A Theology of Nonviolence

“He who says he abides in Him ought to walk in the same way in which He walked.”[1]

I honestly cannot remember ever hearing a sermon preached on nonviolence.  I’ve listened to pastors drone on about tithing, sexual immorality and Hell, but pacifism? I do not recall even one.   Why? How is it that a majority of American evangelicals continue to treat Jesus’ politic of nonviolent resistance as impractical idealism?  Thankfully this hasn’t always been the case.  For the first 400 years of Christianity, the Christian community universally refused military service. In fact, the church’s theology of nonviolence was so robust and universal that Emperor Diocletian forbade Christians to serve in the Roman Legions.  And yet, in a 2002 poll, 69% of conservative Christians supported direct military force against Baghdad, a full 10% points higher than the U.S. population as a whole.  Why the shift?  In part, I believe the failure of many American Christians to fully embrace this foundational element of the Gospel is due to a limited understanding of what pacifism, or nonviolent resistance actually entails.  What does love of enemy look like and how is it possible to resist the urge to return evil for evil?

The answer of course lies in the life, ministry and death of Jesus, who continues to bear witness to the fact that one can confront evil, injustice and violence without resorting to evil, injustice and violence.  American Christians, seduced by the myth of redemptive violence, have lived far too long with a civic religion that assumes there are only two options when confronted with evil, to ‘kill or be killed’.  But this limited reserve of reaction reveals our own physical and spiritual poverty.  Even Mahatma Gandhi said that if the only two choices are to kill or stand idly by while the weak are exterminated by the strong, then of course we must kill.  Thankfully, Jesus provides a third way beyond quietism and redemptive violence, but it comes with a price.

Contrary to what many assume, pacifism isn’t meekness in the face of evil, it is the courageous and oftentimes creative task of disarmament.  Remember Jesus and the woman caught in adultery?  With stones in hand and a terrified woman at their feet, Jesus interrupts the plans of the Pharisees by interceding on her behalf.  He physically steps between the woman and her accusers and bears the brunt of their aggression on her behalf.  He met their lethal force with an altogether different form of power, a power manifested in suffering love on behalf of the oppressed.  Christ’s third way of engaging evil isn’t some negative form of passivity; it is active love and truth in the face of injustice.  Seen in this light, nonviolent resistance is not a matter of legalism, but of discipleship.  It isn’t “thou shalt not” but “as He is so are we in this world.”[2]  If we are to be like him, we must offer the world a new paradigm, one that loves the enemy while still confronting his evil.

Nonviolence is a way to fight against injustice and war without using violence.  It is the force of love and truth that seeks change for human life that resists injustice that refuses cooperation with violence and systems of death. It is noncooperation with violence.  It says that the means are the ends, that the way to peace is peace itself.[3]

In this way, nonviolent resistance deals with the aggressor as God in Christ dealt with us, by refusing to allow rebellious mankind to be identified as His enemy.  He took on suffering in order to overcome evil.  In the cross, my enemy becomes a favored object of love since God Himself worked out the reconciliation of the world at the cost of His own suffering.  “Our concern to protect and enhance life is a sign of our confidence that in fact we live in a new age in which it is possible to see ‘the other’ as God’s creation…All life is valued, even the lives of our enemies, because God has valued them.”[4]   Jesus command to ‘love your enemies’ may well be the most difficult thing he ever asked us to do, but when practiced, both you and your enemy are reborn. “Love, you, my enemy, and lo, my enemy vanishes where he stood.”[5]

With this as our guide, peacemaking is no longer judged to be passive or boring, nor does it function as a cute little addition to the Gospel.  It is the sin qua non of discipleship. The fifth chapter of Matthew’s Gospel specifies the foundational component of Jesus’ good news, “Blessed are you makers of peace.”[6]  As his followers, we must never assume that peacemaking is simply one activity among others that we can choose or discard at our discretion, but rather it becomes “the very form of the church insofar as the church is the form of the one who ‘is our peace.'”[7]  And like Him, we will realize that to love people does not mean avoiding confrontation or preserving a passive aggressive harmony.  As Gusto Gutierrez reminds us, “Love of enemies does not necessarily ease tensions; rather it challenges the whole system and becomes a subversive formula for true personal and national liberation.”[8]  Therefore we shouldn’t be surprised that peacemakers like Dr. Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi appear as anything but peaceful.

Active peacemaking, loving my enemy and confronting our mutual discord necessitates the recognition that I share a common story with my adversary, that we are both in rebellion against God, but due to His loving kindness, He refuses to count such sin against us.  It is past time for Christians the world over to cease allowing our governments to decide who our enemy is and what we are required to do to him.  In Christ, there is no other, there is just us!  The stumbling block for the church, and possibly the reason why we hear so few sermons preached about nonviolence, isn’t just that God in his divine defenselessness choose to die for us his enemies, but rather that we as His followers must go and do likewise.

— [1] John 2: 6.
[2] Yoder, John Howard. The Original Revolution. Page 60.
[3] Dear, Father John. Our God Is Nonviolent. Page 7.
[4] Hauerwas, Stanley. The Peaceable Kingdom.
[5] Berrigan, Daniel. The Word Made Flesh. “Love Your Enemies.”
[6] Matthew 5: 43.
[7] Dear, Father John. Our God Is Nonviolent.
[8] Gutierrez, Gustovo. A Theology of Liberation. 1973

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