The Myth of a Non-Violent Jesus

By Jeffrey Mann

Let us imagine, as people often do, that Jesus returns for a visit. Knowing Jesus as we do, we may envision him spending some time at a local bar. Given the wide variety of folks he liked to talk with, sooner or later some young ruffian might approach him with a surly look and ask, "You hittin' on my girlfriend?"

At this point, we are faced with a profound moral and theological question: If some punk throws a sucker-punch in a bar, what would Jesus do?

The popular perception of Jesus is that he would take it on the chin -- and then turn the other cheek. After all, didn't Jesus teach non-violence?

Jesus was not an advocate of nonviolence. Nope, he never said a word about it. In fact, we have him on record behaving violently -- in all four gospels! While he often avoided violence, this does not mean he taught an ethic of non-violence.

If we are going to set the record straight, we need to look at those parts of the gospels that are used to support the non-violence claim, as well as those that refute it.

Jesus taught, "If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also" (Matthew 5:39). However, the word used here is the Greek ῥαπíζω (hrapizo), which refers here to an open hand strike. Jesus is saying, "If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to him the other." This is not about self-defense at all; a slap in the face is an assault on your honor. Jesus was prohibiting escalation, not a response to a violent assault.

Jesus also taught us to love our enemies. People sometimes conclude that this prohibits injuring or killing them. However, this logic leads us to some rather peculiar conclusions. This sweet sentimental notion of love would surely denounce locking people in cells for decades. We could never imprison murderers. Should we all simply forgive them when they do awful things? This clearly cannot be what Jesus intended.

In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis explained, "Does loving your enemy mean not punishing him? No, for loving myself does not mean that I ought not to subject myself to punishment -- even to death. If you had committed a murder, the right Christian thing to do would be to give yourself up to the police and be hanged." Capital punishment may or may not be good public policy, but we ought not oppose it because we are supposed to "love" everybody. Failing to punish a dangerous criminal is not behaving with love toward the rest of our neighbors.

Another argument is that Jesus modeled non-violent resistance in his interactions with Rome. He refused to support the Zealots, those advocating violence to overthrow Rome. Moreover, when facing arrest, he explicitly rejected violence, commanding Peter, "Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword" (Matthew 26:52). Instead, "He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet did not open his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter...so he did not open his mouth" (Isaiah 53:7).

The fact that Jesus went to his death without a fight does not prove that he was a pacifist. Opposition to violence in one context does not demand condemnation of all violence. Rather, we recognize that violence should be avoided whenever possible. There were many who opposed the war in Vietnam who were not pacifists. Jesus served the world by allowing himself to be martyred; my father served the world by firing mortars at Nazis. A particular case does not demand a universal standard.

While some people argue for a non-violent Jesus, no one would make such a claim about the God of the Hebrew Bible. In traditional Christianity, Jesus is the Incarnate second person of the Trinity. He is divine, co-equal with the Father. As such, Jesus in the New Testament cannot hold a respectful disagreement with Yahweh of the Old Testament.

However, a fundamental disconnect between Yahweh and Jesus undermines the essential nature of God in traditional Christian theology.

Some suggest that the message of the New Testament is superior to the Old Testament. The "God" of the Hebrew Bible was a jealous and angry God. The divine Jesus -- Son of the gracious, forgiving Father -- is superior to him. Marcion suggested that in the 2nd century and was roundly condemned as a heretic. Among other problems, it's a little too polytheistic for Christianity. There are also plenty of people who would object to this suggestion being explicitly anti-Jewish.

According to all four gospels, Jesus entered the temple courtyard and found the events of his day to be sub-par. He made a whip out of cords and drove out all the people and their animals, turning over their tables in the process. That, quite frankly, does not sound like the behavior of someone committed to nonviolence. It seems unlikely that he was cracking a whip over the heads of the people to frighten them out; he did not fashion a lion-tamer's whip. A simple reading of the text clearly has Jesus acting violently toward people who disrespected God's temple. This wasn't even self-defense!

Jesus, like John the Baptist and his disciples, had various encounters with military personnel. John was strongly condemning the Israelites when he was approached by soldiers who wanted to know what was expected of them. He did not tell them to find a new job. "Don't extort money and don't accuse people falsely -- be content with your pay" (Luke 3:14). That's it!

When approached by a Roman Centurion seeking healing for his servant, Jesus was blown away by the man's faith. He granted the man's wish, but non-violence was never discussed. One would think that if Jesus had taught his followers to forswear violence, somebody would have brought it up with the various soldiers and centurions they spent time with.

In 1527, Martin Luther responded to a concern about the consciences of soldiers. Then, as now, military personnel struggled with how a just and loving God would judge a life spent in the bloody business of warfare. This was not an abstract theological point, but a personal struggle of deep existential angst. Luther instructed them that their occupation serves society no less than any other. "[I]n itself it is right and godly, but we must see to it that the persons who are in this profession and who do the work are the right kind of persons, that is, godly and upright."

Those who carry the sword, if they do so with justice and integrity, are doing the will of God. "For the very fact that the sword has been instituted by God to punish the evil, protect the good, and preserve peace is powerful and sufficient proof that war and killing," Luther argued, "have been instituted by God." Luther taught that their work, carried out as service to God and neighbor, is indeed a good and noble act. There was no need for their consciences to be weighed down.

Consider the implications if Jesus actually taught non-violence. Nations still require militaries and soldiers to serve in them. The theological danger of the violence-eschewing Jesus is not that soldiers are condemned to hell, but that they are regarded as living a morally inferior life. While we in safer lines of work can carry out our callings under the gracious smile of the Creator, those who live the life of violence are regarded as lesser-Christians. They may be saved in the end, by virtue of God's exceptional mercy, but despite their vocation. Such moral elitism has no place in the Church.

Governments and their citizens will always struggle with questions of whether armed force is morally justified in a particular situation. These are highly complex and contested matters. If the Son of God was an advocate of nonviolence, this means that there are no just wars; violence is never morally justified. Such a view, unfortunately, removes too many people from the conversation. In matters such as these, we want the brightest individuals with the strongest moral convictions to be part of the conversation. When the devout exclude themselves from the conversation, a tremendous resource is lost.

So, what would Jesus do with the young punk in the bar? I like to think that he would have ducked under the punch and applied a rear naked choke from behind, holding it firmly until the ruffian calmed down. That's the Jesus I'm most comfortable with, but I have no special insight into the mind -- or jujutsu skills -- of Christ.

While the idea of Jesus as the paragon of niceness and non-violence sits well in our imaginations, it is not true to the historical individual; it is not fair to those who serve in our militaries; and it is not helpful in working through the complex ethical questions that we must struggle with in a violent world. Christianity deserves better.

Jeffrey K. Mann is an Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Susquehanna University.

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