Sword Fights: A Gospel of Non-violence in a Violent World
Dateline: May, 2011
[Note: The referenced scripture text for this commentary, a portion of Matthew’s version of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, is provided in a pdf version you can print and/or read here.]
“Suddenly, one of those with Jesus put his hand on his sword, drew it, and struck the slave of the high priest, cutting off his ear. Then Jesus said to him, ‘Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.” Matthew 26:51-52
While I typically have my own ready observations to contribute to the 24-hour news cycle, this commentary has been stewing and simmering for most of the month. So long, in fact, that scarcely a few weeks have passed since the U.S. military found and killed Osama bin Laden, and the public’s attention has long since turned to more pressing issues elsewhere.
Nonetheless, from a perspective of Christian faith and practice, those sparse, grim details remain for me a troubling reminder that we are indeed a violent people, immersed in a world of retaliatory violence, with no end in sight. And, that my own personal journey in faith has left me standing these days in sharp contrast to the ways of a world in which I am still nevertheless very much a part.
As I have grown in my understanding of the one I often refer to now as the Galilean spirit-sage, I appreciate more deeply than ever how counter-cultural Jesus’ message has always been; to the extent that, where his message cannot be rendered docile and domesticated, it is simply ignored or dismissed as irrelevant, impractical, naive or too radically extreme. Perhaps this is no more explicitly obvious than in his teaching on non-violence as an expression of the nature of God, and our life in God.
A few weeks ago, the liturgical observance in the Roman Catholic tradition known as Divine Mercy Sunday, was underway in Vatican City. Though the man died seven years ago, Cardinals were still kissing the casket of the late John Paul II, laid out in state at the Altar of the Confession inside St. Peter’s Basilica.
Having been credited with the miraculous cure of a French nun suffering with Parkinson’s disease, the late revered pontiff was now considered “blessed” and worthy of veneration. Only one more verifiable miracle, and he will be canonized an official saint.
But what is considered by many to be a fast-track process isn’t fast enough for many of the faithful. In St. Peter’s Square, a huge throng estimated to be nearly 1.5 million shouted at the tops of their lungs, “santo subito,” sainthood now!
A few hours later, as darkness fell on Divine Mercy Sunday in another part of the world, Navy SEALS would chopper down inside the now infamous walled compound in the little town of Abbottabad, Pakistan. Racing through the 3-story building, they would reportedly shoot and kill every male they encountered. Reaching the top floor, they would shoot a female in the leg to disable her; then walk up to one long-sought, unarmed man, shoot him once in the chest, then blow away the top part of his skull.
The body would be ferried off to a U.S. navy ship, where DNA tests would quickly confirm and verify the identity of the famous terrorist and mass murderer; before his bloodied earthly remains would be irretrievably dumped in the depths of the sea.
Then, in the wee hours of Monday morning, the White House would make the official announcement. Osama bin Laden had been found, killed and disposed of. In the words of our President, “justice had been done.” Before the new day dawned, outside the White House, and in cities across America, throngs of people by the thousands cheered the news and chanted at the tops of their lungs, “USA! USA!”
In the days that followed, the media and public leaders hungered for more details of the daring raid, debating the pros and cons of releasing graphic photos; while Homeland Security raised the threat level and braced for possible retaliatory attacks.
By Tuesday, the terrorist group’s general command sent a defiant statement to jihadi on-line forums: “Bin Laden’s blood “will be a curse that will chase the Americans and their agents, a curse that will pursue them inside and outside their country, and soon–with God’s help–we pray that their happiness turns into sorrow and may their bloods mix with their tears,” the group vowed. Instead, the next day, scores of Pakistanis died in a reprisal attack by Al Qaeda.
