Response to J. Denny Weaver: Atonement and Theology

This was given at a symposium on the atonement held in the Pacific Northwest Mennonite Conference in October of 2005
  • Regular font: actual presentation at conference
  • Green font: longer presentation – drawn out a bit, since some of it was originally abbreviated.
  • Green italics: postscript – reflections from the conference and my interaction with Denny Weaver afterwards.

I want to begin with a general point from your first lecture and book on postmodern theology regarding the Mennonite criterion for theologizing. You give an array of answers – the criteria of the narrative Jesus; narrative of the earthly Jesus; a distinctive ecclesiology; a distinctive way of looking at church history and appropriating the bible.

But your answer mostly focuses on the nonviolence of Jesus. I find this problematic for several reasons but for now I will just say – it’s too reductive. This is just one aspect of what Jesus was up too, although an important part.

The key for me would be a Jesus centered Biblicism which includes love of enemies along with the whole program of Jesus.

Violence accommodating argument: Based on this argument one can reject Jesus, the bible, and lots more. That something can be used to accommodate violence is different than saying that it leads to violence or is especially welcoming to it. Each piece of traditional theology must be evaluated on its merits – not with a broad sweep. I almost get the feel that anything connected with Christendom is suspect by default. This is too strong.

The nature of theology: What do you mean by theology? In the broadest sense Anabaptists have done this throughout their history. They produced numerous confessions.

“Systematic theology” means many different things – but usually it means the modernist attempt to ground theology in something else to give it shape, consistency and credibility. If you mean a kind of postmodern confessionalism, which is what many theologians mean when they appeal to postmodernity, then it seems to me we have been doing this kind of thing all along, more informally and within a churchly as opposed to an academic context.

In my own opinion, when you put together Anabaptism’s informal/churchly mode of theology and its strong critique of learned scholars – with postmodernity, with its strong focus on particularity and the role of social context in shaping thought: what we should get is a fairly robust critique of the whole program of academic theology. It is after all, a Christendom model of education – blending Christianity and academia – or knowledge in general.

What we need is a theology that arises out of the churchly community and that is oriented by its values and concerns. Yet you offer academic theology as the answer to our crisis!

Just a note – Postmodern analysis: The creeds are not part of the modernist foundationalist project. They do not appeal to value neutral philosophy outside of their confession to ground the truth claims of their content. This stuff is pre-modern, even though it claims universality. I don’t follow you on this, nor am I aware of any other scholar who uses this form of analysis – premodern/modern/postmodern who draws these conclusions.

Anabaptism’s creedalism: At a minimum their use shows that it is possible to be pacifist and hold to Nicea. It is possible to be pacifist or not, since the formula can be shaped by the ethics attached to it. The original Anabaptists did not see an inherent inconsistency – why is that? You yourself acknowledge that when the Anabaptists attached their ethics to the creeds, it changed the orientation of the creeds. Why is this no longer adequate today?

For myself, I am a Biblicist, like the early Anabaptists, so the creeds don’t hold authoritative status – they may be right in some sense, but they do not determine who does or does not enter the kingdom of God. Nor can we apply non-biblical criteria to determine who are and who are not a part of the church. The creeds are speculation that goes beyond what the scriptures teach. They can be respected but not made authoritative.

Postscript: I think there is a problem with your guiding metaphor – the idea that we take the creeds as a foundation and then build our Anabaptist theology on it. At least in terms of the early Anabaptists, the creeds were a small piece of the puzzle of their theology – not the center or foundation. Their foundation was a Biblicist appropriation of the narrative Jesus, as you call it. So it is possible today to respect the creeds and give them more authority than even I do, and not be using them as a foundation. They are simply accepted as rules for speaking about Jesus in certain contexts – boundaries that one should not go beyond.

Possibility vs. Urgent Need: Regarding your argument for theological revision among Mennonites – yes, it is consistent with Anabaptism to be able to review any belief under the scrutiny of Jesus and the rest of the Scriptures.

I wanted you to focus more on the need – although your lectures this weekend address this to a degree. Are these formulas inherently inconsistent with Anabaptism (the strong form of the argument)? Make this case and then we would have to change.

Christology: You concede that neither Nicea nor Chalcedon advocate violence – that is, they are not inherently violent. So the strong argument is gone.

