A Primer on Self-Affirming Nonviolence (Part 5)

By Herb Montgomery | August 30, 2019

close-up photography of gold-colored and black sword
Photo by Ricardo Cruz on Unsplash

“We must be much more scandalized by the institutional violence that leads to violent rebellion than the violence of those who stand up to institutional violence. They are not the same. One is primary and the source or cause of all the other.”


Renewed Heart Ministries Logo with text: Working for a world of love and justice

I want to pause for a moment again this week and ask for your support. Renewed Heart Ministries is a nonprofit organization working for a world of love and justice. We need your support to bring the kind of resources and analysis that RHM provides.

Intersections between faith, love, compassion, and justice are needed now more than ever.  

Help Christians be better humans. Please consider making a tax-deductible donation to Renewed Heart Ministries, today.  To do so just go to our website at renewedheartministries.com and click “Donate” on the top right or if you prefer to make a donation by mail, our address is:

Renewed Heart Ministries

PO Box 1211

Lewisburg, WV 24901

And to those of you out there who already are supporting this ministry, I want to say thank you.  We could not continue being a voice for change without your support.

I’ve been teaching Christian nonviolence for quite some time now and the number one objection I get from American Christians is based on a passage in Luke’s version of the Jesus story:

“He said to them, ‘But now if you have a purse, take it, and also a bag; and if you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one.’” (Luke 22:36)

The objection goes something like “See? See? Jesus was right here telling them to buy swords! See?” 

It’s undeniable that Jesus was admonishing his disciples to buy swords, and we must also ask why. Did Jesus want them to use these swords to bring about the social vision of the Kingdom? Or did he want them to use these swords to defend his social vision of the reign of God from the status quo? We don’t have to read too far to get a clear answer: it’s in the very next sentence. All we need is to keep reading.

“‘It is written: “And he was numbered with the transgressors”; and I tell you that this must be fulfilled in me. Yes, what is written about me is reaching its fulfillment.’ The disciples said, ‘See, Lord, here are two swords.’ ‘That’s enough!’ he replied.” (Luke 22:37-38)

Let’s look at this story one step at a time. The word here translated as “transgressors” is the Greek word anomos. It means “lawless.” Jesus was more than simply a focal point of religious controversy. To be deemed worthy of being crucified, Jesus had to be seen as an insurrectionist, an armed rebel. Jesus’ crucifixion was political, not religious. Mark, believed to be the earliest gospel, states, “They crucified two rebels with him, one on his right and one on his left.” (Mark 15:27)

The Greek word translated as rebel in that verse is leistes. It means insurrectionist. Jesus will be numbered with the insurrectionists, the “transgressors” of the Pax Romana. 

Jesus will be perceived as a political threat to the Pax Romana or “Peace of Rome,” a “lawless” one, a political enemy, and an upstart Messiah. 

In Luke’s second volume, the book of Acts, his early followers were also characterized this way:

“These men who have caused trouble all over the world have now come here, and Jason has welcomed them into his house. They are all defying Caesar’s decrees, saying that there is another king, one called Jesus.” (Acts 17:6-7)

For Luke, Jesus and his band of disciples need to be caught with swords in their possession. The mixture of the claim that this could be the Messiah who might lead the people to freedom from oppressive Roman rule and the claim that Jesus’ disciples were “gathering” or stockpiling swords would light the Roman fuse that would lead to the crucifixion. 

I reject the interpretation that Jesus’ counsel to buy swords was about Jesus wanting his disciples to wield them in the next part of the story. Two swords for twelve men wouldn’t be enough for each of them to use, yet Jesus states two would be enough for them to be “numbered with the transgressors.” Further, when Peter does pick up and wield one of these two swords later in the story, he provokes one of the strongest rebukes Jesus gave in all the gospels.

“Jesus went out as usual to the Mount of Olives . . . While he was still speaking a crowd came up, and the man who was called Judas, one of the Twelve, was leading them. He approached Jesus to kiss him, but Jesus asked him, ‘Judas, are you betraying the Son of Man with a kiss?’ When Jesus’ followers saw what was going to happen, they said, ‘Lord, should we strike with our swords?’ And one of them struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his right ear. But Jesus answered, ‘No more of this!’ And he touched the man’s ear and healed him. Then Jesus said to the chief priests, the officers of the temple guard, and the elders, who had come for him, ‘Am I leading a rebellion, that you have come with swords and clubs? Every day I was with you in the temple courts, and you did not lay a hand on me.” (Luke 22:35-53, cf. Matthew 26:51-54; John 18:10-11)

There is much in this passage. For our purposes here I want to focus on Jesus’ rebuke of Peter for actually welding one of the very swords Jesus said was “enough.” 

Jesus rebukes the disciple who used the sword to cut off the high priest’s servant’s ear. Peter was likely aiming for the servant’s head, but the servant leaned sideways to escape the swing and the sword glanced off the side of his head, taking off his ear. Jesus rebukes the disciple with the phrase: “Those who live by the sword will die by the sword.”

Jesus is teaching his followers that his goals cannot be accomplished by violence. 

It would be well to remember the words of others who belong to communities facing institutional violence. 

“Violence can beget fear, stalemate, annihilation, dominance, or more violence, but it cannot beget love, justice, abundant life, community, or peace.” (Rita Nakashima Brock & Rev. Dr. Rebecca Parker, Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire, p. 13)

“For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.” (Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches, p. 112)

Rome sought peace through the threat of violence, specifically crucifixion. Jesus’ social vision was instead about establishing societal peace and distributive justice through self-affirming, nonviolent resistance. It was a societal goal where the means matched the end.

