Love for Enemies: Militant Nonviolence
Joseph E. Mulligan, S.J.
The following is a chapter of a journal I wrote while I was in two county jails from late January to late April, 2004, serving a 90-day sentence for “crossing the line” onto Ft. Benning, Ga., in a November 2003 protest against the U.S. Army’s School of the Americas (SOA). The School, now known as the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC), has trained thousands of Latin American soldiers, some of whom have returned to their countries to be notorious torturers, assassins, and other human-rights violators.
For more information about School of the Americas Watch: www.soaw.org
The classic texts presenting Jesus’ teaching on non-retaliation and love for enemies are Mt 5:38-48 and Lk 6:27-36. (In these as in other important passages – e.g., the infancy narratives, the beatitudes, the Our Father, the passion – there are some interesting differences from one evangelist to another.)
Let us begin with Lk 6:27-29a: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also....”
Jesus as Nonviolent Resister
The best example of how to do this is Jesus’ own illustration in action as found in John 18:19-23. (How could anyone try to interpret this passage without seeing it in the context of Jesus’ own behavior?) When the high priest questioned Jesus about his disciples and his teaching, the prisoner answered: “I have spoken openly to the world; I have always taught in the synagogues and in the temple, where all the Jews come together.... Why do you ask me? Ask those who heard what I said to them; they know what I said.”
At this point a policeman hit Jesus in the face, saying, “Is that how you answer the high priest?” Jesus answered, “If I have spoken wrongly, testify to the wrong. But if I have spoken rightly, why do you strike me?”
Jesus did not strike back in violence, but neither did he hang his head, lower his eyes, or apologize for his statement. Rather than becoming mute, he challenged his aggressor, putting him on the spot by asking him to explain his action.
Later Jesus would keep silent in an eloquent response to Pilate’s question: “Where are you from?” (Jn 19:9). Pilate was driven to exasperation by this simple denial of his power: “Do you refuse to speak to me? Do you not know that I have power to release you, and power to crucify you?” To this Jesus did respond, but in a way that relativized Pilate’s power, situating it as being under God’s authority: “You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above” (19:11).
This firm, almost defiant, attitude characterized the Suffering Servant in Isaiah: “I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I did not hide my face from insult and spitting. The Lord God helps me; therefore I have not been disgraced; therefore I have set my face like flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame; he who vindicates me is near. Who will contend with me? Let us stand up together. Who are my adversaries? Let them confront me.... Who will declare me guilty? All of them will wear out like a garment; the moth will eat them up” (Is 50:6-9).
In the case of a conflict between the community and an offensive member, Jesus counseled the community to confront the person: “If another disciple sins, you must rebuke the offender” (Lk 17:3). Hopefully this will lead to repentance and change: “If there is repentance, you must forgive.”
Matthew describes the process in greater detail (18:15-17): “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.” But if necessary witnesses are brought in, the community becomes involved, and ultimately disciplinary action may be required: “if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”
Thus “turning the other cheek” is very different from lowering one’s head, eyes, and shoulder before the aggressor, not daring to look him in the eyes or speak. That subservient posture is typical of the slave, the poor, the oppressed, the outcast who has internalized the system’s characterization of him or her as an inferior being. But Christians know that they are loved by God and by the community and thus have a strong sense of their own dignity and a healthy self-respect and self-image; with this inner power they can stand up to the aggressor, who is only another child of God. And they can find human alternatives to violence rather than degrading themselves and betraying their nonviolent principles by “returning evil for evil,” which after all means doing evil.
Luke seems to have made a conscious choice to place the golden rule – “Do to others as you would have them do to you” (6:31) – in the midst of Jesus’ teaching on love for enemies. In Matthew this verse is found at a considerable distance (7:12) from Jesus’ teaching on love for enemies. By placing the golden rule here, Luke seems to be suggesting that love for enemies is meant to touch their hearts and change their behavior toward Christ’s disciple.
Nonviolence in Practice
Jesus exemplified the attitude of “turning the other cheek” in a challenging way not only during his passion but consistently throughout his public ministry. On those occasions when he was threatened with death, he courageously returned to the turf of his persecutors and continued his ministry of loving care and prophetic denunciation. The one who turns the cheek is saying: “I have done nothing wrong; you are wrong to hit me. Knowing that, if you insist on hitting me again, go ahead. I’m not afraid.” By returning to dangerous places and situations, Jesus was conveying a similar message to those who were trying to assassinate him.
In the same way the apostles proved to be recidivists in proclaiming the message of Jesus and of his resurrection in defiance of the authorities, knowing they would be arrested every time. They did not silence themselves (Acts 4:18-20, 29-31; 5:27-31).
