coping with early christian violence

The posting thus far on this passage have focused on the fear and violence present in this story. Our modern, and perhaps liberal Quaker mindset is discomforted by this. And I find myself resisting other people’s resistance to this text. And I’m trying to unpack this somehow.

We very much want a clean cut peacenik of a Jesus. And while the spirit of Christ in me cries out against the violence and oppression in this world, I’m not altogether convinced that was the agenda of the historical Jesus and hence of his disciples. I know how hard the choice to uphold the peace testimony is for a white middle class North American — and I do a miserable job of it.

But that wasn’t the situation for the first Christians. It was closer to being like Nazi occupied France. And you aren’t a collaborator with Vichy. You are a fully active member of the resistance. And then you advocate to your fellow resisters — a course of non-violent action. If the Romans don’t crucify you your best friend may well slit your throat.

I do not believe that we have become more spiritually evolved and thereby grown out of their errors — because I know I haven’t. I believe they found themselves called to something that was well-nigh impossible and incredibly dangerous.

I’m also not entirely convinced the story of Ananias and Sapphira is historical. If it isn’t — or even if it is — what’s it doing here?

First, it qualifies the utopian vision. It shows us that these folks were human. And some made mistakes. And just maybe, by Luke’s day — this community of goods — of sharing and equality and mutual love — had grown into something a little bit more pragmatic and Luke was struggling to understand why his church wasn’t like their church even as he tried to witness to the faith he loved.

Second, there’s a parallel story in the book of Joshua. God has commanded the Israelites to go to battle to not keep any booty for themselves but rather to destroy it. This takes away two fundamental reasons for war — personal profit and military glory — both belong to God not to the tribal leaders. This battle was the battle for the Promised Land. One tribal leader holds back some silver. He is in fact a major family leader — in other words he was rich already. When it is found out God orders the death of the offending leader and his cohorts and the destruction of the silver.

How does this fit? Ananias was a landowner and therefore rich. He held back what was to be delivered to the poor. So he also dies. Instead of the community killing him on God’s behalf God acts directly — or alternately — a word from Peter kills with divine power without need for human instrument.

In either way — a new war for the Promised Land is taking place. But giving to the poor has replaced sacrifices on the altar. Indeed, the poor are the Promised Land and the priests of the temple and the apostles are the prophets and the warband leaders.

All of which assumes this connection with this connection with the entry into the Promised Land was in Luke’s mind as he wrote — for it is not explicit. I may be wrong.

7 responses

  1. Hi David. My take on this is different than yours, but you have morescripture knowledge than me, so you’re probably right.My feeling …If this was like Nazi occupied France, and the disciples were in the resistance, how much more so must it have been this way when Jesus was alive. Yet, Jesus didn’t seem to make distictions between Romans and non-Romans, as far as helping them. He wasn’t a zealot. When confronted with a ruch young man who wouldn’t give up his riches, the passage says that Jesus loved him, that Jesus was sad … Jesus didn’t kill him. When Jesus was the most pissed off, cleansing the temple, he killed no one. Jesus never killed anyone, not even to save his own lofe.I think the disciples, bereft without Jesus after his death, forgot how to be followers of Jesus and instead fell back on what they had known before – the God of the OT. I don’t believe their actions reflect Jesus’ ways, of Jesus’ father’s ways, at all.

  2. I agree with you, Crystal. Although Jesus said, “I came not to bring peace, but a sword”, he was not talking about what we think of as war or violence. He was called the Prince of Peace.Peace is his Way: the sword is a spiritual sword aimed at the principalities, the rulers of the darkness of this present world.It was a war against greed, against selfishness and lethargy. Those are the things that need to be killed, not any person!!!

  3. Are we really that sure Luke is presenting an objective account in Acts? Or that the picture of Jesus we get in the gospels is disinterested?

  4. I’m not sure of either one, David, and that critical approach makes it easier than most people for me to say flat out: that’s wrong IMO. And I do often omit the IMO, as a properly opinionated old man.

  5. I think there must be some ax grinding by Luke and in the gospels. I try to find the most consistant version of Jesus in all of them together, which seems to be a non-violent Jesus.

  6. Well… this has always been a question among Friends, and Elias Hicks and some others referred to flaws in the histories presented in the bible, and I think recent scholarship bears him out. A lot of the stories about Jesus come from stories told at the time of the fall of the temple, a time when there must have been great amounts of anger.Frankly, I think the message of Yeshua, also called Jesus, was to feed each other, don’t tolerate division, and seek unity with each other.On war in general, there was an interesting point made by the Dalai Lama, who said, there might have been a time when wars where justified, one can’t go back and judge history, but it is clear that humanity can no longer afford to fight wars, it is just too dangerous.I agree. While we are spending so much on killing each other, the planet is clearly in peril around us from our lack of attention to, for example, global warming.So, I think, we need to take Yeshua’s message of unity, and press for an end to wars with outward weapons, and the violence of prejudice and all other violences which divide us.

  7. Welcome back amongst us Friend Lorcan Otway.

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