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MOUNTAIN OF SKULLS
TREE OF LIFE
The strange-looking tree on the cover of this book depicts a "tree of life"—the rich symbol of peace that envelopes the biblical story. We see it in Eden. We see it in the New Jerusalem. But the one on the cover can be seen in Mozambique. It stands as a beacon of hope on a mountain of skulls.
Like many countries in Africa, Mozambique has a history of violence. Two years after the country was decolonized in 1975, a civil war erupted—a war that one anthropologist described as "among the worst in contemporary times." For the next fifteen years, Mozambicans hacked each other to pieces as they fought for control, and the blood flowed wide and deep. Over one million people died in the war, half of whom were children. Nearly half of its sixteen million citizens were affected by the war on some level. They were raped, abused, tortured, blinded, dismembered, kidnapped, starved, enslaved, and exiled. Children saw parents slaughtered. Parents saw children boiled. Farmers were nailed to trees. Heads were used as footstools to give rest to weary killers. Those who survived were forever crushed by the psychological effects of violence. "Our life has been taken from us," said one survivor. "The life here, the life in the world, is no good now, it has been broken by war. We eat suffering for dinner."
Though the war ended in 1992, its horrid memory will never end. Reversing the psychological impact of the war seemed to be an insurmountable hurdle. But there was another problem. After the 1992 peace agreement, more than seven million guns remained buried in caches across Mozambique. This posed a real threat to the volatile situation. Though there was peace, violence could erupt at any moment. So with international support, the government of Mozambique initiated several disarmament projects aimed at weeding out the hidden weapons. One of these initiatives was the Christian-backed "Tools for Arms" project, otherwise known as "Swords into Plowshares."
The project got its name from the book of Isaiah, which predicts a time of peace when warring nations will "beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks," and they will not "learn war anymore" (Isa. 2:4). Instruments of violence will be turned into instruments of productivity. And this was the logic behind the Mozambican initiative. In order to draw out the weapons from the bush, people were given an instrument of agriculture in exchange for every weapon turned in. A shovel for a rifle, a plow for a machine gun. One village turned in a whole cache of weapons and received a tractor in return. The initiative wasn't perfect. Mozambique still has many problems. But it hasn't seen anything like the unspeakable bloodshed that soaked the dust for those fifteen brutal years.
So what did they do with all those weapons? They turned them into symbols of peace. They hammered them into trees of life.
One of the ways to reverse the effects of war is to take the very tools of violence and forge them into symbols of hope. As part of the "Swords into Plowshares" project, Mozambican sculptors decommissioned the guns and used the parts to create works of art—sculptures that symbolize peace. Isaiah's prophecy provided a soothing balm for the incurable wound of a country ripped apart by warfare. And these sculpted trees of life capture an aspect of Jesus's vision for the world—a vision of peace and harmony secured by His own blood and guaranteed through His resurrection.
VIOLENCE AND WARFARE IN THE TWENTIETH CENTURY
Mozambique is only one of many countries longing for peace. The last hundred years have been called the most violent century in history. Over 187 million people, most of whom were civilians, have been killed in war. Around 170 million have been killed by their own governments. We've witnessed at least seven different genocides, including the Rwandan bloodbath in 1994 when eight hundred thousand people were slaughtered in just ninety days. And Rwanda was a Christian country, one of the most Christianized places in the world. Still, mothers with babies on their backs hacked to pieces next-door neighbors with babies on their backs, and Rwanda—a largely unknown country—became infamous.
Then there's the threat of nuclear warfare. One nuclear warhead could decimate Los Angeles. Fifty could take out California. A thousand could erase America from the globe. Currently, there are twenty-six thousand nuclear warheads in the world, each of them eight times more powerful than the one America dropped on Hiroshima, which killed over one hundred thousand people. We could literally blow up the entire planet tomorrow.
