A Primer on Self-Affirming Nonviolence (Part 10)

Herb Montgomery | October 11, 2019

mountains during golden hour

Photo by Jonny McKenna on Unsplash


“Jesus’ form of nonviolence was an act of self-affirmation in a society where one’s self was already being sacrificed. When we interpret nonviolence as self-sacrifice, irreparable harm, even lethal harm, is done to those who survive and those who are victims of violation.”


Thank you for journeying with us through this series on self-affirming, nonviolent resistance. This is our tenth and final installment. Leaving the objections we’ve addressed, I want to wrap up our time together by summarizing what we’ve learned. I believe that understanding the Jesus of the gospels as teaching self-affirming, nonviolent resistance is a life-giving interpretation.

Let’s begin by summarizing nonviolence itself.

Nonviolence

In Jesus’ vision for social change (what the gospel authors refer to as “the kingdom”), Jesus had certain options. He had seen the results of both violent and nonviolent resistance to Roman oppression. As he weighed the success and failure rates of both approaches, Jesus rejected violence. As the late Walter Wink reminds us:

“The issue, however, is not just which [violence or nonviolence] works better, but also which fails better. While a nonviolent strategy also does not always “work” in terms of preset goals-though though in another sense it always “works”—at least the casualties and destruction are far less severe.” (Walter Wink. Jesus and Nonviolence: A Third Way, Facets, Kindle Locations 316-318).

Also, the social goals that Jesus was endeavoring to plant the seeds for in his own community cannot be achieved through violence: “Violence can beget fear, stalemate, annihilation, dominance, or more violence, but it cannot beget love, justice, abundant life, community, or peace.” (Rita Nakashima Brock & Rebecca Parker; Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire, p. 13)

Others have also recognized the impossibility of using means that contradict the ends we are trying to achieve. As Audre Lorde wrote:

“For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.” (Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches, p. 112)

The 1st Century Judea and Galilee had both seen violent and nonviolent acts of resistance. Jesus’ gospel was not only a gospel of liberation but also one of surviving and being able to achieve a quality of life once that liberation was accomplished. What good is liberation if your entire people and culture and way of life are wiped out in the process?

Jesus’ supreme value was not simply the rejection of violence but, more, the goal of arriving at a just society. Correcting the societal roots of systemic injustice was his passion. This is important. If rejecting violence is your highest moral goal, and justice is secondary, this has too often led to a passive response to injustice rather than acts of resistance and nonviolent noncooperation.

“Violence is not an absolute evil to be avoided at all costs. It is not even the main problem, but only the presenting symptom of an unjust society. And peace is not the highest good; it is rather the outcome of a just social order.” (Walter Wink. Jesus and Nonviolence: A Third Way, Facets; Kindle Locations 493-495).

Lastly, nonviolence is rooted in the value of maintaining a love for one’s enemy. Love for one’s enemy should not be interpreted as accepting enemies’ behavior, actions, or choices. Love of enemy is the choice to hold on to your enemy’s humanity. As human beings, we are all still part of one another. We still belong to each other. Nonviolence enables us to find a balance where we stop or obstruct our enemy’s actions but remain characteristically unlike our enemies in our methods. Love of one’s enemy also holds space for and adds pressure towards our enemies making better decisions than they are presently making:

“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 outstretched – 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.’” (Barbara Deming, Revolution & Equilibrium, page 224)

Resistance

As we covered in Part 4, Jesus’ teachings on nonviolence were rooted in an attempt to provide nonviolent forms of protest, noncooperation, and resistance to injustice, both personal and systemic. Culturally, turning the cheek was a refusal to accept one’s marginalized or lower social class position and treatment. Handing over your remaining article of clothing was using public nudity as a form of protest, and going the second mile was a refusal to play by the rules of one’s oppressors. Today, ignoring tone-policing or respectability politics is a similar refusal to play by the rules of an unjust status quo.

Self-Affirming

Finally, Jesus’ form of nonviolence was an act of self-affirmation in a society where one’s self was already being sacrificed. When we interpret nonviolence as self-sacrifice, irreparable harm, even lethal harm, is done to those who survive and those who are victims of violation. As we’ve said, defining Jesus’ nonviolence as self-sacrificial is rooted in interpreting Jesus’ cross as an act of self-sacrifice, as a submission to death rather than a defiant refusal to let go of life.