By the following Sunday, some American religious leaders had wrapped themselves in the flag, pronouncing Satan and all the forces of wickedness had been vanquished. They had no problem with an-eye-for-an-eye kind of divine-sanctioned vengeance. After all, it’s in the Bible. It can be found clearly spelled out in portions of Exodus 21: “Whoever strikes a person mortally shall be put to death.” Then this portion of holy scripture also elaborates further,
“If it was not premeditated, but came about by an act of God, then I will appoint for you a place to which the killer may flee. But if someone willfully attacks and kills another by treachery, you shall take the killer from my altar for execution. … When a slave-owner strikes a male or female slave with a rod and the slave dies immediately, the owner shall be punished. But if the slave survives for a day or two, there is no punishment; for the slave is the owner’s property. When people who are fighting injure a pregnant woman so that there is a miscarriage, and yet no further harm follows, the one responsible shall be fined what the woman’s husband demands, paying as much as the judges determine. If any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe. … When an ox gores a man or a woman to death, the ox shall be stoned, and its flesh shall not be eaten; but the owner of the ox shall not be liable. If the ox has been accustomed to gore in the past, and its owner has been warned but has not restrained it, and it kills a man or a woman, the ox shall be stoned, and its owner also shall be put to death.”
So, treacherous terrorists, owners of unruly oxen, and slave owners, you’ve been warned.
Other more moderate religious leaders cautioned against such jubilation in the streets and the pews, citing scripture, such as, “Do not rejoice when your enemy falls, and do not let your heart be glad when your enemy stumbles.” (Proverbs 24:17). And, “As I live, says the Lord GOD, I swear I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked man, but rather in the wicked man’s conversion, that he may live” (Ezek. 33:11).
And, a few more liberal types even offered tempered reminders that, as uncomfortable and unpopular as it may be, a gospel of non-violence remains at the heart of Jesus’ teaching for those who would profess to follow him.
Ed Bacon, Rector, All Saint’s Church, Pasadena, remarked,
“Jesus calls us to a new way of being, ‘I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.’ Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. put this in realistic terms, ‘Violence is impractical because it is a descending spiral ending in destruction for all.’ Violence breeds more violence. An eye-for-an-eye definition of justice does not interrupt the spiral of violence that takes us all down to destruction where there are no winners, only universal loss and destruction.”
Jim Wallace, from Sojourners, commented,
“As people of faith, we don’t celebrate the death of other human beings, regardless of how twisted or evil they have become. The violence of terrorism, the violence of war, and even the violent reprisal against Osama bin Laden … should all push us to deeper reflection … for how we have allowed the seeds of such destruction to take root and grow in our hearts and in our world. Violence is always more a sign of our failures than our successes.”
The incendiary filmmaker, Michael Moore, created a flap for a few days when he criticized our military elite’s failure to capture bin Laden, instead of killing him, in order to maintain our system of justice that is different than the law of retaliatory violence.
“We put those who do evil things on trial not so much for them,” he said, “but we do it for ourselves. We believe in the rule of law even if they don’t. That makes us strong, stronger than them, and we will defeat their evil through our open and just society. If we behave like them, we will eventually become them. I do not believe in an eye for an eye. I think Jesus Christ told us to love our enemies. That’s a tough thing to live by. Unfortunately, to put bin Laden on trial would have been problematic because he used to “work” for us in the 1980s when we trained, armed and funded his rebels in Afghanistan. Too much might come out about this Frankenstein we created — and who would then come back 20 years later to murder 3,000 of our citizens.”
Moore said he had expressed his opinion from the perspective of his Midwest Catholic upbringing; that it seemed America had “lost a bit of its soul.”
But the overwhelming sentiment among the American public, both liberal and conservative alike, seemed clear. Osama bin Laden got what he deserved, and we felt pretty good about scoring one for our side.
While he said he would not “spike the football” in the end zone, the President was quoted saying simply, “Justice was done, and I think anyone who would question that the perpetrator of mass murder on American soil didn’t deserve what he got needs to have their head examined.”
After listening and reflecting for days, and hearing that last unfortunate comment, it seemed to me this was a sufficiently important issue that an examination of our heads, our hearts and our religious conscience wouldn’t be a bad idea.
“Justice was done, and I think anyone who would question that … needs to have their head examined.” … it seemed to me this was a sufficiently important issue that an examination of our heads, our hearts and our religious conscience wouldn’t be a bad idea.
