Jesus, Nonviolent Resistance, and the Gospel of Mark 8

A peace banner held by a protester - showing nonviolent resistance in action - by Alice Donovan

Jesus Heals

In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus performs many healings, including one he does without even intending to. Having just returned from Garasene where he used exorcism to cure a man who had been driven mad by demons named Legion, Jesus is stopped by Jairus, a leader in the synagogue. The man throws himself at Jesus’ feet and begs him to save his twelve-year-old daughter who is dying.

So Jesus goes off with Jairus. Before they can get to the girl, however, a woman who has suffered from hemorrhages for twelve years and spent all her money on physicians and their remedies only to get worse, touches Jesus’ cloak, thinking this will make her well. She is right. The hemorrhaging stops and her body feels stronger.

The gospel continues: “Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said ‘Who touched my clothes?'” (Mk. 5:29-30). [1]

A peace banner held by a protester - showing nonviolent resistance in action - by Alice Donovan

No one will admit to having done so. The disciples, probably eager to get Jesus to Jairus’ house, say “You see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, ‘Who touched me?'” (Mk. 5:31).

Yet Jesus asks again, and finally the woman reveals her identity, fearfully throwing herself at the healer’s feet. Rather than rebuke her, Jesus says, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and go healed of your disease” (Mark 5:24-34).

Life, Death, and the Faith that Heals

In the meantime, Jairus’ daughter dies. Using great understatement, Mark writes, “While he was still speaking [to the hemorrhaging woman], some people came from the leader’s house to say, ‘Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the teacher any further?'” (Mk. 5:35).

But Jesus tells Jairus, “Do not fear, only believe” (Mk. 5:36). Taking Peter, James, and John with him, Jesus goes to the house, tells the people who are mourning that the girl isn’t dead, only sleeping, then brings her back to life.

All three stories, in their way, are about faith. While Jesus is still far from him, the Gerasene man cries out, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?” (Mk. 5:7). It is the demons shouting, demons who recognize Jesus, who know his power, and who beg him not to “torment” them. Their faith is not the faith of the righteous who must trust in unseen things. They know Jesus in a way that humans don’t, so they believe because they have seen. The demons know Jesus has the power to destroy them.

Humans cannot so literally see, so they must have faith. The sick woman has incredible faith if she trusts that just by touching Jesus’ clothing she will get better, and Jesus tells Jairus to believe.

The Political Nature of the Gospels

Yet these stories are also highly political. A Roman legion was a military unit made up of about 4,000 to 6,000 men. Jesus uses his power to drive this “legion” out of the Gerasene man and send into a herd of swine. Then the herd to rushes into the ocean and drowns. Richard A. Horsley, in his book, Jesus and Empire, points out that this evokes the image of the Egyptian army being drowned in the sea by God’s hand. [2]

While many Christian interpreters assume this is personal, not political, that the gospel writer intended to explore only religious truths, Horsley shows that the story reveals far more than that. The Israelite people suffered enormously at the hands of the Roman legions. Their homes had been burned; their families slaughtered or taken into slavery. The “legion” story was about Israel’s salvation, about the victory of good over evil, of the people over the oppressors. Through Jesus’ exorcism of the demon, Mark shows us that “God is accomplishing a political as well as a religious or spiritual victory.” [3]

But just as the victory over Legion can be interpreted politically, so can the healing stories. Jairus’ daughter is twelve, for instance, and the woman has been hemorrhaging for twelve years. Mark’s contemporaries would have noticed the reference to the twelve tribes of Israel. Thus, healing is not just about stopping our own illness or bringing our loved ones back from the brink of death, but also about healing the wounds of a society and bringing a dying tribe back to life. They were part of Jesus’s “larger program of social as well as personal healing.” [4]

Dying to Ourselves

The healings Jesus accomplishes, his exorcisms, and perhaps especially the death and rebirth of Jairus’ daughter, remind us that to become new, to be “born again,” we must die to ourselves. That doesn’t mean we need to tell ourselves we’re sinful or worthless in and of ourselves. It means learning about and acknowledging the ways we have been “civilized.” To some degree, we all reflect the “isms” of our culture: individualism, consumerism, materialism, classism, racism, sexism, ableism, ageism, and many others. We learned to label, judge, denigrate, dehumanize, scapegoat, and reject other humans and the environment. To die to ourselves and be reborn, we must learn to stop projecting our fears, insecurities, and shame onto others. We must own our addictions, our rationalizations, and change from within.

