The Nonviolence of Humility

The need to be meek and humble advocates for peace and justice has been on my mind lately. As disciples of Jesus, we care deeply about the pain of individuals and the injustice of corrupt systems. Consistent with the way of Jesus, we must work from a place of love and peace, not hatred and resentment. I would hate to develop a hardened spirit that was bent on changing the world in a way that actually pushed away the subtle power of God’s Holy Spirit. When the latter rain falls (and before), I want to be open to God’s love and innervation, and not be focused merely on my own narrow agenda.

That is, I don’t want to be right about politics, sociology, and theology and yet self-righteously and self-confidently lose contact with Jesus. As Ron Sider, the founder of Evangelicals for Social Action,i puts it: “I’m not a social activist. I’m a disciple of Jesus Christ, the Savior and Lord of the universe.”ii

Yes, we do get angry at injustice, but rather than growing hard, cynical and vindictive, the emotion breaks us and makes able to love more deeply. As Stanley Hauerwas said at a peace conference I attended last summer, anger is an important component of virtue. We see this lived out in the life of Jesus when the religious leaders revealed their valuation of institutions and rules as more important than people. The leaders attempted to trap Jesus regarding the Sabbath, seeing if he would heal a man with a withered or injured hand. The leaders’ disregard for this person made Jesus angry (Mark 3:5), and Jesus responded to this anger by compassionately restoring the hand. “Jesus’ anger leads to an act of healing and restoration. His anger…increases the peace of the world. It leads to this good deed that makes things better.”iii

We also see a physicality to Jesus’ mission when he overturned tables and drove the merchants and animals from the temple area. Jesus harmed no one. His nonviolent direct action had its desired effect, but it did not frighten children—they were soon praising God (Matt. 21:12-16).

In comparison, we know that as the love of most grows cold (Matt. 24:12), many who desire justice will be drawn to work in ways that are beyond the scope of God’s love. For instance, I have a lot of sympathy with Adbuster’s consumerist social critique. Yet quotes like this demonstrate a willingness to promote their goals in ways that are inconsistent with Jesus:

“Don’t speak to me of revolution until you are ready to eat rats to survive.” Quotes like this one from the Last Poets make me wonder how effective the use of nonviolence really is. In the US and elsewhere, the “progressive left” seem to be practicing “comfort zone politics.” I, for one, seriously doubt that we can win a war against imperialism without the use of armed resistance. We can’t have one without the other. Nonviolence has its place, but the use of self-defense against the state—in the form of violence—shouldn’t be discounted. Our forests are being destroyed, our babies have high levels of lead and mercury in their system before they’re even born, war has become a common part of life. When are we going to take action and truly stop this disease called civilization? I am one—and there are others—who is ready to eat rats to survive…iv

This approach is what Ted Roszak has warned against.

I despair to see so many radicals turn to violence as a proof of their militancy and commitment. It is heart-breaking to see all the old mistakes being made all over again. The usual pattern seems to be that people give nonviolence two weeks to solve their problem…and then decide it has “failed.” Then they go on with violence for the next hundred years…and it seems never to “fail” and be rejected.v

Professor John D. Rich, Jr., also calls Christians to take nonviolence seriously. Rich advocates for creative reinterpretations of the actions performed by the prophets and by Jesus. “Those of us who are followers of this Jesus I am presenting here, need to get real and plan out symbolic actions which expose the injustices which pain our hearts.”vi To this end, Rich gives the following homework:

Read your Bible. Specifically, read the prophets and the synoptic Gospels, and ask yourself the following questions:

  1. What is the societal problem the protagonist is railing against?
  2. What is the analogous problem in the United States today?
  3. What is the tactic the protagonist uses to expose the problem?
  4. What would this tactic look like in the United States today? Where would we commit our symbolic action? What would we do? Are there any props that are necessary to make it work? What would we say?

To conclude, in our efforts to faithfully follow the nonviolence of Jesus,vii we know we will be angry at times and we just might turn over some tables, but we are centered in love and humility, not pride and coercive power. We are committed to Jesus, not merely a social theory or agenda. Rather than place ourselves outside His mission and disqualify us for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, we are expectant that our efforts for the poor, marginalized, and oppressed will be blessed with God’s Spirit as we come to know God more (Jer. 9:23-24; 22:16). Even so, come Lord Jesus!

ii Ronald J. Sider, I am Not a Social Activist: Making Jesus the Agenda (2008), 21.

iii Rob Bell, Nooma: Store (2007).

iv Nicholas Guer, Adbusters (Jan/Feb 2006).

v Colman McCarthy, ed., Strength through Peace: The Ideas and People of Nonviolence, 1.

vi John D. Rich, Jr., “Nonviolent Strategies for the 21st Century,” Jesus Radicals (2 Aug 2011), http://www.jesusradicals.com/nonviolent-strategies-for-the-21st-century/.

vii See Walter Wink, “Christian Nonviolence,” ZNet (17 Dec 2004), http://www.zcommunications.org/christian-nonviolence-by-walter-wink.

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