So, I wondered, if some form of justice was indeed served, exactly what kind of justice are we talking about? And what kind of a response from a perspective of faith might still offer a real alternative to the slugfest commonly referred to as our “War on Terror?”
For this “war” – despite the delusions that our sophisticated intelligence networks and the techno-wizardry of our modern military can disproportionately sway the kill ratios in our favor – has no end in sight. In fact, it has become less a war, and more a way of life. And, while the world has always periodically been at war with terror and violence of one sort or another, the stakes just seem much higher these days.
So, what about the those words of Jesus, which clearly reject a retaliatory form of justice, and enjoin those who would profess to follow him to “turn the other cheek” and “love one’s enemies?”
Unlike many of the sayings attributed to Jesus in the gospels, the Sermon on the Mount — as recorded in Matthew’s gospel, and its corollary Sermon on the Plain in Luke — are considered by most biblical scholars as containing the most reliable early source material of what the historical figure of Jesus actually might have said and taught.
So, what about the “meek” and “merciful,” the “peacemakers, pure in heart,” who “suffer for righteousness sake?”
The so-called Beatitudes with which Jesus begins this collection of teachings are good news for some, but clearly not others. In fact, in Luke’s version, he not only turns the conventional notion of those who are blessed upside down, but the opposite curses are included to drive the point home, as well (Luke 6:20—49). There is an unmistakable juxtaposition of two opposing groups, and the ways people are to treat one another.
The Beatitudes are a subversive, counter-cultural message on behalf of the dispossessed and marginalized that envisions a reversal of the way things are, in favor of the way God always intended (and still intends) things to be. And that includes the way we confront the offenses we suffer, and the way we treat not just our friends, but our worst enemies as well.
Walter Wink (Professor of Biblical Interpretation at Auburn Theological Seminary, NYC), in his classic essay, “Beyond Just War and Pacifism: Jesus’ Nonviolent Way,” provides a number of thoughtful things to consider. First, he confirms what seems an unavoidable conclusion,
The new reality Jesus proclaimed was nonviolent… not merely as a tactical or pragmatic nonviolence seized upon because nothing else would have worked against the Roman empire’s near monopoly on violence. Rather, he saw nonviolence as a direct corollary of the nature of God and of the new reality emerging in the world from God. Thus nonviolence is not just a means to the Kingdom of God; it is a quality of the Kingdom itself. Those who live nonviolently are already manifesting the transformed reality of the divine order.
Wink goes on to point out that, while this view was not unique to Jesus, or the religious tradition that emerged as a result of his teachings, it did shape the identity of the earliest Christian as those who would resort only to nonviolent resistance in the face of violence.
The Hebrew midwives, the Greek tragedians, and Jainism. Buddhism, Hinduism, Lao-Tzu, and Judaism were all to various degrees conversant with nonviolence as a way of life and, in some cases, even as a tactic of social change. What was new was the early church’s inference from Jesus’ teaching that nonviolence is the only way, that war itself must be renounced.
Wink asserts the earliest believers were such avowed pacifists that in the year 303 Roman soldiers were forbidden to identify themselves as Christians. But once the Christian church became aligned with the empire under Constantine, the ecclesiastical institution accommodated itself with its newfound status as a privileged religion in support of the state. By the year 416, no one could be a member of the Roman army unless he was a Christian!
Augustine would come along and make the case for the use of violence when defending the innocent from evil. And, the rationale for whatever constitutes a “just war” has been employed time and again, ever since, right up to the present day. Wink, however, argues this sets up a false dichotomy that ignores a third alternative, and the original message of Jesus.
The classical interpretation suggests two, and only two, possibilities for action in the face of evil: fight or flight. Either we resist evil, or we do not resist it. Jesus seemingly says that we are not to resist it … ”Turn the other cheek” is taken to enjoin becoming a doormat for Jesus, to be trampled without protest.
(But) … Jesus is not forbidding self-defense here, only the use of violence. … He is rather showing us a way that can be used by individuals or large movements to intervene on behalf of justice for our neighbors nonviolently.
