Over the last few years, South Africa has been exposed to frequent acts of violence, many of which have been politically or racially motivated. From the white man who beat a black domestic worker claiming he thought she was a prostitute, to the pummelling of black students who interrupted a rugby match at the University of the Free State, through to reports of intimidation and damage to property during the Fees Must Fall marches. It appears we are a country where violence is not far from the surface.

Christians have usually condemned these acts of violence, while at times showing sympathy for the underlying concerns and issues that have provoked the violence. Many activists though have responded by calling for a broader definition of violence. The system itself, they say, is violent; an insidious and unrelenting violence against the black body. It is a violence that daily excludes, deprives and oppresses the poor black student or worker.

How then do we theologically understand violence? Is there biblical warrant for a broader definition of violence? What does it mean to be peacemakers in a context of both repeated, overt acts of violence and insidious systemic violence? How does the gospel shape our understanding of and reaction to both behavioural and systemic violence? These are the questions and concerns addressed below.

1. Christianity is principally a religion of peace

From creation to new creation the goal of the biblical story is always peace. The Hebrew word for peace “shalom” is far richer than simply the absence or cessation of violence. Shalom is the quintessential word used to describe God’s reign and purposes for this world. Shalom entails “a condition where all things are in their proper relation to each other with nothing left hanging, incomplete or unfilled; it entails a condition where creation purposes are realized; it entails a condition of freedom from every bondage.”1

The creation story itself is markedly different from most other Ancient Near Eastern creation myths by its absence of violence. Here there is no struggle to overcome the chaos and no wars between the gods. Instead God speaks simple words of authority (Genesis 1:3, 6, 9, 11, 14-15, 20, 24, 26) and he creates a world of order (Genesis 1:4, 7, 12, 16, 18, 21, 25), of beauty, and of harmony. This is a world which is proclaimed very good at the climax of creation (Genesis 1:31).

Likewise, the picture of the new creation is a picture noticeable for its absence of violence, structural injustice, or chaos. Both the sea (Revelation 21:1) and the darkness (Revelation 21:23-24; 22:5) – the epitome of chaos and fear in the ancient world – are gone. The gates of the city are wide open (Revelation 21:25) and the river of life flows through the middle of the new Jerusalem (Revelation 22:1-2). On either side of the river stands the tree of life, its fruit is never out of season and its leaves are for the healing of the nations (Revelation 22:2). The peace (or shalom) envisioned here is clearly both individual and structural, it is the renewal of all things, including the anti-shalom systems and structures of this world.

The entire biblical storyline is moving towards the final restoration of shalom because of the death and resurrection of Jesus. And yet through the death and resurrection of Jesus this shalom has now broken into our violent and broken world. We experience this shalom now in part, and in weakness, but one day in full. The taste of shalom among the people of God is a sign of God’s presence in the world.

It thus stands to reason that if we are a shalom-people; a people who follow the Prince of Peace, we must, on principle, be a people who are opposed to violence. So just how do we define violence?

2. Redefining Violence:

Galtung's Pyramid of Violence

Galtung’s Pyramid of Violence

Johan Galtung, the Norwegian scholar2, identified three categories of violence: direct, structural, and cultural.

Direct Violence

Direct Violence involves the use of physical force like killing, torture, rape, or sexual assault. Verbal violence and threat to use force are also now widely accepted as direct violence.

Structural Violence

Structural Violence exists when some groups have more access to goods, resources, and opportunities than other groups, and this unequal advantage is built into the very social, political, and economic systems that govern societies. Occasionally these systems may be overt, such as in the case of apartheid. But usually they are more subtle, such as networks of white or male privilege, the legacy of spatial apartheid, or the superior education to be found at “white schools”. Systems of structural violence are often upheld consciously or unconsciously by the presuppositions of cultural violence.

Cultural Violence

Cultural Violence refers to aspects of a culture that can be used to justify or legitimize direct or structural violence. These are the prevailing attitudes and beliefs which make direct and structural violence look or feel “right.” These may include attitudes that promote tightly defined gender roles or beliefs that certain cultures or races are superior. These may be expressed in attitudes such as the alleged superior civilizing influence of white people, perceived laziness of black people, or the availability of women for sex.

