).
4. To summarize: What are the elements essential to a biblically based “Theology of Power”?
(i) Violence — individual or collective — is never justified from a biblical perspective, since it inevitably involves vindictiveness, revenge, or sheer self-interest. This includes violence against the self (e.g., drug abuse, suicide) as well as against others. We are stewards of our bodies (“You are not your own, you were bought with a price!”, 1 Cor 6:19f) and collectively “members one of another” (within the Body of Christ, Rom 12:5; but responsible for the welfare of all, Lk 10:36f). Implications:
- Christians should press for an end to war, including limited military strikes, as a legally sanctioned expression of national policy. As WCC statements have often affirmed, in this age of WMDs there is no longer the possibility for a “just war.” Other means must be sought and implemented: diplomatic persuasion, economic sanctions, development of an international peace-keeping force, creation of an effective World Court of Justice to arbitrate international disputes. Insofar as these initiatives have already been partially realized (U.N. missions, World Court), they should be encouraged and supported by the churches.
- WCC and other religious bodies need to broaden the focus to include economic, sexual, racial, and other forms of violence in addition to warfare. They should encourage in-depth study of the neuro- psychological and genetic correlates of violent behavior perpetrated with increasing frequency against the innocent, including rape, pedophilia, and serial murders. And they should vigorously oppose legislation that sanctions the violence of capital punishment and elective abortion (particularly late-term, “partial-birth abortions” and other forms of infanticide, widely practiced today in the United States and elsewhere).
(ii) A Christian Theology of Power will focus less on abstractions (“peace,” “justice,” “equality, “rights,” “dignity”) and more on the irreducible value of the human person. In a world of aggressive individualism, where competition has been exalted as a virtue, it is imperative that we recover a biblical and patristic vision of the person as “being in communion” (J. Zizioulas): as an infinitely valuable member of the human community, who is invited to become a member of the eternal Body of Christ.
- Power and authority will be exercised so as to respect certain fundamental qualities of the human person, created in the image of God and called to assume the divine likeness. These include the essential sacredness of every human life, which finds its ultimate value in an ongoing quest for sanctity. They include as well the conviction that each person is endowed with eternal meaning and called to an eternal destiny. Those who properly exercise the prerogatives of power and authority will see in every human face an icon of the Author of Life. And they will acknowledge that persons — all persons — are created homo adorans rather than merely homo sapiens: beings whose transcendent purpose is to offer continual praise and glory to God.
- From this perspective, we must ask whether a central theme of contemporary theology needs to be rethought and reformulated. It is a commonplace today that “God has an option for the poor.” This truth is borne out by Scriptural references to Jesus’ concern to offer the poor healing, consolation and other signs of divine mercy. It is important for the churches to preach this message in today’s world where, even in industrialized countries, economic forces maintain a subculture of poverty in order to guarantee the material well-being of the majority. Nevertheless, Scripture also makes it clear that God’s primary concern is with the person. It is only insofar as the person is deprived of justice and material necessities that the focus shifts specifically to “the poor” (who will always be with us…). The Lukan beatitudes (6:20ff) include blessings upon the poor and the hungry. But only because their suffering images the suffering of Christ, in that they are victims of the violence of others. They must never be treated as a “category,” the anonymous objects of social programs and political causes. Before they are “the poor,” they are persons, bearers of God’s image and called to eternal participation in divine life.
(iii) A Theology of Power will also strive to recover the eschatological perspective of the biblical witness. It will acknowledge the fundamental paradox that marks every proper exercise of power and authority: that strength is made perfect in weakness.
- Jesus’ teachings and actions serve to promote the divine economy of salvation rather than particular social or political programs. The only true “liberation” is to be found in the Kingdom of God, and is finally attainable only beyond the confines of earthly existence.
- Yet the “inaugurated” quality of biblical eschatology obliges us to seek gender and racial equality, Christian unity, peace and justice — and to do so here and now, always aware that these are proximate ends, properly understood as signs which point to the deeper reality of the New Creation, the “new heaven and earth” of God’s eternal Kingdom.