… Jesus is not encouraging submission to evil; that would run counter to everything he did and said. He is, rather, warning against responding to evil in kind by letting the oppressor set the terms of our opposition. Perhaps most importantly, he cautions us against being made over into the very evil we oppose by adopting its methods and spirit. He is saying, in effect, ‘Do not mirror evil; do not become the very thing you hate. The best translation (to this text): “Don’t react violently against the one who is evil.”
In these texts in Matthew, Wink says, Jesus illustrates what he means.
“If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” Why the right cheek? A blow by the right fist in that right-handed world would land on the left cheek of the opponent. To hit the right cheek with a fist would require using the left hand, but in that society the left hand was used only for unclean tasks. The only way one could naturally strike the right cheek with the right hand would be with the back of the hand. We are dealing here with insult, not a fistfight. The intention is clearly not to injure but to humiliate, to put someone in his or her place.
A backhand slap was the usual way of admonishing inferiors. Masters backhanded slaves; husbands, wives; parents, children; men, women; Romans, Jews. We have here a set of unequal relations, in each of which retaliation would be suicidal. The only normal response would be cowering submission.
Look at those listening to the Beatitudes: … people who were subjected to these very indignities, … by the hierarchical system of caste and class, race and gender, age and status, and as a result of imperial occupation.
Why then does he counsel these already humiliated people to turn the other cheek? Because this action robs the oppressor of the power to humiliate. The person who turns the other cheek is saying, in effect, “Try again.” … Such a response would create enormous difficulties for the striker. If he hits with a fist, he makes the other his equal, acknowledging him as a peer. But the point of the back of the hand is to reinforce institutionalized inequality. … He has been given notice that this underling is in fact a human being. In that world of honor and shaming, he has been rendered impotent to instill shame in a subordinate. He has been stripped of his power to dehumanize the other. As Gandhi taught, “The first principle of nonviolent action is that of noncooperation with everything humiliating.”
Wink’s interpretation of the text can be illuminating. Jesus’ injunction is not just an invitation to let the oppressor simply trample all over the righteous. Rather, it claims a kind of power that cannot be wrested away from those who are otherwise powerless. In this way, it is clear Jesus was a non-violent social revolutionary.
Like the Jewish prophets before him – as well as like those figures in our own lifetime like Martin Luther King and Gandhi — he was passionate about economic justice and peace, as he advocated active non-violent resistance to the domination system of his time. As Biblical scholar, Marcus Borg writes,
“He was a voice of peasant social protest against the economic inequity and violence of the imperial domination system, mediated in the Jewish homeland by client rulers of the Roman Empire – in Galilee, Herod Antipas, and in Judea and Jerusalem, the temple authorities. He spoke of God’s kingdom on earth, as the Lord’s Prayer puts it: Your kingdom come on earth, as it already is in heaven. Heaven is not the problem – earth is.
But he was not a secular social revolutionary. He was God’s revolutionary. And God’s passion – what God is passionate about, according to Jesus – is for an earth in which swords are beaten into plowshares, in which nations do not make war against nations anymore, in which every family shall live under their own vine and fig tree (not just subsistence, but more than subsistence), and no one shall make them afraid (Micah 4.1-4, with close parallel in Isaiah 2.1-4). This was the passion of Jesus, and for Christians, Jesus is the revelation of God’s passion. Violent revolution? No. Non-violent revolution? Yes.
For those of us who would call ourselves Christians, perhaps one of the best 20th century examples of what Jesus had in mind was illustrated by Mahatma Gandhi; a Hindu who always advocated peace and reconciliation with Muslims, to the point of a protest fast that almost took his life.
In 1930, in order to help free India from British control, Mahatma Gandhi proposed a non-violent march, protesting the Salt Tax; which essentially made it illegal to sell or produce salt, resulting in a complete British monopoly. The Salt Tax made it illegal for the poor to freely collect their own salt from the coasts of India, making them buy something essential to their diet that they couldn’t afford.
On March 12, 1930, Gandhi started a 23-day-long journey to the coast of the Indian Ocean. As he made his way through the countryside, throngs of followers fell in step behind the unassuming teacher, dressed in sandals and loincloth, a walking stick in his hand. When he reached the seashore, surrounded by the crowds who strained to see what he would do, he scooped up a handful of sea salt and declared it to be the property and right of every Indian.
