Did Jesus Justify Armed Resistance to Roman Imperialism? What about Insurgent Resistance to U.S. Imperialism? (Sunday Homily)

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Readings for the 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time: JER 38: 4-10; PS 40: 2-4, 18; HEB 12:1-4; L 12: 49-53

Today’s gospel excerpt presents problems for any serious homilist. That’s because it introduces us to an apparently violent Jesus. It makes one wonder; why does the Church select such problematic passages for Sunday reading? What’s a pastor to make of them?

On the other hand, perhaps it’s all providential. That is, today’s gospel might unwittingly help us understand that even the best of imperialism’s victims (perhaps even Jesus) are drawn towards reactive, revolutionary, or self-defensive violence. After all, Jesus and his audiences were impoverished victims of Roman plunder. By the standards most Christians today accept, they had the right to defend themselves “by any means necessary.”

Here’s what I mean. Without apology, today’s reading from Luke has the ‘Prince of Peace” saying, “I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing . . . Do you think that I have come to establish peace on the earth?  No, I tell you, but rather division.”

In a parallel passage, Matthew’s version is even more direct. He has Jesus saying, “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.”

Is that provocative enough for you?

What’s going on here? What happened to “Turn the other cheek,” and “Love your enemy?”

There are two main answers to the question. One is offered by Muslim New Testament scholar, Resa Aslan, the other by Jesus researcher, John Dominic Crossan. Aslan associates the shocking words attributed to Jesus in this morning’s gospel directly with Jesus himself. Crossan connects them with the evangelists, Luke and Matthew who evidently found Jesus’ nonviolent resistance (loving enemies, turning the other cheek) too difficult to swallow for people living under the jackboot of Roman imperialism.

For his part, Aslan points out that the only God Jesus knew and the sole God he worshipped was the God of Jewish scripture. That God was a “man of war” (Exodus 15:3). He repeatedly commands the wholesale slaughter of every foreign man, woman, and child who occupies the land of the Jews. He’s the “blood-spattered God of Abraham, and Moses, and Jacob, and Joshua (Isaiah 63:3). He is the God who “shatters the heads of his enemies” and who bids his warriors to bathe their feet in their blood and leave their corpses to be eaten by dogs (Psalms 68: 21-23). This is a God every bit as violent as any the Holy Koran has to offer.

For Aslan, Jesus’ words about turning the other cheek and loving enemies pertained only to members of the Jewish community. They had nothing to do with the presence of hated foreigners occupying and laying claim to ownership of Israel, which in Jewish eyes belonged only to God. Accordingly, Jesus words about his commitment to “the sword” expressed the hatred he shared with his compatriots for the Roman occupiers.

In other words, when it came to Roman imperialists, Jesus was not a pacifist. He issued no call for nonviolence or nonresistance. Quite the opposite.

John Dominic Crossan disagrees. For him the earliest layers of tradition (even the “Q” source in Matthew and Luke) reveal a champion of non-violent resistance. In fact, the Master’s earliest instructions to his disciples tell them to travel freely from town to town. But in doing so, they are to wear no sandals, carry no backpack, and no staff. He instructs: “Take nothing for the journey–no staff, no bag, no bread, no money, no extra shirt” (LK 9:3).

Crossan finds the prohibition against carrying a staff highly significant. The staff, of course, was a walking stick. However, it was also a defensive weapon against wild animals – and robbers.

So with this proscription Jesus seems to prohibit carrying any weapon – even a purely defensive one like the staff all travelers used.

Apparently, that was too much for the evangelist, Mark. Recall that he wrote the earliest of the canonical gospels we have – during or slightly before the Great Jewish Rebellion against Rome (66-70 CE). Matthew and Luke later copied and adapted his text for their own audiences – one Jewish (in the case of Matthew), the other gentile (in the case of Luke). Mark remembers Jesus’ directions like this: “He instructed them to take nothing but a staff for the journey–no bread, no bag, no money in their belts” (MK 6:8).

