The nonviolent resistance of Jesus/La résistance nonviolente de Jésus

The following essays — the first on driving of the moneychangers from the Temple, the second on Jesus’ refusal to condemn the woman caught in adultery — were written by Dr. Jean-Marie Muller, a French philosopher and writer who was one of the participants in the April 2016 Nonviolence and Just Peace conference in Rome.

Ces essais – le premier sur la conduite des changeurs d’argent du Temple, le deuxième sur le refus de Jésus de condamner la femme prise en adultère – ont été écrits par Jean-Marie Muller, un philosophe et écrivain français qui était l’un des participants à la conférence de nonviolence et paix de avril 2016 à Rome. 

When Jesus frees the animals from the Temple

Disponsible en français ici.

It is generally asserted that by “chasing the merchants of the Temple” (Mark 11: 15) Jesus himself did not hesitate personally to resort to violence and that, in consequence, Christians can also legitimately resort to violence to fight against injustice. Such an interpretation radically distorts the meaning of the Gospel text. This mis-reading and mis-understanding of the text has had a huge pernicious effect on Christian thought.

What is the truth of the matter? On several occasions, Jesus denounced the sacrificial practices involving the immolation of animals. Taking up as his own the ancient word of Hosea (Hosea 6: 6), he says: “It is mercy that I want, not sacrifice.” (Matthew, 9, 13 and 12,7).  The prophet Amos (5: 22-24) had also rejected these practices: “When you offer me burnt-offerings, I do not approve of your oblations, I set no store by the sacrifice of your fat beasts. (…) But let the law flow as water, and righteousness as a torrent that never dries up.” However, the word of Jesus was not heeded by the merchants of the Temple who had taken over the esplanade to sell oxen, sheep and doves to the pilgrims so that they might be offered as sacrifices and who were willing to continue their trade.

Jesus then decided to have recourse to direct action in order to force them to cease their activity. Mark says that the previous day, he had entered the Temple and had “looked around at everything” (Mark 11:11), as if he had come to take stock of the place. One may therefore think that his action was premeditated and that it was therefore not decided on in the heat of anger.

Only John speaks of a whip (John 2: 14-16): “In the temple courts he found people selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money. So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple courts, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. To those who sold doves he said, ‘Get these out of here! Stop turning my Father’s house into a market.’” If we go by the Greek text, the following meaning is to be understood: “Jesus drove them all from the Temple, the sheep and the oxen.” Yet many versions of the Bible have proposed another translation suggesting that Jesus struck the merchants with his whip, and it is this false version that has nurtured the imagination of both Christians and non-Christians alike

Besides, the animals were not the only victims of the Temple commerce. Pilgrims themselves were subjected to the injustice of the money changers who “set abusive exchange rates to convert local currencies into shekels”, the Roman currency used in Jerusalem. “The great priests of the Temple also profit from the swindles involved.”

Jesus’s behaviour is clear: he does not just denounce with words what seems to him a disorder, he does not hesitate instead to take direct action. He takes the initiative of the conflict, which is one of the characteristics of nonviolent action. The trade is perfectly legal, although Jesus does not consider it legitimate. The sacrifices were required by the law of Moses and were duly approved by the high priests of the Temple. It is therefore the action of Jesus that is illegal and is directly related to an action of “civil disobedience”. As he condemns the disorder he sees, failure to act to try to stop it would make him an accomplice of, and would involve him in cooperating with, that disorder. In order to denounce the sacrificial practices, he decides to force the merchants of the Temple to cease their trade. To do this he chased the oxen and sheep with a whip, toppled the money-changers’ tables, and asked the doves to leave with their poultry. This is precisely the type of direct nonviolent action which, without violence against persons, prevents evil-doers from continuing their bad works by depriving them of the means to exercise it. As for the oxen and sheep that may have received lashes, inasmuch as they could be aware of what was going on, they must have been very happy to escape the death that awaited them.

Thus Jesus was not able to enter into any dialogue with the merchants or with the money changers, he was unable to enter into any negotiations or to achieve any form of reconciliation. It seems, on the contrary, that this action in the Temple was one of the events which led to his death: “The chief priests and the teachers of the law heard this and began looking for a way to kill him, for they feared him …” (Mark, 11,18)

The attitude of Jesus towards his adversaries of the Temple seems to go against the spiritual counsels that teach love, kindness, forgiveness, mercy and indulgence even towards the “wicked”. In reality, when churchmen claim that dialogue is the only path to peace, they remain caught up in an idealistic perception of nonviolence. Faced with an injustice that makes dialogue impossible, we must create conflict in order to create the conditions for dialogue. Dialogue is not the means of resolving conflict, it is conflict that is the means of “resolving dialogue”, that is, of making it possible.

