Christ and Violence

By Kosty Bandaly

Translator's note: Kosty Bandaly is a leading figure in the Orthodox Church of Antioch. He has published for decades on issues relating to theology, psychology, sexuality, youth, and family. This article, written in 1963, was recently posted on the website of the Orthodox Youth Movement of Antioch to commemorate the work and contributions of Mr. Bandaly. With so many reactionary publications for and against war, which only serve to confuse the Orthodox mind with thoughts foreign to our history and theology, one finds comfort in hearing the serene voice of Antioch from the mouth of one of its great veterans.

The Position of Violence and its Sources

Violence, whatever shape it takes, whether by an individual or a collective, if its aim is to cause material or psychological damage to the other, or if it is a response or reaction to an earlier act of violence, usually assumes one spiritual position: to consider the other an obstacle that must to be removed or debased. The violent one views the other as a thing that must be destroyed, and not as a person who should be respected.

The sources of violence are various. Some of it has to do with a love for power which accepts no opposition, and gives no weight to the opinion, or even the existence, of the other. Another source may be hatred, animosity, love for vengeance and inflicting harm. Another is fear of others which causes aggression against them to prevent possible future attack, in accordance with the popular saying: "have him for lunch before he has you for supper." This relationship between fear and violence is apparent in animals, as shown in psychoanalyst Maryse Choisy's observations regarding the behavior of lions . Another source is the attempt by an individual or a group to get rid of a feeling of guilt by tossing that guilt on another individual or group which becomes the "sacrificial ram" that receives all hatred.

The Teaching of Christ on Violence

It is obvious that Christ rejects violence, as is clear in many passages from the Gospel. We hear him say in the sermon on the mountain: "Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth" (Matthew 5:5), "Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God" (5:9), "You have heard that it was said by them of old time: You shall not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment. But I say unto you, that whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment" (5:21-22). "You have heard that it had been said: An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth. But I say unto you, that you resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite you on your right cheek, turn to him the other also" (5:38), and "You have heard that it had been said: You shall love your neighbor, and hate your enemy. But I say unto you, love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you" (Matthew 5:43-44), and he commanded his disciples saying: "Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves" (10:16).

The apostles gave the same teaching: the apostle Paul wrote: "Recompense to no man evil for evil" (Rom 12:17), "Bless them which persecute you: bless, and curse not" (Rom 12:14), "If it be possible, as much as lies in you, live peacefully with all men" (Rom 12:18), and also "But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance" (Gal 5:22, 23).

This teaching on violence is related firmly to the teaching on love. Violence is rejected because it reflects a position contrary to love. Those who consider the other as a "thing to destroy" resent the image of God in him. He who wants to eliminate the other from being resembles a murderer even if he does not actually kill: "Whosoever hates his brother is a murderer" (1 Jn 3:15), and he who does not accept that the other has an independent existence but wishes to subdue him by force is far from love, which accepts the other as an other even if he does not share the same gender, color, opinion, or belief, and does not consider him a mere extension of the proud ego, whether this be an individual or a collective ego.

Jesus' Rejection of Violence in His Life

Jesus' rejection of violence appears not only in his teaching, but in his person and life. Indeed in him the prophecy of Isaiah which he read in the synagogue, to make clear to the Jews that it concerns him, was fulfilled: "Behold my servant, whom I have chosen; my beloved, in whom my soul is well pleased: I will put my spirit upon him, and he shall show judgment to the Gentiles. He shall not strive, nor cry; neither shall any man hear his voice in the streets. A bruised reed shall he not break, and smoking flax shall he not quench" (Matthew 12: 18-20).

The evangelist Luke tells us that one of the Samaritan villages did not wish to accept him as he made his way to Jerusalem, "And when his disciples James and John saw this, they said: Lord, do you wish that we command fire to come down from heaven and consume them as Elias did? But he turned, and rebuked them, and said: You do not know what manner of spirit you are of. For the Son of man is not come to destroy men's lives, but to save them. And they went to another village" (Luke 9:54-56).

