Radical discipleship…is there any other kind?

I occasionally hear people saying things like, “I could never do what you do,” or “I’m not an activist type” or, “Not everyone can be activists.” Occasionally I’ll ask, “Why not?” but mostly I just bite my tongue and put up with the slightly queasy feeling in my stomach. I’ve had no fewer than three such conversations about this in the last week, and so it seems timely to put my challenges to this kind of thinking in a little more depth. And hopefully to do so with the grace that I’m shown daily by God.

Understand that I do what I do (nonviolent direct action/civil disobedience) not because I feel a particularly special “call”, but because I look at Jesus and it seems to me to be what Jesus calls his disciples to do. Not just some disciples, not just a “hardcore” element, just “whosoever would be my disciple”. You don’t need to be special or different, it’s just the call to “follow”, and following means doing the things Jesus did (including the cross). I’m not special or different – I have the same pressures, hesitations, fears, questions anyone has. As I said to a group recently, I dislike the word “activist” being attached to me for the same reason for the same reason that Stanley Hauerwas doesn’t like to be called ‘pacifist’ – because it “sounds like you have a position that is somehow separate from your worship of the crucified Savior.” I don’t like the implication that a) activism is somehow separate from or extra to my being a disciple of Jesus and b) “Simon does activism,” as though that’s my thing and it somehow therefore lets others off the hook. “Activist” should simply be assumed in the word “Christian”.

In a sense, I resent it when people say or imply that, “Not everyone can be an activist,” because, I think, why not? I’m an activist, and goodness knows there are many days I’d like not to be. It’s had costs for me in terms of relationships, in terms of time, in terms of stress and money and a raft of other things. In many ways I’d like to find a convenient out that lets me off the hook too. I mean seriously, what’s different about me than you that means I can do it and you can’t? That’s what always strikes me when I meet people I respect or regard as heroes (like John Dear or Kathy Kelly) – at first I’m a little starstruck, and then I start to realise they’re just a normal person, and it’s not a disappointment, it’s an empowering realisation. Because when we hero worship people (or just consider them weird), it holds them at arm’s length, and lets us off the hook. But when we discover we’re no different, all excuses are gone (which is the point of Dorothy Day’s “don’t call me a saint” comment – “I won’t be dismissed that easily,” she said).

It’s just that I believe that this is what discipleship looks like (or actually, I’m a pale imitation of what discipleship looks like). In other words, ‘radical discipleship’ is not some subset of a general group called ‘discipleship’. It is not only for the ‘hardcore’. It’s for all of us. “Whosoever would follow.” If Jesus defines discipleship as taking up your cross, and taking up your cross isn’t costly, then what is it?

Of course I’m painfully aware that it’s difficult to say this without a) sounding like I’m up myself or b) sounding like the bar of discipleship is impossibly high. As far as a) goes, I’m just starting on this journey; the reality is I’ve taken very few risks, and those I’ve taken have been fairly calculated and small. But I don’t see that  as anything other than unfaithfulness to the call to follow with my whole self, to offer my whole self as a “living sacrifice”. So I’m not in any way holding myself up as an example, I’m trying to hold myself to the same standard. And as far as b) goes, of course in the grace of God both faithfulness and unfaithfulness are safe places to be; it’s just that we’re invited to far more with faithfulness. So failure is always in the context of grace, with the invitation to keep trying.

I hear people often complain that those who are “hardcore” (whatever that means) separate themselves from or look down on those who “aren’t”, or treat them as lesser. That has not been my experience (well, generally speaking, though there have been exceptions). In my experience it is far more often the other way around – those with less experience feel inferior for their own reasons, not because anyone else made them feel that way – and they then project this feeling of inferiority onto those with more experience. I’ve done that. I now try to recognise it when I do.

So do I think everybody has to do civil disobedience/risk arrest? Not necessarily, though many more do, especially leaders. Leaders need to lead by example. Certainly it would help to spread the load if everyone did though. Imagine this is what the church was known for – nonviolently getting in the way of injustice and violence wherever it happened, demonstrating love that is willing to bear costs.

If Jesus saw fit to describe discipleship in terms of taking up our cross (and, as Yoder reminds us, “Only at one point, only on one subject – but then consistently, universally – is Jesus our example: in his cross”), why do we think it’s not going to cost our comfortable middle class lives anything to follow Jesus?

Do I think that risking arrest is the only way to “take up your cross”? No, of course not. Taking up your cross, though, does not merely mean any inconvenience or difficulty; it does have a particular social and political meaning. Here let me quote John Howard Yoder: “The cross of Calvary was not a difficult family situation, not a frustration of visions of personal fulfillment, a crushing debt or a nagging in-law; it was the political, legally to be expected result of a moral clash with the powers ruling his society.”

So taking up our cross does not mean any difficulty or inconvenience or frustration. It is something costly. It is something (mostly, at least in the West) we choose to take on. It is something that is done to us, usually by “authorities” (powers/principalities). It is a political and social (though not merely political and social) act, the result of laws or policies which mitigate against the quality of love being lived (what Jesus describes as “perfect” or “complete” love).  It is the result of actions, not mere thoughts, opinions, or attitudes.