Beatings, arrests, and incarceration did not stop Gandhi and King and their associates from always coming back to the confrontation, collectively offering “the other cheek” time after time. Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Buddhist monk who struggled for peace and reconciliation among his brethren, offered his breast, his body to his opponents who were his brothers:
“Dearest brother, I know it is you who will shoot me tonight,
piercing our mother’s heart with a wound
that can never heal....
Here is my breast! Aim your gun at it, brother, shoot!
I offer my body, the body our mother bore and nurtured.
Destroy it if you wish.
Destroy it in the name of your dream --
that dream in whose name you kill....
Come back, dear brother, and kneel at your mother’s knee” (Love in Action – Writings on Nonviolent Social Change, Berkeley, Cal., Parallax Press, 1993).
Archbishop Romero considered the conversion of the oppressor the “vengeance of the Christian”: “Let us be firm in defending our rights, but with great love in our hearts, because to defend our rights in this way we are also seeking the conversion of sinners. This is the vengeance of the Christian” (June 19, 1977 homily, Mons. Oscar A. Romero: Su pensamiento, San Salvador, Imprenta Criterio, 1980-89).
The conversion of the enemy is perhaps what Paul means when he speaks of “heaping burning coals on their heads”: “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ No, ‘if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:19-21).
Gordon Bennett calls this “moral jujitsu.” Friends had sent me, through the mail, a few pages from The Other Side (March-April, 2004); the entire magazine would not have gotten past the mail room here, but the clipped pages along with a letter did. In his article, “The Jujitsu of Jesus,” Bennett cites an interpretation of the “burning coals” by Daniel Buttry: “The burning coals are not the fires of hell; rather, they indicate the burning of shame and remorse.” Buttry, Bennett notes, “points out that Middle Eastern people, including the Hebrews, often expressed remorse by putting ashes on their heads, symbolizing the breaking of the cycle of vengeance by means of repentance and reconciliation. Literally, the ‘burning coals’ might be ashes. And the suggestion to pour them over another is a bit of jujitsu wisdom: Draw out your adversaries’ weaknesses by calling attention to and shaming their practice of hate and malice – that which they think to be their greatest asset.”
Bennett also cites Michael Nagler (Is There No Other Way? The Search for a Nonviolent Future), who “recounts one story of a white civil-rights activist, David Hartsough, during his second day of a lunch-counter sit-in in Virginia.
“While peacefully reciting to himself the twenty-third psalm as he sat on the stool in the tension-filled cafeteria, David was yanked from his seat and threatened with a knife. ‘You got one minute to get out of here,’ said his persecutor, ‘or I’m running this through your heart.’ After a brief pause, David slowly shifted his gaze from the bowie knife at his chest to the face of the man who brandished it. In those eyes, he met ‘the worst look of hate I have ever seen in my life.’ David thought to himself, ‘Well, at least I’ve got a minute.’ Then he said to the man, ‘Well, brother, you do what you feel you have to, and I’m going to try to love you all the same.’
“‘For a few frozen seconds,’ Nagler writes, ‘there seemed to be no reaction; then the hand on the knife started shaking. After a few more long seconds it dropped. The man turned and walked out of the lunchroom, surreptitiously wiping a tear from his cheek.’”
In the nonviolent actions at Ft. Benning to close the School of the Americas, one member of the community (body) follows the other in crossing the line – presenting one’s body, cheek and all, to the armed opponent. And some members have turned the other cheek in this militant non-violence two or more times, with the penalty being increased each time.
This is not passive acceptance of humiliation. Jesus’ words about turning the other cheek, giving your shirt as well, and giving to beggars and thieves are ways that “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” (Walter Wink, Engaging the Powers, Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 1992, p. 182). The oppressed “have suddenly ... taken back the power of choice.”
A striking example of the oppressed asserting their human dignity is found in the latter period of the Old Testament. When the pagan emperor arrested seven brothers and their mother and compelled them, “under torture with whips and thongs, to partake of unlawful swine’s flesh” (2 Maccabees 7), they resisted valiantly. One of the sons, when it was demanded, “quickly put out his tongue and courageously stretched forth his hands, and said nobly, ‘I got these from heaven, and because of his laws I disdain them, and from him I hope to get them back again.’ As a result the king himself and those with him were astonished at the young man’s spirit, for he regarded his sufferings as nothing.”
Howard Zinn described the interior “power” of the nonviolent resister in these terms: “You ask how I manage to stay involved and remain seemingly happy and adjusted to this awful world where the efforts of caring people pale in comparison to those who have power. It’s easy. First, don’t let ‘those who have power’ intimidate you. No matter how much power they have, they cannot prevent you from living your life, speaking your mind, thinking independently, having relationships with people as you like....
