Willimon on the Non-Violent Jesus

Recently, the blog of United Methodist bishop Will Willimon published an essay on the non-violent resurrected Jesus (reprinted from The Best of Will Willimon):

This consistent, right to-the-end, to-the-point of-death nonviolence of Jesus has been that which Jesus’ followers have most attempted to modify. When it comes to violence in service of a good cause, we deeply wish Jesus had said otherwise. There are many rationales for the “just war,” or for self-defense, capital punishment, abortion, national security, or military strength. None of them, you will note, is able to make reference to Jesus or to the words or deeds of any of his first followers. You can argue that violence is sometimes effective, or justified by the circumstances, or a possible means to some better end, or practiced by every nation on the face of the earth—but you can’t drag Jesus into the argument with you. This has always been a source of annoyance and has provoked some fancy intellectual footwork on the part of those who desire to justify violence. Sorry, Jesus just won’t cooperate.

He’s right, of course. You can’t get Jesus on your side in an argument that the use of force sometimes is necessary to defend the innocent and establish justice in this present evil age, and thus serves the cause of love (even though I believe that to be true). Jesus’ story and his teaching just aren’t supportive of military forces, police forces, judicial punishments or the force-of-law in general

You also can’t get the mendicant prophet Jesus on your side if you are arguing in favor of owning a home or establishing a business. Jesus was consistently, right to the end, a penniless beggar and expected those whom he called to follow him on the road to do the same. Jesus called men away from their trade. You also won’t find him saying anything good about the ordinary requirements of family life. Those whom he called abandoned their familial commitments. It is even impossible to get the the peripatetic preacher to support the idea of stable, local Christian congregations, much less a world-wide institutional church. Throughout his itinerant mission, Jesus was ever the wanderer; his assembly traveled with him and never settled in one place. He was consistently critical, right to the end, of every religious institution in Israel.

There are all sorts of things for which it would be hard to line up Jesus’ support: academic institutions, civic institutions, the arts and scientific inquiry, among others. Jesus’ message was built on the proclamation that an immediate, eschatological crisis was at hand. He wasn’t at all interested in maintaining the institutions of an age that was passing away under God’s judgment; he was focused solely on the dawning of the age to come.

One cannot separate Jesus’ non-violence from the larger picture of Jesus’ mendicant, itinerant, prophetic and eschatological ministry. Everything Jesus said and did fits within that framework.

So then, what do we do with the picture of Jesus’ words and deeds? If Jesus and his original band of disciples forwent home, family, worldly labor, property, possessions and the use of force, what does that mean for us? Did God give us the gospel story so that we can imitate Jesus’ short prophetic career? Or perhaps so that we can know what God has done on our behalf in Jesus Christ and be thankful?

I would argue that it is more the latter than the former, but I think it goes beyond that. I would say that God gave us the gospel story so that we could participate in it. When we are baptized into Christ and commune at his table, we participate in the kingdom reality that Jesus proclaimed, demonstrated and made real through his death and resurrection.

The kingdom Jesus proclaimed and inaugurated has come into existence. God reigns in his new creation.

However, we still eat, sleep and work within God’s good-but-broken first creation. Those who are united to Christ live with one foot in each reality.

We have the 4 books of the one gospel to shine a light on what it means to live as a citizen of the coming kingdom; we have 39 other books in the Old Testament, and 23 others in the New Testament to give us some idea about what it means to live as God’s people in a broken world.

It isn’t possible to reason the tension away, or to deny the fact that much of what responsible love and faithfulness require in this age fall far short of God’s perfect will for the age to come.