A few weeks ago, my alter ego tweeted that “having room in theology for the just taking of life (capital punishment, war) is a refusal to make our physical/material state absolute,” and there were a few questions about that so I’ll elaborate here.
First, full disclosure, these thoughts came off a slightly feverish (literally) day watching a couple of movies focused on fighting and warfare. In particular, the movie Warrior got me thinking: The movie centers on a deadbeat dad (Nick Nolte) who has recently repented of his alcoholism and apparently become a Christian and his two sons (Tom Hardy & Joel Edgerton) who are in various ways living with and dealing with the results of their father’s failures and sin. They are all at odds in different ways, but the last thing all three have in common is that they are into Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) style fighting. One thing leads to another, and the brothers are in the world’s biggest MMA tournament. The story is explicitly about forgiveness, justice, bitterness, and trust.
But woven through these questions are the cage fighting matches. One response might be complete disgust. Why bring Jesus into an MMA cage fight? Didn’t Jesus teach us to turn the other cheek, not punch the other guy back harder? But this brings me back to the point of my tweet:
God could have saved the world in a much cleaner way than He did. He could have sent Jesus as the son of Eve, He could have died within the first decade or century of the history of the world, and God could have cleaned this whole place up a lot quicker and not let it go on as long as He did before sending Christ. God could have also issued a Divine fiat order of redemption. You know, doesn’t God have an “Easy” button on his central command station? Couldn’t God just wipe away every tear now? Well yes, God could have, and He has chosen not to. This means that God has chosen to allow sin, death, war, torture, cancer, injustice despite the fact that God is utterly disposed against all of it. And we know that at least part of the answer to why God is doing it this way is because God is determined to show His glory in and through even the darkness and evil and destruction of sin and death. The death and resurrection of Jesus in the middle of the story is the fulcrum by which all of history from beginning to end will be turned inside out and played in a key of glory that will undo every doubt and heal every broken heart.
This is not a raw “ends justifies the means” ethic because God Himself has entered the darkness. God Himself has succumbed to the treachery, to the pain, to the abuse, to the injustice, to the suffering. God has entered into our pain, into our story, into our arena. And the resurrection of Jesus is both the proof that God can pull this off but also the assurance that He will — and that it really is better this way.
God has determined to tell a story (like most great stories) in which the meaning of the middle of the story is all bound up with the end of the story. This current setting, this current state of affairs is not the end of the story. We have a preview of the end of the story in the death and resurrection of Jesus, and that preview insists that death doesn’t have the last word, that death will be swallowed up in life, and that most importantly, God is unalterably determined to put everything right.
This doesn’t mean we’re all stoics now, and well, just grin and bear it or have a little opium or morphine for your troubles. No, evil isn’t any less evil. We still fight it, pray for it to be destroyed and swallowed up forever, but (and this brings us at last to my tweet) some forms of pacifism and objections to the death penalty are built on hopeless notions about death and evil. It’s as though this world, these rules, this material/physical setup is all there is, and that means we’re all playing for keeps. One false move and you’re dead; one false move and you’ve ruined someone’s life. And of course, there’s a sense in which that’s absolutely true. Shall we sin so that grace may abound? God forbid.
But when God tells a story and permits, or rather, even commands His people to execute murderers or to defend themselves with lethal force, part of the lesson to be learned is that God’s justice and glory will triumph over all the “what-ifs.” What if the guy was innocent? What if a civilian is shot in the crossfire? In other words, while we must not ever knowingly sin, we may most certainly carry out God’s commands freely and cheerfully, fully cognizant of our limitations and weaknesses, knowing that while the stakes are high, God’s truth rides higher still. God’s justice triumphs in and through our weakness. But if God allows, even commands this, and furthermore permits civil and familial authorities other, lesser corporal punishments (e.g. spankings, lashings), this must mean that neither our weaknesses/failures in the middle of attempted obedience nor the machinations of evil men in attempted destruction can ruin the plan. Pacifists want to run far away from the danger, but faithfulness means playing with the dangerous things. It means playing with pain, violence, and even death, not in some kind of sadistic way but like a child with a spider or a snake: innocent and fearless.
Our current physical/material circumstances are not the last word. God’s word is the last word. And this isn’t making wiggle room for evil; it’s actually a refusal to make peace with it. But ironically, those who refuse to make room for capital punishment or a just war are actually bowing down before death and allowing death itself to have the last word. It’s actually making peace with death. But if we insist that death is swallowed up in victory, and we do, we insist that even a little thing like death can be undone (how much more so a few bruises, scars, or broken bones?). And all the broken hearts, all the tears, all the injustice can be healed. This physical/material state is not absolute. God is absolute, and His Word is making a peace that can never be broken.