Category Archives: Christian Non-Violence

PODCAST: Cantus Firmus At the Movies Ep. 1 – Sin City (w/ Nick Quient)


The first episode in a new series on theological and philosophical analysis of films looks at Sin City (2005)–the film adaptation of Frank Miller’s comic series–and discusses its portrayal of redemptive violence, patriarchy, power, and self-sacrificial love.

Nick Quient was my special guest and can be found at and on Twitter @NickQuient


“Octagon Pt 2” by Polyrhythmics. Licensed under CC BY 3.0

PODCAST: Make Christianity Weak Again – Toward a Biblical Worldview of Political Involvement

I examine biblical data on the origin and purpose of government and contrast it with the traditional right and left wing outlooks as classically formulated by Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine and carried on to this day, arguing that there is some validity in both approaches, but that the biblical worldview differs in some significant respects. I ultimately seize on the idea that Christians should prefer to live in something more akin to a libertarian society.

The histories of the Christian left and right are also briefly discussed.



Erasmus on the “Problem of the Turk”

I recently came across a small treatise by the 16th century Christian humanist Desiderius Erasmus–the same Erasmus who gave us the Textus Receptus (the New Testament in its Greek printed edition) and The Praise of Folly. The treatise is entitled Against War and I found in it a parallel to the attitude of much of western Christiantiy today. Erasmus speaks of those Christians who desired to blot out the Turks to stop the advancement of Islam upon Christian territories and proposes a different solution to the “problem of the Turk” which he found to be more Christlike:

“Nor to me truly it seemeth not so allowable, that we should so oft make war upon the Turks. Doubtless it were not well with the Christian religion, if the only safeguard thereof should depend on such succours. Nor it is not likely, that they should be good Christians, that by these means are brought thereto at the first. For that thing that is got by war, is again in another time lost by war. Will ye bring the Turks to the faith of Christ? Let us not make a show of our gay riches, nor of our great number of soldiers, nor of our great strength. Let them see in us none of these solemn titles, but the assured tokens of Christian men: a pure, innocent life; a fervent desire to do well, yea, to our very enemies; the despising of money, the neglecting of glory, a poor simple life. Let them hear the heavenly doctrine agreeable to such a manner of life. These are the best armours to subdue the Turks to Christ. . .

“Trow ye it is a good Christian man’s deed to slay a Turk? For be the Turks never so wicked, yet they are men, for whose salvation Christ suffered death. And killing Turks we offer to the devil most pleasant sacrifice, and with that one deed we please our enemy, the devil, twice: first because a man is slain, and again, because a Christian man slew him.”

-Desiderius Eramus, Against War

How Shall We Then Vote?


There seem to be two basic attitudes in the church in regard to the question of how Christians should vote. The first is that politics is a complicated issue and that each Christian should lean purely on his or her conscience to reach a conclusion. The other is that there is one particular party that strongly represents the Christian viewpoint and it belongs to whoever is speaking at the time.

I think that we can take a more thoughtful perspective. There are certain biblical principles that tell Christians which kind of state they should prefer and which issues are central to its proper functioning. And in a country like the United States where citizens can participate in guiding the direction of government, these principles might also inform us on how we should vote.

To begin with, we ought to distinguish ancient Israel from those physical nations which have not been chosen by God to issue laws based on theocratic principles. Though the laws of Israel might at times inform us as to how secular states should work, Jesus’ claim in John 18:36 that the Kingdom of God must be distinguished from geopolitical powers ought to give us pause when it comes to direct application of the laws of theocratic Israel to our present nation’s laws. However, the following principles seem to be applied to all nations universally when the Bible speaks about the role of the state:

1. The state should punish evildoers and reward those who do good.

“For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer” (Romans 13:3-4).

This passage raises a lot of questions about the relationship between church and state, following as it does after a passage wherein Paul tells Christians that they should not seek to punish the wicked but allow God to avenge either now (perhaps through the state) or in the age to come. Whether or not we assume that it forbids Christians from participation in the state, we must at least conclude that it tells us that a state which functions most properly will punish not those who do good, but those who are doing evil. Indeed, those who do good should have nothing to fear in a state which is living up to its purpose.

2. The state should allow for freedom on matters of conscience.

“I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:1-4).

Paul here encourages Christians living in a pagan state which did not allow open participation in directing its political aims to pray that those in power would allow for Christians to have the freedom to follow their Christians convictions. He follows this up by noting that Christianity can flourish in a state which allows for religious freedom to either accept or reject its doctrines and practices. Christians should therefore desire religious freedom for both Christians as well as non-Christians.

3. The state should be concerned that peace is pursued and justice is done, particularly for the poor and oppressed.

“For three transgressions of Edom, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment, because he pursued his brother with the sword and cast off all pity, and his anger tore perpetually, and he kept his wrath forever” (Amos 1:11).

In Amos we see the moral standards that God holds pagan nations–those who do not follow Him and perhaps have not even heard of Him–to. We find that God will execute judgment on nations that preferring war and taking advantage of the weak and poor as a means to become prosperous. This tells us that even a secular nation should prefer peace and justice for the oppressed and seek it out whenever possible.

How shall we then vote?

With these principles in mind, what should we expect the biblically minded Christian to do on election day? As many Christians find themselves unable to comfortably support either Trump or Clinton, we find ourselves in a trilemma: do we vote for the lesser of two evils, abstain from voting, or seek out a third party which more closely reflects the core Christians values as to the role of the state? If we choose the lesser of two evils, we have acted in support of evil. If we vote third party or abstain, we may be enabling the candidate which we fear could do the most evil to win the popular vote and perhaps the election itself.

