A Primer on Self Affirming, Nonviolence (Part 1)

Herb Montgomery | July 26, 2019

gray bird cutout decor on brown plank symbolizing nonviolence
Photo by Tamara Menzi on Unsplash

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“But today most of Christianity either rejects Jesus’ nonviolence outright or embraces nonviolence in a way that leaves marginalized and exploited people passive in the face of injustice and harms them. There are alternatives . . . I want to offer an interpretative lens that I refer to as Self-Affirming Nonviolent Resistance.” 


Seven years ago I wrote a series on Nonviolence.  Much has changed for me since then.  Originally, my understanding of nonviolence had been deeply influenced by those who define nonviolence  in a way that is rooted in self-sacrifice.  I’ve grown to understand nonviolence differently. I’ve grown to see that this way of defining nonviolence is itself violent.  A healthier, more life-giving form of nonviolence is needed. This is significant enough for me that I believe a rewrite of that series seven years ago on nonviolence is important.  In the words of Katie Cannon from the introduction of Delores Williams’ classic Sisters in the Wilderness, “Theologians need to think seriously about the real-life consequences of redemptive suffering, God-talk that equates the acceptance of pain, misery and abuse as the way for true believers to live as authentic Christian disciples. Those who spew such false teaching and warped preaching must cease and desist.” I have so much gratitude for Cannon and others for helping me see this. I have thought seriously in response to womanist and feminist critiques of defining nonviolence in ways that are rooted in self-sacrifice and the myth of redemptive suffering. It is as a result of listening to these critiques that I feel that this revision is needed.  

Let’s begin.

In Matthew’s Gospel we read these words:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’ But now I tell you: do not take revenge on someone who wrongs you. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, let him slap your left cheek too. And if someone takes you to court to sue you for your shirt, let him have your coat as well. And if one of the occupation troops forces you to carry his pack one mile, carry it two miles. When someone asks you for something, give it to him; when someone wants to borrow something, lend it to him. You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your friends, hate your enemies.’ But now I tell you: love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may become the children of your Father in heaven. For he makes his sun to shine on bad and good people alike, and gives rain to those who do good and to those who do evil. Why should God reward you if you love only the people who love you? Even the tax collectors do that! And if you speak only to your friends, have you done anything out of the ordinary? Even the gentiles do that! You must be perfect—just as your Father in heaven is perfect.” (Matthew 5:38-48)

When it comes to nonviolence in general, it seems to me that Western, Americanized Christianity has lost its way. Maybe we’ve forgotten what the road we’re supposed to be on even looks like. Since Jesus spoke the above words two millennia ago, followers and non-followers alike have read them and struggled to interpret and apply them in life-giving ways.

I want to offer an interpretative lens that I refer to as Self-Affirming Nonviolent Resistance.

The first word I want to focus on is “Nonviolent.”

Today, many Christians say that Jesus’ teaching on nonviolence is only for certain groups, certain time periods, or certain cultural circumstances. Even so it is obvious that Jesus taught a form of nonviolence.

Further, too often Christians who do teach nonviolence teach a self-sacrificing form of nonviolence rather than a self-affirming form. I once did this myself because during the first 300 years of Christian history, many Christians interpreted Jesus’ teaching as self-sacrificing nonviolence too. But listening to marginalized communities and their experiences with nonviolence opens up new understandings of what Jesus may have originally taught.

I am fully aware that some supporters of Renewed Heart Ministries who are wonderful Christians have a different opinion from me on this topic and do not subscribe to nonviolence. Thank you for tracking with us on this series anyway. It would be easier for you to focus on things that don’t pull you out of your comfort zone. Through this series, we will look at this subject again, secure and confident in our love, respect and consideration of each other.

I want to also speak to those who subscribe to self-sacrificial nonviolence. Our social structures already deny justice and full humanity to so many people. They’re forced to deny their selves. For this sector of society, I don’t believe Jesus would teach them to further sacrifice themselves in a society that already requires that. I believe Jesus’ form of nonviolence gave marginalized people a way to affirm themselves, affirm their humanity, to hold on to their selves in a world that would either prefer they did not exist or demand that they “go back to where they came from.”

Nonviolence, even self-affirming nonviolent resistance, is a disposition, an attitude, and a way of life where the means and the ends are aligned. We do not choose the way of violence in order to maintain peace: Jesus’ way of peace disrupted unjust systems. Jesus’ way arrived at peace through resistance, by establishing distributive justice for all, especially those our communities push to the edges and margins.

