The Radical Nonviolent Witness of Jesus

Our world has never been more in need of courageous and creative alternatives to violence and injustice. Street crime, police abuse, and domestic violence are epidemic, while there has never been a time in history more militarized. More people are enslaved today than two centuries ago, and poverty is the number one killer around the globe. Torture seems to have again become acceptable, and the powerful entertainment culture that shapes hearts and minds each day is ruled by the gun and the myth of redemptive violence. From personal alienation and family abuse to urban uprisings and social prejudice, and from a domestic war against immigrants to an international war against real and imagined terrorism, we are caught in an escalating spiral of violence.

Martin Luther King Jr. remains the most compelling modern representative in the United States of faith-rooted nonviolence. As Trappist monk Thomas Merton put it in 1968, the Civil Rights Movement was “one of the most positive and successful expressions of Christian social action that has been seen anywhere in the 20th century. It is certainly the greatest example of Christian faith in action in the social history of the United States.” Ten days before King was killed, the great U.S. Rabbi Abraham Heschel asserted that the very future of our country might well depend upon how the legacy of this extraordinary man would be handled. But King is, as Vincent Harding has written, an “inconvenient hero” for our church and our nation. “If the untranquil King and his peace-disturbing vision, words, and deeds hold the key to the future of America,” Harding says, “then we owe ourselves, our children, and our nation a far more serious exploration and comprehension of the man and the widespread movement with which he was identified.”

This past year we commemorated the 40th anniversary of the murder, in Memphis, of our greatest prophet. As another of Martin Luther King Jr.’s colleagues, Virgil Wood, put it, we truly have been “40 years in wilderness” since that time, so far from realizing his vision of “beloved community.” Instead, we are still at war abroad and still deeply divided by race, class, and gender at home—just as we were in April 1968. Soon we celebrate again the King national holiday—propitiously, on the eve of the inauguration of our first black President. Unfortunately, these King commemorations too often have little to do with the movement that dramatically changed the landscape of U.S. race relations. Rather, Martin Luther King is portrayed as a lovable, harmless icon of peace and tolerance. Indeed, his legacy has been widely domesticated, captive to street names and prayer breakfasts, and his revolutionary message typically reduced to a vague and sentimental sound-bite, in which his “dream” can mean anything to anyone.

This is germane because the same thing can be said about Jesus of Nazareth. The portrait we get in the Gospels—of an anointed man who ministered among the poor, relentlessly challenged the rich and powerful, and was executed as a political dissident—is a far cry from the stained-glass-window Christ we encounter in many churches. This brings me an observation from James W. Lawson. One of King’s closest colleagues in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, Lawson continues to work tirelessly in the tradition of nonviolent activism for social justice. “If you want to understand King,” Lawson asserts, “you must look at Jesus.”

Lawson was acknowledging that King was a committed Christian disciple who understood the call of the Gospel as a vocation of advocacy for the oppressed, of love for adversaries, and of nonviolent resistance to injustice. King can’t be understood apart from his faith. He organized his movement in church basements, prayed as he picketed, sang gospel hymns in jail, preached to Presidents, and challenged other church leaders to join him. But Lawson was saying more than this. He was alluding to the undeniable, if uncomfortable, parallels between the Jesus story and the ministry of Martin Luther King.

Like King, Jesus was a member of an ethnic community that suffered great discrimination at the hands of a world power:

  • both of these prophets spent time listening to the pain of the dispossessed and broken among their own people, and fiercely advocating on their behalf;
  • both worked to build popular movements of spiritual and social identity and renewal, which included practices of nonviolent resistance to injustice;
  • both proclaimed a vision of God’s “Beloved Community” in ways that got them into trouble with local, national, and imperial authorities;
  • each was widely perceived as operating in the biblical prophetic tradition by both allies and adversaries;
  • both animated dramatic public protests that resulted in arrest and jail;
  • both were deemed such a threat to national security that their inner circles were infiltrated by government informers; and,
  • in the end, both were killed because of their work and witness.

These parallels have been oddly absent from the abstract theological debates as to whether or not Jesus was a “pacifist,” or whether he was politically engaged, so they are worth exploring.