No one can claim that Jesus violates the requirement of “love of one’s enemies” by driving away the merchants and currency changers of the Temple. When enemies are responsible for an injustice, loving them cannot preclude conflict with them to free them from this injustice by direct nonviolent action.

The unworthy accusers of the woman caught in adultery

Disponsible en français ici.

What characterizes Jesus’ attitude toward evil is his willing to fight it by disobeying repressive laws and by implementing the principles and methods of nonviolent resistance.

One day, while Jesus is in the Temple of Jerusalem and the people gathered around him to listen to his teaching, the scribes and the Pharisees bring a woman caught in the act of adultery. According to the law of Moses, “If a man is found sleeping with another man’s wife, both will die.” (Deuteronomy 22:22) The tradition was to stone them until death ensued. In this case, as if by chance, only the woman is found accused. Jesus is asked to say what is fate for the guilty. “They said this,” says the evangelist, “to test him, in order to have cause to accuse him.” But Jesus stooped and began to write with his finger on the ground. He stood up and said to them, “Let the person who is without sin cast the first stone at her!” And stooping down again, he wrote on the ground. One by one they left, beginning with the elders, and he was left alone with the woman still there, and then, raising himself, Jesus said to her, “Woman, where are they, no one has condemned you?” “No one, Lord.” Then Jesus said, “I do not condemn you either.” (John 8: 1-11).

So it is a trap that the scribes and the Pharisees want to use on Jesus. They are shocked by the message of compassionate kindness that the carpenter of Nazareth teaches in the Temple, while he has no authority to preach. They are determined to silence him. By asking him what judgment he bears on the adulterous woman, they are sure of themselves: either he applies the Law of Moses, condemns the woman to stoning, and contradicts his message of mercy and discredits himself; or he forgives the woman and is caught in the act of breaking the law of Moses. Jesus will thwart the trap with confounding skill. He does not formally condemn the law of Moses, since he asks for one who has never committed evil to cast the first stone. But he will challenge the law much more radically by depriving it of all foundation: a person cannot judge their neighbor. One of the most powerful essences of violence is judging the other person who is accused of doing evil, while at the same time considering oneself free from this evil. What is remarkable, and this expresses all the power of the word of Jesus, is that it is the scribes and the Pharisees themselves who, on leaving, admit their inability to judge the woman. Let us emphasize that Jesus granted his forgiveness, without even inquiring about the disposition of the woman. He forgives, without first requiring any act of repentance.

Jesus thus teaches that the only method by which the evil can be truly combatted is to do good to those who commit wicked acts. The incident ended, Jesus resumed his teaching. Other Pharisees intend to challenge the credibility of his word. They tell him: “Your testimony is not valid.” (John 8:13) Any dialogue between Jesus and his opponents proves impossible. On two occasions, Jesus reveals the murderous intent of the Pharisees: “You seek to kill me.” (John, 8, 37 and 40) Finally, exasperated, “they picked up stones to throw at them, but Jesus withdrew from the Temple.” (John, 8, 59) Thus, even though he had just saved the woman from stoning, it was he whom the Pharisees wanted to kill with stones. It is as if he had drawn towards him the violence he had diverted from the woman.

In pardoning the woman, Jesus not only negates the death penalty, he negates all violence which “good” people believe they must do to combat wickedness. People are invited to realize that they are accomplices to the evil which they think they discern in other people, to recognize that the other person, the very person whom is accused of committing evil, is the same as themselves. As soon as the “villain” is accused and condemned, the “good person” believes it is his or her duty to use violence against the “villain” on the pretext of fighting evil. In this logic, which has prevailed throughout history, the surest way to eliminate evil is to kill the wicked. All false prophets have commanded to kill those who committed evil.

Image of Jesus driving the money-changers from the Temple posted by Lawrence OP on Flickr. Photo of stained glass window at St. Peter’s Church, Nottingham UK.

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Pax Christi Peace Stories

Pax Christi International is a global Catholic peace movement and network that works to help establish Peace, Respect for Human Rights, Justice and Reconciliation in areas of the world that are torn by conflict. It is grounded in the belief that peace is possible and that vicious cycles of violence and injustice can be broken.

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