“And note that throughout history people have felt powerless before authority, but that at certain times these powerless people, by organizing, acting, risking and persisting, have created enough power to change the world around them, even if a little.... Remember that those who have power, and who seem invulnerable, are in fact quite vulnerable, that their power depends on the obedience of others, and when those others begin withholding that obedience, begin defying authority, that power at the top turns out to be very fragile” (“On Getting Along,” Z Magazine, March 7, 1999).
Luke’s Composition: Love for Enemies between Beatitudes and “Do Not Judge”
In Matthew the Beatitudes are at the start of Ch. 5 (vv.1-11), and Love for Enemies begins much further along, at v. 38. But Luke puts the Beatitudes (6:20-26) immediately before Love for Enemies. Why?
“Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets” (Lk 6:22-23). If the disciples are blessed, happy, when they are hated and reviled, and if they are to leap for joy on that day, then they should expect to receive the treatment – being hated, cursed, and abused -- which Jesus speaks about in vv. 27-28, even though it is undeserved and unjust. In the light of the Beatitudes, they should not feel any desire to hate or hurt their enemies – or, if they feel such desire, they are equipped to control it.
By controlling their anger and doing good to their persecutors, they will set an example to be emulated: “Do to others as you would have them do to you” (Lk 6:31).
Luke’s insertion here, just after Love for Enemies, of the passage against judging others (which, in Mt, does not occur until Ch. 7) also makes eminent sense: “Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you.... The measure you give will be the measure you get back” (6:37-38). Hating our enemies, hurting those who hurt us, cursing those who curse us, and doing violence to those who strike us are behaviors based on judgment and condemnation of the other person and on our failure to forgive.
And these hard attitudes are in turn made possible by the moral blindness about ourselves which Jesus describes in the verses immediately following: “Can a blind person guide a blind person? ... Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?” (6:39-42).
“Do not resist an evildoer”
Let us return now to the beginning of the passage on retaliation and love for enemies, according to Matthew: “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 an evildoer.” (5:38-39a). (Luke does not include this verse.)
Walter Wink notes that the meaning of antistenai in Mt 5:39a is a difficult problem. “It is translated ‘resist’ in almost all versions...., but its use in this passage is insupportable. Purely on logical grounds, ‘resist not’ does not fit the aggressive nonviolent actions described in the three following examples. Since in these three instances Jesus provides strategies for resisting oppression, it is altogether inconsistent for him to counsel people in almost the same breath not to resist it.
“Matthew 5:39a also seems to suggest false alternatives: one either resists evil, or resists not. Fight or flight.” If Jesus urges us not to resist, then he is telling us to be passive and complicit in our own oppression. The will of God seems to be that we submit to evil. “And this is precisely the way most Christians have interpreted the passage. ... What the translators have not noted, however, is how frequently anthistemi is used as a military term. Resistance implies ‘counteractive aggression,’ a response to hostilities initiated by someone else.” Wink cites several examples of the use of the word in this sense.
“In short,” he concludes, “antistenai means more than simply to ‘stand against’ or ‘resist.’ It means to resist violently, to revolt or rebel, to engage in an insurrection.” Thus the text urges Christians not to be supine and complicit in their own oppression but on the other hand not to react violently to it either. “Rather, find a third way, a way that is neither submission nor assault, neither flight nor fight, a way that can secure your human dignity and begin to change the power equation, even now, before the revolution.”
Wink notes that there is good reason to suspect “that the original form of this saying about resistance is best preserved in the New Testament epistles,” especially in Romans 12 and particularly in 12:17 and 12:21: “Do not repay anyone evil for evil.... Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” That is, try to “overcome” evil, but do not become its mirror image. “The examples that follow in Matthew 5:39b-41 in fact presuppose some such sense. Could this ancient catechetical tradition have originally stood, then, in Matthew’s translation? If ‘do not repay evil for evil’ and ‘do not forcibly resist evil’ have equivalent meanings, could they simply be different versions of the same tradition?
“We can now, for the first time, answer a cautious yes to that question.” Wink cites George Howard who has recently discovered “what he regards as an early Hebrew text of the Gospel of Matthew, which reads at 5:39a: ‘But I say to you, do not repay evil for evil.’ ...Even if this text is not as early as Howard thinks,” Wink observes, “its very existence, from any period, proves that at least one Hebrew version regarded ‘Do not repay evil for evil’ as the proper way to read Matt. 5:39a.... The logic of Jesus’ examples in Mt 5:39b-42 goes beyond both inaction and overreaction, capitulation and murderous counterviolence, to a new response, fired in the crucible of love, that promises to liberate the oppressed from evil and the oppressor from sin” (Wink, pp. 184-6).
