Social Conflict, Religious Violence, and the Gospel of Jesus Christ

On June 12, 2016, a man walked into a nightclub in Orlando, Florida known for its LGBTQ clientele.  Over the next three hours, he perpetrated the largest mass killing in modern American history.  Preliminary reports indicated that he committed this atrocity because he was offended by public displays of gay affection—acts that he undoubtedly believed were an affront to God and a mockery of all that is good.

How should those of us who follow Jesus respond to this and other acts of religiously motivated violence?  How should we think, feel, and act, given that many of us have serious misgivings about the philosophies and ways of life that populate the American cultural landscape?  How can we be faithful to Christ in a world that seems to be irrevocably divided between those who just want the fighting (whether real or rhetorical) to stop and those who want to win the fight at all cost?

Rejecting Violence

We live in a world that is characterized by social conflict.  Even within the confines of a single community in the United States, one can find people with vastly different experiences, assumptions, and perspectives.  These experiences, assumptions, and perspectives form the building-blocks of ideologies, and ideologies determine how people engage in public life—and to what ends.

In this context, it is not difficult to see how people convince themselves that a whole range of options—including violence—need to be considered in order to restore some semblance of order to American society.  There are very few things on which Americans agree, and the public square often looks more like a boxing ring than a forum for constructive conversation.  Many people in the United States feel disenfranchised, and many have lost faith in the institutions and structures that make American society work.

It is for Muslim scholars to debate whether their religion permits the use of violence to redress disenfranchisement and to enforce order in society.  For Christians, however, there can be no debate.  Violence is not an option.

The New Testament was written to people who had no social power of their own.  In that situation, the Scriptures make it clear that the Christ-follower’s obligation is to bear witness in word and deed to the message of the gospel—and nothing more.  Violence in the service of ideology not only flies in the face of Jesus’ command to love one’s enemies (Matthew 5:43-49), it also undermines the credibility of our claim to be agents of God’s love to the world.

Moreover, Christians should be the first to offer aid and comfort when violence occurs.  We ourselves have been the victims of ideologically-motivated violence, and this experience should motivate us to empathy and action, even when we vehemently disagree with the ideology of a victimized group.  After all, God responded to the needs of His enemies with sacrificial love (Romans 5:6-8); surely we can respond to the needs of our fellow human beings with the same kind of compassion.

Refusing Surrender

Undoubtedly, some Christians have at least entertained the notion of responding to the financial irresponsibility, social injustice, and moral decay of American society with violence.  A far greater number, however, have pursued a different option.  They have decided that it is better to relinquish those aspects of Christian teaching that are uncomfortable or controversial than it is to run the risk of rejection.

Sexual ethics, in particular, has been a point of increasing friction between the church and American society for at least fifty years.  Evangelical Protestants and conservative Roman Catholics have been characterized as prudish, intolerant, and bigoted.  Violence in the name of religion, even if it is not perpetrated by a Christian, will only increase the amount of scrutiny that is directed towards those who assert God’s authority over sexuality.

We cannot, however, run from who we are.  Nor can we ignore the importance of sexual ethics for the gospel.  Jesus came to enlighten humanity about the nature of reality (John 1:1-14) and to show humans how to really live (John 10:10).  A sexual ethic that celebrates our maleness and femaleness and that bears witness to the unique faithfulness of God to His people is an indispensable part of who we are and what we teach.

We also cannot run from the misunderstanding and the persecution that will inevitably come if we are faithful to our calling.  Jesus told us that people will not understand our devotion to him.  He told us that society will persecute us because we bear witness to an alternate view of reality and an alternate way of life (Mark 10:29-31John 15:18-21).

Even if that were not the case, we have done things to bring public ridicule upon ourselves.  Some of us have used hateful or even violent rhetoric against those with whom we disagree—forgetting that we, too, once walked in darkness (Ephesians 2:1-25:8) and still do so on occasion.  Some of us have indulged deviant desires while at the same time condemning the deviance of others.

If we are going to be faithful to Christ, we must stand up and take responsibility for the wrong things that we have done while at the same time remaining faithful to the teachings that have been handed down to us.  Moreover, we must redouble our efforts to demonstrate the goodness of the life to which Christ has called us by actually living out Jesus’ vision in our daily lives.  Before we denounce the sin in our society, we must renounce the sin in our hearts, our homes, our churches, and our institutions.

Refuting False Narratives

As followers of Jesus, we cannot react to the evil we find in our culture with violence, and we cannot surrender our core beliefs in the name of political correctness.  So what should we be doing?  It seems to me that we should begin by bringing the grand narratives of human life into dialogue with the Christian narrative.

Stories communicate what a group’s experiences mean to its members (history), what the members of a group want for themselves and their children (vision), and what the members of a group think is important (values).  It does not matter whether the group in question is as small as a local religious organization or as large as a nation; every group has a story.  The LBGTQ community has a story.  Radical Islam has a story.  Western democracy has a story.  Even postmodernism has a story—whether it knows it or not.

Those of us who follow Jesus endeavor to bring his story into dialogue with these stories (and many more) because we hope to build bridges of understanding between ourselves and our neighbors.  By listening to the stories that others tell and telling our story in return, we hope to demonstrate how God’s story is good news for people who live in a world gone insane.  But we also hope to expose the false assumptions and misguided conclusions that are incorporated within every human narrative.  Exposing false narratives can be uncomfortable work, but it is necessary.  After all, it is the false narratives that humans construct that stand in the way of God’s efforts to reconcile the people of the world to himself and to one another.

Revitalizing Community

We also need to do some serious work at revitalizing our Christian communities, especially at the macro level.  Too often, Christianity in the United States has been defined by the things that divide us rather than by the things that bring us together.  Even among evangelical Protestants, egos and long-standing grudges can stand in the way of mutual support and cooperative action.

Changing the calculus of American religious life is going to take some bold, intentional action.  It is going to require brave leaders who care more about the future of the church than they do about their job security.  Fortunately, this is already happening in some quarters.  In 2014, Russell Moore (president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission), Rick Warren (senior pastor of Saddleback Community Church), and N. T Wright (former Anglican bishop) were invited to speak to a conference on marriage and family sponsored by the Roman Catholic Church.  We need more of this kind of cooperation—in part because there are still lots of things about which we vehemently disagree.  If we can work together on an issue of common interest, perhaps that will open up opportunities for dialogue on other issues.

Remembering the Goal

Perhaps the most important thing we can do as Christians is remember that our goal is not to win an argument.  Our goal is not to curry the favor of an increasingly hostile media or to obtain the approval of an increasingly fickle culture.  Our goal is not to create a utopian society where we are safe from all harm and exercise all authority.

Our goal is to participate in the healing, reconciling, and transforming work of Jesus.  Our goal may not bring us praise in the court of public opinion.  It may not even bring us thanks from those we are trying to help.  But it will bring us closer to the heart of our Savior.  It will prevent us from repeating the mistakes of the past.  And it will allow Christ to work through us to accomplish more than we could ever imagine.

Published: Jun 24, 2016


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