The Salt March started a series of non-violent protests, ending with a march to the Dharshana Salt Works; where wave after wave of satyagrahis (activists of truth and resolution) did not defend themselves as they were clubbed, even clubbed to death.
In the face of such violence, they essentially turned the other cheek. Their intended defeat and humiliation became instead a moral victory before the watchful eyes of the world, and marked the beginning of the end of British domination over India.
Such stories of the satyagrahis of India, — or say, the Freedom Riders during the American civil rights movements, along with their martyred leaders — are sometimes looked back on now with almost a kind of quaint nostalgia. Those were the good old days, when nonviolent resistance occasionally worked in a world that had not yet gone completely mad.
Now we live in a post-9/11 world, where it is often argued any moral high ground is simply insufficient to stem the growing tide of radical extremism that has no moral conscience. So instead, Predator drones now roam the skies, in search of an ever-growing number of suicide terrorists. An eye-for-an-eye kind of justice seems broadly accepted as the only feasible kind of justice we can afford; at a cost that is nonetheless not only unceasing, but increasing.
But if that is so, shouldn’t we also be honest enough to acknowledge we have little use for this Jesus fellow, his gospel of nonviolent resistance, or his vision of justice, with mercy? Or, are we still willing to wrestle with this other, irreconcilable truth?
Those were the good old days, when nonviolent resistance occasionally worked in a world that had not yet gone completely mad. Now we live in a post-9/11 world, where it is often argued any moral high ground is simply insufficient to stem the growing tide of radical extremism that has no moral conscience. … An eye-for-an-eye kind of justice seems broadly accepted as the only feasible kind of justice we can afford … But if that is so, shouldn’t we also be honest enough to acknowledge we have little use for this Jesus fellow, his gospel of nonviolent resistance, or his vision of justice, with mercy? Or, are we still willing to wrestle with this other, irreconcilable truth?
The same day that President Obama announced we’d found and killed Osama bin Laden, NPR’s Terry Gross interviewed Lawrence Wright, author of his 2006 Pulitzer Prize book, The Looming Tower: Al-Qaida and the Road to 9/11. The book was based in part on more than 500 interviews, including interviews with friends and relatives of bin Laden. Here’s a rather intriguing, if lengthy, portion of that interview:
GROSS: How did the reality of his demise compare with some of the scenarios you’d imagined?
Mr. WRIGHT: Actually, Terry, I think it was in 2006, the CIA came to me to write a scenario, in their words, about what would we do if we got bin Laden because this has been a subject of concern within the intelligence community. What if we did get him? How would we treat him? Where would we take him? Would it be better to take him alive or dead? And because I had written this movie, “The Siege,” you know, and Hollywood had done a somewhat better job of connecting the dots about terrorism and the threat to America than the intelligence community. The CIA was reaching out to screenwriters, such as I had done, and I said: Well, you know, I’m a reporter. I can’t go writing screenplays for the CIA. But I’ll tell you in the form of an op-ed for the New York Times what I think if we were able to catch bin Laden.
First of all, remember that bin Laden is the most famous man in the world. He’s going to be one of the most famous men in history. So if you have the good luck to catch him, you have to deal with the legacy, not just the man. And if you catch him, don’t kill him because he’ll become a martyr, which is what he seeks to be. But don’t take him to America just yet.
First of all, take him to Kenya, where on August 6, 1998, he set off a bomb in front of an American embassy, killing 224 people and wounding, blinding 150 Africans. Let him sit in a courtroom in Nairobi and tell 150 blind Africans that he was just striking at a symbol of American power.
And then you could take him to Tanzania, where on the same day, he set off another bomb in front of another American embassy, killing 11 people, all of them Muslims. And bin Laden excused that because it was Friday, and good Muslims would be in the mosque. I think that would be a wonderful venue to talk about what a good Muslim actually is.