We might also note that, if “do not resist an evildoer” is equivalent to “do not repay evil for evil,” this helps us to appreciate it in counterpoint to the observation which immediately precedes it (Mt 5:38): “You have heard that it was said, ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,’ but I say to you....” An “eye for an eye....” is clearly an expression of retribution for an evil act already committed; Jesus’ message fits this context: do not retaliate with evil.
The “victory” of the nonviolent resister
By raising Jesus from the dead, God revealed, to the eyes of faith, that the victory goes to the condemned and executed Victim and that this good man had suffered unjustly.
But Jesus’ victory over his executioners and over the system of law and religion they represented began during his passion itself. First of all, that system was deprived of its myth of legitimacy: its priests and lawyers could not defeat Jesus in open argument about the truth, and so they abandoned that effort and used trumped-up charges and then crowd pressure to get the brute force and violence of the pagan empire to destroy him physically. The debate turned into a brawl, and in that the system lost an important rampart of its support – its legitimacy and authority in the minds of many. It was seen to have force but not authority.
A similar dynamic has been at work throughout history whenever a religious or political establishment eliminates a martyr (a witness against it) by sheer force – sometimes through subterfuge and false charges, sometimes openly. When Augusto Cesar Sandino, the Nicaraguan fighter for independence and for the peasants, was “disappeared” by Somoza’s National Guard in 1934, the Somoza dynasty was deprived at its inception of an important pillar of legitimacy; and when Anastasio Somoza García’s son presided over the assassination of the respected journalist and human-rights champion Pedro Joaquín Chamorro in 1978, the regime’s legitimacy was reduced to zero and fell to the Sandinista-led people’s movement the next year.
The assassination of deeply loved and highly respected religious figures in El Salvador had a similar effect on the people’s attitude toward the regime. Although it prevailed, it was seen to do so by naked and brute force.
Secondly, the weakness of the system was revealed by its inability to deter Jesus, through intimidation, from his chosen course in faithfulness to his cause. “The cross also exposes the Powers as unable to make Jesus become what they wanted him to be, or to stop being who he was.... Because they could not kill what was alive in him, the cross also revealed the impotence of death..., the Powers’ final sanction” (Wink, p. 141).
Jesus’ brutal persecutors could not force him to become violent or even to hate them and to pray for vengeance upon them.
Jesus controlled his fear of torture and death and thus was able to break the spiral of violence.
His nonviolent response mirrors the very nature of God: “Had God not manifested divine love toward us in an act of abject weakness, one which we experience as totally noncoercive and nonmanipulative, the truth of our own being would have been forced on us rather than being something we freely choose” (Wink, p. 142).
Similarities Between Jesus’ Non-violent Resistance and Our Own
1. The confrontation with injustice flows from a life of service to the needy and is considered a necessary response to the structural causes of their pain.
A. Jesus healed the sick and fed the hungry, but he also proclaimed the Good News of the Kingdom of justice to the oppressed and engaged in “divine disobedience” to challenge the religious and political system which oppressed the people. His recognition of and esteem for the poor widow who deposited her “mite” in the temple treasury (Lk 21:1-4) is preceded immediately by his denunciation of the scribes “who devour widows’ houses” (20: 45-47) and is followed by his foretelling of the destruction of the beautifully adorned temple (21:5-6).
B. Many people in the movement to close SOA/WHINSEC and in other non-violent campaigns live lives of service to the poor in Catholic Worker and other communities or as volunteers in community service organizations.
2. Civil disobedience is the result of a careful, prayerful period of discernment.
A. Jesus spent forty days in the desert, fasting and praying, wrestling with the question of the proper means he would use to accomplish his mission, before launching his public campaign; and he frequently spent time in prayer apart from the apostles. Just before his passion he meditated and prayed at great length (Jn 13-17).
B. Gandhi, King, Cesar Chavez, Phil Berrigan, Dorothy Day, and the people I have known in the peace movement and in various campaigns of Third World solidarity are deeply reflective persons who carefully discern God’s will for them in relation to their analysis of the signs of the times. Some may take part in weekend retreats in preparation for action; afterwards, gatherings are held to process the experience, to celebrate, and to draw insights for the future.
Before the “Chicago 15" action (destruction of draft files as a protest against the war in Vietnam) in 1969, we had several weekend and all-day retreats in which Phil and Dan Berrigan and others would share their experience and help us to discern.
In the movement to close SOA/WHINSEC, I was first moved and attracted by the deep spiritual dimension I found in the November 2002 mobilization in Georgia, especially in the Mass with over 2,000 participants in the “Ignatian tent.” In 2003 I took part in an “affinity group,” as did all who would participate in civil disobedience, to discern spiritually, pray together, and plan the specifics of the action of “crossing the line.”
