A Primer on Self Affirming, Nonviolence (Part 3)

Herb Montgomery | August 16, 2019

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“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.”


Before we begin, I want to stop 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 RHM provides.

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

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.

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.