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The Rev. Dr. William H. Willimon The Rev. Dr. William H. Willimon

The Rev. Dr. William H. Willimon is Professor of the Practice of Christian Ministry at The Divinity School, Duke University. He retired after serving eight years as Bishop of the North Alabama Conference of The United Methodist Church.

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Bishop Will Willimon: Nonviolent Resurrected Jesus

April 30, 2012

On the night a squad of soldiers arrested him, Jesus mocked them, undaunted, asking if they were armed to the teeth to arrest him, an unarmed rabbi, as if he were a common thief. Ironically, the soldiers were not the only ones with swords. Peter, the most impetuous of Jesus' disciples, the "rock" upon which Jesus promised to build his church, whipped out a sword and nicked off a bit of an ear-despite Jesus' clear commandment that his disciples not carry weapons. Jesus cursed Peter: "Those who take up the sword die by the sword." That night, Jesus once again refused to practice violence, even in self-defense.

"Those who take up the sword die by the sword" is one of the truest proverbs of Jesus. Both the victor and the vanquished must finally submit to the power of the sword. The sword we thought we were using to secure ourselves becomes our ultimate defeat.

As everybody knows, there is no way to get anything really important done without swords. That's why we have the largest military budget of any nation in the world-to achieve security and then preemptively to spread peace and freedom everywhere. What war has been waged except from the very best of motives? To call Jesus a "Prince of Peace" is an oxymoron. A political leader who doesn't make war when national security is threatened is no prince. And peace that is based on anything other than a balance of military power is inconceivable.

Thus, one of the most perennially confusing qualities of Jesus was his refusal of violence. "If someone slaps you on the right cheek, offer them your left cheek as well. Some Roman soldier commands, 'Jew, carry my backpack a mile,' take it one mile more. Pray for your enemies! Bless those who persecute you! Do not resist the evil one!" As if to underscore that his kingdom was "not from here," Jesus healed the daughter of a despised Roman centurion. Was this any way to establish a new kingdom?

It would have been amazing enough if Jesus had said, "I always turn the other cheek when someone wrongs me," or "I refuse to return violence when violence is done to me." After all, Jesus is the Son of God, and we expect him to be nice. Unfortunately, Jesus commanded his disciples-us, those who presumed to follow him-to behave nonviolently. How do we get back at our enemies? "Love your enemies!" What are we to do when we are persecuted for following Jesus? "Pray for those who persecute you." Thus, we have many instances in the New Testament of people violating and killing the followers of Jesus. But we have not one single instance of any of his followers defending themselves against violence, except for Peter's inept, rebuked attempt at sword play.

This consistent, right to-the-end, to-the-point of-death nonviolence of Jesus has been that which Jesus' followers have most attempted to modify. When it comes to violence in service of a good cause, we deeply wish Jesus had said otherwise. There are many rationales for the "just war," or for self-defense, capital punishment, abortion, national security, or military strength. None of them, you will note, is able to make reference to Jesus or to the words or deeds of any of his first followers. You can argue that violence is sometimes effective, or justified by the circumstances, or a possible means to some better end, or practiced by every nation on the face of the earth-but you can't drag Jesus into the argument with you. This has always been a source of annoyance and has provoked some fancy intellectual footwork on the part of those who desire to justify violence. Sorry, Jesus just won't cooperate.

William H. Willimon 
from The Best of Will Willimon, Abingdon, 2012

Taken with permission from the Bishop's Blog, North Alabama Conference of the United Methodist Church.

 


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