3. The action is done in a spirit of peace and non-violence – speaking truth to power forcefully but always with respect for our “opponents” in the hope that they may learn from our message and join in the process of change.
A. In this way Jesus practiced the “love for enemies” he preached, perhaps in the “cleansing of the temple” touching the limits of non-violence and giving us reason to believe that we could go that far in the draft-board “raids” and in other similar protests (e.g., the Plowshares actions involving minor, mainly symbolic damage to nuclear weapons). He never shut the door on the possibility of the conversion of his opponents and indeed did win the hearts of some.
B. In our actions we do not locate in the government workers facing us all the responsibility for the violence or injustice we are denouncing; we speak respectfully and clearly to them, inviting them to see their work in a broader light and to follow their conscience.
At the gates of Ft. Benning some of us directed a special appeal to the U.S. and Latin American troops, asking them to analyze the war and consider applying for conscientious objector recognition. Over the years some military officers have become critics of U.S. military policies and of the foreign policy the military serves.
4. Jesus and many practitioners of non-violence today also share a common frustration! Our day in court, like that of Jesus, does not usually prove to be an apt occasion for a serious discussion of the deep legal and moral issues involved in the case at hand.
A. If Jesus had been represented by an attorney in his trials, the defendant probably would have been sternly advised not to “take the stand.” But Jesus chose to testify to the truth, and his testimony was used against him.
The verdict was delivered very swiftly in the ecclesiastical trial, thus depriving Jesus of a chance to explain what he meant by “I am” or “you have said so” in his reply to the question whether he was the Son of God or the Messiah. And the larger, more important issues – his healings on the sabbath, his association with “sinners,” his denunciations of the religious leaders as corrupt hypocrites, etc. – were not even mentioned. These were the “offenses” which had infuriated his opponents throughout his public life and had driven them often to try to kill him, but these issues were kept out of the courtroom.
B. Similarly, in the trials of resisters during the Vietnam war, the Plowshares anti-nuclear protesters, and our trials for the actions at Ft. Benning, the fundamental legal and moral issues of international and constitutional law, the Nuremberg and just-war principles, corporate irresponsibility and other important concerns have been ruled irrelevant, preventing any testimony along these lines, especially if a jury is involved as the decision-making body.
Jesus was asked simply: Did you say you are the Son of God? Yes or no? To us the prosecutor’s only question is: Did you “cross the line”? Did you refuse induction, burn draft files, damage a nuclear bomber?
5. Jesus and others who publicly violate the letter of the law do not seek but do accept the penalty as a necessary consequence of their words and deeds. And they consider their experience of being punished an extension of the prophetic action which can also touch hearts and influence minds.
A. Jesus had said: “When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will realize that I am he” (Jn 8:28). See also Jn 3:14 and 12:32-33: “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself. He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.”
The soldier who pierced the side of Jesus’ corpse was named Longinus by Christian tradition, which believed that he was converted by Jesus’ loving death. His statue is in a prominent place of honor in St. Peter’s basilica in the Vatican. In connection with the piercing, St. John quotes Zechariah: “They will look on the one whom they have pierced” (Jn 19:37). In Zechariah this look is accompanied by mourning and conversion.
In the synoptics a soldier at the cross says: “Certainly this man was innocent” (Lk 23:47) or “Truly this man was God’s son” (Mk 15:39 and Mt 27:54). (Perhaps in these accounts the strange natural phenomena at the moment gave an assist to their confession.)
Jesus’ death in love and courage also strengthened Joseph of Arimathea (a secret disciple of Jesus because of fear) and Nicodemus (the Pharisee who had come to Jesus at night – Jn 3:2) to “come out” and ask Pilate for the body and give it proper and respectful burial.
B. Before my incarceration, when some friends would comment “too bad you’re going to have to waste a number of months silenced in jail,” I ventured to say: “Well, maybe just being in jail for the cause is a constant protest.”
And I have found this to be true. Just being here, and fasting, is a strong message which has flown over the jail walls and reached many people – a general public as well as my friends and relatives. Some have been motivated to look more seriously at SOA/WHINSEC and related issues, while others have felt nudged into greater action on these or other matters.
Other practitioners of non-violent action have seen their time in jail, whether fasting or not, bear similar fruits.
And when love draws some to give up not only freedom but life itself for the people, then the energy is immeasurably more powerful. When Fr. Rutilio Grande, S.J., and two peasants with him were brutally gunned down in 1977, their martyrdom had a profound impact on the new archbishop of San Salvador, Oscar Romero. In turn, the assassination of Romero three years later touched and moved the world. “The blood of martyrs is the seed of faith” – and hope.
