Friday, March 14, 2008

The Gospel of Nonviolence

I have been meditating on this theme for about a month now. It was about that long ago when we had a parish mission focusing on the Gospel of Nonviolence. It sounds as if this is something different from the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, or at least a side issue devolving from it. I think that is how I first perceived it. But I am seeing more and more that the two are actually one and the same.

Consider for a moment what our Lord taught us in the Sermon on the Mount. We are told not to resist evil, to turn the other cheek, and to love our enemies. This is the essence of nonviolence. Jesus further modeled this concept for us by His life, and most prominently, by His death. He calls us sheep, and the words of the prophets agree reminding us that we too are led like sheep to the slaughter. Sheep offer no resistance. The image of sheep is not a warrior image. Our Lord Himself is most prominently displayed as the Lamb of God.

So the way of nonviolence is the way of our Lord. It is the way of the cross. It is to recognize that the only way to eternal life is through death. Jesus conquered at the cross. Through death He destroyed death. We too will ultimately conquer all our enemies through death. For it is only in death that we will finally be freed from the concupiscence of our flesh. We await a better resurrection, and eternal life. The meek indeed inherit the earth because only they are deemed worthy of eternal life.

Now this sounds great in theory, but living it out is a completely different matter. What if someone attacks us or our loved ones? How do we respond to terrorist threats in our world? What about our obligation to defend the poor, helpless, and oppressed? These are real questions needing real answers. The Gospel of Nonviolence, which is the Gospel of Jesus Christ, does not so much offer positions as it does principles. We see how our Lord lived and died. We hear what He taught us. We observe how that was consistently lived out by the earliest Christians. Then we are called to respond in faithful obedience. We may not understand. We may not agree. We may still find our old habits of vengeance, anger, and violence rising up. But we are disciples. We are called to follow our Master, no matter what. "If they persecuted Me, they will persecute you also. No one is greater than his Master."

Now today I have to live this out. I hear my son is being bullied at school. I want to respond. I won't stand for this. I will do whatever it takes to keep it from happening. And I see how hard it is to truly live this out. I cannot hate. I cannot respond in kind. I do not teach him self defense and tell him it's all right to go after this kid. I can't do any of those things. Sure, I talk to teachers, administrators, etc. But after that, I really do need to leave it with God and pray, not only for my son's safety, but that he too will have the Grace to respond in a Christ-like manner. I pray that he will not be poisoned by resentment and hatred, but that he will learn to forgive and love.

This Gospel is not easy to live out, but it is the Truth nevertheless. I can amend it if I choose, but then I choose the false security of lies over the Truth. I will not do it. I don't yet understand it all. I don't have all the answers. But I know there is a powerful truth here waiting to be lived out by each one of our Lord's disciples. I can only do my part and pray I do it well.


bilbannon said...

Let him learn a soft martial art.
Judo means the gentle way. That way he can subdue an attacker and not punch him and use a free hand to call the police on his cell.
When I was young, I punched and knocked down a gang member with three punches to the face. But as I grew older I noticed that two teens in my area did the same thing and their victims died days later and they had to face manslaughter charges just from having done what I did exactly.
Chin Na is Chinese joint control and Aikido also has non lethal means as does jiu jitsu.
All of these are better than pacifism because your son may one day have to defend his wife from rape. Non violence does not answer that prospect is not the predominant tradition in the Church. The early Fathers were different. Their non violence had a lot to do with the fact that they had no power at all in the Roman empire. Later the Church would have power and Romans 13:3-4 would become canon and all talk of being against e.g. the death penalty stops for over a millenia until Rome once again loses power and then non violence becomes prominent again in the last two Popes. But they cannot explain whey Christ let his apostles carry swords which one finds in several parts of the gospels even up til Gethsemane...and the person in whom Christ found the greatest faith in all Israel...was the Roman centurion who in effect carried a hundred swords so to speak every week of the year and yet Christ said that he the centurion had more faith than Christ had found in all Israel.

bilbannon said...

the turn the other cheek passage was about incidents in life far short of actual assault. Scholars point out that in the one gospel that does denote which cheek, it says the right cheek....which means that the opponent used his weaker hand ...the left for most of humanity. And this scholars say is an indication that a ritualistic action was talked about by Christ not a real fight. Just think of the Euro custom centuries ago of slapping with a glove and it gives some idea of a ritualistic action rather than an attrocious assault. So that Christ was talking about the level of attack between humans that is common to our lives not extraordinary like an actual assault.