Some will object, “But Jesus was supposed to die, so this rebuke doesn’t apply to us does it? His death was for a specified purpose, so doesn’t that mean that his words about this had a specified meaning?”

Before Rome embraced Christianity, changing its social location, Christians did not interpret Jesus’ words to Peter as having an isolated, specialized application. Tertullian, for example, wrote, “The Lord, in disarming Peter, thenceforth disarmed every soldier.” (in Of Idolatry, ch .19)

Jesus is giving a universal principle that “those who live by the sword, die by the sword.” Here in the United States, we have the largest military presence in the world and spend more on our military than all of the next ten countries with large militaries combined. At home, our attitudes and choices toward violence also mean that we have the highest rates of gun violence and gun related deaths in the world, as well.

As we saw in Part 4 of this series, Jesus’ cross was not something he embraced instead of us, but something we are called to join him in as long as we interpret taking up one’s cross in self-affirming nonviolence and not patient, passive endurance of suffering. We are called to join Jesus in the choice to resist and stand up against oppression even if threatened with a cross for doing so. 

What we see in Luke’s gospel is that, within context, Jesus’ call for his disciples to “go buy a sword” should not be interpreted as Jesus intending them to use the swords they bought. To take from Jesus’ words that he transitioned from nonviolence to being okay with his disciples wielding swords has borne very destructive fruit for the Christian tradition. Christianity’s bloody history teaches us that we must question a Christian acceptance of violence. And we must work to repair the damage that violent forms of Christianity have done to marginalized communities.

Lastly, I want to offer one word of caution about this story. One could argue that Peter was using the sword in self-defense and therefore Jesus is against self-defense. I do not equate self-defense with the institutional violence that causes marginalized communities to have to defend themselves. We must, though, learn how to distinguish between the self-defense of the oppressed and the use of violence by those privileged and empowered to use violence to maintain and protect their privilege and power. These are two very different things. I do not interpret this story as being against the self defense of the weaker against those who are stronger. I interpret it as being against taking up violence as a form of revolution. Jesus was a revolutionary, yet his revolution was, for the sake of his own, Jewish people’s survival in the face of Roman retaliation, a nonviolent, self-affirming, resistant revolution. Jesus’ revolution could not be accomplished by violence.

Yet, we must be much more scandalized by the institutional violence that leads to violent rebellion than the violence of those who stand up to institutional violence. They are not the same. One is primary and the source or cause of all the other. 

I close with two statements I believe profoundly speak to this caution:

The first is from Jon Sobrino:

“First, Jesus’ practice and teaching demand absolutely the unmasking of and a resolute struggle against the form of violence that is the worst and most generative of others because it is the most inhuman and the historical principle at the origin of all dehumanization: structural injustice in the form of institutionalized violence. It follows that we have to unmask the frequent attitude of being scandalized at revolutionary violence and the victims it produces without having been scandalized first and more deeply at its causes.” (Jesus the Liberator, p. 215)

The second is from Oscar Romero:

“I will not tire of declaring that if we truly want an effective end to the violence, we must eliminate the violence that lies at the root of all violence: structural violence, social injustice, the exclusion of citizens from the management of the country, repression. All this is what constitutes the fundamental cause, from which the rest flows naturally.” (Homily on September 23, 1979.)

There is much to consider this week.

HeartGroup Application

1. Can you give examples of nonlethal forms of personal self defense or stopping another from doing harm? Have you seen these forms used with success?  Share stories.

2. Can you give any historical examples of where nonlethal forms of resistance around the globe were used to bring about both societal reformation or even revolutionary change?

3. Both lethal and nonlethal forms of resistance have their success and failures. Discuss the difference between when violent forms of resistance fail and when nonviolent forms of resistance fail.  Is there a difference in the extent to which they not only succeed, but even when they fail? Discuss as a group.

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. 

Don’t forget, we need your support here at RHM to continue making a difference.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

A Primer on Self-Affirming Nonviolence (Part 4)

Herb Montgomery | August 23, 2019

close-up photography of person lifting hand
Photo by Nadine Shaabana on Unsplash

“We’ve been discussing the importance of listening to those on the margins of society and their experiences and wisdom. What follows is a result of doing just that in the context of the subject of nonviolence.”


Before we begin, I want to pause for a moment and ask for your support. Renewed Heart Ministries is a nonprofit organization working for a world of love and justice. We need your support to bring the kind of resources and analysis that RHM provides.

Intersections between faith, love, compassion, and justice are needed now more than ever.  

Help Christians be better humans. Please consider making a tax-deductible donation to Renewed Heart Ministries, today.  To do so just go to our website at renewedheartministries.com and click “Donate” on the top right or if you prefer to make a donation by mail, our address is:

Renewed Heart Ministries
PO Box 1211
Lewisburg, WV 24901

And to those of you out there who already are supporting this ministry, I want to say thank you.  We could not continue being a voice for change without your support.

Over on our Social Jesus blog, we’ve been discussing the importance of listening to those on the margins of society and their experiences and wisdom. What follows is a result of doing just that in the context of the subject of nonviolence. 

So far in this series, we have discussed both nonviolence and resistance. It’s now time to address the difference between nonviolence as self-sacrificial and nonviolence as self-affirming. 

Historically, certain forms of nonviolence have tended to drift into victims passively enduring suffering to redeem their oppressors. This is why we must take a moment to clarify the differences between self-affirming nonviolence and the myth of nonviolent, redemptive suffering. Other scholars’ work will help us understand.

