The Uses of Violence and Non-Violence

Palm Sunday, March 20, 2005
Rev. Victoria Weinstein

READING From Walter Wink' s "Jesus and Alinsky"

"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 anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also; and if anyone would sue you and take your coat, let him have your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles." (Matthew 5:38-41, RSV)

Many who have committed their lives to working for change and justice in the world simply dismiss Jesus' teachings about nonviolence as impractical idealism. And with good reason. "Turn the other cheek" suggests the passive, Christian doormat quality that has made so many Christians cowardly and complicit in the face of injustice…. Rather than fostering structural change, such attitudes encourage collaboration with the oppressor.

Jesus never behaved in such ways. Whatever the source of the misunderstanding, it is neither Jesus nor his teaching, which, when given a fair hearing in its original social context, is arguably one of the most revolutionary political statements ever uttered.

When the court translators working in the hire of King James chose to translate antistenai as "resist not evil," they were doing something more than rendering Greek into English. They were translating non-violent resistance into docility. The Greek word means more than simply to "stand against" or "resist." It means to resist violently, to revolt or rebel, to engage in an insurrection. Jesus did not tell his oppressed hearers not to resist evil. His entire ministry is at odds with such a preposterous idea. He is, rather, warning against responding to evil in kind by letting the oppressor set the terms of our opposition.

A proper translation of Jesus' teaching would then be, "Do not retaliate against violence with violence."


It was two years ago, March 19th, 2003, when the United States began a war with Iraq, which our leaders said was for reasons of liberating that country of its evil dictator, and for protecting the rest of the world from the threat of weapons of mass destruction being concealed by Saddam Hussein.

Making a statement from the deck of an aircraft carrier, President Bush declared "mission accomplished" on May 1, 2003. Since Badghad fell, in April of 2003, over 1300 more American soldiers have come home in caskets, and it is hard to estimate how many tens of thousands of Iraqis are dead. As we enter the holy week of the Christian liturgical year, it is as good a time as any to look at the practices that perpetuate human violence, and the teachings of a man who tried to establish a religion based on non-violence.

So let' s begin with Jesus of Nazareth, an itinerant preacher who began a ministry in Palestine a little over 2000 years ago. Jesus was a teacher of resistance: he lived in an honor-shame society where both his Jewish community and the occupying power, the Romans, separated society into the privileged and the untouchables, with strict rules governing who was who and what was ritually clean or honorable and what was not.

Jesus challenged the authorities on all sides, Roman and Jewish. He was an equal opportunity offender! He came to establish a new rule of law based on God' s love for all people, centered in acts of acceptance and healing (including the laying on of hands upon those who were considered ritually unclean), and preaching a coming kingdom of God. He came, he said, not to bring peace but a sword. What he meant by this is much debated. I think that he meant, "I do not intend my challenge to all of these systems of discrimination and oppression to be gentle or comfortable for any of you. I brandish the sword of truth before you, to commit the ultimate, radical surgery on a very sick world."

Palm Sunday commemorates the beginning of the end of Jesus' earthly ministry. On this day, he rode triumphantly into the holy city of Jerusalem, surrounded by adoring followers and watched with wary eye by religious authorities who opposed him. The Roman authorities, accustomed to having special difficulties managing the Jewish crowds at the time of Passover (the feast of deliverance from slavery) were alert. It was a season of great tension.

No one was naïve. The Jews who came to praise Jesus as he arrived by colt and donkey to the city would have remembered the peasant uprising that happened just before he was born, which was suppressed by Roman Governor Varus who sent in a legion of soldiers to rape the women, sell all the inhabitants of the area into slavery and to crucify 2,000 Jewish men along the road as a public warning not to steal food for your starving family again (for this is how the revolt began: with hungry peasants breaking into a granary). Jesus himself would have known this story. He was well-acquainted with the violence in his world, and he knew that crucifixion was a spectacle of horror favored by the Romans to use as a teaching method for unruly subjects.

Let me be brief with the rest of the story. Jesus arrives in Jerusalem, creates a stir by throwing around money-changers' tables in the temple, gives some highly provocative teachings, and predicts his own death and resurrection, which was not a claim unique to Jesus. It had been made before by other messianic figures in Jewish history. What is unique about Jesus is that his followers actually did claim that he was seen again after his execution, while history barely remembers the names of the other messiah wanna-bes.

Jesus is arrested, tried under dubious legal circumstances, and punished, and eventually he is taken away and crucified. His last supper with his inner circle of disciples will be observed in Christian churches this Thursday, and Good Friday marks the day of his death. It is a day upon which I encourage you to seriously reflect on the enduring use of violence as a means of expressing disagreement or quelling opposition in our world, and that you spend some time reflecting on the martyrdom of any of those men and women who speak truth to power. You might talk with your children about Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador, assassinated in his own church in 1980 while celebrating the Mass, or about the radical work of the Rev. Martin Luther King, or tell them the story of James Reeb and Viola Liuzzo, both Unitarian Universalist activists who were killed in Selma, Alabama where they had been marching for civil rights.

