On Violence

Violence is violence, but we are always trying to parse it some other way. We try to divide it into good violence and bad violence. Into good wars and bad wars. Medieval theologians even developed the notion of a just war versus an unjust war. The parsing has always been difficult because we want to see the violence we use as good and the violence of the other side as bad. The winners inevitably see their violence as good, even justified, and actually very heroic. That’s why statues are set up to honor conquering war heroes. The heroic statue makes the violence used good, legitimate, even necessary.

This parsing of violence is intriguing. Theoretically we all agree that violence is bad. But what about self-defense? Well, of course, one can defend oneself when one is being attacked. But how much? How much violence is a proportionable response? Can you shoot to kill the unarmed burglar who invades your house? Once you start splitting hairs, it will not be long until you end up counting angels on the head of pin. Where to stop, where is the line? This is always a much more difficult problem than it first appears.

One way to solve this problem is to distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate violence. The government exercises legitimate violence; violence by non-government entities is a crime. When a government kills, the act is presumed to be legitimate. To challenge that legitimacy, the burden of proof is on the one making the claim of illegitimacy. We have seen in many instances how difficult it is to make that case. When a nation goes to war, even under the slimmest of pretenses, for example, the War in Iraq, the majority goes along with the leader. We have seen over and over how difficult it is for a jury to convict a policeman of charges of unnecessary force during an arrest.

When a civilian kills someone, it’s murder and then we sort out the degree, from self-defense to first degree murder. While the accused is presumed innocent from a legal point of view, juries often have a hard time making this assumption. The old canard that where there’s smoke, there’s fire often wins the day. Interestingly Roman law made a presumption of innocence. In the middle ages, in the West guilt was presumed.

Most people and all governments are comfortable with this division and for the most part do not question it. Except when we see a policeman murder a black man on video. Or when peaceful protesters are attacked or provoked by the policing force. Then the whole parsing of violence gets called into question and becomes very controversial.

Violence supported and undergirded all ancient empires. What made the story of Herod the Great’s slaughter of all the males in Bethlehem under the age of two so believable is not that it happened. It didn’t. It was believable because that is what tyrants, kings, and emperors did. Violence was their hallmark.

The Roman Empire’s use of violence was not different from other empires, except that the Romans were much more efficient in its use. Julius Caesar’s famous slogan for his campaign in Gaul, Veni, Vidi, Vici, sums it all up. “I came, I saw, I conquered” (one is tempted to translate “I dominated”) and he left genocide in his wake in Gaul. Some of the upper crust Roman senators even thought he had gone too far and wanted to put him on trial. He crossed the Rubicon to put an end to that challenge and had himself proclaimed dictator for life. His assassination (44 bce) in the name of liberitas, liberty or freedom, started a civil war that was eventually won by his adopted son, Gaius Octavian, at the naval battle of Actium (32 bce), where he triumphed over Mark Antony and Cleopatra.

The great claim of Emperor Augustus Caesar, Son of God (Divi Filius), was that he brought pax, peace, to the Empire, and his great altar to peace (Ara Pacis) in Rome celebrated Pax Romana. But it was only Pax if you were Romana. If you were a Briton or a Gaul or a Jew, it was Oppressio.

The Ara Pacis Augustae (Latin, “Altar of Augustan Peace”)Rome masked its violence as peace and celebrated its emperors as conquering heroes. The multiple statues of emperors in battle garb made this evident. As soon as Vespasian had grabbed the title of emperor, he had to crush the rebellion in Judaea. And thus, the great temple in Jerusalem was destroyed. As Tacitus records in a speech of Calgacus, “where they make a desert, they call it peace.”

Arch of Titus Menorah Relief commemorating Vespasian and Titus' victory in the Jewish War (70-71 CE).Jesus and the early followers of him as the Anointed lived in this world of Roman violence and Jesus died at the hands of that violence. He was executed, crucified by the Empire’s authorities. Responding to that violence was a determining aspect in the lives of those who believed in the Anointed.

The Sermon on the Mount contains the famous saying concerning turning the cheek. The tradition history of this saying is very suggestive. The saying occurs in both Matthew (5:39b) and Luke (6:29), thus indicating that it is a Q-Gospel saying. The order of the various sayings in this section of Q is best represented in Luke. (See reconstruction of Q in Dewey and Miller, The Complete Gospel Parallels, #355, p. 290).One small difference in wording, a single word, between the saying in Matthew and Luke stands out. Luke reads, “When someone strikes you on the cheek,” while Matthew has, “when someone slaps you on the right cheek.” Most scholars have argued that “right” is earlier on the principle that traditions tend to shift from the particular to the general. So why the particular in Matthew? And why did Luke shift to the general?

