Each month we bring you a nonviolence training workshop
based on the experience of the Nonviolent Action Training
project and INNATE.
here to view print version]
This is intended primarily
as a short resource for discussion on Christianity and nonviolence.
But please see also the Facilitators' Notes at the end of
this piece for working in an open, mixed or not necessarily
A more general short
resource on the grounding of nonviolence in faith, moral and
spiritual teachings of various kinds can be found in 'Nonviolence:
the moral and spiritual basis' which is part 3 of INNATE's
'Nonviolence: an introduction'.
"Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall
be called children of God" Matthew 5:9
The above title quote from Matthew 5:9 means peacemakers
are like God and how happy they are, they are part of his
kingdom. There is a parallel with the 10 commandments; Jesus'
new commandments providing a contrast between present appearances
and future reality, but giving his followers a radical new
Matthew 5:10 "Blessed are those persecuted
for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven"
= those persecuted because of obedience to God.
5:12 "in heaven" = "with God".
'Going to heaven' is an idea seldom found in the New Testament.
5:17 Not abolishing the law and the prophets
but fulfilling them.
5:21 Contrast between the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament
and the new revelation;
Old commandment (Exod. 21:12, Deut. 5:17) not
to kill, but Jesus saying whoever is angry with his brother
is liable to judgement, and needs to make reconciliation.
5;38-42 "You have heard that it was said,
"An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth." But
I say to you, Do not resist one who is evil. But if any one
strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also;....
coat.... let him take your cloak as well.... and if any one
forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles...."
"Do not resist" clearly does not mean giving in.
'Turning the other cheek' is actually a form of passive protest
since the assailant would be using the back of the right hand
and this is difficult to do (see Number 4 later) - similarly
giving away you cloak as well, or going the extra mile, would
actually have been forms of protest.
The moneychangers driven out; Matthew 21:12-13,
Those who take the sword will perish with the
sword; Matthew 26;51-52
Not peace but a sword; Matthew 10:34.
Centurion's servant; Matthew 8:5-13.
Strong man but a stronger will come along; Luke
Greater love has no man......; John 15:13.
Sell your cloak and buy a sword; Mark 12:13-17.
Render to Caesar; Romans 13:1-7 - to be read
in the light of Romans 12 and understood as approval of civil
Whatever about particular texts which can be
misunderstood and may have been distorted from their original
meaning in some instances, an understanding of 'peace' and
'war' is necessary in the overall context of the gospel.
Richard McSorley identifies 5 primary principles
of the gospels; 1) Love 2) God is our Father/Mother 3) The
almost infinite value of the human person 4) A relationship
between means and ends 5) The imitation of Christ.
Richard McSorley's book "The New Testament
Basis of Peacemaking" is possibly the most easily
understood analysis of the basis of Christian nonviolence.
McSorley was a US Jesuit who died in 2002 aged 88; the above
book was published by the Mennonite publishing house, Herald
Press, but may be out of print.
This was definitely nonviolent in the first couple of hundred
years though the slide to the 'just war' theory began before
Augustine. The 'Just war' theory was in fact intended to limit
rather than extend the possibility of Christians using war
at the time, and strictly applied would make the vast majority
of wars outside Christian teaching. Richard McSorley summarises
the Augustinian conditions for a war to be judged just as
follows (various other similar summaries exist); 1) There
must be a declaration of war by the king/ruler 2) It must
be a last resort 3) There must be a good intention on the
side declaring war 4) There must be protection of the innocent
5) A proportion of good over evil must be kept.
In what is not only an amusing but also appropriate
analogy, McSorley illustrates the inadequacy of a 'Just war'
theory by talking about a 'Just Adultery' theory; "A
look at it helps to see how differently Christians respond
to murder and adultery..." In McSorley's analogy he lays
down conditions for 'just adultery'; 1. Last resort 2. Good
intention 3. Protection of the innocent 4. Proportionality.
McSorley goes on to point out that while this is absurd, "Adultery
is a personal act. It does not kill millions of people, or
even one person. It does not have government support. It always
allows for the possibility of repentance and reconciliation
that is precluded by killing. On balance, the Just Adultery
Theory has much more in its favor, than the Just-Unjust War
There follows an extract from a piece written by Patrick McManus
(taken from Dawn Train 10, 1991) talking about a workshop
where Walter Wink provided his analysis about 'turning the
other cheek' -
If we are not to resist violently, then how
are we to resist. Jesus tells us how:
"You have heard that it was said, 'An
eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth'. But I say to you,
Do not resist one who is evil. But if any one strikes you
on the right cheek, turn to him the other also: and if any
one would sue you and take your coat, let him have your cloak
as well: and if any one forces you to go one mile, go with
him two miles. Give to him who begs from you and do not refuse
him who would borrow from you."
The three examples above turning the other cheek,
giving your coat, walking the extra mile, after seeing Walter's
simple re-enactment of these events, are for me perhaps three
of the most powerful examples around of how to overcome oppression
nonviolently. Let's see how. First of all Jesus makes a nice
piece of continuity with the law of the Old Testament, an
eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth becomes a cheek for a
cheek and a mile for a mile. Nice doublets they may be but
their meaning and function are completely different.
"Turn the other cheek":
Try this with a friend (or better still an enemy).
