A Primer on Self Affirming Nonviolence (Part 7)

Herb Montgomery | September 20, 2019

selective focus photography of book

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash


If Jesus taught nonviolence, why does the rest of the Bible seem to endorse or even command violence?


This week’s episode is quite a milestone. This is our 300th episode! I want to take this opportunity to ask for your support so we can continue our work. Renewed Heart Ministries is a nonprofit organization working for a world of love and justice. We need your support to continue bringing 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.

This week I want to begin with another common objection to interpreting Jesus as teaching nonviolence. If Jesus taught nonviolence, why does the rest of the Bible seem to endorse or even command violence?

I agree with Philip Jenkins, author of Laying Down the Sword, that we must not “ignore the Bible’s violent verses.” Christians have repeatedly used the violent passage and commands of the Bible as a basis for their actions during the last two millennia, making Christianity the most violent world religion to date. Yet before the Roman empire embraced the Christian religion, Christianity was a religion of pacifists who believed Jesus taught his followers to practice some form of nonviolence. (See Part 1 and Part 2).

So what do we do with the violence of the Bible? First, we need to be honest about it. The Bible, to which the Jesus story belongs, is a very violent book overall. From Genesis to Revelation we are accosted with violence, both human and Divine.

Second, we need to understand the social-political context of Jesus’ nonviolence was Jewish society under a very heavy-handed Roman control.

Jesus had options for what form his resistance to injustice would take. He chose nonviolent, self-affirming resistance as his means of change. Jesus chose to embrace and teach his followers nonviolent forms of resistance that some first-century Jewish resistance efforts were already using.

In his volume The Greatest Prayer: Rediscovering the Revolutionary Message of the Lord’s Prayer, John Dominic Crossan shares a brief history of violent and nonviolent Jewish resistance movements within the culture of the gospel stories. Three significant Jewish rebellions stand out in that context:

The first was the Judas Rebellion under the reign of the Roman Emperor Augustus. It took place in Sepphoris in 4 BCE. Josephus tells us how Rome responded to this rebellion. The Roman Governor in Syria, Varus, had first “committed part of [the soldiers] to his son, and to a friend of his; and sent them upon an expedition into Galilee: which lies in the neighbourhood of Ptolemais. Who made an attack upon the enemy, and put them to flight, and took Sepphoris, and made its inhabitants slaves, and burnt the city.” (Antiquities of the Jews, 17.288–89). Varus then marched on to Jerusalem. He “sent a part of his army into the country, to seek out those that had been the authors of the revolt: and when they were discovered, he punished some of them that were most guilty; and some he dismissed. Now the number of those that were crucified on this account were two thousand.” (Antiquities of the Jews, 17.295)

Think of the psychological damage to the rest of the population of seeing 2,000 crosses with rebels crucified on them along the Jewish countryside. What message would this have sent? Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas reminds us that “Crucifixion was a stand-your-ground type of punishment for the treasonous offense of violating the rule of Roman ‘law and order’” (in Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God, p. 171).

The second major Jewish rebellion during the time the gospels were written was the Roman Jewish War of 66-69 CE under the Roman emperor Nero. This ended in the destruction of the Jewish Temple and in Jerusalem being burned to the ground.

The third rebellion was the BarKokba Revolt from 132-136 CE. Rome killed more than half a million Jews in this war, and more died from starvation and disease. Rome also sold Jewish war captives into slavery. (Menaḥem Mor, The Second Jewish Revolt the Bar Kokhba War, Page 471) So great was the devastation from Rome’s backlash after this third rebellion that Joan Taylor states “the crucial date for what can only be described as genocide, and the devastation of Jews and Judaism within central Judea, was 135 CE and not, as usually assumed, 70 CE, despite the siege of Jerusalem and the Temple’s destruction” (in The Essenes, the Scrolls, and the Dead Sea. Oxford University Press, 2014. Page 243)

We must understand Jesus’ teachings on nonviolence in terms of the historical reality that the Jewish people picking up the sword against Rome would not have been an act of liberation but an act of suicide. Jesus would have grown up in the wake of the destruction of the first Jewish rebellion we discussed above, and his nonviolence held thriving, surviving, and liberation in tension.

