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The Church and Nonviolence

Posted by Erin Bechtol

By John Dear, Oct. 7, 2017 // Given at a recent nonviolence conference in San Diego

I see the church as the global community of followers of Jesus; and since Jesus was perfectly nonviolent and taught and commanded active nonviolence, the church is therefore the community of active nonviolence. For 1700 years the church has rejected the nonviolence of Jesus and betrayed him, but today, we are in a Kairos moment and waking up to his nonviolence. This is the most hopeful, important work for the Church and the world. So I’ll say a few words about Jesus, nonviolence, the just war theory, and the church.

Gandhi called Jesus the most active practitioner of nonviolence in the history of the world, and if that is true, then every follower of Jesus has to become nonviolent and work for a new nonviolent world as he did. In the Sermon on the Mount, he commands nonviolence: “You have heard it said an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth but I say offer no violent resistance to one who does evil.” In a world of permanent war and total violence, this is the starting point for Christians. Tolstoy spent the last 25 years of his life preaching that one verse. Gandhi read it every day for the last 45 years of his life. We have to start taking it seriously too. Then Jesus says, “You have heard it said, love your countrymen and hate your enemies, but I say love your enemies and pray for your persecutors then you will be sons and daughters of the God who lets the sun rise on the good and the bad and the rain to fall on the just and the unjust.”

Notice he does not say: “However, if they are really bad, and you follow these 7 conditions, bomb the hell out of them.” Notice too that in this the most political sentence in the entire bible, which not only outlaws war and killing but commands universal nonviolent love, Jesus describes the nature of God as totally nonviolent. These two teachings are the key to discipleship, the church, peace and the future of humanity.

Jesus organizes a campaign of nonviolence, like a nonviolent military campaign, like Gandhi’s Salt March, and sends 72 people ahead of him, saying, “I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves.” He leads a grassroots nonviolent movement that seeks to disarm and heal and welcome God’s peace.  He marches to Jerusalem, walks into the Temple, the center of systemic injustice, and turns over the tables of the moneychangers in nonviolent civil disobedience. He doesn’t hurt anyone, kill anyone, or bomb anyone, but he is not passive. He takes direct nonviolent action and accepts the consequences. This is the normative behavior of Christians. Christians do not kill; they take nonviolent action to stop the killing and injustice.

That’s all well and good, you say, but sometimes you just got to kill people. No. We have been commanded to be nonviolent. Everyone is redeemable; nonviolence works; wars can be ended. We can overcome evil through organized goodness; we never overcome evil through greater evil. The means are the ends; those who live by the sword die by the sword. Nonviolence is our only practical political solution left.

In the upper room, he takes the bread and says “My body broken for you.” He takes the cup and says, “My blood shed for you.” If he were a good American he should have said, “Go break their bodies for me; go shed their blood for me.” No, “My body broken for you, my blood shed for you, do this.” This is the new covenant of nonviolence, the methodology of Jesus.

Then, he’s in Gethsemani, here come the soldiers, and Peter realizes he’s about to be arrested, and Peter thinks, “We’ve got to protect our guy.” He thinks: “If there was ever a just war in human history, if violence was ever divinely sanctioned in all of history—this is the moment,” and he’s right. As he takes up the sword to kill, the commandment comes down, “Put down the sword.” Dear friends, these are the last words of Jesus to the church before he was killed; it’s the last thing they heard him say; and it’s the first time they understood how serious he is about nonviolence, so they all run away, and abandon him.

So Jesus is arrested and mocked and tortured by six hundred drunken soldiers, and never once retaliates or even gets angry. Anyone can kill or drop a bomb; the nonviolent Jesus was the bravest, most courageous person who ever lived. As he is executed, he practices perfect nonviolence till the end, saying, “The violence stops here in my body. You are forgiven, but from now on, you are not allowed to kill.” God affirms his nonviolent life and raises him from the dead.

Resurrection means having nothing to do with death, having not a drop of violence in you. The military uses death as a social methodology and brings good people to death; the Church knows that in the light of the resurrection of the nonviolent Jesus, death does not get the last word; that we would prefer to undergo death than inflict it on anyone; and that our attitude is that of the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay who said, “I shall die but that is all I shall do for death.” We know that in the resurrection, our survival is already guaranteed, so we announce that the days of war and killing are coming to an end. If we want to be people of resurrection, we have to renounce death and practice active nonviolence.

Nonviolence is a tactic and strategy, but it’s also a spiritual path and a way of life, but it’s also the fundamental characteristic of discipleship to Jesus and it’s also a positive methodology of social change and it’s also power, the power of God given to us to disarm the world, more powerful than all the militaries and bombs combined. Through nonviolence we try to be nonviolent to ourselves; nonviolent to every person we meet; nonviolent to everyone on earth, every creature, and mother Earth itself; and join the global grassroots movement of nonviolence to disarm the planet, and bring justice and peace.

Active nonviolence holds that we are all one, all equal sisters and brothers, all children of the God of peace, already reconciled, already united. We renounce violence, seek the truth of our common unity; non-cooperate with and resist systemic violence and injustice; and persistently reconcile with everyone and practice unconditional, all-inclusive, non-retaliatory, universal love—with one condition: there is no cause however noble for which we support the killing of a single human being. We do not kill people; we do not kill people who kill people to show that killing people is wrong. We work to end the killings; to educate everyone in nonviolence; to institutionalize nonviolent conflict resolution and to work for a new culture of nonviolence.

So for the Christian, there is no such thing as a just war. War is never justified. War is never blessed. War is the mortal sin. War always leads to further wars. Jesus does not teach us how to kill or wage war, but how to love and wage peace, how to be nonviolent and resist evil, how to pray and suffer and die gracefully. For the Christian, the just war theory is blasphemy, heresy.

So Christians and Catholics should no longer serve in any military in the world, or participate in violence, injustice or war. You cannot be a Christian, a follower of the nonviolent Jesus, and serve in the military. Christians and Catholics are called to practice active nonviolence, end war and the causes of war, and build a new culture of peace and nonviolence.

We’re all addicted to violence; the church is like a global 12 step meeting, where we confess our violence, turn to our higher power, pledge to become sober people of nonviolence, make amends for our wars, and start a new sober life of nonviolence. It does interventions to help nations become sober people of nonviolence.

The military trains professional killers; the church is supposed to train professional people of Gospel nonviolence. The Church calls people to quit the military, as Archbishop Romero did, and urges them not to join the military, but to resist war and militarism, and make peace and practice nonviolence, and to work for the abolition of war and nuclear weapons and poverty and the coming of God’s reign of nonviolence here on earth.

This is why, Cardinal Turkson, we urgently need Pope Francis to issue a new encyclical calling for the global return to the nonviolence of Jesus, for the end of the just war theory, for the institutionalization of nonviolence in the global church and the world itself, so that we can get on with the most important mission God has given us: the abolition of war itself, and preparation for the coming of God’s reign of nonviolence and peace on earth.

Thank you.


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