Christianity and non-violence

Andrew Sullivan maintains that Good Friday is ultimately about non-violence:

That’s why I felt so passionately about Mel Gibson’s attempt to depict Christ’s passion as primarily about the violence inflicted by others on Jesus. In fact, it is and was primarily about Jesus’ decision to accept the violence without resistance because he wanted to show that only non-violence can ever truly, deeply defeat violence. Gibson never gave us the Gospel teaching to make sense of this, which is why the film failed so profoundly as a Christian movie.

Passion of the Christ still

Complete non-violence is a religious teaching, not a political one. … That’s why the civil rights movement was, in my view, a religious movement at its core, and was never better illustrated than by the choice of its participants to submit non-violently to the hatred and fear directed toward them, to resist it but not to counter it with more of the same.

I am not a pacifist, though I think violent resistance must be employed as a last resort. (And there are other “just war” criteria: for example, a reasonable likelihood of success, and a sober calculation that the good achieved will outweigh the harm of employing violence as a means to that end.)

Even as I defend violence in rare instances (notably, W.W.II), I recognize that it falls far short of Christ’s non-violent ideal. To repeat, Christ’s conduct on Good Friday shows “that only non-violence can ever truly, deeply defeat violence.”

It’s a thought worthy of emphasis at this Easter season. Christians can of course disagree on when violence is justified. But we can never — never! — defend violence enthusiastically.


20 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. 49erDweet
    Apr 08, 2007 @ 03:38:26

    Stephen, I generally agree with your conclusion but not with Sullivan’s assumption vis-a-vis Christ’s non-violence. I believe scripture is fairly clear that during this time Jesus was (reluctantly) obedient to His Father’s wishes, and out of love and duty forced himself to be used this way to docilely carry out God’s salvation plan, patiently undergoing the horror and travail leading to his crucifixion and ultimate resurrection.

    In my view although his behavior was non-violent, or pacifist if you will, I believe it’s clear he struggled mightily with himself to allow the process to go forward. So to use this example as substantiation for this particular principle is somewhat disingenuous. It is just not clear enough, and (we’ve talked about this before, haven’t we?) when he angrily overturned tables and evicted the (merchants) from the tabernacle it sure seemed to smack of a least a little bit of violence. But it might just be me.

    At any rate, celebrate! He is Risen!


  2. Stephen
    Apr 08, 2007 @ 10:22:15

    I was trying to avoid turning this into a theological debate. I indicated that I am not a pacifist, and I added, “Christians can of course disagree on when violence is justified.”

    Do you disagree with my bottom line, that Christians can never be enthusiastic about resorting to violence? It seemed like a modest assertion to me.

    Since you’ve effectively asked me to defend my theological position, here are a few observations.

    First, I don’t see the relevance of Jesus wrestling with his destiny at Gethsemane. Was he pleased by the prospect of public execution by torture? No. Should we conclude that he would have preferred to resort to violence? No. Reluctance to suffer does not equal a desire to commit violence.

    Second, with respect to Jesus’ philosophy, allow me to list a few relevant scriptures.

    • Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. … Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when others 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 so they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (Mt. 5:5-12)

    • You have heard that it was said, An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. …

    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 sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. … You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Mt. 5:38-48)

    • Then they came up and laid hands on Jesus and seized him. And behold, one of those who were with Jesus stretched out his hand and drew his sword and struck the servant of the high priest and cut off his ear. Then Jesus said to him, Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword. (Mt. 26:50-52)

    Finally, you point out that there is another thread of New Testament teaching to be considered. Jesus forcefully drove the moneychangers out of the temple, according to John’s Gospel. But did he actually harm anyone? And what was his motivation — self-preservation? Love of country? The scripture says it was zeal for God’s house. What kind of precedent does that set for the political realm?

    Can you imagine Jesus torturing anyone? I can’t. I have argued elsewhere, at length, that the doctrine of hell as a place of eternal torment is a misreading of the New Testament.

    But I concede, inevitably my liberal theology comes into play here. The New Testament teaches that one day God will establish perfect justice. The author of Revelation imagined that Jesus would accomplish this by mounting a warhorse and violently destroying God’s enemies.

    To be blunt, I repudiate the theology of Revelation. But even if Revelation is right, it provides little precedent for Christians to utilize violence. “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord” is the controlling text here. Christians are called to the standard of the sermon on the mount:

    Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. … Repay no one evil for evil …. Never avenge yourselves …. To the contrary, if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink …. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:14-21)

    Whether violence is permissible in the political realm is a matter of honest disagreement between Christians. But I maintain, at the very least, that Christians cannot be enthusiastically violent.

