Nonviolence

Violence demands a response, and those who must respond hastily assume that the proper response to violence is more violence. But as followers of the Crucified One we respond to violence by nonviolently pointing to the One who bore the ultimate consequence of the wretchedness of humanity. We testify in word and deed to a radical nonviolence that is to be the new ethos of the created order.

In Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer asserts that the “retribution” Jesus speaks about in Matthew 5:28-32 is a “just retribution” that takes place “only in not resisting it.”[1]  Leviticus 24:20, the Old Testament law behind this teaching, assumes a divine retaliation, not a human one.[2]  As human agents we react to injustice against us not by assuming that it is our responsibility to right wrongs but God’s. “For the community of disciples, which makes no national or legal claims for itself, retribution means patiently bearing the blow, so that evil is not added to evil.”[3]  Nonviolent reaction to evil committed serves to show the ultimate allegiance of the church to Christ: “Our voluntary renunciation of counterviolence confirms and proclaims our unconditional allegiance to Jesus and his followers, our freedom, our detachment from our own egos.”[4]  The ethic of the church is Jesus.  This is not a rejection of cultural and political contexts but a grasping of Christ.  The church is not running away from politics but running toward Christ.  This is what the church is and must be to the world.

Bonhoeffer’s thesis is strengthened when considered in relation to Miroslav Volf’s work on memory. For Volf, the heart of the Christian faith lies not in the insistence that wrongs committed always deserve a response but in embracing the “risky territory marked by the commitment to love one’s enemies.”[5]  This happens not through remembering wrongdoing or forgetting about wrongdoing but remembering correctly with a desire that is fueled neither by hate or disregard but by love for the wrongdoer. This is not wishful thinking or neglect of justice; rather, “the obligation to remember is an extension of the obligation to attend to the wrongs committed.”[6]  Remembering rightly the wrong suffered by loving the wrongdoer and letting God be the one who enacts retribution is the Christian way of justice.

The ultimate act of violence has already been committed at the cross; Christians can remember correctly the wrongdoing of the other because God has made peace through violence.[7]  The gruesome killing of the Son of God is the epitome of violence, for it was against both God and man.  And the very fact that Christ was resurrected from the dead and vindicated by God means that violence is defeated because life is the new reality of the cosmos.  Violence became something that God did, once and for all.


[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship. Dietrich Bonheoffer Works. Vol. 4 (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003), 132.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., 132-33.  Bonhoeffer is not rejecting political and national ties here as such.  The bowing of the church in Germany to the Third Reich confused the religious and political allegiances of much of Germany.  Bonhoeffer is careful to not tie the church to any particular nation or culture but to Christ alone.

[4] Ibid., 133.

[5] Miroslav Volf, The End of Memory: Remembering Rightly in a Violent World. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006.

[6] Ibid., 204.

[7] Hauerwas, War and the American Difference, xi.

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