Friday, May 2, 2014

Engaging “The Myth of a Non-Violent Jesus” by Jeffrey Mann
Posted on May 2, 2014 by Charlie | Leave a comment

G. K. Chesterton once wrote that “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.” When it comes to the nonviolent implications of this “Christian ideal,” the situation is even bleaker—something other than the nonviolence of the gospel has been found wanting, and this lack in something else is used to set aside the gospel.

A good example of this procedure is to be found in a recent essay published online at RealClearReligion: “The Myth of a Non-Violent Jesus” by Jeffrey Mann, Associate Professor of Religion at Susquehanna University. I was alerted to the essay by a friend from graduate school (and Cascade Books author), Kate Blanchard of Alma College, who invited her “pacifist friends” on Facebook to respond to the essay. The comments were largely critical, and in that snarky and dismissive sort of way that we’ve grown used to, if not entirely comfortable with, in blog comboxes and Facebook threads.

What many of us commenters failed to notice was that Kate had tagged the author of the essay in her post. One commenter eventually pointed this out and gently admonished us for not being “especially winsome or proclamatory” in our responses. (Relevantly, this same commenter also noted that she wasn’t sure that what we had said was “problematic in light of the ornery (if not violent) Jesus.”) Prof. Mann then weighed in, graciously un-offended by the tone and character of the criticism, but puzzled by the lack of substantive engagement with his essay. I pledged to use my Friday blog post at Running Heads to say more, and so here I am.

I think the essay is deeply flawed from the very beginning, but before I get to the beginning and then to specific claims elsewhere in the essay, I can’t help but wonder about something that’s not terribly clear in the essay—namely, the reason for it. I wonder what inspired Prof. Mann to write the essay in the first place. The essay represents an attack on the notion that Jesus taught nonviolence. Is Prof. Mann worried that too many contemporary American followers of Jesus are advocates of nonviolence? That we are experiencing or are about to experience an outbreak of Christian nonviolence? Of too many people believing and acting as if the Jesus they proclaim as Lord and savior renounced violence and that they should too?

The United States of America is not a country famous for its nonviolence. American Christians in particular are not renowned for their cruciformity—their preference for death at the hands of their enemies rather than taking up the sword against them. Deep in the heartland of an allegedly “Christian” America, the death penalty is supported with more vigor and assertiveness than in landsfar more secular and post-Christian. America has more guns than citizens (most of them handguns designed to be used against human beings and not animals, large or small), and it has the largest military budget in the world by a very large margin. The United States is the only nation that has used nuclear weapons in warfare, and it did so against civilian populations, having previously used conventional weapons to devastating effect against other civilian centers. These facts about American violence in WWII are not disputed, nor are they much lamented. The last several decades of American life have included numerous wars of choice that have cost thousands of American lives and tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of non-American lives. Yet Prof. Mann worries in public about a nonviolent Jesus? It’s not clear to me why. Why talk about this topic, and why talk about it now?

To the essay itself.
It opens tellingly—with a fictional “bar fight” scenario in which we are to imagine an answer to the question, “What would Jesus do in response to a ruffian who wants to sucker punch Jesus for talking to his girlfriend?” I say that this opening is telling because the central problem with the essay in my view is that it is an attack on an imaginary problem, not a real one. The “problem” that Prof. Mann goes on to critique is no more true to life than is the bar scene that Jesus never entered, or the ruffian who never attempted to sucker punch him. Prof. Mann has imagined his problem, and one must give him points for consistency for concluding with an imaginary solution:
So, what would Jesus do with the young punk in the bar? I like to think that he would have ducked under the punch and applied a rear naked choke from behind, holding it firmly until the ruffian calmed down. That’s the Jesus I’m most comfortable with, but I have no special insight into the mind — or jujutsu skills — of Christ.
“I’d like to think . . .” “That’s the Jesus I’m most comfortable with . . .” These appeals to personal comfort and to what a twenty-first-century professor of religion would “like to think” about Jesus are not how Christians typically go about the business of establishing what is normative in light of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. After all, what is the meaning of Jesus’s abandonment on Good Friday if not that what disciples of Jesus would like to think and what they’re comfortable with may well collude with and participate in the betrayal and crucifixion of God’s divinely appointed Son? Dying to self and having one’s mind conformed not to the world but to Christ: such transformation is at the heart of the life of Christian discipleship, and such a life will certainly require giving up much of what we’d like to think and much of what we’re comfortable with.