Then there's the escalation of violent crimes: homicide, rape, and torture, not to mention the multibillion-dollar industry of human trafficking. Movies and music are much more violent than they were just fifty years ago, and video games have been added to the mix. The world's passion for violence is growing, and its callousness toward it is thickening.
We long to see millions of sculpted trees of life strung across the globe.
CHRISTIANS AND WARFARE
So what is the Christian response to warfare and violence? Is it ever necessary to wage war to confront evil? Or can you use violence toward an enemy who is attacking your family? And what about capital punishment? Should Christians celebrate the death of a mass murderer? Or a suicide bomber? How about killing to save a life? Self-defense? Serving in the military? Killing in the military? Do we pray that dictators meet Jesus or meet a sniper? Surely Hitler could have used a bullet to the head! And how should the church view its relationship to the state? When our country goes to war, demands our patriotism, promotes itself as the hope of the world, how should the church respond? Total allegiance? Qualified allegiance? Indifference? Protest?
Christians can't seem to find a common answer to any of these questions. This is natural, of course, since Christians disagree over many things. But what has shocked me—what has led me to write this book—is how outraged Christians get toward those who disagree with them on these issues. If you ever want to stir up your Bible study, ask the other people if it'd be okay to join the military, kill an intruder, or assassinate Hitler if you had the chance. Ask them if they wept or cheered when bin Laden was killed. The questions themselves make people angry. I've dealt with many issues over the years—free will and election, spiritual gifts, the end times—but I have never seen such heated discussions erupt as when issues of war, violence, and nationalism come up. Never. Disagreement over these issues pricks something deep in the heart of us.
All the more need to open God's Word to see what He thinks about these issues.
So let me ease the tension. This book is not intended to be the last word on the subject, and it's certainly not the first. I'm writing this book to help contribute to the ongoing discussion of how Christians should think about warfare, violence, and their close cousin, nationalism. I'm not going to answer all the questions, mostly because I don't have all of the answers! I have spent much time researching this topic, and the one thing I've seen is that the Bible doesn't always give straightforward answers to all of our questions. But in order to address these issues from a Christian perspective, we need to dig into Scripture to see what God does say about them. So often in heated debates, the Bible is rarely consulted. Or if it is, it's done haphazardly or with blatant bias. Oftentimes we start with a view we are convinced is right; then we go to Scripture to find verses that support it. We're all guilty of this on some level. But we should at least work hard at laying aside our preconceived beliefs about warfare and violence and invite God to critique our view in light of His precious Word.
MY RELUCTANT JOURNEY TOWARD NONVIOLENCE
Now, as the title of this book suggests, I have come to a working conclusion about Christians and violence. I believe that the Bible advocates nonviolence. I do not believe that Jesus wants Christians to use violence. And if I can be so blunt: I think that a large portion of the American evangelical church has been seduced, whether knowingly or not, by nationalistic militarism. Yet our inspired Word of God aggressively critiques this very thing, as we will see.
But you should know, I wasn't handed this view growing up. It doesn't come from hippie parents or a Mennonite pastor. I didn't grow up a "pacifist," and I don't have a natural aversion to violence and bloodshed. In fact, everything in my upbringing cuts against the grain of what I'm going to argue in this book. I grew up in a Christian home, and like many evangelicals, I was enamored with war. I played with toy tanks and soldiers, loved watching old war films, and cheered with all my might when America fought against the Iraqis in Desert Storm. My immediate reaction after 9/11 was, Let's just nuke the Middle East and get rid of those terrorists! My favorite movies growing up were Rocky III, Top Gun, and Gladiator. (At the risk of sounding hypocritical, they still are.) Throughout high school and college, I hunted, fished, voted Republican, and chewed tobacco. I even dated a girl who chewed tobacco. I pretty much was the guy on the cover of Springsteen's Born in the USA album. The idea that someone could be a Christian and not think that war and military might were the best way to fight evil was weird and confusing. Could someone actually read the Bible and still endorse nonviolence? That person must be biblically illiterate or anti-American, is what I thought.
