Jesus on Violence
Many are puzzled by Jesus’ different approaches to the subject of violence.
- ‘turn the other cheek’
- ‘the meek shall inherit the earth’
- whipping the bankers and merchants out of the Temple
- telling the apostles to get swords for themselves before going into the Garden of Gethsemane
- rebuking Peter for slicing off the ear of a man who came to arrest Jesus.
There is, in fact, a consistent philosophy or principle that unites all these sayings and events and eliminates the seeming contradictions. This is the principle of Self Defence and is part of Natural Law.
Natural Law describes the workings of this world. These are the Design Rules, if you like, of this creation and this creation includes mankind, both physical and psychological.
Design Rules imply and indeed require a Designer. Natural Law is God’s Law and is evident before our eyes in our world all around us every day.
When Jesus said and did all those things, he was talking to and demonstrating his (God’s) Law of Self Defence in specific situations. Through these illustrations, he was giving us a very valuable principle to live by — a Law ignored (and even preached against) by our religious leaders down through the centuries.
But first, let us define our terms. What are the definitions of Violence and Self Defence that will be used in this essay?
Violence is either an unprovoked attack using physical force to harm or dominate another human being, or an over reaction to an unprovoked attack.
Self Defence is the application of the minimum force necessary to protect oneself (or those one is responsible for) from physical harm from another.
Force necessary for preservation is Self Defence. Force used over and above this standard of preservation becomes Violence.
Passiveness, in terms of this article, is failing to defend oneself, or those one is responsible for, to the extent that one has the ability and the opportunity to do so.
“Ability” might be compromised through physical constraints or an induced state of confusion or prior psychological conditioning.
“Opportunity” might be compromised through through literally having a ‘gun put to your head’ or something else in that vein.
Implicit in these definitions is the right to defend ourselves which is based on our right to sovereignty over ourselves. That we each have free will is proof that we have this sovereignty.
Self defence in nature and in human relationships
The Gospel of John begins by telling us that Jesus created the world and everything in it. Jesus designed every living thing with a means of self defence – a way to survive. Every species that has survived to this day has, by definition, successfully employed self defence.
Plants have toxins, especially around their seeds. Animals are equipped to fight or run. But we are not taught to think in terms of self defence when it comes to the subject of violence. We are most often taught to either react passively or to return violence with more violence. Both of these reactions attract more violence in return.
Violence returned for violence only escalates the destruction of life. Passivity invites more violence because it removes any restraint to the violent and stands by while life is destroyed. These two responses — passivity and violence — are promoted in our culture through media, literature and films and are typically the only two options employed in analysing Jesus’ sayings and actions regarding violence.
We all have an innate sense of justice and we intuitively know the difference between force used as self defence and force used as violence against others. We all react with an emotional ‘yes!’ when we see someone respond finally with force to end violence being perpetrated against them. We automatically respond with an emotional ‘no!’ when the self defence turns into violence itself — for instance, if someone subdues an attacker but then proceeds to strangle the attacker when restraint is all that is necessary for their protection (perhaps the police are on their way, for instance).
The third option, self defence, is the only option that decreases violence. Self defence is primarily concerned with preserving life; not in destroying life. This is the message that restraint conveys to the attacker – the defender is also interested in preserving the life of the attacker not just the defender.
Strict self defence conveys a message of mutuality and is the option that I believe Jesus was teaching – love your enemies.
‘Love your enemies’ does not mean tolerating violent behaviour. What it does is it helps to counter the impulse to anger and thus poor thinking leading to more violence rather than self defence.
Jesus’ wisdom on self defence
1. Turn the Other Cheek
‘Turning the other cheek’ has been portrayed as a passive and even submissive practice or strategy against violence. This is a complete misunderstanding.