Drs. Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan write in their book The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’s Final Days in Jerusalem:

“Notice, above all, how repeatedly Mark has Jesus insist that Peter, James and John, the Twelve, and all his followers on the way from Caesarea Philippi to Jerusalem must pass with him through death to a resurrected life whose content and style was spelled out relentlessly against their refusals to accept it. For Mark, it is about participation with Jesus and not substitution by Jesus. Mark has those followers recognize enough of that challenge that they change the subject and avoid the issue every time.” (Borg, Marcus J., and John Dominic. Crossan. The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach about Jesus’s Final Days in Jerusalem [2007], p. 102.) 

Mark’s Jesus speaks of the cross as participatory rather than as substitution. At this point of the story, it was something Jesus invited his disciples to join him in. We must ask ourselves what this means for other Jesus followers in other times and places. 

Jesus’s teachings on nonviolence in the sermon on the mount were forms of nonviolent resistance through which his fellow oppressed could stand up to the dehumanizing attempts of their oppressors. They were nonviolent forms of resistance and self-affirmation. 

But what we see in the story is Jesus’ suffering of his cross can be interpreted as a passive lack of resistance. If this proves a valid interpretation, then his instruction in the Sermon on the Mount would be distinct from the lack of resistance we see at the cross. His teachings in the Sermon on the Mount and interpreting Jesus’ actions surrounding the cross event as being passive have been conflated to produce harm.

How many domestic violence survivors have had the cross of Jesus and his “patient endurance of suffering” held up to them as something they should emulate? They have been told to “take up their cross” and simply endure: it’s a dangerous situation where they are deemed “Christlike” as they endure abuse for the redemption of their spouse. They are told that this is what it means to follow Jesus’s “example.” So how do we harmonize what he taught and what he did?

Let’s back up and unpack what led up to Jesus’s cross in the story.

In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the cross is the direct backlash of the elite class in power to Jesus’ protest in the Temple where he overturned the tables and drove out the livestock. Jesus was not “patiently enduring suffering” in his Temple protest. He was resisting. He was protesting. He was shutting it down. And, ultimately, the cross was the result of his resistance. A cross is not the first act of violence that oppressors inflict on the oppressed that we simply must endure. The cross is a secondary act of violence that oppressors impose on the oppressed for standing up to the primary violence. Consider the following chronologies.

Myth of Redemptive Suffering versus Self-affirming Nonviolence

Within the myth of redemptive suffering the recommended chronology of events is:

1) Initial Oppression

2) Our “bearing our cross” which is defined as a patient, passive endurance for the redemption of the violent

Within an interpretation of Jesus teachings as self-affirming nonviolence the chronology of events would be:

1) Oppression

2) Resistance even though there may be a backlash

3) The cross is defined as the violence that is threatened by those in power if one does stand up.

4) The cross is the backlash that must be risked rather than avoided through passive acceptance of initial oppression.

Self-affirming nonviolence is quite different from redemptive suffering. Self-affirming nonviolence is the call to stand up to oppression. Remember Barbara Deming’s statement about the two hands, one held up and one outstretched. 

“With one hand we say to one who is angry, or to an oppressor, or to an unjust system, ‘Stop what you are doing. I refuse to honor the role you are choosing to play. I refuse to obey you. I refuse to cooperate with your demands. I refuse to build the walls and the bombs. I refuse to pay for the guns. With this hand I will even interfere with the wrong you are doing. I want to disrupt the easy pattern of your life.’ But then the advocate of nonviolence raises the other hand. It is raised outstretched – maybe with love and sympathy, maybe not – but always outstretched . . . With this hand we say, ‘I won’t let go of you or cast you out of the human race. I have faith that you can make a better choice than you are making now, and I’ll be here when you are ready. Like it or not, we are part of one another.’” (Revolution & Equilibrium. Grossman, 1971. Page 224.)

The cross was the violence that people in power used to threaten those considering standing up to their oppressors. Taking up one’s cross in self-affirming nonviolence is not patient, passive endurance of suffering but the choice to resist and stand up against oppression even if one is threatened with a cross for doing so. 

Feminist and womanist scholars criticize theology that equates the cross with patient, passive, endurance of oppression and violence:

“Christian theology has long imposed upon women a norm of imitative self-sacrifice based on the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth. Powerlessness is equated with faithfulness. When the cross is also interpreted as the salvific work of an all-powerful paternal deity, women’s well being is as secure as that of a child cowering before an abusive father.” (Joanne Carlson Brown and Carole R. Bohn, Christianity, Patriarchy, and Abuse: A Feminist Critique [1989] p. xii)

“The problem with this theology is that it asks people to suffer for the sake of helping evildoers see their evil ways. It puts concern for the evildoers ahead of concern for the victim of evil. It makes victims the servants of the evildoers’ salvation.” (Ibid. p. 20)

“In this sense Jesus represents the ultimate surrogate figure; he stands in the place of someone else: sinful humankind. Surrogacy, attached to this divine personage, thus takes on an aura of the sacred. It is therefore fitting and proper for black women to ask whether the image of a surrogate-God has salvific power for black women or whether this image supports and reinforces the exploitation that has accompanied their experience with surrogacy.” (Delores S. Williams and Katie G. Cannon, Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk [2013], p. 127)

The Rev. Drs. Joanne Carlson Brown and Rebecca Parker make an important distinction between the myth of redemptive suffering and choosing life in spite of suffering that may be threatened as a result:

 “It is not the acceptance of suffering that gives life; it is commitment to life that gives life. The question, moreover, is not Am I willing to suffer? but Do I desire fully to live? This distinction is subtle and, to some, specious, but in the end it makes a great difference in how people interpret and respond to suffering.” (Brown & Parker, p. 18)

Yes, there are subtle distinctions between defining “taking up one’s cross” as passively enduring oppression and defining it as being willing to stand up and resist even if there are those who threaten you with a cross. But how we define Jesus’s call to take up our cross makes all the difference in how we respond to oppression, violence, and injustice. Does taking up the cross mean remaining passive? Or does it mean not letting our oppressors threaten us into remaining passive? 

