In the book Lord of the Rings, A hobbit named Frodo receives a great magical ring that was used to enslave all the people of the earth. But the more he uses the ring, the more it destroys his soul. He discovers that he is not the lord of the ring—the ring wants to be the lord of him.
Frodo’s ring is a powerful symbol of what violence does to people. Tolkien learned about violence when he was a young soldier serving in France in World War 1. Violence destroys people from the inside out, dehumanizing them taking over their hearts. They do violence to others, touching off a cycle of violence that never stops.
Dr. Gary Slutkin is an epidemiologist for the World Health Organization, who has spent his life fighting epidemics of tuberculosis, AIDS and Ebola. This led him to go into areas of the world where violence had taken over. Then Dr. Slutkin had a thought. What if we looked at violence as a contagious disease? He ran figures and computer models, and sure enough, he has been able to document that violence spreads in a community in the same way as contagious diseases. It enters a community in the hearts of a few people, and soon spreads to all the people around them. Eventually some of those people become carriers themselves, acting in violent ways that cause other people to become violent, too.
The Bible doesn’t say that we should never be violent. Jesus is not advocating absolute pacifism. He does, however give us a severe warning against letting violence take over our heart.
The more we use violence the more it possesses us. Even when we use violence to restrain violence, we put ourselves in danger of succumbing to its power. It’s not the violence in the world that is the biggest challenge to our Christian lives, but the violence in our hearts.
What if we could be free from the influence of violence in our hearts? Think about it--if someone walked up to us unprovoked and hit us in the face, wouldn’t we want to hit back? But if we were free of violence in our hearts, we would not desire to hit back. If we did hit back, it would not be from desire for vengeance, but because we knew it was necessary to protect others. Even then, our response would be to use as little violence as possible. We could even turn the other cheek, and let them hit us again if we thought it would keep the peace. We would not react out of anger, but out of love.
If we were free of a vengeful, violent spirit, we would react differently. Jesus talked of how a Roman soldier could make people a slave for a day by forcing him to carry his forty-pound pack along the road for a mile. They would have to leave their business and walk miles in a direction they didn’t want to go. The desire to hurt that soldier would be natural. Violence is in everyone’s heart.
But without violence in our hearts, we not only could go one mile with him, we could go two.
Jesus also talked about a man who sues you for your cloak. Coats were necessary and expensive. If you had a nice coat, someone might claim it is theirs. They could haul you into court and claim you gave them that coat. Our love of justice is offended by this. Why should they be entitled to our coat! It’s all we can do to keep from hitting them in the face! Our first response is to take our case all the way to the Supreme Court, if necessary, but not give them the coat on pure principle. But if our hearts are free of violence, then we could just give them the coat and let it go! And oh, by the way, do you like my undercoat? Have it too, and welcome! We are out a coat, which is a temporary inconvenience, but we are free from violence, which could hinder us for years.
In Matthew 5 Jesus uses six illustrations to contrast the Kingdom of God and the morality of the world. These illustrations are about anger, lust, divorce, truthfulness, violence, and love. The one about violence is probably the hardest for us to accept. (Preaching on this passage almost got me hit in the face on more than one occasion!) But please understand, He is not setting up some new law that is impossible to keep. If we take this passage legalistically, we’ve missed the whole point of it. He is describing the behavior of people who live under God’s authority within the kingdom. They don’t have to do these things, they really want to do these things. Jesus isn’t making a law that we must always turn the other cheek. We still need policemen and soldiers, and there may be times when we must use violence to restrain the wicked. But when our hearts are changed by God’s grace, turning the other cheek will be as natural to us as revenge is for us today. In the We are free from desire for violence that we are able to turn the other cheek. God is in control, not violence, so we don’t need to strike back.
Violence is literally the son of sin. After Eve and then Adam sinned they had Cain and Abel. Cain then committed the first act of violence. People have been using violence on each other ever since. Human history is written in blood, and the restraint of violence has been a constant problem.
Sometimes we must be violent to restrain violence. But once we do then we become violent ourselves. We’ve put on Frodo’s ring, and if we can’t take it off again, we become the dark lord.
