Nonviolent Jesus

I apologize for not posting last week. I have a good excuse – ten days ago, my old trusty Lenovo laptop blue-screened. If you’re not a PC user, you don’t know how terrifying those blue screens can be! And this was not your ordinary, annoying, blue screen in the midst of a key sales presentation kind of mishap – my PC repeatedly blue screened at the beginning of startup. Yucch. So I’ve spent much of the past week configuring a new computer to do all of the odd things I do (including some esoteric legacy computer software writing and maintenance). Hopefully, I’m back in business (and if any of you have questions about Microsoft’s Surface Pro 3 or Windows 8.1, I’m your go-to guy!).

Today’s post will be shorter than usual (you can leave “Hurrah!” as a comment below if you’re so inclined). We talk a lot here about the Historical Jesus. Last year I wrote a detailed review of Reza Aslan’s book about Jesus as violent zealot revolutionary, so I figure I owe some space to the opposing point of view. My current favorite voice in favor of Jesus’ nonviolence is Dr. Simon Joseph, Adjunct Professor of Religion at Cal Lutheran. Dr. Joseph’s latest book is The Nonviolent Messiah: Jesus, Q, and the Enochic Tradition, a book that is currently on my virtual nightstand.

Simon Joseph is kind of the anti-Aslan. Simon argues that “Jesus was consistently nonviolent in both word and deed.” According to Simon, Jesus’ nonviolence was his “central characteristic,” “an integral component of his messianic identity, purpose, authority, and ministry.” Simon also thinks that Jesus’ nonviolence lies at the heart of what got him in trouble and led to his execution. In response to my question why the authorities would bother to crucify a thoroughly nonviolent Jesus, Simon wrote me the following:

At the end of the day, we have a tense environment where questions of religious authority bleed out into social, political, and economic institutions. And popular leaders with growing movements are threats not only to the political stability of the region but also to fragile collaborative arrangements as well.

Of course, the New Testament picture of Jesus is not consistently nonviolent. Simon admits in his book that “The Gospels seem to portray Jesus as both violent and nonviolent.” “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth,” Jesus said in Matthew. “I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.” Jesus instructed his disciples to get swords, and all four Gospels report that someone with Jesus at his arrest (identified as a follower in Matthew and Luke, and as Peter in John) was armed with a sword and used it to attack a member of the arresting party. If (as some argue) we should understand these swords to be figurative and not literal, we should also acknowledge the quantity of figurative violence threatened by Jesus in the New Testament: people to be burned with unquenchable fire, entire cities threatened with destruction, stories of landowners executing tenants and kings executing opponents, not to mention people to be “cut to pieces” when the Son of Man returns to earth.

Alongside all this talk of violence and destruction, we must consider the radical pacifist Jesus, he of the turning the other cheek, walking the extra mile, loving enemies, offering the wicked no resistance, blessing those who curse, not condemning anyone, and so forth. Of course it’s possible to reconcile the Jesus who brought the sword with the Jesus who offered the wicked no resistance, but different Christian thinkers manage their reconciliation in different ways. We have Mark Driscoll’s Jesus, who is “is saddling up on a white horse and coming to slaughter his enemies and usher in his kingdom,” and John Howard Yoder’s Jesus, whose love “found its ultimate revelation in the uncomplaining and forgiving death of the innocent at the hands of the guilty.” Naturally, there are countless voices who forge this reconciliation in different ways.

I’ll admit it: I’m on the fence when it comes to Jesus’ violence/nonviolence. Naturally, the portrait of the nonviolent Jesus is far more appealing to an old hippie like me than the “muscular Jesus” of people like those in the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. But I don’t understand how someone who persistently turned the other cheek would have been found guilty of sedition by Pilate and ended up on a cross as the “King of the Jews.” I am a lawyer; I know that any legal system can do things that defy all logic. It’s not beyond possibility that Jesus was a victim of circumstance, or that his crucifixion was an accident. Tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands of Jews were crucified by Rome – with those numbers, there must have been many Jews nailed to crosses merely because they were caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.

