Image by Sister72
Last year on Good Friday, I sat in the back of my church and watched seven candles on the platform stage go out, one by one, as the last seven words Jesus spoke before his death were read from the Scriptures. When the last words were spoken and the last candle extinguished, the sanctuary went completely dark. Several hundred quiet souls sat together in the dark for several long moments in time.
Today as I write this post, I’m trying to get back inside the powerful and profound realization I had in that moment. It was the realization that Jesus sustained violence . . . for us.
This was not a new truth for me to hold. I grew up in the church and have participated in my fair share of Good Friday services, some of which depicted the reality of Christ’s last hours in gruesome detail. But this reality struck me in a new way last year, perhaps because I was deep in the woods of this nonviolence journey and could see with fresh eyes that Jesus embodied on that original Good Friday all that I’ve come to believe is contained in the nonviolent ethic:
- Love is stronger than evil.
- Nonviolence is more transformative than violence.
- Nonviolence is rooted in the conviction of truth.
- Nonviolence is postured in love.
Early in my nonviolence journey, I began to read the autobiography of Martin Luther King Jr. What stood out to me in the early section of that book was Dr. King’s own process of coming to embrace the nonviolent way of life. He studied various philosophers — Marx, Nietzche, and Reinhold Niebuhr among them — and eventually landed upon Gandhi’s nonviolent resistance as that which has the power to “lift the love ethic of Jesus above mere interaction between individuals to a powerful and effective social force on a large scale” (p. 24).
I was particularly struck by Dr. King’s response to Niebuhr, who had been a staunch proponent of pacifism for many years but eventually rejected it. Regarding Niebuhr’s rejection, King said:
Many of his statements revealed that he interpreted pacifism as a sort of passive nonresistance to evil expressing naive trust in the power of love. But this was a serious distortion. My study of Gandhi convinced me that true pacifism is not nonresistance to evil, but nonviolent resistance to evil. Between the two posiions, there is a world of difference. Gandhi resisted evil with as much vigor and power as the violent resister, but he resisted with love instead of hate. True pacifism is not unrealistic submission to evil power, as Niebuhr contends. It is rather a courageous confrontation of evil by the power of love.
I remember watching the Ben Kingsley film on Gandhi’s life several months later and seeing this demonstrated so clearly in the famous salt march. Along with several hundred of his followers, Gandhi marched 240 miles to the sea coast over the course of 26 days in protest of a salt tax. When the marchers arrived at their destination, they faced aggressors who beat and killed many of them, and yet still the marchers stood in conviction for what they believed to be right and true, and they refused to fight back.
This was nonviolent resistance: a firm stand for truth and justice coupled with an unwillingness to raise one’s own hand against another out of love for the dignity and humanity of the one standing against you.
In Jesus, on Good Friday last year, I saw this exemplified in even greater measure. On that day, as I listened to those seven passages of Scripture being read aloud and as I watched those candles, one by one, go out, my mind filled in the details of the story.
In my mind, I watched the Jesus I have come to know and love get arrested. I watched him stand before the chief priest and all the elders and scribes and Pharisees and become the object of their scorn. I watched those religious leaders stir up the crowd against him in derision — the same crowd who had saluted him with palm branches just days before and who had thrown their cloaks on the ground for him when he entered Jerusalem on the back of a donkey, many of whom had likely followed him around for years, always showing up where he did because they wanted more of his teaching and more of his healing. I watched those same people seek his crucifixion.
I watched him stand before Pontius Pilate in the court the next day and say nothing to defend himself. I watched him being given over to the death sentence and watched the Roman soldiers beat him with their clubs and their cat of nine tail switches. I watched them laugh at the torture they inflicted on him and watched them rip the robe off his back, raw pieces of his flesh tearing off with it because of how badly he had been beaten.
I watched him stumble down the dusty road to Golgotha with a heavy wooden cross laid upon his shoulders, splinters gouging into those gaping wounds. I watched the crown of thorns they twisted into his head pierce his temple and his forehead and watched blood run in streams down his face and into his eyes and mouth.
I watched the soldiers pound three heavy, rusty nails into his hands and feet. I can’t even imagine the pain of that part, but yes, sharp, thick nails tore through his skin, tendons, and bones so mightily that they were able to hold the weight of his body against that cross when it was raised high up to the sky.
I watched it happen in my mind as I listened to those Scriptures and watched those candles go out on the stage in front of me that day, and as the last candle went out and we sat in the darkness and silence of that room, tears streamed down my face at the realization:
He suffered violence . . . for us. This was his nonviolence act.
Throughout his ministry, Jesus was not afraid to speak words of truth because he believed they contained real life. This speaking of truth is what eventually led to his arrest and crucifixion, as it leads to death for so many who speak truth in places where truth is not wanted.
He was willing to speak the truth, but he was not willing to save his own life to defend it. Instead, he operated with the knowledge that new life would come from his death — that love would indeed be more powerful than evil.
In the resurrection of Jesus on Easter Sunday, we see this principle born out in the most powerful way it has ever been demonstrated. Life really did conquer death. Love really did overcome evil. Everything contained in the nonviolent ethic is played out in its most literal form in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
For that reason, Jesus Christ stands as the foremost example to me of the embodiment of this way of life and its actual transformative power. It is my sincere hope and prayer that he will teach me to be worthy of this reality he exampled through his life for me to follow.