Jesus and the Spiral of Violence

by Richard Horsley (1993), reviewed by Vern Ratzlaff

Horsley summarizes the political and social times of Jesus and Jesus’ reactions to these, especially the role of violence in Palestine during Jesus’ time.  The reality of violence extends well beyond the direct, personal and physical; there is also psychological or spiritual violence, acts that impair other persons’ dignity or integrity. . . . To make (people) live on a subhuman level against their will, to constrain them in such a way that they have no hope of escaping their condition, is an unjust exercise of force (p. 21, 22).  Horsley quotes Dom Helder Camara (Brazilian bishop) ad his three stage ‘spiral of violence’:  injustice, revolt, force to preserve social order (p 23).  Horsley points out the spiral in Rome occupied Palestine as Jesus would have experienced it:  institutionalized injustice (the temple and priesthood), protest and resistance (generally non-violent), repression (use of terror, e.g., crucifixion), revolt (there were three instances of widespread revolt in this period:  4 BCE, 66-70 CE, 132-135 CE).  Key for Jesus to confront this spiral was the concept of the kingdom of G-d, the use of power to liberate, establish or protect the people in difficult historical circumstances (Egypt, Greek occupation)(p 168), focused on the needs and desires of people—the social-economic-political substance of human relations as willed by G-d… provided by G-d, in contrast to the emperor (p. 170).  Jesus emphasized G-d’s sovereignty, “excluding any other lordship and loyalty” (p. 312).  Jesus did not confine his activity to healing, preaching (telling cute little stories) and catalyzing renewal of local community life in rural Galilee (p. 285). The kingdom meant wholeness of life, and the audience was not just few charismatic villagers but the people generally.  For Jesus, pacifism was not a debating exercise or a tactic but the way to live together; he preached G-d’s liberation to a discouraged Jewish peasantry.  “Love your enemies” is not a cute bumper sticker slogan but a “social revolutionary principle, transforming local social-economic relations” (p. 326).

Vern Ratzlaff is a pastor and professor of historical theology at Lutheran Theological Seminary in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada.