Violence in Christian Theology

By Weaver, J. Denny | Cross Currents, Summer 2001 | Go to article overview

Violence in Christian Theology


Weaver, J. Denny, Cross Currents


It is not difficult to see why discussion of the relationship of violence and Christianity is controversial. [1] When asked whether Christianity supports violence and is a violent religion, does one answer "Of course -- look at the crusades, the multiple blessings of wars, warrior popes, support for capital punishment, corporal punishment under the guise of 'spare the rod and spoil the child,' justifications of slavery, world-wide colonialism in the name of conversion to Christianity, the systemic violence of women subjected to men, and more"? Or does one respond, "Of course not -- look at Jesus, the beginning point of Christian faith, who is worshiped as 'Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace' (Isa. 9:6); whose Sermon on the Mount taught nonviolence and love of enemies; who faced his accusers nonviolently and then died a nonviolent death; whose nonviolent teaching inspired the first centuries of pacifist Christian history and was subsequently preserved in the justifiable war d octrine that declares all war as sin even when declaring it occasionally a necessary evil, and in the prohibition of fighting by monastics and clergy as well as in a persistent tradition of Christian pacifism"? But these answers are apparently contradictory. Does one of them trump the other? Or might there be yet another answer?

This essay addresses the relationship between violence and Christianity by examining aspects of Christian theology. Specifically, it examines violence and assumptions of violence in the classic formulations of the central Christian doctrines of atonement and Christology. While this analysis finds classic theology in large part guilty of accommodating and supporting violence, the essay also points to a specifically nonviolent Christian answer.

I am using broad definitions of the terms "violence" and "nonviolence." "Violence" means harm or damage, which obviously includes the direct violence of killing -- in war, capital punishment, murder -- but also covers the range of forms of systemic violence such as poverty, racism, and sexism. "Nonviolence" also covers a spectrum of attitudes and actions, from the classic Mennonite idea of passive nonresistance through active nonviolence and nonviolent resistance that would include various kinds of social action, confrontations and posing of alternatives that do not do bodily harm or injury.

Atonement Motifs

The standard account of the history of doctrine lists three families of atonement theories or images. The first round of observations about the violent elements of these atonement images will emerge from the description of their development and their historical relationship to each other.

Christus Victor, the predominant image of the early church, existed in two forms, each of which involved the three elements of God, the devil or Satan, and sinful humankind. In the ransom version of Christus Victor, the devil held the souls of humankind captive. In a seemingly contractual agreement, God handed Jesus over to Satan as a ransom payment to secure the release of captive souls. The devil killed Jesus, in an apparent victory for the forces of evil. The devil is deceived, however. In raising Jesus from the dead, God triumphed over the devil, and the souls of humanity were freed from his clutches. This victory through resurrection provides the name Christus Victor or Christ the Victor.

A second version of Christus Victor pictured the conflict between Satan and God as a cosmic battle. In this struggle, God's son was killed, but the resurrection then constituted the victory of God over the forces of evil, and definitively identified God as the ruler of the universe. This cosmic battle imagery constitutes another Christus Victor atonement image.

Satisfaction atonement has been the predominant atonement image of the present time as well as for much of the past millennium. It suffices for present purposes to sketch two versions of satisfaction atonement. …

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