Ask your friend to strike you on the face. Which cheek did
they hit? Which hand did they use? As most people are right
handed the odds are your friend would hit you on the left
cheek with his/her right hand. The palm of their right hand
would also probably have been a clenched fist as they struck
you. But Matthew's text says "if anyone strikes you on
the right cheek." What sort of strike was being talked
about here? OK you say, it's talking about a strike with the
left hand. Again this is ruled out because in the whole Judeo/Greco/Roman
world 2,000 years ago, to strike someone with the left hand
was totally forbidden as the left hand was considered unclean.
What in fact Jesus
was referring to was the right handed back handed (i.e. with
the back of the hand) strike imposed as a means of subservience
by a Roman master to a slave, of a Roman soldier to a Jewish
man, of a Jewish man to a Jewish woman, of a woman to a child,
i.e. the oppressor to the oppressed, the superior to the inferior.
In Jesus' audience there would have been Jewish men, women
and children, and slaves, who knew exactly what Jesus was
So what of Jesus' command to "Turn
the other cheek"? Try it with your friend
now. You present your friend with your left cheek inviting
him/her to strike you again. 2,000 years ago you would have
created a dilemma for your adversary. Because firstly the
culture prohibits use of the left hand to impose a similar
left handed back handed strike to impose subservience: the
only alternative is for the person to strike with a clenched
fist of the right hand. And herein lies the 'sting' - for
in the Roman/Greco/Jewish world you could only strike a peer
with a fist, i.e. you could only have a fist fight with one
your own rank or status. So to hit the person with a fist
is to admit they are the same as you in status, rights etc.
So by a simple turn of the cheek you have asserted your humanity
and attacked the conscience of your oppressor, non-violently.
"Let him have your coat as
well": remember who Jesus was most of all
talking to - the poor, the marginalised of society. The poor
of Palestine in Jesus' time usually had two articles of clothing,
an inner shirt and an outer coat. The situation that Jesus
was referring to was that of a Jewish court of law where a
richer man reclaims a debt owed by a poor man. It was a common
enough occurrence at the time where landless sharecroppers
were often driven to destitution by unfair land distribution
and Roman taxes.
So when the rich man demands the poor man's
shirt by right of law, and when the poor man gives him not
only his shirt but also his coat - what suddenly would the
onlooker see - one man made naked by another. In Jewish law,
nakedness was sinful - but the sin was considered not upon
he or she who was naked but on the beholder. So suddenly,
again, the table have been turned on the oppressor and you
can quickly imagine the situation in the courtroom would have
quickly deteriorated into farce, with the naked man perhaps
walking outside and a crowd gathering around him and taking
Walking the extra mile: Again
Jesus was not slow to tackle issues of his time. This incident
refers directly to the Roman occupation of Palestine. The
Romans when in an occupied country, although renowned for
their barbarity, also had a 'method in their madness'. In
order to facilitate the quick movement of troops through occupied
territory, a Roman soldier was forbidden to ask a local to
carry his pack for more than one mile. The view was that this
would not antagonise the locals too much. So when a soldier
asks a local to carry his pack, he is the one very much in
control, in power and the other is powerless. However the
situation is reversed if the one who carries the pack insists
on carrying it further. The soldier will quickly fear getting
into trouble with his superiors if he is caught 'forcing'
somebody to go two miles. So the "powerless" once
more has become powerful.
lWink's own written analysis of this can be
found on page 175 and following of his book "Engaging
the Powers - Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination"
( Augsburg Fortress, 1992) his brilliant and original
analysis and reworking of Christian responses to evil.
The above notes can be extracted and used as
a handout for discussion/workshop group use.
Christian nonviolence is more extensively dealt
with in the Fellowship of Reconciliation in Ireland/Pax Christi
Ireland pack "Christian Nonviolence" (published
1993, available from INNATE). This 'Nonviolence in Christianity'
piece is merely some notes which may be of assistance to people
in discussing the issue, including some key biblical references,
and a radical interpretation of turning the other cheek, giving
your coat as well, and going the extra mile.
However as a facilitator you may need, depending
on the audience, not to assume Christian or other religious
beliefs on the part of participants. An alternative approach
in such a context may be to take a statement such as "Nonviolence
- Complete respect for human life" - a view of nonviolence
which can fit equally well into a religious or non-religious
viewpoint - and work from there.
One way of doing this is to take the above statement,
"Complete respect for human life" on the centre
of a chart and explore 1) Reasons for adopting such an approach
(which can be listed in brainstorm fashion) and 2) Consequences
(which can be listed as a web chart, showing the relationship
between different consequences).
You can also get people to do a one-to-one exercise
on "How my moral/spiritual/religious beliefs relate to
nonviolence" (around 3 - 5 minutes each way) which can
be followed, in the whole group, by inviting people to share
some thoughts or doing it in a round (allowing people to 'pass').
Obviously this is not an exercise to launch into cold with
people who are unfamiliar with nonviolence and its concepts,
but it could form a session within a course on nonviolence
or indeed religion or humanism.
If there are people who hold ethical and religious
viewpoints different to the local norm (e.g. Buddhists or
humanists in a predominantly Christian group) they can be
invited to share at greater length to help illustrate that
nonviolence is not tied to one religious or world view, and
to gain a broader understanding. Likewise you can gently and
sensitively tease out any differences within and between Christian
denominations or other faiths and belief systems which are
represented in the group in relation to their stand on violence
and nonviolence. This could be done as a spectrum exercise
with people asked to physically place themselves across a
room with 'completely agree' and 'completely disagree' at
opposite ends on statements which the facilitator reads out
(e.g. 'Complete nonviolence is an essential requirement of
my religious belief'). But the point here is to draw out why
people are where they are, including why people from similar
belief systems place themselves in different positions and
definitely not to pigeonhole people.