Lastly, the cross is not universally intrinsic to following Jesus, as some would have us believe. It only comes into the picture if one’s oppressors use it as a threat to try to force us to remain passive. The cross is only present if oppressors make it present, and only if the oppressed choose to resist and stand up in spite of being threatened. If those in power do threaten you with a cross for following Jesus and standing up to oppression, then following Jesus involves the cross for you. The cross is secondary and not universal; it is not primary or intrinsic to following Jesus for all.

This leads us to discern what the teachings of a 1st Century Jewish prophet of the poor may offer us today in our contemporary work of survival, resistance, liberation, reparation, and transformation. It’s not the cross that transforms society. Following the teachings of Jesus and standing up to injustice transforms society. So it is not the cross of Jesus that “saves” us societally, but following Jesus saves societally us by placing us on a different path with different intrinsic results. It is, as Brown and Parker state, not the acceptance of suffering that brings life, but the determination to choose life that brings life. Jesus didn’t die so the elite in the status quo could go to heaven at death. Jesus died because he stood up to the status quo in solidarity with the oppressed in spite of being threatened with death for doing so.

In this series on nonviolence, we must head the caution that the Rev. Dr. Katie G. Cannon gave us: nonviolence should not be interpreted as passivity, redemptive suffering, or societal disengagement: 

“[Delores Williams] contends that 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.” (Delores S. Williams and Katie G. Cannon, Sisters in the Wilderness the Challenge of Womanist God-Talk [2013], Forward)

Williams goes on to quote the scholars we referenced this week, who critique Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. allowing his own nonviolence to drift into forms of redemptive suffering:

“Their critique of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s idea of the value of the suffering of the oppressed in oppressed-oppressor confrontations accords with my assumption that African-American Christian women can, through their religion and its leaders, be led passively to accept their own oppression and suffering—if the women are taught that suffering is redemptive. Brown and Parker quote Martin Luther King, Jr.’s words about suffering which he saw as a most creative and powerful social force…. The non-violent say that suffering becomes a powerful social force when you willingly accept that violence on yourself, so that self-suffering stands at the center of the non-violent movement and the individuals involved are able to suffer in a creative manner, feeling that unearned suffering is redemptive and that suffering may serve to transform the social situation. Brown and Parker’s critique of this theology ‘is that it asks people to suffer for the sake of helping evildoers see their evil ways. It puts concern for the evildoers ahead of concern for the victim of evil. It makes victims the servants of the evildoers’ salvation.’” (Ibid.. p. 161.)

One of King’s most famous sermons drifts into the myth of redemptive suffering or nonviolence defined as self-sacrifice of the oppressed rather than self-affirmation:

“I’ve seen too much hate to want to hate, myself, and every time I see it, I say to myself, hate is too great a burden to bear. Somehow we must be able to stand up against our most bitter opponents and say: ‘We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We will meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will and we will still love you. We cannot in all good conscience obey your unjust laws and abide by the unjust system, because non-cooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good, so throw us in jail and we will still love you. Bomb our homes and threaten our children, and, as difficult as it is, we will still love you. Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our communities at the midnight hour and drag us out on some wayside road and leave us half-dead as you beat us, and we will still love you. Send your propaganda agents around the country and make it appear that we are not fit, culturally and otherwise, for integration, but we’ll still love you. But be assured that we’ll wear you down by our capacity to suffer, and one day we will win our freedom. We will not only win freedom for ourselves; we will appeal to your heart and conscience that we will win you in the process, and our victory will be a double victory.’” (in Martin Luther King, A Gift of Love: Sermons from Strength to Love and Other Preachings [2012], p. 54)

There is a subtle difference between the above passage and the passage we read previously from Barbara Deming. Jesus’ teachings in the Sermon on the Mount did not call his followers to passively respond to suffering but to stand up to injustices in nonviolent forms of resistance. 

Both feminist and womanist authors warn of defining Jesus’ cross (when interpreted as passive acceptance) rather than his teachings as the centerpiece of our nonviolence. Again the cross did not demonstrate Jesus’ nonviolence. It was the backlash for Jesus’ previous nonviolent resistance. 

Consider Delores Williams’ words, one more time:

“It seems more intelligent and more scriptural to understand that redemption had to do with God, through Jesus, giving humankind new vision to see the resources for positive, abundant relational life. Redemption had to do with God, through the ministerial vision, giving humankind the ethical thought and practice upon which to build positive, productive quality of life. Hence, the kingdom of God theme in the ministerial vision of Jesus does not point to death; it is not something one has to die to reach. Rather, the kingdom of God is a metaphor of hope God gives those attempting to right the relations between self and self, between self and others, between self and God as prescribed in the sermon on the mount, in the golden rule and in the commandment to show love above all else.” (Delores S. Williams and Katie G. Cannon, Sisters in the Wilderness the Challenge of Womanist God-Talk [2013], p. 130-131)

As we close, let’s revisit Elizabeth Bettenhausen’s account of a conversation with a group of seminarians. It gives us much to ponder about whether Jesus’ nonviolence was rooted in the self-affirmation of the oppressed found in the instruction in the Sermon on the Mount or should be defined as the oppressed’s self-sacrifice—their cross:

“Several years ago I asked a group of seminarians to choose New Testament stories about Jesus and rewrite them imagining that Jesus had been female. The following recreation of the passion story of Luke 22:54-65 was one woman’s knowing by heart.

