Lenten perspectives – 2: Cultivating Nonviolence
By: Hedwig Lewis SJ
Lent is a time for making our peace with God and for seeking reconciliation with our brothers and sisters in our human family. We shall reflect here on the spirituality of nonviolent resistance as found in one of the principles of Jesus taken from his Sermon on the Mount. “Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; (Matthew. 5:39).
Actual slapping or physical violence in public may not be an everyday occurrence in our social circles, and so we may tend to take his dictum lightly or even use it humorously on occasions. We must understand, though, that it is more than an idiom and its needs to be interpreted beyond its literal meaning.
Jesus himself demonstrated how to follow the ‘spirit’ of his principle. When struck by a Jewish officer at his Trial, Jesus did not flinch or turn his other cheek. Instead, he looked the offending official in the eyes and questioned his action: “If I have spoken wrongly, bear witness to the wrong; but if I have spoken rightly, why do you strike me?” (John 18:23). Jesus did not stoop at nonsensical attacks stood up against the injustice done to him in the hope of putting some sense in the heads of the attackers – to redeem them.
Jesus’ behaviour illustrates the difference between confronting evil and seeking personal revenge through physical violence. He exemplified how one can condone the sinner yet condemn the sin. One who confronts the evil justly will also desire to transform the heart of its perpetrator. Those who take revenge are motivated by hatred – and their only intention is ot make the offender suffer for the wrongdoing.
Aggression begets aggression; violence begets violence. In contrast, Jesus defuses the aggression by breaking the cycle or spiral of violence. He warns his impulsively aggressive disciple, Peter: “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Mt 26.52).
This is “Jesus’ way of creative, loving, Non-Violent Resistance or militant nonviolence”, says author Walter Wink in his book Jesus and Nonviolence: A Third Way (2003). It “is neither cowardly submission nor violent reprisal.” The victim does not fight or flee, but resists the evil “in a way that is not injurious or harmful to the other person.”
As in Jesus’ time, so today, a slap on the face is bad enough, but a backhand strike on the strike on the right cheek is even worse. Scholars point out that the backhand was not a blow to injure, but to insult, humiliate, degrade. It was not administered to an equal, but to an inferior. Masters backhanded slaves; husbands-wives; parents-children; upper-lower classes. The whole point of the blow is to assert ones dominance over the victim. This can provoke a fight or a flight response – or, an active, courageous, and creative option, Jesus’ third way, between passivity on the one hand and counter-violence on the other.
“This alternative seizes the moral initiative, explores a creative alternative to violence, asserts the dignity and humanity of all parties, seeks to break the cycle of dehumanization and faces the consequences of one’s action” (Wink).
Jesus’ mission from his Father was to usher in a new world order. He describes it explicitly in his retort to Pilate: “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews” (Jn 18.36).
The “Sermon on the Mount”, delivered on a hill in Galilee, finds a muted echo in Calvary. Through the final stages of his Passion to his death on the cross, Jesus confronts violence with silence. Silence (not passivity) is often more powerful than words. Our body language communicates deeper messages that our verbal expressions would. And Jesus “turns the other cheek”, as it were, in a non-verbal language that can touch the hearts of our enemies.
Jesus utters not a word before the high priest in the Sanhedrin (Mark 14:61; Mt 26:63). He maintained the same silence while Herod’s court, though the king questioned him at length, and the courtiers ridiculed and mocked him (Luke 23.9). Pilate too was exasperated by Jesus’ reticence (Jn 19.9). Jesus did not respond to the Pharisees who derided Him during the crucifixion. “When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly (1 Peter 2.23). His only utterance was the prayer ‘Father, forgive them’ (Lk 23.34). Jesus is a model of meekness and heroic patience, our motivation for non-violent resistance.
As Christians we are challenged not to turn our faces from but to confront injustice in our lives and our work; to creatively, actively, and non-violently change systems of exploitation and oppression that cause poverty, inequality, and environmental destruction. As Jesus’ example demonstrates, even when we have no social, political, or economic power, we can still find ways to stand our ground, take control of the power dynamic, and cause people in power to see us in a new light without using violence. We must be willing to suffer if necessary, sometimes even silently, and seek the transformation of the evildoer. Like Jesus, we must be prepared to appear weak, stupid, and be laughed at as “losers” in the eyes of the world. It is ONLY by the Grace of God that we can renounce retaliation cheerfully.
Pope Francis’ message for the fiftieth World Day of Peace 2017 is all about ‘Nonviolence’. “The decisive and consistent practice of non-violence has produced impressive results,” he stated. “The achievements of Mahatma Gandhi and Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan in the liberation of India… will never be forgotten.” Jesus’ “third way” may not necessarily work in all circumstances, but as the historical records show it is a powerful means of engaging in conflict, and can be used successfully in struggles for justice, human rights, and self-determination.