|Beyond Just War and Pacifism: Jesus' Nonviolent Way
by Walter Wink
[Dr Walter Wink is Professor of Biblical Interpretation
at Auburn Theological Seminary in
The new reality Jesus proclaimed was nonviolent. That much is clear, not just from the Sermon on the Mount, but his entire life and teaching and, above all, the way he faced his death. His was not merely a tactical or pragmatic nonviolence seized upon because nothing else would have worked against the Roman empire's near monopoly on violence. Rather, he saw nonviolence as a direct corollary of the nature of God and of the new reality emerging in the world from God. In a verse quoted more than any other from the New Testament during the church's first four centuries, Jesus taught that God loves everyone, and values all, even those who make themselves God's enemies. We are therefore to do likewise (Matt. 5:45; cf. Luke 6:35). The Reign of God, the peaceable Kingdom, is (despite the monarchical terms) an order in which the inequity, violence, and male supremacy characteristic of dominator societies are superseded. Thus nonviolence is not just a means to the Kingdom of God; it is a quality of the Kingdom itself. Those who live nonviolently are already manifesting the transformed reality of the divine order now, even under the conditions of what I call the Domination System.
The idea of nonviolent resistance was not new. The Hebrew midwives, the Greek tragedians, and Jainism. Buddhism, Hinduism, Lao-Tzu, and Judaism were all to various degrees conversant with nonviolence as a way of life and, in some cases, even as a tactic of social change. What was new was the early church's inference from Jesus' teaching that nonviolence is the only way, that war itself must be renounced. The idea of peace and the more general rejection of violence can be found before Christianity and in other cultures, says Peter Brock, but nowhere else do we find practical anti-militarism leading to the refusal of military service.
When, beginning with the emperor Constantine, the Christian church began receiving referential treatment by the empire that it had once so steadfastly opposed, war, which had once seemed so evil, now appeared to many to be a necessity for preserving and propagating the gospel.
Christianity's weaponless victory over the Roman empire eventuated in the weaponless victory of the empire over the gospel. No defeat is so well-disguised as victory! In the year 303, Diocletian forbade any member of the Roman army to be a Christian. By the year 416, no one could be a member of the Roman army unless he was a Christian.
It fell to Augustine (d. 430) to make the accommodation of Christianity to its new status as a privileged religion in support of the state. Augustine believed, on the basis of Matt. 5:38-42, that Christians had no right to defend themselves from violence. But he identified a problem which no earlier theologian had faced: what Augustine regarded as the loving obligation to use violence if necessary to defend the innocent against evil. Drawing on Stoic just war principles, he articulated the position that was to dominate church teaching from that time right up to the present. Ever since, Christians on the left and on the right, in the East and in the West, have found it exceedingly easy to declare as "just" and divinely ordained any wars their governments desired to wage for purely national interests. As a consequence, the world regards Christians as among the most warlike factions on the face of the earth. And little wonder; two-thirds of the people killed in the last 500 years died at the hands of fellow-Christians in Europe, to say nothing of those whom Christians killed in the course of colonizing the rest of the world.
As Gandhi once quipped, "The only people on earth who do not see Christ and His teachings as nonviolent are Christians." The time has come to look again to the rock from which we were hewn. And the key text remains Jesus' statement about resisting evil.
38You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.' 39But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; 40and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; 41and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. 42Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you. (Matt. 5:38-42 NRSV; see also Luke 6:29-30).
Christians have, on the whole, simply ignored this teaching. It has seemed impractical, masochistic, suicidal--an invitation to bullies and spouse-batterers to wipe up the floor with their supine Christian victims. Some who have tried to follow Jesus' words have understood it to mean non-resistance: let the oppressor perpetrate evil unopposed. Even scholars have swallowed the eat-humble-pie reading of this text: "It is better to surrender everything and go through life naked than to insist on one's legal rights," to cite only one of scores of these commentators from Augustine right up to the present. Interpreted thus, the passage has become the basis for systematic training in cowardice, as Christians are taught to acquiesce in evil.