This is clear in the story of Legion. When the messages of the “Powers” and the “dominator system” [5] overwhelm us, when demons inhabit our souls, we lose our minds. For instance, because of our addictions, we can betray everything we hold sacred. Materialism and fear can cause us to sell our bodies and minds, literally and figuratively.

Trying to Force Change through Force

When we identify with the judgments and power structures of the “powers that be,” when we cling to our egos as all we are, not only do we lose our true core, but we oppress and dominate others without even realizing it. We forget how to help someone who can’t care for herself, who is trapped by the madness of addiction and consumer culture. Like the people of Gerasene, we try to restrain the person, lock him up, isolate him.

This might make us feel safe, and it certainly allows us to focus on his madness rather than our own, but it does nothing to help the possessed man. Nor does it help us.

Obviously, the man needs help. He’s openly broken. But the rest of us need help, too. We just may be lucky enough that we don’t have to admit our brokenness. Sometimes addiction and other mental illness are opportunities, for when we suffer badly enough, we have no choice but to reach out for help.

In the best of worlds, when we reached out, we would find the kind of help Jesus offered rather than that which the townspeople gave. We would be cared for, respected, taught, healed, and set free. Then we would be able to teach, proclaim, and offer the love and acceptance that brings life, healing, and wholeness.

As we do this individual, inner work, we prepare for the political work that calls the “powers” to account. Yet all governments and religions, once they become normative and strong, do their best to deny the value of this political transformation.

Christianity Comes to Power

The biblical texts reveal how this shift from prophetic voice to capitulation occurs. Gradually, Paul began to collude with the political powers. Rather than blaming the political system or the Roman rulers, Luke and Acts blame the Jews for Jesus’ death. After Christianity became the state religion in Rome, and the Catholic church gained prominence and earthly power, religious leaders tried to solidify their power. For instance, they refused to let the people read the Bible for themselves, because they understood the revolutionary nature of the gospels.

When the printing press meant the common people could defy the church’s mandate and read scripture for themselves, Martin Luther emphasized individual atonement and called for the “slaughter” of the peasants who called for their “ancestral rights.” [6] Then King James commissioned a version of the Bible that spun the stories to provide biblical authority” for England’s subjugation of the Native Americans.

As Sharon Ringe reminds us, not only has the church adapted the Bible stories to affirm its ecclesiastical power, but we, “who are the insiders of the church and the privileged of society work to domesticate the gospel to our point of view and to protect the Christ who is familiar and safe from the Christ who offends us.” [7]

It’s time for us to be offended, to open our eyes and ears, and admit not our shame and worthlessness, but our humanness.

For millennia, church leaders have denied that gospel message of toppling oppressive powers, standing up to humiliation and abuse, and creating a new world order based on love and respect. Instead, they’ve told us the bible is about repenting of our sins and asking God to forgive us so our souls will find eternal blessing in heaven.

The Powers Respond

Every time the common people rise up, every time they find their inner strength and determination to resist, every time blacks refuse to put up with profiling, every time women vilify abuse and violence, every time the threat to the dominator system becomes real, those in positions of power, who use their status and wealth to take bread from the poor and to enforce obedience and subservience, get frightened and fight back.

They make new laws that punish resisters, such as labeling protesters domestic terrorists. They spread lies and rumors through media channels they control and discredit news sources that they can’t control. To stop resistance, they use violence against other countries, against protesters, against anyone who is different including transgender people, Jews, African Americans, or Muslims. To repel those they consider less than human, they build walls, whether at the borders of their country or around their homes or their hearts. They give money to those who are already rich, who destroy our life and land, and they take money from those who have no homes, who must choose between food and heat, who are mentally ill, who are young or vulnerable or female.