At his festive entrance to Jerusalem before his passion, he refused to ascend a horse, which was a symbol of war for the Jews, and instead of appearing as a forceful liberator he took on the appearance of the meek: "All this was done, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet, saying: Tell the daughter of Sion, Behold, your King comes to you, meek, and sitting upon an ass, and a colt the foal of an ass" (Matthew 21:4-5).

And when he was seized he gave his disciples a valuable lesson in non-violence toward the injustice of the aggressors: "And, behold, one of them which were with Jesus stretched out his hand, and drew his sword, and struck a servant of the high priest's, and smote off his ear. Then said Jesus unto him, Put up again your sword into its place: for all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword" (Matthew 26:51-52).

When he was questioned before the high priest, who asked him about his disciples and teachings, Jesus courageously replied that he had spoken openly. Then, the evangelist John tells us: "one of the officers which stood by struck Jesus with the palm of his hand, saying: Do you answer the high priest so? Jesus answered him: If I have spoken evil, bear witness of the evil, but if well, why do you smite me?" (John 18:22-23). We should stop for a moment to consider this response. Many complain about the teaching of the Lord, "whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also," emptying these words of their deep spiritual meaning and holding on to the letter, even though "the letter kills, but the spirit gives life" (2 Cor 3:6); they see in this teaching an invitation to submission and cowardice, ignoring the enormous spiritual energy such an act requires. The behavior of Jesus on this occasion casts light on the genuine meaning of this commandment. Jesus did not turn his other cheek and did not show in his reaction any sign of shame, cowardice, pleasure in receiving pain, or weakness, but he brought the officer to a halt with an attitude that unites meekness with manhood, splendor, and honor.

When hatred against Jesus reached its climax and the Master was nailed to the cross, he faced utmost crime with utmost love, and the peak of violence with the peak of meekness, crying while on his cross and praying for his slayers: "Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do" (Luke 23:34).

Early Christians imitated the meekness of the Master as he had commanded them: "learn from me; for I am meek and lowly in heart" (Matthew 11:29). They did not revolt against their oppressors but achieved the greatest spiritual revolution by offering martyrdom without hatred or grievance. When the oppressing empire became Christian, many Christians were exposed to the temptation of earthly power and some were polluted by the spirit of the world; therefore they oppressed those who did not share their beliefs, whether pagans or heretics. But the voice of the saints loudly rejected such practices as contrary to the spirit of the Gospel, and insisted that the doctrine of love cannot be defended with weapons of hatred. Let us listen for example to what St. John Chrysostom said in one of his homilies: "Altering the mentality of foes is far greater and more marvelous than killing them; the apostles were only twelve, while the whole world was filled with wolves. Let us then be ashamed, who do the contrary, who like wolves assault our enemies. For as long as we are sheep, we conquer, and even though ten thousand wolves lurk around us, we overcome and prevail. But if we become wolves we are defeated, for the Shepherd will then deprive us of his help, because he feeds sheep not wolves" (Homily XXXIII on Matthew).

The Meaning of Meekness toward the Aggressor

It is made clear to us now why Jesus commands us to act meekly even with those who offend us. That is because the goal is to save the offender. If we answer his violence with violence, how can we save him from the evil that enslaves him? In reality, he would have won by forcing us to join him in hatred and animosity. But if we face his violence with meekness we may give love a chance to enter his heart by offering a living testimony for true love, unconditional love which encompasses every person despite his faults; even if he is an oppressor or hater. Triumphant love is unshaken by the attacks of violence. This love alone, because it is from God, is able to enlighten the heart of the person who is chained with hate, to break his bonds and transport him from the world of violence to the world of God who "makes his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust" (Matthew 5:45). That love is alone greater than hatred and with it we are able to achieve complete and thorough victory. In that sense the apostle Paul wrote: "Be not overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good" (Rom 12:21).

Violence begets unending violence, "for all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword" (Matthew 26:52). But facing violence with meekness contains the prospect of destroying this hellish spiral, and the ability to found basis for true peace.