Keith said...

I am actually quite familiar with the martial arts, having dabbled in them when I was younger. I am also familiar with the scholarship which believes Jesus didn't really mean to be nonviolent. I have rejected both in light of allowing Scripture to speak for itself and also by observing the way this was taught and practiced in the early Fathers.

Quite frankly, the reason the Church changed its position on this is along the lines of your reference to having power. Since Constantine claimed to conquer in the sign of the cross, the Church now felt compelled to justify violence. Thus we have the beginnings of the just war theory.

We do not imitate Christ in this way because it is pragmatic. We do so out of obedience. This is how He lived, and loved, and died. We are called to walk in His footsteps.

bilbannon said...

And if someone attacked your wife and you came in and saw it in process? Or if your son one day encounters the same situation with his wife?

Keith said...

You are beginning to see the issue. Faith confronts us with our own fears and our attempts to allay them. Were I a black belt, or I was good with a gun, could I ensure that I would protect my family in such a situation without hurting them, or making matters even worse? The answer is "no". I can't ensure that.

While I am sure I would do something to try to save them, I don't believe that violent measures would be in keeping with obedience to our Lord. I must surrender my fears and my self-reliance to Him.

bilbannon said...

Then how did Christ find the most faith par excellance in all Israel... in the Roman centurion who was the most armed human being that Christ interacted with?

Keith said...

Our Lord's acknowledgment of the Centurion's faith was not an endorsement of all he did. Our Lord's words are clear in His teaching on this subject. Whoever takes the sword will die by the sword. We are told "Do not resist evil." Christ never exhorted His followers to violence. On the one occasion when they thought that might be a good idea (in the Garden), He specifically rebuked them, telling them that if He wanted He could call legions of angels to His defense. He told the authorities that His kingdom is not of this world and therefore His subjects do not fight for Him. To be a Christian is to obey Jesus whether we agree or understand.

In the first centuries of the Church, they did not refuse baptism to those who were already enlisted in the army. Rather, they baptized them on the condition that they pledged to not kill anyone. So the Church shows that it continued to uphold the Lord's teaching regarding nonviolence. In addition, if someone was baptized and then joined the army, he was disciplined by the Church, possibly to the point of excommunication.

Anonymous said...

I believe the Church also teaches to perserve life. If in the case your wife or child was in imeadiate danger of having thier life taken by another person would it be wrong to take measures to disarm the person with Judo or the like(with no intent of murder in your heart) to preseve life on both sides. I mean God forbid a man comes into a school with a gun a threatens to kill all the children; so the teachers wrestles the man to disarm him and the gun accidently kills him. Would the teacher be consideres a hero or murder in the Church? He preserved the lives of the children with no ill intent to harm the gun man. So would it then be wrong to use tactics to preserve life? Do you let the 30children die and do your best to save the all? I am just concerned about blanket statements.

Anonymous said...

In my second to last sentence I ment to type or not and. Do you let the 30children die or do your best to save the all?

Keith said...

The issues you raise are indeed the hard ones in this regard. Strictly speaking, I cannot argue with what you have proposed. For that matter, I suppose the same could be said for some of Bill's scenarios. That is, can we defend without violence? The answer is yes. Should we? That is a harder question to answer. Again, I point to one of my earlier comments. We cannot know with certainty how our efforts at defense will affect the outcome. It may be that if we pray or calmly reason with an attacker that he may release us without incident. On the other hand, he may kill us. Or, if we attempt some sort of physical defense we may save many, or it may result in injury or death to others that may have been avoided. It is impossible for us to know.

There is a saying that hard cases make bad law. I think this is equally true in moral issues. We keep searching for the exceptions to what Jesus taught as if to find one will somehow nullify its effect and release us from the obligation to obey.

I will not pretend to know the answers to all the hard cases, and you have certainly presented one. But I do believe that Jesus is calling us to learn to think in a nonviolent manner in all the minute circumstances we face in life so that if we are confronted with extreme situations such as you have presented, we will know what course will be the best at that time.