How to Think about Violence

I work in Fremont. Parking is always an issue in Fremont. If I work early enough in the morning, say 5 a.m., finding a spot isn’t a problem. If I start later in the morning, 9 for example, it’s a problem. When this happens I park across the bridge in Queen Anne and walk in.

There is an intersection near where I park that, granted, may be confusing. It’s a 6-way traffic light with crosswalk lights that are yielded to by green-lit cars coming from certain directions. I was returning to my car last week by this route, crossing at a green “WALK” sign, watching to see that I was being yielded to by the also green-lit traffic, with my phone in my hand. As I stepped onto the other sidewalk having crossed, a guy in the passenger seat of a car passing by leaned out the window to yell, “What’s your phone say, dipshit?” before his buddy in the driver seat sped off. I imagine they hi-fived afterwards, I don’t know.

Let’s be clear that I’m not martyring myself over this dumb comment, especially as a white male. I know many people, especially women and minorities, who experience much worse even on a daily basis. 

Even more to my point then: I’ve always struggled to understand behavior like this. It’s a confusing intersection, and perhaps he didn’t realize I had the right of way or that I wasn’t looking at my phone. But let’s say I was wrong: it still doesn’t explain his behavior. Maybe I would have to be a bully to understand, and as someone who was more likely to be on the other end of the joke in school I’m less likely to understand. One way that I understand it, though, is as a kind of violence.

Violence is more broad a concept than we give it credit for. It functions on many levels. At the base level is physical violence, the intuitive definition. We talk about domestic violence, or violent crime, or violent video games. We understand violence to be force: intense, turbulent, and destructive force. To be violent, therefore, is to apply that force.

Violence may be a metaphor for all kinds of force. As I pointed out in my story, there is verbal violence. It might seem silly or snowflake-ish at first, but the idea of linguistic violence is coded right into our language. Headlines are a brilliant place to see this at work. Pay attention to how often you see the word “eviscerate” in news and opinion pieces. It’s a poignant word: a coup de grâce that suggests an opponent’s argument has been sliced open and every tender thing it held is spilled out. If the media is any indication, just about every politician and pundit has been completely eviscerated in the last year.

Think also about the violence of truth. To a person who believes a lie, the truth itself will feel violent. In The Allegory of the Cave Plato says that when the one who has been outside the cave and has seen the truth returns to tell the prisoners in the cave what he has seen, they kill him. The truth disturbs their social order and their understanding of the universe: they perceive the truth as a violence, and respond violently.

I think a lot of people expect to find in the Bible either resounding support or denunciation of violence, something like, “God always hates violence, period,” or, “I’m God and I say that if someone attacks you that it is your Christian duty to defend yourself with a gun.” The reality is a bit more nuanced than that.

The Gospel of John says that the charges leveled against Jesus of political insurrection upon his arrest were “false” charges. Dale Martin points out that when the Roman soldiers arrived for Jesus’ arrest they met a band of armed Jewish dissidents gathered outside the city gates after nightfall with a leader who was claiming to be the rightful Jewish king. To make matters worse one of Jesus’ followers, Peter, physically assaulted and severed the ear of one of the Roman soldiers. Martin’s question: are they false charges? And if not, was Jesus truly a pacifist?

I believe the answer is to be found in the Gospel of Matthew, in a teaching of Jesus that can be seen as one of the more mysterious verses of the New Testament.

“From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence [Greek: biazo], and the violent [biastai] take it [harpazo] by force.”

Matthew 11:12 (ESV)

Here’s the same verse in the New Living Translation:

“And from the time John the Baptist began preaching until now, the Kingdom of Heaven has been forcefully advancing [biazo], and violent people [biastai] are attacking [harpazo] it.”

Matthew 11:12 (NLT)

In his book The Sage from Galilee and elsewhere David Flusser makes a brilliant case for the rightful interpretation of this passage. He connects it to Micah 2:

“I will surely assemble all of you, O Jacob; I will gather the remnant of Israel; I will set them together like sheep in a fold, like a flock in its pasture, a noisy multitude of men. He who opens the breach goes up before them; they break through and pass the gate, going out by it. Their king passes on before them, the Lord at their head.”

Micah 2:12-13 (ESV)

The imagery is of sheep in a sheep-pen, held in by a blockade made of stones. A breach-maker comes who knocks down the stones and creates an opening for the sheep to exit: the sheep burst forth with such force that they knock down more stones and widen the breach. Appealing then to a poor translation into the Greek of the Septuagint from Hebrew, Flusser offers this interpretation of Matthew 11:12:

“From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven is breaking through [biazo], and those who break through [biastai], seize [harpazo] it.”

The use of “biazo” is a double entendre, then: subjecting the Kingdom of Heaven to violence actually causes it to burst forth! Violence is a catalyst for the breaking-through of the Kingdom, a violent breaking-through. This violent bursting-forth is only violent in terms of the breach itself: the coming of the Kingdom is otherwise like a tremendous flock of sheep who, as Matthew 5:5 suggests, go on to inherit the earth.

If we return to the account by the author of John, of Peter at Gethsemane, we see this is true. His act of violence, though wrong, is an opportunity for Jesus to bring forth the Kingdom of Heaven in healing the ear of the Roman soldier. In fact we see this is true in every respect of violence: besieged by falsehoods, the truth of the scripture only shines brighter. Attacked by verbal violence, the peace and love of the Kingdom bursts forth. Thus Jesus taught against retaliation: If someone slaps you turn the other cheek, and if they take your tunic give them your cloak as well.

The church then is not the promotion or perpetration of violence. It’s not the harbinger or justice or even defense through strength. Yet, violence causes (or should cause) the church to burst forth violently, to minister to the victims of violence. This includes perpetrators: I believe that the perpetrators of violence are themselves victims.

I was surprised at first (but not anymore) that when I searched my feelings it wasn’t my impulse to be angry at the men that yelled at me. I didn’t fantasize in retrospect about flipping them the bird and saying, “Hey, f*** you too!” or about putting a dent in the car. I was sad for them, sad for a man who felt so impotent that he craved the tiny thrill of power attached to calling a stranger a dipshit and driving away. I know now that it was the Kingdom bursting forth in me. I wanted to look in his eyes and say, “Tell me who hurt you,” hold a hand to his head, heal his severed ear.

A few sources:

  1. The Kingdom of Heaven Suffers Violence ? And the Violent Take It By Force? by Rob K. on Life Between the Trees
  2. Excerpts from David Flusser’s The Sage of Galilee by Jerusalem Perspective
  3. “The Kingdom Suffers Violence…” or “The Kingdom Breaks Forth…”? by Phoebe Clevenger


Cover photo is protected under a Creative Commons license. It is free for commercial use with no attribution required.


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