Killing Enmity: Violence and the New Testament
Thomas R. Yoder Neufeld. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2011. 178 pages.
Thomas R. Yoder Neufeld, Professor of New Testament at Conrad Grebel University College, Waterloo, Ontario, has tackled the issue of violence and the New Testament (NT) with rigor and integrity in his new book, Killing Enmity.
The title itself is provocative. But one hears immediately a loud echo of Ephesians 2:11–22, a text with which Yoder Neufeld is completely familiar, having written a commentary on Ephesians. It is, of course, a violent metaphor in support of a nonviolent proposition. The author expounds this metaphoric or symbolic use of violence in the NT already in the book’s preface. “Perhaps most surprising is that Jesus’ violent death is the instrument by which he himself committed murder. In and through his own death Jesus ‘killed enmity’, he ‘murdered hostility’ ” (ix).
The titles of the seven chapters of the book point clearly in the direction of the respective discussions: 1. “ ‘Violence’ and ‘New Testament’ ”; 2. “Turn the cheek and love your enemies!”; 3. “Forgive or else!”; 4. “Violence in the Temple?”; 5. “Atonement and the death of Jesus”; 6. “Subordination and violence”; and 7. “Divine warfare in the New Testament.” Supplementing these is a comprehensive bibliography and useful index.
The author reveals explicitly his own personal and pastoral starting point in the investigation: he stands firmly in the religious and pastoral tradition of nonviolent peacemaking, and in the belief that the NT documents are scripture, and therefore authoritative for Christian faith and life. Admirable as this self-disclosure is, one could then assume a priori the outcome of the investigation. But, as the author points out, every reader-interpreter operates out of convictions. To think otherwise is delusion. In this book, the author’s belief about nonviolence does not get in the way of honest inquiry. Relevant texts are probed and sounded for their intended sense. Violent aspects are laid bare, and then explained in light of the peace-making Christ, the warrior-Lamb, once slaughtered, of Revelation.
Violence is defined broadly (1–8). And so it should. When people’s lives are violated at home, in church, or in society, whether by abusive word or harmful action, the situation is one of violence: personal, mental, bodily harm. Yoder Neufeld’s reading of the NT, including the “texts of terror” such as those of Revelation 20, concludes that a nonviolent Christ and a nonviolent God stand at the heart of the twenty-seven documents of the NT. The people of Christ are therefore called to follow that way.
The Sermon on the Mount is key to the author’s thesis, particularly the teaching of Jesus with respect to loving enemies. If this instruction is taken seriously, the author avers, then the response cannot be one of violence or retaliation. The question remains, however, as to the appropriate response to violence. Is it one of passive nonresistance? Or should it be an active nonviolent response? Yoder Neufeld believes the latter. Turning the cheek is a way of challenging the action of the perpetrator of violence: it accentuates the injustice. This leads inexorably into theological ethics: what is the appropriate response to violence in a given relationship?
Forgiveness is part of a nonviolent response to violence (chapter 3). The parable of the unforgiving slave in Matthew 18 exemplifies the problem of an unforgiving spirit among those who have been forgiven much. Matthew 18, according to the author, is “a sermon on living in community” (36–45). “Forgiveness is both a commanded response to sincere repentance and, at times, a patient and vulnerable keeping the future open for such ‘turning’. Anything more or less empties forgiveness of its role in the relational dynamic of the sovereign and free reign of a merciful God” (51).
Yoder Neufeld questions whether the action of Jesus in the Temple was one of violence. Overturning the tables of those engaged in the exchange of money and the sale of unblemished sacrifices for the pure worship of God appears to violate the right of the religious leaders to carry out their prescribed task. This is especially so in the narrative in John 2 where Jesus is said to have made a kind of whip to drive out the animals (if not the money changers!). The action appears to be an attack on the Temple. Not so, says the author: “Jesus’ action should be seen as symbolic violence against the real violence of the temple ‘system’ ” (63).
One more issue must suffice for this review: “Subordination and violence” (97–121). When a strong member in a relationship dominates a vulnerable member, the situation is one of violence. Yoder Neufeld examines texts where a structure of subordination is expressed, e.g., 1 Peter 3, Romans 13:1–7, Ephesians 5:21–6:9. The question is whether the order of subordination is one of domination. If it is, then the subjects thus dominated are violated with respect to their human and, more so, Christian personhood. The household code of Ephesians 5:21–6:9 is explicitly a hierarchical sort of subordination: wives to husbands (as the church to Christ), children to parents, slaves to slave-owners. Central to this order of subordination is Christ-love, which does not dominate or violate. That said, I fail to see how 5:21 (“Be subordinate to one another out of reverence to Christ”) can be construed by itself as a principle of “mutual subordination” (105) when it is followed immediately by the household code where the pattern of subordination is anything but mutual. What makes the social structure of the household nonviolent is the grace and love of Christ the Lord.
Some readers may wish other texts had been discussed (e.g., 1 Cor. 5:1-13; Luke 2:29; 3:14). But the author’s stated aim was to investigate highly pertinent texts concerning their violent/nonviolent texture. And he has done so deftly and deeply. This book is a must for individual reading, for group study, and for library shelves. Both church and society need to bend an ear to this urgent call to nonviolent thinking and acting.