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. 

To support these podcasts, weekly eSight articles and to help us grow, go to and click “donate.”

Self Affirming Nonviolence and the Myth of Redemptive Suffering (Part 1)

by Herb Montgomery | June 16, 2018

Jesus Cleanses the Temple by Gustave Dore (1832-1883)

Artwork: Jesus Cleanses the Temple by Gustave Dore (1832-1883)


“In its own cultural setting, Jesus’ nonviolence was a means of self-affirmation for those who don’t have access to common power, and it is best illustrated not by the cross but by his temple protest. Linking Jesus’ nonviolence to the cross instead is a way to promote the historical myth of redemptive suffering.”


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

I want to talk about Jesus’ teachings on nonviolence this week. I have some concerns about them. I’m concerned about how those who benefit from the violence of the status quo continually co-opt nonviolence to condemn those who rise up against injustice while leaving their own use of violence on the vulnerable unaddressed and untouched. I’m also concerned about how some use Jesus’ nonviolence to promote self-sacrifice for those whose self is already being sacrificed. In its own cultural setting, Jesus’ nonviolence was a means of self-affirmation for those who don’t have access to common power, and it is best illustrated not by the cross but by his temple protest. Linking Jesus’ nonviolence to the cross instead is a way to promote the historical myth of redemptive suffering. It centers victimizers at the expense of survivors and victims. 

I want to unpack some of these ideas over the next two weeks and see if we can understand Jesus’ teachings on nonviolence in a healthier, more life-giving and socially transformative way. First let’s talk about the historical backdrop upon which Jesus took up the methods of nonviolence. We are all shaped by the times in which we live. 

Jesus grew up in the wake of the Judas Rebellion, which razed the near-to-Nazareth city of Sepphoris and led to the crucifixion of some 2,000 Jewish people outside Jerusalem. This rebellion and Rome’s violent crushing of it took place in 4 BCE (see Josephus; Jewish Antiquities 17.295) Jesus would have witnessed the aftermath of this rebellion firsthand. 

Within Judaism at that time, there was also some understanding of forms of nonviolent resistance to Rome already being practiced by some Jewish people. In 26 CE, during the time of Jesus, Josephus tells us about a Standards (Ensigns) incident that took place in Jerusalem where Rome sought to place a Roman Standard in Jerusalem itself. Viewing the Standard as a violation of the Torah against “images” or “idols,” Jewish adherents used a form of nonviolent resistance to stop these Standards from being posted. Josephus tells us, “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.” (War 2:175-203)

After Jesus we also see both methods of resistance, violent and nonviolent, being used by the Jewish community in resistance to Rome. 

In 40 CE, Rome attempted to place a statue of Gaius Caligula in the Temple in Jerusalem itself. Again, Josephus tells us that Jewish adherents to Torah used a form of nonviolent resistance. It could be that this was the only form of resistance they had at their disposal. A group, en masse, laid down before the Roman soldiers and cried out, “On no account would we fight, but we will die sooner than violate our laws” (Antiquities 18:261-309). Philo, too, tells us of this incident: “When the Jews at large got to know of the scheme, they staged mass demonstrations of protest before Petronius, who by then was in Phoenicia with an army.” (Legatio ad Gaium)

The result was that the statue of Caligula was not placed. 

Next came the Jewish-Roman War of CE 66-69, which began as a poor people’s revolt and climaxed in 70 CE with the Roman razing of Jerusalem. The Bar Kokhba revolt. which followed, is often referred to as the Third Jewish Revolt between 132-136 CE. As a result of this violent revolt, 580,000 Jews perished and many more died of hunger and disease. Rome sold many survivors into slavery. The Jewish communities of Judea were devastated to the point of genocide.

Jewish violent revolt against Rome seemed to result only in greater devastation, while nonviolent resistance gained short term and partial results. And although Jesus would only have personally witnessed some of this history, it would have been enough to have led him to the conclusion that if liberation were possible, it had the best chances with nonviolence. Rooted in liberation of the oppressed (see Luke 4:18) and a compassionate desire for those being dehumanized to stand in the power of their YHWH-given dignity and worth, Jesus emerged and began to teach: 

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ 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.” (Matthew 5:38-44)

RHM has several resources on how to understand these words in their own cultural setting according to the research of Walter Wink and scholars like him. Far from teaching passivity, or simply being a door mat, these words teach a type of cheek resistance. They teach a way to shame one’s oppressor and exploitative, unjust, and cruel economic structures. They also teach refusing to play by oppressors’ rules and putting power back in the hands of oppressed people. 

