The Jewish Legacy and Christian Nonviolence

John Howard Yoder is well known for articulating a Christological nonviolence – that is, an account of nonviolence that cannot be separated from from Christ and
his cross.  I follow Yoder in maintaining that “pacifism” as a self-contained ideology is insufficiently nuanced to be fit for the discipleship community.  In continuity with Yoder, I would argue that “pacifism” in its liberal forms is inherently founded on ideologies flatly contradictory to Christian faith.

Nonetheless, Yoder examines nonviolence in many logics and sources outside the church.  Some of these sources he examines and leaves to one side; some he intentionally sets himself against.  But one in pa

rticular entered into and influenced his reading of Christological nonviolence: the nonviolent resources of Rabbinic Judaism.  This makes a great deal of sense if you think in sweeping historical terms.  Following the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, the Jews were scattered globally, but maintained their distinctive religio-ethnic identity.  Sometimes individuals and communities influenced regional or national politics; often individuals and communities were persecuted and segregated.  But the scattered Jews never mustered armies, and did not generally join in the armies of others.  The last fifty years have seen a glaring exception in Zionism, and many today cannot disassociate images of border guards with AK-47s from Jewish identity.  But this exception is a remarkably isolated, though quite major, case.

So how does Rabbinic nonviolence relate to Christian nonviolence?  Yoder observes,

Since the Middle Ages, Christians are so accustomed to considering their origins in contrast to Judaism that we often ignore the great extent to which the early Christian attitude toward the Roman Empire was simply the attitude of faithful Jews.

Yoder goes on to identify five points of convergence.

  1. The sacredness of life. Blood in particular is treated with special esteem in Judaism, as can be seen from the Cain and Abel story to the sacrificial system and the kosher laws.  Any bloodshed is seen as sacrifice, either rightly or wrongly made.
  2. God is sovereign over the cosmos – over our oppressers just as much as over us.  This has several implications.  (a) This means God can defend justice without our help.  Pragmatic calculations about how to ensure a more just world don’t lesson Torah’s claims. (From certain perspectives, Moses was quite justified to kill the Egyptian master beating the Hebrew slave. Yet Torah condemns this act.)  (b) We cannot know God’s ways when God functions as cosmic sovereign. (c) God may be using the actions of our attackers to chastise us; if we defend ourselves we may be rebelling against God’s intentions for us. (d) It is possible even for those under the odd restrictions of Torah to be useful to pagan societies, as in the cases of Joseph, Esther and Daniel.  But we do not disregard Torah in order to be useful.
  3. There is the understanding in Rabbinic Judaism that God may choose to use our faithfulness unto death as a sacrifice to his holiness.  The Christian concept of martyrdom is analogous to the Hebrew concept of sanctifying God’s name.
  4. The expectation of the coming Messiah.  For Christians this obviously transmutes to the expectation of the returning Messiah, but in both cases we await a day when God’s anointed will bring true peace; all attempts to bring about peace now through violence are signs of faithlessness and presumption.
  5. Finally, Yoder identifies a sort of general reasonableness that can be located in Hebrew writings that lend themselves to the general nonviolence of Rabbinic communities.  He points to biblical sayings like “A soft answer may turn away wrath,” and Rabbi Meier’s oft-quoted statement that “the way to destroy an enemy is not to kill the person but to destroy the sin that makes him an enemy.”

No doubt, much of this convergence has been lost to the Christian church, so much so that many Christians could not even see this as a rough sketch of a Christian point of view.  Nonetheless, these are deeply Christian perspectives, and they raise several questions for the church.  Particularly impressive to me is the concept of identity.  Rabbinic Judaism has a clear identity, clearly related to Torah observance and their understanding of being in covenant with Yahweh.  While some Christian groups have such public identity (the Amish come to mind), Christians at large tend to be defined along cultural lines drawn up by others – Republican/Democrat, etc.  This is a jarring contrast.


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