From Disarming the Heart
Imagine the scene. Jesus is preaching in a crowded synagogue on the Sabbath. Suddenly he notices, sitting way in the back, a man with a withered hand. Jesus stops. He calls out to the man, “Stand up! Come out here in the middle.”
The poor man stands up and comes up front to the middle near Jesus where he can be seen by everyone. Looking around the room, Jesus asks, “Is it against the law on the Sabbath to do good or to do evil? To save life or to kill?”
No one answers.
Jesus then says to the man, “Stretch out your hand.”
The man obeys. He is healed.
The religious authorities are shocked. Their worship service has been disrupted. A poor, marginalized person has been placed in the center of the sanctuary. Jesus has scandalized everyone by breaking Sabbath decorum and posing tough questions about doing good, saving life, doing evil, and killing.
These are not permissible topics for such a sacred place. The focus of worship is to be on God, not on suffering people, they believe. Jesus has ruined everything. He has disrupted the religious authorities’ comfortable life amidst a world of systemic injustice. They are so outraged, so threatened, that they immediately discuss killing Jesus. (Mark 3:1-6)
Jesus is the model of active nonviolence. In this story, as usual, he deliberately breaks the law and custom which permits systemic injustice and suffering to continue. Jesus is public and provocative. He is a scandal and a threat to everyone in authority, to everyone but the poor and oppressed who find liberation in his way of life.
On that Sabbath day, Jesus could not continue to preach about God’s way of life without stopping to heal the withered hand. Perhaps he could have waited until the next day to heal the man.
But Jesus always acts publicly to raise the question of life or murder. He knows that his nonviolent action will uncover and provoke the violence in us. He knows his actions will get him into trouble. Still he insists on nonviolence and reconciliation.
Jesus is the biggest troublemaker in the history of the world. Jesus insists on breaking through our addiction to violence, challenging our denial, confronting us with the truth, healing us with his nonviolent love, and offering us a way out of the world’s madness into the nonviolent reign of God. Jesus acts nonviolently to resist the forces of violence and death and to reveal God’s way of nonviolence and life.
Jesus Incarnates Nonviolence
The Gospels testify to the active nonviolence of Jesus. He is, as Gandhi wrote, the fullest expression of nonviolence, the model of nonviolence, the way of nonviolence. For Christians, Jesus incarnates the nonviolence of God.
Jesus was born into a world of violence and injustice that oppresses the poor. He grew up in poverty on the fringe of a brutal empire. The Palestine of his birth reeked with injustice. The reign of Herod and Roman imperialism was marked with brutal repression against the poor. Anyone who questioned systemic injustice was tortured and publicly executed.
After the death of Herod the Great in the year 4 B.C.E., the son of a guerrilla leader who had been executed by Herod led a revolt on the Roman military arsenal in the town of Sepphoris (five miles southeast of Nazareth). The Roman military forces put down the violent revolution, burned Sepphoris to the ground, and enslaved many of its inhabitants. In a final outpouring of imperial violence, Roman soldiers crucified some two thousand men on the road leaving Sepphoris. They saw this as an example and deterrent to the Jews and to all who questioned imperial domination. Herod Antipas rebuilt Sepphoris and made it the temporary capital of the region.
The young Jesus would certainly have known about these atrocities. He might have witnessed the massacre and known people who were executed. Perhaps his father, Joseph the carpenter, and other carpenters had been hired or ordered to rebuild the city. Some wonder whether Joseph might have been one of those executed. Needless to say, Jesus understood the world’s addiction to violence and injustice. He saw systemic violence and death up close from his youth and knew what he was talking about when he proposed God’s way of nonviolent love as the solution to humanity’s problems.
From this awareness of oppressive, repressive, and systemic violence, Jesus proposed the possibility of nonviolence. Unlike Jewish leaders such as the Pharisees, who profited from the imperial status quo, or the Zealots, who provoked revolution through murder and revolutionary violence, Jesus actively resisted systemic violence and the violence within the human heart. Jesus constantly proposed nonviolent alternatives. Throughout his life he embraced the way of nonviolence. His nonviolence was not passive nor private; it was active and public. Jesus’s nonviolence so threatened the ruling, imperial authorities that he was executed as a revolutionary, in the company of other revolutionaries, the Zealots.