If this interpretation is new to you, read this eSight. This month’s featured presentation also includes relevant details. 

Jesus’ teachings on nonviolence are modeled in his Temple protest. Too often, his nonviolence is, what I believe, wrongly thought to be modeled on the cross. This leads to two mistakes.

The first mistake is that if we use the cross to understand Jesus’ nonviolence, it almost every time leads to defining nonviolence as a passive response to persecution or injustice. But the cross did not demonstrate Jesus’ passivity. The crucifixion happened because those who were protecting the status quo were rightly feeling threatened by Jesus nonviolent resistance toward the Temple state. 

The second mistake, which we’ll cover in detail next week, is that we begin to believe the myth that passive suffering is redemptive. Jesus was teaching a nonviolent form of civil disobedience, direct action and/or resistance. One of my favorite passages in Mark hint at why we should interpret Jesus’ overturning of the Temple tables as a protest against the economic exploitation of the poor:

“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 11:11) 

What we today call Jesus’ “triumphal entry” was originally supposed to have ended with Jesus entering the Temple that Sunday night, dismounting the donkey, and overturning the tables immediately in protest. He was entering the heart of the Temple state to shut it down, to prevent business as usual. 

Instead, he entered, looks around, and “since it was already late”— most people were not present and not much was going on in the temple to shut down—he returned to his friends’ home in Bethany with his twelve disciples and went back to the Temple the following morning when economic exploitation was in full swing. 

This was not a passive plan. Those who respond with passivity to injustice don’t get crucified!

“And he [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.” (Gandhi, Non Violence in Peace and War, Volume I, p. 16

The Jesus we see in the story didn’t teach “peace-keeping” through nonviolent passivity. He taught peace-making through the nonviolent establishment of distributive justice. (See The Lord’s Prayer.) Peace-making is never accomplished through peace-keeping iin an unjust status quo. 

“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)

Jesus’ followers were continually labeled troublemakers, and disturbers of the peace.

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

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. rightly stated, “Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being “disturbers of the peace” and “outside agitators” (Letter from Birmingham Jail).

Gandhi again reminds us:

“[Nonviolence] does not mean meek submission to the will of the evil-doer, but it means the pitting of one’s whole soul against the will of the tyrant. Working under this law of our being, it is possible for a single individual to defy the whole might of an unjust empire to save his honour, his religion, his soul and lay the foundation for that empire’s fall or its regeneration.” (Mohandas Gandhi, Young India; January 8, 1920, p.3) 

The value of nonviolent forms of resistance is that they enable those who practice them to not become like their oppressors. In other words, nonviolence can provide a path for oppressed people to not dehumanize oppressors the way oppressors have dehumanized them. Understood as a form of resistance, nonviolence enables us to resist, to stop injustice, while simultaneously maintaining our connectedness to the humanity of those who oppress. As I have often said, I know of no better statement that captures this balance than the “two hands” metaphor used by Barbara Deming in the book Revolution ad Equilibrium: 

“With one hand we say to one who is angry, or to an oppressor, or to an unjust system, ‘Stop what you are doing. I refuse to honor the role you are choosing to play. I refuse to obey you. I refuse to cooperate with your demands. I refuse to build the walls and the bombs. I refuse to pay for the guns. With this hand I will even interfere with the wrong you are doing. I want to disrupt the easy pattern of your life.’ But then the advocate of nonviolence raises the other hand. It is raised out- stretched – maybe with love and sympathy, maybe not – but always outstretched . . . With this hand we say, ‘I won’t let go of you or cast you out of the human race. I have faith that you can make a better choice than you are making now, and I’ll be here when you are ready. Like it or not, we are part of one another.’” (p. 69)

When understood as resistance, nonviolence must not be used keep people facing oppression and exploitation in a state of passivity. Nonviolence is not a critique of resisters as much as it is a protest first and foremost of the violence that produces the need for resistance.

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

Lastly, when nonviolence becomes synonymous with passivity, or, as we’ll see next week, self-sacrifice rather than resistance, the only other pathway that could lead toward change in response to injustice is violence.

