“You have to learn how to die”

How can one fight to produce peace? How can one win a war without causing more wars in the future? These questions hit me, as funny as it may be, while I was listening to a song by Wilco recently. I had probably listened to this song about 20 times before the significance of these lines hit me, which doesn’t say much for my intelligence, as these are almost the only words in the whole song.

Anyway, the lines that grabbed me came from their 2002 album, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot:

…It’s a war on war, it’s a war on war
It’s a war on war, there’s a war on war.
You’re gonna lose, you have to lose
You have to learn how to die… (from “War on War”)

In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech on December 10, 1964, Martin Luther King Jr. addressed the same issue. He famously said “nonviolence is the answer to the crucial political and moral questions of our time – the need for man to overcome oppression and violence without resorting to violence and oppression.” [1] He went on to claim, I think rightly, that the foundation of such a nonviolent response is love.

In the immediate context of the African-American struggle for Civil Rights in the USA this meant that “The movement does not seek to liberate Negroes at the expense of the humiliation and enslavement of whites…It seeks to liberate American society and to share in the self-liberation of all the people.” [2] Violence, as a method to achieve this liberation, is ineffective and immoral because it creates a vicious cycle that thrives on hatred rather than love, destroys community and reduces dialogue to monologue, or in other words, “it seeks to annihilate rather than convert.”

I’d like to side-step the contemporary socio-political implications of such a view, although I think they are significant. Instead, I’d like to reflect briefly on an early proponent of this non-violent ethic: Jesus. In his famous Sermon on the Mount he says things like “Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.”[3] This self-giving for the “other,” even those “others” who do not seem deserving, is a radical position but it is this response that has the potential to give life to both parties. Significantly though, Jesus didn’t just preach this, he lived it and, indeed, died it.

Collectively, we humans are indeed a violent and oppressive people. The Bible testifies to the fact that the world and people today are broken…if we needed any evidence for this outside of our own experience.  How could God overcome our oppression and violence without resorting to (and propagating) violence and oppression? How could God reconcile the broken world to himself in a way that maintained dialogue and thrived on love?

He had to learn how to die. And that is precisely what he did. In the person of Jesus, God became human and died to free us from such vicious cycles of brokenness. In addition to the metaphysical aspects of sin and redemption, Jesus also serves as our example, the paradigm of how we are to love others so much that we die for them, giving ourselves for others rather than forcing others to give themselves for us.

It is a war on war, at least insofar as war is the culmination of human brokenness. As Wilco said “you have to learn how to die if you wanna, wanna be alive.” I think Jesus agrees.

Ben Edsall
[1] The text and recordings of MLK Jr.’s two Nobel Prize speeches can be found at http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/peace/laureates/1964/.
[2] This quote and the point below are made in MLK Jr.’s Nobel Prize lecture on Dec. 11, 1964.
[3] Matthew 5:38-41


9 responses to ““You have to learn how to die”

  1. Ben has struck on what is our culture an all-too-rare theme: the two kingdoms. There is the flesh-default kingdom of Power, and there is the kingdom accessed by faith and truth, the kingdom of God, which amid this world is a kingdom of peace. Not Billy Goat Peace (“peace butt”), or conditional peace (“peace if”); peace as an absolute value John 14:21, Matthew 5, etc., This is the peace of non-resistance. Thanks to Ben for spelling this out.

  2. Hi Ben,
    great post, and such an important word for our uber-violent society.

    Just a query though: “Violence, as a method to achieve this liberation, is ineffective and immoral”–does this apply to God also? Granted, Jesus is the fullest revelation of God and His stance of grace and mercy to the world. But fully ‘pacifist’ (or ‘courageous non-resistance’) stances seem highly problematic Biblically when considering the Exodus, God’s own wrath expressed through the cross (vicarious suffering), and final judgment. (And I don’t think ‘pacifist Jesus’ accounts for his verbal violence at the Pharisees, his threats of final judgment to the unrepentant, or his physical clearing of the temple.)

    I think Miroslav Volf was right, that an entirely non-violent God is less loving and more apathetic. Eventually it encourages us not to model non-violence, but to become vigilantes (just like without confidence in our courts and police force, we’re likely to take up arms so that justice will be done). Grace ultimately triumphs, offering forgiveness to all who repent, but as Hans Boersma pointed out in “Violence, Hospitality and the Cross”, true hospitality at times (prior to eschatological resolution) requires violence to preserve what’s good and restrain what’s bad. There are consequences for the terminally unrepentant. And that too is love.