As Gandhi demonstrated 1900 years later, Jesus established that steadfast commitment to nonviolence was not only possible but could change the world. Through nonviolence Jesus turned over the tables of systemic violence and called for the transformation of humanity. He placed the choice of violence or nonviolence – indeed, nonviolence or nonexistence – squarely before his contemporaries. He urged his friends and followers to adopt, as he did, nonviolence as a way of life.
His relentless nonviolent resistance, his compassion and forgiveness, and his active love for others reveal the face of God. The God of Jesus is a God of love, peace, and nonviolence. Jesus was so revolutionary that he even changed our image of God, turning us away from a god of violence and war to the God of nonviolence and peace. Jesus proclaimed a God of unconditional love who does not bless systemic violence but calls us to transform violence through active nonviolence.
A Sermon on Nonviolence
According to the Gospel of Mark, Jesus began his public life after praying and fasting in the desert for forty days. After he heard that John the Baptist, the prophet of justice and peace, had been arrested by the authorities, Jesus traveled through Galilee proclaiming to the oppressed the good news of God’s reign of justice and peace. This reign of nonviolence is at hand in the world of systemic violence, Jesus declared. (Mark 1:14)
Repent, believe the good news of peace, become nonviolent, resist injustice, love your enemies, and forgive everyone, Jesus taught. Quoting Isaiah and Daniel, prophets of justice and nonviolence, Jesus invited everyone to love God by loving their neighbor. His way of unconditional, nonretaliatory, and sacrificial love became the hallmark of his teaching.
From the Sermon on the Mount to his parables about the reign of God to the Last Supper and his own execution, Jesus urged his followers to join God’s revolutionary overthrowing of violence through nonviolence.
Jesus’s fullest teaching on nonviolence, the Sermon on the Mount, is a manifesto of nonviolence. It proposes a way out of the world’s addiction to violence through the sober method of nonviolent resistance. Instead of hating others and supporting the system of violence, Jesus calls us to love unconditionally, to hunger and thirst for justice, to risk our lives for peace.
Jesus’s way of love knows no barriers. He wants us to break away from deterrence and love even our enemies. In so doing, we become like the God who loves everyone, even God’s enemies. Such teachings reveal a God of nonviolence. By becoming people of nonviolence, Jesus proclaimed, we become the very sons and daughters of God.
The sermon on nonviolence begins with the Beatitudes, which affirm all who practice the nonviolence of God. In this sermon, Jesus affirms the life of steadfast nonviolence. That life for Jesus includes poverty of spirit, mourning (mourning the deaths of nonviolent resisters and poor people killed by the empire); meekness (peaceful, active resistance to systemic injustice); pursuing justice; being merciful; living out of a disarmed heart; making peace; and a willingness to suffer and die without retaliating.
To the poor of Galilee, Jesus proclaimed,
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the Earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven.
Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against
you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in Heaven, for in
the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (Matthew 5:3-11)
For Jesus, the reign of God belongs first and foremost to the poor and to those persecuted in the nonviolent struggle for justice. The Beatitudes point to a way of nonviolence which Jesus then addresses directly in six concrete steps. Not only are we not allowed to kill, he says, but we are not even to get angry with one another. We are to seek reconciliation with our sisters and brothers above all else.
Reconciliation with humanity takes priority even over worship of God, according to Jesus’s revolutionary nonviolence. (Matthew 5:23-24) When we have renounced violence, once we are reconciled with everyone, and are committed to God’s way of nonviolence, then we can worship the God of peace in peace.
The active nonviolence of Jesus becomes specific when he invites us to a life of nonviolent resistance to evil. We are to resist violence by non-cooperating with violence. We are not to return violence with violence but are to insist on our shared humanity so that God’s reign of justice can break through, as the following text explains:
Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you. (Matthew 5:38-42)
Jesus’s way of nonviolent resistance is a direct challenge to the Zealots and other violent revolutionaries of his age. He supported their passion for justice, but, as Gandhi explained, Jesus refused to kill or use violence in that struggle for justice.
Jesus was as committed to justice and peace as the most devout revolutionary. Indeed, he was more committed because he refused to use the violent methods of the imperial forces. Jesus’s way of nonviolent resistance is the most radical form of revolution in history. By inviting people to turn the other cheek, Jesus was not encouraging passivity or apathy; he wanted people to stand up, to remain dignified – but without violence. He urged noncooperation with evil and transformation of violence through a steadfast love and truth willing to suffer and die for justice and peace.