‘They arrested the Christ woman and led her away to the Council for questioning. Some of her followers straggled along to find out what was to become of her. There were seven women and two men followers. (The men followers were there mainly to keep watch over their sisters.) Someone from among the crowd asked a question of a man follower, “Haven’t I seen you with this woman? Who is she, and what is your relationship with her?” He replied defensively, “She is a prostitute, she has had many men. I have seen her with many!” The men who were guarding the Christ [woman] slapped her around and made fun of her. They told her to use magic powers to stop them. They blindfolded her and each them in turn raped her and afterward jeered, “Now, prophetess, who was in you? Which one of us? Tell us that!” They continued to insult her.’ (Kandice Joyce)

After this story was read aloud, a silence surrounded the class and made us shiver. Ever since, I have wondered Would women ever imagine forming a religion around the rape of a woman? Would we ever conjure gang-rape as a salvific event for other women? What sort of god would such an event reveal?” (in Joanne Carlson Brown and Carole R. Bohn, Christianity, Patriarchy, and Abuse: A Feminist Critique [1989], p. xi-xii)

Again, the cross was the result of Jesus’ refusal to let go of his hold on life and the lives of those he stood in solidarity with in the face of the oppression, violence, and injustice of his day. The cross proves Jesus was not content to remain passive and politically disengaged. We have seen in this series that Jesus’ teachings on nonviolent resistance was a means of marginalized groups affirming their selves, their humanity, and the value of their lives.  It was not more than resistance. It was more than nonviolent. It was nonviolent resistance that at its heart was an act of self affirmation. 

HeartGroup Application

  1. What difference does it make for you personally to see nonviolence as self-affirming rather than self-sacrificial?
  2. What difference do you believe this could make for society to see nonviolence as self-affirming rather than self-sacrificial?
  3. How does this difference impact how you define what it means to follow Jesus both within your own faith tradition and in our larger society today?

Discuss each of these with your group.

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. 

Don’t forget, we need your support here at RHM to continue making a difference.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

A Primer on Self Affirming, Nonviolence (Part 3)

Herb Montgomery | August 16, 2019

Textured Rugs
Photo by Trang Nguyen on Unsplash

“Jesus was teaching the rejection of violent responses to this world’s evil. Yet he was not teaching that we should simply do nothing! Jesus was teaching nonviolent ways for oppressed people to take the initiative, to affirm their humanity, to expose and neutralize exploitative circumstances. Jesus was teaching nonviolent ways in which people at the bottom of society or under the thumb of exploitative domination systems can demonstrate their humanity.”


Before we begin, I want to pause for a moment and ask for your support. Renewed Heart Ministries is a nonprofit organization working for a world of love and justice. We need your support to bring the kind of resources and analysis that RHM provides.

Intersections between faith, love, compassion, and justice are needed now more than ever.  

Help Christians be better humans. Please consider making a tax-deductible donation to Renewed Heart Ministries, today.  To do so just go to our website at renewedheartministries.com and click “Donate” on the top right or if you prefer to make a donation by mail, our address is:

Renewed Heart Ministries
PO Box 1211
Lewisburg, WV 24901

And to those of you out there who already are supporting this ministry, I want to say thank you.  We could not continue being a voice for change without your support.

“But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. 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. . . .
I tell you, love your enemies.”
— Jesus (Matthew’s gospel)

Jesus never taught passive nonresistance. Nor did he teach survivors a path of self-sacrifice. Yet when we read the above quotation from Matthew’s gospel from our own context, it sure sounds like he did. Jesus taught his followers the difference between violent retaliation and nonviolent resistance. While some interpret this passage to teach passive nonresistance, I believe it teaches us nonviolent resistance. There is a huge difference between the two.

I am indebted to the late scholar Walter Wink for his insights and cultural research on this section of Jesus’ teachings, especially in the book Jesus and Nonviolence: A Third Way (Fortress, 2003). Wink is dearly missed and his influence will long continue.

Not only did Jesus teach the theory of nonviolence. He also gave us real-life examples of how to apply it and modeled his teachings throughout his entire life.

In Matthew, Jesus says:

“If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.” (Matthew 5:39)

What did this mean? In Jesus’ culture, the use of the left hand in interpersonal interactions was strictly forbidden. Since most people are right handed, they only used the left hand for unclean tasks. To even gesture at another person with the left hand carried the penalty of exclusion and ten day’s penance (see Martínez, Florentino García, and Watson in The Dead Sea Scrolls Translated: the Qumran Texts in English [2007], p. 11). Therefore, one would not hit someone’s right cheek with the left hand. 

One would also never strike an equal on the right cheek. A blow between equals would always be delivered with a closed right fist to the left cheek of the other. The only natural way to land a blow with the right hand on someone’s right cheek was with a backhanded slap. This kind of blow was a show of insult from a superior to an inferior—master to slave, man to woman, adult to child, Roman to Jew—and it carried no penalty. But anyone who struck a social equal this way risked an exorbitant fine of up to 100 times the fine for common violence. Four zuz (a Jewish silver coin) was the fine for a blow to a social peer with a fist, but 400 zuz was the fine for backhanding them. Again, to strike someone you viewed as socially inferior to yourself with a backhanded slap, was perfectly acceptable (see Goodman in Jews in a Graeco-Roman World [2004], p. 189). A backhanded blow to the right cheek had the specific purpose of humiliating and dehumanizing the other.