You have heard how it is said, An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. But I say to you, do not resist wrong. But whosoever gives you a blow on your right cheek, turn to him the other. (Mt 5:38-39)
‘An eye for an eye’ sounds like an equivalence but it is not. How is ‘an eye for an eye’ actually achieved? How do you go about removing the culprit’s eye? With overwhelming force in the form of many accomplices, or the overwhelming force of the secular state or the prevailing theocracy — and much cold premeditation and calculation to boot! There is no way this is an equal response to the initial act of harm. There is no equivalency. This is an escalation of the violence and is the deeply flawed basis of our destructive legal system even today. But, perhaps this is an issue for another day.
Jesus also said “do not resist wrong”. The word ‘resist’ in this instance is the word that means to ‘go toe to toe’ with someone – to butt heads, in other words. Hard against hard is not very smart.
So let us look at Jesus’ proposed alternative.
It is curious, is it not, that Jesus would specify the right cheek? It must have had significance for him to mention it. Most people then, as now, are right-handed and, unless you have been trained in the gentle art of Western Boxing, it is usual to strike someone with your right hand. So to strike someone on their right cheek with your right hand, requires giving them a ‘backhander’ to the soft flesh of the cheek. A backhander is the strike of choice for superiors when dealing with insubordinate people they consider to be inferior to them especially when in front of an audience.
Jesus was teaching on how to deal with abusive people in power. When you turn the other cheek they cannot repeat the backhander because they would strike the hard bridge of your nose or your even harder chin with the back of their hand. The back of the hand is quite sensitive (try hitting the edge of a table with the back of your hand). To avoid undue pain to themselves, they have to punch you with their fist if they want to continue. The trouble for the ‘authority figure’ in doing so is that they lose their superior position in the eyes of the audience. They lose their perceived legitimacy and are reduced to brawling like a common thug. Which is what many who abuse their positions of power are, of course; thugs in fine clothes.
This perceived legitimacy is crucial because any despot knows that the people en masse ultimately have the power and not him. Hence the need for pomp and pageantry and all the police and displays of military clout to impress this idea of superior status and power onto the general populace. Power exercised over others is always an exercise in deceit.
Turning the other cheek is an act at once defiant and yet non-aggressive. It is in no way submissive. This action refuses to acknowledge the authority of the abusive power. It does not accept the legitimacy of the attack. It does not submit.
Alternatively, reacting passively may invite more violence as it tells the attacker it is safe to continue the violence. Or reacting with violence yourself in this position will invite evermore violence in return from someone in a position to inflict much more violence on you.
Jesus’ advice is very practical and preserves one from more violence and therefore is a form of self defence. It preserves dignity as much as is possible in an otherwise ‘no-win’ situation. It is an example of defending (as much as is possible) against physical violence without using physical force in return.
2. Jesus Clears the Temple
The situation where Jesus used a whip to chase the merchants and bankers out of the temple is, on the face of it, difficult to see as ‘self defence’ at first. But remember, he called the temple his Father’s House (Jn 2:13-17). If you went to visit your father and found his house occupied with party-goers having a great time and trashing the place at your father’s expense, would you not feel you have the authority to physically throw the intruders out?
Self defence extends to force used to preserve the lives and property of yourself and those you are responsible for. Jesus did not injure the merchants defiling his Father’s House, it was not necessary. He upended their tables and used enough force to drive them out through the Temple doors and no more.
Jesus was in a position to physically intervene to defend his Father’s House and he did so.
3. Blessed Are The Meek
The Beatitudes have the curious line, Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth. (Matt 5:5)
It doesn’t sound right, does it? But Jesus, as always, knew what he was talking about. After all, he created the world and mankind and he designed us for survival. (John 1)
The meaning of the line hinges on the word ‘meek’. Another word for meek is ‘gentle’. To experience gentleness is to experience restraint and control of strength – otherwise what you feel is weakness. To be truly gentle, you need to be truly strong and capable. Gentleness means using only the strength that is necessary for any situation and not an ounce more.
The reward for gentleness is trust. That is what trust is about – willingness to make oneself vulnerable in the belief that strength, though present, will not be used against you. There is no point in trusting weakness. Weakness does not engender safety.
