Ex 20:1-17 is one account of the commandments which Yahweh (the LORD), the tribal god of Israel, gave to Moses. Not that the true God was ever just a tribal god. God is beyond all human conceptualization and our consciousness of God has developed over time.
Patriarchy, male domination, emerged with the advent of agriculture and also developed over time. We see it most clearly manifest in the Constantinian church which is still very much with us today. If you do not believe this, just think about the issue of ordaining women who have always be second class citizens in any patriarchal institution.
Anyway, back to Exodus. This account has detailed instructions about the Sabbath which are not in the other account. The scripture writers are trying to convey to the people the things they must do in order to obtain the favor of a tribal god. If you do these things, you will be God’s chosen people, as if God would ever choose one people over another.
Recognizing this, we might ask, “Why the commandments?” Today, the commandments still enunciate some universally valid principles which, if followed, dispose us toward union with God. Life principles which reflect love for God and our neighbor can set the stage for contemplation, union with God.
Paul (1 Cor 1:22-25) proclaims Christ crucified. This is not the sign the Jews were seeking. Nor is it the wisdom the Greeks were thirsting for. Jesus is the power and wisdom of God. We live in the person, power and presence of the Risen Jesus.
The great reversal has occurred—what appears to be folly and weakness is indeed strength. For self-serving individualists in 21st century America ensuring the quality of life for the least among us is a real stumbling block. It appears to them to be sheer folly. Compassion for those in misery often seems to be weakness.
Going back to the commandments—not only do we not kill, we love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. Conventional wisdom tells us to beat the hell out of anyone who would dare persecute us. The cross tells us to absorb violence by breaking the chain of violence. We are called to be fools for Christ.
Jesus cleanses the Temple (Jn 2:13-25). This is the first text which those who question the nonviolence of Jesus go to. Only John has Jesus making a whip. Note, however, that John does not say that Jesus hit or struck anyone. Scriptural commentators tell us that Jesus simply used the whip to help drive the sacrificial animals forth. Given the entire context of Jesus teaching and preaching, I am sure he did not injure anyone or anything.
Why did Jesus drive the sellers of sacrificial animals and the money changes out of the Temple? The Temple economy drove the economy of Jerusalem and Israel. Animals were needed for sacrifice to appease a tribal god who demanded sacrifice. Money changers were needed because foreign currency could not be used in the Temple.
We must realize that a consciousness was emerging from Israelite prophets that God wanted justice not sacrifice. This is what Jesus was about. Requirements of Temple sacrifice placed undue burdens on the poor, on the crowd that followed Jesus. How do our religious structures place undue burdens on the poor and oppressed among us?
This was the defining act in Jesus’ confrontation with the authorities. The possibility of crucifixion now looms larger. Jesus has crossed the line. He is dangerous. His teaching demands radical commitment to justice and mercy. He will choose to absorb violence on the cross rather than retaliate with physical force. “Peter, put away your sword.” Tertullian, early church leader said that, when Jesus disarmed Peter, he disarmed every Christian.
The early church persisted in nonviolence until the time it sold out to the Constantinian Empire. Before Constantine, a person could not be a Christian if he was a soldier. One hundred years after Constantine, you had to be a Christian to be a soldier. This perversion of church purpose morphed into the just war theory which ultimately led to crusades, inquisitions, and colonization.
In spite of the horrors and atrocities of modern warfare and drastically increasing noncombatant casualties, we have not been able to dispel the fallacies of the just war theory. Merton said that he was not an absolute pacifist; however, modern warfare is so horrible that he cannot justify it. Others, like Daniel Berrigan and John Dear, are absolute pacifists who eschew any resort to violence. From his cell and hermitage, Merton cried out against the Vietnam War until Cardinal Spellman (bishop of the military diocese who liked to wear military uniforms) influenced his French Trappist superiors to silence him.
Incidentally, I know of no instance in which any nation ever applied a just war analysis before going to war. They just went to war and then claimed that their tribal god was on their side. Had George Bush actually done a just war analysis and if he had heeded the warning of Pope John Paul II, we will never have invaded and occupied Iraq.