Playing the Indian Card

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Jesus's Teaching on Non-Violence

Pope Francis has been tweeting again. He writes:

First problem is that word “today.” It suggests that the requirements for being a follower of Jesus have changed, and even recently. That sounds like the heresy of modernism.

And what teaching is he referring to about “nonviolence”? “Nonviolence” is actually the English translation of the Sanskrit “ahimsa.” It is an ancient Indian philosophy, originating with Jainism. It is not, that is to say, a Christian doctrine. Yet Francis suggests that Christians must accept it in order to be “true” followers of Jesus.

How’s that for muddying the waters concerning Catholic teaching. And he even seems conscious of the fact that he is adding something not originally there: note the word “also.”

They pile heavy burdens on people’s shoulders and won’t lift a finger to help.-- Matthew 23:4

The Jain advocacy of “nonviolence,” originally involving not just pacifism, but vegetarianism, nudism, and not swatting at insects, was taken up by Mahatma Gandhi and used as a practical tool in the Indian independence movement. It was then adopted by Martin Luther King for the civil rights struggle in the US. This has given it a certain modern prestige. It works, in large part by claiming the moral high ground for whatever it advocates. It seems like a good thing.

But that does not make it a part of Christian teaching.

To be fair, Gandhi himself did claim he got his inspiration not solely from Jainism. He pointed to the Sermon on the Mount as seeming to him to preach something similar. But then, this was also wise strategically, in appealing to the Christian English. He also claimed to find the principle in Judaism and Islam.

Presumably he, Gandhi, refers specifically to the famous “turn the other cheek” passage:

“38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.”

It surely sounds like a related concept. But to call it “nonviolence” is misleading. Note the entire passage:

“40 And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. 41 And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.42 Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.”

Not hitting back at one who slaps you involves renouncing violence. But not refusing your cloak, or a loan, does not. Violence or non-violence, in other words, is not the issue here. It is rather a call to return love for hate.

Compare Rosa Park’s famous action in refusing to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus in 1955. This is the most famous single act of “non-violence,” the classic example. But does it follow Jesus’s teaching? Clearly not.

Jesus had no problem with violence as such. He refused to condemn soldiers, he advised his apostles to buy a knife, he cleared the moneychangers from the temple, he said “I come not with peace but the sword.” Violence has its place.

It is really not helpful for a pope to be promoting such confusion. I understand that Francis is not interested in theology or doctrine, that his emphasis is pastoral.

Even so: surely it is the first responsibility of a shepherd that he not lead his flock astray?

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