This note about “right cheek” provides a clue about the saying’s interpretation. The genre or form of the saying is case law, whose purpose is to spell out what the law is. But this example is overly specific. It’s about the right cheek; it says nothing about the left. The Lucan version corrects this apparent oversight by making the case more general and not so specific, thus making it a better case law.

Specifying the right cheek makes the envisioned scene apparent. The assailant, almost surely a superior or master, slaps the right cheek of the victim or slave with the back of his right hand. This is a high insult intended to drive the victim into submission. By the turning the other cheek, the victim refuses to submit to the proffered violence. As Walter Wink has argued, the intended victim does not submit, nor does he fight back. The saying recommends a third way. By not escalating the violence, yet resisting, the violence of the assailant/master becomes evident.

This saying is not a real example of case law because it does not try to resolve or parse the violence. The law would be on the master’s side anyway. Rather the saying makes serious fun of the whole effort to parse out violence. It burlesques the case law genre in order to suggest a strategy, a way-of-being in a world of violence. It does not answer the question of what to do; it throws the insult back into the master’s face. It forces one to stop and think, not just assume that the question has been settled, but keeps the question open, forever open, by rejecting the traditional option of either submission or attack. It says resist but don’t escalate the violence. The victim’s courage becomes the assailant’s shame. It makes evident the assailant’s violence by unmasking the claim that it is legitimate violence.

This saying is not neutral, but clearly on the side of the victim.

As our cell phones and TVs have caught vivid images of outbreaks of violence by both police and protesters, does this saying about turning the other cheek enlighten our conversation, especially of those of who claim or want to follow Jesus? Actually, we saw the logic of this saying play out in the streets.

The ruthless and inhumane murder of George Floyd provoked protests of outrage across the country. Most of these protesters were peaceful but some looting broke out. The police response ranged from strong to provocative. President Trump taunted governors and mayors to get their cities under control, to dominate them, calling the protesters terrorists. He threatened to invoke the Insurrection Act of 1807 to call out active duty military forces to quell the protesters.

A cadre of law enforcement including Park Police, Metro Police Department and D.C. National Guard gather in Lafayette Square to face protesters  Credit: Hannah Gaber-USA TODAY/Sipa USA

In retrospect, things came to a head on June 1. In the late afternoon, Trump announced in the Rose Garden that he was “your President of Law and Order.” As Trump was speaking federal law enforcement officers in full riot gear forcefully routed with smoke and flash grenades and some unidentified chemical agent the peaceful protesters in Lafayette Square. The purpose? So Trump could walk across the square and stand in front of St. John’s Church, the church of presidents, for a photo op of him clumsily holding a Bible.

This demonstration of domination by our President of Law and Order backfired, blew up in his face. The protesters did not respond with violence, but they turned the other cheek. The protests grew larger and became even more peaceful. The public reaction was overwhelming in support of the protests. Trump and the police lost control of the narrative. Black Lives Matter now controls the narrative.

For the first time in my life, a Republican president was unable to shout Law and Order and win the day. The contrast between the evidentially peaceful protests and the violence of the provocation and response of the police and the president turned the tide of public opinion.

Turn the other cheek is not some dreamy-eyed utopian vision, but a practical if difficult and dangerous strategy for highlighting and delegitimizing violence. It refuses to play the old game of deciding between good and bad violence. By taking the side of the victim, it requires great courage and faith, perhaps even unto death on a cross.PS Am I the only one who thinks the police and military in riot gear look like a cross between medieval knights and Darth Vader? They certainly do not look like the defenders of the public common good.

Works Cited

Dewey, Arthur J, and Robert J Miller. The Complete Gospel Parallels. Salem, Or.: Polebridge Press, 2012.

Wink, Walter. Jesus and Nonviolence: A Third Way. Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 2003.

Bernard Brandon Scott is the author and editor of many books, including The Real Paul: Recovering His Radical Challenge and The Trouble with Resurrection. A charter member of the Jesus Seminar, he is chair of Westar’s newly established Christianity Seminar. He served as chair of the Bible in Ancient and Modern Media Section of the Society of Biblical Literature, as well as a member of several SBL Seminars including the Parable Seminar and historical-jesus Seminar. He holds an A.B. from St. Meinrad Seminary and School of Theology, an M.A. from Miami University, and a Ph.D. from Vanderbilt University.

Academic Credentials

  • A.B., St. Meinrad Seminary and School of Theology
  • M.A., Miami University
  • Ph.D., Vanderbilt University
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