As I matured in my faith, none of this changed. Gladiator came out when I was in seminary, and I was first in line! It wasn't until I taught an ethics course at Cedarville University in Ohio in the spring of 2008 that I began to wrestle with these issues, and for the first time I was forced to consider what the Bible actually says about violence. I was shocked at how many passages in the New Testament discuss violence (and patriotism) and how few of them (if any) support the use of violence by a Christian. Admittedly, the Old Testament is a bit trickier. But my worldview was sent into a tailspin as I searched long and hard to find New Testament support for the so-called just war position. I didn't find any.
And so by the fall of 2009, I became what many people would call (though I don't like the term) a pacifist. In short, I didn't believe that the Bible endorsed the use of violence by the church or individual Christians. Over the last few years, I've spent a lot of time and energy studying this topic, reading opposing views, and looking into Scripture. I've talked to Christians who endorse war and Christians who protest war. I've discussed these issues with Army vets, Marines, Navy SEALs, cops, pacifists, pastors, laypeople, men, women, and people of all ethnicities. I've tried my hardest to understand God's Word and the diverse perspectives of those who read it. And the more I study, the more I discuss, the more I have become convinced of this general position. Christians shouldn't kill or use violence—not even in war.
I'm still an evangelical Christian. And I'm not Amish, Quaker, or Mennonite. I own several guns and still believe that the smell of a recently fired shotgun on a crisp fall morning comes darn near close to paradise. The Christian subculture in which I was raised and still worship is nondenominational conservative Reformed. I've been influenced over the years by John Piper, John MacArthur, R. C. Sproul, and many others who swim in that pond.
Shockingly, most within this tradition disagree with my position, some with relentless passion.
All the more need—again—to open God's Word to see what He thinks about these issues.
AMERICAN MILITARISM AND THE EVANGELICAL CHURCH
Militarism refers to the "belief or desire ... that a country should maintain a strong military capability and be prepared to use it aggressively to defend or promote national interests." By militarism, therefore, I do not mean the people participating in the military (I myself come from a long line of Marines) but the overarching "belief or desire" of having a strong military to protect or advance national interests. It's undeniable that America is becoming more and more militarized. And many people—military folks and others—have questioned America's relentless attraction to military prowess. Evangelicals, however, are quick to celebrate it—the bigger the better.
Throughout the twentieth century, American Christians have shown a varied reaction toward military might. But beginning in the late 1970s and through the early twenty-first century, the dominant view among evangelicals has been that militarism is the key to religious freedom and the hope for peace in the world.
For instance, one of Christianity's bestselling authors, Hal Lindsey, located the moral demise of America in the "crisis of military weakness." He believed that "the Bible supports building a powerful military force." Lindsey went on to say that "the Bible is telling the US to become strong again" and "to use our vast and superior technology to create the world's strongest military power." And many evangelicals agree. Jerry Falwell, a widely influential evangelical from the 1970s through the 1990s, called America back to biblical values, which included patriotism and a strong military to ward off the threat of atheistic communism. Military general and fellow evangelical William Boykin said that "Satan wants to destroy this nation ... and he wants to destroy us as a Christian army." He therefore saw America's military as an extension of God's fight against evil. Other Christian conservatives, such as G. Russell Evans and C. Greg Singer, argued that only liberals promoted "pacifism, disarmament [of the US military], and abortion on demand." One of evangelicalism's most-read theologians, Wayne Grudem, saw America's "superior military weaponry" as "a good thing for the world." After all, "genuine peace in the world comes through the strength of the United States"—CIA drone strikes notwithstanding.
Being an evangelical has become synonymous with being pro-family, anti-abortion, pro-Republican, and pro-war. All protesting voices are declared liberal or anti-Christian. In fact, when America went to war in Iraq, a flurry of protest arose. Even though the Iraq war was the most opposed war in America's history—even more than Vietnam—"churchgoers were more supportive than non-churchgoers and evangelicals were the most supportive of all." Military historian and Vietnam vet Andrew Bacevich wrote, "Were it not for the support offered by several tens of millions of evangelicals, militarism in this deeply and genuinely religious country becomes inconceivable."
