On Facebook someone (who shall remain anonymous to preserve Facebook etiquette) hailed Jesus as the Prince of Peace, and asked that militaristic Christians reflect on that title this Christmas season. In the comments, someone was challenging this view, by pointing to aggressive statements that Jesus made. In response, the original poster analyzed the context of those statements, and showed that they were consistent with Jesus being a paragon of peace, not hostility.
I think there is a definite tension, or apparent contradiction, that stems from the admittedly difficult Christian claim that Jesus was both fully God and fully man. There can be no doubt that in His capacity as a man, as a role model for how we should live our own lives, Jesus was a pacifist. It would be inconceivable that in the gospels Jesus would have physically harmed someone as punishment for that person’s transgressions. (The only thing remotely close is Him driving the money changers from the temple.)
On the other hand, there can be no doubt that the God of the Old Testament was punitive. Look at Jeremiah 15: 1-9:
1 Then the LORD said to me: “Even if Moses and Samuel were to stand before me, my heart would not go out to this people. Send them away from my presence! Let them go! 2 And if they ask you, ‘Where shall we go?’ tell them, ‘This is what the LORD says:
“‘Those destined for death, to death;
those for the sword, to the sword;
those for starvation, to starvation;
those for captivity, to captivity.’
3 “I will send four kinds of destroyers against them,” declares the LORD, “the sword to kill and the dogs to drag away and the birds and the wild animals to devour and destroy. 4 I will make them abhorrent to all the kingdoms of the earth because of what Manasseh son of Hezekiah king of Judah did in Jerusalem.
5 “Who will have pity on you, Jerusalem?
Who will mourn for you?
Who will stop to ask how you are?
6 You have rejected me,” declares the LORD.
“You keep on backsliding.
So I will reach out and destroy you;
I am tired of holding back.
7 I will winnow them with a winnowing fork
at the city gates of the land.
I will bring bereavement and destruction on my people,
for they have not changed their ways.
8 I will make their widows more numerous
than the sand of the sea.
At midday I will bring a destroyer
against the mothers of their young men;
suddenly I will bring down on them
anguish and terror.
9 The mother of seven will grow faint
and breathe her last.
Her sun will set while it is still day;
she will be disgraced and humiliated.
I will put the survivors to the sword
before their enemies,”
declares the LORD.
Now I know a lot of Christians justify violence against evildoers because they think they are simply being instruments of God’s justice. But that’s hard to reconcile with some of Jesus’ explicit commands (e.g. Matthew 5: 39, “But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also”).
(Of course, if you are given an explicit order from the Lord to go out and, say, invade another country–like the Israelites received–then obviously that’s what you’re supposed to do. I am talking about the default presumption of how a self-identified Christian should live his or her life.)
It’s ironic because evangelical Christians are some of the loudest opponents of genetic engineering and other such attempts to “play God.” You never hear a pastor say, “It’s fine for us to tinker with the genetic code, because after all God created life as we learn in Genesis.”
So the fact that God would wipe out people for their idolatry by itself is hardly proof that therefore it’s fine for us to establish earthly systems of punitive law enforcement, in which some men (and women) pass judgment on others and throw them in cages or even put them to death.