I’m speaking as a privileged member of the First World here – taking up our cross, I believe, looks somewhat different to what it looks like for those in the majority world. For us it means ceding our privilege, moving towards genuine solidarity with those who are victims of our country’s or society’s policies. Real solidarity (not just charity) means coming alongside people not in a position of power but in vulnerability.

(Of course in reality I can never shed my power by virtue of my white skin, education, etc. But I can refuse to use it deliberately, take steps to undermine it, and find ways to gift my opportunities to those who are not usually going to be afforded them by our systems of privilege.)

I can’t judge you or anyone else (even myself – that’s God’s job), but I don’t think I’m doing anyone any favours letting this “I can’t do what you do” attitude slide by not calling it when I see it. I hope anyone else would hold me accountable in the same way.

I guess partly I’m saying that while God’s grace is always freely available, and therefore costly action is never a prerequisite for God’s love or grace, faithfully following Jesus does demand our whole selves. That means everything – family, money, reputation, life – all of the things you’re afraid of losing when you consider undertaking costly action. So we can skirt around it and say, “Well I’m just not ready for that yet” but we can’t pretend that our not being “ready” for it is still discipleship, is faithful following of Jesus. It’s not.

There’s no use waiting for some magic moment to be “ready”, no use succumbing to what Dr. King called, “the paralysis of analysis”. We need to try stuff out. Take a step. “Experiment with truth” as Gandhi put it (experiments often fail, and that’s ok if you learn from them). Keep going. It’s only as you do that you learn how.

I like what Tim deChristopher said when someone asked him how they could keep him from going to prison. He quickly responded, “I’m not sure keeping me out of prison is a good thing. I’d rather think about having you join me.” It’s that kind of gracious, unexpected invitation to shed our privilege that I’m talking about.

What do you think? Am I just being a prat? Before you respond immediately, let me invite you to take a few minutes to think about your internal responses. Are they just cop outs? (That’s a genuine question.) I’m not asking if they’re real for you, of course they are. But are they reasons or just excuses? Then feel free to go me as hard as you like. 🙂

19 thoughts on “Radical discipleship…is there any other kind?

  1. Simon,

    I have nothing really to add. Brilliant post, revealing both your well-thought out wisdom on this subject, and also the visceral response you and others feel in regards to discipleship.

    Discipleship is about learning to follow Christ in the entirety of his example, and central to this is taking up one’s cross. We fall short, yes of course, but to imagine that we can aim for anything less than taking up our cross is a complete perversion of discipleship. As Ched Myers has said, there is no radical discipleship, only discipleship. In a similar sense, there is no comfortable middle class discipleship, only discipleship. Whenever we reduce the full, power-confronting call to discipleship we do not so much denigrate discipleship as we do the One of whom we are disciples.


  2. I like this bit…”I’m speaking as a privileged member of the First World here – taking up our cross, I believe, looks somewhat different to what it looks like for those in the majority world. For us it means ceding our privilege, moving towards genuine solidarity with those who are victims of our country’s or society’s policies. Real solidarity (not just charity) means coming alongside people not in a position of power but in vulnerability.”

    And this bit: ” why do we think it’s not going to cost our comfortable middle class lives anything to follow Jesus?”

    And Yoda [sic 🙂 !]: “The cross of Calvary was not a difficult family situation, not a frustration of visions of personal fulfillment, a crushing debt or a nagging in-law; it was the political, legally to be expected result of a moral clash with the powers ruling his society.”

    Yeah – I like a class analysis. I am always concerned that our priests speak to us Catholics as if we were still the oppressed minority – because people feeeeeeel so oppressed from 70 years ago before they bought all their bling. Oh please.

    But the essence of first world middle class is ‘comfort-seeking’ – the sense that we had it hard and must hold on to our comforts. Or that we were just born into comfort and comfort is our God given right. And comfort is in essence something material because we don’t trust or know how to do relationships.

    Being around CD for some people feels like stepping off the abyss. Certainly felt like that the last few months for me being around someone intent on doing ploughshares action. So very strong feelings – tied to class socialisation – need some place to be held and processed and regulated. Usually feelings in our society are regulated [psycological regulation that is!] through inaction.

    So we need communities that can help people through strong feelings that will come up in the face of CD or other nonviolent actions. Feellings of revulsion, terror, grief, despair….. hmmmmm is that the cross????

    Our discipleship will look different. It will be unique – even Cairns from Melbourne. It will have some hospitality and some prophetic bits I guess – and a bit of community and love.


    • Yes Margaret! Exactly. “Terror and ecstasy” – the two feelings Mark describes as the women’s response to the resurrection…that’s my experience too. More terror and ecstasy I say!

  3. Hey Simon,

    This post touches on so many things I have been wrestling with this past year (and continue to wrestle with). Most of these past months I have been stumbling around attempting to “take up the cross” as you describe it above, but usually finding excuses, shortcomings, or discussing the preparatory measures I would have to take in order to do it “correctly” or “efficiently. What you shared is encouraging and challenging. Thanks for the accountability via blog. Take care and peace.


  4. Thanks Simon, for giving me a stinging, but less than I deserve, slap across my theocratic face.

    I hope my next response to opportunity is better than my last, and my next step is to create opportunity.

