Awhile back I read a book that was not very good. If I remember the premise correctly, it’s the story of a dude who wakes up as a hostage of some terrorists and has completely forgotten the last year of his life, and somehow comes to the conclusion that serving America is just as important as serving God. There is one passage I recall in particular in which he talks about turning the other cheek. He says you should always avoid a fight, that is, unless you have no other choice, like if someone’s trying to hurt you or infringe upon your freedom.
At first I thought that made a whole lot of sense. Of course I should be allowed to fight back, especially if someone is doing something wrong! But the more I thought about that and tried to synthesize that with what Jesus said in Matthew 5:39, the less sense it actually started to make. Is it really okay to hurt someone if they’re trying to hurt you or someone else, or have provoked you in some other justifiable way? I mean, Jesus never actually gave any exception clauses to the turning the other cheek rule. All he said on the matter was “blessed are the peacemakers” and “if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also” and “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” That’s it.
This bugged me for awhile because I’m the product of a culture that loves violence, and I gleaned much of my masculinity from violence of some sort. I mean, my favorite movie is Braveheart, I have a black belt in Tae Kwon Do, I could play Skyrim for days on end, and I absolutely love stories about warriors fighting for what’s right. I even approached my faith with a warfare-inspired vocabulary and attitude. But the more I came to believe that Jesus really meant what he said and said what he meant (a Messiah is faithful, one hundred percent), the more I realized how untenable my love of violence really was.
It got difficult for me to look at the things Jesus said in regard to people who mistreat you and who you consider to be your enemies because I was forced to deal with some pretty difficult truths. The root of violent retaliation—even in cases which seem justifiable to most people—is almost always selfishness or, if you prefer something a little nicer, self-defense or self-preservation. However, it becomes very difficult to love your enemies when you are your own primary concern, doesn’t it? So either Jesus had no idea what it was like to have people dislike and mistreat you (and let’s try to remember who was tortured and crucified by his enemies) or he was calling us to some pretty radical stuff. As you have probably guessed, I contend the latter.
I am now at the point where I truly believe Jesus was advocating for nonviolence with no (or at least shockingly few) exceptions or equivocations. I know this is probably an unpopular opinion, but frankly nonviolence just makes sense to me. Our world is already so crippled by violence, and more often than not we seek to heal the wounds caused by violence with even more violence. But if Jesus came to establish an upside-down kingdom, then you would expect him to tell us to just knock it off with the violence already, because it has yet to fix anything and probably never will. See, the intent of violent retaliation is to overcome the initial perpetrator, whereas the intent of nonviolent nonresistance is to overcome the evil deed of violence while still valuing the humanity of the perpetrator. Therefore, violence (generally) burns bridges while nonviolence (ideally) maintains them.
So where did this totally unbiblical (from my point of view) exception clause which allows violence in certain cases come from? How did we get to the point where, as the band Showbread would say, “turn the other cheek succumbs to preemptive strike?” I don’t know for sure, but I have an idea.
As Americans, we hold very dearly to what we perceive to be our God-given rights. We have the right to vote, the right to free speech, the right to bear arms, the right to pursue happiness, the right to religious assembly, the right to personal opinion, the right to get mine and keep mine, and we’ll be damned if anyone tries to take those rights away from us. But when we turn the other cheek—no matter what the circumstances—we have to give up our rights freely, even if it seems wrong or unfair. And I just don’t think we’re comfortable with that. To us, that feels like we’re giving up part of our identity as Americans.
But I think if we’re truly citizens of that upside-down kingdom Jesus came talking about, we’ll gladly give up our rights as Americans so that “thy kingdom come, thy will be done on Earth as it is in heaven.” At this point in my life, I’m ready to do that. The world has already had its fill of violence; I can’t see how my enacting any more will do anyone anywhere any good. I’m desperate for that nonviolent kingdom to get here, and if I want any hope of seeing it, the change has to start with me.
