When we think of Jesus, images of a peace-loving, gentle pacifist comes to mind, at least it did to the mind of Howard Yoder. We read our particular ideology into the biblical text when we claim Jesus was a pacifist. As much as I want to adhere to nonviolence, intellectual honesty forces me to recognize that Jesus was no pacifist. And if this is true, what becomes of my Christian ethical response to oppression?
Jesus was a troublemaker, instigator of conflict, disrupter of unity. A violent Jesus who resolutely makes a whip to forcefully drive moneychangers (bankers) out of the Temple, over-turning their tables (John 3:15). Before, his disciples went out without a money belt, bag or sandals, and lacked nothing. But now, they are to bring a money belt and bag; and if they lack a sword, they are to “sell their cloak and purchase one” (Luke 22:35-36). Jesus the so-called pacifist instructing his followers to buy a sword? It would be as if today he advised purchasing a gun. This Jesus warns his disciples that he did not come to bring peace to earth, but division (Luke 12:51). Not peace, but a sword. Because of him, son will turn against father, daughter against mother, and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law. Even a person’s enemy will be a member of one’s own household (Matt. 10:34-36).
On the night he was arrested, Peter impulsively drew his sword and cut off the ear of the high priest’s slave (John 18:10). Jesus responded to this violent act stating “All those who take the sword shall perish by the sword” (Matt. 26:52). Jesus may be speaking to Peter; but to whom is he directing his comment? After all, it was Jesus who told his disciples to sell their cloak and buy a sword. Some of the disciples were already armed, boasting, “Look, Lord, we already have two swords. That’s enough!” (Luke 22:38).
If Jesus’ comments are directed to his disciples, then he is contradicting his earlier instructions. He therefore must have meant his comments for those aligned with the colonizer who came to arrest him. Those who pick up swords to defend the empire will, along with the empire, perish with the sword. We may argue that Jesus abhors violence, but it would be simplistic to argue that he was a pacifist. He calls his disciples to become the recipients of violence, calling them to radical solidarity with a bloody cross. Violence can never be accepted as a necessary evil as per some revolutionaries, nor rejected as antithetical to Jesus as per pacifists. After all, Jesus prophesies about the Day of Judgment has him at the center of a violent bloodbath.
Let me be clear, this violent Jesus disturbs me. In disobedience to Jesus, I do not own a gun and work for gun control. Although I’m no pacifist, I find the words of César Chávez descriptive of my stance: “I am not a nonviolent man. I am a violent man who is trying to be nonviolent.” Those, like myself, who did not grow up in so-called “good neighborhoods” discover quickly that pacifism seldom works in the schoolyard. History demonstrates the futility of simply denouncing unjust social structures, for those whom the structures privileges will never willingly abdicate what they consider to be their birthright.
Not all violence is the same. The violence employed by the marginalized to overcome oppression, is in reality self-defense to the oppressor’s institutionalized violence designed to sustain and maintain subjugation. Unconditional love for the very least might lead to the unselfish act of standing in solidarity with the oppressed in their battle for self-preservation. Protecting a “nonperson” might invite a violent confrontation as the oppressor uses all police and military tools at their disposal to maintain the status quo.
To make a preferential option of love for the oppressed means harming the oppressor who has a vested interest on insisting solely upon the use of nonviolence as the only ethically acceptable methodology employed by those s/he oppresses. The conflict and disruption that comes with following Jesus, whose consequence at times is violence, illustrates the need for an ethical praxis for the disenfranchised lacking the physical or military power to confront or overcome oppressors. Because the usage of violence all too often becomes the oppressor’s excuse to unleash greater violent retaliation; a need to be as wise as serpents but gentle as doves is required. How does one create ethical acts that disrupt structures that support and maintain oppression?
In several of my books I have suggested the need to joder. To joder is a Spanish verb, a word one would never use in polite conversation, basically meaning “to screw with.” An ethics para joder is an ethics that “screws” with the prevailing power structures. Those standing before the vastness of domination have few ethical alternatives. When those who are disenfranchised start to joder, they play the trickster role, literally creating instability, upsetting the prevailing social order designed to protect the power and privilege of the few.
To joder refuses to play by the rules established by those who provide a space for orderly dissent, pacifying the need to vent, but designed not to change the power relationships within the existing social structures. If the goal of praxis is to bring about change, then it is crucial to go beyond the rules created by the dominant culture, to move beyond what is expected, to push beyond their universalized experiences. This is an ethics that refuses to go to the police department, to get permit from the police department, providing permission from the police department, to protest the police brutality of the police department.
When Jesus overturned those tables in the Temple that day, he was, I argue, participating in an ethics para joder.