For the Christian, obedience to God and to doing right should be our chief concern. The rest is up to God. However, there is still room for Christian conscience–do you believe that any one candidate is close enough to these core values to earn your support? Alternatively, do you feel that none of them do, or perhaps that the act of a Christian voting in and of itself conflicts with citizenship in the Kingdom of God. Then you must act on whichever conclusion–biblically and politically informed–that you reach.

Michael Sattler: Radical Christian

Though Protestants have in more recent years come around to the principle of separation of church and state, this was not so in the beginning. While petitioning for the freedom to challenge the church and follow scripture as their consciences dictated, they simultaneously believed that it was the duty of the state to inflict punishment upon those they saw as heretics. John Calvin supported the execution of the unitarian Michael Servetus, Ulrich Zwingli saw to it that Balthasar Hubmaier was tortured for his view of believer’s baptism, and Martin Luther will forever be connected to his advocacy of religiously motivated state violence towards Jews and those who took part in the Peasants’ Revolt. In this milieu it was the so-called “radical reformers”–the Anabaptists—alone who, after taking a close look at Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, made this idea central to their Christian belief and practice; and it was Michael Sattler who helped to codify this belief into an Anabaptist confession of faith.

John Howard Yoder gives the basic outline of Michael Sattler’s life up to this pivotal event:
“Michael Sattler was born sometime around 1490 at Staufen in the Breisgau. He entered the Benedictine Monastery of St. Peter’s, northeast of Freiburg, where he became — or was likely to become — prior. In the 1520s he came , by way of Lutheran and Zwinglian ideas, to forsake the monastery and to marry, and by March, 1525, had become a member of the Anabaptist movement which had just begun at Zürich two months before” (Yoder).

This summary accounts for all that is known of Sattler’s life save for the last two years in which he bursts onto the scene of history (though Snyder, one of Sattler’s biographers, views even this basic outline to be rather conjectural at a number of points). It was in these last two years that Sattler became “the most significant of the first-generation leaders of Anabaptism” (Yoder).

This significance is due in large part to his central role in framing the Schleitheim Articles, the aforementioned Anabaptist confession of faith which would cost him his life and underline the importance of the doctrine which he viewed as central to the Christian faith. The articles, which included confessions on Anabaptist principles such as believer’s baptism and oaths, also spoke very clearly on the distinct roles of church and state, noting that Jesus and the Apostles seemed to forbid those tools of violence which magistrates viewed as essential to executing their duties:
“the rule of the government is according to the flesh, that of the Christians according to the Spirit. Their houses and dwelling remain in this world, that of the Christians is in heaven. Their citizenship is in this world, that of the Christians is in heaven. The weapons of their battle and warfare are carnal and only against the flesh, but the weapons of Christians are spiritual, against the fortification of the devil. The worldly are armed with steel and iron, but Christians are armed with the armor of God, with truth, righteousness, peace, faith, salvation, and with the Word of God” (Schleitheim).

Shortly after the confession was unanimously endorsed by a meeting of Swiss Anabaptists, Sattler, along with his wife Margaretha and other Anabaptists, was arrested for his alleged heresy. Snyder summarizes his fate briskly:
“The trial lasted two days, at the end of which Michael Sattler and his codefendants were found guilty. Sattler was sentenced to have his tongue cut off, to have his body torn seven times with glowing tongs, and finally to be burned to death. This verdict was carried out on May 20, 1527” (Snyder).

The Martyrs Mirror, a 17th century collection of the stories of martyrs (particularly Anabaptists), gives a more dramatic account. It begins with Sattler answering the charges against him with boldness. After being accused of taking the side of the enemies of the faith by not being willing to take up arms against the Turks, Sattler responded:
“If the Turks should come, we ought not to resist them; for it is written: Thou shalt not kill. We must not defend ourselves against the Turks and others of our persecutors, but are to beseech God with earnest prayer to repel and resist them. But that I said, that if warring were right, I would rather take the field against the so-called Christians, who persecute, apprehend and kill pious Christians, than against the Turks,was for this reason: The Turk is a true Turk, knows nothing of the Christian faith; and is a Turk after the flesh; but you, who would be Christians, and who make your boast of Christ, persecute the pious witnesses of Christ, and are Turks after the spirit” (Martyr’s Mirror).

As can be imagined, this response did not lead to his immediate acquittal. The town clerk, in attendance at the trial, responded to Sattler, “You desperate villain and archheretic, I tell you if there were no hangman here, I would hang you myself, and think that I had done God service” (Martyr’s Mirror). He seemed to be speaking for the judges as well. The sentence they passed read:
“In the case of the Governor of his Imperial Majesty versus Michael Sattler, judgment is passed, that Michael Sattler shall be delivered to ‘the executioner, who shall lead him to the place of execution, and cut out his tongue; then throw him upon a wagon, and there tear his body twice with red hot tongs; and after he has been brought without the gate, he shall be pinched five times in the same manner” (Martyr’s Mirror).

The men who were with him were later executed by the sword and the women, including his wife, were drowned. His chief crime was believing that Christ’s Kingdom was not of this earth, and that because it is not His disciples do not fight. In an age where Christians are exceedingly obsessed with gaining and maintaining power to protect our social interests, and where various religious radicals use violence to terrorize civilians and governments, Sattler’s approach stands out. It seeks to conquer not by violence or threats of violence, but by refusing to compromise on the non-violent, non-retaliatory faith that Christ once for all delivered unto the saints.



Martyr’s Mirror. Retrieved June 11, 2016, from

Schleitheim Confession. Retrieved June 12, 2016, from

Snyder, C. A. (1984). The life and thought of Michael Sattler. Kindle edition.

Yoder, J. H., & Sattler, M. (1973). The legacy of Michael Sattler. Kindle edition.

