August 7, 2015 / Matt Tebbe

Am I Really Non-Violent?

The truth is, I wish I were non-violent, but I’m not. 

In an earlier article I told a story about a guy named Chris who asked me what my stance is on non-violence. I explained how I’ve learned from Jesus to respond to “what’s your position” questions by asking questions. So I asked Chris why that particular question was important to him now. 

Once I listened to Chris tell his story, explaining why this question mattered to him, I chose to engage the question in a straight-forward manner (Jesus teaches us to discern how to answer, not just what to answer).

So I answered him, “I believe Jesus is non-violent, and I’m committed to becoming more like him. The truth is I wish I were non-violent, but I’m not.” Here is what I mean…

“I believe Jesus is non-violent”

Although I can’t possibly do an adequate treatment of this claim in a short blog post,* central to this conviction for me is seeing how Jesus revolutionizes the Hebrew imagination of retributive justice and violence and their place in the Kingdom of God. 

In Matthew 5, he says of retributive justice (which employs the use of violence as a means to bring justice), “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person.” 

Just let that sink in a bit – DO NOT RESIST AN EVIL PERSON. 

Did Jesus just go “soft on sin”? What would he do if “confronted with the opportunity to kill Hitler”? (If I didn’t introduce the “Hitler gambit” in the body of the post, no doubt it would show up in the comment section). 

Jesus continues, "If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you." (Matt 5.38-42)

Jesus turns retributive justice on its head: "Love your enemies and pray for those who hurt you." 

The only place Jesus seemingly endorses violence is found in Luke 22:35-38 (“buy a sword”). But even here this saying seems to be a rhetorical device to provoke awareness of the coming danger and persecution the disciples will face, not an invitation to get into an arms race. 

This is made plain when the disciples, misunderstanding Jesus, literally retrieve two swords. Jesus responds, “that’s enough!” Jesus is terminating the conversation for lack of understanding, rather than saying that two swords will be sufficient for fighting off Romans. A few verses later, the Romans show up and one disciple zealously whips out his sword and slices a soldier’s ear. “Enough!” Jesus exclaims again, immediately reaching out to heal the ear. Clearly, the point was not the sword. 

At every angle we see that Jesus follows his own teaching. He refuses to resist evil persons, even when mocked, even when God’s honor is called into question. Even when he could win. Even when his lack of action led to the death of at least two other people who hung on his right and left and indirectly led to the death of all his friends who would be martyred. 

This is why I believe Jesus is nonviolent. Thoroughly, consistently, impressively rejecting violence as a legitimate form of making justice or mercy or goodness or anything redemptive happen. And I also think he gave us an example that we should imitate, therefore… 

“I’m committed to becoming more like Jesus”

The late Dallas Willard said, “Discipleship is the intentional process of becoming more like Jesus. It’s being with him to learn from him how to live like him.” When I look at Jesus’ life, I see that he lived a thoroughly consistent ethic that eschewed violent power as a means of securing outcomes. 

I simply don’t have an imagination for how to be and live like Jesus and remain committed or open to violence. Or to put it another way: I haven’t figured out how to imitate a cruciform, self-emptied, peace-making posture whilst committing an act of violence. 

But that’s not the whole truth…

In reality I’m NOT non-violent. I wish I were. But the truth of my life is that I’m a violent person. I commit violence practically every day. Jesus speaks to my violence, calls my violence murder, and he seems pretty cranked up about it:

You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca!,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, “You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell. (Matt 5.21-22)

Paul also equates putting on Christ with getting rid of all relational violence, including dishonesty, unprocessed anger, free loading, coarse language, rage and anger, brawling and slander (See Eph 4.25-32). This kind of internal narrative is “futile thinking” that comes from “a darkened understanding” due to being “alienated from God.” This retributive mentality is summed up as “every kind of impurity” and proceeds from a heart that has been hardened by constant surrender to violence (Eph 4.17-19).

What I say and the violent thoughts I entertain bear witness that, as much as I would like to be, I’m simply not yet non-violent. 

The world apart from Christ is fueled by the energy and exhaust of relational, physical, and emotional violence. The pattern of this world, of which we’re commanded to resist and reject, has violence in its DNA. The operating system of government, entertainment, leisure, and the economy involves violence. I find that, without even consciously willing myself to be violent, I am able to summon such thoughts and emotions that would comport with the firing of pistols, the flying of fists, and the pressing of launch buttons. 

I’m well acquainted with manageable eruptions of internal violence; my speech is peppered with malice and contempt camouflaged with sarcasm or humorous cynicism; don’t ask me about my thought life while driving. And yet…

I believe Jesus is non-violent, and I’m committed to becoming more like Jesus. I aspire to be a non-violent person, and I do so because I’ve surrendered to Jesus.

As a majority culture person who has never been on “the wrong side of power” this is a particularly difficult question for me. As a Protestant, heterosexual male of European descent I have benefitted from the prevailing power in America since I was born. I’ve never experienced racism, sexism, prejudice because of my sexual orientation, or bigotry due to my faith tradition. 

Those making decisions that determine issues of justice – with badges and guns and bombs and gavels and night sticks and jobs and bathrooms and busses – predominantly look like and think like me. I’ve never had a reason not to trust those who would be violent. Violence by those in power around me was always pointed at them: the Communists, the criminals, the Iraqis, the Muslims.

Violence has never been done to me or against me by those in power. It’s always been that which acted on my behalf, for me, by those who represented me. 

It seems that no matter how I answer the question of violence, with scripture and church history and the cross of Jesus, the conversation always comes back to the “dooms day scenarios”:  

    What if your family was held hostage at gunpoint?

    What if you could save a baby from death by punching a man in the face?

    What if you had the chance to kill Hitler before he killed all the Jews?

I’ve never been presented with a situation where violence was my only option. So in one sense, I don’t really know what I’d do if I felt like violence was my only option. But I’m faced with plenty of situations where I have LOTS of options (including violence) and if those are any indication, I’m not certain I would embody non-violence. 

Am I really non-violent? Truthfully, no. I’m not. But I believe Jesus is, and I long to be like Jesus.

* Two recent books I would highly recommend that came at the question of Christian nonviolence in different ways: “Farewell to Mars” by Brian Zahn and “Fight” by Preston Sprinkle. Both men used to endorse violence as Christians; both have repented. Their story and journey is much like my own. 

[Photo: Maria Eklind, CC via Flickr]