(Not) The Last Word on Jesus and Nonviolence

downloadI wanted to write a piece that would be my last word on Jesus and nonviolence. For the time being at least. But I can’t seem to manage to write that piece.

You see … I have been privately questioned by some of my friends for things I’ve written here of late, on Jesus and nonviolence. I have suggested that Jesus’ nonviolence was not perfect. I have suggested that the Temple-cleansing incident was violent. I have suggested that Jesus’ prophecy of the coming Kingdom of G-d was violent. I have suggested that Jesus’ response to Peter’s violence during Jesus’ arrest failed to condemn this violence in clear terms. Why would I want to write all this? Am I worried that there might be a sudden outbreak of worldwide pacifism? That people might beat their assault weapons into plowshares?

I wish I could make my response clear. This is what I want.

I want to find a Jesus who stood firmly and unambiguously for nonviolence. I want a prophet and teacher who stood radically opposed to the sword. I want a clear, authoritative voice in the world who says, enough of the violence! Enough of drones, missiles, bombs, assault rifles in schools, police brutality, journalist assassinations, you name it. Enough of cease fires that themselves cease. Enough of armies of invasion, armies of occupation, armies of deployment.

The fact that I struggle to find this Jesus is not the issue. The issue is that so few other Christians find this Jesus, or follow him if they find him. This is how the English Catholic G.K. Chesterson described it: “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried.”

Yes, there are wonderful and inspiring examples of nonviolent Christians, from St. Francis to Martin Luther King. There are wonderful and inspiring examples of Christian groups dedicated to nonviolence, from the Quakers to the Seventh Day Adventists. I do not deny the importance of these Christians and groups of Christians. But they seem to me to be in the minority. Substantially so. I think more Christians effectively follow Paul when it comes to nonviolence: “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” If it is possible. If history is a judge, Christians have frequently found it impossible to live at peace with everyone.

More Christians still appear to subscribe to the “just war theory,” which is commonly thought to be based on the writings of St. Augustine: “True religion looks upon as peaceful those wars that are waged not for motives of aggrandizement, or cruelty, but with the object of securing peace, punishing those who do evil, and of supporting the good.” And what of Jesus’ commands to love enemies and turn the other cheek? Augustine said, “What is here required is not a bodily action, but an inward disposition. The sacred seat of virtue is the heart.”

OK …

The mental gymnastics of creative Christians do not end there. C.S. Lewis once explained Jesus’ love of enemies as a kind of “tough love.” “Does loving your enemy mean not punishing him?” asked Lewis. “No, for loving myself does not mean that I ought not to subject myself to punishment — even to death. If you had committed a murder, the right Christian thing to do would be to give yourself up to the police and be hanged.”

I’m left scratching my head. If capital punishment is a form of Christian nonviolence, then it’s hard to imagine what actions Jesus prohibited in his Sermon on the Mount. I suppose I could fall back on Augustine, and say that Jesus was concerned only with our “inward disposition.” But I can’t do that. There has to be a distinction between nonviolence and kicking butt with good intention. If all Jesus cared about was the latter, then he preached good-heartedness, but not nonviolence.

But I think Jesus was preaching something more than good-heartedness.

What does all this have to do with me, a nice Jewish boy who likes to engage in interfaith dialogue?

When it comes to peace, my attitude is, whatever it takes. If I thought it would help, I’d argue that the heart of Jesus’ teaching, its core logic, was nonviolence. I’d argue that the thrust of Jesus’ life, his purpose, whether we see him as an apocalyptic prophet or the savior of humankind, goes to a radical brand of love of neighbor that is the polar opposite of violence. And if Jesus said or did a few things here and there that don’t smack of nonviolence? Well … I’m happy to judge Jesus based on his best stuff, from his best days. And there’s something more. We look for meaning in scripture, and that meaning has to be based on what has meaning to us – again, when we bring our best stuff to scripture, on our best days. And while I won’t ignore the way Jesus sometimes ripped into his enemies, the content of the Gospels that speak meaning to me are the kind of things I find in portions of the Sermon on the Mount: blessed are the peacemakers. Be reconciled. Pray for those who persecute you. Forgive. Don’t worry so much. Don’t judge so much. The Golden Rule is the law and the prophets.