Remember, those in positions of power and privilege use both metaphorical and literal crosses to keep those who are being violated silent. Jesus taught us not to remain silent, but to speak our truth even if threatened with a cross. Far from being passive or submissive, Jesus’ call to take up the cross was the call to join him in self-affirming resistance to injustice regardless of dire threats. Again, to quote Brown and Parker:

“It is not the 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.” (Brown & Parker, Patriarchy, Christianity and Abuse, p. 18)

Jesus’ cheek defiance, naked protest, and refusal to play by the rules of oppressors were not self-sacrificial, but a means of reclaiming and affirming one’s humanity when those in power ignored or denied it.

Jesus’ teachings on nonviolence should not be interpreted as self-sacrifice but as self-affirmation in the face of violence.

Over the last ten installments, I’ve shared my belief that Jesus’ form of nonviolence is much more life-giving when we interpret it as self-affirming, nonviolent resistance. Thank you to each of you who read, listened, wrote in, or commented online about how this series was making a difference for you. I’m so glad you have been here.

We must allow more destructive interpretations of Jesus to give way to more life-giving interpretations. This I believe is in harmony with the spirit of his life and teachings. The movement born out of his life once gave hope to the most marginalized and discarded of his society. May all those who take his name today reject violence, including the violent forms of religiosity that have been created in his name. May we work toward healing and reparations for all those whom certain strands of Christianity have harmed.

Jesus taught the rejection of violence.

Jesus taught self-affirmation for the marginalized.

Jesus taught resistance for those whose humanity was being violated.

May those who follow this Jewish Galilean prophet of the poor today do the same.

HeartGroup Application

Share with your group how this series has affirmed, challenged, or deepened how you presently follow Jesus.
Are there any new practices that this series has brought to your attention that you are implementing in how you live out the ethics of love, justice, and compassion? Share with your group.
How has your HeartGroup itself grown in its collective understanding of nonviolence? Has it changed even some of the ways you communicate with each other?

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. To do so, go to renewedheartministries.com and click “Donate.”

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

I Do Not Know You

Two paths

by Herb Montgomery

Why is the path narrow? It’s narrow simply because it’s traversed by so few. Paths are broad or narrow determined by the number of those who travel them. In other words, we too often think of this saying as describing a path that few traverse because it’s arbitrarily kept narrow. But actually, if more people traversed it, it would grow wider. The path is only narrow at first because so few presently traverse it.

Featured Text

“Enter through the narrow door, for many will seek to enter and few are those who enter through it. When the householder has arisen‚ and locked the door, and you begin to stand outside and knock on the door, saying: Master, open for us, and he will answer you: I do not know you. Then you will begin saying: We ate in your presence and drank, and it was in our streets you taught. And he will say to you: I do not know you! Get away from me, you who do lawlessness!” (Q 13:24-27)

Companion Texts:

Matthew 7:13-14: “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.”

Matthew 7:22-23: “Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’”

Matthew 25:10-12: “But while they were on their way to buy the oil, the bridegroom arrived. The virgins who were ready went in with him to the wedding banquet. And the door was shut. Later the others also came. ‘Lord, Lord,’ they said, ‘open the door for us!’ But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I don’t know you.’”

Luke 13:24-27: “Make every effort to enter through the narrow door, because many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able to. Once the owner of the house gets up and closes the door, you will stand outside knocking and pleading, ‘Sir, open the door for us.’ But he will answer, ‘I don’t know you or where you come from.’ Then you will say, ‘We ate and drank with you, and you taught in our streets.’ But he will reply, ‘I don’t know you or where you come from. Away from me, all you evildoers!’”

In this week’s saying brings us the imagery of the “strait and narrow.” Typically this saying is read in relation to a post-mortem, divinely-imposed reward or punishment. I’m going to ask you to read it instead in the more immediate cultural context of the destruction in 70 C.E. that Jesus saw looming on Jerusalem’s horizon. We’ve discussed this at length previously. As the elites rejected Jesus’ call for debt cancelation and wealth distribution, exploitation of the poor increased. The poor rejected Jesus’ nonviolent forms of resistance, and they eventually initiated an uprising against the Temple and Rome’s occupation. Their uprising became the Jewish-Roman war of 66-69 C.E. This eventually resulted in Rome’s violent backlash against Jerusalem.