What did Jesus command the dehumanized victim to do? A retaliatory blow would only invite retribution and set in motion escalating violence. Instead, Jesus told us to turn the other cheek, the left cheek, to the supposed superior to be stricken correctly—as an equal. This would demonstrate that the supposed inferior refused to be humiliated, and with the left cheek now bared, the striker would be left with two options—a left-handed blow with the back of the hand (and its penalty) or a blow to the left cheek with a right fist, signifying equality. Since the first option was culturally not an option and the second option would challenge the striker’s supposed superiority, the aggressor lost the power to dehumanize the other. 

For someone attacked in this way, turning the other cheek would be an act of nonviolent resistance.

Next we read:

“And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well.” (Matthew 5:40)

A court of law constituted the setting for this injunction from Jesus. Many of the very poor of his day had only two articles of clothing to their name. The law allowed a creditor to take either the inner garment (chiton) or the outer garment (himation) from a poor person as a promise of future payment if they lacked means to pay a debt. However, the wealthy creditor had to return the garment each evening for the owner to sleep in: 

“If you lend money to one of my people among you who is needy, do not treat it like a business deal; charge no interest. If you take your neighbor’s cloak as a pledge, return it by sunset, because that cloak is the only covering your neighbor has. What else can they sleep in? When they cry out to me, I will hear, for I am compassionate.” (Exodus 22:25–27)

“When you make a loan of any kind to your neighbor, do not go into their house to get what is offered to you as a pledge. Stay outside and let the neighbor to whom you are making the loan bring the pledge out to you. If the neighbor is poor, do not go to sleep with their pledge in your possession. Return their cloak by sunset so that your neighbor may sleep in it. Then they will thank you, and it will be regarded as a righteous act in the sight of the LORD your God.” (Deuteronomy 24:10–13)

“Do not deprive the foreigner or the fatherless of justice, or take the cloak of the widow as a pledge.” (Deuteronomy 24:17).

In that society, before the invention of modern underwear, it was more shameful to look upon someone’s nakedness than to be naked. Remember Noah’s son Ham?

“Ham, the father of Canaan, saw his father naked and told his two brothers outside. But Shem and Japheth took a garment and laid it across their shoulders; then they walked in backward and covered their father’s naked body. Their faces were turned the other way so that they would not see their father naked.” (Genesis 9:22-23)

Because of this context, a debtor stripping off their chiton (if the creditor was suing for the himation) or their himation (if the creditor was suing for the chiton) in public court would turn the tables on the wealthy creditor and put the poor person in control of the moment. Compare Matthew 5:40 and Luke 6:29: “If anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt [chiton], hand over your coat [himation] as well” (Matthew 5:40). “If someone takes your coat, [himation] do not withhold your shirt [chiton] from them” (Luke 6:29).

A debtor exposing their body would also expose the exploitative system and shame the wealthy and powerful person who took the last object of value from them. Here, Jesus was endorsing public nudity as a valid form of nonviolent protest or nonviolent resistance. It was an act of protest, and nonviolent: Jesus recommended nakedness in protest over returning violence with more violence.

The third example of nonviolence that Jesus gives is:

“If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles.” (Matthew 5:41)

Roman law allowed soldiers to conscript at will those occupied and require them to carry burdens for up to one mile. This limit provided some protection for the occupied people. But if one followed Jesus’ words and cheerfully carried a burden beyond the required first mile, it put the soldier making the requirement in the awkward position of not complying with the limit imposed by his superior. As a result, the soldier could end up being disciplined if the situation were made known. Imagine the discussion between the Jewish Jesus follower and the soldier, who was a representative of the Roman power deeply despised by the Jewish people, for the entire second mile. Going the second mile would have placed the Jewish subservient in a position of power and held the soldier’s attention.

In these cases, Jesus’ instructions were not commands of passive nonresistance; they were ways of putting nonviolent resistance into practice, enabling the oppressed to affirm their selves or their humanity, and place them in a certain position of power. Gandhi once said that Jesus, “has been acclaimed in the west as the prince of passive resisters. I showed years ago in South Africa that the adjective ‘passive’ was a misnomer, at least as applied to Jesus. He was the most active resister known perhaps to history. His was non-violence par excellence.” (in Gandhi and Prabhu. What Jesus Means to Me [1959], p.18.)

Now let’s turn back to the phrase found at the beginning of these three examples in Matthew’s gospel:

“I tell you, do not resist an evil person.” (Matthew 5:39)

The Greek word translated into English as “resist” in this verse is anthistemi, which means to answer violence with violence, evil with evil, like for like, an eye for an eye. “Do not retaliate” is a far better translation. The Scholars Version of the Bible translates Jesus’ words as, “Don’t react violently against one who is evil.” The context of the statement makes clear that Jesus was teaching non-retaliation: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you. . .” Don’t let evil spread! Don’t add more death to death. Stand up against death by refusing to let go of life, by turning the other cheek, stripping down to nakedness, refusing to only go one mile! 

Yes, Matthew’s Jesus was teaching rejection of violent responses to this world’s evil. Yet he was not teaching that we should simply do nothing! Jesus was teaching nonviolent ways for oppressed people to take the initiative, to affirm their humanity, to expose and neutralize exploitative circumstances. Jesus was teaching nonviolent ways in which people at the bottom of society or under the thumb of exploitative domination systems can demonstrate their humanity. 

Jesus then concludes this instruction with the most difficult injunction of all:

“Love your enemies.” (Matthew 5:40)

We’ll discuss this statement in more detail soon: this saying has been coopted and used against oppressed people, and we need to understand it. Jesus’ nonviolence was not simply a way to overthrow our enemies. It also held open the option for our enemies to choose to change. Jesus’ teachings preserved the humanity of those whose humanity was being denied while holding on to the humanity of the oppressor. And because violent reaction to Rome’s violence in the first century had a greater chance of resulting in annihilation than liberation, Jesus offered a path toward liberation that included survival.