- The exercise of power and authority from a Christian perspective, therefore, will be predicated on the Great Reversal of values brought about by Jesus’ words and actions. Power is most effectively expressed through “weakness” that holds as primary the interests of the other person; authority is properly derived from humble submission to the will and purpose of God. Authentic power, once again, is most clearly seen in the image of the Cross.
(iv) All human power and authority derive from beyond: from God or Satan (1 Jn 5:19; Jn 8:44). God is at work in and through members of the Body of Christ, just as demonic power is at work in and through the world’s hostility and unbelief. An adequate theology of power will acknowledge this tension and base its exercise on the dual conviction that “without me (Jesus) you can do nothing,” but that “with God, all things are possible” (Jn 15:5; Gen 18:14; Lk 1:37).
- Concerning prayer, Paul declares: “the Spirit helps us in our weakness…[and] intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words” (Rom 8:26). The same is true regarding our exercise of power and authority. They are the work of God within us, the operation of the Son and the Spirit, who accomplish the Father’s “ministry of reconciliation” through us.
- This implies that ongoing personal and communal prayer is essential for achieving the discernment needed to shape policy and minister to needs in social, economic and political spheres.
Popular piety has trivialized the notion of “the power of prayer.” Yet any genuinely Christian exercise of power and authority will necessarily be grounded in supplication for ourselves and intercession for others who are thereby affected.
(v) The power of God — and by implication, power rightly exercised by Christian people — takes the ultimate form of agape-love . It has been said that we should strive not just for the transfer of power (e.g., from the strong to the weak, from men to women), but for its transformation into love. Disinterested, self-sacrificing love reflects the infinite love of God for human life and for the creation as a whole. The ultimate “power” in earthly life, then, is this kind of love, whereas the ultimate “authority” takes the form of a witness, a martyria or martyrdom.
- “Active non-violent action” obliges us, in the name of love, to run the risk of real martyrdom, of becoming the object of another’s violence. This is the cross we are asked to take up and bear, in the name of Jesus Christ and his saving ministry through us, within the Church and for the world’s salvation.
(vi) A Christian Theology of Power, then, is necessarily based on an act of surrender: of ceaselessly relinquishing our personal as well as our communal (ecclesial, social) power and authority into the hands of the all-sovereign, all-powerful God. As he does with the eucharistic gifts, God receives this offering, blesses it, and restores it to us, to use for his purpose and his glory.
This moral protocol may not accomplish what we want in the way of attaining true peace and justice, either in our local communities or internationally. But like Christ’s surrender in Gethsemane, it will create the conditions by which God can work in and through us, so that in any and all situations of conflict his will might be done.
5. Conclusion: Proposals for concrete application
To build “a culture of peace” requires concerted prayer and concerted effort on the part of all the churches. We cannot exclude from this quest — as we cannot exclude from the ecumenical family — churches that do not or, for various historical and political reasons, cannot involve themselves directly and actively in it. Nevertheless, the WCC and local church bodies should be sensitized to the need for active cooperation on the part of as many of their members as possible, in order to impact in some meaningful way on present power structures and on the rampant “culture of violence” that threatens the very stability of world order.
One important initiative already underway is the “Peace to the City Campaign.” Konrad Raiser has suggested other initiatives for the churches to undertake, including 1) “supporting a change of consciousness” with regard to war and the conditions for a just peace; 2) “building networks of relationships” within local communities and among nations to ameliorate conditions that might lead to conflict; and 3) taking “initiatives in the service of peace and a non-violent resolution of conflict,” including the training of specialists to monitor, mediate and work toward conciliation [POV, pp. 48-54].
To expand somewhat on these suggestions, I would propose that the WCC and affiliated church bodies consider the following. This is a minimal list that could and should be expanded. It is offered merely as a suggestion for translating the biblical imperative of “peace with justice” into concrete situations within today’s world.