In this text, Jesus gives three specific examples of nonviolent resistance. First, when he speaks of being struck on the right cheek, he is aware that when one person punches another, he usually uses his right hand to hit an opponent on the left cheek. Thus the specific reference to being struck on the right cheek refers to the back-handed strike of a dominating person over a slave.
Jesus addresses the violence that humiliates and oppresses people. His response is the noncooperation which turns the other cheek and thus breaks the humiliation. This response upholds dignity, breaks the cycle of oppressive violence, and leads to justice.
Second, Jesus confronts the Roman policy which leaves the impoverished masses in hopeless debt. Only the poorest of the poor would have nothing but an outer garment to give for a loan. But when Jesus urges his followers to give up their inner garments as well when told to pay their debts to the empire – and thus to stand completely naked before the imperial court – he invites nonviolent direct action that challenges systemic injustice and disarms everyone.
As Walter Wink writes, nakedness was a scandal, not just to those naked, but even more so to the devout Jews and authorities who were exposed to it. Jesus’s suggestion would cause considerable scandal, expose the lawsuit of the oppressors, uncover the injustice, and lead to the repentance of the oppressor. His nonviolent action could lead to the transformation of society if adopted by the poor.
Third, Jesus challenges the Roman soldiers who force the poor to carry the soldiers’ packs. According to the law, the soldiers were not to force people to carry the packs for more than one mile. In practice, however, the poor felt the weight of imperial oppression.
Jesus turns the tables on Roman superiority and shows the poor how they can assert their dignity and uphold their humanity. Jesus is not urging revenge or telling people to retaliate with humiliation; rather, he offers a way to help oppressing soldiers see that the poor they are burdening are their fellow human beings. The creative response of carrying the pack farther may help the soldier recognize the humanity in the poor person and lead to conversion and an end to the oppression.
Jesus’s way of nonviolent resistance reaches a peak when he invites people to the nonviolence that loves the enemies of one’s country. Jesus calls for a love that transcends national borders, that reaches out like the love of God to every human being, particularly the victims of one’s country and its wars.
You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your father in Heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, just as your Heavenly father is perfect. (Matthew 5:43-48)
When our love transcends borders, when it reaches out to those who suffer from our warring violence, when it breaks the laws of empire and nationalism in a loving civil disobedience – then our love, according to Jesus, resembles God, who loves everyone everywhere in the world. God does not see borderlines or fences. God only sees the love in our hearts, (as Mother Teresa writes). God’s love is so nonviolent that it transcends into every human heart.
Jesus wants us to love similarly. He wants us to break the laws which tell us who to love and who not to love. He wants us to practice the nonviolence of God, which will bring down empires and transform the world. When fully practiced, such love will mark the nonviolent reign of God on Earth. This is the meaning behind the exhortation to be “perfect” like God. We are called to the great love of active nonviolence which reaches out to everyone. This is the nature of Jesus’s love, which crossed national and cultural borders, offended the ruling authorities who finally executed him, and continues to transform our world.
The command to love enemies not only rules out warfare; it is the ultimate solution to war. Jesus wants us to transform the world with an all-embracing love. If we love our enemies, we cannot kill them or threaten them. Jesus rules out war as a response to human division and conflict.
When we take this vision of Jesus’s nonviolence seriously, wars will end and injustice will cease. The entire weapons industry will close, the Pentagon will become a shelter for the homeless, and all battleships and military aircraft will be rededicated to the distribution of food and medicine to the poor of the world. The reign of God’s love will extend to everyone.
A Vision of Lifelong Nonviolence
Jesus offers many practical suggestions for the life of nonviolence. He recommends giving our possessions away, praying regularly in solitude, fasting, trusting wholeheartedly in God, and setting our hearts on God and God’s reign of justice and peace.
Jesus calls for simplicity of life and a radical dependence on God. He suggests that his followers become like trusting children. “Do not worry and do not judge others,” he said. “Speak the truth, seek justice for the poor, resist systemic injustice, love unconditionally, make peace, forgive everyone, do not do violence to anyone, and be like God. Take up the cross of nonviolent resistance to systemic injustice, struggle for justice and peace, accept the consequences of your truth-telling and follow me.” For Jesus, the way of nonviolence is simple and clear.
Jesus was not afraid. Throughout his life, he urged his disciples not to be afraid. He teaches us not to fear the powers of violence and death. He shows a way out of our fears by encouraging us to place our trust in God.