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  7. I like this piece. Particularly the recognition of the ordinariness of activists & that it’s not all about being arrested. I see it as us all being part of the one body, we all have our part to play. But, it’s good to be challenged out of our comfort zones and be prepared to give up the easy life if we can.

  8. Hello Simon, I came across this post and thought I would make a response.

    Why do the Gospels not record Jesus going out of his way to preach to any Roman garrisons in Galilee or Judea? (Of course the simple answer is they weren’t Jewish and his mission was to the Jews.) Weren’t they oppressive and violent enough? I can’t say I’ve read any relevant historical accounts of that period, but I’ve heard it said (on, well, not too bad authority) that, in some areas of Galilee, Roman soldiers would line roads with hundreds of crucified men. True or not, I’m sure soldiers, when necessary, would quell an uprising with brutal and bloody force, and I doubt Rome had a presence in Palestine as a peace keeping gesture. No, just like today it was most likely about power and the control of land, wealth and resources – with any notion of ‘peace’ only a pretext to maintain the safe movement and control of this wealth. Yet why do the Gospels not report Jesus undertaking any civil disobedience, direct action or forming any blockades or pickets to protest Roman exploitation, violence and tyranny? Where were the political rallies? What about a few good direct actions on Pilate’s residence or at the Sanhedrin? Why no mention of petitions? Indeed, that all sounds absurd, transposing modern social constructs onto first century Palestine, but that aside I don’t read Jesus being intentionally political or having an interest in the political powers – unintentionally maybe, but not intentionally.

    I can go on. Why did Jesus never sail across the Mediterranean, walk up the steps of the Roman imperial palace and confront Tiberius Caesar about the crimes of the Empire? No violence, no threats just the uncomfortable truth. No doubt a miracle or two wouldn’t have went astray. He could have simply won Caesar over with fine words and demonstrations of power – shared the thrown even. Think of the centuries of suffering that could have been averted. Of course, he refused that temptation in the wilderness.

    But even leaving Caesar aside, why did Jesus never go out of his way to have a meeting with powerful authorities like Pontius Pilate or Herod Antipas? In fact, he only has a hearing with them under duress and not even at their bidding. The Bible tells us that Herod had actually desired to meet Jesus for sometime, but had, until then, not had the opportunity to do so. Why had Jesus not bothered to meet him I wonder, or even attempt to meet him? Surely Jesus had plenty of truth to say to these figures of corrupt power. Surely the message of the Gospel could have been revealed to them. But, instead, when he finally does meet them he offered no resistance; for the most part he remained silent. Weren’t these men the greater sinners, more so than the Pharisees and Sadducees, the tax collectors and prostitutes? Wouldn’t Herod and Pilate’s conversion meant more eradication of oppression and evil than, say, the conversion of Zacchaeus or Mary Magdalene? But no, Jesus didn’t do this and neither, more notably, did Pilate or Herod feel any need to condemn Jesus or have him executed. In fact, the Gospels tell us they would have been happy to have him released – with Pilate even anxious to do so.

    Jesus was obviously not seen as a threat to the State. Of course, violent insurrections would have been quelled with bloody force, but even a non-violent movement if it is really a serious threat to a State will be dealt with. But obviously in Jesus’ case they saw no need. Pilate saw it as merely concerning their religious customs and motivated by ‘jealousy.’ Jesus was actually accused of being a ‘political agitator’, but Pilate and Herod saw no basis for this claim – because there was none.

    Why, too, did Jesus never enter the Sanhedrin and challenge the religious elite and more specifically the High Priest? It seems that for the most part the religious sects, scholars and authorities had to go out of their own way to get an audience with Jesus. Jesus didn’t seem particularly interested in stopping, resisting, or challenging anything they said or did. I know there are passages in the NT where he rebukes them and challenges their authority, but he doesn’t seem to go out of his way to seek them out and do this. They seemed more likely to come to him or listen in on him, and he then respond when they reacted to him. Of course, there is the Temple cleansing, which is a very provocative and confronting act. But for the most part he seems far more interested in announcing the Kingdom of God to the common Israelite, in the back blocks of Galilee and Judea, and instructing the common Israelite to beware of and not imitate the attitudes and conduct of the religious authorities.

    And then, of course, there are the silent years in Nazareth, which is anyone’s guess as to Jesus’ ‘political’ engagement.

    I will suggest he didn’t do these things because he wasn’t interested in challenging the political powers and structures of his day. He was interested in announcing and ushering in the Kingdom of God, a message that had radical spiritual and social implications for those who were willing to receive it. Born among the lowly and downtrodden, choosing to remain with them, he came to heal the sick, the broken and lame; to give sight to the blind and hearing to the deaf, to cast out demons, to bring light, to restore us to the Father. This will all be completed when he returns (of course if you’re a liberal, rationalist Christian and your epistemology is human reason and logic, then that’s all, at best, only metaphorical.)

    Other points:

    The White Rose activists (whom I admire greatly) of Nazi Germany espoused a lot of noble sentiment and demonstrated acts of great courage, but what did their death achieve for the millions of victims of the Nazi regime? Père Marie-Benoît a priest at the same time was rescuing thousands (or was it hundreds) of Jewish children. By the same token while activists are networking and rallying to get troops out of Afghanistan others are there tirelessly serving the innocent victims – demonstrating the greatest expression of the Kingdom of Heaven, that is, lives of selfless compassionate love. They’re there in Kabul, in the hospitals, rehab clinics, orphanages, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, putting new limbs on the limbless, bandaging the wounded and clearing land mines. Meanwhile, Australian activists (who I have much respect for) are busy organising there next direct action that will have absolutely no impact on the most fundamental and irrevocable bipartisan policy: Australia’s military/security alliance with the United States.

