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Billy King


Nonviolence News


Each month we bring you a nonviolence training workshop based on the experience of the Nonviolent Action Training project and INNATE.

Nonviolence in Christian Belief

[Click here to view print version]

This is intended primarily as a short resource for discussion on Christianity and nonviolence. But please see also the Facilitators' Notes at the end of this piece for working in an open, mixed or not necessarily Christian, context.

A more general short resource on the grounding of nonviolence in faith, moral and spiritual teachings of various kinds can be found in 'Nonviolence: the moral and spiritual basis' which is part 3 of INNATE's 'Nonviolence: an introduction'.

"Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called children of God" Matthew 5:9

1. The text and surrounding points in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew chapter 5)
The above title quote from Matthew 5:9 means peacemakers are like God and how happy they are, they are part of his kingdom. There is a parallel with the 10 commandments; Jesus' new commandments providing a contrast between present appearances and future reality, but giving his followers a radical new morality.

Matthew 5:10 "Blessed are those persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven" = those persecuted because of obedience to God.

5:12 "in heaven" = "with God". 'Going to heaven' is an idea seldom found in the New Testament.

5:17 Not abolishing the law and the prophets but fulfilling them.

5:21 Contrast between the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament and the new revelation;

Old commandment (Exod. 21:12, Deut. 5:17) not to kill, but Jesus saying whoever is angry with his brother is liable to judgement, and needs to make reconciliation.

5;38-42 "You have heard that it was said, "An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth." But I say to you, Do not resist one who is evil. But if any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also;.... coat.... let him take your cloak as well.... and if any one forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles...." "Do not resist" clearly does not mean giving in. 'Turning the other cheek' is actually a form of passive protest since the assailant would be using the back of the right hand and this is difficult to do (see Number 4 later) - similarly giving away you cloak as well, or going the extra mile, would actually have been forms of protest.

2. Other relevant New Testament passages

The moneychangers driven out; Matthew 21:12-13, John 2;14-16.

Those who take the sword will perish with the sword; Matthew 26;51-52

Not peace but a sword; Matthew 10:34.

Centurion's servant; Matthew 8:5-13.

Strong man but a stronger will come along; Luke 11:21-22.

Greater love has no man......; John 15:13.

Sell your cloak and buy a sword; Mark 12:13-17.

Render to Caesar; Romans 13:1-7 - to be read in the light of Romans 12 and understood as approval of civil power?

Whatever about particular texts which can be misunderstood and may have been distorted from their original meaning in some instances, an understanding of 'peace' and 'war' is necessary in the overall context of the gospel.

Richard McSorley identifies 5 primary principles of the gospels; 1) Love 2) God is our Father/Mother 3) The almost infinite value of the human person 4) A relationship between means and ends 5) The imitation of Christ.

Richard McSorley's book "The New Testament Basis of Peacemaking" is possibly the most easily understood analysis of the basis of Christian nonviolence. McSorley was a US Jesuit who died in 2002 aged 88; the above book was published by the Mennonite publishing house, Herald Press, but may be out of print.

3. The understanding of the early church on peace and war
This was definitely nonviolent in the first couple of hundred years though the slide to the 'just war' theory began before Augustine. The 'Just war' theory was in fact intended to limit rather than extend the possibility of Christians using war at the time, and strictly applied would make the vast majority of wars outside Christian teaching. Richard McSorley summarises the Augustinian conditions for a war to be judged just as follows (various other similar summaries exist); 1) There must be a declaration of war by the king/ruler 2) It must be a last resort 3) There must be a good intention on the side declaring war 4) There must be protection of the innocent 5) A proportion of good over evil must be kept.

In what is not only an amusing but also appropriate analogy, McSorley illustrates the inadequacy of a 'Just war' theory by talking about a 'Just Adultery' theory; "A look at it helps to see how differently Christians respond to murder and adultery..." In McSorley's analogy he lays down conditions for 'just adultery'; 1. Last resort 2. Good intention 3. Protection of the innocent 4. Proportionality. McSorley goes on to point out that while this is absurd, "Adultery is a personal act. It does not kill millions of people, or even one person. It does not have government support. It always allows for the possibility of repentance and reconciliation that is precluded by killing. On balance, the Just Adultery Theory has much more in its favor, than the Just-Unjust War Theory."

4. 'Turning the other cheek'
There follows an extract from a piece written by Patrick McManus (taken from Dawn Train 10, 1991) talking about a workshop where Walter Wink provided his analysis about 'turning the other cheek' -

If we are not to resist violently, then how are we to resist. Jesus tells us how:

"You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth'. But I say to you, Do not resist one who is evil. But if any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also: and if any one would sue you and take your coat, let him have your cloak as well: and if any one forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to him who begs from you and do not refuse him who would borrow from you."

The three examples above turning the other cheek, giving your coat, walking the extra mile, after seeing Walter's simple re-enactment of these events, are for me perhaps three of the most powerful examples around of how to overcome oppression nonviolently. Let's see how. First of all Jesus makes a nice piece of continuity with the law of the Old Testament, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth becomes a cheek for a cheek and a mile for a mile. Nice doublets they may be but their meaning and function are completely different.