Cowardice is scarcely a term one associates with Jesus. Either he failed to make himself clear, or we have misunderstood him. There is plenty of cause to believe the latter. Jesus is not forbidding self-defense here, only the use of violence. Nor is he legitimating the abandonment of nonviolence in order to defend the neighbor. He is rather showing us a way that can be used by individuals or large movements to intervene on behalf of justice for our neighbors--nonviolently.
The classical interpretation of Matt 5:38-42//Luke 6:29-30 suggests two, and only two, possibilities for action in the face of evil: fight or flight. Either we resist evil, or we do not resist it. Jesus seemingly says that we are not to resist it; so, it would appear, he commands us to be docile, inert, compliant, to abandon all desire for justice, to allow the oppressor to walk all over us. "Turn the other cheek" is taken to enjoin becoming a doormat for Jesus, to be trampled without protest. "Give your undergarment as well" has encouraged people to go limp in the face of injustice and hand over the last thing they own. "Going the second mile" has been turned into a platitude meaning nothing more than "extend yourself." Rather than encourage the oppressed to counteract their oppressors, these revolutionary statements have been transformed into injunctions to collude in one's own despoiling.
But that interpretation excluded a third alternative: active nonviolent resistance. The word translated "resist" is itself problematic; what translators have failed to note is how frequently anthistemi is used as a military term. Resistance implies "counteractive aggression," a response to hostilities initiated by someone else. Liddell-Scott defines anthistemi as to "set against esp. in battle, withstand." Ephesians 6:13 is exemplary of its military usage: "Therefore take the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand [antistenai, literally, to draw up battle ranks against the enemy] in the evil day, and having done all, to stand [stenai, literally, to close ranks and continue to fight]." The term is used in the LXX primarily for armed resistance in military encounters (44 out of 71 times). Josephus uses anthistemi for violent struggle 15 out of 17 times, Philo 4 out of 10. Jesus' answer is set against the backdrop of the burning question of forcible resistance to Rome. In that context, "resistance" could have only one meaning: lethal violence.
Stasis, the noun form of stenai, means "a stand," in the military sense of facing off against an enemy. By extension it came to mean a "party formed for seditious purposes; sedition, revolt." The NRSV translates stasis in Mark 15:7 as "insurrection" (so also Luke 23:19, 25), in Acts 19:40 as "rioting," and in Acts 23:10 as "violent dissension."
In short, antistenai means more in Matt. 5:39a than simply to "stand against" or "resist." It means to resist violently, to revolt or rebel, to engage in an insurrection. Jesus is not encouraging submission to evil; that would run counter to everything he did and said. He is, rather, warning against responding to evil in kind by letting the oppressor set the terms of our opposition. Perhaps most importantly, he cautions us against being made over into the very evil we oppose by adopting its methods and spirit. He is saying, in effect, Do not mirror evil; do not become the very thing you hate. The best translation is the Scholars Version: "Don't react violently against the one who is evil."
In the three examples that follow in Matthew, Jesus illustrates what he means.
Turn the Other Cheek
A backhand slap was the usual way of admonishing inferiors. Masters backhanded slaves; husbands, wives; parents, children; men, women; Romans, Jews. We have here a set of unequal relations, in each of which retaliation would be suicidal. The only normal response would be cowering submission.
Part of the confusion surrounding these sayings arises from the failure to ask who Jesus' audience was. In all three of the examples in Matt. 5:39b-41, Jesus' listeners are not those who strike, initiate lawsuits, or impose forced labor, but their victims ("If anyone strikes you...wants to sue you...forces you to go one mile..."). There are among his hearers people who were subjected to these very indignities, forced to stifle outrage at their dehumanizing treatment by the hierarchical system of caste and class, race and gender, age and status, and as a result of imperial occupation.
Why then does he counsel these already humiliated people to turn the other cheek? Because this action robs the oppressor of the power to humiliate. The person who turns the other cheek is saying, in effect, "Try again. Your first blow failed to achieve its intended effect. I deny you the power to humiliate me. I am a human being just like you. Your status does not alter that fact. You cannot demean me."
