By Jonah Sandford
Like countless other readers of the Bible, at various points I’ve wondered how to handle the perceived disconnect between the God of the Old Testament, who sanctions violence, and the Christ of the New Testament, who teaches mercy, compassion, and non-retaliation (e.g. Matt 5:38-40). However, Preston Sprinkle’s Fight: A Christian Case for Nonviolence seriously problematizes this disconnect (for an introduction to some of the Old Testament topics Sprinkle covered, see part one of this review).
For other readers, this characterization of the New Testament is itself insufficient. Doesn’t Jesus himself tell his disciples to buy swords (Luke 22:36)? Doesn’t he clear the temple with a whip (John 2:14-15)? Doesn’t he come as the harbinger of God’s wrath, the conquering king, in Revelation? Sprinkle takes to task all of these questions and more, exposing readings that use such passages to condone violence as irresponsible.
Just as with his discussions of the Old Testament, Sprinkle sticks to his narrative approach and does so to great effect. He first introduces us to the world into which Jesus was born—one where the Jewish people lived under the heel of Caesar and longed for a messiah who would deliver his people with the sword. They hailed war-hungry heroes like Judas Maccabeus (literally Judas “the hammer,” 115), Simon and Anthronges, and numerous other insurrectionists (both before and after Jesus’ death). Sprinkle is right to point out that “Jesus’s world was submerged in violence” (116).
This expectation for a militant messiah is what made Jesus so surprising. Sprinkle surveys various texts that point out just how radical Jesus’ stance was: for instance, what makes his kingdom “not of this world” (John 18:36) is the fact that “nonviolence is at the heart of Jesus’s definition of kingdom” (121, emphasis original). Or consider the “messianic secret” motif in Mark’s Gospel: Sprinkle contends that Jesus charged others not to spread the news about his messianic identity because people would then view him as a “violent revolutionary” (125).
With keen attention to historical and contextual factors (and to the texts themselves), Sprinkle strides elegantly through the biblical accounts, discussing things like Christ’s more restrictive teachings on violence in the Sermon on the Mount (chapter seven, “Love Your Enemies”); and common misinterpretations of Romans 13 as advocating militarism (chapter eight, “Good Citizens”). In perhaps my favorite chapter, “The Wrath of the Lamb” (chapter nine), Sprinkle deconstructs popular interpretations that Revelation “depicts Jesus as ‘a prize fighter with a tattoo down His leg, a sword in His hand and the commitment to make someone bleed’” (173-4, quoting Mark Driscoll). Rather, in Revelation we see a Christ who reigns as the Slaughtered Lamb, whose robe is not dipped in the blood of his enemies, but rather his own. Sprinkle sums it up well: “…as far as the heavenly eye can see, the saints have conquered the beasts through their suffering faithfulness. In the book of Revelation, perceived defeat is heavenly victory” (176, emphasis mine).
Having surveyed the Bible from Genesis to Revelation and found a consistent call to nonviolence throughout, in his remaining chapters Sprinkle moves on to early Church history as well as many of the practical questions that linger among scholars and laypeople alike. What did the earliest theologians think about violence? In chapter 10, “The Early Church in a Violent World,” readers might be surprised to find out that before Christianity became the state religion under Constantine, theologians univocally condemned violence, even in cases of self-defense. Considering how oppressed and persecuted Christians were during these first few hundred years, what does it tell us that their theologians didn’t commend violent responses to this persecution?
Of course, we are most strongly challenged by those famous hypotheticals like, “What if someone breaks into my house and attacks my family?” Would a theology of nonviolence really hold up in a situation like this? Knowing how important this question is, Sprinkle devotes an entire chapter to it (chapter eleven, “Attacker at the Door”), and he spends the following chapter discussing additional issues. It is these latter chapters of Fight that make it such a valuable book: not content to stay in the realm of the theoretical, Sprinkle wrestles genuinely with difficult questions and real-world concerns. The reader might not agree with some of his conclusions, but she or he should appreciate Sprinkle’s candor.
In recent years, I’ve found myself drifting toward a theology of nonviolence, and Sprinkle’s work has been immensely helpful in stimulating my own engagement with the issues. For anyone struggling with what a “biblical” view of violence should look like, Fight: A Christian Case for Nonviolence is an invaluable resource.
Jonah has a BA in English and is currently in the MA, Theological Studies program at Portland Seminary. His primary research interests are New Testament Greek and Pauline Epistles, and he has a special heart for egalitarian hermeneutics. Jonah currently lives and works in Newberg, OR.