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.

The Speck and the Beam 

Black and white image of an eye.BY HERB MONTGOMERY

“And why do you see the speck in your brother’s eye, but the beam in your own eye you overlook? How can you say to your brother: Let me throw out the speck from your eye, and just look at the beam in your own eye? Hypocrite, first throw out from your own eye the beam, and then you will see clearly to throw out the speck in your brother’s eye.” (Q 6:41-42) 

Luke 6.41-42: “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Brother, let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when you yourself fail to see the plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.”

Matthew 7.3-5: “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.”

Gospel of Thomas 26: “Jesus says: ‘You see the splinter that is in your brother’s eye, but you do not see the beam that is in your own eye. When you remove the beam from your own eye, then you will see clearly enough to remove the splinter from your brother’s eye.’”

This week, we are looking at a saying of Jesus that’s become quite well-known here in the U.S. thanks to the culture wars of the last century. The saying has various names, but the two most popular are The Mote and the Beam or Jesus’s Discourse on Judgmentalism. 

This saying is at the root of Tony Compolo’s popular retort, “Jesus did not teach ‘love the sinner, hate the sin.’ Jesus taught ‘love the sinner, hate your own sin.’” (Read Campolo’s article, Why Love the Sinner Hate the Sin Doesn’t Work.) Historically, Campolo is right: the phrase “hate the sin, love the sinner” doesn’t come from Jesus. It came from a phrase that St. Augustine used in one of his 5th Century letters: “Cum dilectione hominum et odio vitiorum” (Letter 211). The Latin can be translated “With love for mankind and hatred of sins.” But we have no record of Jesus ever using this phrase or any like it. It is a phrase that Christians have used, but one that is foreign to the teachings of Jesus. Mahatma Gandhi also gave a pointed response to it in his time as he reflected on the legacy of the Christian British colonialists in India:

“Man and his deed are two distinct things. Whereas a good deed should call forth approbation and a wicked deed disapprobation, the doer of the deed, whether good or wicked, always deserves respect or pity as the case may be. ‘Hate the sin and not the sinner’ is a precept which, though easy enough to understand, is rarely practiced, and that is why the poison of hatred spreads in the world . . . For we are all tarred with the same brush, and are children of one and the same Creator, and as such the divine powers within us are infinite. To slight a single human being is to slight those divine powers, and thus to harm not only that being, but with him the whole world.” [Gandhi, Mohandas K.; Desai, Mahadev (2008-08-27). An Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments With Truth (pp. 143-144). Emphasis added.]

For Jesus, if one wanted to be a source of healing and help in the wider world, the place to begin was with introspection. Ultimately this close attention does go beyond one’s self—“then you will see clearly to throw out the speck in your brother’s eye.”—but it does begin with one’s self “first.” What does this mean?

I can’t answer this question for you, but I can share with you what it has meant for me.

Introspection: My Experience

I’m a white, cisgender, heterosexual American man. I have to come to grips with what that means in this society before I can help to make the world a safer, more compassionate place. When it comes to privilege in America, with the exception of not having degrees from institutions of higher learning, I’m the poster child, and I have to explore my blind spots before I can deeply serve others who are different from me.

I’ve learned that I cannot do this alone. I could probably make some progress by sitting quietly, contemplating my place in the status quo. But I’m not sure that listening to the voices within my own head would produce that much change: it would only push me deeper into my own perceptions. What I need is the voices of others.

There are many ways one can encounter others’ voices. As I shared last week, I have chosen a non-defensive posture of listening to those whose experience is not like my own. I have also encountered others by reading as many books as I can digest from those whose perspectives are different from mine.

I’ll give you two examples.

Two winters ago, Drew Hart, author of Trouble I’ve Seen, Rod Thomas from The Resist Daily, and others hosted a Twitter chat with the hashtag #JamesConeWasRight. They were inspired by Cone’s writings, and looked at events in Ferguson, Missouri, and other areas of the U.S. through the lens of what Hart calls “Anablacktivism”—Anabaptist Black activism. (You can read this chat for yourself at https://storify.com/h00die_R/jamesconewasright-an-anablacktivist-chat)

I had just begun reading James Cone when this chat happened, so I decided to follow along and just listen.

During the comments, someone mentioned a point of Cone’s which was also taught by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Someone else replied that they should not run from Cone to White, European, male theologians so quickly. I felt my internal defensiveness surge.

What?” I thought. Bonhoeffer stood up to oppression in solidarity with the Jewish citizens of Germany, but now we were just going to lump him in with all other White European theologians just because he was white and male? Where did that leave me?

This was the only time I was tempted to jump into the flow of the conversation rather than simply listen. But I heard a voice inside me say, “There it is! Sit on that. Just listen!”