Do the formulas enable separation of ethics and Christology? Well, they weren’t meant to address ethics. They were meant to address specific issues being argued at the time. They were not meant to be universal statements on all things Christological. But even so, they do have ethical potential: Jesus’ status as God gives weight to his ethical teaching. Jesus’ humanity shows that it is livable – he is like us and did all his teaching.

But more importantly your problem is not with the formulas themselves but with how they can be put forth without the whole picture in view – the earthly Jesus and his teaching and example. This was distorting in that social context of developing Christian empire, and is also still today. I agree.

This does not, however, argue for the necessity of theological reconstruction, but rather for a more holistic witness – like what the early Anabaptists did with these creeds, and Mennonites have done ever since. If the problem is keeping the creeds in ethical context then the answer is to keep them in an ethical context. So, I think, your argument fails to compel theological reconstruction in this case.

But this undercuts your broader argument: Christology is where the claim against standard theology is the most plausible – these are creedal – from ecumenical councils – atonement teaching is not. You can disagree with Anselm and still be orthodox. It is more of a consensus, and even then only a Western consensus. In Eastern Orthodoxy it is not dominant – there one finds Christus victor themes or incarnation as the mechanism of salvation through divinization.

I have several concerns with your atonement proposal: First of all, let me say that I myself hold to a Christus Victor view of atonement – a reworked ransom view. But this doesn’t mean that much in this context, because the critique put forward covers really any view of atonement that involves violence. (Lecture 2 – page 7) Here are my concerns:

No discussion of the ransom saying!? Mark 10:45 and parallels -“For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” This is an important saying about Jesus’ death.

If the criterion is the Jesus of the gospel narratives – why this omission? Or is the narrative Jesus really only about nonviolence – which goes back to my concern with reductionism.

You mention Trocme’s use of this text (L3-12) and imply that this means laying down one’s life – something short of death. But the context of Mark 10 is the cross – drinking the cup that Jesus drinks and being baptized with the baptism of Jesus – and the subtext is the suffering servant of Isaiah who dies for the many. I don’t understand this omission at all.

The connection of violence accommodation and Constantine (the Christendom context of atonement thought): The idea of redemptive suffering, Jesus’ death as willed by God – all existed before Constantine, in the earliest formulations. Maybe Anselm’s greater focus on the need for direct action from God can be explained by the Christendom context, but I’m not sure.

Divine child abuse: I don’t see how you come out too much better on this one – Anselm says – God arranged to have his son killed; Christus victor says – God sent his son into a situation that he knew (or, at least, should have known) would kill him. No good parent would do either of these.

But the parent-child image is not a good one here. The child is a grown one, Jesus, who makes a free choice to give himself to die.

Of course, in the texts it is seen as the self-sacrifice of God – to give his son, not child abuse. Like a family that lets their son sacrifice himself in order to save the other children of the family. And, of course, we have to factor in resurrection. This takes this particular case beyond such simplistic human analogies.

Postscript: The deletion of the devil – Is there really a difference between Anselm and you on this point? Anselm removes the devil and now only has two parties involved in the death of Jesus – God and the humans who killed Jesus. But even though you keep the devil, you redefine him as Rome – the (or some of the) humans who killed Jesus. For both of you there are really only two parties – God and humans.

The disconnect between Jesus’ death and our salvation: In other words, Jesus’ death isn’t necessary for our salvation: You say –

  • “God’s reign does not need the death of Jesus” (Lecture 3 – page 13).
  • “What I do dispute is that it was (Jesus’) death that was the saving element of his work and his mission.” (L3 – 15).
  • Jesus’ death “. . . accomplishes nothing for the salvation of sinners, nor does it accomplish anything for the Divine economy.” (Atonement book – 72)

This is serious because it overthrows just about as central a tenet as there is in Christianity – the idea that our salvation depends in one way or another on Jesus’ death.

I can’t get beyond a reading of the texts that makes Jesus’ death a/the central factor in our salvation. It is not accidental or peripheral; it is necessary.

Even in deliverance from Satan – Jesus’ coming, being an activist and exercising power is not enough – the death is central in the texts.

Hebrews 2:14-15 – “Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.” It is through his death that Jesus defeats the devil.

Forgiveness of sins – reconciliation with God

Matthew 26:28 – “for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” The subtext here is Exodus 24 and the blood of the covenant – a death that effects a covenant. In referring to this Jesus indicates similarly that his death is necessary to seal the new covenant.