The root causes of direct violence are found in cultural and structural violence. While the direct violence is often seen and condemned the unseen cultural, or structural violence is seldom acknowledged or dealt with. The cyclical nature of violence means that direct violence, in turn, reinforces the structural and cultural violence.

Most direct acts of violence that we are seeing in South Africa have their roots in the bottom half of the pyramid (see fig. 1). These roots include elements such as racism, language, housing inequality, patriarchal gender roles, apartheid spatial planning, unequal health, and education systems etc.

Christians have been quick to condemn or distance themselves from the acts of direct violence. Yet have often simultaneously failed to see that not equally reproving the violent system has led to the (unwitting?) endorsement of a simplistic understanding of violence and thus legitimized the entire system of violence. A holistic concept of shalom means that the Christian must speak out and work against, the entire system of violence, not simply the one aspect (direct violence) which can be most easily seen and which most obviously affects us.

3. How Does the Gospel Shape our Reaction to Violence?

Jesus as the King with all the power, rights, means, and legitimization to inflict terrible violence on a stubborn and rebellious people, willingly lays down his power, and at the cross allows all the power and the force of violence and injustice in this world to fall on him. It is through his death on the cross that Jesus breaks the cycle of violence and subverts the empire-power of the world. His death provides both the means for us to be free from our own desire to perpetuate or tolerate violence as well as the model for our own struggle against a violent and unjust system.

Similarly, to follow Jesus is to allow the violence of the system to fall on us, as we seek to restore and redeem those crushed by the power and menace of the system. We are to lay down our rights and serve those in greatest need, even with the threat of being victims of great injustice ourselves. Miroslav Volf, the Croatian theologian, reminds us that the practice of non-violence in this world requires a belief in divine judgement. We can defer violence or retribution now in the sure hope that a just and perfect judgement is coming.3

4. Some Contextual Practices in Non-Violence

a. Eschew Violence

We must eschew violence in all its forms and seek to live lives (individually and corporately) of non-violence in the midst of a violent system. We must ask ourselves on whose back are our benefits won? What violence is my comfort perpetrating or perpetuating?

b. Pursue non-Violence

As Christ followers pursuing non-violence – and in particular those whose skin tone or gender means that we are beneficiaries (even if passive beneficiaries) of systemic and cultural violence – we ought to be willing to suffer the effects of the cultural and structural violence that might fall on us. This cross-centred paradigm must condition our thoughts on issues such as restitution, land, finances, sharing of our time and skills, education, spatial planning, and improved education and sanitation, among others.

c. Start with the Church

It must start with the church. Structural and cultural violence is not just out there in the world it is within our own systems. We must interrogate our own complicity in aiding cultural and structural violence. We must consider the economic and educational disparity in our churches and among our clergy. We must consider the role of language and Western cultures in our denominations and theological education. We must consider how it could be acceptable for us to be content within a system that systematically brutalises those who we purport to call brothers and sisters while we enjoy the benefits.

d. Distance Creates Indifference

Distance creates indifference and violence. In the words of Rabbi Jonathan Sachs, we have been guilty of “creating insulated spaces in where the cries of the oppressed can no longer be heard.”4 Thus we can only hear them when they shout with the voices of direct violence. We must bridge the relational and spatial gap so that we can hear the daily cries of structural and cultural violence. Jesus’ incarnational downward movement from power to weakness provides us with the most beautiful and provocative paradigm, causing us to act.

You can also listen to a talk version of this blog post here


  1. John Oswalt quoted in Christopher J Wright: The Mission of God’s People: 182
  2. Galtung, Johan. “Violence, Peace, and Peace Research” Journal of Peace Research, Vol. 6, No. 3 (1969), pp. 167-191
  3. Miroslav Wolf: Exclusion and Embrace 304
  4. From the online article Freewill: https://www.ou.org/torah/parsha/rabbi-sacks-on-parsha/freewill/#_ftn10