Power Is Not Good or Bad

In the book The Powers that Be, Walter Wink points out that the “powers that be” aren’t a group of evil individuals working together to make us miserable. Individuals in positions of power are as caught up in this system of domination as we are. They are as broken and deluded as anyone else. Their addictions and cravings are out of control, and they can’t even begin to see the “log” in their own eye. [8]

Being a leader, having power, even being a power is not necessarily bad. Power, whether personal or institutional, is meant to serve society and to maintain peace and community.

However, power is insidious. When we gain power, we tend to lose ourselves in our lusts and hungers. We become “idolatrous.” [9] When a system, government, or institution does this, it loses its soul. It “pursues a vocation other than the one for which God created it and makes its own interests the highest good,” becoming evil. As individuals, as citizens, our “spiritual task is to unmask this idolatry and recall the Powers to their created purpose in the world.” [10]

Losing Our Souls to Power

As individuals, we are also susceptible to the lure of power. We can also pursue a “vocation other than the one for which God created” us. Therefore, we need others to recall us to our true and best selves, to bring us back into a healthy relationship with God and community.

Jesus did this for his people. Now we are left to do this work. As individuals, we must recall each other to our best selves, to the self we were meant to be. When we wake up to the brokenness that each one of us acquires simply by growing up in a broken culture, and when we realize we have a true essence worth reclaiming, we are ready to work together to heal our society. Not through anger and violence, but through respect for ourselves and others, and through the nonviolent resistance that Jesus modeled throughout scripture.

Nonviolent Resistance

This idea of nonviolence is itself counter-cultural. Our society was founded on the “myth of redemptive violence,” a belief that retaliation is our right, that aggression is good, that vigilante justice is better than legal battles, and that the “bad guys” are outside of ourselves, and that if we can name them and vanquish them, the world will be safe for us “good guys.”

Wink describes how the Powers indoctrinate us into believing this myth. We learn them from our parents and teachers and churches, and through the stories we hear and the movies we watch, by cartoons and twitter feeds. In this way, violence becomes exciting and entertaining, even addictive, and “the Powers are able to delude people into compliance with a system that is cheating them of their very lives.” [11]

Even more concerning, we are so good at indoctrinating our children into these beliefs and lifestyle that “they may never outgrow the need to locate all evil outside themselves.” [12]

Nonviolent Resistance and the Syrophoenician Woman

We see this in so many of our political leaders, church leaders, parents, teachers, and vigilantes, this need to “locate all evil outside themselves.” All of us scapegoat others to some extent. We liberals might think we’re more open-minded than others, but we probably vilify those who harm the environment, who want to cut taxes, who believe in the power of violence, who fight abortion. If you’re conservative, you’ll do the same to those whose views don’t line up with yours. Yet we can moderate this tendency to project our sins onto others. We can notice it, observe it, and let it go.

The story of the Syrophoenician woman is instructive here. Jesus has been healing and feeding masses of people. He enters a house to get some alone time. But a woman from Syrophoenicia realizes he’s there. Desperate for him to cure the daughter she has left at home, she goes into the house and bows at his feet, and begs him to cast the demons from the girl.

Then Jesus does something quite out of character: he likens her to a dog and refuses to help her. Commentators have tripped all over themselves trying to explain this away without suggesting Jesus was imperfect, yet their rationalizations don’t work. Sharon Ringe suggests that the incident shows a time when even Jesus “was caught with his compassion down.” [13]

But why did two gospel writers include it?

Jesus Learns

When Jesus says to the woman, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs,” she responds, “Sire, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs” (Mk. 7:27-28). She doesn’t act offended, she doesn’t lash out, she doesn’t curse or swear or get violent. This women uses her wit. And it works.