However, between the opening and closing invocations of the imaginary bar scene, Prof. Mann does engage in more traditional forms of argumentation about the nature of the Christian moral life. He appeals to Scripture and tradition (Luther), for example. Yet Prof. Mann deploys these sources to critique what can only be called a straw man:
The popular perception of Jesus is that he would take it on the chin [in the bar fight] — and then turn the other cheek. After all, didn’t Jesus teach non-violence?
Jesus was not an advocate of nonviolence. Nope, he never said a word about it. In fact, we have him on record behaving violently — in all four gospels! While he often avoided violence, this does not mean he taught an ethic of non-violence.
If we are going to set the record straight, we need to look at those parts of the gospels that are used to support the non-violence claim, as well as those that refute it.
Prof. Mann’s plan, as suggested in these paragraphs, is to turn to the scriptural “record” to set some other “record” straight. That other record is presumably the popular opinion of Jesus as a teacher of and advocate for nonviolence. We get zero evidence from such a record, which is one sort of problem. Where are the examples of the views about Jesus that Prof. Mann believes are popular? He offers no quotes or citations. The failure to give voice to the position he’s critiquing becomes more and more problematic as the essay unfolds. For Prof. Mann’s cumulative portrait of the advocate of a nonviolent Jesus is little more than a caricature, including all sorts of exaggerated and imaginary features—they believe in a sweet and sentimental notion of love; they must not think there’s any room for punishment; they don’t know much about Trinitarian theology or about the early church’s rejection of Marcion; they don’t get the plain meaning of the cleansing of the temple; they haven’t thought about how unflattering their theology is to people who serve in the military; they don’t have a Lutheran view of the sword (as with any caricature, some details are in fact true to life); and so on and so forth. Were Prof. Mann to try and substantiate this portrait with appeals to the published record of well-known advocates of Christian nonviolence like Stanley Hauerwas or John Howard Yoder—or even popularizers of their work like Rodney Clapp or Shane Claiborne—he would get nowhere fast (the Lutheran bit excepted).
Another sort of problem is the way Prof. Mann dismisses the idea that Jesus is an advocate of nonviolence because there are no words to this effect in the gospels (he claims). Yet for his counter-evidence, Prof. Mann directs us not to words of Jesus advocating violence; he points rather to behavior—Jesus is said to have behaved violently in all four gospels. So on the one hand Jesus can only have a teaching of nonviolence if he literally said as much; on the other hand his (allegedly) violent behavior in the temple speaks for itself to demonstrate that Jesus taught something other than nonviolence.

Of course, the relatively well-known advocates of nonviolent discipleship—whose views are, it must be said, anything but popular in American Christianity—would never want to separate the words of Jesus from his work. What Jesus says and teaches in the Sermon on the Mount is what he demonstrates with his life in general, his death in particular. So, for example, John Howard Yoder, reading the Sermon on the Mount in and through the crucifixion:
Here at the cross is the man who loves his enemies, the man whose righteousness is greater than that of the Pharisees, who being rich became poor, who gives his robe to those who took his cloak, who prays for those who spitefully use him. The cross is not a detour or a hurdle on the way to the kingdom, not is it even the way to the Kingdom; it is the Kingdom come. (The Politics of Jesus, 51)
Such an interpretation challenges Prof. Mann’s attempt to restrict Jesus’s nonviolence at the cross to one particular context (“Opposition to violence in one context does not demand condemnation of all violence.”)—for if the cross of Christ is God’s definitive response to human evil and disobedience, then it is not a sideshow that followers of Christ can ignore for the main show, nor a contextual truth that we can dismiss as inapplicable to our own unique contexts, but rather the way of truth in a world of violence, a way that we must also walk. And as it turns out, we are summoned repeatedly to take up and follow Jesus on the way of the cross throughout the New Testament.
So the behavior of Jesus in his trial and crucifixion are at least as important for theologians “of record” on the question of Jesus’ nonviolence as are a few verses from the Sermon on the Mount. Yet those words of Jesus are important too, especially ones that Prof. Mann doesn’t engage at all, such as Matthew 5:45, which explains why we should love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us: “so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” This passage contradicts at a cosmic level the logic of Prof. Mann’s claim that “Failing to punish a dangerous criminal is not behaving with love toward the rest of our neighbors.” Is God, in allowing the sun to rise on the evil, not behaving with love towards neighbors of the evil? Is God complicit with evil and unrighteousness for allowing time to go on without punishing the wicked right now?
Were we to look with any depth at Jesus’ cleansing of the temple passages, we’d be hard-pressed to interpret Jesus’ behavior as a full-blown defense of violence that could include war and capital punishment, let alone violent self-defense. Who is injured in this episode? Who is killed at the hand of Jesus? Whose blood is shed? Is there evidence in the scriptures that Jesus strikes or harms even a single human being? Or do people flee because Jesus drives out the very animals on which their sacrilegious profiteering depended? Only the Gospel of John even mentions a whip, which Prof. Mann thinks is the instrument of Jesus’ violence. Yet as commenter Scott Williams (another grad-school friend) pointed out on Facebook, even John does not say Jesus used the whip against people.Andy Alexis-Baker has recently given a close reading of John 2:13–15 on this very question, and he demonstrates that early Christians read the behavior of Jesus in the Johnannine pericope nonviolently, and he encourages us to do likewise.

Prof. Mann makes numerous other points, each of which could lead to much further reflection. Alas, I have only so much time to blog on this. I hope I have written enough to demonstrate that a real engagement with “the record” on the question of Jesus and nonviolence requires much more than Prof. Mann offers in his essay, at least if “the record” of actual well-known advocates of Christian nonviolence is allowed to speak. In the essay as it stands, I’m afraid it’s imagination all the way down.
In responding to the so-called New Atheists, David Bentley Hart has recently written that “The books of ‘the new atheists’ [are] nothing but lurchingly spasmodic assaults on whole armies of straw men.” I suspect Prof. Mann shares that judgment, as do I. When I read or listen to Harris or Dawkins go on and on about the idiocy or evil or whatever of belief in God, I am often astonished by how little they seem to know about what Christian theologians in particular have actually said and thought about these matters. “No ‘case against God’, however watertight, means much if it’s directed at the wrong target,” writes a journalist at the Guardian (of all places!) after reading Hart’s new book. 

Yet I’m afraid Prof. Mann’s essay fails in much the same way—it’s a case of misdirected critique badly in need of greater familiarity with the views it seeks to dismiss.

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