Such a response would create enormous difficulties for the striker. Purely logistically, how would he hit the other cheek now turned to him? He cannot backhand it with his right hand (one only need try this to see the problem). If he hits with a fist, he makes the other his equal, acknowledging him as a peer. But the point of the back of the hand is to reinforce institutionalized inequality. Even if the superior orders the person flogged for such "cheeky" behavior (this is certainly no way to avoid conflict!), the point has been irrevocably made. He has been given notice that this underling is in fact a human being. In that world of honor and shaming, he has been rendered impotent to instill shame in a subordinate. He has been stripped of his power to dehumanize the other. As Gandhi taught, "The first principle of nonviolent action is that of noncooperation with everything humiliating."
Give the Undergarment
Matthew and Luke disagree whether it is the outer garment (Luke) or the undergarment (Matthew) that is being seized. But the Jewish practice of giving the outer garment as a pledge (it alone would be useful as a blanket for sleeping) makes it clear that Luke's order is correct, even though he does not preserve the legal setting. In all Greek usage, according to Liddell-Scott, himation is "always an outer garment...worn above the chiton," whereas the chiton is a "garment worn next to the skin." Consistent with this usage, the Greek translation of the Old Testament (LXX) reads himation in the passages just cited. S. Safrai and M. Stern describe normal Jewish dress: an outer garment or cloak of wool and an undergarment or tunic of linen. To avoid confusion I will simply refer to the "outer garment" and the "undergarment."
The situation Jesus speaks to is all too familiar to his hearers: the debtor has sunk ever deeper into poverty, the debt cannot be repaid, and his creditor has summoned him to court (krithenai) to exact repayment by legal means.
Indebtedness was endemic in first century Palestine. Jesus' parables are full of debtors struggling to salvage their lives. Heavy debt was not, however, a natural calamity that had overtaken the incompetent. It was the direct consequence of Roman imperial policy. Emperors had taxed the wealthy so stringently to fund their wars that the rich began seeking non?liquid investments to secure their wealth. Land was best, but it was ancestrally owned and passed down over generations, and no peasant would voluntarily relinquish it. Exorbitant interest, however, could be used to drive landowners ever deeper into debt. And debt, coupled with the high taxation required by Herod Antipas to pay Rome tribute, created the economic leverage to pry Galilean peasants loose from their land. By the time of Jesus we see this process already far advanced: large estates owned by absentee landlords, managed by stewards, and worked by tenant farmers, day laborers, and slaves. It is no accident that the first act of the Jewish revolutionaries in 66 C.E. was to burn the Temple treasury, where the record of debts was kept.
It is to this situation that Jesus speaks. His hearers are the poor ("if any one would sue you"). They share a rankling hatred for a system that subjects them to humiliation by stripping them of their lands, their goods, finally even their outer garments.
Why then does Jesus counsel them to give over their undergarments as well? This would mean stripping off all their clothing and marching out of court stark naked! Imagine the guffaws this saying must have evoked. There stands the creditor, covered with shame, the poor debtor's outer garment in the one hand, his undergarment in the other. The tables have suddenly been turned on the creditor. The debtor had no hope of winning the case; the law was entirely in the creditor's favor. But the poor man has transcended this attempt to humiliate him. He has risen above shame. At the same time he has registered a stunning protest against the system that created his debt. He has said in effect, "You want my robe? Here, take everything! Now you've got all I have except my body. Is that what you'll take next?"
Nakedness was taboo in Judaism, and shame fell
less on the naked party than on the person viewing or causing the nakedness
(Gen 9:20-27). By stripping, the debtor has brought the creditor
under the same prohibition that led to the curse of Canaan. And much as
Isaiah had "walked naked and barefoot for three years" as a prophetic sign
(Isa. 20:1-6), so the debtor parades his nakedness in prophetic protest
against a system that has deliberately rendered him destitute. Imagine
him leaving the court, naked: his friends and neighbors, aghast, inquire
what happened. He explains. They join his growing procession,
which now resembles a victory parade. The entire system by which
debtors are oppressed has been publicly unmasked. The creditor is
revealed to be not a legitimate moneylender but a party to the reduction
of an entire social class to landlessness, destitution, and abasement.