As the Jew in this conversation, it does not fall to me to define the true meaning of Jesus’ teaching. This is the first of Krister Stendahl’s three rules of religious understanding: when trying to understand another religion, we should ask the adherents of that religion. It is up to Christians to define Christianity; it is up to me to ask. When I ask, I hear different things about Christianity and nonviolence. Who should I believe? Stendahl doesn’t say. Can I choose to believe those Christians whose understanding of Christianity is most meaningful to me? Does the answer to this question change if I regard Jesus (as he was) as Jewish?

There’s something else. I’ve written here before on the importance of examining problematic text in scripture as problematic. I’ve pointed to statements by Eric Seibert, where Seibert says that “the Bible should never be used to harm others”, and “if we are going to keep the Bible from harming others, we need to learn to have problems with it.” There are statements attributed to Jesus in the New Testament that have been used to justify Christian violence against other Christians, and Jews, and others. Maybe Jesus never said these things, or maybe some have read these statements incorrectly, out of context. But we can’t ignore the statements, or the considerable history of violence by Christians in the name of Christianity, from “By this sign, conquer,” to the present day.

This is a complicated question. We must promote peace. How do we do that in interfaith dialogue? What do you think?

  • As I read this, I thought that there is a good argument for non violence as the core character of God. Note particularly the summary of the character of YHWH in Psalm 146:6-9. The imitation of YHWH – to be complete (TM) Holy etc as YHWH is complete, holy is a worthy calling – exactly the same I think as the call to obedience that is given to those who follow Jesus. – One could write an essay on this beginning with Ex 34:6 as it is elaborated in the Psalms: 25, 86, 103, 111, 112, 116, and 145. This non-violence includes serious suffering and one does not need the NT to show this in the character of God – good book by Terrence Fretheim, The Suffering of God – needs much more study from me but I have it out from the library at the moment.

    • Bob, it is VERY good to see you posting here again! I hope you are recovering nicely.

      There is a strong need to thoroughly explore the relationship between Jesus’ nonviolence and the Jewish attitude towards violence in Jesus’ time and place. There is a similar need to integrate the effort to interpret the Gospels to show a nonviolent message, with an effort to read the Old Testament with similar generosity and purpose. You are probably aware that many of the same people who stress Jesus’ nonviolence are the folks most eager to contrast that nonviolence against a supposedly violent first century Jewish context. You and I are on the same page here.

      And yes … there is a need to explore the relationship between the Jewish and Christian views on violence and suffering. This relationship is complex. The fact that G-d may suffer does not tell us that G-d wants to end all suffering.

      I am happy to hear that you propose to study this, and I’m eager to discuss with you what you find in your study.

  • Robert

    We’ve agreed in the past on the obvious violence of apocalyptic imagery, but it is seems important that Jesus’ version of apocalypticism, unlike others of the time, did not seem to envision a military war in which his followers would fight a cataclysmic war first against unfaithful ‘Jews’ and then against all the nations. If God, and God alone, is seen as the perpetrator of the cosmic violence against Evil and all the evil ones, it is based only on his role as the judge of all mankind. Judgment in favor of the oppressed, poor, and truly pious. God’s Judgment can only be seen as a very good thing by those who actually believe that God is God and not merely a nationalistic or philosophical human construct. Paul considered God’s judgment of the secrets of all to be a fundamental part of his ‘gospel’ (Rom 2,16), thus ‘good news’, not bad news. When humans try to imagine that they can substitute their own judgment for the judgment of God, they will invariably and eventually get it wrong, sometimes catastrophically wrong. Assuming Jesus actually did think the world was coming to an imminent end, he obviously was completely mistaken, and left his followers to figure things out on their own and they obviously messed up and got things wrong as well, eventually catastrophically wrong. But we keep struggling to get it right. Some do, like St Francis or Martin Luther King, Jr, etc, but the rest of us, we hope, do the best we can and trust that God knows the secrets of our heart. That is not a spiritualized interpretation, quite the contrary, just an attempt a realistic one.

    • Robert, I owe you a longer reply. I’m not sure about your comparative apocalypticism, but I want to look into it further if possible before replying.

      • Robert

        Sure, there’s no hurry. Not like the world is coming to an end tomorrow. The only real comparative apocalyptic literature are found among the Dead Sea Scrolls, perhaps the first to look at would be the War Scroll.