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Jesus' Nonviolence

by Fernando Enns Monday, Apr. 25, 2011 at 2:06 AM

Jesus' way is a third way, not the warrior cult or indifference but nonviolent resistance. Jesus himself is the auto-basileia and auto-aletheia of God, the fulfillment of the land promise to Israel. Jesus did not stop at words but drove out the moneychangers and traders.


Bible study on Matthew 21

By Fernando Enns

[This Bible study is translated from the German on the Internet, http://gewaltueberwinden.org/fileadmin/dov/files/wcc_resources/dov_bible_studies/Bible_Study_Mt_21_ge.pdf.]

And Jesus entered the temple of God and drove out all who sold and bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons. He said to them, “It is written. `My house shall be called a house of prayer’ but you make it a den of robbers.”
And the blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he healed them. But when the chief priests and the scribes saw the wonderful things that he did, and the children cried out in the temple, `Hosanna to the Son of David!’ they were indignant and they said to him `Do you hear what these are saying?’ And Jesus said to them, `Yes, have you never read, `Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings, thou hast brought forth perfect praise?” And leaving them, he went out of the city to Bethany and lodged there.”
Matt 21, 12-17

Was Jesus violent? Some offer this story as evidence that Jesus did not act entirely nonviolently and was not always the meek defenseless peacemaker who so many moved by peace see as a model for life in Christ’s discipleship. This is even more convincing which one looks at the parallel passage in the Gospel of John:

The Passover of the Jews was at hand, and Jesus went up to the Jerusalem. In the temple he found those who were selling oxen and sheep and pigeons, and the money-changers at their business. And making a whip of cords, he drove them all, with the sheep and oxen, out of the temple; and he poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables. And he told those who sold the pigeons, `Take these things away; you shall not make my Father’s house a house of trade.’ His disciples remembered that it was written, `Zeal for thy house will consume me.’ Joh 2, 13-16

Two situations occur to me in which this story of the momentarily belligerent Jesus was interpreted as legitimation of the use of force. Firstly, at the legal hearing, I refused military service and had to explain this refusal. After I presented my argument that it wasn’t possible for me as a believing Christian in Jesus’ discipleship to use weapons to kill other persons even in an emergency, the judge referred me to this story with the words: “If you follow this Jesus, you must admit that force is sometimes unavoidable.”

The other situation occurred recently in a discussion with ecumenical students of the University of Heidelberg when we invited an officer of the US army to discuss the war in Iraq. To the probing question of the students whether he saw any contradiction between military actions of the US army to the gospel of Jesus Christ which he had to proclaim, he replied with this story from the New Testament. This replaced all further reflection about a general prohibition on killing or the command of love of the enemy.

Must we admit that whoever wants to follow Jesus can use force – like Jesus – in borderline cases? Let us look more carefully at the story. What really happened?

Before Jesus reached the temple, he entered Jerusalem, the center of power in Israel. Jesus did not ride on a “high horse.” Matthew refers to the prophesy of the prophet Zechariah: “Lo, your king comes to you, triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on an ass…” (Zech 9,9). This king does not come with military tanks and weapons but “meek” (cf. Matt 5,5). The simple people (gr. “ochlos”) were excited and asked: “who is this?” The people replied: “This is Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth.” The parties are clearly separated here: those who recognized the Savior in him and the others who saw nothing good.

Jesus’ way aimed at the heart of the city, the center of religious, political and economic power: the temple. The temple was the seat of the supreme court, the seat of government authority under the occupying power and was not only the religious sanctuary administered by the priest aristocracy. The state bank and the national archive existed within its walls. Sacrificed animals were offered for sale to the many journeying pilgrims. All of them also had to pay a temple tax. Money-changing was necessary since only Tyrinian or old Hebrew currencies were accepted. Both the trade with sacrificial animals and the money-changing took place under the direction of the priestly upper class: a mixture of religion and commerce, of political, economic and religious powers. Jesus described this as a “trading business” or “den of robbers.” Understandably the polis became uneasy when a spade was uncovered and called a spade.

But Jesus did not stop at words alone but drove out the money-changers and traders and overturned their tables. Jesus was concrete. Some exegetes actually see a violent action here. Jesus now “drops his meekness, initiates violence and unrest and arrogates worldly power…” (H. S. Reimarus) The interpretation that Jesus’ action was a “prophetic symbolic act” is far more convincing as in South Africa and when Gandhi publically burned his identification papers. Was this violence? Nuns set themselves on the road before their cloister and hindered the police cars that wanted to haul away refugee families and deport them. Was this violence? Were the many protest marches and symbolic acts of the US civil rights movement violence?