If we place all our trust in God, Jesus suggests, then we will have no trust left to place in the systems of violence, their idols, or their rulers. When religious authorities try to trap Jesus by asking him, “Should we pay taxes to Caesar?” Jesus asks the questioners if they have a coin to show Jesus. (Coins would have been inscribed with words, “Caesar, the Divine One.” Jewish leaders were not to carry such coins.)
When presented with a coin, Jesus exposes the trust people place in money and empires, rather than God. “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, but give to God what is God’s,” Jesus responds. (Mark 12:13-17)
As Dorothy Day once explained, once we give everything to God that belongs to God, there is nothing left to give to Caesar, the Roman empire, the systems of violence; or to their modern-day counterparts – U.S. presidents, nuclear weapons, and the structures of injustice. The nonviolence of Jesus demands allegiance to God alone; not a penny goes to the empire and its system of death.
In the portrait of the last judgment, (Matthew 25:31-46), Jesus teaches that God dwells in every human being and that all people are equal. Jesus says that whatever one does to another human being, one does to a sister or brother and thus to God. This parable completes the vision of the Sermon on the Mount by revealing that God takes sides with the poor and the oppressed of the world and invites us to do the same – to make a preferential option for the poor. If we do this, we shall be reconciling the world, ourselves, and all humanity to God.
On that day God will say to those who served the poor and the oppressed of the world,
Come, you who are blessed by my father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me. Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me. (Matthew 25:34-36, 40)
With this story, Jesus invites us to remember that we are all one family, all equal. If we are true to the reality of human unity, we will treat one another as sisters and brothers, beginning with the poorest people in the world. When our love is put into practice, we will be loving God who dwells with all those who suffer oppression and injustice.
A Campaign of Nonviolence
While teaching his disciples the way of nonviolence, Jesus practiced a public campaign of revolutionary nonviolence. He began in the poverty-stricken outskirts of war-torn Galilee and journeyed into mainstream religious, imperial, and cultural life in Jerusalem itself. Time after time, he risked arrest by confronting the laws and authorities who supported systemic injustice. His dramatic confrontation of nonviolent direct action in the temple in Jerusalem culminated a campaign of nonviolent confrontation.
Jesus was determined to speak out against systemic injustice and to proclaim God’s reign of nonviolence and justice. That was the number one priority in his life. With his love and nonviolence, he wanted to transform his world and everyone in it.
Jesus’s provocative nonviolence is portrayed over and over in the Gospels. Accounts include the time his disciples picked corn illegally on the Sabbath, his associations and meals with marginalized peoples, his healing people in public places, and his challenge of the laws which made oppression the norm. “You would not believe the trouble we had from this guy,” we read between the lines of the Gospels.
Jesus practiced nonviolent civil disobedience everywhere he went. He challenged the authorities who supported and blessed the institutionalized violence of his day. To the poor who followed him, he offered love, encouragement, and the positive alternative of nonviolent resistance. He called these friends to give their lives in the nonviolent struggle for justice. In this life of active nonviolence, they were to “love one another,” he declared. Jesus’s revolution was rooted in love. “A person can have no greater love than to lay down her life for her friends,” he proclaimed.
Jesus was not passive. Instead he provoked trouble by exposing violence, promoting nonviolence, and calling for conversion. Having taught nonviolence and love of enemies, it was fitting for Jesus to put aside his own fears and to invite others to put aside their fears and live in the reign of God’s peace.
He could have remained in Galilee and continued his “successful” ministry of preaching. He could have lived a life of respect and adulation. His friends urged him to avoid Jerusalem because they knew he would get into trouble.
By going to Jerusalem he engaged in nonviolent direct action in the face of systemic injustice and risked public execution on a cross. He showed through his actions and the ultimate action of laying down his life for others how to live out nonviolence. He showed that nonviolence includes speaking out the truth of God’s reign of justice and peace, resisting the systemic injustice and imperial violence which oppress people, and loving everyone, even those who would kill us.
The decision to go to Jerusalem marked the depth of Jesus’s commitment to nonviolence because he knew, as his disciples did, that his revolutionary appeal to nonviolence would probably cost his life. Nonetheless, he called on the authorities and all the people of Jerusalem to return to their roots as sons and daughters of God of peace.
Jesus understood the political and social climate of his day. He knew that its systemic violence was leading toward destruction (as was realized in the year 70). Going to Jerusalem was an act of trust in God. It was a dangerous mission, but for Jesus, nonviolence demanded action and peaceful confrontation with the powers of violence in the hope of nonviolent transformation and new life.
