The principles of Jesus are layered within his specific cultural context but also offer timeless personal and social organizing application. His life and actions embody each of the following practical actions.
Turn the Other Cheek
Jesus introduces this principle while addressing the Roman oppression of the Jews of his time. The teaching is not concerned primarily with surrendering to personal injury. Instead it is a nonviolent way to reverse personal shame caused by the oppression of power systems (the state and abusive culture it reflects). The principle is an act of resistance that turns the tables on power structures of insult and shame. By going the extra mile, stripping naked from your tunic when an oppressor demands your outer coat, and offering your other cheek when slapped to know your social place, you refuse to acknowledge the power of evil and thus let it collapse under the weight of its shame.
Turn the other cheek is about not repaying evil with violence. It is about stopping the generational cycles of vengeance that plague communities not imitating Jesus. If it applies to the evil of oppressive structures, how much more does it apply to our common neighbors’ nonviolent vices? Do not repay their ___ evil (drug use, consensual sex work, greed, racial hate, etc.) with violence.
Using defensive force to protect victims against actual violent crimes (theft, fraud, child abuse, assault, or attempts thereof) is not violence. Defensive force to protect victims from physical violence is a morally consistent understanding of true law and order that honors victims by protecting them from aggression. In contrast, any use of a law to violently stop nonviolent behaviors, no matter how sinful they may be, only creates a cycle of more violence, family dissolution, and antisocial resentment.
Drug cartels, greedy businessmen, racial bullies, violent pimps can all be systematically defeated as their desires for power devours itself when we allow it to collapse under the weight of competitive market pressures coupled with a lawful order that brings to the light of justice those who initiate theft and assault.
Drop the First Stone
Humans tend to act against their better nature when considering whether to use violence in a crowd. This applies to voting and jury decisions that use violent force against nonviolent behaviors. Jesus confronted a crowd ready to stone a woman caught in the nonviolent act of adultery. Adultery causes much more social decay and unrest than heroin or selling raw milk, actions we criminalize today. Jesus knew the woman’s life was sacred and must be seen as such by the persons succumbing to a crowd mentality. Just like the modern voter who secretly casts his ballot, every member of that crowd was blind to the personal responsibility of the violence they were about to initiate.
Jesus dismantled the crowd-mind that obfuscates our personal responsibility for violence by stirring each man to question, who among us will cast the first stone? This immediately drew attention to the stone each one held in their hand. It was much easier for them to cast the stone in the safe anonymity of the crowd. But by calling each person out of the group haze, Jesus reversed their knee jerk imitation of violence into an imitation of nonviolence. Each person, starting with the older men, threw down their stones and walked away.
We must realize as Christians in the voting booth and jury box that we are responsible for the stone in our hand—no matter how many people appear to be joining us in violent aggression against a nonviolent person. When we recognize the violence we are hiring politicians to carry out on our behalf with regulations against nonviolent vices, we can drop our stone in the jury box or voting booth. Such brave imitation of Jesus will cause others around us to imitate our nonviolence.
Take Up Your Cross
Jesus said “Take up your cross” to follow him. That means for Christians we don’t get to crucify others for nonviolent acts we find self-harming, reckless, or shameful. We must sacrifice the fear of our neighbors’ freedoms rather than sacrifice our neighbors by criminalizing vices we do not like. Expanding on the “turn the other cheek” principle, “taking up your cross” also means being willing to suffer persecution from ruling authorities.
We must be above reproach by obeying all laws, unjust or just. The only exception is for laws that would require us to personally participate in violence against our neighbors.
Get Behind Me Satan
The Apostle Peter sees that Jesus’s ministry is striking a chord with the Jewish people, especially the marginalized and exploited. He knows there is a growing popular movement that could fulfill the people’s longing for a violent revolt against their corrupt leaders. When Peter hears Jesus say he will be handed over and murdered by the authorities, he insists that it never be. Jesus rebukes him with the retort, “Get behind me, Satan!”
The Hebrew word for Satan is “Accuser.” Think a blood-thirsty, lying, antagonistic prosecutor. Jesus is saying Peter’s resistance to the nonviolent self-sacrifice is a temptation for power. Peter is accusing him of having the same worldly, power-makes-right, violence-based ethic with which Peter struggles. If Jesus gives into the temptation, Peter will be locked in the same old scandal of two well-meaning violence-affirming revolutionaries trying to outdo each other in power and dominance. Jesus says this way is not the way of God.
We see oppression, economic injustice, poverty, illness, and corruption all around us. We must tell political movements whether from establishment politicians or revolutionary activists to “Get behind me, Satan” when they tempt us with the use of violence to balance the scale of justice.
“Just this one law, to get revenge on their history of sins,” the temptation whispers. But we must get behind it in our personal and community lives.
Walk on Water
One of the most ecstatic Gospel stories is of Jesus walking on water in the midst of a storm. Jesus’s act is subversive political theater as he uses the Sea of Tiberius—named after the Roman emperor ruling the Jews—as his carpet.
Jesus tells Peter to get out of the boat and walk with him. Peter begins to obey but looks down at the raging waters and sinks. Jesus saves him from drowning.
Many Christians hear the teachings of Jesus and conclude that since they themselves are not Jesus they will not attempt to imitate them. They promise try here and there but do not fully imitate his life in everything they do. They make excuses like, “I’m not Jesus. He forgives. I don’t.”
In the context of the raging storm, such passive followers will not even get out of the boat. They are more content to stay fearfully in the boat in awe of Jesus not interested in mastering the storm as he does. In this way, they make Jesus an object: a ticket into a social status, ideology, or after-life destination.
The storm of our society can be daunting. The suffering and confusion and strife can feel overwhelming as we see it rage around us. But all we must do is imitate Jesus. The stormy water can be our carpet. Duty is ours. Results are in God’s hands.
We need to see Jesus as the subject, the message, of our life, not an object we can attain for superiority and comfort.
Dying by the Sword
Peter takes out a sword and stabs the High Priest’s chief servant. Notice that the servant is a mirror of Peter. Peter is the chief follower of his own priest Jesus. As the real High Priest, Jesus washes the feet of his followers and refuses to imitate the violence-based domination of the official High Priest of his community.
By trying to kill the High Priest’s servant, he is losing his own soul. Stabbing his rival, Peter imitates the very evil notion of power about to murder Jesus. The text notes he slices the servant’s ear. In resisting evil with violence, Peter demonstrates that he cannot hear Jesus’s way of life. His mirror, the High Priest’s chief servant, physically embodies this lack of faith with the loss of an ear.
Jesus tells Peter those who live by the sword die by the sword.
This warning does not mean we cannot use measured force to subdue a man assaulting an elderly lady down the street. By extension, we can still create laws against violence.
Jesus is saying that the Kingdom of God succeeds through nonviolent mercy not violent revenge. This applies to the way we treat our neighbors victimized by chaotic regulations against nonviolent behaviors. It also applies to those in the state and allied-corporate power. We cannot defeat systems of evil by imitating their violent ways and means. Only joyful, nonviolent love can overcome the world.