Too many Christians apprehend Jesus in a highly spiritualized way, ignoring the fact that he lived and died in times that were as contentious and conflicted as our own. I would contend that even our Peace Churches have fallen prey to the culture of pious romanticizing, imagining a Jesus who was polite and respectful and whose nonresistance didn’t rock the boat too much, sort of like an upstanding Quaker elder or a “quiet in the land” Mennonite. But the Nazarene’s world was not the fantasy landscape we so often think the Bible inhabits. No, it was tough terrain, not unlike that of the United States at the time of King’s death: a world of racial discrimination and class conflict, of imperial wars abroad and political repression at home. It was a world presided over by a political leadership that possibly engineered the demise of the prophet, then issued stern but pious calls for law and order in the wake of his “tragic death.”

The converse of Lawson’s assertion, therefore, also applies: If we want to understand Jesus, we would do well to look at King. Indeed, the more we study the Civil Rights Movement, the more the Gospels come alive. Remembering the challenges that King faced trying to build a social movement for racial justice in the teeth of the hostile system of U.S. apartheid can help us re-imagine how difficult it must have been for Jesus to proclaim the Kingdom of God in a world dominated by imperial Rome 2,000 years ago. And if our Peace Gathering is going to be more than a sentimental pining for peaceableness that is insulated from the time of brutal violence of Gaza and Mozambique and North Philadelphia, then we’d better start by rediscovering the resonance between Jesus and Martin Luther King.

The Jesus story can be read coherently as a narrative of King-style active nonviolence. King, of course, drew his strategic inspiration from Gandhi, who used the term satyagraha to describe his campaigns. That term connotes “the power of truth” that is both personal and political, militant but not military in its engagement with structures of oppression. This explains why public figures such as Jesus, Gandhi, or King, although eulogized in retrospect as great peacemakers, were in fact accused in their own time of being disturbers of the peace. The reality of social change is that in order for prevailing conditions of injustice within a system to be changed they must first be laid bare. Thus before conflict can be resolved it must first be provoked. This is a hard word for Peace Churches with a long and venerable tradition of being nice.

To explore this I want to look elsewhere than the classic “proof texts” for Christian pacifism, such as the Sermon on the Mount’s call to love our enemies, or Jesus’ exhortation to his disciples to “put down the sword” in the Garden of Gethsemene. Instead, I want to examine the Gospel narrative of Jesus’ early work in Galilee to see how it portrays Jesus as a practitioner and teacher of nonviolence. We’ll work from Mark’s Gospel—the earliest of our sources.

The careful reader of Mark might well wonder why the local authorities are, as early as chapter three, already plotting to execute Jesus! This is after only a few weeks of public ministry, and long before he has marched on the capital city, overturned tables in the Temple and called for revolutionary change! (Mk 11:1-23, 13:2) What is it about his teaching, exorcism, and healing work that challenges those in power? To discern this, we must briefly review the components of Jesus’ first “campaign” in and around the little fishing village of Capernaum.

John Dominic Crossan reminds us that in the first century, Jewish subjugation under the Roman Empire was not merely the background of the Jesus story—it was the matrix of this movement. Crossan uses our analogy: Southern racism, he explains, “was the matrix, not just background, for the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.” Mark’s Gospel was written in a temporal and spatial context of intense imperial economic and political conflict in Palestine. Widespread social inequality was so dramatic that it led to the Judean revolt against Roman occupation between 66 and 70 C.E.—just a generation after Jesus. A series of Herodian dynasties loyal to Caesar ruthlessly exploited the peasant majority: debt burdens forced many subsistence farmers off their traditional lands, imperial economic policies disrupted village life, and grinding poverty increased while the elite lived in luxury. So the historic matrix of both Jesus and Mark was shaped deeply by the “spiral of violence”: structural oppression, reactive violence, and counter-reactive military suppression. It is a scenario, sadly, that remains all too familiar in our world.

Let us note a few things about Mark’s prologue, which, unlike Luke and Matthew and your church’s Christmas pageant, has no miraculous birth narrative to introduce Jesus. Instead we meet the main character in the wild waters of the River Jordan. It is significant that of all the mentors Jesus might have chosen to “initiate” him, he makes his way to John the Baptist, a notorious wilderness prophet and political dissident whom Herod Antipas executed around the year 20 C.E. Indeed, Mark reports matter-of-factly that Jesus’ public ministry begins “after John is arrested by Herod” (1:14). That Jesus publicly identifies with this feral, Elijah-type figure, whose days are numbered because of his vocation of speaking truth to power, not only makes the Nazarene complicit in John’s rebel movement, but also connotes a sort of “passing of the torch” in a prophetic revival movement.