    Yet I’ve read you yourself argue quite cogently on this point. Something about (my words) domination being the source of the worlds injustices and that while there is war (the enforcement of this domination) the victims have no hope of rebuilding and restoring their lives and communities – for a whole plethora of interconnected reasons, also, that much of the good intentions, money and resources of NGO’s and charities only get hamstrung and siphoned away by corrupt internal parties anyway.

    But I will go on. The Berrigan brothers (whom I also have a lot of respect for), while they sat idly in prison were they not negligent in serving the victims of the wars in which they protested? Why did they protest? Perhaps because they thought they could stop, subvert and change the powers that perpetrate these evils. But I ask couldn’t God do that if he wanted to? Furthermore, aren’t we told in the temptation narrative that Satan showed Jesus all the Kingdoms of the world ‘that had been given to him’ (that is to Satan) and doesn’t Jesus say something like my ‘Kingdom is not of this world…’ So why do Christian activists expend large amounts of energy resisting and challenging principalities and powers that we are told will maintain a certain amount of dominion until the coming of God’s Kingdom in it’s fullness with the return of Jesus? (Questionable theology there I realise). And why do they do this when Jesus did not, his disciples did not, Paul did not?

    And why do you and other Christian activists do this at the expense of discipleship that will really cost you something and most likely put you at odds with corrupt powers in society without even paying them the slightest interest? The answer may be that you actually aren’t that ‘hardcore’ after all, or as ‘radical’ in your obedience to Christ and his Kingdom message as others claim you are. Really though I think you’re great from what I’ve read.

    So how might this costly Christian discipleship look and how might it make you inadvertently ‘political’?

    Let’s say you felt a deep yearning to follow Christ as ardently as Francis of Assisi, because like Francis you wholeheartedly believed the message and teachings of Christ, and so felt compelled to give up all you possessed and put your trust in him fully. To further your loyalty and resolve you renounced marriage so you could devote yourself completely to his Kingdom. A Kingdom of which you have not the slightest doubt as to the power, beauty and love of, for you yourself have been deeply touched and transformed by it. All worldly things now seem shallow and empty: the materialism, petty jealousies, the trivial celebrity gossip and the excessive wealth. You’ve now awakened to the emotional poverty and social isolation of neighbours; the unnecessary cruelty of wars; the excessive violence in society and the media, and the exploitation of the natural world by gratuitous human wants and greed.

    You give up all your worldly possessions, all attachments to social systems and institutions, which you now see as entrenched in corruption and human and environmental exploitation. You decide on sharing all things communally: shelter, food, skills and land. You put God’s children before your own blood ties, even your own parents. You call other people to this newfound liberation and you’re not ashamed to speak up about this in public. Many follow you as your passion, resolve and faith inspires them from out of the meaninglessness and superficiality of their own lives. You establish a simple communal life on the fringes of society. For food at times you must take from bins, beg, or work hand-to-mouth until you become more self-sufficient.

    Still you have not directly challenged any government, CEO, defence force or corrupt institution. No placards, petitions, or blockades. No letters or rallies or banners. No direct action: the splashing of blood over war machinery or laying a sledgehammer to a jet plane. No fines, no imprisonment. Yet, let me tell you, at times the weight of the Cross of Christ is so great upon your shoulders that you weep yourself to sleep at night and some days your heart aches with a painful sorrow. Why? Because the parents, friends and families of the people who have joined you hate you. To them you are just another crazy cult leader whose brain washed their loved ones. Wasn’t Jesus accused of such madness? They go to the media, to local government, create websites to discredit your name – filling them with false and inaccurate allegations. (Can you blame them when history, as well as the present, is littered by false prophets and religious charlatans, and the spiritual carcasses of the herds that followed them.) Some days you are even personally insulted by their rage, mocked and assaulted; interrogated by the police and shunned by people on the street.

    Because of your embrace of poverty, some nights you grimace bitterly to fight off the pain of hunger and the unremitting cold. On other nights as the snoring of one of your brothers in Christ reverberates in your head, from across the room, you lay grasping helplessly for sleep; half swallowed up by annoyance and half gripped by a deep longing for the intimacy of a marriage that could have been if, just maybe, you had have chosen another path. Instead the only touch you know is the tight clench of your own arms and hands as you desperately try to ward off the cold night air. So the cross weighs heavier still.

    Yet other nights, churning around your head comes doubts and questions, like a bacterial assault that seeks to sap you of all your joy and peace. Questions like what am I doing here? Am I truly following Christ? Have I led these people astray?

    Days are filled with the stress and weariness that come with a fledging community: food, rosters, teachings, building, rules, structures and discussions, and more discussions about whether to even have rules, buildings and structures.