“I think America must see that riots do not develop out of thin air. Certain conditions continue to exist in our society which must be condemned as vigorously as we condemn riots. But in the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard . . . in a real sense our nation’s summers of riots are caused by our nation’s winters of delay. And as long as America postpones justice, we stand in the position of having these recurrences of violence and riots over and over again. Social justice and progress are the absolute guarantors of riot prevention.” (Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.; 1968; “The Other America”)

“Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.” (John F. Kennedy; Remarks on the first anniversary of the Alliance for Progress, 13 March 1962)

As we move into part 2 of this article, let’s consider ways we might practice the value that is at the heart Jesus’ teachings on nonviolence—resistance.

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

HeartGroup Application

Resistance can come in many forms. Yes, there is public, in the streets activism, that should be done. There are other forms of resistance as well. Kneeling at football games is a nonviolent form of resistance for athletes. I know professors who intentionally teach specific methods and content as an expression of resistance. Some people tell stories, some write, some sing, some do theater, some produce films. Some organize educational events, others wash dishes or make sandwiches, have their own garden, and lend help and support anywhere they can. Resistance can begin in a coffee shop or within conversations merely with family and friends. 

As Bayard Rustin said, “We need, in every community, a group of angelic troublemakers.”

  1. What are some of the ways you resist systemic injustice in your day-to-day life? List them.
  2. What are some of the ways your HeartGroup as a community resists? List them.
  3. Lean into these lists and a living practice of resistance this week. Don’t allow the machine to drive you endlessly through the rat race of the status quo. Resist!

Thank you for checking in with us this week.

Wherever this finds you, keep living in love, survival, resistance, liberation, reparation, and transformation. 

Another world is possible. 

I love each of you dearly. 

I’ll see you next week with part 2.

To support these podcasts, weekly eSight articles and to help us grow, go to and click “donate.”

Not Fearing the Body’s Death

protest crowd

by Herb Montgomery

Featured Text:

“And do not be afraid of those who kill the body, but cannot kill the soul. But fear the one who is able to destroy both the soul and body in Gehenna.” (Q 12:4-5)

Companion Texts:

Matthew 10:28: “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in Gehenna.”

Luke 12:4-5: “I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more. But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after your body has been killed, has authority to throw you into Gehenna. Yes, I tell you, fear him.”

4 Maccabees 13:14-15: “Let us not fear him who thinks he is killing us, for great is the struggle of the soul and the danger of eternal torment lying before those who transgress the commandment of God.”

This week’s saying is rooted in a Jewish text that precedes the gospels. 2 Maccabees and 4 Maccabees tell the story of the martyrdom of seven Jewish brothers, their mother, and their teacher. During the time of the Maccabee family, the Seleucid Empire through Antiochus Epiphanies was threatening fundamentalist Hebrew people with death if they refused to become Hellenized.

In 4 Maccabees 13:14-15, one of the Jewish brothers says, “Let us not fear him who thinks he is killing us, for great is the struggle of the soul and the danger of eternal torment lying before those who transgress the commandment of God.” This was the rallying cry they used to strengthen Jewish resolve to resist their Hellenistic oppressors.

Fast forward two centuries to the time of Jesus. In Galilee, Samaria, and Judea, we know that there were continual efforts to spark revolution by following violent messiahs rising up against Rome. Rome also had a brutal history of lashing back against all violent uprisings. Josephus tells us how Varus responded to one of these attempts in Galilee:

“Upon this, Varus 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 17: Book 10) [1]

It was in this same region, in the wake of memories like these, that Jesus grew up.

Jesus rephrases the Maccabean saying, and warns the people not to follow violent messiahs because complete annihilation from Rome would result. Let see how.

“Do not be afraid of those who kill the body, but cannot kill the soul. But fear the one who is able to destroy both the soul and body in Gehenna.”

In order to see what Jesus was saying, we have to step away from the Christian myth of hell and step back into a Jewish understanding of the term Gehenna.

Gehenna is a term that the Hebrew prophet Jeremiah uses regarding the deeds of Judean king Ahaz.

