We must rediscover Jesus' teaching of nonviolence
BY C.S. MORRISSEY
One of the most eye-opening books you can read is Jesus Christ, Peacemaker: A New Theology of Peace, by Terrence J. Rynne, a peace studies professor at Marquette University.
Rynne describes how “love your enemies” is central to the teaching of Jesus. It is not meant to be a vaguely pious sentiment, a utopian thought rarely implemented by realists. Jesus actually trained his disciples to understand and live the way of peace as a revolutionary daily practice.
Jesus does not endorse “pacifism” as a kind of passivity that simply lets evil happen without response. Instead, Jesus’ approach is better termed “peacemaking,” which means a wholehearted activity. The word “peacebuilding” also nicely highlights the diligence and intelligence his approach requires.
Jesus teaches nonviolent resistance as the active way to overcome violence. Rynne rightly sees that the Greek verb antistenai means “violent resistance” in the following passage from the Sermon on the Mount:
“You have heard it said, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, but I say to you, do not violently resist [antistenai] one who does evil to you. If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the left; if someone goes to court to take your coat, give him your cloak as well; and if anyone presses you into service for a mile, go a second mile.” (Matt. 5:39-41)
Jesus is giving concrete advice for creative nonviolent resistance in each of these three situations. Rynne explains how, in the first situation, being struck on the “right cheek” indicates the attacker is using the back of his or her right hand to inflict the blow. Jesus’ original hearers would have understood this reference to a culturally specific way of delivering a humiliating insult.
Notice how Jesus advises the person who was struck. He does not say one should submit with resignation to a backhanded slap. One should not accept the gesture, because it attempts to express who is dominant and in charge as the “superior,” and who is submissive and in the position of an “inferior” expected to take the abuse.
Instead, Jesus counsels nonviolent resistance. He advises the person who was slapped to stand up for themselves. By offering the other cheek, they would be saying they are equal in humanity with the other person: they do not accept the submissive role that the violent bully wants them to accept.
Most importantly, Jesus is advising them not to respond in kind with reciprocal violence. By boldly presenting one’s left cheek to the backhanded slapper’s right hand, one is daring the attacker to attack them again, but as a social equal: with a direct punch to the face, rather than letting them deliver a backhanded slap to a social inferior, whom they expected to accept their bullying.
It’s an unexpected gesture meant to shock the attacker with its boldness. Rather than responding with an escalation of violence, it’s a creative expression of nonviolence. It demonstrates how good is more courageous than evil. And it tries to “win over” evil with the greater spiritual strength that nonviolence displays: I am willing to risk additional pain, a fist to my face, to reach you with a message about our common humanity. You cannot intimidate me. Your insults are futile gestures. But I demonstrate my own dignity, by not striking you back.
Jesus’ other two examples similarly turn the tables on violence and oppression. Jesus considers someone so poor, they have nothing they can be sued for except the coat on their back: he advises them to demonstrate the absurdity of such merciless persecution by stripping naked and offering their undergarments too. Hilariously effective!
A Roman soldier had the right to make someone in the country they were occupying carry their pack. But the soldier’s centurion would place a limit of one mile on such enforced service, in order to limit the resentments of the subjugated population in the occupied territory.
Thus, Jesus’ advice hilariously subverts the unjust situation, since the soldier might get in trouble with his centurion if someone were to go a second mile. Or, the act of nonviolent resistance could simply win over the soldier with its good-natured, humorous appeal to their common humanity: I do not treat you as you treat me, with oppression; instead, I have some fun with you, and humanly connect with you.
Loving your enemy means so much more than than you originally thought. Let Jesus Christ, the Peacemaker, show you the way to be fully human.
Dr. C.S. Morrissey cultivates classical tradition by teaching the Greek and Latin classics. Learn more about the classics at moreC.com.