I see people holding signs reading “REPENT OR BURN–JESUS SAVES”, “FOR ALL HAVE SINNED”, or “GOD HATES FAGS”. These people believe that they are saved by faith through Jesus. They believe that what they are doing is evangelizing, doing the work of The Great Commission, turning those who don’t believe into disciples. I wonder: Why shouldn’t we minister to them? I’m not talking about questioning whether or not they’re saved, just whether or not they truly understand the grace of Jesus. I don’t remember Jesus scaring people into following him. He simply told them to follow, and they did. Scaring people into conversion is also not what Jesus called us to do when he gave The Great Commission. In Matthew 28:19-20, Jesus simply says to his disciples, “Teach [the nations] all that I have commanded you.” I don’t remember Jesus commanding us to guilt people into salvation, to threaten them with eternal damnation, or to claim that God hates them.

It’s very easy for most evangelicals to look at what I’ve written above and say that they feel the same way—that the people with the signs are wrong or even downright embarrassing to the Christian faith. But we need to ask why. It’s not enough to say that their fundamentalism bothers us. In a sense, many American evangelicals practice the same fundamentalism that the sign holders do; it just manifests itself differently. I would go so far as to say, however, that if pressed by a non-Christian about the “Truth” of Christianity, most Christians would feel threatened even if the non-Christian is only making an attempt at productive dialogue rather than persecuting diatribe. We tend to avoid facing the really tough questions, and when we are finally forced to, we attempt to do so from a foundationalist position—from the position of the Enlightenment, of absolute Truth.

Truth is a difficult word. In the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth centuries, the Church commanded “it.” Many who spoke against “it” were labeled heretic and placed under house arrest (Galileo) or burned alive (Joan of Arc). The threat of violence was eminent. But how much has actually changed? Obviously, no one is burning anyone else at the stake. However, the threat of violence is still just as eminent, from the event of 9/11 to the bombing of abortion clinics to the violence perpetrated by those people holding the signs. The violence of metaphysics still exists, only in different forms.

For me, this is why a claim to know something is absolutely true is dangerous. Such a claim is inherently violent. Even if one does not think that he or she will react violently—even if one never reacts with physical violence, foundational metaphysical claims imply a level of violence in order to defend them. Frederiek Depoortere writes in his 2008 book Christ in Postmodern Philosophy “Violence is the result of metaphysical thinking, of the belief that one has access to ‘objective’ reality, to reality as it eternally is in itself.” When people firmly believe that they know something metaphysical, outside of physical experience, is absolutely true, they will inevitably act with violence against those who try to subvert their position. It is no longer belief in their minds; it is absolute knowledge of fact. We see that in Islamic fundamentalism. And we see that manifested in the Christian right as well when they carry signs like the ones described above.

What it seems to boil down to for them is righteousness. A person holding a sign like these is saying to me, “I know righteousness because I believe in Jesus. I can show you the way to righteousness.” But how can we possibly know anything absolutely when it comes to the Bible when Jesus explicitly tells us that we are saved by faith (Luke 7:50), and Paul tells us the same (Ephesians 2:8)?  We make similar claims all the time, even if those claims do not manifest themselves in physical violence. We assure ourselves that what we know is Truth. We gingerly step around the subject of our faith sometimes, because we don’t want to have to try and defend it—probably because we have no idea how to defend it. Some of us respond defensively, either by making broad generalizations about our faith or by attacking the other person—an act that is certainly violent.

There’s a lot about this attitude that reminds me of the Pharisees rather than Jesus. The Pharisees were deeply concerned about the Truth, trying to catch Jesus getting it wrong. They thought they were godly—that they were pursuing God, that they were living blamelessly. Nothing makes this more evident than the story in John 8 where the Pharisees bring an adulterous woman before Jesus, asking if she should be stoned. They know the answer. They are ready to act in violence toward her because ultimately her sin is not necessarily one against God but against the Pharisees’ establishment of Truth. Jesus, however, turns the question around on them asking the one who is without sin to act with violence first. Rather than violently try to get those who oppose any earthly standard of Truth to conform, Jesus blesses those who are persecuted in the name of that standard—in the name of righteousness (Matt. 5:10). But this attitude of righteousness seems to be extremely pervasive, or at the very least, is the picture of Christians that most non-Christians have thanks to the media attention that fundamentalists draw to themselves.