And then you could bring him to America and have him answer for the death of the 17 sailors on the USS Cole in October, 2000, and the 3,000 Americans who died on 9/11. But you don’t have to stop there. You could take him so many places. You know, Casablanca, Madrid, London, Bali.
But just take him one last place. Take him home and try him under Sharia law, which is the only law that he and his followers would respect. And if he’s convicted, he would be taken to a square in downtown Riyadh, and the executioner is a big man with a long sword, and it’s Saudi custom for the executioner to go out and ask the crowd, which is composed of the victims of the condemned man, to forgive him. And if they couldn’t do that, then the executioner would do his job, and bin Laden would be taken and buried in an unmarked Wahhabi graveyard. And I thought in that manner, you could begin to roll back some of his awful legacy.
GROSS: Wow, but of course he’s gone now. So that scenario’s never going to happen.
Mr. WRIGHT: Nope.
GROSS: What was the CIA’s reaction to that scenario?
Mr. WRIGHT: (Chuckling) Well, … I suspect that there was not very much of an interest in capturing bin Laden.
GROSS: But now that American forces have killed him, what are the odds that he’s going to become a martyr and continue to live as this potent symbol?
Mr. WRIGHT: He will continue to live as a potent symbol. There’s no question that he’s going to have an enduring appeal for a number of people, not just perhaps radical Muslims but other groups that will follow the template that al-Qaida created. That’s my main concern.
[End of interview segment.]
It seems the case that important figures in history, like Martin Luther King, Gandhi, Jesus of Nazareth, all looked for teaching moments, in story and parable, in words and personal actions.
President Obama likes “teaching moments,” and is fond of pointing out what our democratic processes can teach us, and help define us as a people.
And, as an undeniably charismatic and inspiring leader — in his own fanatical and twisted way — even Osama bin Laden knew the persuasive power of teaching moments in history; from his early days in Afghanistan, and the creation of Al Qaeda, as the so-called superpowers once battled it out there for dominance.
It would seem that as a teaching moment, simply finding and killing bin Laden taught us little. It did, in fact, reinforce the lesson that – as bin Laden learned firsthand — those who live by the sword will perish by the sword. Would that we not forget, of course, it’s a two-edged sword.
And, I would suggest, as a people of faith, there may be more creative and hope-filled ways to confront evil and break the cycle of hatred, vengeance and violence; should we reconsider, once again, yet another teaching moment from a Galilean spirit-sage from long, long ago.
A few weeks ago, on a Sunday some religious types call Divine Mercy Sunday, the world observed the deaths of two men, both created in the image of God. One was not a saint (yet), and neither was the other – as much as we would demonize him – only a monster.
We would most likely agree one of those men manifested the best in us; the other, the worst of what can become of one who was nonetheless one of us, a human being.
Almost 11 years ago, on the day after bin Laden launched his murderous attack on America, then Pope John Paul II delivered his weekly address to the general audience in St. Peter’s Square. Included in his remarks is a message we might do well remember:
“I cannot begin this audience without expressing my profound sorrow at the terrorist attacks which yesterday brought death and destruction to America, causing thousands of victims and injuring countless people. To the president of the United States and to all American citizens I express my heartfelt sorrow. In the face of such unspeakable horror we cannot but be deeply disturbed. I add my voice to all the voices raised in these hours to express indignant condemnation, and I strongly reiterate that the ways of violence will never lead to genuine solutions to humanity’s problems.
How is it possible to commit acts of such savage cruelty? The human heart has depths from which schemes of unheard-of ferocity sometimes emerge, capable of destroying in a moment the normal daily life of a people.
But faith comes to our aid at these times when words seem to fail. Christ’s word … can give a response to the questions which trouble our spirit. Even if the forces of darkness appear to prevail, those who believe in God know that evil and death do not have the final say. Christian hope is based on this truth; at this time our prayerful trust draws strength from it. Let us beg the Lord that the spiral of hatred and violence will not prevail.”
A saintly man’s legacy echoed the words of the Galilean sage, to those who might have ears to hear and heed. In light of those words, we might all do well to have our heads examined.
© 2011 by John William Bennison, Rel.D.
All rights reserved.
This article should only be used or reproduced with proper credit.