The Peace and Violence of Christmas

At church this Christmas Eve, we read one of my favorite passages. Isaiah 11:1-10 begins by prophesying the coming of the Messiah, the Rod of Jesse, and it ends with that unsurpassable vision of the peace he shall bring about: ‘The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the goat, … and a little child shall lead them.’

But I had forgotten what comes in the middle. The text uses the most violent imagery to characterize the Messiah’s irenic work, especially his speech:

He shall smite the land with the rod of his mouth,
And with the breath of his lips he shall slay the wicked
Righteousness shall be the belt of his loins,
And faithfulness the belt of his waist.
(Isaiah 11:4b-5)

Inspired by this passage, the use of the sword as a metaphor for divine or messianic speech (and by implication, Scripture) is especially common in the New Testament. The Word of God is ‘sharper than any two-edged sword’ (Hebrews 4:12). Christians are to take up ‘the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God’ (Ephesians 6:17). Christ is pictured as a warrior ‘from whose mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations’ (Revelation 19:15). No doubt Jesus himself meant something similar when, speaking of the way his ministry divides families, he said, ‘I did not come to bring peace but a sword’ (Matthew 10:14).

I have been meditating on this theme lately because the University of Virginia is hosting an interfaith graduate student conference this March 22nd-23rd on the theme of Weaponizing Scripture?. This conference will approach the pressing problem of religious conflict by examining the many ways that, for better or worse, religious texts are figured or deployed as weapons of violence. Proposals are due January 23rd (you can find the Call For Papers here). We would love to have proposals from contributors to and readers of State of Formation, to continue in person some of the important discussions we have here online.

For my part, I believe the best introduction to this question is the post-evangelical cult film Saved!. It’s not exactly a Christmas movie, though the Christmas story provides a kind of typological background to its own story about Mary, a conservative Christian teenager who finds herself pregnant the old fashioned way.

In what is definitely the funniest scene in the film, a well-intentioned youth pastor exhorts Mary’s ‘friends’ to be ‘warriors on the front-lines for Jesus:’

The genius of this scene is the way it plays with different possible interpretations of what it means to figure Scripture as a weapon. The pastor uses warfare as a metaphor for the friends’ struggle on Mary’s behalf against the spiritual darkness she is experiencing. In the actions of her friends, however — led by Hilary Faye, the self-righteous hypocrite played by Mandy Moore — we see the same metaphor take on a darker valence: Scriptural words can be wielded against Mary as weapons of judgment.

Almost anyone who has grown up in a conservative religious environment and felt the sharp edge of Scripture’s blade knows how easily the one can slide into the other.

The comedy of the scene, however, comes mainly from two other possible interpretations. When the pastor invites Mary’s friends to become warriors for Jesus, one of them responds in deadly earnest, ‘you mean, like, shoot her?’ This darkly hilarious response is a reminder of the fact that all too often the Scriptures have indeed been used to incite and justify physical violence against others. In such cases Scripture is a ‘weapon’ not so much metaphorically as metonymically — that is, Scripture is not like a weapon but, rather, instrumentally connected to some real weapon whose use it has provoked.

A final possible interpretation is enacted by an incensed Hilary Faye at the climax of the scene, the immortal moment when she screams, ‘I am filled with Christ’s love!’ while throwing her Bible at Mary. Leaving all figures of speech behind, Scripture finally becomes a weapon in the most literal sense.

Through this progression of Scriptural weaponry (metaphorical, metonymical, and literal), this scene makes a kind of argument, intended to lead us to the conclusion that Mary herself expresses as she picks up the Bible Hilary Faye has just thrown at her: ‘This is NOT a weapon!’ We are supposed to conclude that the martial metaphor is inherently problematic because it is fraught with the potential for all kinds of physical and emotional violence. Having thus disarmed the Bible, the alternative religion confessed by Mary at the end of the film is probably inevitable: a God of feeling, tolerance, and togetherness.