When we recognize that context, our saying takes on a different taste. Jesus had witnessed many violent revolutions and revolutionaries come to destruction because of Rome’s backlash. History also tells us of many cultures where inequalities became so extreme through exploitation that they imploded and their societies were destroyed. This, we know, was how Rome’s empire eventually fell, too.

History teaches us:

Violent revolutions are typically embraced by the many and end in more costly consequences.

Exploitative societies, the way of domination and subjugation, have also been common—the way of the many. Such societies also have a self-created, expiration date: they will implode.

By contrast, there have been few revolutionaries throughout history, comparatively, who have chosen nonviolent forms of resistance and change.

Few societies have genuinely embraced egalitarianism or a distributive justice that produces life and peace. Few societies and communities have genuinely embraced the way of abundance and sharing, where each person contributes “according to their ability” (Acts 11:29), and the resources are “distributed to anyone according to their need” (Acts 4:35; cf. 2:45)

In our saying this week, Jesus is speaking about the realities of life in this world. Once again he calls fellow impoverished Jews to the form of resistance that gave them the greatest chances of surviving attempted liberation. And he also called those at the helm of their economically oppressive society to a Torah style Jubilee where all debts would be cancelled and the wealth of their society would be radically redistributed (cf. Luke 19:1-9, cf. Luke 12:33; 18:22; Mark 10:21).

Varying Failure Costs

In Walter Wink’s Jesus and Nonviolence: A Third Way, Wink compares the costs of failure for violent revolutions and nonviolent ones. Both kinds have histories of success, like the violent American Revolution that many American citizens celebrate each 4th of July. There are also successful nonviolent revolutions, and some of them are documented in the film A Force More Powerful. Our saying this week is about the cost of failure for both forms of revolutionary resistance. Wink writes:

“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’ nonviolent form of resistance] 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 . . . We need to be very clear that it 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 preset goals- though in another sense it always ‘works’—at least the casualties and destruction are far less severe. I do not believe that the churches can adequately atone for their past inaction simply by baptizing revolutionary violence under the pretext of just war theory. No war today could be called just, given the inevitable level of casualties and atrocities. Nonviolent revolutions sometimes happen by accident. They are usually more effective, however, when they are carefully prepared by grassroots training, discipline, organizing, and hard work. Training, because we need to know how to deal with police riots, how to develop creative strategies, how to defuse potentially violent eruptions. Discipline, because all too often agents provocateurs are planted in peace groups, whose task is to try to stir up violence. So we need to know how to neutralize people we suspect, by their actions, to be such agents. Organize, so as to create affinity groups that can act in concert, be able to identify by name every person in their cluster, and develop esprit de corps. And all that is hard work. But also (and this is a heavily guarded secret), nonviolent action in concert can be one of the most rewarding-and sometimes fun-activities available able to human beings.” (Chapter 4)

I believe Jesus was trying to engage the work of survival and the work of liberation in creative nonviolent forms of resistance that provided the best chances for both.

Debt Forgiveness and Wealth Redistribution

At the heart of Jesus’s economic “path,” which few societies find, is the Jewish Torah’s and Hebrew prophets’ call to a distributive justice where inequality is seen as an intrinsic social harm. Debt forgiveness and support of the poor better societies, but few societies have practiced either. Yet there are a multitude of societies, much like America today, where wealth inequality became so extreme that it ultimately destroyed those societies from within. “Wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it.”

Aristotle also saw this same truth:

“Poverty is the cause of the defects of democracy. That is the reason why measures should be taken to ensure a permanent level of prosperity. This is in the interest of all classes, including the prosperous themselves; and therefore the proper policy is to accumulate any surplus revenue in a fund, and then to distribute this fund in block grants to the poor.” (Aristotle’s Politics, Book VI, Chapter 5)

In his new book, Requiem for the American Dream, Noam Chomsky comments on Aristotle’s call to redistribute the wealth of the elites.