    Obviously a big topic, but interested in your reading of this.

    • Hey Dave,
      Thanks for your thoughtful comments. First to clarify, the point about the immorality and ineffectiveness of violence is a summary of a few sentences from Dr. King’s speech rather than my own formulation (though looking back at it I can see that this is by no means clear). As such it was specifically aimed at the value of human violence for effecting liberation in the context of the American Civil Rights Movement.

      As you rightly point out, this is an incredibly large topic and I think there is a great deal more tension and ambiguity than is often recognized (or was represented in my brief post). My post was particularly about the paradigmatic role of Jesus’ self-giving rather than the issues of violence more generally, but I don’t really see the words of Jesus against the Pharisees changing the fact that he both advocated and practiced non-violence. Sure, he called them some bad names, but it was a matter of intra-religious dispute rather than an issue of violence and oppression. (Of course, the real violence came later and was enacted against Jesus.)

      I don’t disagree with Hans’ point (which is similar to some observations by Levinas and Derrida). I do think it matters, however, who is being violent and for what purpose. To pick an extreme case, if a weaker person is being attacked by stronger one, I think one is licensed to use necessary force to stop the attack. However, we ought to be under no illusion as to what situation this is creating. It is not producing peace and liberation but merely a temporary cessation of that particular act of violence. Indeed, the actions used to stop the attack may turn the attacker’s sights on the one who intervened and may actually increase violence by precipitating further attacks. I think it could be argued that defending the weak is part of giving oneself in love for them and indeed may require true self-sacrifice. Violence to restrain the violent has its place, but we ought always to be aware of what being violent makes us and the inevitable circularity involved. This circularity is a cycle of violence, not peace.

      I think this leads to your main question: can God be violent for a good reason? I think he probably can. However, as you pointed out in one of your recent posts, the Old Testament does not have a capriciously violent God (or the New Testament, for that matter), but one who is violent only as a last resort, as it were. (And I’m don’t think we as people should ever imitate the eschatological judgement of God as violence in the here-and-now.) Further, I think it is important that the final and ultimate act of reconciliation with God for all people was *not* brought about though such action but through the self-sacrifice of Jesus for those who were “yet sinners.” On this point, I think Jürgen Moltmann is right to stress that what we really know about the character of God, we learn from seeing Jesus on the cross.

      I hope this speaks to some of your comments. I’d love to hear what you think about my (admittedly inchoate) thoughts.


  3. Hi Ben,

    thanks for taking the time to clarify. Not too much to write in return, as I agree with your response :) … having just visited a fantastic Anabaptist community in Perth, I admire the peace witness, and the cost they are prepared to pay for courageous non-violent resistance. And I agree (with Walter Wink) that ultimately violence itself is not redemptive. But I felt their own grappling with the violence of God (including Jesus’ own teaching on hell, and other aspects of his life), and the demands of love in a fallen world where people may persist in using their ‘freedom’ to hurt others, was somewhat naive … they absolutized non-violence, as though it is always wrong in every circumstance for any person (including God as the ultimate example) to coerce another, particularly through use of physical force. (I’m not sure how this works out in parenting, let alone engaging a broken world.) In the short space we have for a blog-post, I was wondering if you were suggesting the same thing. Having read your thoughts above, this is far more nuanced and something I subscribe to.

    On the reverse side, I have a friend who strongly advocates just war, but it seems awfully easy (and equally naive) to appeal to violence as necessary, when we haven’t really led with grace, nor clearly seen the fall out from perpetuating cycles of violence. If only someone would follow Jesus’ model and absorb evil out of love, overcoming evil with good. So, pragmatically, I think peace should be our primary witness in the world, without absolutizing to rule out violence as a last resort–which a more self-critical application of just war suggests. Either position is awfully easy to rationalize. I’m being drawn more and more to the position of “just peace-making” (see Kingdom Ethics, by Stassen and Gushee) as almost a mid-way house for following Christ in the real world.

    Thanks for engaging :)

    God bless,


  4. Hi Ben (and Dave),

    Even after Dave’s comment and your thoughtful engagement with him I’m not the least bit embarrassed to have come back to say only this: Thanks for getting that Wilco song stuck in my head for the last few days. ;-)

    Oh, and I appreciated your post.


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