Strength can engender safety but only if it is used to preserve life. Otherwise it engenders fear because it can destroy life. So strength is necessary but only if it is under control. This is the original meaning of ‘meekness’. Unfortunately, the original meaning is not conveyed adequately today (if ever) in either of the words “meek” or “gentle”.
To many, “meekness” suggests the idea of passivity, someone who is easily imposed upon, spinelessness, weakness. Since Jesus declared Himself to be meek (Matthew 11:29), some perceive Him as a sissy-type character.
Nothing could be further from the truth. In the Greek New Testament, “meek” is from the Greek term praus. It does not suggest weakness; rather, it denotes strength brought under control. The ancient Greeks employed the term to describe a wild horse tamed to the bridle.
In the biblical sense, therefore, being meek describes one who has channeled his strengths into the service of God.
Now we can see how gentleness relates to meekness and meekness relates to strength under control which leads to self defence of oneself and those you love and are responsible for. It is both sad and telling that our culture does not have a better word than ‘meek’ to encapsulate this simple but profoundly important attribute of wisdom, love and preservation.
Our species’ survival depends on procreation. So, given enough information, which of these three types of men would most women choose to mate with?
- The passive man who will not defend her or her children?
- The violent man who will attack her and her children?
- The ‘meek’ man who will not attack her or her children but will defend her and her children from others and sacrifice himself in the process if needs be?
The answer is obvious once the question is laid out correctly. This is Jesus’ Natural Design inherent in our psychology in action. Only one option is geared towards survival. This is the ‘meek’ whom Jesus was talking about. The meek will inherit the earth because they are the only ones who can.
An act of protection is an act of love. An act of violence is an act of exploitation. Exploitation is destructive and will not lead to long term survival of a relationship or the long term survival of our species. So if we are to survive, it will be through meekness which is true strength, as Jesus said.
When he said the meek shall inherit the earth Jesus was making a prediction based on the certainty of his Design Laws. The violent and the passive will be destroyed by violence. Only those with the ability and determination to defend themselves and those they are responsible for will survive, because they are the only ones with the wisdom and ability to stop the violence with the minimum of force and thus preserving life. The Meek will most assuredly inherit the earth. And you can be part of that by learning to defend thee and thine in the best way that suits your particular circumstances.
4. Living By The Sword
Jesus tells Peter in the Garden of Gethsemane: Put your sword back in its sheath. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword. (Mt 25:42-54)
To ‘take the sword’ means to ‘live by the sword’. To ‘live by the sword’ means to live by means of using violence to exploit others and, in the end, perish yourself. This violence, although initially successful, has a limited life. It is not true strength. We see this continually in politics and organised crime. These people use exploitation to rise to the top only to get ‘bumped off’ the peak one way or another. Clearly, this is not the way Jesus designed us to live generation after generation.
So why do we find Jesus instructing the apostles to beg, borrow or buy themselves swords prior to them all going to the Garden of Gethsemane and Jesus’ arrest? The apostles return with two swords and Jesus says ‘It is enough.’ (Luke 22:38)
Bible commentators have puzzled over this for generations and seem to have completely missed the point. Amazingly, Pope Boniface VIII in 1302 managed to fashion a whole theology rationalising his (and all subsequent popes’) complete authority over every body and every thing on earth from this passage regarding two swords!
But, back in the world of reality, the explanation is far simpler and easily comprehensible.
Jesus knew that the temple guards were coming to arrest Him. He also knew that they would be accompanied by an armed mob. Armed mobs are not known for their rational thinking and behaviour. They tend to be rather cowardly and lack restraint when it comes to violence. The two swords were to convey the non-verbal message to the armed crowd that should they take it into their heads to attack the apostles, they might suffer injury themselves. The wearing of the swords is a simple example of how men communicate with each other through body language. A ‘Mexican stand off’ is far preferable to a ‘blood bath’. This is self defence.
