Martin Luther King, Jr., will be honored tomorrow with a federal holiday that celebrates his birthday. This has inspired a few thoughts:
This morning I read this excellent short blog post titled “Weapons and Jesus” from the blog Rudimentary Bible. The author reminds readers that passages like Matthew 26:52 (“For all who take the sword will perish by the sword.”) give us good reason to attribute some sort of philosophy of non-violence to Jesus while passages like Luke 22:36 (“And let the one who has no sword sell his cloak and buy one…”) temper our anabaptist ideals. He writes:
“The Jesus movement was small. He warned against a futile effort of resisting imperial rule with violence, not unlike Isaiah who warned against futile alliances with Egypt. That’s the most we can say in terms of Jesus and weapons.”
When we discuss Mahatma Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr., we must acknowledge though Jesus as remembered in the Gospels may have inspired these men, Jesus existed in a different context. As the aforementioned blogger notes, Jesus’ movement was small and he was aware that there was no defeating Rome. Gandhi and King benefitted from living in evil societies whose consciences could be pricked by appeals to Christian teachings (the British Empire and the United States). Gandhi and King could appeal to the Jesus of the Gospels to shame British and American “Christians” who were not following their religion’s ideals. If Jesus would have challenged Rome to live according to the ideals displayed by pagan deities then I think events would have unfolded the same way. Roman deities were murderers, fornicators, and cheaters. While Israel’s God was remembered as a warrior in various contexts there were traditions like the Suffering Servant of Isaiah or the sacrificial deaths of the Maccabean martyrs upon which Jesus could draw from the culture’s memory, but as the Jewish War of 66-70 indicates, approaches like that of Jesus were far less enticing to many than those that advocated violent uprising.
There is something that Jesus shared with King that is more important than what these men taught though: their actions. While we may have a hard time reconstructing Jesus’ teachings on non-violence because we don’t have enough material to establish whether Jesus was being more or less pragmatic (why fight Rome if defeat is assured?), or principled (killing other humans is wrong) or somewhere in-between these two poles, we do know that Jesus is remembered as choosing not to fight and that he suffered a horrible death passively.
Likewise, the early Christians interpreted Jesus’ willingness to die as (1) the will of God for a greater purpose; (2) something he could have prevented, even arguing that he said he could have asked his Father to send warrior angels to his defense; and (3) that (for most Christians) violence does not appear to be an option if one is to be a true disciple (until the rise of Emperor Constantine). We have narratives that depict the early Christians as willing to suffer violence and death as a way of modeling their crucified messiah to the world. If it is impossible to reconfigure Jesus’ exact words on non-violence it is much easier to reconfigure how most early Christians interpreted Jesus’ death.
King’s non-violence is obvious. We have articles and books he wrote. We have interviews he gave to magazines and radio stations. We have audio, video, and transcripts of speeches he gave. Yet, like Jesus, we honor King because he died non-violently, not because he taught non-violence, per se. If King would have fought back, or killed another person in defense of his well-being, we would not remember King as we do. We might forgive him for failing to live up to his ideals. We may have debased him as a hypocrite. We wouldn’t celebrate his birthday every year. It was King’s death that was his ultimate message.
As a Christian who is an American citizen this is where I find my inspiration. I don’t call myself a “pacifist” because, well, I don’t like how it implies being “passive”. I do advocate non-violence though. I do affirm that as a disciple of the teachings of Jesus his actions speak as loud or louder than his words, and I do not think I am alone in interpreting Jesus’ death as a message greater than any of his sermons, since the earliest Christians, as far as we know, interpreted Jesus’ death as advocating for their own cruciform posture in the world.
We could discuss hypothetical situations where my idealism would be challenged: would I defend my wife from an attacker in the home (yes, but not with the aim to kill)? would I have killed Hitler if I had a time machine that put me in the position to do so, saving millions of lives (we don’t know if it would have saved millions of lives since any venture in multiverse must include the reality that one change creates many others, which means it is possible that an outcome worse that World War II could have occurred)? Yet hypothetical extremes do a terrible job of addressing present concerns. When our world and nation are captivated by violent solutions to our problems–whether war against terrorist all over the globe or “Gun Appreciation Day” to advocate for our right to own weapons a few weeks after many of our children were slaughtered by weapons–we don’t need to worry about extreme hypotheticals. We need to worry about taking steps toward peace, especially if we claim to be Christians. As a Christian who is an American citizen let me say to fellow American citizens that our obsession with weapons is more than concerning. We don’t want to own something to shoot a deer only. We want something that can destroy dozens of people at one time. We want weapons made for extreme warfare to be available in our homes. I hope that this causes some to pause for a moment. Even if you are not an advocate of non-violence, surely, common sense indicates that our edginess and our culture of fear is going to increase violence.
“My friends, we have followed the so-called practical way for too long a time now, and it has led inexorably to deeper confusion and chaos. Time is cluttered with the wreckage of communities which surrendered to hatred and violence. For the salvation of our nation and the salvation of mankind, we must follow another way.”
 Martin Luther King, Jr., Strength to Love (Philadelphia: Fortress Press), 56.