This unmasking is not simply punitive, therefore; it offers the creditor
a chance to see, perhaps for the first time in his
The Powers That Be literally stand on their dignity. Nothing depotentiates them faster than deft lampooning. By refusing to be awed by their power, the powerless are emboldened to seize the initiative, even where structural change is not immediately possible. This message, far from being a counsel to perfection unattainable in this life, is a practical, strategic measure for empowering the oppressed, and it is being lived out all over the world today by powerless people ready to take their history into their own hands.
Jesus provides here a hint of how to take on the entire system by unmasking its essential cruelty and burlesquing its pretensions to justice. Here is a poor man who will no longer be treated as a sponge to be squeezed dry by the rich. He accepts the laws as they stand, pushes them to absurdity, and reveals them for what they have become. He strips naked, walks out before his fellows, and leaves this creditor, and the whole economic edifice which he represents, stark naked.
Go the Second Mile
This forced labor was a source of bitter resentment
The Theodosian Code devotes an entire section to angareia. Among its ordinances are these: If any person while making a journey should consider that he may abstract an ox that is not assigned to the public post but dedicated to the plow, he shall be arrested with due force by the rural police...and he shall be haled before the judge [normally the governor] (8.5.1, 315 C.E.). By this interdict We forbid that any person should deem that they may request packanimals and supplementary posthorses. But if any person should rashly act so presumptuously, he shall be punished very severely (8.5.6, 354 C.E., ital. added). When any legion is proceeding to its destination, it shall not hereafter attempt to appropriate more than two posthorses (angariae), and only for the sake of any who are sick (8.5.11, 360 C.E.).
Late as these regulations are, they reflect a situation that had changed little since the time of the Persians. Armies had to be moved through countries with dispatch. Some legionnaires bought their own slaves to help carry their packs of sixty to eighty?five pounds (not including weapons). The majority of the rank and file, however, had to depend on impressed civilians. There are vivid accounts of whole villages fleeing to avoid being forced to carry soldiers' baggage, and of richer towns prepared to pay large sums to escape having Roman soldiers billeted on them for winter.
With few exceptions, the commanding general of a legion personally administered justice in serious cases, and all other cases were left to the disciplinary control of his subordinates. Centurions had almost limitless authority in dealing with routine cases of discipline. This accounts for the curious fact that there is very little codified military law, and that late. Roman military historians are agreed, however, that military law changed very little in its essential character throughout the imperial period. No account survives to us today of the penalties to be meted out to soldiers for forcing a civilian to carry his pack more than the permitted mile, but there are at least hints. "If in winter quarters, in camp, or on the march, either an officer or a soldier does injury to a civilian, and does not fully repair the same, he shall pay the damage twofold." This is about as mild a penalty, however, as one can find. Josephus' comment is surely exaggerated, even if it states the popular impression: Roman military forces "have laws which punish with death not merely desertion of the ranks, but even a slight neglect of duty" (J.W. 3.102-8). Between these extremes there was deprivation of pay, a ration of barley instead of wheat, reduction in rank, dishonorable discharge, being forced to camp outside the fortifications, or to stand all day before the general's tent holding a clod in one's hands, or to stand barefoot in public places. But the most frequent punishment by far was flogging.
The frequency with which decrees were issued to curb misuse of the angareia indicates how lax discipline on this point was. Perhaps the soldier might receive only a rebuke. But the point is that the soldier does not know what will happen.
It is in this context of Roman military occupation that Jesus speaks. He does not counsel revolt. One does not "befriend" the soldier, draw him aside and drive a knife into his ribs. Jesus was surely aware of the futility of armed insurrection against Roman imperial might; he certainly did nothing to encourage those whose hatred of Rome was near to flaming into violence.
