Self Affirming Nonviolence and the Myth of Redemptive Suffering (Part 2)

by Herb Montgomery | June 21, 2018

Picture of a cross

Photo Credit: Christoph Schmid on Unsplash

“Taking up one’s cross should not be interpreted as acceptance of pain, misery, and abuse, but rather as the call to stand up, resist, and refuse to let go of life, justice, and the hope that another world is possible—even in a status quo that threatens you for doing so if you do.”


 “And lead us not into temptation [time of trial], but deliver [liberate] us from evil.” (Matthew 6:13)

Last week we considered how Jesus’ nonviolence was not represented by the cross but by his Temple protest: nonviolence is another form of resistance. 

This week I want to build on that idea of nonviolent resistance and discuss what womanist and feminist scholars describe as the myth of redemptive suffering. I am deeply indebted to Joanne Carlson Brown, Rebecca Parker, and Delores Williams for helping me see the idea of redemptive suffering in a new, and what I believe is more just and healthier, and accurate light. 

Let’s begin with Jesus, who challenged his own followers to take up their crosses and follow him. 

“Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: ‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.’” (Mark 8:34)

What does it mean to take up one’s cross? 

This passage, without a doubt, has been used to encourage those who suffer abuse and/or injustice to simply remain passive hoping that their suffering will convert their abuser or oppressor. I want to argue that this is a gross misinterpretation. (This is a position I have changed on thanks to womanist scholars speaking out.) Understanding this passage within its socio-political context actually reveals that Jesus was calling his followers to join the crucified community of resisters in their culture. Jesus was not asking them to simply bear with the injustice, abuse, and exploitation that was rife in their time. Crucifixion was the way in which the status quo made an example of those who fought back against injustice and sent a message to others that the same would happen to them if any of them also resisted.

As I shared two weeks ago from the Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas, “In Jesus’ first-century world, crucifixion was the brutal tool of social-political power. It was reserved for slaves, enemy soldiers, and those held in the highest contempt and lowest regard in society. To be crucified was, for the most part, an indication of how worthless and devalued an individual was in the eyes of established power. At the same time, it indicated how much of a threat that person was believed to pose. Crucifixion was reserved for those who threatened the “peace” of the day. It was a torturous death that was also meant to send a message: disrupt the Roman order in any way, this too will happen to you. As there is a lynched class of people, there was, without doubt, a crucified class of people. The crucified class in the first-century Roman world was the same as the lynched class today. It consisted of those who were castigated and demonized as well as those who defied the status quo. Crucifixion was a stand-your-ground type of punishment for the treasonous offense of violating the rule of Roman “law and order.” (Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God, p. 171)

In Mark, Jesus was challenging his followers to follow his own example and stand up, resist, protest, just like he was about to do in the courtyard of his own Temple. He was challenging them to resist even in the face of being threatened with a cross. 

This is important. Jesus was not calling his followers to suffer, but to stand up to unjust suffering, oppression, and exploitation. Joanne Carlson Brown and Rebecca Parker rightly remind us, “It is not 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. If you believe that acceptance of suffering gives life, then your resources for confronting perpetrators of violence and abuse will be numbed” (For God So Loved The World?, Christianity, Patriarchy, and Abuse, pp. 1-30).

Circles that teach nonviolence sometimes also teach that if we passively endure suffering, then we will win in the end. With all of the enormous good Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. accomplished, he also allowed his teaching of nonviolence to drift into the territory of teaching redemptive suffering. 

Dr. King saw suffering 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.” (Martin Luther King, Jr., quoted in Brown and Parker, p. 20)

Delores Williams, Joanne Carlson Brown, and Rebecca Parker all respond to King’s teachings on passive endurance of suffering, stating that the problem “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.” (Brown and Parker, p. 20; see also Delores S. Williams, Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk; p. 161)

And in the foreword of Sisters in the Wilderness, Katie Cannon sternly writes, “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.”

Taking up one’s cross should not be interpreted as acceptance of pain, misery, and abuse, but rather as the call to stand up, resist, and refuse to let go of life, justice, and the hope that another world is possible—even in a status quo that threatens you for doing so if you do.

Let’s plug this understanding back into our passage in Mark and see if it works. 

Mark 8:34-38: “Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: ‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross [be willing to resist even if you are being threatened with a cross] and follow me. 

‘For whoever wants to save their life [by remaining quiet, passive, keeping their head down] will lose it, but whoever loses their life [being willing to stand up against injustice even if there are consequences for doing so] for me and for the gospel will save it.

