Q & R: God, Jesus, and Violence

Here’s the Q:

My name is yyy and I had a couple of questions. I read your article “Is God Violent?” in Sojourners magazine and as I looked at your example of Jesus as nonviolent. It is true Jesus did not kill, but he did run the money changers out of the temple with a scourge. I do not know if he hit them with it, but they knew to get out of the temple on that day. I do not believe this gives an excuse for war, but Jesus has a point where he does not accept certain things. I also think it is interesting to see what set him off (using God’s house for dishonesty and consumerism…did I just say that?). I just wanted to know if there was anything I am missing in my thoughts. I am very new (3 days) to your perspective on christianity and wondered which book of yours I should start off with especially understanding the Bible as a library and not a constitution. I am [in my 30’s] and have been born again since [childhood]. I am entering new territory and am understandably nervous about the possible massive shift in belief and understanding this may have.

Here’s the R:

Thanks for the question. There are two passages people often point to from the gospels in response to talking about Jesus as non-violent. Let me say something briefly about both.
First is the passage you noted. Some people, I know, interpret non-violence as passivity or inactivity, but I think that’s a mistake. I’d define violence as an action intending to cause harm or injury. If the gospel writers told us that Jesus knocked the money changers down and kicked them in the gut, pulled out a sword and … etc., etc., we’d have an intent to cause harm or injury, but that’s not what we have. I see Jesus’ action as an example of non-violent civil disobedience (he was interrupting the normal commerce of the facility without causing harm or injury).
But however anyone interprets Jesus’ activity, there’s a far cry between what he did and suicide bombers killing people in God’s name or people supporting pre-emptive wars using “shock and awe” in God’s name. Perhaps someone wants to justify those things, but I don’t think they can use Jesus to do it.
Second is Jesus’ enigmatic call to the disciples to bring two swords as they departed towards the Garden of Gethsemane. Then, when Peter used one of them, Jesus told him to put it away, that those who live by the sword will die by the sword, after which he healed the man Peter had struck. Frankly, I don’t know why Jesus said to bring two swords. I know he was very concerned about the safety of his disciples: he was willing to die, but he very much wanted them to survive and carry on his work (as the whole middle section of Luke’s gospel makes clear). In that light, he may have been concerned about their self-defense. In the garden, Peter wasn’t defending himself – he was seeking to use violence to defend Jesus.
Alternatively, this passage may be one that goes alongside the story of Jesus and his mother in Cana (Jn 2) and Jesus and the Syrophonecian woman (Matt 14-15). These are cases where Jesus seems to reverse himself, each of which is fascinating as a special study – all the more interesting when we consider them together. I look at these stories in two of my books – Secret Message of Jesus and Everything Must Change. The more general question of God and violence is one of the ten subjects of A New Kind of Christianity.
Thanks again for your question. It’s a good one, and I think it shows that these issues are rich, multilayered, and intended to make us think – and enter into thoughtful conversation.