But what about those 1st Century nonviolent resistance movements we spoke about earlier? Nonviolent resistance movements, though less popular, were also used by the Jewish people during this time. We’ll consider two that we have a record of.

The first is the Ensigns Incident in 26 CE. If Jesus had been on the fence before emerging in Galilee as a teacher of nonviolence, the incident would have taken place just before his ministry began and could have influenced his thinking on the potential success of nonviolent resistance.

Josephus tells us:

“As procurator [Greek: “hegemon”] of Judaea Tiberius sent Pilate, who during the night, secretly and undercover, conveyed to Jerusalem the images of Caesar known as standards. When day dawned this caused great excitement among the Jews; for those who were near were amazed at the sight, which meant that their laws had been trampled on — they do not permit any graven image to be set up in the City — and the angry City mob was joined by a huge influx of people from the country. They rushed off to Pilate in Caesarea, and begged him to remove the standards from Jerusalem and to respect their ancient customs. When Pilate refused, they fell prone all round his house and remained motionless for five days and nights.
The next day Pilate took his seat on the tribunal in the great stadium and summoned the mob on the pretext that he was ready to give them an answer. Instead he gave a pre-arranged signal to the soldiers to surround the Jews in full armour, and the troops formed a ring three deep. The Jews were dumbfounded at the unexpected sight, but Pilate, declaring that he would cut them to pieces unless they accepted the images of Caesar, nodded to the soldiers to bare their swords. At this the Jews as though by agreement fell to the ground in a body and bent their necks, shouting that they were ready to be killed rather than transgress the Law. Amazed at the intensity of their religious fervour, Pilate ordered the standards to be removed from Jerusalem forthwith.” War 2:175-203

The second example of Jewish nonviolent resistance is the incident over the statue of Gaius Caligula that Caligula attempted to erect in the Temple in 40 CE.

The following is Josephus’ account of the mass demonstration in response:

“Meanwhile, tens of thousands of Jews came to Petronius at Ptolemais with petitions not to use force to make them transgress and violate their ancestral code. They said, ‘If you propose at all costs to set up the image, slay us first before you carry out these resolutions. For it is not possible for us to survive and to behold actions that are forbidden us by the decision both of our lawgiver and of our ancestors. … In order to preserve our ancestral code, we shall patiently endure what may be in store for us… for God will stand by us; Fortune, moreover, is wont to veer now toward one side, now toward the other in human affairs.’ Petronius saw that they were determined and that it would be impossible to carry out Gaius’ order without great conflict and slaughter. He went to Tiberias to determine the situation of the Jews there. Again, many tens of thousands faced Petronius on his arrival. They besought him to not put up the statue. ‘Will you then go to war with Caesar, regardless of his resources and of your own weakness?’ he asked. ‘On no account would we fight,’ they said, ‘but we will die sooner than violate our laws.’ And falling on their faces and baring their throats, they declared that they were ready to be slain. They continued to make these supplications for forty days. Furthermore, they neglected their fields even though this was the time to sow the seed. For they showed a stubborn determination and readiness to die rather than to see the image erected.

“Then members of the royal family and civic leaders appealed to Petronius to refrain from the plan and instead to write to Gaius telling how incurable was their opposition to receiving the statue and how they had left their fields to sit as a protest, and that they did not choose war, since they could not fight a war, but would be glad to die sooner than transgress their customs, and that since the land was unsown there would be no harvest and no tribute. They brought pressure to bear upon him in every way and employed every device to make their plea effective. Petronius was influenced by their plea, and saw the stubborn determination of the Jews, and thought it would be terrible to bring death on so many tens of thousands of people. He thought it best to risk sending a letter to Gaius. Perhaps he might even convince him to cancel the order. If not, he would undertake war against the Jews. And thus Petronius decided to recognize the cogency of the plea of the petitioners.” Antiquities 18:261-309

Again, this is the landscape upon which the gospels were written. The early Jesus community, which wrote the gospels, chose the path of nonviolence.

