By Tim Suttle
“Nonviolence is the answer to the crucial political and moral questions of our time: the need for man to overcome oppression and violence without resorting to oppression and violence. Man must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love.” (Martin Luther King, Jr., Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Stockholm, Sweden, 1964.)
“You have heard that it was said,” Jesus once remarked, “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” This short imperative is, well, let’s just say it is challenging to our American fascination with violence and guns. This teaching from the Sermon on the Mount is routinely dismissed and ignored by Christians, especially by evangelicals who seem more intent on clinging to the 2nd amendment than the Sermon on the Mount. I often wonder why that is.
American Christianity has never included any widespread adherence to Jesus’s teaching on violence. Why is the Christian peace movement so small? Why are so many Christians willing to ignore the clear command to love your enemies? Could it be that there was no other way to drive Native Americans off their land but through superior firepower? Or perhaps it is because there was no other way to control millions of black slaves without guns and whips? Maybe it is because our Christian identity is not nearly as powerful as our American identity?
In fact, the problem predates any of that. The Constantinian Shift, a term popularized by John Howard Yoder and Stanley Hauerwas, is meant to describe the impact of Constantine’s legalization of Christianity via the Edict of Milan, 313. (Theodosius made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire in 380). The term names the fundamental shift that occurred within Christianity when it was officially sanctioned by the Roman Empire. Christianity very quickly moved from being a fringe Jewish sect, persecuted by Rome and by the Jews, to being a protected and even favored religion.
The Constantinian Shift meant that Christian identity would no longer be established, narrated, shaped, supported, passed on, and protected by the church, but by the state and the surrounding culture. Evidence for how thoroughly this shift has impacted American culture can be seen every time Christians insist that America is a “Christian nation.” Christians only do this when they don’t believe the church can instill Christian identity in its members. They need the state to do the work.
This conflation of church and state fundamentally changed in the nature of Christianity and the church. Christianity vanished into the realm of the invisible, the private, and the personal. For all intents and purposes the Constantinian Shift meant that Christianity had become co-opted by the state. Give your heart to Jesus, but your body belongs to Rome. Apart from the Anabaptists, the church ended up looking more like the Roman Empire than like Jesus and his first followers. Christianity became a civil religion, an apologetic for the state and the prevailing norms of culture.
Today most Christians are oblivious to the fact that the entire early church had a strict ethic of nonviolence. With The Constantinian Shift so far in the past, Christians today can cling to their guns with blatant pragmatism. And the need for violence does seem self-evident, that is, if you are not willing to take up your cross and die at the hands of other violent people.
Despite Jesus’s rejection of violence, despite the fact that he allowed the violence of others to become displayed on his body, despite his teaching that his followers do the same, most American Christians have no imagination for how nonviolence can change the world in powerful ways. Most Christians in our society cannot imagine living non-violently in such a violent world. We have no imagination for what it might mean to turn the other cheek, offer our cloak to those who demand our tunic, or go the extra mile in order to allow injustice and violence to be displayed on our own bodies.
Why Do Many Christians Trust the 2nd Amendment More Than the Sermon on the Mount? Because they simply don’t think that Jesus’s way will work.
Hauerwas has honed the perfect answer to this blatant pragmatism. He says that Christians are not committed to non-violence because they think it will be an effective strategy to rid the world of war or violence. Christians are (or should be) committed to non-violence because they follow Jesus, and thus they cannot imagine ignoring his example and instruction. Go ahead and take that sword out of Peter’s hand, Jesus, but keep your paws off my guns.
I do not think there is only one obedience. I’m sympathetic to the fact that this is a complicated issue, especially given the fact that we live in such a violent culture. Espousing nonviolence is a difficult stance to take in the face of so much fear. But Christians take many difficult stances against powerful cultural forces. We’re good at it. Why do we ignore Jesus’s call to nonviolence? Why let this pitch pass us by? Is it fear? Is it a lack of discipleship? Is it a lack of leadership?
I do pray for the imagination to try to live in the world non-violently, and it takes great imagination. I pray for courage to use my voice to speak out for those who live on the margins of our world, for this takes much courage. I pray for the strength to submit my body to injustice, as Christ did, in order to allow evil to show it’s true colors on me, and it will take so much strength.
A wholesale renewal of the Christian imagination in regard to violence is an essential step in our discipleship if we are ever going to make a real impact on the world around us, if we are ever going to bear witness to a better way. I find it impossible, after the cross, to believe Christian non-violence is an ancillary teaching of the church. If Christ was God in the flesh, and he didn’t take up arms to inaugurate the kingdom, then the only way we as Christians will ever participate in this kingdom is to live a life that is in step with this Messiah and his kingdom. We must heed Jesus’s call to love our enemies, and pray for those who persecute us. We must live nonviolently.