I think the starting point I have to use is the person of Jesus and his relationship to the powers and principalities of this world. Okay, that needs unpacking to, but, patience. folks, I'll get to it. Behind this starting point is an assumption which I want to make clear. I'm assuming that one of the objects of the Christian life is the imitation of Christ, especially during his earthly ministry. That means that we have to pay close attention to what Jesus did and how he reacted to the people and institutions around him.
That brings us to the powers and principalities. These are, of course, referred to in Ephesians 6:12. The language is very KJV, but Yoder, for instance, makes a big deal about these. To some degree, it is slightly obscure what is meant there, but what I think they probably mean is not only the flesh and blood powerful people, but the institutions of the state and the world. While, certainly, Romans 13 makes it clear that those in power exercise that power which was instituted by God, it is all too common for our human institutions and our human leaders to attempt to usurp more power than they actually have. They have a tendency to try to set themselves up in a position which either ignores or tries to supplant God. This, in its extreme form, can produce certain kinds of idolatry such as leader worship or worship of country. In order to maintain this idolatry, violence emerges in part to coerce the wills of those entrusted to these powers.
Jesus' response to these powers is complex, but it involves the rejection of this idolatry. So, when Satan tempts Jesus in the wilderness (Matt. 4, 8-11), his last temptation is to offer power, all the kingdoms of the world. Jesus rejects that by telling Satan "Worship the Lord your God and serve only him". That is a radical rejection of the idolatry of power.
Yet, what complicates Jesus' situation is that, from the very beginning of his ministry, he is regarded as the Messiah of Israel which had several meanings. Its primary meaning is that of the warrior king, who would drive out the pagans and restore Israel to independence. So, he kept getting people coming around, expecting Jesus to lead a violent revolution against the Romans. Yet, he refuses and not because of a lack of power. So, even when he is arrested, Jesus rejects the use of force by commenting to Peter (who draws his sword and wounds a servant of the high priest)
"Put your sword back in its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword. Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? But how then would the scriptures be fulfilled, which said it must happen in this way" Matthew 26, 52-54What strikes me about that passage is that not only does Jesus reject violence, but he makes it very clear that he had the power to wreck the Romans. Remember that the Romans had about 25 legions at the time and only about six to eight of those were in the East. If Jesus decided to unleash his power, he would have destroyed what stood in his way. Yet, he refuses in order to fulfill God's purposes in a very unexpected way.
That fulfillment is, of course, Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection. I like to think of the crucifixion and resurrection as God's cosmic judo move. That is, Jesus accepts the worse that the powers and principalities can throw at him: a humiliating death and the emphatic disproof of his Messiahship. Yet, by using this horrible death, he breaks the power of sin and death. In essence, he uses the power of sin, the strength of the idolatrous powers and principalities of this world, to destroy them.
Now, of course, we live in an in-between time in which, while we know the power of sin and of powers and principalities is broken, the end has not come. We continue to struggle against evil in this world, but, I would argue, Jesus' example is that we do not return violence for violence, but we try to use the cosmic judo moves that Jesus taught us. Violence and evil will eventually destroy itself, especially if confronted by a refusal to play the power game. Look at Gandhi, Martin Luther King and the collapse of the Soviet bloc, if you want to see the power that this kind of non-violent, but still confrontational approach has.
Okay, I do think that is more than enough for one post. I think I'll need to pursue the personal implications of this belief in another post.