“And he [Ahaz, King of Judah] made offerings in the valley of the son of Hinnom, and made his sons pass through fire, according to the abominable practices of the nations whom the LORD drove out before the people of Israel. [Since his legitimate son by the daughter of the High Priest Hezekiah succeeded him as king, this is assumed to mean children by unrecorded pagan wives or concubines.]” (2 Chronicles 28:3)

“He [Manasseh, Ahaz’ grandson] made his son pass through fire in the valley of the son of Hinnom, practiced soothsaying and augury and sorcery, and dealt with mediums and with wizards. He did much evil in the sight of the LORD, provoking him to anger.” (2 Chronicles 33:6)

“And they go on building the high place of TOPHETH, which is in THE VALLEY OF THE SON OF HINNOM, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire—which I did not command, nor did it come into my mind. Therefore, the days are surely coming, says the LORD, when it will no more be called TOPHETH, or THE VALLEY OF THE SON OF HINNOM, but THE VALLEY OF SLAUGHTER: for they will bury in TOPHETH until there is no more room.” (Jeremiah 7:31-32)

“And go out to THE VALLEY OF THE SON OF HINNOM at the entry of the Potsherd Gate, and proclaim there the words that I tell you. You shall say: Hear the word of the LORD, O kings of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem. Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: I am going to bring such disaster upon this place that the ears of everyone who hears of it will tingle. Because the people have forsaken me, and have profaned this place by making offerings in it to other gods whom neither they nor their ancestors nor the kings of Judah have known; and because they have filled this place with the blood of the innocent, and gone on building the high places of Baal to burn their children in the fire as burnt offerings to Baal, which I did not command or decree, nor did it enter my mind. Therefore the days are surely coming, says the LORD, when this place shall no more be called Topheth, or the valley of the son of Hinnom, but THE VALLEY OF SLAUGHTER. [Emphasis Added.] (Jeremiah 19:2-6; see also Jeremiah 19:11-15)

Jeremiah repurposed a literal landmark, the valley of the son of Hinnom (Gehenna), as a symbol of Hebrew annihilation at the hands of foreign powers. In Jeremiah’s day, the foreign power would have been Babylon; in the time of Jesus, it was Rome. Jesus takes the same language Jeremiah used, and he makes it a metaphor for Roman destruction of Judea if the Jews follow a violent messiah.

In the original Maccabean phrase, a faithful Jewish worshiper risked losing his life for remaining faithful but was warned of a worse post mortem fate (eternal punishment) if he did not stay faithful. Jesus repurposes this warning but removes the post-mortem warning. Instead he adds a very this-world, this life, concrete warning: Gehenna, destruction by a foreign power.

Remember that Jesus has just been teaching nonviolent forms of resistance. In this week’s saying, he is saying do not allow fear of the violent Romans to push you to abandon nonviolent forms of resistance as futile, naive, or ineffective. He warns his followers not to fear him who can “destroy the body,” but to fear instead the one who will end up destroying both “body and soul.” “Body and soul” is a phrase that means complete annihilation in the worldview of Hellenized, Galilean, Jewish listeners, and physical violence like the violence of the Romans was a very real fear for those worried about nonviolent forms of resistance.

How would a violent messiah destroy both body and soul? The same way they had in the past. If Galilean impoverished followers took over Jerusalem’s temple (as they did in the Jewish Roman war) and lashed out violently against Rome, they would not only lose their lives (“destroy the body”), but also Jerusalem, the Temple itself, and the surrounding areas would be totally obliterated (“Gehenna”). Jesus isn’t saying that nonviolence revolution won’t fail. He saying that even if it does fail, it won’t fail to the same catastrophic degree that violent revolution will.

The Maccabees didn’t worry about what could happen to their bodies if they remained faithful. They worried about what would happen to their souls if they didn’t. Unlike the Maccabees, Jesus told his followers to fear the complete annihilation of their entire world, obliterated by Rome if they took up violent resistance in Jerusalem.

Jesus was concerned for the survival and liberation of his people. And, keeping survival and liberation in tension, he called his society to embrace nonviolent forms of resistance that allowed oppressors to be overcome through the transformation of society, and which also provided the best possible probabilities of them living to enjoy that liberation once it was achieved. Nonviolence offers no guarantees, but even when it fails it produces fewer losses.

This is a rather long passage from Walter Wink’s work, Jesus and Nonviolence. Yet I believe it is extremely relevant to this week’s saying.