The Gospel According to Batman V Superman

Fresh from the theater after having seen Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice, I have been reflecting upon one particularly fascinating theme within it. In a far more thoughtful and sophisticated manner than the vast majority of overtly “Christian” movies, this film promotes a theology–even a gospel.

Warning: some spoilers ahead.

From the outset, I want to point out that this isn’t a theologian finding theology where it wasn’t intended. Indeed, Lex Luthor (of all people) reiterates explicitly and repeatedly that what transpires in this film points to something greater–the problem of evil and man’s relationship to God.

Luthor provides the viewpoint of the unrepentant cynic. Superman is odious because he resembles God and God cannot be trusted. If God couldn’t prevent the suffering of a young, abused Lex, better for God to die (or at least his proxy). Luthor therefore attempts to orchestrate deicide against Superman, first by the hands of man (Batman) and then by the hands of the devil (Doomsday).

The answer to Lex’s supposedly unsolvable problem of evil comes out of left field. How does a seemingly omnipotent and omnibenevolent God respond to evil, particularly when it results in free human beings who want to kill him despite His desire to save them? He identifies with their humanity and gives his life in order to defeat him who has the power of death (in this case, Doomsday). In doing so, he inspires conversion in men (represented here by Batman) who for the first time see God as loving–and pure love means being willing to suffer for the good of the beloved even though the lover doesn’t have to.

If God is willing to suffer with us, maybe our suffering isn’t as meaningless as we think it is. This seems to be the catharsis of Bruce Wayne. When Wayne sees Superman as powerful and alien, Superman (like God) seems quite dangerous. But when Wayne realizes that Superman has taken on humanity and even feels a love for his human mother as great as Wayne did, this changes him. Suddenly Wayne is overwhelmed with compassion–with empathy even–and helps Superman to rescue his mother from the clutches of Luthor. One can hear echoes of Jesus’ words to John on the cross to take care of Mary: “Behold, your mother!” (John 19:27).

This theology addresses what bothered so many fanboys about this movie–Batman’s willingness to kill. In this reading, it makes sense for Batman to kill for most of the movie–life is ultimately meaningless to him, so he creates his own purpose. It is Superman’s love and sacrifice that changes Batman, not a cold, deontological ethic grounded in passionless conviction. Despite what the enlightenment deists affirmed, it is not philosophy which makes us good but love. After seeing Superman’s self-identification and self-sacrifice to save humanity from death, Batman is determined to be a better man. This is the reason why he decides not to brand Luthor in prison, a brand which we are told sets inmates apart for death by the hands of fellow prisoners.

Though it has to be teased out, there is a rich theology in this film which is frankly unparalleled by what the Christian film industry is producing. It presents a gospel which is somehow more moving and more compelling despite not having to be spelled out.

Christian Involvement in Politics Is Not a Zero-Sum Game

When Christianity became the official state religion of the Roman Empire in 380 (after being granted the status of an approved religion by Emperor Constantine in 313 A.D), believers found themselves responding in one of two ways. Some basked in their new found power and luxury, holding it over the now disenfranchised class of pagans. We’ll call them the Constantinians. Others, the monastics, sought to check out of this new institutionally supported Christianity which they saw as sensual and double-minded. These extremes ignored a third option–to simply participate in society as one group among many and allow evangelization to happen through freely established relationships instead of coercion which mitigates against sincerity on the part of the coerced. This model was at least implicitly affirmed by the New Testament writers who demanded no revolution but only asked for toleration and freedom to worship and evangelize.

This false dilemma was recapitulated at the time of the Protestant Reformation, during which time the Roman Catholics and Magisterial Protestants sought to crush religious dissent via the power of the state while the Anabaptists went into hiding and designated Christian participation within the larger society, and particularly in politics, as sinful.

Fast forward to the summer of 2015 in the United States. The U.S. Supreme Court has decided that same sex marriage is a civil right. Prior to (and precipitating) this ruling, the majority of confessing evangelicals and Roman Catholics had demanded that their government maintain in the law a Christian value judgment on marriage which they were not willing to replace with a more pluralistic non-religious entitlement such as civil unions. After the ruling, with one new view of marriage backed by the force of the state, Christians are increasingly anxious that this new entitlement will lead to government discrimination against Christians.

For these Constantinian Christians, politics is a zero-sum game. If a non-Christian group gains something, this means Christians have lost something. The debate over gay marriage was set up intentionally to be this kind of arrangement, but the risk of becoming a displaced special class was considered worth it if it meant that their side might prevail.

That the debate over gay marriage was nothing more than a power play can be demonstrated by comparing how conservative Christians compare this ruling with other, more egregious ones. For instance, the Dred Scott Decision which came down from the U.S. Supreme Court in 1857, declaring that slaves did not have the same rights as free persons and thus undermining the Christian belief in human equality before God, is not generally considered to be a loss for Christianity because Christians as a group lost no political power. But as power has now been wrested from the hands of Constantinian Christianity, American Christians are saying, as one evangelical writer did, “I am horribly grieved that a lifestyle that is so contrary to Christian morality is being celebrated in a country that once honored Christian values.”

It is, of course, not Christian values which America has honored, but Christian hegemony, even if it comes at the risk of sacrificing Christian values. As such, American Christians generally believe that there are two options open to them in the wake of the recent Supreme Court decision–fight for the return of their political power or remove themselves from society.

May I humbly suggest that we still have a third option?

Fighting Injustice, Condemning Violence: Jesus’ Gospel of Social Justice and Restoration

(the previous title for this post was
“What Does Easter Sunday Have To Do With Social Liberation?”)

