I think my journey towards Christian non-violence began as I realized how much the Jewish people of Jesus’ time were expecting their Messiah to overthrow the Roman Empire and how shocked they were when he instead let them crucify him and told his followers to “love your enemies” to advance his heavenly Kingdom. I realized this made it hard to justify talk of overthrowing (relatively less oppressive) modern governments, and I started wondering how many other violent scenarios it might affect, too.
In Fight: A Christian Case For Nonviolence, Preston Sprinkle examines how Jesus’ message of non-violent, forgiving enemy-love is woven through the entire Bible, from God’s gracious protection of Cain the first murderer to the blood of the martyred saints in Revelation. Sprinkle builds his case with astonishing grace and humility (how many authors ask God to “raise up someone” to “write a response” if they’re wrong?), no doubt helped by the fact that he comes not from a liberal hippy protest but from a gun-toting, Gladiator-watching, Republican-voting evangelical background. Sprinkle addresses the most violent passages in the Bible and argues that they fit within a cohesive trend of limiting present violence and longing for a peaceful future.
He also both asks and answers hard questions about the implications of the Bible’s passages on our lives today. I like his point that we often jump into practical scenarios that might justify violence with human logic (sometimes doused in subtle utilitarianism) instead of starting with what the Bible says. Sprinkle argues that many uses of violence are not even effective, but more importantly they may not be faithful to following Jesus. He also contrasts passive “pacifism” with “non-violence,” which still allows are plenty of creative (and Biblical) ways to actively resist evil – just without trying to kill human beings in the process.
Some points are stronger than others. In discussing the violent Promised Land conquest, he convincingly argues that the condemned Canaanites could have known about the God of Israel, responding perhaps to arguments in books like Laying Down The Sword (my review here). But I’m not sure “hyperbole” is the only explanation to avoid contradiction in God’s commands to slay everything that breathes. I love the concept of the prophets pointing towards a future without violence (“they shall beat their swords into plowshares” – Isaiah 2), but I wish he had also covered Joel’s “beat your plowshares into swords.” I also love the idea of all the blood in Revelation belonging to Jesus and the saints, but I’m not convinced of the non-violence of Armageddon (even if Jesus just “declares with cosmic, cruciform authority that He has already won,” there’s still weird parts, where, say, “the birds gorged themselves on their flesh.”)
But difficult interpretations of confusing Bible verses notwithstanding, I found Sprinkle rather convincing in his overall argument that Jesus consistently* preached and lived a non-violent life, that the disciples understood Jesus’ example as compelling a non-violent life (1 Peter 2, for one), and that the early church consistently believed and lived it as well, all while experiencing more intense persecution and justifications for violent retaliation than most of us may ever know! It was in fact this radical “enemy-love” that set Christians apart and led to such a wonderful spreading of the Gospel! The book only delves a little into post-Constantine politics; it’s uncomfortable (but necessary) to think about the civilian deaths and dictator-support at the hand of the “good guys” of America through the years, but I find it even more uncomfortable to think about all the wars throughout history that have literally involved thousands of Christians killing each other.
(*Though I wish he would have covered Matthew 10:34)
I thought Sprinkle had some great arguments about infamous scenarios (“What if someone breaks into your house?” / “What about Hitler?”), mostly related to assumptions about exactly what they’re going to do and exactly how effective you will be at stopping it and the possibilities of things backfiring and violence begetting worse violence (though I find it hard to say the Holocaust could have been stopped non-violently). He offers historical examples of non-violent resistance being more effective (both in preventing violence and in spreading the Gospel) while reminding us that we should ultimately be concerned about what is more faithful anyway. The topic of rape is a potential weak point, addressed only in an intense story about a woman who forgave her attacker who ultimately found Christ. I saw Sprinkle humbly admit in person at AudioFeed that it was very difficult, especially as a man, to advocate non-violence in such situations, but it doesn’t come across as strongly in the book, and of all the ways people could mis-interpret Sprinkle as arguing for passive-ism I really hope they don’t do so in this case. (And I hope everyone could at least agree we should press on towards the goal of enabling women to escape rapists without having to kill them.)
Overall I found Fight to be an “easy read” on a difficult issue, full of interesting, thought-provoking, and challenging ideas. I’m probably part of that rare subset of readers who would have enjoyed the “five hundred pages of endnotes” Sprinkle left out, and I realize there wasn’t enough room to discuss every possible interpretation of every verse that is remotely related to violence. How Christians respond to violence has an immense impact on how we are perceived by the world and how we honor and glorify God, and I am glad Sprinkle is contributing to the discussion in such a gracious and humble manner. If you’re interested in a Biblically sound introduction to the idea of Christian non-violence without the naive, arrogant, or anti-patriotic associations you may have about it, I strongly encourage you to read this book.