How did early Christianity reconcile this ethic of nonviolence with the rest of their sacred text? Let’s stop for a moment and first ask that question of ourselves.

Have you ever felt that in order to do what was right and ethical you had to go against your understanding of what you believed your sacred text taught? Remember, our sacred texts can be eternal while our interpretations are temporary. We must learn to distinguish between our sacred texts and our interpretations of them. We can choose to allow older destructive interpretations that do harm to marginalized communities to give way to new life-giving interpretations for everyone, the marginalized especially.

This is the story of early Christianity. To do what they believed was right, early Christians had to go against their understanding of what they believed their sacred text had previously taught. They created or discovered new ways of interpreting their sacred text, informed by the teachings of Jesus.

We see another illustration of this in the first verses of the New Testament book of Hebrews:

“Long ago, God spoke to our ancestors in many and various forms by the prophets, but in these last days, he has spoken to us by a son [who is the] radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being.” (Hebrews 1:1-3)

New ways of interpreting their sacred texts emerged to replace the old. I’m sure this was just as unsettling for those back then who did not like change as it is for certain Christians today.

I have to confess, too, that I deeply wrestle with the violence I see in our sacred text, the Bible. A lot of Christian authors try and justify the violence in the Bible, conflating it with punitive or preventive justice. Their goal is to make that violence look fair or the lesser of two evils. While I admire their efforts to make these passages look less ugly, they really don’t solve my problem with Biblical violence. There is a world of difference between reconciling the violence of the Bible with justice and reconciling the violence of the Bible with Jesus and his teachings on nonviolence. One may be able to justify an example of violence in our sacred text, but the Jesus of the gospels didn’t teach justified violence or what is today called just war theory. The Jesus of the gospels taught resistance that was self-affirming and nonviolent.

The moral standard for a follower of Jesus is not the Bible. It’s not the ten commandments. It’s not even our interpretations of the Gospels. The Jesus we claim to follow taught that “a tree is known by its fruit” (Matthew 12:33 cf. Luke 6:44). This means that we can know whether we are interpreting our sacred texts in harmful or life-giving ways by the fruit that interpretation produces. Is our understanding certain stories and passages producing life, especially for the “least of these,” or is it harming others? The moral standard for a Jesus follower, according to Jesus, is to do no harm and to treat others the way you yourself would like to be treated.

This series is a call to all of those who claim to follow the Jesus of the gospels to return to what he taught about our relation to violence. When we bump into what we could interpret as a Biblical endorsement of violence or as Biblically mandated violence, we must hold those passages as secondary to Jesus and his rejection of violence in the gospels.

Last week, as the U.S. remembered the events of 9/11, a friend of mine who is a pastor, Daniel Wysong, posted this relevant reminder on Facebook:

“My hope in remembering 9/11 is that we would learn the lesson that killing people is horrible. The 2996 people who died on 9/11/2001 shouldn’t have. Nor should the 7000 US service members that died in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Nor should the ~100,000 police and guard members. Nor should the ~300,000 Iraqi and Afghani civilians. Every single one of those lives lost is a tragedy of equal proportion.
If we wish to honor the memory of those who have been killed, it can only be by remembering that violence is horrible. And remembering that violence begets violence. And intentionally moving towards a world with less killing.
We honor their lives by learning and remembering that we will never create the world we all want to live in by killing enough people.” (https://www.facebook.com/danwysong7/posts/10219666062303603)

May followers of Jesus come to be known in our society as those who reject violence, once again.