And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. And as was his custom, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and he stood up to read. And the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written,

‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’

And he rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. And he began to say to them, ‘Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing’”

– Luke 4:16-21, ESV

Though the idea of a “social gospel” has been (often rightly) condemned by conservative Christians, there are elements in such a view which are actually central to the biblical message. Note that in the passage above, Jesus’ first announcement of His mission is one of social liberation. Though one could arguably read between the lines to find it, there is no discussion of  traditional views of atonement (how it is that Jesus saves us) like Penal Substitution or even of the conquering of death in this announcement. The “year of the Lord’s favor” that Jesus speaks of is the Mosaic year of Jubilee, wherein the debts of those who had fallen into hard times would simply be wiped away and those who had sold themselves into slavery to pay for their debts would likewise all be freed. In other words, Jesus’ first explanation of His earthly ministry is connected to upending oppressive social systems.

Jesus liberating the oppressed also flows from the idea of recapitulation (a view of atonement propounded by the church father Irenaeus, wherein Jesus reverses what Adam did by initiating a new humanity in Himself). Oppression is a symptom of the sin which mankind is responsible for, and Jesus came to undo this oppression. Much to our surprise, He did so by becoming a helpless human baby born of a Jewish peasant in a land overrun by pagan conquerors; He then chose to die at their hand in order to free others. As noted at the end of the previous chapter, Paul taught in Philippians chapter 2 that the incarnation by itself was an act of supreme humility when undertaken by an omnipotent deity. God’s identification with humanity, apart from any explicit teaching, underlines His concern for the weak and lowly. That He chose to become incarnated into an oppressed class highlights it even more so. God identified Himself with the humble and oppressed, a concept pregnant with theological meaning.

This latent meaning is revealed, for instance, in Matthew 25, where Jesus claims that we will be judged based upon how we treated those who were less fortunate. Where there are those who are hungry, thirsty, naked, sick, imprisoned, or who are foreigners in a strange land, Jesus is present; so much so that to turn these away is to turn Jesus away. There is therefore grievous sin where there is wealth and power without concern for those without, and this sin is under the judgment of God. Before Jesus was even born, His mother spoke of the theological impact of her pregnancy in this way:
“He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty” (Luke 1:51-53, ESV).

That the cross had a socially liberative meaning is shown in how John the Revelator looked at history through its lens. In Revelation 13:4, a beast which is a composite of the beasts in Daniel 7 (which all represented various empires) oppresses the people of God and is said to be empowered by Satan, who was/will be defeated by the blood which was shed by Jesus (Revelation 12:11).

The ultimate fate of the beast and of the oppressive politico-military power he uses and represents is described in Revelation 19:
“And I saw the beast and the kings of the earth with their armies gathered to make war against him who was sitting on the horse [Jesus] and against his army. And the beast was captured… and thrown alive into the lake of fire that burns with sulfur. And the rest were slain by the sword that came from the mouth of him who was sitting on the horse, and all the birds were gorged with their flesh” (Revelation 19:19-21, ESV).

Though Revelation looks forward to Jesus dealing with the powers of evil most finally in destructive judgment, the amazing message of the New Testament is that on this side of judgment day, these powers have already been defeated, and that by the sacrificial—not violent—work of Christ. When Jesus rose from the dead after being murdered by the wicked power structures of his time and place, the inevitable conclusion was that man’s power structures, even with their ability to arrest and kill at will, had lost. Unrighteous authority has to use violence to bolster its power, but this violence, says the resurrection of Jesus, has failed. The power of death, the greatest power that any oppressor can use against its victims, has been taken away from Satan and from satanic authority structures. They have lost, regardless of whether or not they’re willing to acknowledge that fact.

Of course, the idea of God liberating the oppressed and conquering the oppressor is not one found only at the end of the Bible, but is indeed quite near the beginning. In Exodus 2:23, we read that the Hebrews, while slaves in Egypt, cried out in their oppression and God heard it. Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggeman pointed out that the text does not say that the cry was addressed to God, but God was predisposed to hear it nonetheless:
“The slaves did not raise up a cry to God. But the cry had its own intentionality. The cry knew, all on its own, that it was precisely addressed to ‘God…’ The cry of the victim is central to the faith and practice of Israel… It is the oppressed human’s cry, in other words, that will unleash the chain of events that will ultimately result in your being punished… If you victimize someone, then that someone will cry out and [God] will have to act against you.”i

The Passover observance, which prefigures Christ, is a celebration of God’s deliverance of His people from slavery, though blood atonement to redeem their lives is also most certainly prominent. If we are to take this parallel at face value, Jesus as the fulfillment of Passover at least partially represents liberation of His people from social oppression. This imagery of the exodus of God’s people because of His redeeming acts is connected to Christ in the New Testament in various places, and Scot McKnight highlights one important example:
“When Jesus is transfigured, Luke tells us that Moses and Elijah speak of Jesus’ ‘departure,’ which translates the Greek word exodus (Luke 9:31). The ‘exodus’ death of Jesus leads his followers to freedom, and that freedom is what the kingdom is all about in Luke.”ii

It is also worth noting that concern for the widow, the orphan, and the foreigner are common throughout the Old Testament, so much so that it appears to be a primary preoccupation of God’s. Jeremiah 22:16 even goes so far as to connect supporting the cause of the poor and needy with knowing God. As Jurgen Moltmann wrote, “There must be no theology of liberation without the glorification of God and no glorification of God without the liberation of the oppressed.”iii

The prophet Daniel likewise looked forward to a day when the edifice of man’s system of oppressive power would come toppling down since it was built upon a shaky foundation—namely that which is in opposition to God’s rule. Daniel interpreted a vision which came to Babylon’s king wherein man’s kingdoms were represented as a great statue with many layers. This statue, which was described as “mighty” and “frightening” would suddenly meet a surprising fate:
“A stone was cut out by no human hand, and it struck the image on its feet of iron and clay, and broke them in pieces. Then the iron, the clay, the bronze, the silver, and the gold, all together were broken in pieces, and became like the chaff of the summer threshing floors; and the wind carried them away, so that not a trace of them could be found. But the stone that struck the image became a great mountain and filled the whole earth” (Daniel 2:34-35, ESV).