Today we have overwhelming evidence that the early followers of Jesus were nonviolent. Over the church’s first three centuries, those who held onto nonviolence drifted into more self-sacrificing forms of it. Yet their testimony for some form of nonviolence is still relevant and challenging to Christians today who reject nonviolence completely, regardless of its form. The U.S. Christian church has become something that early Christians wouldn’t recognize. The statements that follow are representative of the voices in Christianity for its first 300 years.

“We (Christians) no longer take up sword against nation, nor do we learn war any more, but we have become the children of peace.” —Origin

“And shall the son of peace take part in the battle when it does not become him even to sue at law? And shall he apply the chain, and the prison, and the torture, and the punishment, who is not the avenger even of his own wrongs?” —Tertullian

“Anyone who has the power of the sword, or who is a civil magistrate wearing the purple, should desist, or he should be rejected.”—Hippolytus

“Rather, it is better to suffer wrong than to inflict it. We would rather shed our own blood than stain our hands and our conscience with that of another.” —Arnobius

“It makes no difference whether you put a man to death by word, or rather by the sword, since it is the act of putting to death itself which is prohibited.”—Arnobius

“When God forbids killing, he doesn’t just ban murder, which is not permitted under the law even; he is also recommending us not to do certain things which are treated as lawful among men.”—Lactanius

In some of these statements we see love and nonviolence defined by the early church leaders as self-sacrifice, the willingness to suffer for the benefit of someone else. We’ll discuss this at greater lengths in this series when we listen to feminist and womanist voices and their critique. For now, Marcus J. Borg sums up the concern of self-sacrifice in his book The Heart of Christianity:

“Oppressed people, in society and in the family, have often been told to put their own selves last out of obedience to God. When thus understood, the message of the cross becomes an instrument of oppressive authority and self-abdication.” (p. 112)

Defining nonviolence as self-sacrifice for the oppressed has proven itself to be a violent form of nonviolence.

In this series I hope to offer an alternative view.

I interpret Jesus’ teachings on nonviolence similarly to Walter Wink who states that Jesus’ nonviolence gave oppressed communities, a way to “assert [their] own humanity and dignity . . . refuse to submit or to accept the inferior position [and] expose the injustice of the system.” (in Jesus and Nonviolence: A Third Way)

But today most of Christianity either rejects Jesus’ nonviolence outright or embraces nonviolence in a way that leaves marginalized and exploited people passive in the face of injustice and harms them.

There are alternatives.

In this series, we will consider Jesus’ sayings on the subject of nonviolence. We will then address frequently asked questions about applying nonviolence. Lastly we will listen to objections and critiques, not from those who would use violence to dominate or subjugate others, but from communities for whom a form of nonviolence has left them further oppressed, exploited and subjugated. 

My hope is that we will arrive at a form of nonviolence that’s not only faithful to the Jesus story but that’s also life-giving and that bears the fruit of liberation, too. 

This series is going to be a wonderful journey of discovery for us, regardless of where we begin. Whether we agree at the end of this series or not, our understanding will be greater as we explore what we believe and why. 

We’ll begin next week. For now, it will be enough for us to contemplate what this passage may hold for us today:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’ But now I tell you: do not take revenge on someone who wrongs you. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, let him slap your left cheek too. And if someone takes you to court to sue you for your shirt, let him have your coat as well. And if one of the occupation troops forces you to carry his pack one mile, carry it two miles. When someone asks you for something, give it to him; when someone wants to borrow something, lend it to him. You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your friends, hate your enemies.’ But now I tell you: love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may become the children of your Father in heaven. For he makes his sun to shine on bad and good people alike, and gives rain to those who do good and to those who do evil. Why should God reward you if you love only the people who love you? Even the tax collectors do that! And if you speak only to your friends, have you done anything out of the ordinary? Even the pagans do that! You must be perfect—just as your Father in heaven is perfect.” (Matthew 5:38-48)

HeartGroup Application

1. This week, discuss whether or not you subscribe, at least in principle, to some form of nonviolence. 

2. In what areas of your life are you practicing nonviolence?  What do these practices look like?

3. What questions do you have about nonviolence?  Have your group email some of those questions in to us here at Renewed Heart Ministers and they may just end up in this new series!  I’d love to hear what you’re thinking.

Thanks for checking in with us this week. 

Wherever you are, keep choosing love, compassion, action and reparative and distributive justice.

Another world is possible, if we choose it. 

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week. 

Checking Your Privilege

Herb Montgomery | July 19, 2019

hand holding glasses
Photo by Bud Helisson on Unsplash

“We can do better than defensiveness. In this story of Jesus I hear the call to lay mine down . . . Another world is possible. But we’re going to have to learn to listen to those whose experiences are less privileged and end the very system of privilege if we are to get there.”