Notice that Mark differs from what Crossan identifies as the earliest Jesus traditions upon which Matthew and Luke depended. Instead of prohibiting carrying a staff, Mark’s Jesus identifies the staff as the only thing Jesus’ disciples are allowed to carry. Evidently, that seemed more sensible to a pragmatic Mark than the words Jesus probably spoke. I mean, everyone needs to at least protect themselves from violent others.

Matthew and Luke prove even more pragmatic. By the time we get to them (almost two generations after Jesus’ death and fifteen or twenty years after Mark), we find their Jesus commanding that his disciples carry, not just a staff, but a sword – an offensive, lethal weapon. Matthew even portrays Jesus’ right-hand-man, Peter, actually armed with a sword the night Jesus was arrested. Jesus has to tell him: “Put away your sword. Those who live by the sword will perish by the sword” (MT 26:52). (It makes one wonder if Peter was absent the day Jesus gave instruction about turning the other cheek and loving one’s enemies. Or is Aslan correct about Jesus’ militancy?)

In other words, on Crossan’s reading, it is the gospel authors, not Jesus himself, who subscribe to belief in the blood-spattered God of the Jewish Testament. Jesus’ God was the Forgiving One who recognized no one as enemy, and who (as his later actions showed) refused to defend himself. His dying words were about forgiving his executioners.

Crossan reasons that this more pacifist Jesus is probably the authentic one, precisely because his words (and actions) contradict so radically the Jewish tradition’s violent God.

So whose words do we encounter in today’s gospel? Can we attribute them to the historical Jesus or to his disciples who found themselves unable to accept the Master’s radical non-violence?

Whatever our answer, the shocking words we encounter today remind us that even people of great faith (Mark, Matthew, Luke – or perhaps even Jesus himself) despise imperial invaders. Their arming themselves and fighting revolutionary wars (like the 66-70 Uprising) are completely understandable.

In any case, by gospel (and Koranic?) standards such rebellion is more justified than the entirely unacceptable violence of imperial invasion.

Does any of this shed light on ISIS response to U.S. Middle Eastern invasions, bombings, torture centers and dronings? As a Christian, what would be your response if foreigners did in our country what U.S. soldiers and pilots are doing in Arabia? Would you be a non-violent resister as Crossan says Jesus was? Or would you take up arms – the way violent insurgents have done in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen, Ethiopia, and elsewhere?

Which Jesus do you follow? Can you understand religious people who in the face of United States imperialism say: “I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing . . . Do you think that I have come to establish peace on the earth?  No, I tell you, but rather division.”

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Mike Rivage-Seul's Blog

Emeritus professor of Peace & Social Justice Studies. Liberation theologian. Activist. Former R.C. priest. Married for 40 years. Three grown children. Four grandchildren.

5 thoughts on “Did Jesus Justify Armed Resistance to Roman Imperialism? What about Insurgent Resistance to U.S. Imperialism? (Sunday Homily)”

  1. https://answersingenesis.org/contradictions-in-the-bible/a-staff-or-not/ It may just be that the writers, for brevity, reported only part of what Jesus said – and different writers included different parts. Or perhaps Jesus spoke to them in Hebrew and they translated it differently into Greek. Combining the differing passages into one longer account, one could conclude that Jesus said His disciples should just depart right then and without any preparation i.e. no getting a spare (or less favourite?) staff than the one they might have with them, likewise no travelling bag or spare sandals.

    Clearly (from Ex 15:1) the SONG LYRICS “Jehovah is a Man of war” were composed as the Israelites’ interpretation of events. They are not portrayed as Divine Self-revelation in the text. God’s completely different representation of Himself and of His COMPLETELY DIFFERENT attitude to death – including the deaths of the Egyptian army (Ex 14), mine (impeding), yours (impending) and His own (in Jesus) – had to await Jesus. How else would we be willing and able to believe it? And even then good people find it difficult to build their theology around that revelation.

