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Richard J. Mouw


Violence and the Atonement

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I have regularly drawn my inspiration on this topic from John Calvin. In his comments in the Institutes about the use of military violence, he links Just War considerations to underlying issues of spirituality. When civic leaders are planning military actions, Calvin says,

it is the duty of all magistrates here to guard particularly against giving vent to their passions even in the slightest degree. Rather, if they have to punish, let them not be carried away with headlong anger, or be seized with hatred, or burn with implacable severity. Let them also (as Augustine says) have pity on the common nature in the one whose special fault they are punishing. Or, if they must arm themselves against the enemy, that is, the armed robber, let them not lightly seek occasion to do so; indeed, let them not accept the occasion when offered, unless they are driven to it by extreme necessity … [And] let them not allow themselves to be swayed by any private affection, but be led by concern for the people alone. Otherwise, they very wickedly abuse their power, which has been given them not for their own advantage, but for the benefit and service of others.[2]

Calvin is clearly disturbed here by the arrogance with which leaders often deal with the questions of military violence. Anyone considering the use of force, he is saying, must engage in a careful process of self-examination. To put it in simple terms, we must look honestly at our own sinful capacity for self-deception and we must reflect deeply on the humanness of the people to ward whom our violent remedies would be directed. Calvin is very aware here of the fact that because of our depraved natures we are inclined to do exactly the opposite of what he is proposing: we tend to exalt our own motives and to devalue the humanity of our opponents. So, as a spiritual corrective, we sinners need to be diligent in paying special attention to our own faults, while constantly reminding ourselves of the humanity of those with whom we disagree. In Calvin's scheme, the Just War doctrine must also serve as, we might say, an instrument of spiritual formation.

Of special significance for this way of looking at issues of violence is the important Christian teaching that all human beings are created in God's image. This is the basis for Calvin's insistence that rulers must "have pity on the common nature in the one whose special fault they are punishing." Saint Augustine, whose authority he appeals to at this point, is equally insistent in emphasizing this important element of theological anthropology. In Augustine's letter to Marcellinus, to which Calvin is referring, Augustine warns that in punishing evildoers rulers run the risk of defeating their external enemies only to be destroyed by "the enemy within" as they pursue their violent campaigns with "depraved and distorted hearts." To avoid these consequences, Augustine urges, we must cultivate "those kindly feelings which keep us from returning evil for evil." If we can manage to do so, "even war will not be waged without kindness, and it will be easier for a society whose peace is based on piety and justice to take thought for the conquered."[3]

Again, Augustine and Calvin—two prominent defenders of the Just War perspective—are probing important underlying issues of spirituality. And needless to say, they are raising questions about the uses of violence that apply to a much broader moral and spiritual territory than the "official" conduct of armies and police forces. They are insisting that we cannot think morally about the proper use of violence without thinking about the kinds of persons we are in the process of be coming. Their pastoral concerns can be extended to the question of what kinds of societies we are living in, and what sorts of patterns of human interaction we as Christians want to model and espouse. We live in a culture in which the currents of violence run very deep. It is convenient for us to call for more regulation and control of those whom we can most easily identify as the perpetrators of lawlessness and abuse. But no effective Christian critique of our violent culture can ignore "the enemy within"; we are obliged to probe deeply into the violence that resides in our own souls, even as we reflect compassionately on the created humanity of those whose actions and attitudes we find it easy to judge.

But Augustine and Calvin are also known for their insistence that the only effective cure for the depravity that afflicts us as individual human beings is the personal appropriation, by the power of the Holy Spirit, of the atoning work of Jesus Christ. Thus, they take it for granted that a proper grasp of what the atonement is about will serve to curb violence, and not to reinforce a tendency toward violent activity. This is the way of viewing the situation that I will be defending here. But we do need to take a careful look at the contentions of those who think that a teaching like that of classical atonement theory is designed to reinforce a propensity for violent attitudes and actions.

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