NOTE FROM A FRIEND
I’ve been wondering what responsible Christlike decision-making looks like when it seems the only way to protect is to take life or cause harm—when nonviolent alternatives seem to have been exhausted. How do we live in the world as it is and not as it ought to be, where swords are turned into plowshares? Of course, it is easy to say I’ll put down my weapon when you put down yours. Then no one ends up doing it.
Part of me thinks—and it’s easy for me to say from a distance— when nonviolent means have been exhausted in the protection of others, we should still refrain from violence and trust God to take care of whomever would be hurt if we don’t act to defend.
But something else has also been on my mind. EMDR therapists working with clients who battle some sort of urge have discovered that if the the client imagines (with their full attention) enacting that urge, after a period of 90 to 120 seconds, they experience a shift toward not wanting to act on it anymore.
In the case of violence, the imagination may shift to a sense of regret and can sometimes even a profound realization, such as seeing how the person they wanted to hurt was hurt themselves.
This got me thinking about something Craig Koestler said about the Book of Revelation and the seven plagues—that they were demonstrations of what Christians were calling for at the time, namely retribution against the world that was persecuting them. But such plagues would ultimately not result in any change. In the end, violence done to them would not change them, because violence will not cure violence.
Part of me thinks—that it’s very important that even though John shows readers that violence will not stop violence, he still includes this vision violence in Revelation.
RESPONSE TO A FRIEND
Well said! And I really resonate with the language of “part of me thinks.”
I think the parts of me that are of strongly different opinions (part of me wants peace, part of me wants violence, part of me wants reconciliation, part of me wants retribution) can create a lot of turmoil in me, so there’s an instinct to marginalize or silence the voices that would create harm if I acted on them or even spoke them in the wrong context or without context. But I’ve found that repression and expression are also parts of me and these, too, need to be considered, because either can be harmful to myself or others as well.
This is where the Psalms are so important to me. They allow for the inclusion and expression of every part in the one place where they can all speak up without fear of condemnation—at the throne of grace. “You prepare a table for me in the presence of my enemies” (even my internal enemies), where every part of me can celebrate, or lament, or rant without fear of divine reprisal. In that context, in prayer before the living, all-seeing God who sees and judges and forgives and cleanses, I can say what I need to say with rigorous honesty and there discover that I’m engaging in a process of my own transformation. It seems the Psalmist saw what EMDR specialists have discovered and created a community hymnal that could function like group therapy, even while in exile.
So, as you’ve noted, even in the book of Revelation, the author is not averse to the language of divine retribution against the persecutors of God’s people. There’s something about being able to express those feelings in that language that diffuses the violence that possesses us. First, in our demand for vengeance, we hear the Lord say, “Vengeance is mine. Leave it with me.”
Then, second, the Lamb prepares our hearts to see the gospel of Jesus refract those violent words into a redemptive message, where the “sword” that comes out of Christ’s mouth is the good-news gospel, and what is finally destroyed is death and hades itself, and even the ‘whore of Babylon’ is transfigured into the ‘Bride of Christ.’ So, yes, every foe will be vanquished, but ultimately, vengeance give way to overcoming Love. And yes, there will be retribution, but finally, it’s directed, not against our human enemies, but against the darkness that drives all violence.