Today, I have proudly written the longest title in the short history of my blog. And there was much rejoicing…
On to our topic, one which is near and dear to my heart and which has been on my mind quite a bit the past few months…
I consider non-violence to be at the core of the message of Jesus. He emphasized it quite a bit during the few years of His public ministry.
“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
“You have heard it said: an eye for an eye, a life for a life. But, I say, if a man slaps you on your right cheek, turn to him your left one as well. If a man demands your coat, give him your cloak also. If a man compels you to walk a mile with him, walk two.”
“You have heard it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemies.’ But I say, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in Heaven.”
“Blessed are the peacemakers (or those who work for peace), for they will be called the Children of God.”
“Put away your sword! Don’t you know that those who live by the sword die by it?”
I think those quotes (with possibly mangled wording) make it clear that those who love God and follow Jesus cannot live a life of violence, or even condone violence.
This is a very controversial topic in America, even among American Christians. America is the land that violently cast off the chains of tyranny from Great Britain and forged itself into a prosperous nation. America is the land of the Old West, where justice came from a deadeye sheriff with a quick draw. America is the land that defeated Nazi Germany (single-handedly, if you listen to some) and Imperial Japan with force of arms.
America is also a land in which thousands die by gun violence every year. America is a land of unprovoked invasions and never-ending wars. America is a land where warriors are celebrated and peacemakers are reviled, where armed vigilantes become heroes in the media and peaceful protestors are abused by police. America is the land where not even elementary schools are safe, or movie theaters, or shopping malls. America is the land where guns outnumber citizens, and people walk the streets in fear for their lives.
Non-violence is a very controversial topic, because we’re a land of wolves. We don’t want to become “sheep”, passively accepting evil and tyranny. We want to keep our power over the forces arrayed against us locked and loaded and under our bed.
The popular saying goes, “The only thing that can stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”
Jesus didn’t carry a gun, and He changed the world.
Ghandi didn’t carry a gun, and he freed a nation.
Martin Luther King, Jr. didn’t carry a gun, and he helped America find its conscience.
Malala Yousafzai didn’t carry a gun, and she stared down an armed terrorist.
I don’t claim to be an expert on violence and non-violence, but I do claim some experience with it. In 2006, I found myself, with my unit, in the most violent city in Iraq. Ar Ramadi was like the Wild West, in that everyone had guns, and the only victory to be found was in having the most and biggest guns. I went to Ar Ramadi with no particular hatred of the Iraqi people, but with a great deal of fear of the danger the city posed. Within only a few months, I had aimed and/or fired my gun several times.
And I hated them. Oh, how I hated them. I wanted each and every one of them to die violently. I wanted to bomb that city into a parking lot. I wanted to wipe it off the face of the Earth and never hear its name spoken again.
And for years after, Ramadi became the world for me. Ramadi was the most important lesson that I ever learned: that the only way to beat a bad guy with a gun was to be a good guy with a gun.
I thought it made me powerful.
I thought it made me brave.
But, the truth is, the only thing that living a life of violence ever made me was afraid. It didn’t make me a wolf.
It made me a sheep.
Violence made me live in a world where I passively accepted the presence of evil, and was only prepared to react to it with the same methods.
Violence made me live in a world where I was constantly afraid, constantly on guard, constantly worried that I wouldn’t get the chance to shoot before the other guy shot.
Violence made me live in a world where every single person I saw was a threat, a possible enemy to be evaluated and resisted.
And it was Jesus, with the message of non-violence, that set me free.
See, Jesus’ non-violence isn’t a passive acceptance of evil. The non-violence of Jesus doesn’t sit back and take it.
When Jesus talked about turning the other cheek, He taught it as an act of resistance. Slapping a man on the right cheek was an insult, something used with a servant or a slave – the culture that He lived declared the left hand to be unclean, and so slapping someone on the right cheek with the right hand required a backhanded slap.
So, when Jesus said, “Turn your left cheek”, He was actively challenging the evil of degrading violence. In order for someone who just backhanded you on the right to slap you on the left cheek with the hand would require him to treat you as an equal. The only way such a man could insult you by backhanding you across the left cheek was by using his unclean hand. So, either the man has to treat you as an equal (thus shaming himself after treating you as a slave), or he has to become a lawbreaker by using his unclean hand.
Both cases are active resistance against violence, but in non-violent ways.
In another example, Jesus told His listeners that if someone asks for your coat, you should also give them your cloak. This wasn’t a message about generosity. In Jewish law, a debtor could demand as repayment everything you owned… except for your cloak, because you could use your cloak to keep you warm at night. So, when Jesus says, “Give them your cloak too”, He isn’t suggesting that you simply lie down and take it.
He is urging non-violent action against an unjust system.
Ultimately, this is what the practice of non-violence is about: confronting unjust systems without using unjust means.
Violence is about power, and power is the prime instrument of injustice around the world. Injustice exists because those with power use that power to deprive others of equality, liberty and life.
You can never fight injustice with violent power. The saying that comes to mind is, “Fighting for peace is like f***ing for virginity.”
The only thing that can overcome injustice is non-violent resistance. The only thing that can overcome abuse of power is peacemakers staring it in the face, daring it to go one step further, holding up the mirror to its own evil.
The only thing that can stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy who refuses to use one.
That refusal, that adamant defiance of violent systems in the face of injury and death, is why I say that Christian non-violence made me into a lion.
No longer do I need to live in fear of a violent world… because I reject it.
I don’t have to worry about being powerless against my enemies… because I love them.
I will never worry about whether or not I have my sword… because I have put it away for all time.
And I don’t have to worry when a machismo-filled, Old West culture tells me that the Jesus I follow is a sissy, or that following Him has made me one… because my Jesus has teeth.
The Jesus I follow doesn’t passively accept evil. He actively rejects it, and rejects the means by which it perpetrates that evil.
The Jesus I follow doesn’t cower in the face of unjust systems. He lifts people out of degradation, and teaches them how to lift themselves up.
The Jesus I follow isn’t powerless. He empowers.
Will you follow this Jesus with me?