Romans 5:10 – “For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life.” We are reconciled by his death – it is not saying that Jesus’ death indirectly does this through calling us to receive God’s invitation, as you seem to want to say about these Pauline texts. (L3 – 11)

I know that Paul or any other writer can be read in different ways, that’s easy to do with just a modicum of higher education. What I am looking for is the most compelling reading of a text in its context. Simply showing that some scholar here or there can read a text this way or that isn’t impressive.

But my point here is that however these texts (and more) are read I don’t think we can overlook the direct connection between death and salvation. Let me stress I am not defending Anselm here – just the broader point that there is a direct connection between Jesus’ death and our salvation, whatever atonement theory you want to use to describe this.

One final point on this issue: I find it odd that after working over Nicea as you do, you would appeal to its logic to support the nonviolence of God. (L3 – 15). But what about Chalcedon’s logic, or the logic of its framers – that what was not assumed cannot be saved? What Jesus did not become or experience as a human cannot be redeemed? Death was necessary to experience every aspect of our existence and without this – we could not be fully saved; we could not be saved from death. According to Hebrews 2:14, above, this is why he partook of our flesh – that through his death he could overcome the devil and free us. The death was necessary.

Jesus’ death and God’s will: You say regarding standard atonement images – “The strange implication is that both Jesus and those who kill Jesus would be carrying out the will of God . . .” (L2-8) and later call this “nonsense” (L2-9).

This is surely a simplistic conception of God’s will in relation to Jesus’ death.

  • For instance: God willed Israel’s release from Egypt, but hardened Pharaoh’s heart to make him resist this. What did God want – release or not? Is this nonsense? Both Moses and Pharaoh were doing God’s will on some level. Well we know what was going on. God was doing more than one thing at a time. He was judging Pharaoh, making a name for himself, and delivering Israel. God is working on several levels simultaneously.

So we see there are different senses or levels of God’s will:

1) God willed that Jesus die: he sent Jesus into a situation that he knew would result in his death because he knows how Satan and the world work – pride and violence. There is indirectness to this but still it is a choice that lead to death. Perhaps the best way of saying it is – this was God’s plan or strategy. He initiated and oversaw this series of events that ended in the death of Jesus.

2) But God’s ultimate will is to use all this to destroy Satan and set us free. This is what God truly wants.

So God wills on one level that it happen and that Satan kill Jesus – this is God’s strategy, but he does so to bring down judgment on Satan so that we can thus be saved – his ultimate will or goal.

That the powers acted according to God’s will – or as he knew they would in his plan Acts 4:27-28 makes clear – “for truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place.” Just like Pharaoh they are in some sense doing God’s will – carrying out his plan.

But not knowingly – If the powers knew what would happen, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory – I Corinthians 2:7. It was actually an act of rebellion on their part, just like Pharaoh.

But God, knowing their view of power, knew what they would do and used this to accomplish his ultimate plan of salvation. This is another example of how God, in the words of Paul in I Corinthians 3:19, “catches the wise in their craftiness.”

Postscript: God uses the freely chosen actions of his enemies who are attempting to destroy his kingdom to establish his kingdom on earth. He orchestrates all these events to come together in such a way that his purposes are accomplished – through the freely chosen actions of his enemies.

This isn’t nonsense –  its genius!

More broadly on this question: If Jesus’ death were not willed by God, if it were not necessary – what do we make of the passion narratives?

  • The prayer in Gethsemane – which makes it clear that Jesus was checking to make sure it was God’s will, (the Jewish tradition of 3 fold praying to confirm God’s will). Jesus thought it was God’s will and he only went to the cross in deference to this. Otherwise he would not have – the text is clear – he wanted to live.
  • The references to prophecies concerning death that must be fulfilled. Jesus says in Matthew 26:56 – “But all this has taken place that the Scriptures of the prophets might be fulfilled.”
  • The fact that Jesus did not have to die. He practically engineers his death – sending Judas out to do his job, waiting to be betrayed by Judas. If Jesus didn’t think it was necessary to die he could have easily escaped as he did on numerous other occasions to continue his work further.