    It grieves me that I am forced to defend the proposition to a fellow Christian. It is hard to celebrate Easter in an era when the U.S. President turns to Christians to support his policy of violence.


  3. 49erDweet
    Apr 09, 2007 @ 01:35:13

    Stephen, it was Sullivan’s opinion I was challenging, not yours! Please forgive me for being unclear, and vexing you on this glorious day. My reading is, like yours, the evidence is absolutely clear Christians should never enjoy resorting to violence. Never. “Peace” is always preferable – if it is attainable. The rub, of course, is in peace’s definition and details.

    Other than that, we have no need – in my view – to extend this.

    Query: Were you able to view any of CNN’s program this evening entitled “What would Jesus REALLY do”? Caught the last 12 minutes of it awhile ago and was stunned (and delighted) to see what I saw on – of all networks – CNN. I’m tivoing a repeat of it later tonight and will review it tomorrow to recheck my first impression. But what I saw late in the show was surprisingly pretty “spot on”, I thought.

    Again, apologies for grieving you.


  4. Stephen
    Apr 09, 2007 @ 13:07:05


    I’m not sure what distinction you’re making between Sullivan’s opinion and mine. I don’t disagree with anything he said, and like me he disavows absolute pacifism in his original post.

    But don’t sweat it. I think I overreacted, probably because I’ve dwelt too much on the depressing topic of torture the last few days.


  5. unitedcats
    Apr 09, 2007 @ 21:17:49

    While there are times when the use of violence is debatable, I would argue that the non violent response is always the moral high ground. I am reminded of the famous pacifist in WW1, when asked what he would do if he saw a German soldier raping his sister…he responded “I would try to get between them.” Non violence does not mean non resisting. BB —Doug


  6. Dominic Frontera
    Mar 22, 2008 @ 14:00:28

    What some view as a non-voilent way of dealing with the crucifixion is in reality that Christ endured the cross, despised the shame, and sit at the right hand of the Father(Heb 12:2). This was the joy set before Him, to please the Father. Christ endured all the evil that man inflicted on Him. This is the sin that was imputed onto Him, and we receive His righteousness.


  7. Zayna
    Mar 22, 2008 @ 14:25:15

    To me, my relationship with Jesus has nothing to do with what He may have been, done or condoned.

    It is about how I feel when I think about Him, when I talk to Him and when I believe in Him.

    I just think that arguing semantics and fretting over other people’s accounts only diminishes your personal relationship with Him.

    Is Jesus just an ideal or is He an entity to whom we can personally communicate with?


  8. Stephen
    Mar 22, 2008 @ 19:19:07

    Hi, Zayna.

    I don’t want to disparage your faith, or anyone else’s. I realize a lot of Christians take the very approach that you’ve described, and it isn’t my place to pass judgment.

    But Gibson’s movie is in a different category: it’s a public proclamation of the Gospel — at least, that’s what it purports to be. Therefore I think it’s legitimate to subject Gibson’s depiction to public debate: to ask whether he got the message right.

    Consider that Jesus can be used as a symbol, as a way of resisting or promoting a particular public policy. Thus it becomes important to consider whether the Jesus of history was a pacifist. If Jesus was a pacifist, then Christians might think twice about supporting their government when said government engages in war after war after war.

    Let me offer an important example (of a different sort) from recent history. Bible scholars, for many generations, diminished the Jewishness of Jesus. He became, in their depiction of him, an opponent of the Jewish religion. This was certainly true of German scholars, who have been the most influential Bible scholars in the world since the Protestant Reformation. (At least, within the Protestant Church, they have.)

    Germany was ostensibly a Christian nation. Yet, when the Nazis came to power, they scarcely hesitated to scapegoat and exterminate the Jews. This is hard to comprehend, if one understands that the Jesus of history was, in fact, a Jew to the day of his death. How can the followers of a Jew persecute the Jews?

    As a result of this tragic history, scholars (in Germany and elsewhere) began to acknowledge that Jesus was a Jew, whatever else one might say about him.

    When it comes to public statements, Jesus shouldn’t be reduced to our personal experience of him. It matters who the historical Jesus was, and what he stood for. That’s fundamental to my understanding of the Christian faith.