“Once we determine that Jesus’ Third Way is not a perfectionistic avoidance of violence but a creative struggle to restore the humanity of all parties in a dispute, the legalism that has surrounded this issue becomes unnecessary. We cannot sit in judgment over the responses of others to their oppression. Gandhi continually reiterated that if a person could not act nonviolently in a situation, violence was preferable to submission. ‘Where there is only a choice between cowardice and violence, I would advise violence.’ But Gandhi believed that a third way can always be found, if one is deeply committed to nonviolence.

Jesus’ way, which is the way of the cross, means voluntarily taking on the violence of the Powers That Be, and that will mean casualties. But they will be nowhere near the scale that would result from violent revolution.

Britain’s Indian colony of three hundred million people was liberated nonviolently at a cost of about eight thousand lives. The British apparently suffered not a single casualty, dead or wounded. It took twenty-seven years (1919-46). France’s Algerian colony of about ten million was liberated in seven years (1955-1961) by violence, but it cost almost one million lives.

The staggering differential in lives lost certainly cannot be ascribed to the French being more barbaric or determined to keep their colony than the British. And most of the French were fighting merely to keep a colony, not their native soil.

Solidarity in Poland nonviolently stood up to the ruthless power of a Communist government and lost about three hundred lives over a period of ten years. About the same time Argentina, in a violent but fruitless effort to take the Falkland/Malvinas Islands, lost approximately one thousand lives in two weeks against the British.

The armed revolt in Hungary was crushed by the Soviets at the cost of five to six thousand Hungarian lives; forty thousand were imprisoned, tortured or detained. In Czechoslovakia, where a spontaneous nonviolent resistance was mounted, seventy died, and political prisoners were released.

In the Unites States civil rights struggle, about fifty thousand demonstrators were jailed, but fewer than one hundred of those engaged in campaigns were killed. By contrast, armed revolution in Cuba and Nicaragua cost twenty thousand lives each. In El Salvador, sixty thousand civilians died, quite apart from military casualties. Over the past thirty years one hundred thousand Guatemalans have lost their lives, out of a population of only 7.8 million. We cannot ignore the implications of these statistics, for the comparative degree of carnage is a moral issue.

We need to be very clear that this is in the interest of the Powers to make people believe that nonviolence doesn’t work. To that end they create a double standard. If a single case can be shown where nonviolence doesn’t work, nonviolence as a whole can then be discredited. No such rigorous standard is applied to violence, however, which regularly fails to achieve its goals. Close to two-thirds of all governments that assume power by means of coups d etat are ousted by the same means; only 1 in 20 post-coup governments give way to a civil government.

The issue, however, is not just which works better, but also which fails, better. While a nonviolent strategy also does not always “work” in terms of present goals—though in another sense it always “works”—at least the casualties and destruction are far less severe.” (Chapter 4)

I disagree with Wink’s statement that the way of the cross is synonymous with nonviolence: we must be careful not to glorify the cross or promote the myth of redemptive suffering, and we’ll discuss both at length when we get to Jesus’ saying on taking up a cross. For now, it’s worth considering that both violent resistance and nonviolent resistance come with a price tag. I believe that Jesus was seeking to help his fellow Jewish, oppressed people stand up to violent Rome in a way that allowed them to survive the encounter rather than being annihilated by it whether it succeeded or failed.

Wink states in the same volume, “Jesus was no less committed to opposing evil than the anti-Roman Roman resistance fighters. The only difference was over the means to be used: how one should fight evil. There are three general responses to evil: (1) passivity, (2) violent opposition, and 3) the third way of militant non-violence articulated by Jesus.”

It is this militant nonviolence that we see Jesus encouraging his followers to embrace. What we also see in this week’s saying is Jesus warning the people not to go down the path that they ultimately chose.

I wonder how far we can apply this militant nonviolence in our time.

The LGBTQ community has made great strides without great violence. Though I respect that many LGBTQ people no longer wish to be associated with Jesus because Jesus has been used to do much damage to them, they have nonetheless demonstrated how much society can be transformed positively by raising collective consciousness. Changing society from the inside out has borne positive fruit. Through relationships, marketing, lobbying, television media, and other nonviolent methods, this community has changed society not with a sword but by influence.