When Jesus arrived at the temple, the center of the Jewish world, he found people buying and selling, oppressing the poor, ignoring the priorities of justice and peace, and not worshiping God. He committed an act of nonviolent civil disobedience by turning over the tables of the money changers and blocking the entrance to the temple. (Mark 11:15-19; Matthew 21:12-13; Luke 19:45-46; John 2:14-16)
The temple exploited the poor masses by forcing them to pay a fortune for the opportunity of worshipping God. Jesus’s nonviolent direct action called for an end to religious injustice, the business of making money off the poor in the name of a religion supporting the empire and its systemic injustice. Jesus wanted the people to worship God in spirit and truth, to remember who they were and who they were called to be, a people of God’s nonviolent love. He was willing to accept the consequences for speaking the truth. Upon this act of civil disobedience, the authorities immediately planned Jesus’s death.
Jesus’s civil disobedience in the temple was explicitly nonviolent. He did not hurt anyone. He did disrupt the business dealings and the comings and goings of the temple. Unfortunately, this provocative action has been used for centuries to justify violence, even nuclear war. People point to this dramatic episode and conclude that Jesus used violence, therefore we can kill people.
Such conclusions miss the point. Jesus did not kill anyone; he was nonviolent. His nonviolence was illegal and dramatic and specifically aimed at stopping wars and the systems that kept people oppressed and poor. This passage does not justify murder, injustice, or war. If anything, the story of this culmination of a life of nonviolent action should inspire millions of Christians to disrupt all places of war and institutionalized violence through peaceful, prayerful, nonviolent resistance. The account should challenge us to turn over the tables of systemic injustice and the imperial business of war that continues today.
Jesus’s campaign of nonviolent resistance can be compared to nonviolent resistance by a Salvadoran campesino who confronts the U.S. embassy in San Salvador – the headquarters for the war that raged from the 1970s into the 1990s. A campesino from the northern province of Chalatenango, El Salvador, victim of the U.S. bombing raids and systemic injustice, walks for days to San Salvador, the capital city. There he goes to the U.S. embassy, headquarters for the war and the status quo of injustice.
He enters the building and nonviolently turns over the tables in the offices, disrupting the work of the embassy. He sits down at the entrance and says that God does not want us to kill but to serve life. He commits a nonviolent, symbolic act of resistance. He does not hurt anyone or kill anyone, but he disrupts the normal routine of government, injustice, and warfare. His message is rejected. The campesino is immediately arrested, “disappeared,” tried in an overnight court, and publicly executed.
Such was the nonviolence of Jesus. Similar nonviolent actions and disappearances occur regularly today throughout the world.
When Jesus was brought before the government leaders a few days after his action in the temple, he was charged with “perverting our nation, forbidding us to pay taxes to the emperor, and saying that he is the messiah, a king,” (see Luke 23:2). His accusers persisted, “He stirs up the people by teaching through all Judea, from Galilee where he began even to this place.”
Jesus’s way of active nonviolence threatened the religious and civil authorities because they knew if people adopted Jesus’s way of nonviolence, the systems and structures of imperial violence and injustice would fall. The authorities realized that they would lose their power if enough people believed and acted on Jesus’s nonviolence. If people obeyed God, loved one another, and resisted systemic injustice, as Jesus urged, the ruling authorities would lose the blind obedience of the masses. Their profits would cease and an entirely new society would develop.
The authorities realized people were listening to Jesus, that some were following him in his campaign of revolutionary nonviolence. They executed him to protect the empire’s way of violence. But they did not understand the depth of God’s nonviolence.
The Nonviolence of Jesus on the Cross
The night before he died, when he knew the authorities would soon arrest and kill him for his nonviolent action, Jesus brought his friends together. He encouraged them to form a community of nonviolence, to live together as God’s children, to share a meal together in memory of him and his nonviolent way. He instructed his friends to serve one another as he did that night by symbolically and actually washing one another’s dirty feet.
As the hour of his arrest approached, Jesus prayed in the garden of Gethsemane for strength to persevere in God’s nonviolence: “God, let your will be done, not mine,” he prayed. When the soldiers arrived, threatened to arrest everyone and asked for Jesus, he said, “If you are looking for me, let these others go.” (John 18:8) He was arrested on charges of subverting the system and taken away as a criminal.