6. Hope is another characteristic shared by Jesus and other non-violent resisters.
A. Jesus had constantly proclaimed that the Kingdom of God was “at hand” and invited all to be converted to this movement for a New Creation. Even when he knew that the authorities were closing in on him and that his days were numbered, he was confident that the advance of God’s Kingdom could not be stopped and that he had played and would continue to play an essential part in the process.
In the face of death, Jesus had said: “I am the way, the truth, and the life.... The one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father” (Jn 14:6, 12).
After promising them the Spirit of truth, he assures them of a share in his risen life: “because I live, you also will live” (14:19). United with him, they will be greatly empowered: “those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit” (15:5).
As members of his risen Body, they will experience the paradox of peace in the midst of persecution: “I am not alone because the Father is with me. I have said this to you, so that in me you may have peace. In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world!” (16:32-33)
Jesus’ final words in Matthew point similarly to a hope based on his constant accompaniment: “Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Mt 28:20).
B. Like Jesus, we recognize that we cannot entertain an optimism which would assure us that all our most precious expectations will be realized in our lifetime, or solely by our effort. But hope is much more profound, and more mysterious: a fruit of God’s own life in us and in all of creation, a spark of energy propelling God’s historical project ahead, even with crooked lines, setbacks, deaths, and resurrections.
Hope is as basic as faith and love. If we believe in God as loving Creator, we cannot doubt the ultimate fruition of her good work; and if we love the universe and all humanity (starting with the present generation and our children and grandchildren), we cannot doubt the ultimate result of God’s love and our love – the fulfillment and happiness of all creation in Christ, whose resurrection is the first fruits of the cosmic harvest.
Meanwhile, hope is nourished along the way by our celebrations of small victories and by our joyful savoring of the values of the Kingdom experienced here and now.
And I believe that action itself strengthens and sustains hope. People who maintain their commitment to active struggle, especially with others in community, find that hope is not lacking (when they take time to think about it!).
By the same token, those who drop out, to devote themselves to purely materialistic private pursuits or to purely spiritualistic private pursuits, find that hope dries up – and then their hopelessness tends to justify their shutting down to the grand issues and struggles of world history.
The Challenge of Nonviolence in My Own Life:
An Ongoing Discussion with Myself and Others
The methods, purpose, and power of militant nonviolence as I have described them in this chapter are very clear, compelling, and meaningful to me; and I have tried to practice this kind of nonviolence in various social and political struggles. I remain committed to it as a Christian. My purpose in this chapter has been to show that the non-violence of the gospel is not a passive acceptance of injustice or a symptom of political apathy but rather a potentially powerful method for changing hearts and nations.
However, I must admit that I do not always and everywhere put every word of Jesus on this topic, especially the examples he gives, into practice in a literal way. Nor have I taken literally the injunction to tear out my right eye or cut off my right hand if they lead to sin (Mt 5:29-30), for they can also be instruments for doing good. My reading of Mk 16:18 has not inspired me to “pick up snakes” or to “drink deadly things.” And whereas Jesus said, “Give to everyone who begs from you” (Mt 5:42), I cannot in good conscience give money to people who are drinking or using drugs.
We do not abandon common sense and the use of our God-given reason in our interpretation and application of the bible; rather, we believe that the Holy Spirit is at work in individuals and in the community to help us to make the most loving response in a given, sometimes complex, situation.
I still grapple with this question: how to put Jesus’ teaching and example of non-violence into practice in the most loving, responsible way in complex situations? Some examples:
A. Use of State Violence in Protection of Property
The generosity recommended in Lk 6:29b-30 (“From anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again”) seems to have the same positive purpose as blessing and praying for the enemy: to bring about, through an unexpected expression of Christian generosity and through the working of the Spirit, a change of heart and behavior in them.
Upon release from federal prison in 1972 after serving two years for the destruction of draft files (“Chicago 15" action against the Vietnam war), I amazed my fellow community members by saying that I could not in good conscience call the police to report a nonviolent crime like burglary; the police might shoot the fleeing criminal, and if convicted he might receive years in prison – a sentence which I would consider a violent punishment. I was keenly aware of the force society uses to protect property.
While I am still conscious of this reality, my unwillingness to use the police and courts has become less absolute. Over the years, I have called the police to report thefts which I and others have suffered, and (in the very different case of violent state terrorists) I demand the prosecution of human-rights violators who have tortured, killed, and “disappeared” innocent persons. I do not deny the discrepancy between my “practical” behavior and the ideal presented by Jesus. But if it is an ideal (“Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” – Mt. 5:48) , then we must constantly hold it before us while doing the most loving and responsible thing in pursuit of justice for all persons involved in a given situation.
