Jesus and Non-Violence

Reprinted from The Common Good, No 29, Lent 2004
by Emmanuel Charles McCarthy

Law students are taught that ‘anything can be argued’ and are trained in the methodology necessary for persuasively arguing any side of any issue. Lawyers, of course, are not unique in developing such skills. This ‘sickness of language,’ as it is termed by Thomas Merton, presently infects all forms of communication. It is the contaminated lifeblood of military and ‘intelligence’ propaganda machines, politicians, advertisers, corporate journalists, academic mandarins and used car salesmen, to name but a few. Conjectures, grammar, rhetoric, logic, irrelevancies, omissions, half-truths and sometimes known falsehoods are jumbled together in such a way as to validate or invalidate, to confuse or castrate or ‘viagratize’ any idea, as the needs of the self may call for. Truth is ‘mobile,’ as mobile as the dollar bill.

It is perhaps an unfortunate fact of life that New Testament scholars, individually and collectively, are as disposed as any other group to the temptation ‘to argue anything’ that is within their individual or collective self-interest to espouse. Biblical scholar Gerhard Kittel and the illustrious pro-Nazi philosopher Martin Heidegger are probably the most conspicuous modern examples. In George Orwell’s novel about a fear-ridden, high-tech national security state, Nineteen Eighty-Four, he coins a word, ‘doublethink.’ It is a new word but a hoary activity. It means the acceptance as true of contradictory ideas at the same time. In Nineteen Eighty-Four there is hardly a scholar or scrubwoman to be found who would not argue with zest on behalf of the Party’s three slogans: ‘War is Peace. Freedom is Slavery. Ignorance is Strength.’ And, in today’s Churches how many de facto doublethinkers are there on the issues of violence and nonviolence, enmity and Christic love, sword and cross, Caesar and Christ? Debating whether air exists or not can be for a moment an invigorating cognitive workout, much, as say, toying with a Rubik’s cube. One may also try to respond rationally to the presentation that ‘air does not exist’ in order to be courteous to the person who is advocating such a position. But, outside of gamesmanship and etiquette, the never-ending slicing and dicing of concepts in order to deny the obvious is a crafty ploy. Arguing over what there is nothing to argue over is a stratagem of evasion. It is a scheme for drowning out truth under wave after incessant wave of chimerical polemics. The Aquinas dictum, ‘contra factum non argumentum est’ (there is no argument against fact), is brushed aside in favor of a cornucopia of specious speculations. Spurious hypothesizing is the intellectual scoundrel’s last bastion of defense against unwanted truth. Doubt gives birth to indecisiveness, fence straddling, hesitancy, and an overall undermining of the ability of the will to choose. Doubt is good and proper if there is a well-grounded basis for doubt. Without this basis the sowing of doubt is either mental illness or a gambit to decoy people away from truth and its offspring, resoluteness. There is much to be genuinely debated in New Testament studies, but the nonviolence of Jesus and His Way of nonviolent love of friends and enemies is not on the list. Arguing over the unarguable is not what New Testament scholarship in the Twenty-First Century should be contributing to the life of the Church and the life of humanity. If what Gandhi says about Christians being the only people on earth who do not see Jesus as nonviolent is accurate, imagine what the non-Christian world thinks of the quality of a New Testament scholarship that cannot state with intellectual confidence that the Jesus of the New Testament and the primitive kerygma is nonviolent and teaches a Way of nonviolent love of friends and enemies.

So, is it any wonder why for the vast majority of people Jesus is an irrelevancy? The reason that Jesus is a non-concern for so many in the world is due to the fact that what the Churches have been proclaiming about Him has so often not been the Gospel. Central to this failure of the Churches to proclaim the Gospel truthfully, clearly and powerfully is their steel-willed refusal to accept what is self-evidently available to any literate person, namely the nonviolence of the Jesus of the New Testament and the primitive kerygma, and His Way of nonviolent love of friends and enemies. These Refusing Churches thereby broadcast an enfeebled and most unattractive mixed message to humanity: ‘Jesus is God, the Savior of the world and the Messiah but you do not have to believe Him when He unequivocally teaches the rejection of violence and the love of enemies.’

The human family is not about to become very excited spiritually over a God whose followers do not even believe He knows what He is talking about on the basic human problems of violence, retaliation and enmity.

Humanity, in its longing to know if God exists and to know God, is not about to be duped by Churches which feel they must resort to linguistic legerdemain in order to get around what they consider God Incarnate’s embarrassingly dopey understanding of the real world and how to live in it. For non-Christians and more than a fair share of Christians the Refusing Churches’ proclamation is spiritually unintelligible and feeble. To announce that Jesus is God Incarnate and then to announce that He does not know of what He speaks when He speaks on the issues of violence and enmity is intrinsically incongruent; it is just plain daffy.

The failure of the Gospel to reach and empower with the Life of Christ-God contemporary humanity should be a concern for anyone who is a Christian. It is not that contemporary humanity is not in crying need of all that Jesus has to offer. It is that the Church created by Jesus in order to make available all that He has to give to humanity, refuses to make it available.

The motivating desire behind this essay is to make the Gospel intelligible and arresting for men and women. The Gospel is a proclamation not a philosophy. It proclaims the awesome act of God in Jesus Christ, which is known only by revelation. This proclamation is meant to make the God event in Jesus perpetually present here and now to human beings across time and space, culture and geography. But, this Jesus is a nonviolent Jesus, who teaches and lives a nonviolent love of enemies and friends.

Is the Way the Redeemer lived, what the Lord taught and how the Anointed One died not integral to ‘the decisive eschatological event’ in Jesus Christ? For the Refusing Churches the nonviolence of Jesus and His Way of nonviolent love of friends and enemies is as inconsequential as the color of his hair.