    Surely the fact that EVERYONE who is born also dies (or are ‘translated’ in very rare cases?) is abundant proof that GOD ORDAINS THAT ALL WILL DIE one way or another. The key issue, in my view, about whether any of our deaths is ever for vindictive / retributive reasons. I say No. But does He ordain some death for some or all for DISCIPLINARY reasons? I say Yes.

    Clearly, war is ALWAYS vindictive & retributive, including the violence of “defensive” action. I think deliberate human action resulting in death and justified as promoting “peace” always deserves to be called “violence” and “murder.” But I find it extremely illogical and self-righteous for theologians and unbelievers to attempt to apply the same rule to God to Whom “all (even the ‘dead’) are living” (Luke 20:38). God is NOT a “man of war.”

    I doubt the Scriptures would have survived as many violent tyrants as it has, if it were clearly, unambiguously, in-your-face pacifist. Every copy would have been gathered up and burned. Instead God chose to “hide Himself” and let Israel and the Church misinterpret His character, so that the Scriptures would survive and help those who felt their need of Him “seek and find Him” (Acts 17:27). In every generation, some ‘remnant’ (the ‘elect’), don’t have to wait for the next life to discover the real God Who is Love! And these are those, thank God, who bring division in families! Including, perhaps in a small way, within your family Mike (which related to your stated reason for sharing your biography with your audience).

    Jesus’ counter-cultural, and self-denying, message of Peace is the “fire (of Holy Spirit) kindled on earth” by Jesus’ submission to unjust execution and bodily resurrection, never to be put out by the darkness in our hearts!

    [Anyone reading this is invited to read (and/or help me in) my attempt at http://www.jub.id.au of seeing what sense the Scriptures make to BOTH heart and mind (conscience and reason) when the distortions of human fear of death and of nation-building are removed.]

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  2. My understanding of what Jesus taught is that he was not about hard and fast logically accurate rules of behavior. His way was like the way of the Sufis, the way of the Heart. He asked us to look into our Hearts in any situation and follow that rather than some set ideas of society or official religion. His God was a God of Love, and Love transcends all rules and formulas. Sometimes Love may tell you to kill another person in the name of the greater Good of all people. The plot to kill Hitler was done in the name of Love. The Bhagavad Gita is a classic scripture elucidating why it is sometimes necessary to kill for love. But in doing such a killing, one’s heart should not be full of anger or hatred, but rather regretful love, and sadness that such an act is necessary.

    Can love be cited as an alibi for doing things that are really motivated by unlove? Unfortunately all true spiritual principles can be misused and distorted to justify bad behavior. Development of discernment as to what is deeply true is a necessary part of the practice of those who wish to live from the truth Of Love, rather than it’s counterfeits. Love without wisdom is not Spiritual Love.

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  3. Since God’s perfect LoveRadiance is always there forever, it is not incumbent on me to create it – only to connect with it and channel it as best I can. It is not necessary for me to earn or deserve this Love. Even if I fail at my attempt to be a channel for it, it will still be there for me and everyone forever. So I can cease being anxious about having a clear contact with it, or being a good channel for it. That unconditional Divine Love is there for me whether I do anything to realize or serve it, and even if I am a Hitler of the worst kind. Everything and everyone has this Divine Ground under them no matter what they do or do not do. That Love is unconditional. That Love may not save us from the karmic consequences of our actions, but it will never abandon us.

    The teaching of Jesus was based on a realization of this unchangeable nature of Divine Love. Julian of Norwich expresses this understanding based on her experience of Divine Love. That Love is not based on the conditional and judgmental thinking of most humans, and seems very paradoxical to them. It is Love on a different level entirely from what they are familiar with. The parable of the prodigal son, and the one about the laborers in the vineyard all being paid the same whether they did much work or not, point to this same reality. God is perfect forgiveness. There is no punishment or rejection in God. God is never angry with us. We should be likewise with each other. Jesus strove to treat others as God would treat them, and modeled that for us. He was a channel for God’s Love. He urged us to do the same.

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