If Jesus actually committed violent excesses and violence against persons, the temple police or the Roman occupying power would have immediately intervened. It would have been easy to immediately arrest the troublemaker because a clear offense would have been committed. Jesus’ action should not be glossed over or trivialized. Matthew in no way wanted to repress this. He could have simply dropped this episode if he thought the action was in opposition to Jesus’ words “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt 5, 38-44) or against the supreme command (the double command of love, Matt 21, 37-40). We can assume Matthew would have at least thematicized the contradiction in this passage. Jesus’ action obviously cannot be interpreted as a legitimation of violence.

Jesus did not approve the plans of political revolution of the violent Zealots. His action was a prophetic active provocation against all presumption that believes in acting out one’s power and questions God’s omnipotence. His action was directed against the economic power of the temple aristocracy and against all attempts at violent change of conditions. Even when it happens with the best intentions, use of force is always the presumption of acting out of one’s strength and powerlessness to better regulate things, taking destruction of life and relations as part of the bargain. One fights for their property. Jesus’ symbolic effective act is directed against such hubris. Jesus shows civil courage and sought conflict and confrontation. Now it becomes uncomfortable for him and for his disciples. In entering the center of power, the time of restriction to the little circle of disciples is definitively over. Jesus knows the conflict will escalate further. It must have been clear to him that such provocations would not be simply accepted. In the center of power, he unmasks the powerlessness and demonstrates the full power of the living God. Whoever dares this and leaves the secure circle of his colleagues to publically proclaim the gospel – watchwords and symbolic acts – must expect violent counter-reactions.

The priests and scribes recognized the explosiveness of Jesus’ actions. The real provocation lies in Jesus’ claim of full power showing the limits to all other powers – economic, political and religious -, not in Jesus’ allegedly violent act. This full power claim is visible in the healings of the blind and lame. It is clear in the jubilation of the poor population who recognized that here was one with power who said to the poor, the underage, children and disabled, not simply a political agitator of the temple business: you are God’s people! You are the polis of God’s reign!

From then on, the powerful powerless did everything to find a solution for the “problem Jesus” until he was tortured on the cross and died there, abandoned even by those who rejoiced and deserted by his closest followers because he held so consistently to the way of nonviolence. They would have preferred his full power demonstrated other than in such humiliation. Only several women persisted in mourning to the cross.

A great arch is drawn from the meek entrance in Jerusalem to the agonizing death on the cross. First, in retrospect, some saw that the cross was the consequence of this nonviolent way. The cross became the most impressive symbol of nonviolence that lives from the full power of the living God. Here the nature of our God is clear, the God who overcomes death through love, who renounces on force out of love for his fellow-persons to show them I am your God and you should be my people. My love is stronger than all the powers and principalities. I give this full power to you so you can overcome evil with good and not repay evil with evil. That is my gospel for you.

The temple expulsion cannot be held out as legitimation of violence. That would be a mockery! On the contrary, it is one of the strongest claims of the New Testament against all violent claims to power, whether motivated politically, economically or religiously.

Jesus’ “temple expulsion” gives me courage not to shy away from conflicts, withdraw in a circle of like-minded and be afraid of supposed superpowers. This courage does not come to me because I rely on my own strength but because I firmly believe in Jesus’ saying which Jesus said to his disciples after the temple purgation in the Gospel of Matthew: “Everything you ask for in prayer if you believe, you shall receive.” At an African conference of peace churches in the framework of the WCC’s “Decade to Overcome Violence,” Nelly, an aged wise woman from Zimbabwe inscribed this wisdom in our hearts when we discussed possible strategies of the nonviolent mastery of force: “Remember, Fernando, everything happens with prayer.” “My Father’s house shall be called a house of prayer,” Jesus says.


“The Changing Spring” by Melitta-Muller Hansen

“Believing without Seeing” by Margot Kassmann

“Lilies of the Field” by Margot Kassmann

“The Dangerous Doctrine of Justification” by Dieter Potzel

“Elijah, Amos and Jeremiah” by Dieter Potzel

“Only the One who Cries for the Jews may Sing Gregorian” by Franz Segbers

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