The New Testament represents less a unified voice than an anthology of voices celebrating the significance of the Christ event. I attend here to a single voice, that of the Gospel of Mark, admitting frankly that competing voices from the New Testament may say something different about contemporary war and violence.
In all likelihood the earliest of the four canonical Gospels, composed sometime around the year 70 C.E., Mark’s Gospel allows us a glimpse into the theological reflection of an early Christian author, as well as of the primitive Christian community for which the Gospel was likely written. Contemporary scholars like Elizabeth Struthers-Malbon and David Rhoads view the Gospel of Mark as an eminently artful narrative that summons the reader to transformation and response. As Rhoads has noted, the contemporary reader can see in Mark’s Gospel a countercultural value system informed by a theological vision of the in-breaking kingdom of God.
After his baptism by John and a period of testing in the wilderness, Jesus enters the public sphere of rural Galilee with a message: The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news (1:15). We err if we ignore the politically subversive dimension of this proclamation. If the reign of God has drawn near, then by implication all other kingdomsincluding the then regnant Roman Empirerecede into a provisional background. Much as the designation of the infant Jesus as savior in the Gospel of Luke (Luke 2:11) likely functions to subvert imperial propaganda, Mark’s announcement of the advent of the kingdom exposes all other kingdoms as counterfeit.
This reading is confirmed by the close connection Mark makes between Jesus’ announcement of the kingdom and the motif of good news or gospel. In secular Greco-Roman culture, gospel denoted matters of civic importance. An inscription from the city of Priene in ancient Asia Minor, for example, describes the birth of the Roman emperor Augustus as gospel, or good news, for the world. The Priene inscription expressed the conviction that Augustus, having successfully established peace and stability throughout his vast empire, merited association with good news. Indeed, in the eyes of at the least the local aristocratic elites who profited from their alliances with Rome, the emperor Augustus was nothing less than a savior. Such Roman peace, however, issued from brutal military conquest and was frequently maintained through savage reprisal against any and all resistance.
Placed alongside the political status quo of imperial violence, the good news of the kingdom in Mark’s Gospel appears decidedly countercultural. Indeed, Mark takes care to present Jesus as establishing the kingdom not by violent conquest but by reclaiming creation for God. This emphasis is clear in the cycle of miracle stories in the opening section of the Gospel (1:21-3:6). In each of these scenesthe healing in the Capernaum synagogue of the man possessed, the healing of Peter’s mother-in-law, the cleansing of the leper, the healing of a paralytic and the healing of a man with a withered handthe kingdom appears as a liberating reality that reclaims people from forces inimical to human life. By banishing demons and all manner of disease and infirmity, Jesus restores wholeness to creation, a wholeness in keeping with God’s original intention (3:4).
It is important not to downplay the clear martial imagery here and elsewhere in the Gospel. In the early sections of Mark in particular, Jesus appears as the divine warrior agent of God, who vanquishes all manifestations of evil by his powerful deeds. The story of the exorcism of the man in the Capernaum synagogue (1:21-28) offers a good illustration. The scene bristles with struggle and violence: the unclean spirit perceives Jesus as a likely agent of destruction (verse 24), resists Jesus’ action and finally leaves the man only after first convulsing him (verse 26); Jesus’ posture is equally confrontational, censuring the demon (perhaps out of a sense that it was trying to gain control over him by uttering his name) and thereby gaining the victory (verse 25). To be sure, martial imagery informs this presentation, but the primary valence of the imagery is not violence toward some human adversary but divine compassion for an alienated creation attacked by demonic possession.
The same theme of compassion for creation is reflected in the story of the healing of the Gerasene man possessed by demons (5:1-20). The account begins with a picture of abject social and personal alienation. The man possessed by what Mark calls a legion (verse 9) lives isolated in a cemetery and engages in strangely self-destructive behavior. As a consequence of Jesus’ action, however, the man is placed on the path toward physical and social integration. Indeed, through the man’s commitment to remain with Jesus (verse 18) and his eventual proclamation of Jesus in the unclean Gentile region of the Decapolis (verse 20), Mark signals the depth of that reclamation.
A Different Kind of King
Clearly, then, the martial and the compassionate must be held in tension in order to do justice to the dynamic of Mark’s theological perspective. Reading Mark, I am sometimes reminded of the early stages of the Iraq war. So often in those early days, the administration of President George W. Bush employed religious language full of notions of liberation and implied that the essential moral justification for the war lay in the commitment to liberate a people from a tyrant. There at the head, blazing the trail of liberation in the Iraqi wilderness, stood the stunning might of the U.S. military, with the president in the role of Moses. Martial imagery, taken literally, can easily be used to justify violence against others. Such a perspective, however, neglects the pattern found in all four Gospels: Jesus endures the violence perpetrated by both the political and religious elite; he never emulates it.
While it is evident, then, that martial imagery informs Mark’s narrative, it is crucial to realize that Mark has profoundly transformed this imagery in light of his faith commitment to the countercultural kingdom inaugurated through the death and resurrection of Jesus. Mark highlights the kingdom’s countercultural dimension nowhere more evocatively than in the scene of the so-called triumphal entry of Jesus into the city of Jerusalem (11:1-10). As Jesus enters Jerusalem to the enthusiastic response of the crowd, the narrative is thick with royal imagery. Jesus rides on a colt, an image derived from the prophet Zechariah: Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey (Zech 9:9); he enters amid the shouts of the crowd celebrating the dawning kingdom of David, the ideal king of liberation envisaged in such texts as the Psalms of Solomon (first century B.C.E). Yet Jesus does not take violent possession of Jerusalem. Indeed, Mark has taken care in the previous three chapters to prepare the readers to discern in Jesus a different kind of king, the suffering Son of Man (8:31, 9:31, 10:33-34). Instead of killing in the service of establishing God’s countercultural kingdom, Jesus will die in that service, the ironic divine warrior. When at the recognition of Jesus’ death the centurion declares Jesus to be the Son of God (15:39), his confession functions as a final repudiation of the use of imperial violence.
Church teaching must always remain a servant to Scripture as the revelatory medium of God’s word (Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, No. 10). With this in mind, I think Mark’s countercultural vision of the kingdom inaugurated in Jesus’ ministry calls into question the use of violence, whether done in the name of liberation or in the interest of a just war. Mark probably wrote shortly after the disastrous Jewish war with Rome that concluded with the destruction of the Jerusalem temple in 70 C.E., a war in which both sides had engaged in deadly violence. With the prospect of further violence still to come (13:7), Mark nonetheless resists any accommodation to violence.
He presents Jesus’ ministry as one of service on behalf of the kingdom, even to the point of meeting the violence of the world with service, rather than with the commonly accepted pattern of reciprocal violence. Likewise when the disciples James and John seek places of honor in the kingdom, Mark offers a prophetic judgment against the typical structures of power prevalent in the world. Jesus tells them (10:41-45):
You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be the slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.
In Mark’s account we have the narrative of the Son who lives out the countercultural values of the kingdom, including the value of nonviolence (14:46-50). In the story of the empty tomb we encounter, along with the divine vindication of Jesus, the divine confirmation that the countercultural life lived by Jesus is the one God desires all to emulate. Knowing this, we must ask ourselves: When viewed against the countercultural character of the kingdom revealed in the ministry of Jesus and vindicated in the account of his empty tomb, can war and contemporary violence be described as anything other than grave sin?