Meekness Does Not Deny Force

Meekness is not as tepid as Nietzsche imagined. It does not deny force. Force is necessary at times to awaken rigid consciences. Love for people requires it sometimes, for he who loves his brethren should at times bother and agonize them for their own good, and that is always done at the expense of the doer's own comfort. For this reason, Jesus acted forcefully in many incidents of his life. He was not only meek, but forceful when the situation required force; therefore there is no similarity between the Jesus of the Gospel and the pale emotional depiction imagined by Renan, for instance . He addressed the Jewish people, and especially their leaders, in a harsh manner, scolding them over their pride, hypocrisy, adoration for supernatural acts, and lack of faith: "O generation of vipers, how can you, being evil, speak good things?" (Matthew 12:34), "An evil and adulterous generation" (Matthew 12:39), "O faithless and perverse generation" (Matthew 17:17), and "woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!" (Matthew 23:13). His force was clear not only in his speech but also in deed, as John the evangelist tells us: "And the Jews' passover was at hand, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem, and found in the temple those that sold oxen and sheep and doves, and the changers of money sitting; and when he had made a scourge of small cords, he drove them all out of the temple, and the sheep, and the oxen; and poured out the changers' money, and overthrew the tables, and said unto them that sold doves, Take these things hence; make not my Father's house a house of merchandise" (John 2:13:16). Even his apostles faced his force, for he called them "of little faith" (Matthew 8:26), scolded them for being slow to understand spiritual matters (Matthew 15:16), and rebuked Peter because he tried to discourage him from sacrificing Himself by saying: "Get thee behind me, Satan" (Matthew 16:23).

Yet Jesus used force in those conditions without hatred or animosity, and there was nothing but love in his heart. He embraced with unmatched tenderness that adulterous people, healing their sick and preaching to their poor. He called his disciples who were slow to understand and occupied with earthly things "little children," he prayed on his cross for the Pharisees and Scribes who murdered him, and he wept on Jerusalem as he called her "killer of prophets," warning her of punishment. Jesus used force only as a surgeon uses a knife, not out of hate for the patient but in his service and for his wellbeing. It is said that some people apposed the method of non-violence which Gandhi had adopted by quoting before him the incident where Jesus forced the merchants out of the Temple, while knowing that the Indian leader was imitating Christ, so he answered them saying: "If it were possible for you to have the meekness that was in Jesus when he forced the merchants out of the Temple with a scourge, I would have allowed you to use scourges."

Meekness Does Not Mean Weakness

It is clear then that true meekness does not mean cowardice or capitulation, but involves persistence in completing its mission whatever the obstacles may be, even if doing so leads to death. The meek person does not wish to destroy others, but does not retreat from sacrificing himself if the need arises. Jesus the meek was not passive but firm in his position toward the glorious of the world. This is apparent in the incident told to us by the evangelist Luke: "The same day there came certain of the Pharisees, saying unto him: Get out, and depart from here, for Herod will kill you. And he said unto them: Go you, and tell that fox, Behold, I cast out devils, and I do cures today and tomorrow, and the third day I shall be perfected. Nevertheless I must walk today, and tomorrow, and the following day" (Luke 13:31-33). We find that same determination and resolve --- the determination of someone who gave his life voluntarily for the sake of completing the mission of love which he took upon himself --- in the position of Jesus when he fell into the hands of his enemies and during his unjust trial: we see him acting toward his frightened and nervous enemies and judges as if he were the judge, not as one to be judged, in meekness accompanied by strong, quiet resolve.

Meekness Does Not Contradict Combating Evil

Meekness does not mean compromising with evil; its source is love, and love must always be equipped to combat every evil, because evil threatens others in body and soul. Meekness does not mean that a human should stand inactive before evil. But it does impose a special method of combating evil. It requires that evil be fought without hatred for the evil person, that peaceful means be used whenever possible, and that we seek to stop evil by addressing people's minds, no matter how devoted they may be to serving the passions; their hearts, no matter how corrupted; and their consciences, no matter how rigid they have become. It requires faith that the image of God is still implanted in the depth of the human being, even if it has been distorted. Meekness therefore has great patience ("love endures" says the apostle) because it includes great respect for the other, even if he has gone astray.