HeartGroup Application

1. In what ways has used the gospel stories of Jesus caused you to have to reinterpret other parts of your sacred text? Share with the group.
2. Are there passages or stories in the Bible that you feel you cannot redeem or reclaim? Share these with the group as well as why these passages trouble you.
3. How has reinterpreting the Bible through the lens of the Jesus story changed the ethics by which you live or affirmed ethics of peace you are already living? Share 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 6)

Herb Montgomery | September 13, 2019

grayscale photo of group of people
Photo by Isaiah Rustad on Unsplash

“Jesus was not about peace-keeping but peace-making. He was not about keeping the peace, not disturbing the status quo, but about calling for justice, the justice that in the Jewish tradition was to be the foundation of peace. Peace was not the absence of conflict but about the fruit of distributive, societal justice.”


I want to take 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 are about to hit our 300th podcast next week. The last 12 years has been quite a journey. We need your support to continue bringing 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.

This week let’s look at another text in the gospels that some Christians use when they object to Jesus’ teaching of nonviolence: 

“Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.” (Matthew 10:34)

Christians have used this passage to justify picking up the sword to “enlarge the Kingdom.” When you read the context of this passage, though, that seems more a determined, intentional effort to interpret Jesus’ words in any other way than as part of the ethic of nonviolence Jesus taught. Mahatma Gandhi reportedly said, “The only people on earth who do not see Christ and his teachings as non-violent are Christians.” There was a time in my life, too, when I genuinely felt that Jesus’ teachings on non-violence were tangential, but I must confess that I believe I was wrong. I have begun to see that Jesus’ teachings on non-violence are central to the kind of human community Jesus envisioned his society could grow into. That vision involved surviving any liberation attempt against Roman oppression, but it wasn’t just about individuals surviving. Nonviolence was also to characterize the community’s quality of life, as well.

In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus continues the above passage with these words:

“For I have come to turn ‘a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter–in–law against her mother–in–law—your enemies will be the members of your own household.’ Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves a son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me.” (Matthew 10:35-38)

What did Jesus mean by the statement that He came to bring a sword? Did he want his followers to take up the sword? Or was he saying that the social changes he came to bring would quite likely bring pushback from those empowered with a sword?

The Greek word translated as sword in these verses is machaira. It can be translated figuratively to denote strife or warfare. I do not believe Jesus is saying that those who follow Him should engage in violent warfare in “Jesus’ name” as Christians have historically done. I see them instead as saying that those who chose to follow him should expect to receive strife or warfare for standing up against societal injustice and calling for change. In Jesus’ statement, the strife being created is between parents and children. This is significant, because it meant the power and authority within the social structures of the family being challenged. John Dominic Crossan comments on this:

“Imagine the standard Mediterranean family with five members: mother and father, married son with his wife, and unmarried daughter, a nuclear extended family all under one roof. Jesus says he will tear it apart. The usual explanation is that families will become divided as some accept and others refuse faith in Jesus. But notice where and how emphatically the axis of separation is located. It is precisely between the generations. But why should faith split along that axis? Why might faith not separate, say, the women from the men or even operate in ways far more random? The attack has nothing to do with faith but with power. The attack is on the Mediterranean family’s axis of power, which sets father and mother over son, daughter, and daughter-in-law. That helps us to understand all of those examples. The family is society in miniature, the place where we first and most deeply learn how to love and be loved, hate and be hated, help and be helped, abuse and be abused. It is not just a center of domestic serenity; since it involves power, it invites the abuse of power, and it is at that precise point that Jesus attacks it.” (in Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography, p. 67)

Jesus then states that His followers are not to take up the sword in response to those who wield the sword against them; rather, Jesus’ followers are to take up “the cross.” This is a far cry from Jesus encouraging his followers to practice “justified violence.” Instead this is a call to keep standing up against abuse of power and promote a more egalitarian distribution of power even if you are being threatened with a cross for doing so. (See A Primer on Self-Affirming Nonviolence, Part 4.)

