J. Denny Weaver is Professor Emeritus of Religion at Bluffton (Ohio) University. He lives in Madison, Wisconsin, and is a member of Madison Mennonite Church.
I am a “recovering nonresistant Mennonite.” That is, my commitment to Jesus’ rejection of violence no longer follows the passive “nonresistance” of my youth. I thought much about this transition as I joined the tens of thousands of other residents of Wisconsin, including many members of Madison Mennonite Church, whose protests in Madison gained national attention in February and March when they vigorously objected to the newly elected governor’s “budget restructuring.”
In the tradition of nonresistance, when Jesus said “resist not evil” (Matt. 5.39 KJV), it required a completely passive response, doing nothing in the face of evil. Thus nonresistance meant believing that Martin Luther King, Jr. and civil rights protests were wrong—wrong because they were resistance—even though segregation and race discrimination were also wrong. Nonresistance meant being glad that the United States army protected our country from Communism—even though a nonresistant Christian would not join the military or commit the sin of killing to protect us from Communism.
Integral to passive nonresistance was “two kingdom theology.” For much of Christian history, under one name or another, two-kingdom theology has presented a way for Christians to justify their resort to violence in spite of Jesus’ rejection of violence. Most obviously, not every structure acknowledges the reign of God. The question concerns the identity and authority of the part of reality that does not acknowledge the reign of God. It is called the “kingdom of the world,” which produces a paradigm with two kingdoms—both ordained by God.
These kingdoms operate by different rules. The kingdom of God lives by the nonresistant story of Jesus. Its adherents are nonresistant. They suffer rather than doing harm in self-defense.
The kingdom of the world rules with the sword—guns in modern imagery—and imposes order with weapons in a wicked world. With appeals to biblical texts such as Romans 13.1-7, it is argued that the sword exercised by governmental authority, although outside the perfection of Christ, is ordained by God and performs a divinely ordained function of protecting the good and punishing evil doers.
Christian traditions have differed on how Christians relate to these two kingdoms. In the justifiable-war traditions it is said that Christians have a duty to wield the sword to preserve order in the evil world. Further, Jesus’ teaching applies only to individuals acting in their own self-defense. When it concerns others, love of neighbor requires Christians to become involved in the world’s kingdom. And it is argued that if killing occurs when acting in the name of the government ordained by God to preserve order in the world’s kingdom, Christians are not held responsible personally for their actions that are contrary to the teaching of Jesus.
In contrast, peace church adherents have generally claimed that those who belonged to the Kingdom of God should not participate in structures of government responsible for preparing and wielding weapons. The divinely ordained kingdom of the world preserves order in the wicked world—but as it performs that God-ordained function, nonresistant Christians do not participate. This view of the two kingdoms shaped the nonresistance of my youth.
Problems with Two-Kingdom Theology
Nonresistance has unfortunate implications. It makes the nonresistant ones grateful for the military in which they decline to participate. As in my early beliefs,, it would ask African Americans to remain passive in the face of unjust but legal segregation and immoral discrimination. And when it is the privileged white person who counsels nonresistance to racial oppression, the nonresistant one is in the uncomfortable position of supporting the oppressive status quo.
Two-kingdom theology also has a problematic image of God. Since God has ordained the kingdom of the world, this theology makes God the author and sustainer of violence—God supports the violence of the wars that punish evil doers, as well as the violence of the judicial system, including the killing of people in capital punishment. But is this really the kind of God that is revealed in the nonviolent story of Jesus?
Two-kingdom theology actually renders the kingdom of God inoperative for much of our world. This theology assumes that violence is the real arbiter of justice in the world. The import is that being Christian—living in Jesus’ story—is really not practical. Those who want to address injustice in the world then must choose not to follow the teaching of Jesus in order to seek justice.
But there is another answer, discussed here in a western and North American Christian context. Other contexts require a different framing of the issues.
Part One: The Nonviolent Resistance of Jesus
One part of that answer is to look again at the life of Jesus. When examining his life without lenses focused by passive nonresistance, it soon becomes apparent that Jesus was not passive or “nonresistant” as that has been understood. In contemporary language, Jesus could be described as a nonviolent activist.
Jesus’ mission, his life that made present the reign of God, had clear social connotations. In Nazareth, to begin his ministry, he quoted from Isaiah about “good news to the poor,” release of captives, the blind recovering sight, and freedom for the oppressed (Luke 4. 18). Carrying out that mission will inevitably challenge injustices.
Consider the challenge when Jesus healed the withered hand on the Sabbath (Luke 6). Healing on the Sabbath was a violation of the purity code of the Pharisees. He could easily have waited until the following day (see Luke 13.14). But he did not wait. He called the man down in front. Verse 10 says that Jesus looked “around at all of them.” In other words, his eye contact ensured that all were watching—and only then did he tell the man to stretch out his hand. Jesus deliberately defied the purity code concerning Sabbath observance and reclaimed the Sabbath for its intended use as a day of restoration and healing.
Jesus traveled through Samaria and interacted with a Samaritan women (John 4). According to the strict purity code, Samaria and Samaritans were considered impure. Further, a woman was always assumed to be in an impure state, and a man could not touch a woman not his wife, nor use a vessel that she had touched. Jesus’ journey through Samaria challenged all these restrictions.
The well-known text used to portray passive nonresistance is Matthew 5.38-42. Jesus says, “Do not resist an evildoer.” But instead, turn the other cheek, give the cloak with the coat, and go the second mile. I understand that “Do not resist an evildoer” means “Do not resist in kind” or “Do not mirror evil.” The three examples illustrate responses that do not mirror evil. A blow on the “right cheek” is an insult, and turning the other cheek refuses the insult and embarrasses the slapper. Giving the cloak leaves the poor man naked and embarrasses an exploitative debt holder in a society where shame falls not on nakedness but on the one who causes the nakedness. A Roman soldier’s regulations forbade him to force a peasant to carry his pack more than one mile. Thus going the second mile could result in the solder begging for the pack to be put down lest he get in trouble with his superiors. These examples illustrate ways a supposed social inferior could resist an oppressor without violence.