I remember being told by a friend when we were working for LGBTQ nondiscrimination here in my local town that here in Appalachia, once a person who was prejudiced against the LGBTQ community has five friends who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer, they can see common stereotypes as the destructive falsifications that they are. When they’ve released those stereotypes, people become allies and change how they vote for the protection of their friends’ rights. The discussion ceases to be about “issues” and rather becomes about human beings they know, are in community with, and actually care about. As someone who is always looking for modern examples of Jesus’ teachings on militant nonviolence, I believe this community’s experiences offer rich lessons.

This week, let’s consider the warning in Jesus’ saying. What might Gehenna—total destruction—look like in our society? We are to oppose injustice and resist oppression. But let’s do it together in a way that isn’t suicidal but could allow us to survive to enjoy liberation. There are no guarantees, and remaining passive is not an acceptable option.

And do not be afraid of those who kill the body, but cannot kill the soul. But fear the one who is able to destroy both the soul and body in Gehenna.” (Q 12:4-5)

HeartGroup Application

This week I want you as a group to spend some time together considering the statements above from Wink. Wink ends his first chapter with some tough questions and I think they are appropriate for HeartGroups, too.

  1. What objections do you have to non-violence? What objections do you have to violence?
  2. Do you think you could be nonviolent during a specific demonstration or vigil, if not consistently across your life?
  3. What reasons can you find for choosing to be nonviolent?

Thank you for checking in with us this week.

Keep living in love, a love manifested through solidarity in the work of survival, liberation, resistance, restoration, and transformation.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.


[1] Josephus writes of revolutionary prophets leading large groups of people into the desert around 50 C.E. These prophets told the people that once they were in the desert, God would show them signs of coming freedom. The Roman procurator, Felix, regarded these gatherings as the first stage of revolt, and sent cavalry and heavy infantry into the desert to cut the crowds into pieces (see Josephus, The Jewish War, Williamson and Smallwood, p. 147). The most infamous of these prophets who promised “signs to be observed” was a violent messiah known as “the Egyptian” and mentioned in Acts 21:38: “Then you are not the Egyptian who recently stirred up a revolt and led the four thousand assassins out into the wilderness?”

Josephus describes the event as follows:

“Arriving in the country, this man, a fraud who posed as a seer, collected about 30,000 dupes, led them round from the desert to the Mount of Olives and from there was ready to force an entry into Jerusalem, overwhelm the Roman garrison, and seize supreme power with his fellow-raiders as bodyguard.” (Josephus, The Jewish War, Williamson and Smallwood, p. 147)

In a parallel account of this event, Josephus includes the “sign” that this “Egyptian” had claimed would be shown to the people in the course of their liberating Jerusalem. It would be a sign like Joshua’s sign at the Battle of Jericho. At the “Egyptian’s” command, the walls of Jerusalem would fall down so that his followers could enter and seize the city. However, before any such a sign could be attempted, the Roman cavalry and infantry slew and captured hundreds and put the rest to flight, including the violent messiah, the Egyptian (Josephus, Antiquities, 170-172).

These were not lunatic leaders, but hopeful violent messiahs, action prophets who contemporary scholars see as attempting to lead movements of Jewish peasants in active engagements of specifically violent human effort that would be accompanied by divine acts of empowerment and deliverance. The logic went something like, “Success is dependent on combining human effort with divine power. If they wanted divine deliverance, they must first present the violent human effort for Yahweh to bless. God would meet their efforts if they acted.”  The necessity of our action is the truth to be found the above logic. That our action has to be violent is short sighted. The rhetoric of these violent messiahs was steeped in the symbols of the Exodus and the conquest of Canaan.

Josephus also describes another event where Romans massacred a thousand Jewish women and children who were acting in obedience to another Jewish violent messiah “prophet.” This violent messiah had declared to the people in Jerusalem that God had commanded them to go up to the Temple to receive the signs of deliverance (Josephus, The Jewish War, p. 360). Elsewhere, Josephus describes a “Samaritan prophet” who was a contemporary “messiah” of Jesus during the time of Pontius Pilate. This prophet’s “sign” was to lead the people up the sacred Mount Gerizim to find holy vessels left there by Moses. Instead, the armed crowd was attacked and overwhelmed by Pilate’s troops at the foot of the mountain (Josephus, Antiquities, 85-87).