I’m not naïve though. I am well aware that there are some very difficult issues with nonviolence, and I’m sure some of you will have qualms with what I have posited here. Below I will try to preempt some of those qualms with a self-imposed question-and-answer period. I may not be able to answer everything perfectly, but hopefully I will provide some sort of thoughtful rebuttal to sustain a dialogue.
Q: Doesn’t being nonviolent nonresistant make you a sissy?
A: Yeah, maybe. If you think Jesus was a sissy.
Q: So if I’m not supposed to “resist an evil person,” does that mean I should just let someone hit me over and over and over and over? Or should I just stand and watch by while they beat the living daylights out of someone else?
A: I’m going to do what many writers do when asked a difficult question: quote somebody else. I’m going to quote from a blog post by Greg Boyd (the full post can be found here) in which he states:
“We are not to ‘resist an evil person.’ The Greek word here (anthisteimi) does not imply doing nothing. It rather forbids responding in kind to an offense. When an “evil person” uses violence against us or our loved ones, we may certainly do all we can to stop him, except use violence. Refusing to use violence when it’s deemed necessary is of course contrary to common sense. And everything about this passage is contrary to common sense. Yet, this is what makes following Jesus radical, distinctive, beautiful — and profoundly difficult!”
I would also like to provide a personal example here. In my job as a youth mental health case manager, I frequently work with youth who become violent toward myself or others. During those times, I’ve been punched, kicked, bitten, head-butted, scratched, spit on, etc. My job requires that I intervene in these situations, and we are carefully trained in nonviolent crisis intervention to defuse such situations. This allows us to provide safety and teach the child that the violent behavior is unacceptable. For me to respond violently to these situations would be simply unconscionable, but that does not require me to remain passive. Intervention does not require retaliation.
So in answer to this question, no, you don’t have to keep taking abuse after abuse. You don’t have to just do nothing. However, resorting to violence is not the appropriate way to solve the problem either. Yeah, that’s right. You might have to put on your thinking cap and get a little creative.
Q: Does this mean you don’t support our troops?
A. By no means! In fact, I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for our troops! Both my grandfathers served in the military, my dad served in the military for twenty years, my sister served in the military for like four and a half seconds, and my brother-in-law currently serves in our military. I appreciate everything our servicemen and women have done to protect our nation. While I may not be in favor of everything that has been done during war times—and I am certainly not a fan of war—I do understand that our nation’s leaders and military have acted based upon what they believe to be of the greatest good to our people. I am just grateful that I will never have to be put in a situation where I must make such difficult decisions.
Q: What about if someone broke into your house and was going to shoot your wife and kids?
A. First off, how often does that actually happen? And secondly, for the sake of the cases where this actually has occurred, I would again like to defer to Greg Boyd. He puts it so well in this video that even trying to paraphrase it would do it no proper justice.
Q: Does this mean you want to just let violent people off the hook?
A. Nah, I definitely believe in restorative (not retributive) justice. I just don’t think it’s my job to dish it out, and certainly not to respond violently to violence. That’s like a parent hitting their child to teach the child that it’s not okay to hit people.
Q: How do we stop ISIS then?
A: No idea, dude. Again, I’m glad I’m not the one to make those decisions.
Q: Did you stop watching violent movies and reading books about medieval warfare?
A: Nope. Even though I put little stock in violence as a viable source of healthy conflict resolution, I do think stories of war can be used to teach values such as camaraderie, courage, integrity, and so forth. Plus, movies like 300: Rise of an Empire are just plain awesome.
So that’s that. My intent with this article was not necessarily to sway you over to my line of thinking, but to at least get you thinking about the issue and perhaps start a dialogue about it. After all, I’m still trying to figure everything out for myself as well. That’s why you’ll notice the title of this article is Why I Might Be a Nonviolent Nonresistant Pacifist and not Why I Am a Nonviolent Nonresistant Pacifist. And, like I always say, if you like what I said or absolutely hate it, let me know so we can talk about it.