Jesus says, “For saying that, you may go – the demon has left your daughter.” And the woman goes home and finds that, as Jesus promised, the demon is gone (Mk. 7:29-30).

So Jesus helped the woman and healed the child, even though he hadn’t wanted to. He needed her to remind him of who he really was. Granted, he was tired. Apparently, even Jesus could get cranky when worn out. Yet when the woman suggested he was being unkind, he acknowledged the truth of what she said and responded gracefully.

It Takes Courage to Change

F. Scott Spencer notes that it takes courage and a positive humility “to learn from one’s underlings, to change one’s mind, to correct one’s errant conduct.” [14] Far from being a weakness, this learning “is a sign of true greatness.” Even God, Spencer reminds us, “’repented’ at strategic moments in the Old Testament.” [15] After his experience with the Syrophoenician woman, Jesus teaches the people that if you want to be “first,” you must first be a servant. Perhaps he learned that from her.

We, too, can learn from her and her story. First, we need to remember to take care of ourselves, to honor our need to rest and be alone. Second, when someone calls us on our testiness, our obliviousness, or our thoughtlessness, we need to pay attention and figure out how to behave better. Third, when it’s our turn to point out the “log” in someone else’s eye, we can do so with wit and grace rather than by attacking. If we do, we’re more likely to get the response we want.

Violence Is Never Redemptive

That’s because not only does violence beget more violence, when we resort to aggression and denigration, we become what we despise. We become the unfair and unjust powers. We become the “evil” one. Violence is never redemptive. Not only does it oppress and destroy the “enemy,” it oppresses and destroys us.

Jesus calls us to a better way. This way is not a passive acceptance of our oppression, although that is what Christian leaders sometimes teach. Rather, it is a nonviolent resistance.

Instead of using verbal or physical aggression, and rather than lying down and letting our oppressor destroy us, nonviolent resistance insists that we are worthy, valuable, and deserve respect. We might not have the physical strength or weapons to keep the powers from hurting our bodies, but we can keep them from touching our souls. To resist in this way is far more difficult than resisting with guns and name-calling. It requires wit, determination, courage, and the support of a loving community.

Choosing Nonviolence

Why did Jesus teach this kind of resistance? Because it is effective. 

During during the Civil Rights movement, for instance, nonviolent resistance led to new laws. Using nonviolent resistance, the Indian people gained independence from Britain. In a number of Nordic countries, people laid their bodies in front of trains, actively hid Jews, and in other ways refused to allow the Nazis to kill the Jewish people, and it worked. 

Nonviolence isn’t easy, nor is it safe. To maintain our intentions in the face of aggression and fear-mongering, we must depend on one another to bolster our courage. And we must be willing to die to ourselves, to give up our addictions and cravings, to restrain our egos, and even to let go of our life. None of us are meant to live forever. Better to lose our lives by standing up for life than to gain our lives by clinging to the false life of materialism and violence.

In faith and fondness,

Barbara

Credits

  1. All Bible quotes are from the NRSV.
  2. Horsley, Richard A., Jesus and Empire: The Kingdom of God and the New World Disorder, Minneapolis: Fortress, 2003, 101.
  3. Ibid 103.
  4. Ibid 108.
  5. This language is used in Wink, Walter, The Powers that Be: Theology for a New Millennium, New York: Doubleday, 1998.
  6. Horsley 136.
  7. Ringe, Sharon D., “A Gentile Woman’s Story,” Feminist Interpretation of the Bible, ed. Letty M. Russell, Philadelphia: Westminster, 1985, 66.
  8. Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye. (Mt. 7:3-5)
  9. Wink 29.
  10. Ibid 29.
  11. Ibid 55.
  12. Ibid 55.
  13. Ringe 69.
  14. Spencer, F. Scott, Dancing Girls, Loose Ladies, and Women of the Cloth: The Women in Jesus’ Life, New York: Continuum, 2004, 65.
  15. Ibid 65.

Photo Credit: By Alice Donovan, from Unsplash.