Non-Violent Christianity

By Glenda Chop

(From the July - September 2018 issue of VOX)

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Christians are nonviolent, not because we believe that nonviolence is a strategy to rid the world of war, but because nonviolence is constitutive of what it means to be a disciple to Jesus.
— Stanley Hauerwas

I have been a Christian for over 30 years and, in that time, I’ve never heard a sermon on non-violence. People who come quickly to mind are Martin Luther King Jr., Ghandi and perhaps Nelson Mandela. I believe we may have minimised one of the central teachings of Jesus and one of the chief attributes of His life.

Jesus taught us:

Turn the other cheek: this is passive non-violence (not retaliating or striking back), described in 1 Peter 3:9-11: “Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult…”

Love your enemies: this is active non-violence (the pursuit of peace, justice reconciliation and wholeness) described in 1 Peter 3:9-11 (second part) “He must turn from evil and do good; he must seek peace and pursue it.”

Jesus spoke of and did both.


WHAT IS VIOLENCE?
Violence can be corporate, communal and/or personal. It is not just about crime and war. It is far-reaching. Based on Jesus’ life and teaching, violence can be defined as any action, speech or ideology that threatens life, human well-being or environmental destruction. Even a threat is a form of violence. We must define violence in very personal and sometimes uncomfortable terms. It is not just being anti-war or anti-crime or anti-abortion. It is being ‘pro’ everything that advances peace and justice, relieves suffering and its causes and stands up to hatred and inequality.

Fr. Richard Rohr expresses it this way: “If we are to be truly pro-life, we must defend life from ‘womb to tomb’ and stand against all violence including war, racism, hunger, lack of health care, the destruction of the earth and all that impoverishes people.”

Loving your enemies is much more than being nice to people who aren’t nice to you. It is actively trying to end systemic injustice, to bring peace and restoration to relationships in work, at home or in church, to end self-interest and division, to work for freedom from conflict on a personal, national and/or global scale. It is big! And it requires prayer, wisdom from God and, crucially, action!

Loving your enemies is much more than being nice to people who aren’t nice to you.

Political and institutional systems are imbued with violence. They work at getting power and control over ‘the other’ for gain. It always does harm. But violence can also be seen in the small things of life. My words can be violent, throwing barbs of sarcasm or hurt. I can cut with complaints. I have the power to slice or break the spirit of another person. Or simply deny them something they need.

Violence divides, creating judgments of right (me) and wrong (them). It enables us to scapegoat our pet hates. We need to look at the violence within. Paul exhorted us to get rid of anger, rage, malice, slander, abusive language, quarrelling, factions, gossip, arrogance and more (see 2 Corinthians 12:20, Ephesians 4:31, Colossians 3:8 to name a few). He knew and understood the capacity we have to do harm to one another.

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Similarly, creation is suffering under the weight of human abuse. It groans! Scripture describes the earth as the Lord’s and a reflection of His glory. Creation has great value to God and should not be viewed as a commodity. We do violence to the beauty and complexity of what He has made when our own convenience trumps responsibility. Christians should be on the cutting edge of recycling, reducing waste, living simpler lifestyles and promoting efforts to stop climate change. People throughout the world are suffering because of environmental damage that causes flooding, drought, deforestation and more. Even small steps like emailing supermarkets about reducing plastic packaging can have an impact if we take it seriously.


JESUS WAS A RADICAL ACTIVIST
Violence is the antithesis of love. Jesus was radically nonviolent. He uniquely took the path of restoration, healing and forgiveness instead of vengeance or aggression. He restored the ear Peter cut off. He did not call down the angels to His rescue. He did not ‘name and shame’ those who abused or misrepresented Him. He actively pursued those who needed healing, help and hope. He didn’t just preach it; He lived it.

Violence is the antithesis of love. Jesus was radically nonviolent.

Jesus had the discernment and sensitivity to distinguish between ‘standing against’ something and becoming threatening or aggressive. This is what was happening when He cleared the temple. He ‘stood against’, not just the commercialisation of religion, but also a corrupted system that misrepresented God. No to violent sacrifices! No to inequality! No to religious hierarchies! No to poverty in the House of God! A new way was coming and He cleared the way for it. I don’t think the buyers and sellers ran out of fear of Jesus but because they knew they were caught doing wrong.


WHO ARE THE CHILDREN OF GOD?
Christians are usually seen to be active in one of two areas: either trying to convert people or involved in ‘anti’-campaigns of various types. We are rarely identified as peacemakers. To be a peacemaker is to be what we are intended to be - the children of God.

We mustn't live as just observers in a world gone wrong. Peacemaking is an art form. It holds no personal agenda except peace. It brings together opposing sides in dialogue, understanding and compromise. At its finest, it makes enemies into friends. No wonder peacemakers are called the sons of God - like Jesus, our mediator, peacemaker and remover of enmity.


A WAY FORWARD
The capacity for self-awareness and self-criticism is invaluable. We need to be able to see our own ‘violence within’ with our own prejudices, judgments, biases, and opinions. The college where I studied theology supported the concept of a “Just War” (that war and killing can be justified by a “just” cause). Yet, the same college taught against the concept of ‘situation ethics’ (that your moral values can change with the situation). This serves to illustrate the difficulty and complexity of fully embracing true Christian non-violence.

Reconciling the issues that are thrown up is challenging and relevant in today’s world.

Jesus was the ultimate peacemaker. But now He works through active human consent and participation. Using three active verbs, let us ‘act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with our God’. (Micah 6:8)


QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER:

  • Should violence ever be used to defend yourself or your loved ones?

  • Is the threat of violence justified to deter violence? What if it doesn’t work?

  • Should violent sports be acceptable to Christians?

  • Should Christians participate in military service?

  • Should Christians own private weaponry?

  • How radical should we be in opposition to war, injustice, corruption, etc.?

  • What are the theological implications of a non-violent God?

 

WHAT CAN WE DO?

  • Find the violence within and cooperate with the gentle Spirit for change

  • Reflect deeply and openly on the character and nature of God

  • Study and meditate on the gospels, especially Matthew 5-7

  • Make your voice heard in the pursuit of peace, justice and reconciliation, perhaps looking at your own family, workplace or community first.

  • Consider how to take responsibility for a simpler lifestyle

  • Reflect on what it means to be truly pro-life ‘from womb to tomb’

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Glenda Chop is a follower of Jesus who is still learning how to live the gospel and think critically.