    On the public policy issue of war-making vs. peace-making, Sullivan begins where I would: with the sermon on the mount. There Jesus counselled us to turn the other cheek, bless our enemies, and rejoice when we’re persecuted. Jesus’ teachings were the source of the idea of non-violent resistance championed by Tolstoy, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, Jr.

    Or, way back in the first century, of St. Paul’s policy: overcome evil by doing good. That’s the public policy issue that this post was intended to address.


  9. Zayna
    Mar 23, 2008 @ 20:32:20

    Thanks Stephen,

    I do not see your response as the least bit depreciating.

    Having not even seen the movie, the subject in question, I probably should have just kept my nose out of it.

    I guess in the end it comes down to my feeling my way through this stuff instead of thinking my way through it. 😛

    But I do love your blog and find it very interesting…despite not being very well informed of the issues at hand.

    It’s a learning experience and I appreciate your patience.


  10. Amy
    Mar 29, 2008 @ 22:06:31

    I Loved that movie. It is the first time that anyone has even come close to showing what Jesus did for us.
    I think that we as Christians should suport it.

    As the director of the movie Mels view is the only one that he could produce.

    While watching the movie all that I could think about was what amazing love Jesus must have for us to endure that torment. Yes it is partly about the violence. It has to be there for us to realize what he went through for us. The cost of our sin.

    I do agree however that Christians should take a non-violent way of life. That is what the Bible teaches.

    I don’t agree that the movie was based on this idea. It wasn’t about him not fighting back. This had to happen for us to come to the Father. And he knew that.


  11. Louche
    Sep 06, 2008 @ 22:45:38

    This is a beautiful post. Thank you.

    I watched The Passion of the Christ, as a non-Christian, and did not have much appreciation for it. I did not learn anything from it and had no idea whether or not it was historically accurate. This makes me sad because I know now and especially after reading this page that Jesus was a great man, but certainly not after watching that movie. I am sure that for many, as for you, this movie was meaningful, but as you say, it was meaningless to others.

    “Can you imagine Jesus torturing anyone? I can’t. I have argued elsewhere, at length, that the doctrine of hell as a place of eternal torment is a misreading of the New Testament.”

    This is perhaps the most powerful statement out of the whole discussion, for me, simply because it is the whole conception of Hell that made me hate Christianity growing up. To be told I was going to Hell to burn eternally was reviling to me, was in itself Hell – it is not merely the act of someone telling me so, but also the hatred with which they said it that led to hatred in me.

    Only when I met kind and loving Christians did I begin to question my horror at this religion. So I absolutely agree – only when the violent meet non-violence will they realize a better way. Christ was not just suffering for “us” the people alive now – he was enduring that pain even for those who tortured him, to show them another way. Unfortunately, they also didn’t hear the Gospel. I also agree that non-violence always has the moral high ground. A particular violence may be better than another particular violence, but it will never be better than non-violence. As soon as you advocate violence, you have ceased to advocate non-violence. Of *course* in the world of Hitler violence was the response – because Hitler’s world was a violent one to begin with. No doubt however, humankind had first to go through a stage of “war for peace” before being able to cross the threshold from war to peace, because humankind only knew war to begin with. But the greatest being, like Jesus, is already past that threshold. Jesus is the role-model of humankind for that reason. We as individuals should attempt above all to follow in the footsteps of one so great rather than arguing over whether or not violence is okay in some other circumstance.

    Zayna – I think it’s great that you follow your emotions and your personal relationship with Jesus. However, I also think it’s great to address the matter from an intellectual side – your response to this discussion was intellectual rather than emotional. In any case, I certainly did not feel your emotions. In Buddhism, we say there is more than one meaning of the word Buddha – the historical Buddha (who we study to understand why we are following his teaching!) and the living Buddha, which is the Buddha within us or the Buddha that can be attained in this life by anyone. As Jesus said, “the kingdom of God is within you,” so I think that there is also a living Jesus. As you say. But you need the different teachings – I think the important thing about the historical Jesus or Buddha is that we can learn and turn this into a living kingdom of God. Why can’t we have a personal relationship with Scripture?


  12. Louche
    Sep 06, 2008 @ 22:55:27

    Oh, I also wanted to say that Jesus did not have the capacity to share the Word with the Romans, but Mel Gibson did have the capacity to share it with us. What an oversight!


  13. Stephen
    Sep 07, 2008 @ 08:20:21

    Thanks for the thoughtful response to my post. I’m so glad that you got past your early impression of Christians, and learned to appreciate us better.