Consider this passage about Jesus not bringing peace but a sword through the lens of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. In 1955, King responded to an accusation that he was “disturbing the peace” through his activism during the Montgomery Bus Boycott. King wrote, “True peace is not merely the absence of tension: it is the presence of justice.” 

Jesus was not about peace-keeping but peace-making. He was not about keeping the peace, not disturbing the status quo, but about calling for justice, the justice that in the Jewish tradition was to be the foundation of peace. Peace was not the absence of conflict but about the fruit of a distributive, societal justice:

“Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end . . . establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness . . .” (Isaiah 9:7)

“The way of peace they do not know; there is no justice in their paths.” (Isaiah 59:8)

“Everyone will sit under their own vine and under their own fig tree, and no one will make them afraid.” (Micah 4:4)

An example in the synoptic gospels that illustrate Jesus’ willingness to disturb the peace is his final entry into Jerusalem. He disrupted the Temple activity in protest of the economic system’s exploitation and oppression of the poor. 

In Mark 12:40, Jesus states how those benefiting from the system “devour widows’ houses” while “for a show make lengthy prayers.” Immediately Mark then gives an example of a poor widow paying the Temple tax (see Mark 12:41-13:2).

In Mark, Mathew, and Luke we read of Jesus entry into Jerusalem and his temple protest. My favorite is Mark’s version:

“They went and found a colt outside in the street, tied at a doorway. As they untied it, some people standing there asked, ‘’What are you doing, untying that colt?’ They answered as Jesus had told them to, and the people let them go. When they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks over it, he sat on it. Many people spread their cloaks on the road, while others spread branches they had cut in the fields. Those who went ahead and those who followed shouted, ‘Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!’ Jesus entered Jerusalem and went into the temple courts. He looked around at everything, but since it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the Twelve.” (Mark 11:4-11)

The events of entering Jerusalem and overturning the tables in the Temple seem to have originally been planned as one combined event. Yet by the time Jesus gets to the temple, it is “already late” and most of the people there have returned home. For a demonstration to be effective there have to be people to witness the demonstration. You can’t protest and raise awareness without witnesses, and “business as usual” has to actually take place for one to disrupt. 

So Mark’s story states that Jesus went back to Bethany (most likely the home of Martha, Mary and Lazarus) and stayed there for the night, then returned the next day to finish his protest. 

Ultimately I believe Jesus was seeking the peace that comes through everyone having enough not only to survive but also to thrive. A world where no one has too much while others don’t even have enough. Yet to do that, we must be willing to disrupt and disturb the status quo. Jesus did so nonviolently, yet his actions were disruptive nonetheless. And yes, it did bring a “sword.” Before the week of his protest was over, he was crucified for the economic and political implications of his Temple disruption and the ever growing crowd of Jewish working and peasant poor who were following him. His action of disturbing the peace brought the sword as he’d taught it would. This is, I believe, a much more life-giving interpretation of our passage then the teaching that Christians should not oppose violence.

Christian history would look very different if Christians had refused to take up the sword in Jesus’ name. The world, too, might even look very different had the church not abandoned Jesus’ teachings on nonviolence. Today, however, Christianity stands as the world religion with the most violent history. It is to the end of repairing that damage, especially to marginalized communities, that Christians must work toward today. 

Again, there is much to contemplate this week. 

“Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.” (Matthew 10:34)

HeartGroup Application.

1. Discuss with your group the differences between peace enforced by a sword and peace that is the fruit of distributive justice where everyone has enough.

2. What difference does it make for you personally to believe that the Jesus you follow was a disturber of the peace and invited his followers to be disturbers and disruptors of the peace in response to systemic injustice?

3. Discuss how you, too, both personally and collectively, can become a disturber of the peace in response to injustice. Pick something from your discussion and begin putting it into practice this week. 

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.