As Dr. Rita Nakashima Brock and Rev. Dr. Rebecca Parker write in their landmark book, Saving Paradise, “Violence can beget fear, stalemate, annihilation, dominance, or more violence, but it cannot beget love, justice, abundant life, community, or peace” (Brock and Parker, Saving Paradise: Recovering Christianity’s Forgotten Love for This Earth [2012], p. 13). Through the nonviolent resistance that Jesus taught, however, followers of Jesus can witness to the truth that another world is possible. They can challenge the present social order that does not recognize their full humanity and create a unique opportunity to witness to a new way of living, a new way of organizing and doing life.

Rejection of violence, again, ought not be interpreted as passivity. Far from teaching nonresistance, Jesus’ statements about turning the other cheek, giving also the outer garment, and the going of the second mile, all teach an assertive and confrontational nonviolence that provides an opponent with an opportunity for transformation. If one genuinely follows the instruction of Jesus regarding how to practice nonviolent resistance, the oppressed person, far from being a passive doormat, can seize the initiative, confront the offender nonviolently, and strip the offender of the power to dehumanize, while challenging the offender to reject their own participation in larger systemic evil.

This, I believe, was how followers of Jesus understood what it meant to follow Jesus for the first few hundred years of the Jesus movement. It was nonviolent resistance, not passive non-resistance. It was how they saw themselves as being part of society’s healing rather than participating in its harm.

I believe Jesus saw this as a means of liberation and surviving to thrive in that liberation in the context of Rome. But before we cover that material, I want to address first how what we’ve described here is really a means of self-affirmation for the marginalized, not sacrifice.

That’s where we are headed next.

HeartGroup Application

  1. What difference does it make to you to see Jesus as a teacher of nonviolence?
  2. How does it affect both your understanding and beliefs about eschatological events as well as Jesus’ own death? 
  3. How does it affect your practice in relation to others personally as well as your opinion on how we collectively relate to others in our social/political systems?

Discuss each of these as a group.

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. 

Don’t forget, we need your support here at RHM to continue making a difference.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

A Primer on Self Affirming, Nonviolence (Part 2)

“Destruction,” 1836, part of the “Course of Empire” series, by Thomas Cole

“Today we live in the wake of these changes. Christianity and its Jesus fell in the same way as all the other religions taken in by Rome . . . If the bloody violence of Christianity’s history has taught us anything, it is that we must question the Christian theory of justified violence including redemptive violence.”


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This week we’re continuing the series we began last week on the self-affirming, nonviolent resistance of Jesus. 

In this second part, we’ll consider the shift from what Christians originally taught about nonviolence (see A Primer on Self Affirming, Nonviolence (Part 1), and what they began to teach after their social location changed when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. Later in the series I will critique the Church Fathers’ self-sacrificial nonviolence and compare it to what I believe is Jesus’ self-affirming nonviolence. For now, I want you to note the contrast between early Christian nonviolence and the later use of violence, not as a periodic exception to Jesus’ teaching, but as the preferred method of converting non-Christians. Let’s again read from Christian teachers writing before the change:

“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

Hippolytus recommended that the Church excommunicate those who enlisted in the military or took a political office where they were responsible for wielding Rome’s sword.

“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 

Again, with “by word,” Arnobius, like Hippolytus above, is referring to holding a political office where one commands state violence.

“When God forbids killing, he doesn’t just ban murder (some translations read ‘brigandage’), 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…whether you kill a man with a sword or a word makes no difference, since killing itself is banned.”—Lactantius, the tutor of Emperor Constantine’s son.

“…no exceptions at all ought to be made to the rule that it is always wrong to kill a man, whom God has wished to be regarded as a sacrosanct creature.”—Lactantius

Yet about a hundred years after Rome embraced the Christian religion, it was illegal not to be a Christian (there was an exception for Jews), and you could not serve in the military unless you were a Christian: You were not trusted as loyal unless you were a Christian. 

How did Christianity get to that point?

On October 28, 312, Constantine was engaged in the Battle of the Milvian Bridge against his rival, Roman Emperor Maxentius. Lactantius recounts that, on the evening of October 27, just prior to the battle, Constantine had had a vision of the Christian God promising victory if his soldiers daubed the sign of the cross on their shields. (The details of the vision differ among sources reporting it. Lactantius reports that the vision promised victory if Constantine would delineate “the heavenly sign [‘the letter X, with a perpendicular line drawn through it and turned round thus at the top, being the cipher of CHRIST’] on the shields of his soldiers” (On the Deaths of the Persecutors, Chap. 44). Eusebius also reports that the sign God instructed them to use on their shields was the Chi Rho symbol. These reports of Constantine’s vision state that he saw a cross of light with the inscription, “through this sign you shall conquer.”

There are various theories today about these reports. Some view the vision as legend with no historical basis. Others believe Constantine made up the story after the fact: he was a great political strategist and saw a way to coopt Christianity’s influence by uniting Christianity and Rome. Each theory is speculation, including the popular historical interpretation that the vision was genuine and that Jesus actually supported Roman conquests. What we know for sure is what happened within Christianity after this period. The Christian church’s social location changed dramatically, and what happens to individuals and communities that transition from “Have-not” to “Have” continues to amaze me.