To herald the saving act of God in Jesus Christ without reference to His nonviolent love of friends and enemies is to fail to herald the Gospel in all its fullness, truth and power. Any human being, including Jesus, is only known, beyond its mere existence or raw being in time and space, through his or her words and deeds. Remove the words and deeds of Jesus and there is no discernibly unique person to know, to love, to serve, to imitate, to hear or to follow. The divinity in Christ is gracefully discovered and encountered by knowing His humanity. What He is reported to have said and what He is reported to have done is the sine qua non for understanding His meaning, purpose and value in the human situation. As the major Catholic moral theologian of the Twentieth Century, Rev. Bernard Haring writes, ‘It is not possible to speak of Christ’s sacrifice while ignoring the role of nonviolence.’ Or, as Rev. Frederick McManus, Professor Emeritus at The Catholic University of America and one of the most influential and scholarly Catholic liturgists of our time, states regarding the Eucharistic anaphora: ‘The centrality of the mission of peace and nonviolence in the Gospels needs to be acknowledged in the confession of the great deeds of God in the Lord Jesus, and the Christian people need to see this essential dimension of Eucharistic peace in the prayer which they confirm and ratify with their Amen.’ A proclamation of a Jesus who, directly or impliedly, justifies violence and enmity by his words and deeds or who has nothing detectable to say on the subject is a pseudo-proclamation. It is a repelling proclamation. It is an anti-proclamation. However, it is the proclamation that the Refusing Churches are adamantly making daily.

The Jesus of the primitive kerygma and the New Testament is also not a content-devoid name or person. He is not a vacuum into which individuals or Churches can shovel whatever they wish and then convert to their own content and herald it to the world as the Gospel. The Jesus of the apostolic kerygma and the New Testament is nonviolent and teaches a Way of nonviolent love of friends and enemies.

Churches, incarnationally unified around the heralding of this tremendous act of Divine Love in the nonviolent Jesus, will be magnets to humanity. Even if Churches are institutionally separated in other ways, if they accept the imperative, ‘to love one another as I have loved you,’ (Jn 15:9-12) that flows from the indicative that Jesus Christ is the nonviolent Divine Savior of the World, who teaches a Way of nonviolent love of friends and enemies, they will be Christic magnets. This they will be because they are proclaiming the Truth of the Nonviolent Word of God from which, in which and for which humanity is created. It is time, indeed it is 1,700 years beyond time, for violence-justifying Christians and Churches to die to themselves and to their cherished private proclamations, so that the nonviolent Jesus Christ of the New Testament can live in them and in those to whom they are called to witness and minister.

Each generation, each Church, each spiritual movement within a Church and each individual Christian has his, her or its own reasons for refusing, distorting or discounting the full Gospel of the nonviolent Jesus and His Way of nonviolent love. However, in the end all the distorting and discounting boil down to one ringing public declaration: ‘Jesus, I don’t trust you.’ No wonder the overwhelming majority of human beings do not take the Jesus of the Refusing Churches or the Refusing Churches seriously – except as institutions of vulgar political and economic power with which they must wheel and deal. And so, it is not so much that the Gospel of the nonviolent Jesus Christ of the primitive kerygma and the New Testament has been proclaimed and refused by most of humanity, it is rather that most of the Churches of Christianity have refused to proclaim it for a long, long time.

After sixty-two years of active Church participation, it is this writer’s conviction that most of the bishops, priests, ministers and congregants of the various Churches are too chained to a violence-enmity justifying Christianity to free themselves from fear of the nonviolent Jesus and His Way of nonviolent love of friends and enemies. The unuttered but stupefying pivotal untruth on which this mendacious mythology relies and which the Refusing Churches propagate hourly is this: The Jesus who does not exist, that we know, is better and safer for us than the Jesus who does exist who we do not know!

It is a second conviction of this writer that in the contemporary world the axial agency for the graceful liberation of the Refusing Churches from their bondages to this sham security mythology is New Testament scholarship. If a substantial majority of New Testament scholars would collectively and publically declare that as the result of their persevering labors in New Testament studies it must be concluded, that it is incontestable that Jesus is nonviolent and that He is totally opposed to the use of violence and enmity for any purpose, then the chains would snap.

From the instant that such a declaration is made no Christian or Church, high or low, high-tech or low-tech, would ever again be able to say without denial of intellect that, ‘Follow Me,’ can include violence and enmity, that deciding for Jesus leaves open the options of violence and enmity. Both the Church and all humanity would be irrevocably changed by such a public pronouncement. All that the society of New Testament scholars can do here is plainly and coherently state what the New Testament and the primitive kerygma graphically and incontrovertibly state about the nonviolent Jesus and His Way of nonviolent love of friends and enemies – and then let the strings of consequences vibrate throughout human consciousness.

If after this declaration Christians and Churches choose to proclaim and practice a ‘gospel’ of justified violence and enmity, they and the world will know that their proclamation and practice is not based on anything that the Jesus of the New Testament and the primitive kerygma ever was, said or did.

Truth cannot be defended by falsehoods or by being unconcerned about falsehoods. Falsehoods are no less falsehoods because they are popular falsehoods or traditional falsehoods. The explicit or implicit scholarly ratification or ecclesiastical canonization of existing popular error by ignoring it or by obfuscating known truth is a dereliction of integrity by the scholar, as well as, by the Church leader. Professional exegetes may have little to say in the Church, but they ought to have the courage to say it. Indeed, where more is intrinsically required and vitally needed from the scholar or the Church leader, silence is perfidious.

Because of space constraints, we have had to hack a lot of good stuff out (nearly half) of this excellent article. If you want the whole thing, please email

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