The Johannine Jesus makes this crystal clear – John 10:17-18 – “I lay down my life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again.” If it wasn’t God’s will, if it wasn’t necessary, why did Jesus throw his life away? Circumstances did not force it, he chose it in deference to God’s plan.

But not only was it God’s will, it was predetermined, that is, it was no mere afterthought or improvising because God didn’t foresee or have this calculated in his plan:

Acts 2:23 – “this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men.”

Acts 4:28 – the enemies of Jesus gathered together – “to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place.”

The nonviolence of God – For conceptual clarity, since nonviolence can be ambiguous I will talk about – non-redemptive harm to an enemy:

– I don’t want to focus on the obvious examples in the Old Testament – just mention some ideas:

  • judgments, like on Sodom
  • commands to kill
  • texts that teach that Yahweh is an avenger of blood or judge who repays – Exodus 22:22-24; Deuteronomy 32:43; Psalm 9:11-12.

– Let’s focus on what Jesus says about God. He is our criterion for good theology.

God loves his enemies, which we are to emulate – Matthew 5, but God also punishes and kills his enemies in some circumstances – which we are not to emulate. And this is, of course, non-redemptive harm.

Unless we are going to reduce Jesus to just his teaching on loving enemies, (my concern with reductionism) we have to hear this other part as well:

  • Matthew 22:7 – “The king was angry, and he sent his troops and destroyed those murderers and burned their city.” This is a transparent allusion to the coming destruction of Jerusalem – by God. God destroys his enemies.
  • Mark 12:6-9  –  Jesus told this parable about his upcoming death: He had still one other, a beloved son. Finally he sent him to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But those tenants said to one another, ‘This is the heir. Come, let us kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.’ And they took him and killed him and threw him out of the vineyard. What will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and destroy the tenants and give the vineyard to others.
  • Matthew 8:11-12 – “I tell you, many will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” The phrase – “will be thrown” – is a divine passive – a clear Jewish technique for referring to God acting, in this case on the final day.
  • Matthew 11:23-24 – After giving woes over several cities who rejected his message – “And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? You will be brought down to Hades. For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. But I tell you that it will be more tolerable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom than for you.” We know that Sodom was not “self-judged” – as you talk about. It was an act of God. And so, Jesus tells us, it will be like this on the final day.

But not only this – The glorified Jesus will dispense non-redemptive harm:

  • Luke 19:27 – (parable of ten minas). The master, which represents Jesus, says: “But as for these enemies of mine, who did not want me to reign over them, bring them here and slaughter them before me.’ ” Granted this is a parable so we have to be careful – but the context is about Jesus coming into his kingdom (v.11). It also anticipates the resistance that Jesus is about to encounter in Jerusalem – which is the narrative context.
  • Matthew 16:27 – “For the Son of Man is going to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay each person according to what he has done.” He teaches us to return good for evil, but here – on the day of judgment – he repays according to everyone’s deeds. This is retribution.

– A Pauline quote that refers to both God and Jesus giving non-redemptive harm: 2 Thessalonians 1:6-9  “. . . since indeed God considers it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to grant relief to you who are afflicted as well as to us, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might . .  ..”

Just a note: The rider of Revelation 19 is not an example of a pacifist Jesus. He speaks and the people die! He is the cause of their deaths. This is retribution, even if it is not a literal sword. It also connects to 2 Thessalonians 2:8 – Jesus will destroy the lawless one with the breath of his mouth.

Summary: I give these verses, (and they could be greatly multiplied) not as proof-texts, taken out of context, but rather as clear and consistent testimony of the biblical view that God, and indeed the risen Jesus can and will dispense non-redemptive harm to enemies.

Finally on this point I want to say there is actually a crucial connection between God’s ability to be violent righteously and our love of enemies and nonresistance.

  • It is precisely because God can nonredemptively harm his enemies and still be righteous, that we are free to give that agenda up and love our enemies.
  • It is only because we know that God will ultimately act in justice for the oppressed that we can lay aside our anger and bitterness and desire for revenge and thus come to love our enemies and submit to evil authorities when we are oppressed.

Rather than condoning our violence it makes our pacifism possible.

Paul brings out this point in Romans 12:19 – “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” Because God will repay, we are free to give mercy and return good for evil.