But why carry his pack a second mile? Is this not to rebound to the opposite extreme of aiding and abetting the enemy? Not at all. The question here, as in the two previous instances, is how the oppressed can recover the initiative and assert their human dignity in a situation that cannot for the time being be changed. The rules are Caesar's, but how one responds to the rules is God's, and Caesar has no power over that.
Imagine then the soldier's surprise when, at the next mile marker, he reluctantly reaches to assume his pack, and the civilian says, "Oh no, let me carry it another mile." Why would he want to do that? What is he up to? Normally, soldiers have to coerce people to carry their packs, but this Jew does so cheerfully, and will not stop! Is this a provocation? Is he insulting the legionnaire's strength? Being kind? Trying to get him disciplined for seeming to violate the rules of impressment? Will this civilian file a complaint? Create trouble?
From a situation of servile impressment, the oppressed have once more seized the initiative. They have taken back the power of choice. The soldier is thrown off balance by being deprived of the predictability of his victim's response. He has never dealt with such a problem before. Now he has been forced into making a decision for which nothing in his previous experience has prepared him. If he has enjoyed feeling superior to the vanquished, he will not enjoy it today. Imagine the situation of a Roman infantryman pleading with a Jew to give back his pack! The humor of this scene may have escaped us, but it could scarcely have been lost on Jesus' hearers, who must have been regaled at the prospect of thus discomfiting their oppressors. Jesus does not encourage Jews to walk a second mile in order to build up merit in heaven, or to exercise a supererogatory piety, or to kill the soldier with kindness. He is helping an oppressed people find a way to protest and neutralize an onerous practice despised throughout the empire. He is not giving a non-political message of spiritual world-transcendence. He is formulating a worldly spirituality in which the people at the bottom of society or under the thumb of imperial power learn to recover their humanity.
One could easily misuse Jesus' advice vindictively; that is why it must not be separated from the command to love enemies integrally connected with it in both Matthew and Luke. But love is not averse to taking the law and using its oppressive momentum to throw the soldier into a region of uncertainty and anxiety where he has never been before. Such tactics can seldom be repeated. One can imagine that within days after the incidents that Jesus sought to provoke, the Powers That Be would pass new laws: penalties for nakedness in court, flogging for carrying a pack more than a mile! One must be creative, improvising new tactics to keep the opponent off balance.
To those whose lifelong pattern has been to cringe before their masters, Jesus offers a way to liberate themselves from servile actions and a servile mentality. And he asserts that they can do this before there is a revolution. There is no need to wait until Rome has been defeated, or peasants are landed and slaves freed. They can begin to behave with dignity and recovered humanity now, even under the unchanged conditions of the old order. Jesus' sense of divine immediacy has social implications. The reign of God is already breaking into the world, and it comes, not as an imposition from on high, but as the leaven slowly causing the dough to rise (Matt.13:33//Luke 13:20-21). Jesus' teaching on nonviolence is thus of a piece with his proclamation of the dawning of the reign of God.
In the conditions of first-century Palestine, a political revolution against the Romans could only be catastrophic, as the events of 66-73 C.E. would prove. Jesus does not propose armed revolution. But he does lay the foundations for a social revolution, as Richard A. Horsley has pointed out. And a social revolution becomes political when it reaches a critical threshold of acceptance; this in fact did happen to the Roman empire as the Christian church overcame it from below.
Nor were peasants and slaves in a position to transform the economic system by frontal assault. But they could begin to act from an already recovered dignity and freedom, and the ultimate consequences of such acts could only be revolutionary. To that end, Jesus spoke repeatedly of a voluntary remission of debts.
It is entirely appropriate, then, that the saying on debts in Matt. 5:42//Luke 6:30//Gos. Thom. 95 has been added to this saying-block. Jesus counsels his hearers not just to practice alms and to lend money, even to bad-risks, but to lend without expecting interest or even the return of the principal. Such radical egalitarian sharing would be necessary to rescue impoverished Palestinian peasants from their plight; one need not posit an imminent end of history as the cause for such astonishing generosity. And yet none of this is new; Jesus is merely issuing a prophetic summons to Israel to observe the commandments pertaining to the sabbatical year enshrined in Torah, adapted to a new situation.