(i) Create local peace initiatives as well as international ventures, to bring aid directly and personally to the poor, the powerless, the sick and elderly. Christians from various confessional backgrounds have for a long while been organized to offer time, money and talent to constructing and refurbishing housing (providing roofing, plumbing, etc.), particularly among marginalized, rural African-Americans and transient migrant workers. In addition to providing for the poor, this initiative is being developed with the specific intention of bringing together black and white communities and churches, to promote understanding, reduce potential tensions, and lay the foundation for a (very local) “culture of peace.” An excellent example of this kind of initiative is “Emmaus House,” 160 W. 120th Street (Harlem), New York City. Founded by the Orthodox priest David Kirk (1935-2007), this project has ministered for decades to the poor and homeless. It stands as an exceptionally effective witness to realizing the appeal of Matthew 25.
(ii) Develop similar local initiatives to reduce racial and ethnic tensions, and to promote mutual understanding. Modest programs organized through the churches can provide tutors for school children, young children to visit elderly shut-ins, caring “listeners” to visit those in hospital and in hospices, and other such initiatives. The concern should be especially to reach out across racial and ethnic lines and to lower the barriers that separate us within our own communities. This can occur by creating a personal rapport with those whom we would not ordinarily include in our own social
(iii) Sponsor international, cross-cultural contacts via the Internet. Exchange programs have already deepened mutual awareness through expanded personal contacts across cultural lines. With today’s possibilities for instant and universal communication, a new and potentially powerful weapon has been added to the arsenal for peace. Exploiting it would require trained personnel to sponsor and direct chat rooms and similar possibilities for encounters between persons of different cultures, especially there where conflict already exists. The aim is to “put a face on the enemy,” who may be either the perpetrator or the victim of violence. Such a program, if well developed, could, for example, bring vast numbers of young Americans into ongoing contact with young Iraqis, or Arabs with Israelis, or Serbs with Albanians. It is not especially difficult to bomb an anonymous population once they have been tagged the “enemy.” It is another matter to bring violent, destructive action against persons with whom we have shared our stories with a degree of trust and friendship.
(iv) Work toward the creation and strengthening of international peace-keeping bodies and legal structures, for non-violent resolution of conflict. Such organisms exist, of course, through the United Nations, World Court and other bodies. They need to be strengthened, and new initiatives of a similar nature and purpose need to be undertaken on international and regional levels. With a global economy and unlimited capacity for communication, “isolationism” is a philosophy of the past. While there are legitimate fears of a “world government” and an international Court of Justice with unlimited powers, the new millennium must see the globalization of structures that can insure peace with justice under a “new world order.” Only the churches have the moral weight to shape those structures so that they serve the needs and interests of the many rather than of the few.
(v) Seek peaceful and equitable means for redistributing the world’s economic, cultural and scientific wealth. The most immediate concern is the widening gap between the rich and the poor, between nations and peoples who profit from modern science and technology, and those who are its victims. Once again, local initiatives, sponsored by the churches, are indispensable. There is a certain hypocrisy in railing against the growing influence and abusive power of multi-national corporations, while we allow our neighbors to suffer from hunger, illness and the general misery of a life of poverty. In the United States, for example, we have come to take for granted that nearly ten percent of the population is hungry and without medical insurance, that despite government programs a great many African-Americans, Hispanics and other minorities, live in neighborhoods where they know only fear and violence. Without concerted pressure brought to bear by the churches, there is little chance that things will change. That concerted effort, however, requires cooperation between black and white churches as well as between individuals of various racial and ethnic backgrounds. As we work toward greater economic justice in the developed nations, we can also make the personal choice to “tithe” of our wealth (money, property, time, personal talents and resources) not only to our own church, but also to those about us who are disenfranchised, marginalized, and otherwise victimized by social and economic injustice.
This list could be expanded endlessly, depending on our imagination and our willingness to accept risk in the name of the Gospel. The primary aim of these notes, however, is to set all of our reflection on violence, power and authority in the eschatological perspective of the New Creation in Christ. To combat violence and to achieve peace with justice, our chief task must be to persuade ourselves, and each member of Christ’s Body, to accept the moral imperative put forth by the apostle Paul in his letter to the Romans (12:14-21, RSV):
“Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; never be conceited. Repay no one evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends upon you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to
the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ No, ‘if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him drink; for by so doing, you will heap burning coals upon his head.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”