“It’s of some interest that this debate [less democracy which protects the elite vs. less poverty that protects broad democracy] has a hoary tradition. It goes back to the first work on political democracy in classical Greece. The first major book on political systems is Aristotle’s Politics— a long study that investigates many different kinds of political systems. He concludes that of all of them, the best is democracy. But then he points out exactly the flaw that Madison pointed out. He wasn’t thinking of a country, he was thinking of the city-state of Athens, and remember, his democracy was for free men. But the same was true for Madison— it was free men, no women— and of course not slaves. Aristotle observed the same thing that Madison did much later. If Athens were a democracy for free men, the poor would get together and take away the property of the rich. Well, same dilemma, but they had opposite solutions. [James] Madison’s solution was to reduce democracy— that is, to organize the system so that power would be in the hands of the wealthy, and to fragment the population in many ways so that they couldn’t get together to organize to take away the power of the rich. Aristotle’s solution was the opposite— he proposed what we would nowadays call a welfare state. He said try to   reduce inequality—reduce inequality by public meals and other measures appropriate to the city-state. Same problem—opposite solutions. One is: reduce inequality, and you won’t have this problem. The other is: reduce democracy. Well, in those conflicting aspirations you have the foundation of the [American] country.” Requiem for the American Dream: The 10 Principles of Concentration of Wealth & Power (Kindle Locations 152-163, emphasis added).

Nonviolence and Wealth Redistribution (including debt forgiveness) are the soil of distributive justice and equity from which the fruit of peace grows out of. This “narrow” path leads to life.

Why is the path narrow?

It’s narrow simply because it’s traversed by so few. Paths are broad or narrow determined by the number of those who travel them. In other words, we too often think of this saying as describing a path that few traverse because it’s arbitrarily kept narrow.

But actually, if more people traversed it, it would grow wider. The path is only narrow at first because so few presently traverse it.

Isaiah 40:3:

“In the wilderness prepare the way for the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”

Before It’s Too Late

There is also an element of “before it’s too late” in this week’s saying:

“When the householder has arisen‚ and locked the door, and you begin to stand outside and knock on the door, saying: Master, open for us, and he will answer you: I do not know you.”

There is a point of no return that violence and inequality reaches in societies when those societies cannot recover. If Jesus could see his own society getting closer and closer to that point, it would make perfect sense that he would try to warn those who would listen. Many societies don’t accept what that means; even Jesus’s did not heed the wisdom. How often throughout history have the wealthy voluntarily let go of their power and resources to share with those who have less?

Even so, Aristotle saw this vision for Athens. Some in his day decried the inequalities in Athens that Rome was facing its last days. We see Jesus, three decades before Jerusalem would be turned to Gehenna, trying to turn the tide within first-century Palestine, too.

Today the poets and prophets still cry:

Enter through the narrow door, for many will seek to enter and few are those who enter through it. When the householder has arisen‚ and locked the door, and you begin to stand outside and knock on the door, saying: Master, open for us, and he will answer you: I do not know you. Then you will begin saying: We ate in your presence and drank, and it was in our streets you taught. And he will say to you: I do not know you! Get away from me, you who do lawlessness!” (Q 13:24-27 cf. Deuteronomy 15:1-4)

HeartGroup Application

The last phrase in our saying this week, “you who do lawlessness,” reveals that in Jesus’s call for debt forgiveness and wealth redistribution he was calling the people to follow those sections of the Torah that called for the same. Deuteronomy 15 stated clearly that if inequality were strictly guarded against, “there need be no poor people among you” (verse 4).

This week I want you as a group to watch a short documentary together and then engage in an exercise in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and the book of Acts.

  1. The documentary I’d like to you watch is Requiem for the American Dream.
  2. Then I want you to find five places in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and Acts where you see examples of either Jesus calling for the redistribution of wealth or Jesus followers heeding Jesus’ call and engaging the redistribution of their surplus wealth.
  3. This last part will be the most challenging. What do you envision wealth redistribution looking like today? Describe what forms this could possibly take within our own society. Discuss the various descriptions your group comes up with and how each of you could lean into these descriptions, like those in the book of Acts, in your daily lives.

At Renewed Heart Ministries, we believe that this first century, Jewish prophet of the poor has something to offer us today in our contemporary work of survival, resistance, liberation, restoration, and transformation.

Each of us is called, together, to the work of making our world a safer, just, more compassionate home for all.

Where this finds you this week, lean into that work, and know you are not alone.

It is this work that defines what it means to keep living in love.

Thanks for checking in this week.

I’m so glad you’re journeying with us.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.