    The psychological, mental and physical growth you experience in the early years of this discipleship are immense. It’s like a radical change that comes across your whole being, a metamorphosis, a death and rebirth. The cross you have carried has led you to a death on many levels. You have died to the world, its values, ideals, wants, pleasures and norms, but in their place you have been born to those of Christ’s Kingdom. You have died to the you (the self, the I), your appetites, desires, faithlessness, fears, socialisation, conditioning, prejudices and childishness, but in place of these you have become or are becoming a new self (Christ-like). A self long-suffering, self-effacing, faithful, discerning, less controlled by fear and more trusting of God. In all this you have not once engaged in deliberate political activity against the State, corrupt institutions or corporations.

    I know this all sounds very far-fetched, extreme and full of idealism, but if you entertain this example of discipleship for a moment (which in many ways is true to Jesus’ own ideals and teachings and, furthermore, has historical precedence) then it doesn’t take much to recognise that one would have a great cross to bear. And if, though unlikely, this movement was to gather a great following of people who renounced materialism and consumer spending, becoming so big as to have a measurable impact on economic activity and the GDP, then you would be having a significant political impact, sending a very strong and loud message to the forces of greed and exploitation, but it would be entirely unintentional and inadvertent. As a result the State and the media, as tools of corporations and industry, would be doing everything possible to undermine, discredit and attack you – again the cross.

    In all this, if you were really effective you would be imprisoned or put to death, if you were really a problem to the State. Western ‘democracies’ seem to have, generally, become a little cleverer now not to act in these ways, as for other States? Which raises a relevant point. In many places around the world merely saying you’re a Christian or gathering for worship is a dangerous ‘political’ act, without even remotely opposing a State in any deliberate sense. One could argue that this was the case for Christians in the first few centuries of the Roman Empire. Therefore, what I am saying is that, Christians in either the first century Roman Empire or modern anti-Christian states following Christ in the very same fashion here (in modern Australia) would not endure the hardships, imprisonment, persecutions and executions they did in those times and places. So who can judge the fidelity, sincerity and practice of modern Australian Christians based on whether they are or are not engaging in direct non-violent actions or civil disobedience, or on whether they are or are not suffering imprisonment, persecution or death?

    But why am I saying all of this? For, of course, there is no reason why one couldn’t live the kind of Franciscan discipleship I described and still do ‘political activism’ in the modern sense of this term, or non-violent direct action/civil disobedience based on the thinking of Walter Wink or JH Yoder. They aren’t mutually exclusive. While that may be so, why I’m saying this is because I think that ‘political activism’ non-violent direct action/civil disobedience are modern concepts that do not have a strong bearing, if any bearing, upon the life and teaching of Jesus. I don’t think he calls us to it, nor do I think that doing non-violent direct action is a real sign that you are truly bearing your cross. That said I have nothing against it and have myself supported people doing it. But I actually think it may be a distraction from the Gospel message and discipleship and, therefore, one should just set about doing it with no expectation that other Christians should do likewise, or with no sense that their chosen course is any less authentic, faithful or ‘hardcore’ – unless you can show me otherwise. Don’t get me wrong, I still believe in standing up for what is right, advocating for the oppressed, seeking justice and doing works of charity, but as for non-violent direct action/ civil disobedience or blockades?

    But look, I may be getting my concepts and words muddled and poorly defined, or I may really have a fuzzy and unclear picture of things. What’s more, all concepts, such as, ‘political’, ‘activist’, and ‘democracy’ can be deconstructed and only fall into meaninglessness in the end. Perhaps I’m just splitting hairs or defining things differently. I actually think on many things we may agree. I admire what catholic workers, such as, Kieran O’Reilly have done smashing war planes, spilling blood on nuclear mining equipment etc – though I think in the greater scheme of things it doesn’t achieve anything and wonder how much, if any, real effect it is having in the service of God’s Kingdom and bringing hearts and minds to Christ. If it ultimately has no effect, and if large numbers are never going to take up Kieran’s cause is it merely an ego thing or tokenism to ease his conscience?

    However, you may call something political activism that I do not, but we both may agree that it’s good, just and right to do. We both may say that that is what we believe Jesus himself would do and what we are called to do as his disciples. For example, I think if John Howard (does he profess to be Catholic or Anglican?) was sitting in a pew in a Cathedral in Canberra or Sydney and a Priest was at the pulpit to give his sermon, then he would have a perfect opportunity to challenge Howard’s crimes against humanity; to call him to turn from his sins and even expel him until he acknowledges and turns from them (this seems to contradict what I say later about love I accept that, but perhaps it is only fitting as he claims to be a Christian brother). So too, do I think some of those more State affiliated churches could officially take a much tougher line with the policies of the Government. I could give other examples none of which I think need to be called activism.

    A few more thoughts:

    I’ve heard this said too, I don’t know if it’s true or not: peace activists have never stopped war. The civil rights activists, such as Martin Luther King Jnr, helped end social injustices and inequalities (though many still exist and are deeply entrenched) however, the rights they brought about for African Americans were already cemented in the American Constitution and ultimately it never cost the holders of power anything. On the other hand, in war there is more at stake. Activists may think that they have stopped them, but history suggests other forces and pragmatic reasons are at play. The large protest movement that grew in American during the Vietnam War was, perhaps largely, because a whole lot of young men were worried that they would suddenly be conscripted into the war. The US has now gotten around that problem with the way it recruits soldiers. So there’s less likely any chance of a great civil movement. In other words, the masses couldn’t care less, unless war suddenly impacts them directly in some way or other.