The stone was Christ, and the mountain is the Kingdom of God which He preached:
“And in the days of those kings the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that shall never be destroyed, nor shall the kingdom be left to another people. It shall break in pieces all these kingdoms and bring them to an end, and it shall stand forever” (Daniel 2:44, ESV).

Jesus does nothing to undermine this Old Testament concern for the poor and oppressed, let alone the idea that God’s kingdom would judge those who had used their power corruptly. In fact, He sometimes used language which suggested what Gustavo Gutierrez, a Peruvian theologian who is generally viewed as the father of Liberation Theology, would call a strong “preferential option for the poor,” so that the wealthy often seem to be painted by Jesus as corrupt oppressors. Jesus’ identification with the poor is probably connected with the fact that they are some of the chief victims of a sinful world which He has come to set to rights:
“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you shall be satisfied… But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you shall be hungry” (Luke 6:20-25, ESV).

Social justice is such a strong biblical emphasis that the fourth century church father Basil of Caesarea went so far as to argue that if one hasn’t given up one’s excess to those in need, this one’s salvation is questionable. To be a Christian means to be on the frontlines of combating social inequality:
“I know many who fast, pray, sigh, and demonstrate every manner of piety, so long as it costs them nothing, yet would not part with a penny to help those in distress. Of what profit to them is the remainder of their virtue? The Kingdom of Heaven does not receive such people, for ‘it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the Kingdom of God.’”iv

The vanguard of preaching the socially liberative dimensions of the good news are Liberation Theologians. Liberation Theology has much in common with a Christus Victor view of the atonement, except that instead of conquering death, the focus is on Jesus’ conquering of oppression by His identification with the poor and His judgment upon oppressive systems, and it is our job as Christ’s representatives to enact this liberation. Liberation Theologians Leonardo and Clodovis Boff explain the underlying idea for how the gospel message relates to the plight of the poor:
“Jesus Christ, second person of the Blessed Trinity, incarnated in our misery, revealed the divine plan that is to be realized through the course of history and to constitute the definitive future in eternity; the kingdom of God. The kingdom is not just in the future, for it is ‘in our midst’ (Luke 17:21); it is not a kingdom ‘of this world’ (John 18:36), but it nevertheless begins to come about in this world. The kingdom or reign of God means the full and total liberation of all creation, in the end, purified of all that oppresses it, transfigured by the full presence of God.”v

The Boffs rightly emphasize a “now and not yet” component of atonement that extends to social transformation. God has given us the seeds of social transformation, but the fullness of its growth comes about when God fully restores creation. Gutierrez gives this liberative definition of salvation, which emphasizes the “now” over the “not yet,” while holding them both in tension:
“Salvation—the communion of men with God and the communion of men among themselves—is something which embraces all human reality, transforms it, and leads it to its fullness in Christ: ‘Thus the center of God’s salvific design is Jesus Christ, who by his death and resurrection transforms the universe and makes it possible for man to reach fulfillment as a human being. This fulfillment embraces every aspect of humanity: body and spirit, individual and society, person and cosmos, time and eternity. Christ, the image of the Father and the perfect God-Man, takes on all the dimensions of existence…’ The absolute value of salvation—far from devaluing this world—gives it its authentic meaning and its own autonomy, because salvation is already latently there. To express the idea in terms of Biblical theology: the prophetic perspective (in which the Kingdom takes on the present life, transforming it) is vindicated before the sapiential outlook (which stresses the life beyond).” vi

By no means is Gutierrez original in his take on the present consequences of the Kingdom of God being inaugurated by Christ. The second century church apologist Justin Martyr pointed to Isaiah’s promise of a future kingdom where swords would be beat into plowshares and war would disappear as being, in at least one sense, fulfilled by Christians before the eschaton:
“And that it did so come to pass, we can convince you. For from Jerusalem there went out into the world, men, twelve in number, and these illiterate, of no ability in speaking: but by the power of God they proclaimed to every race of men that they were sent by Christ to teach to all the word of God; and we who formerly used to murder one another do not only now refrain from making war upon our enemies, but also, that we may not lie nor deceive our examiners, willingly die confessing Christ.”vii

Jesus has redeemed our social relationships by breaking down the racial, social, and gender barriers between us (see Colossians 3:11 and Galatians 3:28) and by demonstrating that we have full equality both in that we are all deserving of death and that despite this Christ considers us to be his brothers. Since this is the case, we ought to seek for peace and the liberation of the lowly brother or sister from the shackles of institutionalized violence. If Jesus came to restore the created order, then our relationships with each other ought to be a part of what was/is/will-be redeemed by Him. N.T. Wright, noting the places where Jesus “saving” someone is applied to physical healing or rescue (for instance, Matthew 9:22), points out that, “this juxtaposition makes some Christians nervous (surely, they think, salvation ought to be a spiritual matter!), but it doesn’t seem to have troubled the early church at all.”viii They clearly had a broader idea of salvation that didn’t limit it to merely “spiritual” matters. Our evangelical church today is unfortunately far too Gnostic. In contrast, Martin Luther King, Jr. charged the church with the responsibility to make a difference in the oppression in the world around them:
“There was a time when the Church was very powerful. It was during that period when the early Christians rejoiced when they were deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the Church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Wherever the early Christians entered a town the power structure got disturbed and immediately sought to convict them for being ‘disturbers of the peace’ and ‘outside agitators.’ But they went on with the conviction that they were a ‘colony of heaven’ and had to obey God rather than man. They were small in number but big in commitment. They were too God-intoxicated to be ‘astronomically intimidated.’ They brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contest. Things are different now. The contemporary Church is so often a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. It is so often the archsupporter of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the Church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the Church’s silent and often vocal sanction of things as they are.”ix