Jesus remained faithful to the way of nonviolence. He did not return the violence used against him because he knew that the people who were killing him were his brothers and sisters. They were children of God, and he wanted to transform them from their ways of violence. He wanted all the world’s violence to end, right there and then, even in his own body if necessary.
When questioned by the high priest, Jesus answered, “I have spoken openly to the world; I have always taught in the synagogues and in the temple, where all the Jews come together. I have said nothing in secret. . . . Ask those who heard what I said to them. They know what I said.” (John 18:20-21)
After Jesus said this, a guard slapped Jesus in the face and asked, “Is that how you answer the high priest?” (John 18:22)
Jesus spoke up. He did not strike back, but turned the other cheek and spoke the truth. “If I have spoken wrongly, testify to the wrong. But if I have spoken rightly, why do you strike me?” (John 18:23)
After Jesus was condemned to death by the authorities, he was punched, spat on, blindfolded, hit in the face with fists, and mocked. Jesus suffered the full force of the world’s addiction to violence; he died under the full weight of imperial violence. He experienced terrible torture and agony, but throughout he remained centered in the spirit of God’s nonviolent love. In his agony, he refused to resort to the violence used against him.
The peace and love Jesus manifested while undergoing such brutal torture and public execution reveal the profound depths of his nonviolence – indeed, the divinity of his spirit. Jesus incarnated nonviolence. He was a messiah of nonviolence who broke the world’s addiction to violence. He helped change history by opening up the possibility of steadfast, committed nonviolence.
When standing before Pilate, he declared, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is my kingdom is not from here. . . . For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” (John 18:36-37) Under the reign of Jesus, violence is not used, allowed, or accepted. Violence is not an option.
Jesus was betrayed and denied by close friends, scourged, crowned with twisted thorns, and dressed in a purple robe. After carrying the cross, he was stripped and nailed to the cross, suffering physical agony and verbal abuse. In the torment of crucifixion, Jesus responded with pure nonviolence, continuing to see his persecutors as children of God. Instead of hating those who were executing him, he took the most courageous step possible – he forgave his executioners and all who had hurt him. He prayed for them, “God forgive them. They do not know what they are doing.”
Jesus recognized that his enemies had forgotten who they were and who they were called to be. He forgave them and continued to love them, revealing the power of God and the spirit of nonviolence dwelling in his heart. On the cross, Jesus was completely disarmed. Indeed, Jesus went to his death as he lived his life: completely unarmed. Even in death, he disarmed others by responding with love, forgiveness, and truth.
He was jeered at by passersby as he was dying, and yet he remained faithful to who he was and to the God of nonviolence. Though misunderstood, he trusted God, hoping in God’s transforming love even when there was little cause for hope. Jesus’s final words convey the life commitment of nonviolence: “God, into your hands I commend my spirit.”
Jesus was a victim of the death penalty. He was legally executed by the system. Crucifixion was a form of capital punishment like the electric chair or the gas chamber. Jesus’s death on a cross was a scandal to his family, friends, followers, and countrypeople. In dying so scandalously, Jesus had failed in the eyes of his followers. He was completely misunderstood. Though few if any had grasped his message of nonviolence, though he was alone and rejected except for a handful of faithful women, he hoped in God.
Jesus lived every moment of his life knowing that the God of nonviolence reigns and calls us to become a people of nonviolence. He gave up his life for the coming of God’s reign of nonviolence. On the cross Jesus revealed and became the fullest expression of God’s reign of nonviolence.
The crucified Jesus represents a new image of a God willing to die for justice and peace but not willingly to kill. The image of God revealed by Jesus on the cross is a God who calls people to nonviolence. The crucified nonviolent Jesus died inviting others to follow him on his way into the paradise of nonviolence. Because his death so fulfilled this nonviolent love, he redeems us and shows us a way out of our addiction to violence and death.
The Nonviolence Which Rises and Overcomes Death
The words spoken to the women who came to the tomb of Jesus that following Sunday morning proclaim the victory of nonviolence. “There is no reason to be afraid,” an angel declared. “I know you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here, for he has risen. Return to Galilee and you will find him there.”
These are challenging words of great joy and wonder. The resurrection of Jesus is God’s ultimate affirmation of the way of nonviolence. The resurrection proclaims that Jesus’s vision of nonviolence was correct and that he was right to resist systemic violence through a spirit of steadfast nonviolence.
The resurrection of Jesus is evidence that his message and humble life of nonviolence are the right way to live. By raising Jesus, God invites all people to follow Jesus, the way of nonviolence, to resist death and risk eternal life and so participate in the nonviolent transformation of the world.