Constantine declared Christianity a religio licita (a legal religion) through the Edict of Milan. He lavished gifts upon all Church leaders, increasing their salaries, exempting them from paying taxes, building church buildings, and funding Bible copying. Through this support, Church became centered in a building rather than in a group of people and crucifixion and gladiatorial games were abolished because of their connection with Christian victimization and trauma. The first day of the week was also declared a weekly holiday for all people and the Christian calendar absorbed pagan holidays. Pagan temples were converted into Christian churches, with statues of Roman gods replaced by statues of the Apostles and other biblical characters.

Eventually, Christianity’s becoming the official religion of the Roman empire would lead to new theological and ethical interpretations as well as new practices. Augustine, Eusebius, and others began to see Christianity’s new social location and its political power as having been handed to them by God Himself, and for the first time in history, Christians began wielding a sword in Jesus’ name. In the subsequent centuries we would get a brand new Christian norm:

“When people falsely assert that you are not allowed to take up the physical sword or fight bodily against the enemies of the Church, it is the devil trying to attack the fabric of your Order.”—Jacques de Vitry 

Notice that the non-violent teachings of Jesus had come to be redefined as of the “devil.”

“Do not ever be ashamed, O Bride of Heaven, to take up the sword against heretics; for the God still lives who sanctified such action through the arms of David.”—John of Mantua

Jesus’ nonviolence would be sidelined and the example of more violent figures from the scriptures would began to take center stage. Military leaders such as David and Joshua and others became the models of the Christian faith, and Christians, like the majority of evangelicals today, even embraced bodily torture. As Pope Innocent IV once wrote, “Bodily torture has been found the most salutary and efficient means of leading to spiritual repentance.”

Through the Church and State becoming unified, violence in defense of both became justified. 

Some of the greatest minds in Christianity would come up with Biblical support for this turn. Augustine (354–430 C.E.) and, later, Aquinas (1225–1274 C.E.) made significant interpretive changes. Augustine, a bright theological mind in his time, developed and defended a “justified violence” theory for Christians based upon existing Roman and Greek thought. Christians were now encouraged to join the army and to become involved in government. Violence could be used as God’s instrument to “punish” evildoers (e.g., Romans 13:1- 7), and Augustine saw punishment as a more justifiable motive than self-defense. By 416 C.E., all Roman soldiers were required to be Christians. Up until this time, “pagan” had simply meant civilian as opposed to soldier. It came to mean non-Christian as opposed to believer.

Here is a sampling of the new Augustinian teaching:

“War is waged to serve the peace. You must, therefore, be a peacemaker even to waging war, so that by your conquest, you may lead those you subdue to the enjoyment of peace.”— Augustine

Peace as an end was separated from peace as the means. War was doing others a favor.

“What, indeed, is wrong with war? That people die who will eventually die anyway so that those who survive may be subdued in peace? A coward complains of this but it does not bother religious people.”— Augustine

“Does anyone doubt that it is preferable for people to be drawn to worship God by teaching rather than forced by fear of punishment or by pain? But because the one type of people is better, it does not mean that the others, who are not of that type, ought to be ignored.”— Augustine

Augustine taught that, yes, it’s better for people to come to worship the Christian God on their own rather than being tortured or threatened with violence, but just because some will choose the Christian God on their own doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t force others to worship. Thisis a complete disconnect from the teachings of Jesus. Augustine’s writing turns more and more to the Bible and to desperate attempts to find some clue in Jesus’ teachings that Jesus really didn’t mean what He taught on nonviolence and enemy love. 

Augustine also exhibited dualistic Platonic (Hellenistic/Greek) thinking, which sees the body as separate from an immortal soul. This was in contrast to the more holistic philosophy of ancient Hebrew culture. With a dualist view, you could do whatever was necessary to someone’s body if it saved their soul. So killing someone could be justified if that was how you saved their soul. Augustine taught that it was acceptable to run your enemies through with the sword, as long as you did not kill them with hatred in your heart, for Jesus taught us to love our enemies.

Augustine developed and systematized a religious philosophy that justified saving souls at any cost, even by means of torture and violence. Augustine taught that the Christian should respond to torturing confessions out of others by crying “fountains of tears” for this “necessary state of affairs.” But never did he stop to consider that torture itself might be wrong. This was the origin of Christianity embracing “justified violence” in the form of the “just war” theory supported by the contemporary, Americanized, evangelical worldview.

Today we live in the wake of these changes. Christianity and its Jesus fell in the same way as all the other religions taken in by Rome. When Rome embraced the Greek gods, their appearance in pictures and statues changed. Under Roman influence, for example, Zeus (Greek) became Jupiter (Roman). But it wasn’t just their names that changed; their attributes changed too. Under Rome, the Greek gods became more warlike, and more distant, not mingling with mortals as much. They became harsher and more powerful. They came to stand for discipline, honor, strength, and violence. For instance, Hypnos, Greek god of sleep, didn’t do much until Romanized. The Romans called him Somnus, and he liked killing people who didn’t stay alert at their jobs: if they nodded off at the wrong time, they never woke up. This same pattern took place as Rome remade the Christian God, Jesus.

If the bloody violence of Christianity’s history has taught us anything, it is that we must question the Christian theory of justified violence including redemptive violence.

Next week we will begin unpacking our first passage in this series from the Gospels. What could Jesus have meant when he taught turning the other cheek, walking the extra mile, and the stripping off of one’s under garment? Thank you for staying with us.

HeartGroup Application

  1. What value do you see in Christians specifically returning to an ethic of nonviolence within our society today? Explain with you group.
  2. In what ways do you see American values today influencing sectors of Christianity and Christian rhetoric as Roman values did in the above history?
  3. Where do you see the values and ethics of the Jesus story as being in contradiction with current practices of the American empire today or it’s leadership?

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. 

Don’t forget, we need your support here at RHM to continue making a difference.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.