Postscript: Your answer concerning how to deal with the words of Jesus that indicate that God practices retribution, or non-redemptive harm is revealing. You went in two directions – 1) At some point we will find nonviolent ways of reading these texts as well. To this I say that before you offer your proposal – that makes some very novel and even radical claims – you should have your homework done first! I’m not saying that you have to have every verse in the Bible explained, but at least you should have some way for accounting for the synoptic Jesus in place – your stated criterion of theology. 2) Your other answer is that we need to take the nonviolent Jesus and see in him the clearest revelation of God even if this means putting aside some other texts – even texts that relate the words and deeds of Jesus. But this only shows what I think is obvious – you have a criterion for theology that is higher than the narrated Jesus of the synoptic gospels – the idea of nonviolence or a philosophy of nonviolence. You then bring this to the text and only accept that part of the narrative Jesus that fits this. So the narrative Jesus in all his unique particularity, which you make so much of, is not actually your standard for theology. He can’t be since you have a higher authority that you bring to him to say what part of him you will accept and what part you will not accept or explain away.

It should be fairly obvious to those who heard you or have read your books that you have no problem setting aside Scripture – even the New Testament, when this doesn’t fit your proposal. I have enough problem as a pastor getting my people to take the Jesus of the gospels seriously. There is always the temptation to only accept the part we like or find comfortable. And there are so many today who just take a part of Jesus and make of him what they will – conservative Protestants – just to give one easy example. But then here you come doing the same thing! If there is a criterion higher than the narrative Jesus, which we bring to this Jesus to say what part applies – then the door is open to any person’ subjective choice as to what to emphasize or deemphasize. I prefer sticking with the particularity of the Jesus of the gospels in all his first century Jewishness as the criterion.

Nonresistance: I strongly disagree with a complex of ideas that have to do with replacing nonresistance with nonviolent resistance, including your strong rejection of redemptive suffering –  but let me begin with nonresistance.

I know that its common today among many more educated Mennonites to replace nonresistance with nonviolent resistance – and, of course, to reference Walter Wink in the process. But despite all the praise it receives, I do not think that Wink’s exegesis of Matthew 5 holds water.

We don’t have time to settle this exegetical issue today, but let’s at least look at some differences between these two concepts – before we make the change irreversible:

1. Conceptual: Nonresistance teaches yielding to the enemy. Now I do nuance the meaning of nonresistance over against tradition – it applies in a specific situation – enemies who are also authorities over you. It is a combination of two moral commands – submission to authorities and enemy love. When these come together you get nonresistance. Those who are not authorities over us – we simply return good for evil. (So please note my own modification of Mennonite tradition.) But still – nonresistance teaches yielding to oppressors. There are other pastoral concerns to be aware of, of course. The New Testament allows fleeing, speaking out against your oppressor, appealing to higher authorities to find relief, etc. But the bottom line in Matthew 5:39 is the command to yield.

Nonviolent resistance teaches the opposite: do not yield, resist, just make sure you resist in the right way – nonviolently.

But according to my reading, and more importantly here, the traditional Mennonite reading, this kind of resistance would be included in what Jesus forbids in Matthew 5:39 – “Do not resist an evildoer.” That is to say, Jesus forbids violent as well as nonviolent resistance.

So this is a big interpretive move. Our 1995 confession lays these side by side as if they can coexist – but you and I know that they cannot, really. For me your position is forbidden by Jesus. For you my position is an empowerment of the oppressor.

2. Who you look to for justice: Nonresistance looks to God for vindication. You suffer under the oppressive authority and call out to God – who is an avenger of the oppressed – and God acts to bring about change – social change. (If we had more time I would develop the social justice potential of nonresistance, which has been overlooked in our tradition.) But my point is that there is a vertical focus here – looking up to God. Nonviolent resistance has a horizontal focus. You suffer and then seek to influence people with power, governments, a mass movement, etc. to rise up and bring about social change.

3. Political use of suffering: Nonresistance doesn’t use suffering for any political end in the human arena. Nonviolent resistance uses suffering instrumentally to put political pressure on the human powers that be to change or else.

4. The nature of submission to authorities: Nonresistance  truly submits to the authorities that are over you, even when they are evil. Not as victim or passively as you dismissively say, but as a fully free choice, knowing with confidence that God will fight for you. Nonviolent resistance is aimed at personally undermining authorities, not submitting. It has more the character of calculated rebellion than submission.