Am I guilty here of a kind of pragmatic rationalization? Perhaps, but one needs to consider the complexities of each situation, especially when other people are involved as victims of a theft or robbery. For instance, a few years ago someone broke into my car and stole an envelope full of U.S. passports which belonged to a group of American students who were spending a semester in Managua. Some credit cards and a valuable ring were also among the loot.
I did not hesitate to report the crime to the police, and I think this was the right decision. Not only did we want to get the passports and credit cards back, if possible. (We entertained a slight hope that the thieves might have discarded the passports and that someone might find them and make a police report.) But, in addition, in order to replace their passports, the students had to present to the American embassy a document from the local police showing that the theft had been reported. It would have been unjust for me to make a unilateral decision concerning these important documents of the students. Should I have lied by saying that I had lost them?
About ten years ago I had my first experience of serious property theft when my small pick-up truck was stolen from a hospital parking lot. Four years earlier I had purchased the vehicle with funds from the Detroit Province of the Society of Jesus, but the title was in the name of the Jesuit university here in Nicaragua. Thus the truck was not “mine” but ours. In this case as in the theft of the passports, it was not entirely up to me to make my moral decision according to my personal (and minoritarian) interpretation of Jesus’ words.
Besides, what if the thieves had hurt someone in a serious accident or used the truck to commit some other crimes?
In a third case, the thieves must have had the “fear of God” put into them when they stole a leather bag from my car, which was parked in front of a church, and then found that the contents were my chalice, paten, hosts, stole, and bible! My decision not to report this to the police was based more on my skepticism about results than on nonviolent principles. Similarly, when my wallet was pickpocketed on a very crowded bus, I did not think seriously of filing a police report.
Robbing the handicapped is an especially repulsive crime. One day in a very poor barrio, a young acquaintance of mine, confined to a wheelchair due to a U.S.-supplied “contra” bullet, was sitting just outside a home I was visiting. As I started to leave the house, a man quickly approached Fabián and ripped his watch off his wrist. I took off in hot pursuit of this particularly shameful robber, who ran around the first corner and then disappeared in someone’s house or backyard. It was fortunate that he outran me, since one or both of us might have done something which we would have seriously regretted. I did take Fabián to the police station to make a report. (The police often lack vehicles or gasoline to make house calls!)
What about crimes of forceful robbery involving physical violence against me or others? When I was mugged by four big guys about three blocks from Union Station in Washington, D.C., I was relieved that all I had lost was my wallet. A few bruises and scrapes were the only marks on me; they were satisfied with my wallet and did not feel compelled to exercise gratuitous violence on me. Going along with the opinion of friends who felt that the police would be ineffective in this kind of situation, I did not report the crime. The next day I actually found nearby some of the items which had been in the wallet.
On the other hand, I reacted differently to the forceful robbery suffered by an American student who was studying and working here as a member of a program with which I am associated. One robber held her at knifepoint at a bus stop as his accomplice ripped her knapsack off her back. Fortunately, the only trauma she suffered was emotional, but this was understandably of a very severe sort.
Since this happened in the neighborhood where she and the other students were living, we felt that the robber might strike the group again – or that he might hit anyone in Managua, which would be equally traumatic and outrageous. Moreover, the young woman felt obliged to report the crime to the police, and the process of doing so seemed to help her emotionally and psychologically. I drove her and others to the police station and gave her moral support as she made her report.
While I have modified my position regarding the use of the police in relation to crime, there is still one “crime” which I would not report to the authorities, especially if I were the only victim: a non-violent taking of a small amount of money or things (food, medicine) to sustain one’s own life or the life of one’s family. Legally a crime, morally it is justified. Jesus recognized that basic human need takes priority over the letter of the law when he recalled that David and his hungry men “entered the house of God and ate the bread of the Presence, which it was not lawful for him or his companions to eat, but only for the priests” (Mt 12:4). Moreover, in his healings on the sabbath and in his table fellowship with “sinners” Jesus demonstrated that the human person in need is more sacred than any law.
It is interesting to note (even though the moral conclusion to be drawn is not evident!) that Matthew did not consider it essential to present the case of theft or robbery among the offenses calling for a non-violent response. The question of how to respond to thieves is presented in Luke – “From anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt, ...and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again” (Lk 6:30) – but not in Matthew. The latter speaks of someone wanting to sue the Christian for her coat (Mt 5:40) or to borrow from her, which is different from stealing, and does not include the reference to someone “taking away” the Christian’s goods.