I said that Jesus was arrested and punished. Actually, he was tortured, which is what we call physically tormenting people who we think are withholding important information that might save lives. That is the most forgiving definition of torture I can come up with. Let me state it again: to torture is to physically and mentally torment those people in custody who are believed to be withholding important information that threatens the safety of the captor' s own people. That is one way to think about torture and its uses. We are here today to consider when, if ever, torture is an appropriate method for civilized people to obtain information. Experts tell us that information – or as we call it, "intelligence" - obtained in this manner is almost always unreliable.1

The Bible account says that Jesus – who had never committed any act of overt destruction, remember - was lashed many times with a whip, that the soldiers who had taken him into custody took his garments for themselves, stripped him naked and mocked him, standing there bleeding and bound before them, and said things like "Where' s your kingdom now, messiah?" They wove together sharp thorns and pushed them down onto his head in a perverse mockery of a king' s crown. He was dragged around like this to various authorities who pressured him for information – "Who are you?" they demanded, and "Who the hell do you think you are?" They were trying to obtain intelligence about other Jewish rebels through this captive.

And he replied in his typically enigmatic way. "Whatever you say, that' s who I must be." He wouldn' t play their game. He wouldn' t give himself up or name names or say what they wanted to hear. What they wanted to hear was something like, "Yes, I' m planning a huge insurrection against your empire and if you let me go and I' ll lead you to my top guys."

Jesus gave no one up, nor did he make any clear statement to implicate himself. He just suffered his torments with patience, holding to his own truth, and he died on the cross, just like thousands of other troublemakers who had been executed by Rome.

Fast forward about two thousand years. A very young nation, whose leaders mostly think of themselves as followers of this man Jesus, is at war both with a loosely affiliated group of extremist Islamic terrorists from various nations, and has also gone to war directly with one country called Iraq, which it feels is particularly nurturing those terrorists. It is all part of a larger, complicated part of history we are already calling "The War on Terror."

The reason for all of this is that the young nation, calling itself the United States of America, has suffered a great and cataclysmic attack at the hands of terrorists which killed three thousand or more of its people and committed devastation upon two of its cities, traumatized its entire populace and economically hobbled several of its most important industries.

They call it The War on Terror, but the rules of engagement are rather new, and the leaders are groping for a sense of how to conduct this war. Since the enemy does not honor any of the rules of engagement and conventions agreed upon by civilized nations, the United States feels it had better think also outside the box, as it were, in how it treats those prisoners it catches. And so it denies prisoners legal counsel, access to their families and to the International Committee of the Red Cross. It engages in "extraordinary rendition," which means that it exports certain prisoners to the custody of foreign governments widely known to allow torture.2 In 2002, a memo goes out from its Justice Department Office of Legal Counsel approving more coercive tactics for those caught up in the sweep or arrests, advising that nothing short of limb removal or permanent organ damage amounts to torture.

The Secretary of Defense initially supports this new definition of torture. Later, he is concerned about its appropriateness and changes his mind. Military leaders express concern, as do legislators. Military personnel are caught up in the confusion – it is a mess.

And then in 2003, prisoners at Abu Ghraib, Iraq' s biggest prison, the majority of whom are not what the military calls "valuable targets" but are "ordinary bystanders caught in random roundups" (Time Magazine, January 17, 2005), are subjected to the tortures you have seen in the news: starvation, physical torments, hooding, electric prods, sleep deprivation, mental cruelty, ritual sexual humiliation. Some of the prisoners die, and photos are taken of them with grinning American soldiers standing by their inert bodies. These tortures occasionally carry with them messages of religious dominance: in one case, a female American interrogator sexually humiliates a devout Muslim Saudi prisoner, rubbing her body against him until he is excited and wiping his face with a substance she tells him is menstrual blood, which in his religion renders him ritually impure before his God. He is told, "Have a fun night in your cell without any water to clean yourself." Another prisoner is stripped naked and hit repeatedly on his broken leg as he is mocked for praying to Allah. He is ordered to curse Islam and to thank Jesus that he is alive. (Jeff Jacoby, "Saying Nothing is Torture in Itself," Boston Globe, January 30, 2005).

In October of 2004, Amnesty International, an international human rights organization warns, "The human rights violations which the U.S. government has been so reluctant to call torture when committed by its own agents are annually described as such by the State Department when they occur in other countries."

And yet many patriotic Americans who favor this kind of treatment of prisoners also claim to be followers of Jesus. How could they be so confused? Perhaps because they are far more Roman than Christian, believing, as was understood by the ancient Greeks whose beliefs so informed the practices of the later Roman empire, that truth is located in the body and that the use of torture is a legitimate means to extract that truth.

In the Athenian society -- the society which provided the origins for our very idea of democracy – only slaves were tortured, because it was thought that they would not reveal the truth any other way, they were too morally inferior, animals. In a court of law, a citizen could be counted on to give an honest testimony, as he was morally bound by a code of honor. The slave, however, thoroughly "other" in the eyes of the court, had to have the truth coerced out of him or her by blood and pain and terror.

