There are many moral and political questions to which the Bible does not give us straight “answers”—and the use of violence to seek justice is certainly one of them.
One reason is that the bible is internally pluralistic. While the Sermon on the Mount counsels nonviolence (and, on the face of it, nonresistance), the God of the Israelites uses violence to save them from Egyptian slavery, and then commands them to kill each and every inhabitant of the “promised land.”
The gospel of Matthew contains, along with the Sermon on the Mount, eight parables in which God deals violently with evildoers (Barbara Reid, “Matthew’s Nonviolent Jesus and Violent Parables,” 2006).
Thus, it’s necessary to identify a central biblical message to guide interpretation of diverse texts, such as covenant, love of God and neighbor, and self-sacrifice for the less powerful.
Another reason is that everyone brings to the biblical text a variety of experiences, categories, customs, social institutions, values and problems without which we would not be able to construe meaning at all.
Some of the more common and evident interpretive lenses are our own experiences and values, and those of our culture; the natural and social sciences; and other familiar and longstanding interpretations of the bible handed down in the church (“tradition”).
These factors dispose readers to find in the bible meanings that accord with their own worldviews.
A third reason is that Jesus’s social context is not our social context. U.S. Christians live in a majority Christian society, and one where it is possible for faith traditions to back political agendas and resist the status quo. Today North American Christians have access to political power, through voting, running for office, supporting candidates, community organizing, and engaging in public civil protest—unlike Jesus, the Jewish community under Roman imperial rule, and the early Christians up until the age of Constantine.
So Jesus’ message may need analogous—not literal—applications in our own time.
Walter Wink recognizes some of this complexity in Jesus and Nonviolence: A Third Way. He uses historical tools to uncover the factors that shaped people listening to Jesus’ words in the first century. He turns to knowledge of the social life-world of Jesus to better anchor today’s understanding of Jesus’ teachings about nonresistance and nonviolence. Wink describes the probable contextual meaning of Jesus himself and the understanding likely taken away by his audience.
For example, Wink maintains that “turn the other cheek” presupposes a cultural situation where a backhand slap is a status-related insult. Thus, turning the other cheek is a way of saying, “Your action cannot humiliate me.” Wink believes “Jesus’ Third Way” means in part to “seize the moral initiative,” “assert your own humanity and dignity as a person,” “meet force with ridicule,” and “take control of the power dynamic.”
Going further, Wink claims that the “third way” of Jesus goes so far as “militant nonviolence.” Wink concludes that Jesus formed a countercultural community that sought systemic change, using the tool of nonviolence as a way to turn the tables on the enemy.
Wink presents the original contextual meaning of Jesus as also a timeless meaning. He tries to draw from the bible a clear and simple message—one that contains everything necessary for contemporary Christians to take a stand for nonviolence
But is Wink not only reading the bible in too simplistic and ahistorical a manner, but also recasting Jesus’ message so that it more easily validates the political ethics Wink wants his contemporaries to embrace?
On the whole, Christian tradition has not seen Jesus as a political revolutionary, violent or not. Neither he nor his disciples nor first century Christians were in a position to instigate a radical reordering of the Roman imperial system. What Jesus and his ministry were about is signaled by his ministry of the reign of God, his inclusion of outcasts, sinners, and the vulnerable. Compassion and forgiveness are certainly also central.
In fact, as Wink also notes, the New Testament is unanimous on the point that Jesus went to his death on a cross, teaching forgiveness and love of enemies. Bible and tradition comport better with a view of Jesus as modeling obedience to God, empathy, compassion, and reconciliation, than as a clever political subversive who leveraged nonviolence to take control of power, while humiliating and shaming his adversaries.
On Wink’s side, Jesus did gather society’s marginalized, sharing “table fellowship” that was undoubtedly destabilizing to religious and political hierarchies and control. It’s not too much to say his ministry was subversive. This was a factor behind his execution by the Roman government, with the collusion of the Jewish temple elites. Hence, it is fair to claim that Jesus’ message has strong, lasting, and even radical political implications that Christians in every age can and should develop.