But if we’re looking for a reason for Jesus’ death, and if Jesus (as John Yoder described him) was truly the most “uncomplaining and forgiving” of men, then (as John Yoder also stated) Jesus was also the most innocent of men, making his persecutors the most guilty. If Jesus was thoroughly and consistently nonviolent, never caused a breach of the peace, and loved all his enemies (whether Pharisee, Sadducee or Roman), then this heightens the possible guilt of everyone associated with his death, particularly those Jewish authorities who (reportedly) turned Jesus over to Pilate and the Jewish crowds who (reportedly) clamored for Jesus’ execution. I’m not inclined personally to resolve the Jesus violence/nonviolence conundrum by laying all the blame at the feet of Jesus’ fellow Jews – at least, not in the absence of solid evidence that Jesus never threatened to turn family members against each other, never had his followers carrying and using swords, never brought a whip of cords into the Temple to chase out the money changers and sellers of animals – in short, that he never posed the slightest threat that could have been interpreted (even mistakenly) as a breach of public order.

So … Simon’s book is now on my crowded reading list. While I read Simon’s book, please chime in with your comments below about Jesus and violence. Do you see a way to make Jesus the epitome of love and peace without ramping up Jewish guilt in the process? You can also read Anthony Le Donne’s terrific interview with Simon here and here.

  • John Brantingham

    Jesus and the Jews at the time were dealing with a national occupation, and they were muddling through as best they could. If there was some violence, it seems to be fairly low level, most of it is symbolic. I know you’ll have some examples that are not symbolic, but he certainly didn’t try to lead an armed militia into the city to drive them out. The moments of Jesus’ violence raise consciousness without hurting anyone. The one time I can think of when there is true bloodshed is when Peter removes someone’s ear, and Jesus repairs that immediately, giving us an example of physical healing. Maybe I’m misreading (and mis-remembering), but like so much of the Bible, talk of violence is often metaphorical. The example that he leads is a revolution of perception rather than an armed insurrection.

    • John, I agree, if Jesus ever acted violently, he never seems to have been terribly violent. But note, as far as the ear-removal, it is only the Gospel of John that identifies the sword-swinger as Peter, and only Luke that has Jesus restore the ear to its rightful owner.

      I like what you said here: a revolution of perception. Nice!

  • Chaim

    Jesus is the epitome of love and justice because Christians revere him. To me, this has nothing to do with other Jews. There need not be a comparison between Jesus as the epitome and other Jews. Now we know that Christians over the centuries have juxtaposed Jesus with other Jews but that their collective problem. They needn’t have done that; however they did. We know that there were other Jews professing the same thing at that time; none of these other Jews, though, were ultimately seen as the “Son of God.”

    • Chaim, I did not intend to compare Jesus’ nonviolence to the attitudes of other Jews, though my feeling is that Jesus’ views concerning violence are probably similar to those of Rabbi Hillel. The question you’re raising is one of my personal favorites: how unique WAS Jesus? Yes, you’re right, there is a tendency for some Christians to see Jesus as wholly unique, and a second tendency (one I think is on the decline) to contrast Jesus against a negative first century Jewish context. My counter is that Jesus was very much a Jew of his time and place, and that the good we can see in his teachings and his ministry reflect favorably on the Judaism of his teachers, scripture and worship.

      • Chaim


        I completely agree with you about Jesus being very much a Jew of his time. I think your statement about Jesus being seen as better or different than other Jews exemplifies why I am able to more easily deal with Christians who have a high Christology. For these Christians (Catholic, Orthodox), Jesus is the “Son of God.” The main difference between him and everyone else at that time is the fact that God selected him. There is not much for me to argue with them because, while I may disagree with them, they are not casting aspersions on the Jewish people. I find Christians with a lower Christology (who focus on the “historical Jesus”) are often the ones who make the unintentionally antisemitic comments about Jesus being “different.” Thanks for helping me differentiate them in my head.