    I accept that many, including myself, identify as Christians (whatever denomination or sect) but don’t really grasp the full significance and cost of Jesus’ message. Though, where I think I differ from you is that I don’t think that message is a call for non-violent resistance or civil disobedience, at least not in the modern political activist sense. But if what the Norwegian teacher’s did, that you mentioned in one post, during the Second World War constitutes the Christian engagement, discipleship or activism you are talking about then I can be in full agreement. And who am I kidding, there are plenty of other examples I could give when I think civil disobedience would be highly advisable, particularly if loyalty to God and his kingdom ethics are at stake.

    A response to: Beyond Just War and Pacifism: Jesus’ Nonviolent Way, by W. Wink.

    I see him referred to a lot by Christian activists so I decided to have a closer look at his work for myself. As much as I’m sympathetic to Winks interpretation of Matt 5:38-42, I think all that it really demonstrates is how coming to a text with preconceptions and an agenda only fashions an interpretation to suit that agenda and those preconceptions. In other words the evidence is made to fit the theory. I suspect Yoder and others who draw similar conclusion do much the same thing. That said there are elements of his interpretation I can accept, like Winks rendering of the Greek word, antistenai, “don’t react violently.” seems fine, but I’ll show you the problems I have.

    Wink writes:
    ‘The classical interpretation of Matt 5:38-42//Luke 6:29-30 suggests two, and only two, possibilities for action in the face of evil: fight or flight. Either we resist evil, or we do not resist it.’
    Is it really possible to get an interpretation of Matt 5:38-42 as a basis for fighting in the face of evil? I doubt anyone has ever used it as a basis for violence.

    ‘No account survives to us today of the penalties to be meted out to soldiers for forcing a civilian to carry his pack more than the permitted mile, but there are at least hints. “If in winter quarters, in camp, or on the march, either an officer 
or a soldier does injury to a civilian, and does not fully repair the same, he shall pay the damage twofold.”‘
    ‘No account survives’, here Wink is honest and the couple of hints he gives are from sources spaced half a century or so apart.

    ‘Imagine the situation of a Roman infantryman pleading with a Jew to give back his pack!’
    Wink speculates a far bit, I can also speculate. I doubt the infantryman would have had to plead. He’d have simply taken it back if he believed it might incur some kind of penalty or punishment. And Wink is talking about social inferiors isn’t he? The lowest of the low. If so then I doubt the infantryman would have even hesitated bringing out a sword or making a threat to get back his pack. Whose story would have carried more weight in a judicial setting if some slight misdemeanour had occurred anyway?
    Furthermore, simply because Wink can site semi-related laws, harsh as they may be, bears no connection to how much those laws were upheld by soldiers. There probably isn’t the historical evidence to say one-way or the other.
    And suppose the person carrying the pack continued to insist on walking the extra mile, even with a sword drawn to his/her neck. That may be considered an admirable act of non-violent resistance; it might be defying power; standing up for ones dignity and exposing corruption, but could it not also be interpreted as a gesture of contempt. Hardly what I think Jesus is really on about – love. Though to distil the Sermon on the Mount down to love may be an oversimplification in itself and, of course, defining love can be in itself problematic.
    But I believe Jesus’ is talking about love and not non-violent resistance – a genuine love that moves out of the heart into the world; not a hypocritical outward show, which Jesus cautions against in the Sermon on the Mount. Love like our ‘Heavenly Father who sends his rain on the honest and dishonest… good and bad’; like those who respond to those they see to be naked, hungry, in prison… (again from Matthew’s Gospel) or like the Samaritan in Luke’s Gospel.
    Everyone would have known the Roman occupation was repressive and unjust. The soldiers, centurions and Roman elite would have know they were despised by those they oppressed, but here Jesus is talking about a love that goes beyond all that and does good to an enemy. Not some smart-ass, non-violent action that comes from a begrudging spirit of victimisation and a spirit of ‘I’ll teach them.’

    ‘One can imagine that within days after the incidents that Jesus sought to provoke, the Powers That Be would pass new laws: penalties for nakedness in court, flogging for carrying a pack more than a mile! One must be creative, improvising new tactics to keep the opponent off balance.’
    How would such an outcome reflect the redemptive, kenotic message of Jesus? While, again, Wink is just speculating, he is in effect saying that Jesus’ message would bring about more evil, oppression and suffering to his hearers lives. Also the words ‘new tactics to keep the opponent off balance’ is couching Jesus’ words in war/fighting terms, an opponent is someone to overcome, defeat, humiliate and shame.

    ‘Jesus here reveals a way to fight evil with all our power without being transformed into the very evil we fight.’
    Did Jesus’ have any need to fight evil? However you conceptualise or understand the ‘demons’ and ‘evil spirits’ that Jesus encounters during his ministry they all trembled in his presence, fearing his power over them. I’m yet to call to mind any incident in the Gospels where Jesus could be said to be in a ‘fight’ or at least I would be reluctant to call even his confrontation of the religious authorities and temple cleansing a ‘fight’. What’s more, at any moment God can bring about restorative justice and bring peace in the world.
    Sometimes I wonder whether Wink’s concept of non-violent resistance would be better called passive-violent resistance – but I think that would be pushing it a bit far.

