Republican politicians calling for civil war or the use of violence on behalf of Donald Trump has become garden-variety rhetoric. When Republican Georgia state Sen. Colton Moore recently warned of an impending civil war and threatened that he didn’t want to “have to draw my rifle,” no one paid much attention. But when a preacher, a minister of the gospel of Jesus Christ, threatens violence, he commits heresy and blasphemy. There’s no excuse for it. And yet that is exactly what has happened. The Rev. Mark Burns proclaims that violence will be required to make sure Donald Trump wins the 2024 presidential election. He is not only un-Christian in his remarks; he is dishonest, untruthful, and dangerous.
If you accompany a child to Chuck E. Cheese, among the many games still available for them to play is one known as Whac-A-Mole. In this game, you use a mallet to whack the heads of plastic moles that pop up from eight different holes. The more moles whacked, the higher the score achieved.
Whac-A-Mole occurs to me every time I hear a preacher make a crazy claim that shows up in the national media. I don’t have a hammer and I am not a violent person, but I am prepared to play a rhetorical version of Whac-A-Mole with the Bible as my hammer. The primary mole currently popping out of the hole is the Rev. Mark Burns. Burns used several passages from the Bible to promote violence during a ReAwaken America Tour event.
Every time a preacher makes a claim so absurd, so out of touch with Biblical truth, someone has to be ready to “whack the mole” with a better reading of the Bible. The gospel of Jesus Christ has nothing to do with the rantings of Rev. Burns. The gospel is one of reconciliation, not revenge. The gospel has a different understanding of “violence.” The gospel is a church always prepared to offer hospitality to strangers, love and forgiveness to enemies, generosity to the poor, and truth in the face of lies.
Referencing Matthew 5:38 – 40, Burns says, “You got to get to the point where you realize that when they smack you in the face, you smack them back two times harder.” The passage reads, “If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” Burns seems to have confused the teaching of Donald Trump with the teaching of Jesus. Trump, in a number of speeches, has advocated getting even with enemies. Trump famously told students at Liberty University that they should practice revenge and getting even. He told a group at a business conference, “If somebody screws you, you have to screw them back five times, ten times, fifteen times as hard.” With Bible upraised, whack this mole.
Burns then ventures into more complicated Scripture. He says, “Bible says the violent take it … and we take it by force.” This passage is Matthew 11:11 – 15, which says, “Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force. For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John came; and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come. Let anyone with ears listen!”
When a preacher intends to insert his own opinion by quoting the Bible, he will almost always quote only a bit of Scripture, a portion of a verse. This allows him to add his own false interpretation because he leaves out the context. Among bible students, this technique is called “proof-texting.” The text is used to promote the preacher’s prejudiced ideology. This bit of sneaky hermeneutics is an act of resistance to God speaking to us through Scripture.
Burns, reading Matthew 11:12 out of context, claims that this verse gives the followers of Donald Trump permission to use violence and take the 2024 election by force. To say that Burns has stretched the Bible beyond any reasonable meaning or truth is to state the obvious. With Bible upraised, whack this mole twice.
The text means the opposite of what Rev. Burns suggests. One way of reading the text is to suggest that the meaning of “violence” is ironic. The disciples of Jesus unmask the “violence” of the world, reject that violence, and follow Jesus and his cross. The violent have taken control by force. This is the way of the world, and here we have a Christian preacher, in the name of Jesus, advocating for the way of the world. John and all the prophets have preached non-violence, but the world will not listen. The world is violent. Any preacher proclaiming violence cannot be a preacher of the gospel.
The context reveals that Jesus is answering a question asked by the disciples of John the Baptist. Jesus tells John’s disciples that he is the one to come, the Messiah of Israel. As Stanley Hauerwas puts it, “The kingdom he brings is one of gentleness and humility that cannot help but reveal the violence of the world. Yet the very gentleness of the kingdom effects a judgment on those who refuse to believe that the love that moves the sun and the stars is the same love that is found in this man. We will not, therefore, be surprised then, after Jesus has plainly said who he is and what he has come to do, that everything he says and does invites controversy and resistance.” In other words, the disciples of Jesus will cause the world to react in violence against them. We even have a word for those persecuted: martyrs, a word that also reads “witness.”
From all the prophets to Jesus the kingdom of God has suffered violence. John has been imprisoned and will lose his head. Jesus has been hounded, accused, and will be crucified. The church, when faithful to the gospel of nonviolence, will always be in the company of those who lose their heads, their freedom, their lives.
Flannery O’Connor famously titled one of her novels, The Violent Bear It Away. Matthew 11:12 is the epigraph O’Connor chose: “FROM THE DAYS OF JOHN THE BAPTIST UNTIL NOW, THE KINGDOM OF HEAVEN SUFFERETH VIOLENCE, AND THE VIOLENT BEAR IT AWAY.”
What did Flannery O’Connor mean by using Matthew 11:12 as the opening quote in her novel, The Violent Bear It Away? O’Connor, never a shy Christian, intends to show her fierce, powerful, and original version of Christianity. For O’Connor, only “violence,” — a fanatical commitment to the peace of Christ — will be the sign of faithfulness. Violence is understood as a sign of the enthusiast.
O’Connor says, “Violence is never an end in itself. It is the extreme situation that best reveals what we are essentially …. Violence is a force which can be used for good or evil, and among other things taken by it is the kingdom of heaven.”
The interpretation of the passage is rather scary. The kingdom of Jesus manifests itself violently, and men of violence take hold of it. The commitment of the disciple of Jesus is complete — emotionally total and socially extreme. The “violent” rejection of the “world” and its culture.
Jesus gave his followers a different form of violence: “suffering.” He gave one of his beatitudes to strengthen our courage: “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
Today many Christians will do almost anything to not be seen as radical followers of Jesus. The tendency is to conform to the world, to follow the fads of culture, and to not ever be deemed too enthusiastic. No one wants to go out bearing a cross. Even the “violence” of the world is preferable.
Rev. Burns gives a reading of Matthew that is as far from the truth as the sun is from the earth. We are better served by the closing words of O’Connor’s Rev. Tarwater: “He felt his hunger [for the kingdom] no longer as a pain but as a tide. He felt it rising in himself through time and darkness, rising through the centuries, and he knew that it rose in a line of men whose lives were chosen to sustain it, who would wander in the world, strangers from that violent country where the silence is never broken except to shout the truth.”
Mark Burns has chosen a form of “violence” that defies the clear teaching of Jesus. He has badly read the Bible, and he has abused it for secular political purposes to foment violence and promote insurrection. He has been thrice whacked. True followers of Jesus will know that Burns is a false prophet.
Rodney Kennedy has his M.Div. from New Orleans Theological Seminary and his Ph.D. in Rhetoric from Louisiana State University. The pastor of 7 Southern Baptist churches over the course of 20 years, he pastored the First Baptist Church of Dayton, Ohio – which is an American Baptist Church – for 13 years. He is currently professor of homiletics at Palmer Theological Seminary, and interim pastor of Emmanuel Friedens Federated Church, Schenectady, New York. His seventh book – Good and Evil in the Garden of Democracy – is now out from Wipf and Stock (Cascades).