A Third Way – Jesus and Nonviolence

Posted on April 27, 2008


Wink, Walter. Jesus and Nonviolence: A Third Way. Fortress, 2003. (119 pages).

What does it mean to champion non-violence, and to live against the “Myth of Redemptive Violence?”

The beginning chapters of this short book illuminate the passage in Matthew 5:38-42, the famous “eye for eye” (cloak and tunic, and “extra mile”) passage that has been used to justify Christians being holy “door mats” for evil people to walk all over. Reading more closely the context and the language, we see that Jesus offers a third way of responding to evil and injustice in the world; discovering “creative alternatives that transcend the only two that we are conditioned to perceive: submission or violence, flight or fight.” (p.34-5) “Jesus suggests amplifying an injustice (the other cheek, the undergarment, second mile) in order to expose the fundamental wrongness of legalized oppression.” (p.42)

Jesus’ teaching is a kind of moral jujitsu, a martial art for using the momentum of evil to throw it. (p.43)

Jesus did not advocate nonviolence merely as a technique for outwitting the enemy, but as a just means of opposing the enemy in such a way as to hold open the possibility of the enemy’s becoming just as well. (p.45).

Later chapters then expand the practical and theological implications of Jesus’ teachings.

Faith in God means believing that anyone can be transformed, regardless of the past. To write off whole groups of people as intrinsically racist and violent is to accept the very same premise that upholds racist and oppressive regimes…As Narayan Desai remarks, ‘Nonviolence presupposes a level of humanness — however low it may be, in every human being.’ (p.68)

Wink then touches on the Romans 13 passage, explaining the Greek and sums up,

We are lawful in our illegality. It is only because we submit to the principle of law that we demand that unjust laws be made just in the first place. (p.77)

The book is short and to the point, but packed with explanations and examples. He ends by saying,

Jesus’ Third Way is not an insuperable counsel to perfection attainable only by the few. It is simply the right way to live, and can be pursued by many. The more who attempt it, the more mutual support there will be in following it. (p.103)

KEY PERSPECTIVE: Jesus, in these passages are talking to the victims of violence and oppression. We see that in “if any one would strike/sue/take from you.”

KEY GOAL: Jesus is not advocating the absence of conflict. In fact, he is promoting conflict in a new way. Actually, he is positing a different kind of conflict, one that was not initiated by the perpetrator but one that is initiated by the victim. We see this in the “turn the other cheek,” “give him your cloak as well,” and finally, “go with him two miles.” Each of these actions is a thoughtfully calculated new conflict that forces the perpetrator to think a different kind of strategy of oppression; in fact, it forces the oppressor to become a victim themselves.

KEY RESULT: This kind of behavior recognizes the value of the victim, and forces the perpetrator to acknowledge the equality of the parties, almost irrespective of the laws.

KEY STRATEGY: How does that happen? “By refusing to be awed by their power, the powerless are emboldened to seize the initiative, even where structural change is not possible…He accepts the laws as they stand, pushes them to the point of absurdity, and reveals them for what they really are.” (p.21)

SUMMATION – Jesus’ Third Way:

* Seize the moral initiative
* Find a creative alternative to violence
* Assert your own humanity and dignity as a person
* Meet force with ridicule or humor [“Jesus in effect is sponsoring clowning” (p.21)]
* Break the cycle of humiliation
* Refuse to submit or to accept the inferior position
* Expose the injustice of the system
* Take control of the power dynamic
* Shame the oppressor into repentance
* Stand your ground
* Force the Powers to make decisions for which they are not prepared
* Recognize your own power
* Be willing to suffer rather than you retaliate
* Cause the oppressor to see you in a new light
* Deprive the oppressor of a situation where a show of force is effective
* Be willing to undergo the penalty for breaking unjust laws
* Die to fear of the old order and its rules

SOME QUESTIONS: So, I have some questions about all of this. Historically, is this accurate? Are the cultural nuances that Wink is bringing up well founded? There were not a lot of citations in the book, just a scattered bibliography. I would love to have some primary source material that substantiated these interpretations.

Second, how does this match up with the rest of Jesus’ life and teachings? From what I can muster so far, fairly well. So, if these interpretations turn out to be accurate, I welcome the fuller picture of Jesus’ message, and would ask that we all engage at a new level of teaching from Jesus and the brilliant nuances that he is purporting for his followers. Given that many gain meaning simply by reading the “words on the page,” this will challenge all of us to think intelligently about what is actually being said. I have begun to slowly eliminate the question, “What does the Bible mean?” replacing it with the question, “What did the Bible mean?” This insight highlights once again the importance of that kind of inquiry.

Third, and lastly, how does this teaching translate into today’s world? I’ve shared with my (adolescent) students that one expression could be to clean the whole house if your mother asks you to only clean your own room. But that kind of “extra mile” effort is only met with groans and “you’ve got to be kidding me” responses :). How does this work with, say, Iraq, Afghanistan, the Taliban, extremist religious groups. I haven’t done much processing in this direction, but I welcome some thoughts. How do we exemplify the “third Way” in very practical and tangible terms with extremely violent oppressors that wish us non-existence?

I’ll end with this quote:

It cannot be stressed too much: love of enemies has, for our time, become the litmus test of authentic Christian faith…Love of enemies is the recognition that the enemy, too, is a child of God. (p.58-9)