    ‘The person who turns the other cheek is saying, in effect, “Try again. Your first blow failed to achieve its intended effect. I deny you the power to humiliate me. I am a human being just like you. Your status does not alter that fact. You cannot demean me.” Such a response would create enormous difficulties for the striker.’
    Again Wink is speculating, but the words he has chosen for the one who has turned the other cheek don’t sound like those of someone with a very good heart space, but, of course, perhaps I’m wrong.

    ‘There stands the creditor, covered with shame, the poor debtor’s outer garment in the one hand, his undergarment in the other. The tables have suddenly been turned on the creditor. The debtor had no hope of winning the case; the law was entirely in the creditor’s favour. But the poor man has transcended this attempt to humiliate him. He has risen above shame. At the same time he has registered a stunning protest against the system that created his debt. He has said in effect, “You want my robe? Here, take everything! Now you’ve got all I have except my body. Is that what you’ll take next?” 
Nakedness was taboo in Judaism, and shame fell less on the naked party than on the person viewing or causing the nakedness.’
    Again, this to me doesn’t sound like the new social ethic and inner transformation of the Kingdom of God that Jesus was on about, that’s summed up in the Golden Rule (which also appears in the Sermon on the Mount.) Rather than a sincere expression of kenotic love, does Wink have Jesus’ teaching us a form of vindictiveness and contempt?
    I’m not saying that living by Jesus’ teachings won’t have an effect on other people for the good; that it won’t cause them to access their behaviour; cause them to feel ashamed or to turn from evil and start doing good. I just don’t feel that is the intent of Jesus’ teachings here. They’re about you and they’re about the hearts, lives and minds of his audience. This is what it means to enter the Kingdom of God, the new ethic that arises from a heart that is radically different from what has been before.
    Say you humiliate, ‘shame’ ‘ridicule’ and ‘lampoon’ them, as Wink proposes, and so there is some kind of regime change on their part. How has that had a positive impact if that person has not been touched by love, but has simply acted to counter-act his shame? In actual fact, it is more likely to escalate their level of violence and abuse.
    Jesus’ didn’t shame Zacchaeus. Zacchaeus would have known the people held him in contempt. In fact his response to Jesus infers that he did. Zacchaeus was touched by love, not by non-violent resistance. Love radically changed him.
    Again shame and repentance may be one consequence of turning the other cheek, or going the extra mile, or giving up the cloak. However, the Sermon on the Mount is not a political tract. It is a tract about the Kingdom of Heaven and it’s new social ethic of sincere love – a love that may or may not have repercussion in the political realm, but typically will.

    ‘This message, far from being a counsel to perfection unattainable in this life, is a practical, strategic measure for empowering the oppressed, and it is being lived out all over the world today by powerless people ready to take…’
    ‘He is not giving a non-political message of spiritual world-transcendence. He is formulating a worldly spirituality in which the people at the bottom of society or under the thumb of imperial power learn to recover their humanity.’
    I disagree with much of that. Jesus is giving far more than that political take concedes. That political reading is actually very impoverished. Jesus is offering them a totally new way and outlook as God’s children – loved and cherished by Him. Free from the oppression of sin and slavery to attachments such as fear, greed, violence, hatred and insatiable lust. He’s offering them an inner and social freedom marked by love and peace, and not dependent on the creditor, oppressor, political regime, soldier, market forces, or dependent on their social class, race, wealth, status, but rather on the Kingdom that Jesus is ushering in.
    It may not be a counsel to ‘perfection unattainable’ or ‘spiritual world-transcendence’, but it is a hard road, a difficult path and a narrow gate that few find. Its a way where one has to be willing to carry his or her cross, lose his or her life, go against social norms, mainstream values, to accept rejection by this world, to even be seen as a failure or, more so, as plain mad. Mind you I still believe our salvation is by faith and God’s grace alone.

    ‘One could easily misuse Jesus’ advice vindictively; that is why It must not be separated from the command to love enemies integrally connected with it in both Matthew and Luke.’
    I think Wink, here, may be guilty of doing just that, i.e. advocating vindictiveness. Love of enemies, or simply love, is what it’s about. Love is the key to these texts, not non-violent resistance. I would have thought they were best interpreted with the rest of the Sermon on the Mount in mind, and secondly the Gospels and thirdly the rest of the NT. Not like Wink would have us do, that is, through the modern lens of non-violent resistance or superimposing modern political concepts on to an ancient text.

    ‘Jesus offers a way to liberate themselves from servile actions and a servile mentality.’
    The liberation is actually the knowledge that we are servants: servants to others, servants of the servant King (who emptied himself and became as we are). We are liberated in the knowledge that we are restored sons and daughters of God, and we await His return and the great resurrection and the New Heaven and Earth. God who sees what is done in secret, who sees the indignities that are imposed upon us, does not ignore or forsake us, but will reward us as He sees fit.
    Look I’m happy to be shown to be wrong, please do, because I don’t want to be advocating a doormat mentality. But based on the Sermon context, the rest of the gospels, epistles and the example of the early church I struggle to see it Wink’s way. Yes that may suit the fact that I do not do what you and other Christian ‘activists’ do, and it may be the more simplistic and unimaginative reading but those facts alone don’t equate to it being wrong.