"The practice of slave torture is consistent with [Athenian] democracy' s policies of exclusion, scape-goating, ostracism and physical cruelty and violence." (duBois, p 37) To torture is to inscribe a permanent label of "other" upon the very bodies of that captive. The legacy of torture is to supply a steady stream of those tortured "others" into the world, who are not likely to forget, nor to forgive, the lesson they learned at the hands of their captors. Neither are their sons and daughters likely to forget, or to forgive.

Page duBois writes in her book Torture and Truth, "It may be that the function of torture today, rather than the production of truth, is one of spectacle, of the production of broken bodies and psyches, both for local and international consumption." (p 148) She quotes a report from U.S. News and World Report that states, "Contrary to popular imagination, torture' s primary use today is not to gain information. It is a tool for political repression, used to mentally destroy people in captivity, then release them to strike terror into the community. The more extreme the pain and torment, the more horrifying the message and the easier it becomes to intimidate a dissenting population." (p 155)

Is there a more moral, a wiser, a less devastating way to pursue justice, and to obtain information that may be crucial to national security? Walter Wink writes that "There are three general responses to evil: (1) violent opposition, (2) passivity, and (3) the third way of militant nonviolence articulated by Jesus. Human evolution has conditioned us for only the first two of these responses, fight or flight." (in The Impossible Will Take a Little While, ed. Paul Rogat Loeb, p. 151)

So while we question the morality of how we are currently fighting the war on terror, we are also aware that to flee is not an acceptable alternative. The pacifist way we think Jesus taught seems awfully close to fleeing, or to lying meekly down and waving a white flag. But that' s not what the gospel tradition actually teaches. Let' s take another look.

Jesus says, "If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also." Big help, right? But it' s not what it seems. Let me give you some context (as given by Walter Wink in his essay, "Jesus and Alinsky"):

In our right-handed world, for someone to strike me on my right cheek, he' s going to have to hit with his left hand if he wants to get in a really good smack. In the ancient world, the left hand was used only for ritually unclean tasks, and we know from ancient documents that even gesturing with the left hand in some religious communities carried a penalty of ten days' penance. So it seems that neither Romans nor Jews were likely to be hitting anyone with the left hand.

To hit someone on the right cheek, then, requires a back-handed slap; which carries with it a much different connotation and level of violence. A back-handed slap is meant more to humiliate than to initiate a fist fight. Who, in the ancient world, would have received a back-handed slap? An inferior: a slave, a wife, a child… and if you' re Roman -- a Jew. It was a common way to admonish a subordinate. Jesus knew this. He knew he was talking to a crowd of people who were frequently subject to this particular indignity, so what he was really saying was, "When someone tries to humiliate you, make them work for it. When they slap you as a means of dominating you, show them that you will not be dominated. Offer them your right cheek as a gesture that you are not so easily vanquished; invite them to hit you with their fist." Jesus knew that to hit someone with a fist was to acknowledge a peer relationship. He was not advocating victimhood, but a mockery of his society' s stratification of power.

September 11 was far more than a slap in the face. I am not suggesting a clear parallel between Jesus' example and the great wickedness perpetrated upon our soil on 9/11, and elsewhere by terrorists at other times. What I am asking us to think about is Jesus' challenge to think about power in a new way. The United States of America is the most powerful nation on earth. What does that mean? Does that mean that it is the most secure, the most invulnerable to outside harm? Is that real power? Or is our real power located in our claim to maintain a democracy and commitment to human and civil rights guaranteed by our Constitution? Is it real power to make a public spectacle of breaking the bodies of your enemies and parading them around as a warning to other potential enemies? Is that power? Are we confusing power with military dominance?

Is it more powerful, as Jesus suggested, to hold to your own sense of inviolable dignity and honor no matter what the external stresses on that honor?

When considering the very idea of security, is true security to be sure no one can physically "get you" and your people, or is true security to hold tenaciously and uncompromisingly to a civilized code of conduct no matter what the temptation to participate in acts that degrade the bodies and souls of both those who torture and those who are tortured?

One man went to his death by crucifixion over two-thousand years ago because he had a non-conformist definition of power and of security. We have yet to learn what the world could be if the most powerful nation on earth, whose founders were without exception raised in churches bearing the symbol of that self-same cross, would seriously consider, and seriously implement a national policy based on that non-conformist understanding of power and security, a non-conformist understanding of power and security taught by Jesus and by his Jewish forebears, and – by the way -- by the teachings of the prophet Mohammed, and the prophet Buddha, by the wisdom of the Upanishads and by many saints and sages of many religious traditions all over this small planet, over many thousands of years.

We have yet to find out what the world could be.

Thank you for listening. Amen. Shalom. As-Salaam-Alaikum.

1 I recommend that the congregation acquaint yourselves with the STOP (Stop Torture Permanently Campaign) currently underway through the UU Service Committee, which enumerates many practical deficiencies of intelligence obtained using torture. See

2 I thank UU World editor Christopher Walton for acquainting me with this practice, and for referring me to articles on extraordinary rendition from the New Yorker and other sources.