Violence is easily recognized as evil when it is directed against us. It is however more difficult to recognize it as such when it is our own violence directed against deserving targets. In fact, our own violence is most often seen as sacred and sanctioned by God himself. Righteous indignation, justified retribution, are some of the phrases used to describe our own violence. There seems to be a blindness that accompanies our violence that is not subject to reason, however, reason has often been employed by blind rage to justify its actions.
This mindset has progressively been exposed for the hypocrisy it is, since the cross of Jesus Christ. In this event God demonstrated in the most dramatic way possible, that he would rather suffer our violence than partake in it.
The focus of this paper is not the theology behind non-violence, but rather the practical implications and the difficult questions raised by such a world-view. So only a summary of the theology is made:
The gods we project look very much like the sacred violence we initiate and engage in. The stories we tell externalize our conflicts and attempt to give meaning to what is in reality our own self-gratifying, senseless violence.
However, [within the scripture] there is a progression in the way Yahweh’s violence is perceived. (1)The idea of an irrational murderous God, who slays the guilty and the innocent in uncontrolled rage, slowly makes way for (2)a God who reacts to human evil – a righteously revengeful God. (3)Direct acts of violence are also progressively replaced by images of indirect violence: God handing one nation over into the merciless hands of another. (4)Finally the idea develops that evil returns to the wicked, that violent suffering is the consequence of our actions… that our violence is our own. [page 158 Desire Found Me]
Regarding the violence of the cross:
These texts make it clear that Jesus’ role is in surrendering himself; the Father hands his son over into the hands of those who will torture, crucify and murder him. It is not God the Father nor the Son who plays any active role in the brutal violence that follows. Rather, it is here in the midst of sacrificial violence that our acts are most devoid of God’s presence. He “hands over” precisely because He does not participate in the violence to follow. It is here where humanity(represented by Jesus) is handed over to itself, where God withdraws, where man does what man alone can do, for God has no part in our violence. [page 216 Desire Found Me]
Whenever I have proclaimed this non-violent aspect of Jesus’ message, the most extreme scenarios would be presented to me as counter-arguments. Firstly I have to draw attention to the fact that we do not often encounter such extreme scenarios, so even if this attitude of non-violence would fail in those tests, it would still be valid for 99.9% of life. However, I wanted to tackle some of those extreme arguments for I do not think they present a real challenge … on the contrary they confirm a non-violent stance. I’m afraid these thoughts will not endear me to people on either side of these arguments … but my hope is that it will help bring clarity and peace to those who honestly struggle with these questions.
WW2 (or ISIS etc.)
Could World War Two have been ended by any other means than more violence? Should we have simply sat back and watched millions of innocent people being slaughtered without doing anything?
Or let us bring the focus to events much closer. Not many have had the courage to watch some of the horrific acts of violence committed by ISIS. Should this not be stopped?
These questions are structured in such a way that the only options are: Do nothing and allow evil to run its course, or violently intervene to stop evil. It is the equivalent of asking your three year old child: Do you want broccoli or carrots for lunch. Smart children soon learn that there are more choices than what is promoted to them.
Our choices are not limited to non-violent passivity or violent intervention. There is another way! But before I get there, let me acknowledge that there might be rare circumstances in which violent intervention is the only alternative.
About two years ago I watched a short video that showed ISIS members bury children alive. I was deeply disturbed to say the least. Not all my non-violent buddies might like this, but here we go. If one had the power to stop this mass-murder by eliminating the murderers, and one chose not to do so for whatever reason – that would be evil.
Would the violence required to eliminate the murderers be evil?
But it would be the lesser evil and as such the better choice.
Violence is always evil.
In rare situations it might be the lesser evil, but it is still evil.
Only when this is our attitude towards violence, does it truly become a last resort.
That is why it is a dangerous illusion to trust in society to make us “balanced”, “realistic” and “humble.” Very often the humility demanded of us by our society is simply an acquiescence in the pride of the collectivity and of those in power. Worse still, while we learn to be humble and virtuous as individuals, we allow ourselves to commit the worst crimes in the name of “society”. We are gentle in our private life in order to be murderers as a collective group.For murder committed by an individual is a great crime. But when it becomes war or revolution, it is represented as the summit of heroism and virtue.
One would almost think that the great benefit modern man seeks in collective living is the avoidance of guilt by the simple expedient of having the state, the party or the class command us to do the evil that lies hidden in our heart. Thus we are no longer responsible for it, we imagine. Better still, we can satisfy our worst instincts in the service of collective barbarism , and in the end we will be praised for it. We will be heroes, chiefs of police, and maybe even dictators. Thomas Merton “The New Man”
Thankfully we do not only have two choices – there is another way. The God of infinite possibilities opens up opportunities beyond broccoli and carrots, beyond passive non-violence and violent intervention.
Many thousands of Bulgarian Jews were saved through non-violent means. See Tony Campolo tell the story here: https://youtu.be/23VJF9x0frQ
Empires have been defeated and governments overthrown through non-violent means – think of Gandhi’s or Nelson Mandela’s stories.
Non-violence does not mean passivity. Non-violent resistance implies an active participation in apposing injustice.
Let’s Get Personal
The objection to non-violence I most often get is: …but what if someone is about to harm Mary-Anne or your children. A number of Christian leaders have spoken about their stance on violence and can be summarized as follows: Of course I’m against violence in principle … but if you touch my family I will end you!
And most Christians simply agree without any further thought.
How does that make us different from anyone else?
What this basically means is that you can be a Christian when everything goes your way … but when the situation calls for it, you are reduced to the same fearful raging animal as any other person no matter what their faith might be.
Maybe it is exactly here, in a situation where your life is violently threatened, that the value of your faith becomes most visible. Does a relationship with Jesus really make a difference in such circumstances?
Any animal can instinctively react.
Any barbaric idiot can kill.
But what courage does it take to face death?
What is redemptive in this drama of the cross is not the suffering or the violence but it is the trust with which Jesus overcomes fear. It is his trust in the Father, energized by his love for his friends, that strengthens him to face our deepest fears on our behalf and conquer them! [Page 217 Desire Found Me]
As rare as it is that we might find ourselves in life-threatening situations, Mary-Anne once did have such a traumatic experience.
You can read about it here: Facing a Life-Threatening Attack.
The point I want to highlight is that she actively prayed for and sought a way to overcome this evil without using violence, and the way was provided.
So what does all of this mean to me personally? I hope I will never find myself in a situation where my life is violently threatened. However if I do, I would hope that the message of Jesus would make me aware of more options than – protect myself violently or be a victim. I would earnestly seek another way to end the conflict.
If my family or friends are endangered, I might well fail in my non-violent ambitions. But that is the point – as a follower of Jesus, participating in violence will always be a failure. If more people thought of violence as failure or evil … would that not make this world a much better place to live in?
The ancient human wisdom of love your friends and hate your enemies seems to be part of human DNA. This human instinct is revered today even by those who claim to follow Jesus.
But Jesus asks us to transcend our violent human instincts and become partakers of his divine nature. To hate our enemies might well be human – but to love our enemies is divine. This kind of love is impossible for us, but with God all things are possible.