    Luke’s Gospel:
    “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who treat you badly. To the man who slaps you on one (not the right) cheek, present the other cheek too; to the man who takes your cloak from you, do not refuse your tunic. Give to everyone who asks you, and do not ask for your property back from the man who robs you. Treat other as you would like them to treat you…… you will have a great reward, and you will be sons (and daughters) of the Most High, for he Himself is kind to the grateful and the wicked.” (JB)

    I think Wink has over stepped the mark with his political non-violent resistance interpretation. But, again, I’m happy to be shown to be wrong.

    Keep doing what you are doing though it’s good, admirable and very costly stuff.
    What would I know anyway?

    Peace Simon

    e m

    • Hey em. First, I apologise that I haven’t had the chance to respond to your first comment. Second, of course I can take it down, but why go to the trouble of writing such a long response only to have it taken down? This is a little confusing…

      • I missed a few points too!

        Well, if you and I were having a conversation in person our words would have no more permanence than the few seconds they were uttered, and, as far as I’m concerned, that’s more often than not a good thing.

        and really I’m not interested in sharing my thoughts with others and being canned by them – even politely so. I was addressing what you had to say.

        Anyway I anticipate that in the end our definitions will only clash, and our assumptions and faith about what the bible does and doesn’t teach, or does and doesn’t mean, how literal or authoritative it is or isn’t, or what christian discipleship is or isn’t, will remain divided and unmoved. You will not persuade me and I will not persuade you. Brilliant displays of logic and reason will only prove who can be more imaginative and clever, or who has access to more data to serve their predisposition, and nothing else; or else it may only prove who’s
        more desperate to build rationalisations to maintain an image, identity or resist the truth. Your psychology and my psychology is more likely to determine what we believe and how we act. Or quit possibly your’s or my psychology may be more informed and formed by God’s Spirit, but who could tell?

        No need to apologize about not responding yet, I don’t mind. Life has many more priorities. Who has time to really respond to everything adequately? In some sense I don’t need, or even want, you to – it would just mean that I was right ;). No really, I had to write what i did for myself as much as anything else, to clarify my own thoughts and feelings, and that’s another reason why, yes i wrote a lot, but I am happy if it is just removed.

        But keep it up there if you think it would be useful. I may have a lot of ignorance and misunderstandings that I should allow exposed to a toxic and “I can’t ever let anyone unsettle my ontology, therefore i must attack” world (which could quite possibly just about sum me up!) Maybe others could learn a thing or two as well.

        in the meantime think about other things – there’s plenty of time, our hope, as for all irrational fools, is eternity life

      • I suspect we agree more than you think, and certainly more than we disagree.

        I think you’ll find that most of the objections you made are addressed in the original post (eg “So do I think everybody has to do civil disobedience/risk arrest? Not necessarily…”).

        Even still, I’d like to leave your comment up if that’s ok, because it contains a great deal of wisdom, and care. Both are greatly appreciated and there’s not as much in the world as I’d like there to be.

  9. I see your point ie, the splatterings of comments that address my objections – to a fair degree at least. I do agree that we do agree on quite a lot, not even quite a lot, simply a lot. And what we do disagree on? Well, to tell the truth would it really be worth going to the trouble of trying to establish that and then trying to work out what that all meant, and how that would inform our lives or how we follow Jesus? I doubt the trouble would achieve anything of real value.

    I still feel stumped or dissatisfied on some point though, but I can’t put my finger on what that is. Some significant point or point of difference. Ah possibly just semantical.

    My eyes and heart still feel very closed as to the way of God; the way of the peacemaker; the way of those hungry and persecuted for what is right. I don’t profess to be in God’s Kingdom, or know it, as I believe Christ has allowed us to. As the apostle Paul infers, we still perceive reality as with the minds of children; we see a dim reflection in the mirror, mine being dimmer than most – or at least it feels that way sometimes.

    “So do I think everybody has to do civil disobedience/risk arrest? Not necessarily, though many more do, especially leaders. Leaders need to lead by example. Certainly it would help to spread the load if everyone did though. Imagine this is what the church was known for – nonviolently getting in the way of injustice and violence wherever it happened, demonstrating love that is willing to bear costs.”

    It would be something if Christian leaders or not leaders (is there such a great distinction in our faith?) took it to politicians (not aggressively) every time one serendipitously met one on the street or holding a baby in a pre-election PR stunt. But this is where more leadership is perhaps needed or a clear set of values and beliefs given to members. That said i’m not sure i would have the guts to speak out. But after all this maybe i would.

    You may have known that the Menzies government banned the Jehovah’s Witnesses during the Second World War; they couldn’t meet and were stripped of their property and assets. It was overturned but would it go any less noticed, or be any better received today if Christian churches and their leaders united in putting God’s glory before the glory of man? Most of the long established Australian churches seem to still be too deeply entwined with the state and lacking unity of conviction, or unity of belief, to do that. I still can’t understand the rationalisation for justifying war other than convoluted logic and convenient textual omissions.

    You’re very kind to say that what I said contains wisdom and care, thank you.

    I wish you God’s peace and goodness for your life and journey


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