When the pandemic broke out, the Star Tribune reported a record number of guns sold on Good Friday — we can guess a good number by Christians. I know friends and relatives who have purchased guns to protect themselves and family.
Good Friday is the day when the church remembers when Jesus refused the “protection” of violence. He scolded Peter, “No more of this!” — “Put away your sword. Those who take the sword perish by the Sword.” Early Church fathers said, “When Jesus disarmed Peter he disarmed all Christians.”
Missing in the conversation and soul searching today over police shootings and historical lynchings of Black Americans is the urgent question: Are both George Floyd and Officer Derek Chauvin victims of religious beliefs that have little to do with what Jesus lived and taught regarding justified killing and violence?
Some years ago, a colleague and I attended a lecture by Lt. Col. David Grossman, author of the book “On Killing.” Both of us work on veterans’ issues, including healing moral injuries and traumatic memories. There was so much local interest by police, sheriffs, military and first responders for the topic and the speaker that it had to be moved to a larger venue.
The concept of ‘bulletproof minds’
Grossman noted that four policemen had been killed in the line of duty the previous year. That same year more than 400 police had committed suicide. Grossman felt the problem behind the suicides was the officers hadn’t developed “bulletproof minds” — facing the fact that they were going to have to kill. “There’s an evil world and people out there; people out there are dangerous and you have to be ready to kill,” he said.
Grossman’s book mentions that men and women have a natural aversion to killing fellow humans. This became evident during World War II, when psychologists found that the vast majority of men returning from face-to-face combat admitted that they just couldn’t kill. They weren’t cowards — they risked their lives to rescue wounded buddies. But 80-85% fired to miss — if they fired at all.
Lt. Col. Grossman and I both identify as Christian and during my two years of combat infantry training for the Korean and Vietnam conflicts, I experienced earlier versions of “killology” training aimed at overriding our natural resistance to killing.
The New Testament indicates an aversion to kill is God given. Grossman was bothered by the fact that while new strategies have succeeded in getting more men to kill — in Vietnam, 90-95% of the troops fired at the enemy — over five times as many have commuted suicide than have been killed in combat since then. Currently at least 20 veterans per day commit suicide and more languish in psych wards, suffering from PTSD, moral injury and other ills. (I have no question that had I implemented in actual combat what I had been taught, I would be a psychiatric basket case and wouldn’t be writing this article.)
Similar to military training
Over the past decade Grossman’s remedy — developing “bulletproof/warrior minds” — has invaded police departments and influenced police officers’ attitudes. Officers Jeronimo Yanez, who shot Philando Castile, and Chauvin reported taking similar training to the training I had in the infantry.
If Jesus in the Garden had responded in the way Yanez, Chauvin and I had been trained to respond, there would be no Christianity. If Jesus had instructed his disciples to go “get the other ear” he would have been another warrior lost in history. But he responded with mercy and love, healing the sliced ear of the high priest’s servant — the very person who eventually took him to his death — forgiving the soldiers and religious authorities who were executing him because they “didn’t know what they were doing.” Responding the way he did revealed a different reality behind what we think is real.
Those authorities thought they were justified in killing Jesus — that they were following God’s will. But in dying the way Jesus did, he revealed a God who loves all humanity, including those executing him — one who identifies with the victims throughout history, not the victimizers.
All of us can agree that Jesus did not advocate random chaotic violence. So that leaves the Christian Church with the question: Did Jesus live and teach justified violence or did Jesus live and teach nonviolence? If he advocated justified violence, when and where did Jesus say violence and killing are OK?
Gandhi said, “The only people who don’t see Jesus as nonviolent are Christians.”
The church in practice
Indeed, the Christianity community has killed more people in wars than any other identifiable group in the last 1,700-plus years. It was not always thus. For its first 300 years it was pacific. Despite several attempts by the Roman Empire to eradicate it, Christianity grew by leaps and bounds because followers found something more powerful than dominative coercive power: the power of mercy, compassion, healing and love for both friends and enemies.
Early Christians believed that compassionate love was power that not even death could destroy. They did not retaliate when attacked, even refusing to protect themselves against people taking them to their execution. Plus, Christians couldn’t be in the fighting Roman army and kill or they would excommunicated. No church writer in the first 300 years did anything other than condemn violence. Nonviolence was church Orthodoxy.
That changed when Constantine legitimatized Christianity and gave the movement buildings, wealth and property. A Constantinian Christianity began a downward spiral toward violence in order to protect its assets. As a result the rest of the world does not see Christians as “lambs” but as violent victimizers. The church’s quest for property, money and markets is linked with the growth of Western Civilization, Crusades, the Inquisition, the Doctrine of Discovery, the Holocaust, milestones of white supremacy — including religiously legitimatized slavery and the slaughter of Indigenous people.
Justified killing is manifestly legal. However, is it consistent with what Jesus lived and taught? Jesus came to bring peace. His church no longer is a peaceful salt and leaven in the world, which hardly looks more peaceful than 2,000 plus years ago. The church — Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, Evangelical — continues to believe that governmental legitimacy, wealth, privilege and prerogative is preferable to following Jesus’ way.
Allan Bostelmann, LICSW Emeritus, is a U.S. Army Infantry veteran. He lives in Minneapolis.
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