Baker Academic

Monday, August 11, 2014

Jesus and Militancy - Le Donne

Bob Ross: T.V. Artist and Vietnam War Veteran
I don’t know whether 2014 is more or less violent than 2013 or if we who consume the Western news/social media are just more interested in violence in 2014. Whatever the case, some of the reports of violence and the systems of oppression that make violence inevitable have been impossible to ignore.

My attention vacillates from arguments that Jesus preached/practiced thoroughgoing non-violence (see my interview with Simon Joseph here and here) and horrific facebook posts. Please allow me to state clearly that I don’t presume to have any solutions to modern problems. I will not suggest that Jesus’ sayings help much with military bases dressed up like schools or warlords pulling triggers. Nothing in the Gospels tells me what to think about children being cut in half. These things are clearly evil. But how should I respond? I am committed to pacifism, but I am not guided by any single dictum or mandate. I am committed to pacifism even if my research of Jesus leads to me to believe that he was indeed a zealot. That said, I have not been persuaded of this.

Rather than leveraging Jesus’ sayings about peacemaking and cheek-turning to suit my own political affinities, I will make a modest suggestion about his historical character. The suggestion involves a needed distinction between violence and militancy.

To my mind, militancy is a kind of violence, a sub-category. Onstage guitar-smashing and angry dancing  might be described as violent. The ancients sometimes called gusts of wind violent. But militancy supposes a particular sort of violence. It would be a serious error to suggest that all of the above are of the same kind.

The distinction between violence (as a broad category) and militancy (as a sub-category) might be helpful as we make sense of the varied portraits we find of Jesus in the Gospels. As Simon Joseph writes, the Jesus(es) we find in the Gospels is both violent and non-violent. Joseph concludes that portrayals of a violent Jesus are inconsistent with Jesus’ true teaching and character. This has caused reviewer Larry Behrendt to puzzle: 
Of course, the New Testament picture of Jesus is not consistently nonviolent. Simon admits in his book that “The Gospels seem to portray Jesus as both violent and nonviolent.” “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth,” Jesus said in Matthew. “I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.” Jesus instructed his disciples to get swords, and all four Gospels report that someone with Jesus at his arrest (identified as a follower in Matthew and Luke, and as Peter in John) was armed with a sword and used it to attack a member of the arresting party. If (as some argue) we should understand these swords to be figurative and not literal, we should also acknowledge the quantity of figurative violence threatened by Jesus in the New Testament: people to be burned with unquenchable fire, entire cities threatened with destruction, stories of landowners executing tenants and kings executing opponents, not to mention people to be “cut to pieces” when the Son of Man returns to earth.
These “problem” passages are not lost on Simon Joseph, but Joseph ultimately finds Jesus’ active and subversive non-violence to provide a clearer picture. But I wonder what this conversation would look like if we nuanced it with the category of militancy.

Allow me to illustrate the distinction I’m proposing with a modern example: Muhammad Ali. Ali was no pacifist. On the contrary, he was the world’s most famous pugilist (perhaps the world’s most famous person for short while). Ali was also the world’s most famous conscientious objector to the American war in Vietnam. The stereotypical war protester may look more like Bob Ross (pictured above). Ali is no Bob Ross. But we come in all shapes and sizes. 

According to Ali, his refusal to fight in Vietnam was an expression of his faith. As an ordained minister under Elijah Muhammad (the leader of the NOI movement), Ali repeatedly claimed conscientious objector status on religious grounds. Ali also denied that the NOI was responsible for the murder of Malcolm X, claiming that no Muslim would do such a thing. Ali’s doctrine (perhaps not representing his coreligionists at large, perhaps even misinformed at times) was consistently non-militant.

Contrast Ali with Richard Nixon who was raised Quaker (a tradition with an established doctrine of pacifism), but who became militant by default as he inherited the war in Vietnam. Despite vowing to lessen America’s military presence in Vietnam, he failed to do so in his first term. Eventually Nixon made good on his promise and the vast majority of U.S. troops withdrew in 1973. From one point of view (myopic and misleading to be sure) it could be said that Nixon threw fewer punches than Ali. Nixon’s public rhetoric was perhaps less violent than Ali's, but there can be no doubt who represents militancy in this comparison. Or if this comparison is too extreme, I could make the same point by comparing the young adulthood of Bob Ross with the young adulthood of Ali. Ali was no pacifist, but he was nonmilitant.

The parallel with Muhammad Ali shouldn't be pressed too far, but the distinction between violent behavior/doctrine and militant behavior/doctrine is important. Jesus seems to have used violent rhetoric (Yoder's objections notwithstanding). Jesus might have even protested violently in the Jerusalem Temple (Sanders’ objections notwithstanding). Jesus might have even predicted a great eschatological war (Crossan’s objections notwithstanding). But even if all of the above are taken as historical facts, we are still a long way from painting a portrait of a militant messiah. Even Reza Aslan—who seems to want desperately for Jesus to represent militancy—cannot bring himself to conclude this (most of Aslan's book notwithstanding). Painting the portrait of Jesus as a militant messiah requires more than indications of violent rhetoric. On the other hand, painting the portrait of a Bob Rossy Jesus is equally problematic.

None of the above is meant to justify violent rhetoric or to justify metaphorical, spiritual, or eschatological violence. This is just to suggest that painting historical portraits is complex. Not every American is George W. Bush. Not every Muslim is militant. Not every ancient Jew is Phinehas. Not every war protester is Bob Ross.



  1. Interesting thoughts, Anthony. To that I will add the sage words of my late grandfather, World War II veteran and career soldier: "War is a horrible thing."

  2. Very good analysis, Anthony. I hope it isn't too far off-topic to point out that it is now known that Nixon sabotaged the peace talks in '68 so that he could win the election. What he inherited was his own doing:

  3. I've posted some thoughts in response at