In Luke’s gospel we read a story of Jesus rebuking his disciples:

“As the time approached for him to be taken up to heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem. And he sent messengers on ahead, who went into a Samaritan village to get things ready for him; but the people there did not welcome him, because he was heading for Jerusalem. When the disciples James and John saw this, they asked, ‘Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?’ But Jesus turned and rebuked them. Then he and his disciples went to another village.” (Luke 9:51-56)

Let’s get a little background on who the Samaritans were. To the best of our knowledge, this 1st Century group had Hebrew roots and focused on Mt. Gerizim rather than Jerusalem. The traced their lineage back to Ephraim and Manasseh of the northern tribes of Israel. When Israel returned from captivity and attempted to rebuild the temple, Jewish people in Jerusalem refused to allow Samaritans to join them in rebuilding the temple. This was a time when Jewish people feared their identity was at risk of being lost. During periods like this, hard lines are often drawn between insiders and outsiders. Jewish rejection of Samaritans thus led to open animosity, resentment, and even hostile violence between the communities. Samaritans erected their own temple on Mount Gerizim, which Jewish people destroyed in 130 BCE. The Samaritans built a second temple at Shechem. 

Bitter hatred between Jews and Samaritans continued to escalate, and the gospel stories were written during this period. It was dangerous for Jewish travelers to travel through Samaria. According to Josephus, “Now there arose a quarrel between the Samaritans and the Jews on the occasion following. It was the custom of the Galileans, when they came to the holy city at the festivals, to take their journeys through the country of the Samaritans. And at this time there lay in the road they took, a village that was called Ginea: which was situated in the limits of Samaria, and the great plain; where certain persons thereto belonging fought with the Galileans, and killed a great many of them.” (Antiquities of the Jews, Book 20, Chapter 6)

Reparation and reconciliation efforts between adherents of Samaritanism and Judaism throughout the centuries have been attempted. (For an excellent summary of the Samaritans and the challenges in understanding who they were in the 1st Century, see “Samaritans” in Craig A. Evans, et al. Dictionary of New Testament Background, InterVarsity Press, 2005, and Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible, WB Eerdmans Publishing Co, 2019.)

Given this history, I find fascinating the story of Jesus rebuking his disciples’ violent attitude toward the Samaritans. 

I live in a predominantly White area of West Virginia. I was born and raised here, and though we moved away when I became an adult, we moved back to take care of my mother who since passed away. I remember a time when a dear friend of mine who is Black visited us. As we walked through the grocery store together, she blurted out, “Two.” 

“Two?” I asked.

“Yeah, that’s how many non-White people I’ve seen since I’ve been here.”

Europeans first settled in my little town in the mid 1700s, and we just elected our first Black mayor. We still have a long way to go in my area of this state in the work of racial justice.

From time to time I hear people attempting to define justice efforts as “reverse racism” and getting upset whenever White privilege is even brought up. Crystal and I were standing with other parents at my daughter’s high school and talking about privilege and racial injustice. One of the dads blurted out, “I’m never gonna apologize for being born White!” I shook my head. Crystal tried to help him understand. He didn’t get it and I don’t think he really wanted to.

In the story we began with, Jesus doesn’t take a defensive stance when the Samaritans refuse him lodging. In fact, he rebukes his disciples for their desire to retaliate against what they deemed as inhospitality. For crying out loud! Did the disciples actually think the Samaritans should offer thirteen Jewish men lodging given all that Jewish men had done to them? 

I want to imagine that Jesus understood. That he didn’t fault the Samaritans. That he knew the Samaritans had a right to set the healthy boundaries they needed. I find it interesting that he didn’t lecture the Samaritans on their need to show him, a Jewish man, some enemy-love. I want to believe that Jesus understood the Samaritans’ right to self-determine whom they would and wouldn’t offer lodging to. Social location matters, and I want to believe that Jesus is not just rebuking his own disciples for being offended but also taking the side of the Samaritans. 

I’ve worked with multiple organizations in my town that are engaged in racial justice work here, and I continually have to choose to check my privilege. Sometimes I get it right, and sometimes I screw up and have to make things right. I’ve learned that what is okay for someone in one social location to do is not always okay for those in other social locations and vice versa. At a Christian conference event a couple years ago, a very popular, Christian preacher and author shut me out of the conversation and challenged my call to build egalitarian, mutual participation in Christian circles. Later that week, a friend who is queer and Latinx told me that another White straight male, an invited speaker, needed to bow out of a panel they were on to allow room for other voices and other perspectives. My beliefs about egalitarian, mutual participation in Christian circles were challenged again, but differently. Some would see these as the same thing, but, no, social location matters. It is perfectly right for people whose social location is less privileged and whose voices are typically excluded to demand a seat at the table instead. This is very different from someone whose social location is privileged demanding their voice be the only one heard.

