Killing Enmity: Violence and the New Testament
Thomas R. Yoder Neufeld
It’s easy to find support for claims that the New Testament endorses violence. Within Mennonite communities, for example, people have suffered abuse, believing that New Testament Scripture requires passive submission, unqualified forgiveness, and compliant obedience. In Killing Enmity, Tom Yoder Neufeld, professor of religious studies and theological studies at Conrad Grebel University College, Waterloo, Ont., acknowledges that New Testament vocabulary, images, and metaphors can “create space for violence, validating, even enshrining violence,” yet argues that the presence of such language is intended to “subvert and finally ‘murder’ violence.”
Yoder Neufeld explores texts selected “for their representative character as a set of probes or soundings into the relationship of the New Testament and violence.” In Chapter 2, for example, Yoder Neufeld focuses on the sermons on the mount (Matthew 5–7) and plain (Luke 6:20–49), where Jesus calls his followers to turn the cheek and love one’s enemies. In Chapter 6, Yoder Neufeld focuses on the household codes (1 Peter 2:13–3:17; Colossians 3:18–4:1; Ephesians 5:21–6:9) and Romans 13 – Scripture passages that call for subordination to the head of the home and government, respectively.
Both chapters highlight the same concern: a posture of resolute vulnerability is risky because “enemies who are seldom on the lookout for opportunities for reconciliation” may use the space to inflict violent on others. Submission can lead to Christian support of – or at least acquiescence to – injustice.
Yet as Yoder Neufeld explains, merciful love and humble servanthood are “intentionally subversive of status and power,” and are powerful, creative forces that make space for enemies to become friends. Indeed, this line of thinking is developed particularly in Chapter 3’s study of Matthew 18 and the parable of the unforgiving slave (vs 23–35), and Chapter 4’s focus on Jesus’ cleansing of the temple (Matthew 21:10–17; Mark 11:15–19; Luke 19:45–46; John 2:13–22).
In both instances, Yoder Neufeld notes, the church is to confront sin. On a personal level, Matthew 18 highlights how the community of Christ followers is given the responsibility to “bind and loose” (vs 15–20), but instead of judging harshly, Christians “had better know their business, which is to forgive more often than they can count and amounts greater than they can measure.” On a political level, Jesus confronts the entrenched ruling powers by drawing on a culturally accepted set of behaviours. Jesus’ “prophetic act” is a dramatic, forceful, but nonviolent condemnation of an oppressive government and religious system.
Yoder Neufeld insists that Christians can embrace a resiliently vulnerable love of others with the expectation that in such a posture they will ultimately be vindicated by God. This conviction, which weaves it way through each chapter, is more fully articulated in Yoder Neufeld’s survey of the atonement (Chapter 5), and his exploration of divine warfare images found in Revelation, 1 Thessalonians 5:1–11, and Ephesians 6:10–20 (Chapter 7).
In the case of the atonement, Yoder Neufeld notes that “troublesome images of sacrifice, wrath, judgement, payment and blood…are constituent elements in the metaphors with which the evangelists and apostles depict the wonder of God’s love on full display and fully at work.” Yet New Testament writers, Yoder Neufeld points out, do not make violence the good news, nor do they relegate the human story to secondary status. Rather, the New Testament writers describe how humans killed Jesus, but the good news is that God “retrieved from [that] event…the means of reconciliation.”
This is underlined in the case of divine warfare. Yoder Neufeld argues that the metaphors of judgment, invasion, and destruction are intended to communicate the message that God’s wrath is not pitted against humanity, but is exercised on behalf of humanity. The crucified and risen Lamb ultimately judges and defeats evil, liberates people, and sets all things right. Furthermore, God intervenes in the world through Christians who wield “only” the weapons of faith, hope, love, truth, justice, the good news of peace, salvation, and the Word of God.
Some readers may find themselves dissatisfied with Killing Enmity because the book does not pretend to provide an airtight argument. For example, Yoder Neufeld recognizes that no matter how compelling his evidence may be, he has little control over how it will be handled. He repeatedly writes: “who is interpreting [a passage of Scripture] and with what disposition they do so makes a world of difference as to whether [the passage of Scripture] encourages violence or encourages resolute confrontation with violence.”
Killing Enmity does not provide a comprehensive argument either. For example, Yoder Neufeld argues convincingly that New Testament is anti-violent, and that the sons and daughters of God are to give vulnerable love full reign in all of life’s situations because God will vindicate them. Yet what does that mean for our understanding of God? Does that not defer vengeance, anger, and violence to God? Yoder Neufeld himself acknowledges that some may adopt the attitude that the reason they can lay down their shotgun is that God’s atomic blast is imminent, but he does not address the dilemma in a significant way. Instead, readers will need to pursue the conversation with books by John Stackhouse (Can God Be Trusted?) and Hans Boersma (Violence, Hospitality, and the Cross).
These are by no means fatal flaws in the book. What is troublesome, however, is that Yoder Neufeld’s much-too-brief discussion of “violence” in chapter one shies away from defining the term. For example, Yoder Neufeld observes that synonyms for violence are “force, coercion, abuse…and many more.” But is that truly the case? Duane K. Friesen, Glen Stassen, and others have noted that violence and force are not necessarily the same thing. Furthermore, there are differing degrees of force and violence. For instance, surgery to remove a cancerous tumour is a violence worth suffering. In fact, the New Testament itself offers the promise that evil within each one of us will eventually experience the ultimate violence: it will be destroyed. Furthermore, Yoder Neufeld suggests that the church is to resist evil with certain means of force. In the absence of a clear definition of violence, one is left with the worrisome doubt that Christians are trespassing when they use the forms of force espoused by Yoder Neufeld, or that even God is “in the wrong” by “killing enmity.”
Even so, Yoder Neufeld’s book is well worth the attention. Pastors will find it provides thought-provoking sermon material. Students and Sunday school groups will find helpful summaries of differing perspectives that will stimulate examination of and discussion about major biblical themes. More importantly, the way in which Killing Enmity portrays a majestic God rich in mercy draws readers into believing that the God of the New Testament is One “into whose hands one might just dare to fall.”
—J Janzen is pastoral elder at Highland Community (MB) Church, Abbotsford, B.C