Reconnecting with Nonviolence
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RECONNECTING WITH NONVIOLENCE
A reflection given at Holladay United Church of Christ on April 9, 2017 (Sixth Sunday in Lent/Palm Sunday)
When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, 2saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. 3If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately.” 4This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying, 5“Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” 6The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; 7they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. 8A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. 9The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” 10When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” 11The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”
– Matthew 21:1-11
When Jesus entered Jerusalem on that Sunday that began the last week of his life, he may have looked a little comical – riding on a small donkey. But this was a powerful, symbolic act. The biblical prophet Zechariah — who lived about five centuries before the time of Jesus, during the time that Jerusalem and its temple were being rebuilt – had a beautiful vision of a time when a new king would come to Jerusalem. That new king would ride a young donkey, and would bring peace to God’s people.
The author of the gospel of Matthew quotes that vision in his story of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. He clearly believed that vision was being fulfilled in Jesus.
But Jesus may have been making another statement as well. Last year, I told about the biblical scholars Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, who, in their book “The Last Week,” propose that this little parade of Jesus’ was actually a political protest against another parade that was happening elsewhere in the city at the very same time. They claim the Roman Governor Pontius Pilate was arriving from his headquarters at the head of a contingent of soldiers sent to keep order in the city during the Jewish Passover festival. So, while Pilate possibly rode into town on a beautiful white horse, leading well-armed soldiers, and representing the power of the Roman Empire and Emperor Tiberius (who claimed to be the son of the gods on earth), Jesus came into town on a small donkey with a rag-tag group of followers. He came proclaiming that the Realm of God was at hand – a kingdom built on humility and service and love rather than power. His was a parody of the Roman parade He was mocking the apparent power of Rome. Maybe that was one of the reasons he was crucified a few days later.
From all accounts in the gospels and other early Christian texts, Jesus was a man of peace. He never used violence to achieve his purposes. He never even used violence to protect himself.
And church history records that the early Christians were nonviolent. They refused to serve in the Roman army. During periods of persecution of Christians by the Roman Empire as members of an illegal religious group, many Christians were arrested and sentenced to death. Many of them refused to fight. In fact, they often greeted death as an honor.
It caused a bit of a crisis in the early Church when Roman soldiers wanted to become a part of the movement. They were eventually accepted, but a question remained as to whether they could continue serving in the military.
But then, in the fourth century, the Roman Emperor Constantine – himself a military commander – believed that the Spirit of Christ helped him to win an important battle, and soon Christianity became the official religion of the entire Roman Empire. After that, kings – now Christian – began asking how they could possibly defend their kingdoms against invaders seeking glory and riches if they couldn’t wage war. And they began wondering how they, as Christians could invade other kingdoms seeking glory and riches if killing was prohibited. Soon, nonviolence began to be seen as an unrealistic ideal rather than a Christian way of life.
In the fifth century, the great Christian theologian Augustine developed the idea of a “just war” – circumstances in which Christians might wage war and remain true to their faith. Christians have justified the use of violence and warfare ever since, although almost all the wars fought by Christian nations since then (and maybe all of them) have not really met the criteria for a “just war.”
Folks in this congregation expressed a desire several months ago to deepen their spiritual lives. So during this season of Lent, we have been using as a guide for learning and reflection a book by John Philip Newell, called “The Rebirthing of God.” Many of us have been reading and discussing the book as we have followed it in worship. The Christian faith has lost much of the original vision and passion that gave it birth. But Newell invites us to reconnect with God in order to bring new life to our faith and our lives. And he suggests various ways or places we might do that reconnecting – as in spiritual practice, love, the journey, the light, and compassion. Today, we consider “reconnecting with nonviolence.”
How appropriate for today, since our nation just recently launched a missile strike against an air base in Syria. Perhaps one of the reasons the Christian faith has lost some of its appeal and influence is because it doesn’t really follow the teachings of Jesus and the practice of the early church. In a world that continues to be torn apart by violence, it doesn’t really insist on an alternative.
These days, the worldwide Christian community is divided on whether Christians should be nonviolent. I’m sure that the vast majority believe not only that Christians should be able to defend themselves from harm, and serve in the military to defend their country from enemies and protect innocent people, but that Jesus would condone these actions. There are some notable exceptions, including historic “peace churches” like the Amish, Quakers (Society of Friends), and the Church of the Brethren.
John Newell is influenced by two people that he considers to be great 20th century prophets of nonviolence: one of them is George MacLeod, the founder of the modern-day religious community on the island of Iona in Scotland. Newell is the former warden of the abbey in Iona. But the other great prophet of nonviolence is Mahatma Gandhi, who led the nonviolent movement for India’s independence from Great Britain.
Gandhi, of course, was not Christian, but Hindu. Yet he was greatly influenced by Jesus’ life and teachings. Gandhi once said, “The only people on earth who do not see Christ and His teachings as nonviolent are Christians.”
What is the case for nonviolence today? Why do it? What are the risks?
New Testament scholar and theologian Walter Wink once wrote, “The church has a vocation for nonviolence. That vocation is grounded in the teaching of Jesus, the nature of God, the ethos of the kingdom, and the power of the resurrection.” Let me elaborate on these points.
As I said, Jesus taught nonviolence. Jesus lived nonviolence. He even taught that we should love our enemies. Gandhi got that. He refused to make anyone his enemy – even those who oppressed his fellow Indians, and who on several occasions beat him and imprisoned him. He sought not to destroy his enemies, but turn them into friends. Jesus supposedly prayed for God to forgive his executioners because they did not know what they were doing. Jesus taught nonviolence.
We are to be nonviolent because of the nature of God. This may be surprising, because many people believe that God is violent and punishing. There are many times when believers have assumed that disasters or destruction have been God’s will or punishment for someone’s sins, but I think that is more assumption than fact. The Bible tells how God once tried violent disaster to rid the world of evil. It was the flood of Noah’s time. But it didn’t work – sin and evil were soon present in the new creation. And so God vowed never to do that again. It is impossible to rid the world of evil by killing all the evil people – in spite of our political promises to do so.
Instead, the overarching story of the Bible is God’s unbelievable patience – refraining from destructive violence in order to give evildoers (like me) another chance.
The ethos of the kingdom or the Realm of God is such that there should be no enemies. And the Realm of God should be our ultimate allegiance – surpassing even our nation or our religion. As Christians, protecting our nation should not be justification for violence. Neither is self-defense, or even justice. Just war theory said the only reason Christians could wage war was to prevent innocent people from suffering.
And the power of the resurrection assures us that even if we, personally, might lose our life to violence; or those who love; or an entire nation be conquered; doing what is right will ultimately prevail.
Christian theologians and ethicists have debated for centuries whether nonviolence is practical or realistic, and the circumstances in which Christians might rightfully use force or violence. Perhaps we can discuss those questions later – I certainly will not answer them here and now. But let me just state my conviction that Jesus never intended to be practical (realistic), or successful. He never sought to defend an earthly empire. He only sought to be faithful to his vision of God’s love and God’s realm.
We live in a complex and dangerous world. I don’t hold out any immediate hope of getting our nation or any other in our world to disavow violence and warfare. But I do believe that lasting peace will never be achieved through violence. We don’t have to support the common belief that killing is the way to defeat our enemies. And we can proclaim and live out our beliefs that violence is never justified in our relationships and our families and in our communities.
Reconnecting with nonviolence is risky. It is dangerous. It may require a willingness for me to lay down my life, and even endanger the lives of loved ones. That terrifies me. But I try to remember an unarmed prophet of peace riding into the heart of violence on a donkey colt, a cross, and an empty tomb.
Robert J. von Trebra