Baker Academic

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Jesus and Guitar Violence - Le Donne

Woody Guthrie's guitar famously announced
"this machine kills fascists" - an example
of a violent metaphor with an ideological referent
In a previous post I suggested that applying the label "nonviolent" to Jesus is slippery business. In short, violence is perhaps too vague and broad a term to be helpful. Indeed we might point to a few of Jesus' parables and say that he promoted a kind of divine kickassedness. Also he seems to have gone all Pete Townshend on those tables in Jerusalem. So in black and white terms, Jesus cannot be labeled nonviolent.

But does this all-or-nothing approach to the question of violence help? Little and less. I think it is ultimately misleading. To say that Jesus was "violent" gives the wrong impression. To say that Jesus was "nonviolent" is too superficial. Previously I pointed to Muhammad Ali who was perhaps the most famous conscientious objector to the American war in Vietnam. My point was simply that Ali occupies a complex place in the history of "nonviolence." To call Ali "nonviolent" gives the wrong impression. To call him "violent" doesn't tell the whole story.

Both Larry Behrendt and Simon Joseph have pointed out that Ali's legacy is even more complex than I hinted. Agreed. This is my exactly my point.

Or take musician, Pete Seeger. Seeger - sadly, recently departed - was among the most consistent and thoroughgoing voices for pacifism in American history. While an early promoter of Bob Dylan (indeed, we can thank Seeger for Dylan's first recording), Seeger was enraged by Dylan's turn away from folk acoustics. Upon hearing Dylan's new, amplified style at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, Seeger was so upset that he expressed a desire to take an axe to the equipment. According to Seeger he shouted, "Damn it! If I had an axe, I'd cut the cable right now!" But before he gave his own account, the story spun into a yarn about an actual, physical assault perpetrated by Seeger. For years afterwards friends and fans of Seeger heard (and believed) that he had indeed taken an axe to Dylan's amplifier cable. One wonders if we might find a parallel here with the Johannine account of Jesus' Temple demonstration (John 2:15).

Pete Seeger was indeed a pacifist. His legacy also includes a violent episode. Again, historical portraits are complicated. The broad and vague term "nonviolent" must be further qualified (I think that Joseph's book does a great job of this). To be sure, Seeger was thoroughly opposed to literal military action. In my suggested nomenclature I would say that he was "nonmilitant." But perhaps we could call Seeger "militantly folksy." As silly as this phrase might sound, Seeger did repent of his part in the episode later in life. Seeger knew better than most that words shape worlds. Truly, the man was militantly nonmilitant.


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