Gilbert Cesbron wrote in his latest novel Between Dogs and Wolves: "Pacifism is not the opposite of violence, but patience is." Yet this patience of meekness is the strongest weapon against evil. Meekness fights the roots of evil because it attempts to extract animosity from the heart of the aggressor and reclaim him for the camp of love, while fighting evil with hatred and animosity results in making it permanent, even if things change on the surface. Therefore, since meekness has such supernatural power in fighting evil, we find that the powers of evil revolt against it with rage, and the seemingly unimaginable happens: the meek person who hates no one and preaches that no one else should hate becomes the victim of hatred. The martyrdom of Gandhi, the messenger of non-violence in our time, is but one deep and effective example.

Ways to Gain Meekness

Meekness is not merely a pleasant emotion or a comfortable and easy position. It is a resolute and difficult commitment in a world that is often ruled by the right of might. Cesbron explains in the book mentioned above: "It is more difficult for one not to be violent while violent people attack him." In other words, one must reverse the popular notion that one must be a wolf among wolves. Meekness requires a renewed look at the human, the universe, and new criteria in evaluating issues, making love the definite and ultimate value, because "God is love; and he that dwells in love dwells in God, and God in him" (1 John 4:16), "for love is of God; and every one that loves is born of God, and knows God. He that does not love does not know God; for God is love" (1 John 4: 7-8). Meekness necessitates a new understanding of action, and a pursuit, not of superficial and cheap action, but action that is genuine and deep.

It requires liberation from ego-centrism to be able to consider the other as an objective, not merely a means and a tool. It requires in the end true conversion and transformation in the depths.

This conversion is a conversion to Christ, because "hereby perceive we the love of God, because he laid down his life for us" (1 John 3:16). The way to gain meekness is for the image of the meek Christ to be activated in us by humble reading of the Gospel; it is for Christ's love to live in us by prayer, the sacraments, and observing the Word. If this love is established in us we can be free from pride and love for power, the two main motives for violence. And if fear is one of the sources of violence, then gaining meekness requires liberation from the yoke of fear, and that happens when we become certain that we are loved by God, partakers, although weak, in the victory of the Lord who rises from the dead to "deliver them who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage" (Heb 2:15). Thus we may attain confidence that allows us to demolish the bonds of our isolation in order for us to embark, in turn, on the risk of love without fear.

Violence of Love

If we walk on this path of meekness, what then will be the fate of the energy of violence that is concealed in us and which accompanies our life itself to some degree? The solution of course is not to sever it, thus weakening a force that was founded to be mobilized entirely in the service of God. We are not required to suppress it in the Freudian sense either, that is to ignore its existence, which can lead to breakdown and explosion. Human instincts are not evil per se, but are confused, as is the case with all the powers of the fallen and wounded human. Therefore it is essential that they pass through the sacrament of the cross for purification and restoration. The Lord does not expect us then to suppress or sever the energy of violence that is in us, but to control it with conscience and tame, civilize, and consign its power to the direction of good. In other words, we must "enhance" the energy of violence that is in us to the level of love; thereby we may direct this enormous energy instead of becoming enslaved and controlled by it. By doing so we can fight with it a war that is unlike the wars of mortals, although it is not, as the poet Rimbaud says, less violent than those are. It is the spiritual war, which contains no hate, against the evil that is in us and around us; it is zeal over God's question on earth, because "The zeal of your house has eaten me up" (John 2:17).

It is to this struggle, not to submission and inaction, that Christ calls us when he says: "Do not think that I come to send peace on earth; I came not to send peace, but a sword" (Matthew 10:34), and "the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent take it by force" (Matthew 11:11).

The only violence that is fitting to God and worthy of humans is the violence of love, that love which knows no rest for it is a glorious flame: "I have come to send fire on the earth; and how I wish it were already ablaze" (Luke 12:49).


Translated by Ibrahim Aboud