So these are really different positions. Which you acknowledge in your own way, and then go on to conclude – “the principle of nonresistance is no longer an adequate peace stance.” (Book on postmodern theology – 140).

If it is true as you say in (L1- 9) that – “omitting any [Anabaptist] characteristic changes the character of the movement” – how can you reject what is considered to be the classic characteristic of Anabaptism, for something similar, for sure, but also quite different?

  • How can you do this and not be fundamentally changing the character of Mennonite theology and practice?
  • How can you do this without changing the essence of Mennonite spirituality from one of yieldedness, patience, willingness to suffer and gentleness into an aggressive, assertive and sometimes strident, rights-based activism?

This raises for me the question – are you simply plugging us Mennonites into the larger general theology of left-leaning, progressive, social activist Protestantism?

What I am saying is that this atonement theory doesn’t actually fit what historically and confessionally is a Mennonite point of view – it fits a more mainline Protestant view. Yet you offer it as the perfect fit and as necessary to save our peace church stance in our current crisis!

To wrap this up – nonresistance or yielding to the enemy has to be jettisoned – if you are going to accept this atonement theory and the rest of the package that comes with it. I just want to point out that this is a part of the price tag.

Postscript: As I tried to say at the conference – I do believe in seeking social justice for the oppressed. We are not to be the quiet in the land, separated and only concerned for ourselves. Biblically one can be nonresistant and also confront injustice, suffer with those who suffer and bring about real social change. It is rather a question of how we go about this, not whether we go about this. The early Anabaptists did both. They were clearly nonresistant as opposed to nonviolent resistant – but they did confront oppressors and prophetically called for change in the midst of their persecution. Why is it so hard for us to think that we can do the same and also act for our neighbor in this way – as if nonviolent resistance is the only way to act for social change? I can easily imagine putting together a Christian Peacemaker Team along the lines of what I am saying that could go into a situation – speak prophetically, suffer with those who suffer and then call upon God to raise up the lowly and bring down the mighty. Is this foolishness? Yes, it is the foolishness of the cross. Perhaps it is just as Jesus said in Luke 18:1-8 in teaching on this – that we have lost faith that God still does this – so we turn to making it happen in our own strength and through our own human political mechanisms – through calculated non-submission to authorities.

Finally and very closely connected – Redemptive suffering: You say “a model of passive innocent suffering poses an obstacle for people who encounter conditions of systemic injustice, or an unjust status quo.” (L3-11). As I said above there are pastoral concerns here for me as well. But you object to this in principle, not just in application. You object to “Jesus as a model of voluntary submission to innocent suffering” (L3-10)

What then do we make of 1 Peter 2:18-23? – “Servants, be subject to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the unjust. For this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly. For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly.”

Here we see the cruciform pattern of nonresistance – accept innocent suffering from unjust authorities – with the appeal to the ethical example of Jesus as warrant. And then trust in God for your justice (v. 23) – just like Jesus was resurrected and vindicated. I’m sorry but I don’t see a hint of a trace of activist nonviolent resistance here. I see the cruciform pattern of innocent suffering and God’s promise of vindication.

Examples abound of the goodness of innocent suffering, often with Jesus as ethical warrant:

  • Luke 18:1-8 – the woman who patently endures injustice calling out to God for justice is our example
  • Philippians 2:6-11 – intercommunity conflict
  • I Peter 4:12-19 – innocent suffering in persecution
  • James 5:1-7 – economically oppressed who don’t resist but who suffer patiently waiting for Jesus

Now this needs to be appropriately applied – it is the free choice to accept suffering and there are options for fleeing and so forth (if this is possible). But still, innocent suffering is at the heart of Jesus’ call to take up our cross – Mark 8:34 – “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” We are not to fight for and cling to and love our earthly lives, to raise ourselves up; we choose to lay down our lives so that God can raise us up and we teach others to do the same.

This may not fit liberationist, feminist or other progressive Christian agendas, but I cannot deny that this is at the heart of New Testament spirituality and ethics – and certainly Mennonite spirituality and ethics.

So I end by saying I think your focus on nonviolence is not an accurate representation of the Jesus narrated in the gospels – and then when you use nonviolence as the lens through which to look at every doctrine – things get reductionistic real quick, and the result is, in my opinion, distortion of a great deal of common apostolic and Mennonite themes.

William S. Higgins