"Turn the other cheek": Try this with a friend (or better still an enemy). Ask your friend to strike you on the face. Which cheek did they hit? Which hand did they use? As most people are right handed the odds are your friend would hit you on the left cheek with his/her right hand. The palm of their right hand would also probably have been a clenched fist as they struck you. But Matthew's text says "if anyone strikes you on the right cheek." What sort of strike was being talked about here? OK you say, it's talking about a strike with the left hand. Again this is ruled out because in the whole Judeo/Greco/Roman world 2,000 years ago, to strike someone with the left hand was totally forbidden as the left hand was considered unclean.

What in fact Jesus was referring to was the right handed back handed (i.e. with the back of the hand) strike imposed as a means of subservience by a Roman master to a slave, of a Roman soldier to a Jewish man, of a Jewish man to a Jewish woman, of a woman to a child, i.e. the oppressor to the oppressed, the superior to the inferior. In Jesus' audience there would have been Jewish men, women and children, and slaves, who knew exactly what Jesus was referring to.

So what of Jesus' command to "Turn the other cheek"? Try it with your friend now. You present your friend with your left cheek inviting him/her to strike you again. 2,000 years ago you would have created a dilemma for your adversary. Because firstly the culture prohibits use of the left hand to impose a similar left handed back handed strike to impose subservience: the only alternative is for the person to strike with a clenched fist of the right hand. And herein lies the 'sting' - for in the Roman/Greco/Jewish world you could only strike a peer with a fist, i.e. you could only have a fist fight with one your own rank or status. So to hit the person with a fist is to admit they are the same as you in status, rights etc. So by a simple turn of the cheek you have asserted your humanity and attacked the conscience of your oppressor, non-violently.

"Let him have your coat as well": remember who Jesus was most of all talking to - the poor, the marginalised of society. The poor of Palestine in Jesus' time usually had two articles of clothing, an inner shirt and an outer coat. The situation that Jesus was referring to was that of a Jewish court of law where a richer man reclaims a debt owed by a poor man. It was a common enough occurrence at the time where landless sharecroppers were often driven to destitution by unfair land distribution and Roman taxes.

So when the rich man demands the poor man's shirt by right of law, and when the poor man gives him not only his shirt but also his coat - what suddenly would the onlooker see - one man made naked by another. In Jewish law, nakedness was sinful - but the sin was considered not upon he or she who was naked but on the beholder. So suddenly, again, the table have been turned on the oppressor and you can quickly imagine the situation in the courtroom would have quickly deteriorated into farce, with the naked man perhaps walking outside and a crowd gathering around him and taking his side.

Walking the extra mile: Again Jesus was not slow to tackle issues of his time. This incident refers directly to the Roman occupation of Palestine. The Romans when in an occupied country, although renowned for their barbarity, also had a 'method in their madness'. In order to facilitate the quick movement of troops through occupied territory, a Roman soldier was forbidden to ask a local to carry his pack for more than one mile. The view was that this would not antagonise the locals too much. So when a soldier asks a local to carry his pack, he is the one very much in control, in power and the other is powerless. However the situation is reversed if the one who carries the pack insists on carrying it further. The soldier will quickly fear getting into trouble with his superiors if he is caught 'forcing' somebody to go two miles. So the "powerless" once more has become powerful.

lWink's own written analysis of this can be found on page 175 and following of his book "Engaging the Powers - Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination" ( Augsburg Fortress, 1992) his brilliant and original analysis and reworking of Christian responses to evil.

5. Faciliators Notes

The above notes can be extracted and used as a handout for discussion/workshop group use.

Christian nonviolence is more extensively dealt with in the Fellowship of Reconciliation in Ireland/Pax Christi Ireland pack "Christian Nonviolence" (published 1993, available from INNATE). This 'Nonviolence in Christianity' piece is merely some notes which may be of assistance to people in discussing the issue, including some key biblical references, and a radical interpretation of turning the other cheek, giving your coat as well, and going the extra mile.

However as a facilitator you may need, depending on the audience, not to assume Christian or other religious beliefs on the part of participants. An alternative approach in such a context may be to take a statement such as "Nonviolence - Complete respect for human life" - a view of nonviolence which can fit equally well into a religious or non-religious viewpoint - and work from there.

One way of doing this is to take the above statement, "Complete respect for human life" on the centre of a chart and explore 1) Reasons for adopting such an approach (which can be listed in brainstorm fashion) and 2) Consequences (which can be listed as a web chart, showing the relationship between different consequences).

You can also get people to do a one-to-one exercise on "How my moral/spiritual/religious beliefs relate to nonviolence" (around 3 - 5 minutes each way) which can be followed, in the whole group, by inviting people to share some thoughts or doing it in a round (allowing people to 'pass'). Obviously this is not an exercise to launch into cold with people who are unfamiliar with nonviolence and its concepts, but it could form a session within a course on nonviolence or indeed religion or humanism.

If there are people who hold ethical and religious viewpoints different to the local norm (e.g. Buddhists or humanists in a predominantly Christian group) they can be invited to share at greater length to help illustrate that nonviolence is not tied to one religious or world view, and to gain a broader understanding. Likewise you can gently and sensitively tease out any differences within and between Christian denominations or other faiths and belief systems which are represented in the group in relation to their stand on violence and nonviolence. This could be done as a spectrum exercise with people asked to physically place themselves across a room with 'completely agree' and 'completely disagree' at opposite ends on statements which the facilitator reads out (e.g. 'Complete nonviolence is an essential requirement of my religious belief'). But the point here is to draw out why people are where they are, including why people from similar belief systems place themselves in different positions and definitely not to pigeonhole people.

Copyright INNATE 2016