Violence is like a demon. When we invite it inside, we need more than restraint--we need an exorcism.
Violence always scars us. Soldiers returning home are more scarred by killing than they are by being shot at. Policemen are prone to breakdowns and PTSD when they have to draw their guns. People rightly fear becoming monsters, if they are forced to do monstrous things to others. We need governments and kings, to do the acts necessary to restrain the violence. Jesus isn’t recommending turning the other cheek as necessary policy for kings. That is why turning the other cheek will never work as government policy. He is talking about how people behave personally when freed from violent desires.
Before governments and laws, justice was carried out within tribes. Each family was responsible for avenging crimes committed against its members. Vengeance wasn’t a sin—it was a duty. There was no policemen or soldiers to maintain justice for you. But if we avenge the death of one by striking another, then we may have to kill his family, too. Then what’s left of that family must avenge itself on us. So begins an endless cycle of retribution, that can go on for centuries.
When Moses led the Israelites into the desert, God established a law to govern tribes and nations. God gave the law not to saints, but to sinners. Part of that law was called the lex talionis—“an eye for an eye”. It is found first in Exodus 21: 22-25,
“If two men are fighting and they strike a pregnant woman and her children are born prematurely but there is no harm, he is certainly to be fined as the husband of the woman demands of him, and he will pay as the court decides. If there is harm, then you are to require life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, and bruise for bruise.”
This law was given to restrain violence, not continue it. Two men are fighting. The law didn’t forbid the fight. But while they are fighting, a pregnant woman gets in the way, and gets hurt, causing her to deliver prematurely. If the baby is healthy, the man who hit the woman is punished according to the wishes of her husband, with a fine determined by a judge. But if the child or anyone else is hurt, then the person who hurt them will forfeit eye for eye, tooth for tooth, and life for life.
The punishment is proportional, and by the law, not by use. If the woman or the child lost an eye you couldn’t take both his eyes. If she lost a tooth, he owed a tooth, not all of his teeth. It was a way of restraining violence, and limiting the price of justice.
You are not allowed to kill a person who breaks into your home, but to restrain him. You can’t kill a man who only steals your bicycle. You can only demand proportionate justice. You can’t allow violence to go wild in your life.
In the kingdom of men, justice is meted out by the government. In the kingdom of God, justice is God’s concern, not ours. You can’t just take it for yourself, and be in God’s kingdom. Being a citizen of the Kingdom of God is more binding upon you than being a citizen of the United States. God is our first allegiance.
Will God avenge the wrongs committed against His people? Absolutely! That’s the point of the book of Revelation. God will punish the people who give in to violence.
Consider what happened to those who crucified Jesus. Judas hanged himself. Pontius Pilate committed suicide in the reign of Caligula after having been stripped of all he owned and recalled from Israel in disgrace. Herod was also stripped of all his possessions and died in exile. Annas, the high priest was deposed from office, his son Caiaphas died about the same time. Some scholars believe that Jesus’ parable of the rich man and Lazarus was a veiled reference to Annas being in hell. A generation after Christ’s crucifixion, the Jewish leaders were expelled from their homeland for 1900 years.
God’s vengeance is real, and more than any person could bring.
Consider what we’ve seen in our day. Hitler committed suicide in a bunker. Mussolini was shot by his own people. Saddam Hussein was hanged. Ben Laden was shot in his home and his body dumped in the ocean. God will bring vengeance. We can leave it to Him.
Children seem to naturally be violent. But parents teach their children that some things are not worth fighting over.
God isn’t saying don’t feel hurt when someone hurts you. He is saying, “Give that anger to me. I will take care of it.” Don’t strike back, because He will do it for you. We as individuals are not the instruments of God’s justice.
Jesus can help us master our violence, and forgive those who hurt us. He offers a cure for violence addiction. It is called “grace”. As Jesus showed grace to us, so we should show grace to others. He wants us to show the world that with Christ’s help, we can set violence aside, set our rights aside, and get on to bigger and better things.