I think this attitude is symptomatic of the way church exists currently in America. As I began discussing in my first post and as I’ve alluded to in this one, we’re extremely Modern in our thinking—meaning we don’t just believe we have the absolute truth, we somehow claim to know we have it. Now, I’m not saying that we don’t. Certainly, as a Christian, I affirm that Jesus is my Lord and Savior, but my knowledge of this is not set upon anything that I would consider to be an absolute foundation. The reason foundationalism, i.e. metaphysical claims, are inherently violent is because such claims are indefensible. Ask this question: What does it mean for an epistemology (system of knowledge) to be foundational? It means that the system must be based upon a foundation that is known a priori (intuitively) and is indubitable. But now we must ask: Is the claim that a knowledge system must be based upon an indubitable, a priori foundation itself indubitable and known a priori? No. How could it be? Upon what experience could we base such a claim if we were an empiricist like David Hume? And if we are a rationalist like Descartes, how is it that we intuit such a thing if we have discarded all our presuppositions and  everything that we know about method? How would we know how to begin in that case? Foundationalism is a seemingly rational yet culturally conditioned response to the larger philosophical question of the origins of our knowledge.

Let’s take the Bible as an example. We can claim that we believe the Bible to be the Word of God. There’s nothing wrong with that. But certainly we can agree that there is not one way to read the Bible. There are no “plain facts” in the Bible that just need to be read in order to be understood. If that were the case, then someone would have long ago discovered the way to read the Bible, and there would be no reason to have this discussion. People would either read the Bible and accept the plain facts it has laid out or not. But since this is not the case, we must interpret the Bible, which means that we cannot rely on the Bible to fulfill our requirement of “foundation.” Our reading of it is subjective.

The important thing is that this in no way diminishes our faith. If anything, it emphasizes how frail we are as human beings. Who are we to claim we know anything absolutely? Wouldn’t such a claim necessarily entail that we see as God sees? The men of this world who have laid claim to divinity have ruled with the bloody fist of metaphysical violence. That is not who Christ called us to be. Socrates always famously claimed to know nothing at all, yet had strictly philosophical reasons for doing so, no infinite God to which he was comparing himself.

Letting go of absolute certainty is extremely difficult for Christians. It’s something that I had to come to terms with a few years ago as I immersed myself in the work of Jacques Derrida. When will we decide that we have had enough of the “righteous” representing to the world who Christians are? These people need to experience the love, grace, and forgiveness of Jesus just as much as a non-Christian does, and in many cases more so. Learning to let go and let the old die does not just apply to our old lives before Christ. It can also apply to the way we conceive of The Church, if that way is not enabling us to live the way Jesus is calling us. I want to see The Church change in this direction. I want to see it freed from self-righteousness.

by Joel Harrison


4 thoughts on “Violence

  1. I was wondering… you were stating that the people have no reason to claim that they “know” anything, and that one’s reading of the Bible relied heavily on the concept of interpretation. Do you have any sort of response to the popular christian belief that the bible is the holy word of God? It seems that these two ideas would be at odds, because yours claim that the bible is a tool of interpretation, varying in meaning from one individual to the next. Is it too outlandish to suggest both are true? If that is the case, where do we find any grounds for what is acceptable for the christian and what is not?

    • What I mean by “know” is know absolutely. I don’t think anyone can claim to know something with absolute certainty. That goes for Christians too. We’re saved by faith. We believe Jesus was the son of God; we don’t know with any sort of scientific “certainty.” We believe the Bible is inspired by God, the source of Truth, but our understanding of it can never be God’s understanding. So to answer your question, I think it is possible to believe the Bible is the word of God while still having the understanding that one will never be able to access the full, absolute truth of it–to always read it with interpretation. Our basis for Christian living is still the Bible; it’s just that we need to understand that our reading of the Bible is not absolute. We can look at history and see that Christians have always made subtle changes within different cultural contexts. That doesn’t mean that one way is more right than the other; only that interpretations change with cultures. On the flip side, it doesn’t mean that the Bible is any less true. The Truth is there, and God calls us to continue to seek after it.

  2. […] that religious disagreements can and do incite violence (I wrote a post about that here: Violence) but that does not mean it isn’t possible to have a differing opinion without violence. People […]

  3. […] piece. Part of what is in my sights though is the ignorance of that fact, which leads to epistemic violence. Even the dismantling of that one, very particular world view is too large a task for one […]

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