Now, this is not the place to argue whether the war in Iraq was just. I only want to point out that evangelicals have a strange affection for military power and an odd history of being pro-war. Perhaps that is why the very thought of nonviolence ignites a near-violent reaction within the church. It's become closely associated with cowardly weakness fit for communists and liberals. We live in a strange scene of redemptive history when opposition to war, violence, and militarism is deemed unchristian.
But we must leave aside all this clutter and read the Bible afresh. We must invite God to challenge our presuppositions, and this is my challenge to all of us: despite your upbringing; despite what you've always been taught; despite what you already think about violence, self-defense, serving in the military, or capital punishment; despite whether you are Republican, Democrat, Libertarian, or Socialist; despite whether you come from a military family—as I do—or are in the military yourself, I ask you to consider with fresh eyes what the whole Bible has to say about this crucial topic. I don't claim to have solved all the issues, nor do I arrogantly believe that everyone who disagrees with me is therefore disagreeing with the Bible. Because I am a human interpreter, my words are fallible. At the same time, I invite you to follow my journey through Scripture and submit to what God says about violence in His infallible Word.
DEFINITION: PACIFISM VERSUS NONVIOLENCE
There are two important words I need to explain up front. First, the word pacifist (or pacifism). I mentioned above that I don't like this term. Here's why. There are over twenty different types of pacifism, many of which I would not associate with. The term is too broad to be helpful and greatly misunderstood. When people ask me if I'm a pacifist, I ask them to define what they mean. They usually don't know what they mean, or they will define the term in a way that does not describe what I believe. The very term pacifism is often thought to mean passive-ness. It's assumed that pacifists just sit around and let wicked people wreak havoc on the world. But this is a gross misunderstanding of what I'll argue in this book.
Excerpted from FIGHT by preston sprinkle, ANDREW RILLERA. Copyright © 2013 Preston Sprinkle. Excerpted by permission of David C. Cook.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted December 25, 2013
Preston Sprinkle in his new book, “Fight” published by David C. Cook shows us A Christian Case for Non-Violence.
From the Back Cover: What are we fighting for?
“I’m an evangelical Christian. And I am not Amish, Quaker or Mennonite. I own several guns and still believe that the smell of a recently fired shotgun on a crisp fall morning comes darn near close to paradise. Bit I’ve tried my hardest to understand God’s Word and the divine perspectives of those who read it. And the more I study, the more I discuss, the more I’ve become convinced: Christians shouldn’t kill or use violence–not even in war.”
With these words, Preston Sprinkle jumps into a compelling, passionate study of God’s perspective on violence. Examining both the seemingly angry, violent God of the Old Testament and the peacemaking Jesus of the New. Preston takes us back to Scripture to discern how God really called His people to think and live in the midst of a violent world. He asks us to join him in inviting God to challenge our presuppositions, to set aside our biases and backgrounds and fears…and to seek above all else to faithfully follow the Savior who humbly submitted to God in the face of injustice and violence.
We not only live in a violent world, but our Bible is filled with violence. How, then, can Jesus seemingly prohibit Christians from using violence. And does this apply to all Christians in every situation? This is what Mr. Sprinkle is looking at; why The Bible contains so much violence and he addresses how the Church should live out Jesus’ call to non-violence. In thirteen chapters issues are raised: How God’s desire for non-violent peace remains the ideal–even when confronting injustice and enmity, How to reconcile what seems like a vengeful, wrathful God of the Old Testament with the forging, nonviolent Christ of the New Testament. These and more thought provoking issues are all explored. Mr. Sprinkle challenges us to take what we may have possible believed all our lives and re-examine them in this new light and re-evaluate if we are still going to believe them or change and conform our thinking to these new thoughts from The Bible.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book for free from David C. Cook for this review. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”
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