‘What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? 

‘If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.’”

One phrase kicks me in my gut every time I read it:

“What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?”

As a person of immense privilege in this culture, this question hits home. What does it profit me if I gain the whole world by looking the other way if in so doing I lose my humanity? If I “forfeit my soul,” I, too, become a kind of “dehumanized” being as I go along with the dehumanization of the vulnerable among us. 

The Jesus story includes a Roman cross, and we cannot ignore it. That is one of the few historically provable elements of the story: Jesus was executed on a Roman cross. But we must also be careful not to glorify the cross. As Kelly Brown Douglas argues: 

“The cross reflects the lengths that unscrupulous power will go to sustain itself. It is power’s last stand. It is the ‘extinction‘ side of the Manifest Destiny ultimatum: be assimilated or become extinct. The cross reflects power’s refusal to give up its grip on the lives of others. It is the refusal of power to retreat. Essentially, the cross represents the height of humanity’s inhumanity. It shows the extent to which humans defile and disrespect other human bodies. It represents an absolute disregard for life. It reveals “human beings’… extraordinary capacity for evil” (Stand Your Ground; Black Bodies and the Justice of God, p. 177). 

The cross reveals the violence inherent in the system. And yet, the focus need not be on the fact that Jesus was executed. It should be on the fact that he resisted in the face of a threatened empire that dealt him execution on the cross. The teachings of this Jesus call us to resist in the face of threats too. 

Speaking of what this means specifically for Black women, Delores Williams hits the nail on the head: “Jesus came for life, to show humans a perfect vision of ministerial relation that humans had very little knowledge of. As Christians, black women cannot forget the cross, but neither can they glorify it. To do so is to glorify suffering and to render their exploitation sacred. To do so is to glorify the sin of defilement” (Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk, p. 132).

So what do we do with our featured text this week? Jesus’ model prayer states, “Lead us not into temptation [time of trial], but deliver [liberate] us from evil” (Matthew 6:13)

What is Jesus talking about here? Matthew’s gospel uses the same phrase: “Stay awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” (Matthew 26:41, NRSV)

What is the time of trial or temptation? I believe that for the disciples it was to run away the night of Jesus’ arrest, to abandon him, and, when threatened with a cross, to hide. The temptation the disciples faced was to remain passive when threatened with a cross as opposed to standing up and joining the ranks of the crucified community. 

To be sure, there was at least one who did choose to resist, but please notice the form his resistance took:

“With that, one of Jesus’ companions reached for his sword, drew it out and struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his ear. ‘Put your sword back in its place,’ Jesus said to him, ‘for all who draw the sword will die by the sword.’” (Matthew 26:51-52) 

In Luke’s version, Jesus had told them just moments earlier to buy swords (see Luke 22:35-38). Yet here Jesus rebukes Peter for thinking they were to be used for violence. 

“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!’” (Luke 22:49-52)

Jesus taught resistance, but it was nonviolent resistance. It was not a path of self-sacrifice for those whose self was already being sacrificed in their society. It was a means to stand up and claim their sacred dignity. Jesus’ nonviolence was not only non-cooperative and disruptive, but also self affirming. 

Both Peter and his fellow disciples failed their temptations that night in the story. Peter gave into the temptation to rely on violence. The rest gave into the temptation to passively run away. Jesus chose a different path: he refused to let go of life, even when threatened with death. He chose to keep gripping the hope of liberation for all. 

“And lead us not into temptation [time of trial], but deliver [liberate] us from evil.” (Matthew 6:13)

HeartGroup Application

1. This week, I want to assign some homework for your group. I’d like you to listen to the series on our website, Nonviolence and the Cross.

2. Discuss with your group three things you take away from the series that are meaningful to you. 

3. What difference does it make to see Jesus’ teachings as salvific rather than just his death? Could this change the way you define salvation? What relevance to liberation here and now do you find in this way of viewing Jesus’ life? Discuss with your group.

4. Also I want to ask you to keep calling your representatives and voicing your objection to the atrocities that are happening on our southern border here in the U.S. related to immigration and those seeking refugee status from the atrocities they face in the areas they are fleeing from.  What is being touted as a solution to separating families of asylum seekers now leads to another grave injustice of imprisoning children.  Keep speaking out.

I’m so glad you checked in with us this week. Wherever you are presently, choose love, survival, resistance, liberation, reparation, and transformation. 

Another world is possible. 

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week. 

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