Nonviolence and Christianity

From the Peace Fountain and Biblical Garden, New York City

I would honestly say that if I could choose a religion, I would choose Christianity and its ideal of universal acceptance, love, and forgiveness. It is all so beautiful. It is just so unfortunate that the history of Christianity has nothing to do with these ideas.

  • Eyad Sarraj, head of the Gaza Community Mental Health Program and of the Palestinian Independent Commission for Citizens’ Rights

This quote comes from a book I have been reading, entitled ‘The Body and the Blood’, which I referenced once before in this post, concerning Palestinian refugees and the ‘right of return’. The book is a journalistic account of the exodus of Christians from the Middle East, focusing on Palestine. When I finish I hope to write a short book review, but for now, I will only highly recommend it.

One of the author’s themes highlights that the Middle East has witnessed violence upon violence, in the form of Israeli occupation, Muslim resistance, and terrorism. Yet while Christians have also at times joined in the violence, their religion’s focus on nonviolence could potentially equip this minority to assume a role of peace, either in highlighting the injustice of occupation, or in rebuking the assault upon it through stones, suicide bombers, and rocket fire. Yet the Christian exodus from the area not only removes this voice from the equation, it also allows for popular Western definition of the struggle as between Muslims and Jews, in which both get dismissed as the problem then appears both foreign and intractable.

The above quote means to put the issue of nonviolence before the Western Christian audience. Not for Palestine per se, but for world history and current Christian attitudes. Eyad Sarraj is introduced as a secular Muslim from a deeply religious family. Conversion is not an issue as the entrenched religious lines of Palestine do not allow for movement between faiths, certainly not toward Christianity, and in any case as a secular individual he might not see religion as an important personal matter. The issue is his perception. Within his Islamic heritage and Palestinian politics he speaks boldly about the beauty of the Christian message. Unfortunately, he does not see its historic reality.

May the question be asked: What would have to change in order to change his perception?

Without pretending that Western governments represent Christian values, should Christians better pressure their governments according to nonviolent principles? What might this do to world affairs? What might it do for the Christian message? What kind of nonviolence is intended? What are its limits? Does nonviolence as a principle apply to groups as opposed to individuals? Does it apply to nations?

The author highlights that Jesus’ principle of ‘turn the other cheek’ is often misunderstood. Rather than passive acceptance of violence, it is an assertion of equality. To strike the right cheek, as the gospel emphasizes, requires a backhand slap from the aggressor’s right hand. In the culture of the time, this was a great insult. It was punishable by law if administered to an equal, but legally permissible if targeting an inferior. Jesus’ teaching says to turn to him the left cheek, in order to receive a proper blow. The invitation is to be struck as an equal, yet all the while not returning the violence.

If this interpretation is correct, it forces reevaluation of Jesus’ teaching of nonviolence, but also removes the popular notion that is it ethereal and hopelessly pious. It may yet be foolish, but it becomes foolishness with a purpose. It is a foolishness from utter strength, no matter how much it forsakes the worldly use of strength.

Yet what does this interpretation say to the one who possesses strength in the worldly sense? This is the position of most Western nations, and many Western Christians. Perhaps it is only to note that Jesus does not address these, at least in this passage. His interests lie elsewhere. They lie with the suffering and oppressed. Interestingly, his message is not to rebel, but it is to resist the status quo of their position. It is to stand strong.

Certainly Jesus would care for all, the strong and the mighty among them. Yet may the contemplation of these questions, regardless of where the answers lie, help Christians evaluate with whom they stand. Where Christians exist among the strong, may they exercise this strength on behalf of those not yet standing.

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