Jesus and Nonviolence was written in a time and place and for a specific audience: the United States of America in 2003. The book was published a little more than a decade after the War in the Persian Gulf, as the Iraq war was gearing up, and two years after the beginning of the U.S. engagement in Afghanistan that “ended” this year after two decades of fruitless bloodshed.
Wink’s audience was White Christian America, the privileged citizens of a military superpower who had easily bought into an ideology of American exceptionalism. White U.S Christians for the most part saw their country as mission-driven by noble values of democracy and freedom. They believed it had a mandate to promote U.S-style democracy globally, righting wrongs, avenging aggressions, and reforming other nations’ systems in our national self-image.
In this context, Wink’s message was clear and successful. He made a persuasive case not only that Christians should refrain from unnecessary violence, but that “nonviolent resistance” could be both a faithful and a politically effective strategy against injustice and aggression. Many in the “mainline” churches began to question the binary choice between nonresistant pacifism and the advocacy of “just war.” They began to turn a more critical eye on the support given by fellow believers to military actions undertaken by our elected leaders, and some became anti-war activists and even pacifists.
Jesus and Nonviolence became a manifesto for Christian activism because many drew energy from the idea that biblical nonviolence could be a serious political strategy, whether or not the specifics of Wink’s biblical interpretations were off-base. Wink’s essential agenda has had staying power. Pope Francis takes a very similar perspective in his 2017 World Day of Peace message, “Nonviolence: A Style of Politics for Peace.”
But is Wink’s ideal of militant nonviolence equally applicable, or applicable in the same way, in every case? Wink mentions a variety of Christian political initiatives including the struggle against apartheid in South Africa, the civil rights campaign of Martin Luther King, the Solidarity movement in Poland, the nonviolent “People’s Revolution” in the Philippines, and the rightful resistance of women who have suffered domestic abuse.
Yet a different message is needed for oppressed Black people in South Africa or in the United States than, for instance, mainline white Christians accustomed to putting their power behind military and police force.
Moreover, we must interpret Jesus’ message today not only for cases of individual violent threat, but also for the global realities of structural violence. Structural violence refers to social systems and institutions that organize society in such a way that persons and groups are seriously disadvantaged, harmed, or even put to death. Yet there is no one easily identifiable perpetrator. Rather the guilt lies with all who are complicit in the system and benefit from it. People and groups are positioned differently in relation to aggressors or oppressors. Factors like class, wealth, gender, and race can make us more or less vulnerable. Responsibilities and effective tactics can vary.
If Christian politics wants to accomplish systemic and radical change, then collective action and social movements should enter the picture, though they are not part of biblical portrayals of Jesus or available as possibilities to the first Christians.
Wink’s concession (referencing Bonhoeffer) that violence might be warranted as a “lesser evil” and last resort also bears further consideration. He grants that in some instances, the nonviolent “third way” might not produce a just and acceptable result. Like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Christian protecting the vulnerable neighbor might have to choose “the lesser of two violences, two guilts,” while appealing for the mercy of God.
Certainly violence spawns more violence, and brings in its wake harm to the innocent as well as to the guilty. Perhaps violence is never an appropriate Christian tactic. Certainly it should be avoided at almost all costs.
But whether in the face of extreme threats to dignity, rights, and life itself, violence should ever be an option at all is not settled by the New Testament.
The bible is always handed on, read, preached, understood, and acted upon in a living community—a process that begins within the bible itself with the composition of the four gospels for four different communities.
It is neither possible nor necessary to define an authentic Christian response in diverse historical situations by “proving” that the strategy for each is already contained in Jesus’ originally intended message and his biblically recorded words.
The Holy Spirit, the Spirit of the risen Christ, enlightens and empowers faithful responses in the church’s evolving circumstances.
The church’s practical embodiment of the Sermon on the Mount and other teachings will (and should) adapt to the particular challenges and opportunities Christian communities face.
What Jesus and the gospel most eminently give us—and as Wink so rightly affirms—is the obligation and the present possibility of a way of life formed around nonviolence and the positive virtues of love, forbearance and reconciliation.
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