We should recognize the appeal of this confession, especially when we consider those, gathered around Mary, who have felt the exclusionary edge of the church’s Scriptural sword: her gay ex-boyfriend, her Jewish ‘rebel’ friend, her widowed single mother in an adulterous relationship with her youth pastor, and of course herself, a single teenage mom.

And yet — the surprising juxtaposition in Isaiah 11 between cosmic peace and the Messiah’s verbal weapons of war should make Christians cautious about abandoning altogether the figure of divine speech as a weapon. I plan to consider this question at greater length in my next post. For now I will simply say that, however we understand Isaiah’s vision of cosmic peace, it certainly represents a radical transformation of the violence of the status quo.

If our pleasures and the satisfaction of our desires (especially those of the powerful) depend on the world continuing as it always has, can we honestly imagine the transformation that Christmas portends without pain and suffering? Even the Virgin Mary characterizes this transformation in violent terms: ‘he has pulled down the mighty from their thrones and exalted the lowly’ (Luke 1:52).

If the word of the Messiah is somehow able to overcome the bodily violence effected by the swords of Pharaoh and King Herod, the guns of American soldiers and our militarized police force, can we avoid figuring the Messiah’s Word as weapon-like?

Image courtesy of the author.

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4 thoughts on “The Peace and Violence of Christmas

  1. As much as I’d like to be a pacifist in all ways, I can’t sustain it. There are battles to fight at many levels – individual and societal, and spiritual, economic, physical and legislative for starters. There are battle-lines drawn in Scripture, weapons handed out in Ephesians 6:10ff, which verses fit well with “love your (human) enemies” because ultimate evil doesn’t begin in human lives, though we are complicit. It may not be flattering to think that we’re not the movers and shakers we think we are, but it is a privilege to be invited into a battle that is way over our heads. You wrote: “If our pleasures and the satisfaction of our desires (especially those of the powerful) depend on the world continuing as it always has, can we honestly imagine the transformation that Christmas portends without pain and suffering?”

    Hear, hear! Jeremiah castigates the greedy and the high status with “For from the least of them even to the greatest of them, Everyone is greedy for gain, And from the prophet even to the priest Everyone deals falsely. They have healed the brokenness of My people superficially, Saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ But there is no peace.” Jer. 6:14

    Martin Luther King, Jr. is remarkable to me in that he advocated non-violent struggle against the unjust status quo, knowing that physical violence would rain down on him and civil rights workers.

    I recommend “A Call To Conscience” by MLKJ as relevant to this discussion.

    1. Thanks for the MLK recommendation.

      I agree that there are lots of battles to fight. This is, of course, a metaphor, since not all of them involve guns and soldiers. It’s this metaphor I hope to think about more in my next post.

      Thanks for reading!

  2. You raise interesting questions in the relation between religion and violence, and in particular how this is related to the Judeo-Christian tradition and its Scripture. You may have seen this, but increasingly Christians of various stripes have started to rethink this issue, from Philip Jenkins to Derek Flood, and some scholars are looking more at Jesus in connection with nonviolence.

    In relation to your call for papers on scriptural weaponry, I don’t think I can make the conference, but when I was in Evangelical counter-cult circles I was struck by how many in this type of ministry to “cults” or new religious movements used the Bible defensively as a means of worldview annihilation for religious groups deemed heretical. There is a place for orthodoxy, but it seemed to me that the members of new religions were viewed more in the abstract as heretical enemies to be “slain” with the “sword” of Scripture than fellow human beings to love and engage in conversations over sincere and important differences. I wish I could attend to present a paper and flesh out these ideas, but I wish you the best in contributions.

    1. I’ve been reflecting on this phrase, the Bible as a ‘means of worldview annihilation.’ It’s just the kind of issue I hope to think about in my next post: to what extent words can be violent. (I’m persuaded that whatever one thinks about non-violence where actual bodies are concerned, that a total non-violence of speech is neither possible nor desirable — more on this anon).

      I’m somewhat familiar with Derek’s work, particularly through our engagement on Twitter. Indeed, we had some back and forth in the comment section on my previous post that you might find interesting:

      Thanks for reading, and blessings on your interfaith work.

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