King pointed out that suffering Christians are powerful Christians because they follow in the path of Christ. Suffering should not be neurotically sought out, but where it cannot be avoided, the one who suffers with Christ has not been conquered because the suffering Christ has not been conquered. As Moltmann wrote, “In their hearts all true men worship one God – the naked, wounded, bloody, but unconquered and unconquerable Christ.”x It is the oppressor who has been conquered since that which is joined to Christ cannot be vanquished, while that which is not is fit only to be thrown into the fire. As the prophet Malachi, speaking for God, put it:
“I will be a swift witness against… those who oppress the hired worker in his wages, the widow and the fatherless, against those who thrust aside the sojourner, and do not fear me, says the Lord of hosts.” (Malachi 3:5, ESV).

The tendency for Christianity’s scriptures to challenge our system of violencexi coalesced into a uniquely modern view of the atonement referred to as the scapegoat view, proposed by Re Girard, wherein society’s tendency to place blame on a scapegoat to whom they do violence is confronted when it results in murdering God. As pastor and author Brian Zahnd wrote:
“The cross is shock therapy for a world addicted to solving its problems through violence. The cross shocks us into the devastating realization that our system of violence murdered God! The things hidden from the foundation of the world have now been revealed. The cross shames our ancient foundation of violence. The cross strips naked the principalities and powers. The cross tears down the façade of glory that we use to hide the bodies of slain victims.”xii

While there is much truth in this, the biblical witness to the fact that God used the cross as a sacrificial atonement and as a means to conquer death, sin, and the devil must be brought in to balance such a view. Man’s sinful systems did murder God, but the sovereign God used our sin to achieve our salvation. Christ has already, in a sense, conquered the oppressor (whether human oppressors, death, or the devil), though this victory will not be fully realized until His second coming. As Paul told the Corinthian church:
“For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death” (1 Cor 15:21-26, ESV).

Though Liberation Theology has some indispensable insights into the atonement and Jesus’ mission on earth, it also has a tendency for some dangerous imbalances. For instance, when the oppressed are identified with the poor and seen as incorruptible, and those with wealth and power are thought of as necessarily evil, the gospel fails to be relevant to all people as sinners in need of salvation. The gospel challenges us all in unique ways, but it still challenges all of us. The poor are not immune from sin, nor are the rich always necessarily greater sinners.xiii This false dichotomy probably emerges out of Marxism, which is unfortunately one of Liberation Theology’s major underlying extrabiblical influences.

Another danger of Liberation Theology is that it can have a relativizing effect on morality—the view of the oppressed can begin to be seen as the only moral viewpoint and they are therefore free to determine the proper moral course of action in enacting their earthly liberation. This, of course, in turn creates an oppressed class which is poised to become an oppressing class that is unwilling to listen to God’s challenge to their own sin. In other words, Liberation Theology, when taken by itself, has the capability of instilling the oppressor mentality into the oppressed.

When James Cone, father of Black Liberation Theology, comments that, “American theology is racist; it identifies theology as dispassionate analysis of ‘the tradition,’ unrelated to the sufferings of the oppressed,”xiv and notes that the cross of Christ was nothing less than a lynching tree,xv he is surely speaking truth to our tendency for hypocrisy, particularly when we have power or privilege to protect. But when he says, “we have reached our limit of tolerance, and if it means death with dignity or life with humiliation, we will choose the former. And if that is the choice, we will take some honkies with us,” one is immediately alerted to the fact that there is something in the Christian tradition which he disparages that is worth holding onto. In fact, it is our failure to apprehend the Christian tradition which leads to our siding with satanic power structures. If the idea that God created only one human species which now finds itself in desperate need of salvation is orthodoxy, then surely racism and classism are heresy. On the other hand, if Christ is our example for achieving our own liberation, then we must take note of the non-violent, non-retaliatory means by which He effected it.

In 1965 at the Cambridge Union Society of Cambridge University, James Baldwin argued the affirmative against William F. Buckley on the topic “Is the American Dream at the expense of the American Negro?” Baldwin demonstrated his case by highlighting how slavery helped to build the economic prosperity of the United States but that black Americans had still not benefited as white Americans had from their own labor. In contrast to the violent separatist rhetoric which was coming from some black Americans at the time (and understandably so from a human perspective), Baldwin did not argue for the intrinsic moral inferiority of the white oppressor, but highlighted their shared humanity:
“One of the things the white world does not know, but I think I know, is that black people are just like everybody else. We are also mercenaries, dictators, murders, liars. We are human, too.”xvi

With surprising empathy, he also mustered the insight to feel pity for the oppressor of his black brothers and sisters:
“What has happened to the white Southerner is in some ways much worse than what has happened to the Negroes there… Something awful must have happened to a human being [in this case, Sheriff Jim Clark of Selma, Alabama] to be able to put a cattle prod against a woman’s breasts. What happens to the woman is ghastly. What happens to the man who does it is in some ways much, much worse.”xvii

Though he could have argued from the good that we have in common to demonstrate that all humans are fellows, he chose, interestingly, to highlight the wicked tendencies which are in all of us. Had the roles been reversed, it could have easily been a black sheriff abusing a white woman. Depravity knows nothing of skin color– it affects us all equally.