One of Jesus’ last public acts was the “cleansing of the temple.” There is some debate about the nature of the temple’s desecration. But there is no doubt that Jesus conducted an activist demonstration of cleansing and restoration to its proper function.
As he neared his inevitable death, Jesus spoke about food and drink for the poor, housing for refugees, and clothes for the naked. In words addressed to all the nations of the earth (Matt. 25.31), he said, “Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” (Matt. 25.40).
Jesus’ life makes visible the reign of God; it puts on display the reconciliation and the shalom that God is accomplishing in the world. The call of God on us is to live in Jesus’ life and thus to participate with Jesus’ Spirit today in showing God’s working in the world.
With this view of Jesus, the issues of my younger years look much different. I think that Jesus would have been at the head of the civil rights marches on behalf of people experiencing discrimination. And rather than being grateful for the military defense of the American way against communism, Jesus would have done actions that reduced tensions and portrayed “communists” not as enemies but as people precious in the sight of God.
These thoughts all occupied my mind as I joined protests in Madison. In Wisconsin, it is “the least of these” who have and will bear the full impact of our governor’s “budget restructuring.” The initial protests concerned the additional contributions for pensions and health care required of teachers and other public sector union employees. However, other impacts of the bill soon surfaced.
The bill would weaken teachers’ and public employees’ unions to the point of irrelevance. It entails large cuts in spending on education, which would inevitably result in laying off of teachers and increased class sizes. Among the most serious cuts were those to Medicaid, including BadgerCare, the programs that provide medical care for poor people, people with disabilities and mental illness, children, pregnant women and seniors. All of these cuts would impact the weakest members of our society. It is very clear that “the least of these” are hit hardest by the governor’s proposed budget restructuring.
Since I live on retirement savings, I will only be minimally impacted by the “budget restructuring” in Wisconsin. However, it is out of concern for the weakest members of our society, and out of concern for children, the leaders of Wisconsin after I am dead but whose education will be harmed now, that I enthusiastically joined the uniformly peaceful and nonviolent protests on Capitol Square in Madison. And I rejoiced at seeing so many other members of Madison Mennonite Church also participating in these protests, giving visibility to the justice that God is working in the world.
And rest assured, these protests were nonviolent. As a testament to their peaceful nature, one had only to glance at the many children in the crowds—babies in strollers, parents bending down to explain to small children what was happening, entire grade school classes.
Of course, there are different reasons for opposing the budget measures being imposed on Wisconsin. A particularly interesting example comes from the organization, Iraq Veterans Against the War. I participated in a rally sponsored by IVAW in support of workers’ rights and in opposition to the current budget proposal. IVAW members voiced repeated denunciations of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, along with statements of how money wasted in those pointless conflicts would easily solve the budget problems “at home.” I can join these courageous men and women in a protest of the particular injustice at hand until our potential underlying differences about the military in general carry us in different directions.
The second part of my response to two-kingdom theology concerns the “kingdom of the world.” In other writing I renamed it. I call it the “non-reign of God.” It is the part of reality that does not yet recognize God’s universal rule. Using this name is a way to recognize that it is a real entity, but that it is not God-ordained nor fulfilling a divine mandate.
At one level, what I have done is easy—simply rename the kingdom of the world. But the renaming also changes its theological value. It is no longer God-ordained. On the contrary, it appears as all the structures that do not acknowledge the rule of God. The renaming keeps in mind that the structures of the non-reign of God do not operate with the same divine sanction as the reign of God.
The non-reign-of-God does perform an ordering function. A visible police presence or threat of violence establishes a certain kind of order. Beating enough rioters will restore a certain semblance of order. Killing enough “insurgents” in Iraq or Afghanistan will produce a brief interlude without violence (until they can regroup and renew the fight), which our government calls order or even peace. But identifying this order as one established by the violence of the non-reign-of-God removes a divine blessing from that means of imposing order.
How the church as the structure that witnesses to the reign of God relates to the structures that represent the non-reign of God remains an important question. And by all means we—the church—should and do relate to it.
The designation of non-reign-of-God keeps before us the difference in character of reign of God and non-reign-of-God. As Jesus said, “My kingdom is not from this world.” (John 18.36). This difference tells us that our cooperation is “ad hoc.” That is, cooperation does not depend on underlying, profound agreements. It is rather based on an intersection of common interests in a particular project, and the cooperation can continue until underlying faith differences cause a separation. The police department and the judicial system work on the principle of retribution, with order based on the threat of using guns. Nonetheless, we might cooperate with the judicial system in a program of Victim-Offender Reconciliation and that cooperation could continue indefinitely, as long as a judge is willing to send cases to the VORP program. We can cooperate with African Americans on projects to confront racism without having first to agree on pacifism. And Mennonites in Madison can certainly join other Wisconsinites in objecting to a budget restructuring that the peace church believes will most harm “the least of these.”
Recovering from nonresistance and abandoning two-kingdom theology has in no way meant abandoning a commitment to nonviolence based on the life and teaching of Jesus. On the contrary. It has meant taking Jesus’ life more seriously as a way of living that allows our lives to demonstrate God’s way in the world. In the case of the protests in Madison, Wisconsin, it is an involvement the puts on display that the salvation worked by God envisions everyone, and most certainly those whom Jesus called “the least of these.”