An analogy to Martin Luther King can shed light on the importance of Jesus’ “alignment.” Mark wrote roughly 40 years after the deaths of John the Baptist and, shortly after, Jesus of Nazareth. While that ancient world seems remote to us, the world of Memphis in April 1968 is not. We now know there was a government conspiracy to silence King’s prophetic voice, and his assassination occurred exactly one year after his public excoriation of U.S. foreign policy in his famous Riverside speech, denouncing the giant triplets of racism, poverty, and militarism. Here we are, like Mark, some 40 years after those events. I suspect that if this Peace Church gathering were to align itself publicly with this Dr. King—not the domesticated saint, but the radical critic of empire—in our current moment of foreign intervention, it would probably be controversial in many of our churches back home. I think that would be a great idea, by the way; but in any case, the analogy helps us understand the subversive power of Jesus’ identification with John the Baptist.

It is also significant that Mark’s story of Jesus begins in the wilderness, reminding us of the origins of Israel’s faith: the God of Exodus stands outside civilization, undomesticated and free. YHWH is best encountered at the margins, which is why immediately after Jesus’ baptism by John, the Spirit “drives” him deeper into the wilderness. This 40-day sojourn may be understood as a sort of vision quest. Jesus mystically retraces the footsteps of his ancestors back to their mythic place of origin, in order to discover where they were tempted and strayed from the way YHWH had given them. Thus, from the outset of Mark’s story, there is a spatial tension between the existing world order, which is controlled by the Jerusalem and Roman elite, and the radical renewal of Israelite identity brewing in the wilderness.

The locales that appear in the Gospel narrative all had their own stories of imperial oppression and resistance. Nazareth, where Jesus grew up, lay a mere three miles southwest of Sepphoris, the Herodian capital of Lower Galilee. After Herod the Great’s death in 4 B.C.E., a major Judean insurrection broke out, and one of the most important skirmishes was the sacking of the royal armory at Sepphoris. In retaliation, Varus, the Roman legate of Syria, razed the city. Herod Antipas then rebuilt the city in the Hellenistic style and named it Autocratoris—literally “belonging to the Emperor”—all of which took place as Jesus was growing up. If Jesus labored as a carpenter or construction worker in Nazareth, it is highly likely that he got work as a young man rebuilding Sepphoris, one hour’s walk away. The revolt, and the destruction and reconstruction of this imperial city, would have had a profound impact on his consciousness.

The Sea of Galilee, which is the narrative center of gravity in Mark’s story, is a large freshwater lake, dotted with villages connected with the local fishing industry, the backbone of the region’s economy. When Jesus was a teenager, Caesar Augustus died and Tiberius ascended the throne in Rome. To curry the new emperor’s favor, local tyrant Herod Antipas began building a new, imperial, state-of-the-art capital city called Tiberias—on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. There he built a royal palace, where it is likely he beheaded John the Baptist. The primary function of this city was to regulate the fishing industry around the Sea of Galilee, putting it firmly under the control of Roman interests. The construction work at Tiberius may have drawn Jesus to the Sea from Nazareth, and as an itinerant laborer he would have moved up the coast from harbor to harbor. This explains how Jesus appears in Capernaum, a major harbor and an important center of the fishing trade, at the beginning of Mark’s story.

The elite controlled the fishing industry in three ways. They sold fishing leases, without which locals like Peter and Andrew, and the sons of Zebedee in Mk. 1:16ff, could not work. They taxed the catch and its processing, and levied tolls on product transport.

Ched Myers

Ched Myers, a theologian, teacher, author, and organizer, has worked with many peace and justice organizations and movements, including American Friends Service Committee, Pacific Concerns Resource Center, and Pacific Life Community. He is currently with Bartimaeus Cooperative Ministries, where he focuses on building capacity for biblical literacy, church renewal, and faith-based witness for justice. This article is based on his presentation to the Peace Gathering on January 13. ©2009 Ched Myers. Much of this material will appear in Ambassadors of Reconciliation, Vol. I: New Testament Reflections on Restorative Justice and Peacemaking, to be published in spring 2009 by Orbis Books.