As I kept listening I began to see how much the Church has privileged White theologians’ opinions and contributions, and I also saw the great need to center theological discussions and understandings in womanist, feminist, Black, Latin, and queer theologies as well. I realized that it was inappropriate to consider theology by White theologians “real theology” while downgrading theology done by other kinds of people to a lesser category. Other theological perspectives are just as valuable as White theology, and for me who grew into Christianity with only White theologians as my authorities and teachers they are even more 

valuable because I need to broaden my view of the Church. (A great read if you would like to explore this further is the book I quoted from last week, White Theology: Outing Supremacy in Modernity by James W. Perkinson.)

Sitting with the chat comments rather than defensively responding on behalf of a writer I still respect gave me a chance to see that bigger picture. It also challenged me not to get stuck in self-defense or even self-pity, and keep reaching out to others I needed to learn from.

The second way I’ve learned to listen is not just by recognizing which theologians aren’t privileged in the Christian community but by actually reading these theologians’ work.

Again, as a white, cis-hetero, male Christian, I must choose to listen to those who approach theology and who follow Jesus from a different perspective than my own. The theologians I wasn’t exposed to during my first few years in Christianity are no more infallible than anyone else. Like me, they also have “specks” in their eyes that need removing. Yet their experience, the experience they use as they approach theology, ethics, and morality gives them a unique advantage at showing me the “beam” in my own eye. A sample of the different theological voices I’ve sought out:

Feminist Theology:
Texts of Terror: Literary-Feminist Readings of Biblical Narratives (Overtures to Biblical Theology) by Phyllis Trible

Womanist Theology:
Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk by Delores S. Williams

Liberation Theology:
A Theology of Liberation: 15th Anniversary Edition by Gustavo Gutierrez

Black Liberation Theology:
A Black Theology of Liberation – Fortieth Anniversary Edition by James H. Cone

Queer Theology:
The Queer God by Marcella Althaus-Reid

All five of these lenses have been incredibly helpful as I’ve come to see the “beams” in my eye. Each of these authors has taught me to see how easy it once was for me to judge those who were unlike me, to morally evaluate them while cherishing a subtle or subconscious sense of moral superiority to them. I found it much easier to judge those not like me than to stop and listen.

I’m still on this listening journey, and I’m thankful for those who, out of love, have chosen to be in community with me and help me grow in compassion and understanding. I hope that they grow as well. The world that actually exists is a lot larger than I once believed, and I’m deeply grateful to those who have taken painstaking steps to show it to me.

Introspection for You

What does it mean for you this week to prioritize your own eye-beams rather than rush to others’ eye-specks? Both Luke’s and Matthew’s gospels describe our “logs” as compared to other people’s “splinters.” And this saying comes in both gospels’ summaries of Jesus’s teachings about judging of others. Sayings Gospel Q places it in the same context, whereas the Gospel of Thomas groups this saying with the teachings on taking care of one’s “brother” (see Gospel of Thomas 25-26)

Luke shares this saying with Jesus’s sermon on the plain, and Matthew includes it in Jesus’s sermon on the mount, both locations that represent the core of Jesus’s ethical and moral teachings. Each of the gospel writers felt this teaching about our logs and others’ splinters was central to their memory of Jesus. If Jesus taught that we should begin changing our world by starting with ourselves, what would this mean for you?

Could this challenge the knee jerk response to the movement for Black lives, “All lives matter”? Perhaps it might halt a defensive explanation that “not all Christians are like that” when someone who has been deeply wounded by a Christian shares some of their pain. When a friend laments how they’re treated in this society, Jesus’s teaching could stop me from replying, “Not all men!”

It can at least mean we all hold our initial reflex of defensiveness and take a posture of listening to others. Where it goes from there will be different for each person, but we have to come to grips with the fact that the greatest obstacles to a safer, more just, more compassionate world for us will not be the dust in another’s eyes but the beams that are in our own.

For all those who desire to lean more deeply into the teachings of Jesus, into making the world a safer, more just, more compassionate home for us all, all who want to become more keenly aware of your own blind spots:

“And why do you see the speck in your brother’s eye, but the beam in your own eye you overlook? How can you say to your brother: Let me throw out the speck from your eye, and just look at the beam in your own eye? Hypocrite, first throw out from your own eye the beam, and then you will see clearly to throw out the speck in your brother’s eye.” (Q 6:41-42) 

HeartGroup Application

  1. This week, pick a book from the list of five above that your HeartGroup will read over the next month.
  2. Set a date a month from now to share with each other your responses to what you have read. As you engage the book you’ve chosen, also engage your fellow HeartGroup participants in conversation about it to deepen your “beam” removal.
  3. At the end of your group’s discussion, choose a new action to embrace as a result of what you have read and discussed.

Thank you, once again, for journeying with us as we work through Sayings Gospel Q.

Till the only world the remains is a world where only love reigns.

I love each of you, dearly.

I’ll see you next week.