    In Buddhism, we say there is more than one meaning of the word Buddha – the historical Buddha (who we study to understand why we are following his teaching!) and the living Buddha, which is the Buddha within us or the Buddha that can be attained in this life by anyone.

    Popular Christianity doesn’t think explicitly about the issue you raise here, but theologians are certainly alert to it.

    For discussion purposes, theologians distinguish between “the Jesus of history” and “the Christ of faith”. Exactly what the relation should be between those two constructs is a matter of great controversy.

    There must surely be some continuity between them, but must the Christ of faith be absolutely identical to the Jesus of history? As the centuries pass, can the Christ of faith be understood in ways that may be in conflict with the Jesus of the Gospels? And what if an event in the Gospels is shown to be unhistorical — does that in any way diminish the Christ of faith?

    Popular Christianity doesn’t think about such questions, but in practice most Christians are not much interested in the “quest of the historical Jesus”. They care almost exclusively about the Christ of faith — the living Jesus within us.

    The problem is, the Christ of popular faith seems to approve of guns, war and torture in a way that the historical Jesus would manifestly not — at least, not in my reading of the Gospels.


  14. Louche
    Sep 13, 2008 @ 21:31:07

    Thanks for replying, Stephen. Since this is kind of off-topic, I’m going to make my argument brief: There is no way to Jesus; Jesus is the way.



  15. Kishore Kosala
    Oct 01, 2008 @ 14:19:43

    Certainly the discussions are interesting. This will help us to understand the Jesus of the History, the Jew, who had certainly a different goal than what we have understood or what the theologians have made us to understand. We have to find it and the apply in our lives and in our society to be real followers of “JESUS”. The question comes to mind: Who was really Jesus? Do we really understand him?
    As long as we see any difference between one another, we have to continue the search.


  16. Sue
    Nov 14, 2008 @ 01:32:54

    The Black Adder said all that needs to be said in response to Sullivans nonsense—UTTER CRAPP!

    The truth of the matter is that the said film was a sado-masochistic snuff/splatter film—and nothing less.

    As though the brutal beating/torture of a human being has anything to do with Truth, Love or The Beautiful.

    If you saw such a film without your ding-bat Christian background you would be truly horrified and brutalised just by sitting through it.

    Just as you would be if you witnessed such an event in real liviing-breathing-FEELING life.

    Anybody for STRANGE FRUIT hanging from a tree in southern white USA!

    But somehow you have been propagandized to be comfortably numb in the face of such un-relenting sado-masochistic violence.


  17. Stephen
    Nov 16, 2008 @ 09:32:47

    Sue, you’ve missed the point of Sullivan’s post. He says, “the film failed profoundly as a Christian movie.” Which means, he agrees with you.


  18. Darrin
    Jan 15, 2009 @ 10:37:44

    I Googled Passion of the Christ this morning because I wanted to see Jesus and keep Him in my mind today.

    Wow. I am so sorry to see some of these comments.

    My first thought – The film failed? – um, does this person have a pulse?

    The only thing that has failed is people eyes to see and ears to hear.

    I beg anyone reading this to dare God if he’s there, and the Passion is true, then to show himself. Do it intimately without anyone knowing and see what happens.


  19. Stephen
    Jan 15, 2009 @ 19:27:41

    Andrew Sullivan is a Christian. He doesn’t need to ask God to prove that God exists. Sullivan already knows; he already believes.

    Sullivan has a grasp of the Gospel that Mel Gibson evidently lacks. Yes, the film fails: a graphic recreation of the brutality the Romans inflicted upon Jesus is not an account of the Gospel. It’s missing something vital — the resurrection, for one thing!


  20. billarends
    Jan 19, 2009 @ 15:42:38

    Darin said:
    “I beg anyone reading this to dare God if he’s there, and the Passion is true, then to show himself. Do it intimately without anyone knowing and see what happens.”

    Interesing Idea, and I am sure Darin expects that God will in some way reveal himself, for those that have “eyes to see and ears to hear”

    The problem is that “eyes to see and ears to hear”
    refers to understanding not a manifestation or miracle. That is not to say that miracles do not happen, but locking yourself in a room and expecting God to reveal himself to you is not what he wants. this tempting of God even Jesus said was wrong.”It is said, Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God. (Luke 4:12 ACP/KJV) ”

    Understanding is the miracle here not magic or mysticism.

    “So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit which is from God, that we might understand the gifts bestowed on us by God. And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who possess the Spirit. The unspiritual man does not receive the gifts of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.” (1 Corinthians 2:11-14 RSV)


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