Doing nothing does something
By Christian Piatt
(Originally published in PULP)
I picked up a book recently by Walter Wink, one of my preferred theologians when it comes to putting action behind the rhetoric of faith. I have yet to read anything by Wink that has not rocked my world and caused me to reevaluate pretty much everything from my beliefs to the way I express them in daily life.
His book, Jesus and Nonviolence: A Third Way, was no exception.
Deceptively small at a compact 64 pages, every paragraph presents a compelling challenge not only to many common takes on Jesus’ approach to authority, but also to anyone who claims to be a champion of the oppressed, marginalized and neglected.
First, Wink quickly goes about dismantling the myth that Jesus was a pacifist. Far from it, actually. Things like turning the other cheek and walking the second mile, in the context of Wink’s nonviolent activist engagement, take on unexpected power, much like a black belt in aikido uses the energy of his attacker to overthrow them.
For example, it was legal in the Roman Empire for occupying centurions to force locals to carry their packs up to one mile along the road, but no further. Though taking the soldier’s pack a second mile might seem a meek and nice thing to do, he argues it’s actually a nonviolent act of insurrection. The soldier actually could be jailed or otherwise punished for violating the law banning exploitation of the local people, but how ridiculous does he end up looking, begging for his pack back from a lowly peasant? And if you insist on carrying the burden further, he also runs the risk of appearing weak, empowering yourself with the very weight he once placed upon you as a symbol of his power and authority.
The great deception, says Wink, is that we Western-minded folks have bought the idea that we have two choices when faced with violence, injustice or oppression: fight back in kind or do nothing. What is required, he says, is a third option, as modeled by Jesus, one that too often Christians and other people of faith mistake as a call for non-involvement.
Such creative nonviolent activism is certainly not limited to Christianity, either. Though Martin Luther King is the greatest modern example of this kind of engagement for Christians, Gandhi, Nelson Mandela and others have practiced such world-changing commitment to nonviolence over the centuries.
Wink also effectively dispels the myth that violence, in any instance, has ever been a more effective tool than a nonviolent response. Ultimately more blood is shed and more people die, even if it’s in our nature to want an eye for an eye.
Sound absurd? Hard to imagine? Wink expects that. As he points out, many of us can’t think of the way he understands the teaching and life of Jesus as really a possibility for us. But ultimately, it depends on how you measure success. If we consider the end of Jesus’ ministry to be his moment of crucifixion, alone, vulnerable and betrayed by those he continued to love, then his life’s mission was a failure.
If, however, we believe that one life – perhaps even our own – is worth giving up for a change that brings hope to thousands or millions of others, many of whom we may never meet, then Jesus’ third way begins to look like a path worth exploring.