Such radical sharing would be necessary in order to restore true community. For the risky defiance of the Powers that Jesus advocates would inevitably issue in punitive economic sanctions and physical punishment against individuals. They would need economic support; Matthew's "Give to everyone who asks (aitounti--not necessarily begs) of you" may simply refer to this need for mutual sustenance. Staggering interest and taxes isolated peasants, who went under one by one. This was a standard tactic of imperial "divide and rule" strategy. Jesus' solution was neither utopian nor apocalyptic. It was simple realism. Nothing less could halt or reverse the economic decline of Jewish peasants than a complete suspension of usury and debt and a restoration of economic equality through outright grants, a pattern actually mplemented in the earliest Christian community, according to the Book of Acts.
Jesus' Third Way
Flight FightGandhi insisted that no one join him who was not willing to take up arms to fight for independence. They could not freely renounce what they had not entertained. One cannot pass directly from "Flight" to "Jesus' Third Way." One needs to pass through the "Fight" stage, if only to discover one's own inner strength and capacity for violence. We need to learn to love justice and truth enough to die for them, by violence if nothing else.
Jesus, in short, abhors both passivity and violence. He articulates, out of the history of his own people's struggles, a way by which evil can be opposed without being mirrored, the oppressor resisted without being emulated, and the enemy neutralized without being destroyed. Those who have lived by Jesus' words--Leo Tolstoy, Mohandas K. Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Dorothy Day, César Chavez, Adolpho Pérez Esquivel--point us to a new way of confronting evil whose potential for personal and social transformation we are only beginning to grasp today. Beyond Just War and Pacifism
Just war theory was founded in part on a misinterpretation of "Resist not evil" (Matt. 5:39), which Augustine regarded as an absolute command to non-resistance of evil. No Christian, he argued, can take up arms in self-defense, therefore, but must submit passively even to death. Nor can Christians defend themselves against injustice, but must willingly collaborate in their own ruin. But what, asked Augustine, if my neighbors are being thus treated? Then the love commandment requires me to take up arms if necessary to defend them.
But Jesus did not teach non-resistance. Rather, he disavowed violent resistance in favor of nonviolent resistance. Of course Christians must resist evil! No decent human being could conceivably stand by and watch innocents suffer without trying to do, or at least wishing to do, something to save them. The question is simply one of means. Likewise Christians are not forbidden by Jesus to engage in self-defense. But they are to do so nonviolently. Jesus did not teach supine passivity in the face of evil. That was precisely what he was attempting to overcome!
Pacifism, in its Christian forms, was often based on the same misinterpretation of Jesus' teaching in Matt. 5:38-42. It too understood Jesus to be commanding non-resistance. Consequently, some pacifists refuse to engage in nonviolent direct action or civil disobedience, on the ground that such actions are coercive. Non-resistance, they believe, only licenses passive resistance. Hence the confusion between "pacifism" and "passivism" has not been completely unfounded.
Jesus' third way is coercive, insofar as it forces oppressors to make choices they would rather not make. But it is non-lethal, the great advantage of which is that, if we have chosen a mistaken course, our opponents are still alive to benefit from our apologies. The same exegesis that undermines the Scriptural ground from traditional just war theory also erodes the foundation of non-resistant pacifism. Jesus' teaching carries us beyond just war and pacifism, to a militant nonviolence that actualizes already in the present the ethos of God's domination-free future.
Out of the heart of the prophetic tradition, Jesus engaged the Domination System in both its outer and spiritual manifestations. His teaching on nonviolence forms the charter for a way of being in the world that breaks the spiral of violence. Jesus here reveals a way to fight evil with all our power without being transformed into the very evil we fight. It is a way--the only way possible--of not becoming what we hate. "Do not counter evil in kind"--this insight is the distilled essence, stated with sublime simplicity, of the meaning of the cross. It is time the church stops limping between just war theory and nonresistant pacifism and follows Jesus on his nonviolent way.