Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Why Nonviolence? Part II

Yesterday I made the case that Jesus was to serve as our major guide on the issue of nonviolence, and today I hope to explore some of the issues surrounding his teachings and actions. 

Two common objections to Jesus as a complete example of nonviolence are his actions during the cleansing of the temple, as well as the fact that he never rebukes Centurions for serving in an army. If Jesus was violent during the temple incident and didn’t rebuke soldiers, then it must be ok for us to exercise violence in certain cases as well right?

Not really. Even if he did approve of them fighting in the Roman Army, or if he did strike someone with a whip, we are still at the disadvantage of not having the mind of God to determine what constitutes a “just” violent action. But we do not need to rest our whole argument on that alone. With regard to the cleansing of the Temple, it is true that the Gospel of John does mention that Jesus had a whip (The other Gospels make no mention of the whip). What the gospel does not mention however is whether he used that whip on any person. Using this passage alone, we can no more read into it that Jesus whipped people, than we can definitively say that he did not. Thankfully however, we have many more instances of nonviolent action by Jesus to make it probable that he did not use the whip on any individuals that day.

As for the centurions, we are again reading more into the text than is there when we say that by Jesus’ lack of condemnation of the centurions; he is somehow implying that their actions as soldiers were representative of his Kingdom. What these passages show to me on the other hand, is that the Kingdom is not closed to anyone, no matter what their life is like when they come in contact with Jesus.  In fact, I think Jesus is deliberately using them as a contrast with the Pharisees of the day. He is essentially saying “Hey! This guy is a pagan and he gets what I am about better than you guys do! What gives?” In Richard Hay’s survey of nonviolence in the NT, he points out that Jesus’ non-condemnation of their violence is the closest argument that anyone could make to saying Jesus found violence an acceptable thing in the Kingdom, but that it comes up short as any defining guide on the matter.

Instead we hear calls from Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount to not only reject violence towards others, but to even reject angry thoughts towards them. If someone were to strike us, he teaches that our response is not to lash out in retaliation, but to suffer it. Is this fair? Absolutely not in the way we understand the world. But then- when did our sense of fairness ever bear the image of God’s understanding of justice? We are taught to pray for our enemies, to love them and not to retaliate in the violent tit-for-tat that the rest of the world espouses.

We also see in the Gospels that Jesus brought healing and freedom to people. He gave life, he didn’t take it away.

The above examples already are pointing in the direction of peaceful actions; however it is the actual passion of Christ which takes us into the world of nonviolence for good. There is not a single example of Jesus even hinting that the correct response to his treatment would involve the use of violence. Most notably, when Peter uses a sword to slice of the ear of one of the high priest’s slaves, Jesus does not respond with a “Well done good and faithful servant!” Instead he performs a life giving miracle. The ear that was violently torn from his head is returned to its healthy state.

In Matthew, Jesus also points out that of all the people in the world, he was the only one who could rightfully do something to save himself. He could have called upon the angels to save him. This was the temptation he faced in the desert. As he rejected it then, he rejects it here too. The example is not one of power over others (whether physical, mental, or spiritual), but one of power under others. Jesus was constantly yielding to others, he was compromising his divinity. Not because this was a sign of weakness, but because it was only by submitting himself to death that he was able to be what Israel couldn’t be on its own: the redeemer of the world.

We could follow the story to the moment when it is finished, but I think enough has been said for now. The life of Jesus and his teachings leave little ground for any person empowered by his spirit to claim that violence is the way of Christ.


Brad Foster said...

That's a very good point about Jesus having absolute power, and still refraining to use it. Maybe you'll talk about this later, but I don't ever hear any kind of justification for violence on a personal individual level. I hear most justifications for it on a government level. Governments need to defend their borders and their citizens, therefore Jesus material about nonviolence is not applicable. It's only applicable on an individual level, i.e., a person and their neighbor. The most often cited passage for that is Romans 13, how governments carry the sword. I think it's a problem when we're tying to see how limited we can make Jesus teaching, i.e., only on an individual level. I also think it's a problem that that most Christians do not challenge or hold accountable the Government as much as they should.