Though it is out of the scope to address issues of Christian non-violence and how it doesn’t require acquiescence to evil (Walter Wink’s Nonviolence: A Third Way and Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail are excellent, concise, popular level introductions to this philosophy), it is worth noting that Jesus destroyed the powers of evil not by “taking some honkies [in this case Roman soldiers and those Jews who held up their power] with Him.” He destroyed it by loving His enemies while still being radical in His truth-telling. This does not mean being obedient to sinful and dehumanizing laws or stuffing your dignity in your pocket, but it does mean that you never forget that you share a common humanity, spots and all, with an oppressor. As Baldwin noted elsewhere, “if the word integration means anything, this is what it means: that we, with love, shall force our brothers to see themselves as they are, to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it.”xviii

And if our fallen nature makes us comrades, how much more our being joined to Christ as the fountainhead of our new humanity? As Paul argued in Ephesians 2:13-15, the wall of hostility between races has been broken down by the blood of Christ. We are not all different types of man, but one new man in Christ Jesus. Likewise Colossians 3:11 claims that Christ has made meaningless the categories which we invent to assist in our despising one another:
“Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all” (ESV). When Liberation Theologians are concerned with tearing down these walls to make us one man, they are living out the fruit of the gospel. Insofar as they play the game of Marxist dialectical struggle, imposing a dichotomy that must be erased through violent struggle, their solutions are not Christian solutions.

What we sometimes see in Liberation Theology is an unbalanced emphasis on Christ the Victor, or Christ the Conqueror. It is ironically the same view of Christ which has undergirded the dangerous theocracies of the past. Placing it in the hands of the oppressed does not somehow baptize it as Christian. Martin Luther King, Jr., in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, urges us to achieve moral ends by only using moral means. Insofar as Liberation Theologians commend to us the tools of the oppressor (and by no means do all Liberation Theologians do this), there has been no liberation in the Christian sense. However, its insights are both timeless and timely. If Christ’s incarnation represents an identification with the lowly, His resurrection and exaltation are good news for the same, and those who are in power have an obligation to identify with them as well, lest they crucify Christ afresh with their apathy.


i. Walter Brueggeman, Old Testament Theology: An Introduction, Kindle Edition.

ii. Scot McKnight, A Community Called Atonement, Kindle Edition.

iii. Jurgen Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom, Kindle Edition.

iv. St Basil the Great, On Social Justice (Popular Patristics Series Book 38), Kindle Edition.

v. Leonardo and Clodovis Boff, Introducing Liberation Theology, p. 52.

vi. Gustavo Gutierrez, A Theology of Liberation, Orbis Books, 1973, p. 151-2 . Note that this definition and explanation of salvation carries some of the essential qualities of Christian salvation (often those qualities which conservative theologians underemphasize), but it doesn’t emphasize the importance of sin, repentance, or Jesus’ death for sins. Because Liberation Theology’s primary concern is present social liberation, the means by which we are reconciled to God takes a back seat.

vii. Justin Martyr, First Apology, Ch. 39. Cited from

viii. N.T. Wright, Surprised By Hope, Kindle Edition.

ix. Martin Luther King, Jr., Letter from a Birmingham Jail.

x. Jurgen Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom, Kindle Edition.

xi. See, for instance, my own discussion of the Old Testament prophet Habakkuk at


xiii. When God judged Israel and Judah, He did not spare the poor, as they were often just as actively engaged in wickedness and injustice as their wealthy counterparts (Jeremiah 16:6, 11-12).

xiv. James Cone, A Black Theology of Liberation, Kindle Edition.

xv. Note his recent book title, The Cross and the Lynching Tree.

xvi. From a transcript in The New York Times’ March 7, 1965 article “The American Dream and the American Negro.”

xvii. ibid.

xviii. James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time, Kindle Edition.

Coercion in Faith – Infant Baptism, Theocracy, and Divine Determinism

From the time that Christianity became the official state religion of Rome (under Theodosius I in 391) until the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century, the church was almost universally united in its acceptance that coercion must be connected with faith. One group in particular resisted this trend– the Anabaptists. Their view of freedom in faith separated them from the majority of Protestants (the Magisterial Reformation) as well as Roman Catholics and caused them to be viewed with suspicion by both groups.

An event took place in January 21, 1525 that we would think of as commonplace today, but it was perhaps the most revolutionary event during the Protestant Reformation. This was when two followers of the Magisterial Reformer Ulrich Zwingli chose to baptize one another. Roger Olson explains:
While that may not seem a particularly courageous thing to do now, at the time it was. Refusing infants baptism and rebaptizing persons was illegal because it was considered both heretical and seditious. These Brethren, as they called themselves, had all experienced life-changing conversions and after careful study of the New Testament had come to believe that infant baptism is not true baptism because it precedes repentance and faith. Zwingli had refused their efforts to abolish it and the Zurich city council had threatened them with punishment if they acted on their beliefs” (Olson, The Story of Christian Theology, Kindle Edition).

If baptism seemingly came after repentance in the New Testament, why were the actions of these Anabaptists (a compound word meaning “to baptize again”) considered so dangerous to the church and to the state? Put simply, this doctrine undermined the broader church’s insistence upon coercion in faith.

Divine Coercion

In Roman Catholic thinking, infant baptism achieved two important goals:
1. It removed the stain of original sin, thus saving, without their will or even awareness, the souls of the infants who were baptized.
2. It made the church into the cement which held society together.

Both of these goals imply that a true conversion of the person is not the central concern when administering the sacrament of baptism. Indeed, the individual was believed to be saved by the actions of others (God and the Church) on his behalf apart from his own will or actions. Later, when this individual was capable of making a choice to reject or affirm the grace given at baptism, it was the coercive force of society, backed by its laws and threat of punishment, that was expected to keep him focused upon following Christ.