Everything was going fine until Peter, not understanding the precautionary role of the sheathed swords, pre-emptively decided to draw his sword and attack the high priest’s servant. This was no longer self defence but violence. Peter struck first. Jesus rebuked Peter (Matt 26:52). And Jesus healed the high priest’s servant of his injury (Luke 22:51).
In another account of this confrontation, Jesus said to His Father during this confrontation, “I have not lost any of those you gave me.” Jesus accepted responsibility for the apostles’ safety.
John 18:1-12 New Matthew Bible
When Jesus had spoken these words, he went forth with his disciples over the brook Kidron, where there was a garden into which he entered with his disciples. Judas who betrayed him also knew the place, for Jesus often resorted there with his disciples. Judas then, after he had received a band of men, and officers of the high priests and Pharisees, went there with lanterns and firebrands and weapons.
Then Jesus, knowing all things that would come on him, went forth and said to them, Whom do you seek? They answered him, Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus said to them, I am he.
Judas who betrayed him also stood with them. But as soon as Jesus had said to them, I am he, they went backwards and fell to the ground. And he asked them again, Whom do you seek? They said, Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus answered, I said to you, I am he. If you seek me, let these go their way. This was to fulfil the saying that he had spoken: Of those whom you gave me, I have not lost one.
Simon Peter had a sword, and drew it and struck the high priest’s servant, and cut off his right ear. The servant’s name was Malchus. Then Jesus said to Peter, Put up your sword into the sheath. Shall I not drink of the cup which my Father has given me?
Then the company of men and the captain and the officers of the Jews took Jesus and bound him
Jesus clearly had the apostles carry swords for their protection and to keep them sheathed for the mob’s protection (the ‘mutuality’ in preserving life).
Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. Some bible commentaries have the meaning of ‘meek’ in this instance as those who carry swords, who know how to use them yet keep them sheathed. This is fair enough as far as it goes, but if a sword is always kept sheathed no matter what, it tends to lose its significance.
An indispensable part of ‘meekness’ is the willingness and capacity to act when necessary — to draw your sword when attacked and not before.
Most senior practitioners of martial arts, particularly the Oriental arts, will tell you that they learn to fight so they don’t have to fight. If you know how to fight and are prepared to fight, then you do not exhibit fear and you stand your ground when faced with exploitation. Exploiters sense this and, typically being cowards, back down and violence is avoided. Fear attracts violence. This is exactly the situation in the Garden of Gethsemane that Jesus faced with the apostles. By arming them, they were able to face down the mob and thus avoid violence — Peter’s impulsiveness notwithstanding.
Peter’s behaviour shows us that it is not only strength that is important but control of one’s emotions, too. Masking fear with anger is self defeating because anger, like fear, also attracts violence.
So how do we deal with the violent amongst us and not be subject to fear or anger? By learning to defend ourselves and learning to love our enemies and thus demonstrating that we will not be dominated nor will we seek to dominate others.
We learn how to physically control others when needed, but, more importantly, to psychologically control ourselves at all times. This creates an environment for life to flourish and is the essence of ‘meekness’.
Psychopaths will use anger to further violence. Either anger at others or anger at the psychopaths themselves. Beware of people who repeatedly make you angry. Anger makes it hard to think clearly and that is the point. Love your enemies. Stay in control of yourself and you have the best chance of staying in control of the situation and stopping it from escalating into violence or more violence.
Be swift to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger. (James 1:19)
Jesus designed us to defend ourselves and he gave us some examples through word and deed in the Gospels on how to do it. Self defence, done correctly, lowers violence. Passiveness and retaliatory violence increase the level of violence. Violence is destructive and therefore not conducive to survival in the long term for anybody. Controlling both your anger and your fear assists in reducing violence. Hence, the meek shall inherit the earth.
Jesus was not uttering a feel-good prescription for how to be nice to each other or moralising about behaviour; he was making a simple logical prediction based on his laws of our psychological design and existence.
Written by James. James has suffered and survived many types of abuse.
Also by James: Logic and Authority in the Church