If these thoughts are new to you, a great discussion of the principles of racial justice is Teaching Tolerance’s White Anti-Racism: Living the Legacy. Answering the question, “What are the common mistakes white activists make when trying to be allies to people of color?” Yvette Robles, a Chicana and Community Relations Manager in Los Angeles, responds, “Not acknowledging that they have power and privilege by the mere fact that they are white. That is not to say that other parts of their identity can’t lead them to feel powerless, for example, being white and gay, or being white and working class. Another mistake I see is when white activists try to emulate a different culture by changing how they act, their speech or style of dress. It’s one thing to appreciate someone else’s culture; it’s quite another to adopt it.” 

Georgette Norman, an African American woman and director of the Rosa Parks Library and Museum, adds, “The most common mistakes white activists make are setting an agenda with the illusion of inclusion, and having to have a franchise on comfort. God forbid a person of color says or does anything to make white activists feel uncomfortable. That means there can be no discussion of race and no challenge to their privilege, which means no challenge to their power.” 

Sejal Patel, a South Asian American woman and community organizer in South Asian immigrant communities answers the same question: “White anti-racists make a mistake when they shut out the poor and uneducated and keep in those ‘in the know’ to decide what’s good for people of color. No movement can work where there is divisiveness. Also, if people of color want to have their own space and place in certain aspects of society — say for a weekend or a month — they shouldn’t have to feel like they are being exclusive for doing this. White activists need to understand that society is their space and place every single day, and they shouldn’t feel threatened or left out.”

I interpret Jesus in this story as acknowledging the degree of Jewish power and privilege he held in contrast with the Samaritans in his society. He respected their space. Jesus wasn’t offended by them protecting their space. In fact he rebukes his fellow Jewish male disciples for taking offense and becoming defensive (offensive).

The disciples could have found biblical examples to use to justify their retaliation of “calling fire down from heaven.” They could have used Elijah’s words in 2 Kings 1:10: “If I am a man of God, may fire come down from heaven and consume you and your fifty men!” They could have appealed to other stories like the tale of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, where even “the LORD rained down burning sulfur on Sodom and Gomorrah—from the LORD out of the heavens.” (Genesis 19:24)

Jesus could have become defensive and chosen to use any of these stories against those who received Jewish violence, and he didn’t.

So what can people of privilege learn from this story?

Check your defensiveness.

I just finished reading the late James H. Cone’s posthumously published book, Said I Wasn’t Gonna Tell Nobody: The Making of A Black Theologian. In one portion, Cone recounts how many of his white listeners responded when he spoke out on loving his own blackness and embracing Black Power: 

“When I spoke of loving blackness and embracing Black Power, they heard hate toward white people. Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, and James Baldwin confronted similar reactions. Any talk about the love and beauty of blackness seemed to arouse fear and hostility in whites.” (James H. Cone, Said I Wasn’t Gonna Tell Nobody, Orbis Books. Kindle Edition, Kindle Location 592)

We can do better than defensiveness. In this story of Jesus I hear the call to lay mine down. 

Straight people can choose to listen to LGBTQ people rather than be defensive. 

White people can choose to listen to people of color rather than be defensive.

Cis men can choose to listen to women, cis and trans, rather than be defensive. 

Cis folk can choose to listen to trans folk rather than be defensive.

Non-disabled folk can choose to listen to disabled folk rather than be defensive. 

Wealthy people can choose to listen to the poor and working classes rather than be defensive. 

Wisdom is not the sole property of those who are most widely read or who have gained the most academic accomplishments.

Another world is possible. 

But we’re going to have to learn to listen to those whose experiences are less privileged and end the very system of privilege if we are to get there.

“When the disciples James and John saw this, they asked, ‘Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?’ But Jesus turned and rebuked them.” (Luke 9:54-55)

HeartGroup Application

  1. Can you name a time when listening to someone else’s experience made a significant change in your own understanding?
  2. Share with the group what it was that actually changed.
  3. How can we make a practice out of learning to listen to others? Be creative.
  4. Choose something from this discussion and put it into practice this week.

Thanks for checking in with us this week. I’m so glad you are here. 

Today, choose love, compassion, taking action and seeking justice. 

Together we can choose to take steps toward a world that is a safe, compassionate, just home for us all. 

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.