In defense of the Roman Catholic position here, it at the very least allowed that the individual could, after the age of accountability, make a grace-enabled choice to continue with Christ, or else to fall away. However, the major view of the Magisterial Reformers was that God not only enabled sinners to come to Him, but that this enabling coerced the sinner into salvation and was withheld from those whom God determined not to save. The Magisterial Reformers, in contrast to the so-called Radical Reformers (the Anabaptists) such as Balthasar Hubmaier, still maintained the need for infant baptism:
“Hubmaier likened infant baptism to an inn hanging out a sign announcing its fine wine before the growing season. It is presumptuous. Of course, Luther and Zwingli both defended infant baptism on the ground that faith is a gift of God and not a contingent, free decision. Their monergistic views of salvation form at least part of their foundations for the practice” (Olson, The Story of Christian Theology, Kindle Edition).

An important concession to make here is that since these Reformers believed that only those whom God chose would be saved, not everyone baptized would necessarily be saved, since not all who were baptized were necessarily God’s elect. However, the Magisterial Reformer Martin Luther and his followers, oddly, taught that infants could respond in faith to God’s effectual calling, so that their faith at the time of baptism saved them (see here). John Calvin, in his Institutes, also argued against the Anabaptist position, claiming that withholding baptism for infants was unchristian:
“Paul comprehends the whole Church when he says that it was cleansed by the washing of water. In like manner, from his expression in another place, that by baptism we are ingrafted into the body of Christ (1 Cor. 7:13), we infer, that infants, whom he enumerates among his members, are to be baptised, in order that they may not be dissevered from his body” (Institutes of the Christian Religion, 4, 16, 22).

For both Roman Catholics and the Magisterial Reformers, teaching against infant baptism was dangerous as it was believed to undermine God’s sovereignty and (for the Roman Catholics especially) called into question the state of the unbaptized infant. In stark contrast, the Anabaptists taught that baptism followed repentance and thus they baptized converted adults at the risk of their own lives.

State Coercion

This last point leads us into the second type of coercion that the Roman Catholic Church and Magisterial Reformers supported– that of the state.

The position of the Anabaptists was well explicated by Balthasar Hubmaier:
“Hubmaier wrote that ‘the inquisitors are the greatest heretics of all, because counter to the teaching and example of Jesus they condemn heretics to fire. . . . For Christ did not come to slaughter, kill, burn, but so that those who live should live yet more abundantly.’ He urged especially religious authorities to use only the weapon of God’s Word against those they perceive as heretics and to hope and pray for their repentance rather than kill them” (Olson, The Story of Christian Theology, Kindle Edition).

Those who sought to connect church and state (the Roman Catholics and Magisterial Reformers) held a very different view. The great Catholic thinker Thomas Aquinas in his Summa Theologica gave perhaps the most eloquent defense for violence against heretics that could be rationalized:
“I reply that, with regard to heretics, two considerations are to be kept in mind: (1) on their side, (2) on the side of the Church. (1) There is the sin, whereby they deserve not only to be separated from the Church by excommunication, but also to be shut off from the world by death. For it is a much more serious matter to corrupt faith, through which comes the soul’s life, than to forge money, through which temporal life is supported… If he be found still stubborn, the Church gives up hope of his conversion and takes thought for the safety of others, by separating him from the Church by sentence of excommunication; and, further, leaves him to the secular court, to be exterminated from the world by death” (quoted from Bettenson & Maunder, Documents of the Christian Church, p.141)

Likewise, the Protestant reformer Zwingli consented to the capital punishment of those he viewed as heretics (despite the fact that he was afforded the luxury to speak against the Roman Catholic Church), as did John Calvin (most famously in the execution of Michael Servetus). Though Luther acknowledged that a heretic should not be molested for holding his views in secret, he believed that the heretic who shared his views deserved the punishment of the magistrate. Though he felt that using the sword against heretics was cruel, he felt that “it is crueler that they condemn the ministry of the Word and have no well-grounded doctrine and suppress the true and in this way seek to subvert the civil order” (quoted from Bainton, Here I Stand, p. 376).

Even apart from the question of whether heretics should receive the death penalty, the status quo view of the church at the time was that the state’s job was to uphold the church and use the force that the church could not, though was necessary to ensure a Christian state. In Reformation circles, this has often been referred to as theonomy. The Anabaptists stood out from their culture and saw such an arrangement as leading to an insincere, merely cultural Christianity that Jesus would spit out of His mouth.

Freedom in Christ

In this article, I have set up a contrast between freedom and coercion. Though they were imperfect, the Orthodox Anabaptist Christians give a fair representation of what free Christianity looks like, and they managed to apply this concern for free individual conversion across the board:
1. Though grace is necessary for repentance and conversion, God does not force anyone to convert. He gives the individual the freedom to accept or reject Him, which comes from a grace-enabled will.
2.  As a result, baptism, a sacrament that represents being reborn into Christ, should only be given after the individual actually is reborn into Christ, which happens during conversion.
3. Since true faith can only come from someone who freely chooses to trust in God, there can be no coercion in faith on the part of the state. This also requires a relationship between church and state that is not so entangled as to compromise freedom of faith or freedom of expression (let alone preaching). Heresy must be silenced by a thoughtful expression of  true Christian faith and good conduct, not by threats of violence.

As one can see, this arrangement is consistent. Underlying all of these concerns is the belief that God wants true converts who choose Him freely. To remove these values is to posit a faith which is based on coercion and is thus no true faith. To  hold to some of these values but not others is to hold to inconsistency. The Christian who believes that God desires true repentance while demanding that the state use force to make society look ostensibly Christian, for instance, is holding to incoherence.

“Yes, to this day whenever Moses is read a veil lies over their hearts. But when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (2 Corinthians 3:15-17, ESV).