The angel’s words gladden our hearts with the good news that Jesus is alive. They also terrify us because they invite us to start the life of Jesus all over again. They urge us to go back to Galilee, into the world of oppression and injustice, and take up Jesus’s campaign of nonviolent resistance. The angel’s words send us into modern-day Jerusalems and Pentagons with acts of nonviolent civil disobedience for the sake of justice and peace.
The risen Jesus Christ transformed his disciples and changed their lies. Now they understood his way and saw he was right to go to Jerusalem, to turn over the tables of systemic injustice, to call people to God’s nonviolent love. They saw that Jesus’s crucifixion had been legal. They were shocked to find him continuing his civil disobedience by illegally rising from the dead.
As Daniel Berrigan writes, according to the laws of empire, dead people are supposed to stay dead. Jesus broke the laws of death. The disciples no longer misunderstood the folly of the cross, the scandalous love which resists injustice through active nonviolence. They began to speak out around the world about God’s way of nonviolent resistance and active love.
Thereafter, the disciples practiced the nonviolent, suffering love of Jesus as the way of God. From then on, they practiced nonviolent resistance. Thousands were arrested, jailed, tortured, and executed for insisting on the nonviolent reign of God. Through the resurrection they understood that God is indeed reigning, that God actively resists institutionalized violence. They saw that the God of nonviolence is stronger than violence or death itself. They recognized that if we place all our trust in God and follow the way of nonviolence, everlasting life and nonviolent love will reign in our hearts.
The death and resurrection of Jesus as the culmination of his life of nonviolence, they concluded, had indeed transformed the world. They became nonviolent resisters and followed him in acts of nonviolent resistance that ended in their own martyrdom – and resurrection.
The first gift the risen Jesus gave his disciples was the Spirit of nonviolence. “Peace be with you,” he said. In the resurrection of Jesus, the fullest demonstration of God’s active nonviolence, we are offered God’s gift of peace, “a peace which the world cannot give.” We are offered the fruit of Jesus’s suffering love, the peace of God’s reign.
Jesus’s gift of peace is an invitation to a world without war and injustice, an invitation to follow him along the way of nonviolence. After his resurrection, Jesus explained to his disciples that he had tried to witness to the way of nonviolence all his life.
“These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you – everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead and on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.” (Luke 24:44-49)
The resurrection of Jesus helped his disciples understand nonviolence. They were transformed and began to live according to his nonviolence. The risen Jesus commissioned them to teach everyone about his life of nonviolence and the good news that everyone can live this new way of life. Jesus sent his disciples out as ministers of reconciliation who would reunite the human family, work to end violence, and create a community of love and peace.
The risen Jesus said to his friends, “Go, make disciples of all nations. Baptize them. . . and teach them to observe all the commands I gave you. And know that I am with you always; yes, to the end of time.” In this final invitation, Jesus reiterated what he had said in the Sermon on the Mount. “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your father in Heaven.” (Matthew 5:16)
Jesus commissioned his friends to proclaim, practice, and live the way of nonviolence that he had incarnated. “Go and act nonviolently,” he said. “Love one another. Speak the truth. Seek justice for the poor. Resist the violence of the world. Help others to become peacemakers. Practice my way of nonviolence even unto death. Together, we shall enter into God’s reign of nonviolent love.”
Jesus and the Vow of Nonviolence
The vow of nonviolence is a pledge to continue Jesus’s way of nonviolence. It accepts Jesus’s mission to transform the world into God’s reign of nonviolence. The vow of nonviolence commits us to his lifelong mission of nonviolence. It can help us be faithful to Jesus’s life of active nonviolence. It can be a channel for Jesus’s spirit of nonviolence to work in us, disarm our hearts, and participate in God’s disarmament of the world.
The vow can empower us to continue being the body of Christ in the world today – as we fast, pray, dialogue, accompany the poor, resist injustice, act nonviolently, risk our lives in the nonviolent struggle for justice and peace, and follow Jesus to the cross and resurrection. The vow can help us to become faithful followers of the troublemaking, nonviolent Jesus.
In a world that continues to reject nonviolence, a vow of nonviolence can inspire us to a single-minded life of active nonviolence. Then God’s reign of nonviolence, revealed in Jesus, can continue to be realized now. The nonviolent Jesus invites us to take up this challenge anew.