B. Use of Force to Defend Oneself and Others
Fortunately I have never had to use force directly to defend myself or another person. I have done this indirectly, however, on one occasion when I took part in a legal process to have a young man in a Detroit parish committed to a psychiatric hospital against his will. He was physically threatening to himself and to his mother, who had asked me to help her to carry out her painful decision.
Could I justify using the minimal amount of force necessary to defend myself from an attacker? Could I do that to defend another person from an attacker? Indeed, would I be obliged to do so – either directly or by calling for police intervention? Would I be nit-picking if I were to justify my action on the grounds that I would not be returning evil for evil but trying to prevent an evil act from being done? If an aggressor hits me on the cheek, I could decline to respond in kind, for that might be simply retaliation which might serve no useful purpose; but could I not attempt to grab his arm to prevent him from hitting me?
What is, after all, the situation Jesus envisioned when he counseled his disciples to “turn the other cheek”? Perhaps the person who is slapped in the face is already tied up and subdued, and thus unable to ward off the blow. Regardless of that, there is no indication that the slap envisioned by Jesus is the first act of a serious physical assault which could result in grave injury or death.
In the latter category, imagine a mass murderer at the start of his rampage. If I had the necessary force at my command to subdue and stop him, or if I had the chance to call the police, would I not be obliged to take those measures in defense of myself and others?
With regard to perpetrators of state terror, such as assassins, torturers, and agents who have “disappeared” innocent people (like my friend Fr. Jim Carney), I do have experience in this area: I have worked for years now to get some of them charged, arrested, and put on trial.
This is not out of a desire for vengeance. Of course, I would not demand the death penalty for them; neither would I want them to rot behind bars for the rest of their lives. A modest sentence, after a clear verdict of guilty, would suffice to serve the purposes of justice and perhaps to defend others from being victimized by these or other perpetrators of gross violations of human rights.
C. Revolutionary Violence
While I recognize the danger, even likelihood, that a revolutionary response to oppression may simply ratchet up the level of violence, I cannot say with certainty that it would always and necessarily have that effect. First of all, revolutionaries do not initiate the violence; it pervades the society, both in the form of police and military repression and in the form of social injustice. Thus, revolutionary violence is understood by some as a form of self-defense against the systemic violence of the status quo. If the Latin American revolutions of the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s had been victorious, who can say with assurance that they would not have produced societies less violent in many respects and at many levels?
I believe that was true of Nicaragua in the early years after the revolutionary overthrow of the Somoza dictatorship – until the Reagan administration increased its military support for the Nicaraguan “contras,” thus raising the level of violence and human suffering to the point where the Sandinistas were voted out in 1990.
True, those vanquished in a revolution can be expected to translate their resentment and their desire to return to their former privileged position into a militant and probably military reaction, and they will probably gain the support of the U.S. empire since they are its local managers and enforcers. But still, their counter-revolutionary success is not necessarily guaranteed in every instance.
Because I personally choose militant nonviolence as my way of struggling for change, am I to condemn all the Christians who have taken part in armed struggle and who were convinced that it was their way of working for liberation, justice, and true peace?
The experience of two priest friends of mine brought out the complexity of this question. As members of a peasant farm cooperative in the north of Nicaragua during the 1980s, they participated fully in the life and work of the community, wanting to be considered as equals and true brothers of all in a social organization which represented important progress toward justice. When the cooperative became the object of a military assault by the “contras,” my friends were confronted by a very difficult task of discernment: to take their turns on guard duty, or to decide that as religious that was an unacceptable task for them. It turned out that the “contra” attack happened on a day when the priests, who had not resolved the issue in their conscience, were working elsewhere.
In Lk 10:4, when Jesus, early in his ministry, sent out the seventy two disciples “like lambs in the midst of wolves,” he told them to “carry no purse, no bag, no sandals.” He had sent out the twelve with similar instructions (Lk 9:3; Mt 10:9-10; Mk 6:8). But toward the end of his ministry, he told his apostles (according to Luke alone): “Now, the one who has a purse must take it, and likewise a bag. And the one who has no sword must sell his cloak and buy one” (Lk 22:36).
Commentators interpret “buying a sword” in a figurative way: be prepared for opposition. And yet opposition was envisioned also in the earlier sending of the seventy in Lk 10. Is the sword, if it is to be understood literally, to be used for protection against animals on the journey, or against bandits?
When the apostles responded, “Lord, look, here are two swords,” he replied, “It is enough” (Lk 22:38). And shortly thereafter, when Jesus was about to be arrested, one of the apostles “struck the slave of the high priest and cut off his right ear. But Jesus said, ‘no more of this,’ and he touched his ear and healed him” (Lk 22:50-51). Do Jesus’ two responses now mean that the apostles should not carry swords?
(This journal entry ends here – with questions rather than firm conclusions.)