Living the Light: Theologians and Scripture Scholars on Gospel Nonviolence

Issue XXI February 2016

Living the Light: Gospel Nonviolence in the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd

Part I: Living the Light: Dr. Montessori, Education to Life as Education to Peace

Part II: Theologians and Scripture Scholars on Gospel Nonviolence

Part III: Catechesis of the Good Shepherd Presentations

Part IV: Gospel Nonviolence and Neurobiology

This is the second article in the Living the Light series. The call of Jesus to nonviolence is clear. He shares his light and love with us, with their power to overcome darkness and hatred, so that we will in turn offer it to others. We work with him to build the Parousia, following his way of nonviolent love for all. As catechists we model and proclaim that love in age-appropriate ways. We are helped in four ways: the methodology and vision of Maria Montessori, theologians’ work on Gospel nonviolence,the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, and the natural and inborn capacity of the human brain for compassion. With this help we do have the capacityto be light in exactly the way Jesus asked us to be Light. This article uses the lens of theologians, three of whom are scripture scholars (Rev. McKenzie, Dr. Lohfink, and Rev. Meier), a Mennonite (Dr. Hershberger), an early Church historian (Dr. Sider), a moral theologian (Rev. Haring), and a Melkite pacifist (Rev. McCarthy) to consider the nonviolent Way of Jesus.

by Peg Burns

Peg Burns and her husband Greg Kerbawy created Our Golden Thread curriculum. See to explore their work and download free resources.

Peg is a catechist whose work includes promoting a better understanding of Jesus’ Nonviolent Way.

Theologians and Scripture Scholars on Gospel Nonviolence

Dr. Montessori’s method of supporting the child’s development is a serious and proven help to human development. As a scientist she observed many, many children. Attentive to the unfolding of the child, she then sought ways to help the child independently accomplish the task at hand while the child simultaneously prepared herself for future development. A quick example of this is the sandpaper letters that are an independent work drawing on the child’s tactile and movement needs. This material is important for the immediate task of learning the shape of each letter, but also significantly prepares the child for reading and writing, and the related muscular development, which would soon be needed. This manner of learning honors the dignity and sacredness of the child by not putting the child under the dominative power of the adult. Instead, a cooperative relationship develops. This is fantastic help towards nonviolent life. Late in her life Montessori interpreted World War I and World War II through the lenses of science, history and her work with children. She came to refer to her method of education as a nonviolent revolution. Montessori wanted this nonviolent revolution to end the suppression of human potential in individuals, to end war and violence, and to address conflict at all levels of life. From Dr. Montessori, on whose method CGS is based, we have a significant foundation for peace.

A few years after I came across the Montessori Method I became familiar with groups of people whose origins were the Radical Reformers: the “historic peace churches.”  The historic peace churches have since their beginning in the 1500’s known and celebrated what Jesus taught and the early Church retained: the complete rejection of violence. In their history I immediately noticed three points. There are such a groups as “historic peace Churches”; these churches have throughout their existence acknowledged that Jesus taught and lived a nonviolent Way; and the early Church retained this Way. This was rather significant for me in that the nonviolent Way was not what I had been taught about Christianity.

In what did the historic peace churches base their understandings? Through reading I learned that throughout the vast Roman Empire where Christianity began there was consistency on Jesus’ rejection of violence in the early church. Guy Hershberger, in his book of “enduring importance” War, Peace, and Nonresistance set forth the Mennonite peace position. He writes of the early Church, “It is quite clear that prior to about 174 AD it is impossible to speak of Christian soldiers” (War, Peace, and Nonresistance, 65).  Hershberger goes on to discuss Tertullian, “a leading Church Father who opposed [a] new development with great vigor” (WPN, 66). The development referenced was the presence of Christians in the army after 174 AD. Tertullian queried, “Shall it be held lawful to make an occupation of the sword, when the Lord proclaims that he who uses the sword shall perish by the sword? And shall a son of peace take part in the battle when it does not become him even to sue at law?” (WPN, 67). Tertullian was clear. In the difficult case of a soldier converting, such as in 174 AD, “‘there must be either an immediate abandonment of’ military service ‘which has been the course of many’ or ‘the individual must suffer martyrdom’” (WPN, 67).

I continued my search by reading the classic book The Early Christian Attitude To War by John Cadoux. A recent book written in the same vein is Ronald Sider’s The Early Church on Killing. Both books are excellent though Sider’s has updated refutations of other scholars’ misinformation. The content of both books confirm that all the church fathers corroborated Tertullian’s position.

Ronald Sider summarizes: “Up until the time of Constantine, there is not a single Christian writer known to us who says that it is legitimate for Christians to kill or join the military. . . . There are no authors who argue that killing or joining the military is permissible for Christians” (ECK, 190-1). This was the understanding, the lived reality in those living in the years closest to Jesus and the apostles. My experience at that point in my life, early college, was that most Christians had not come across any discussion of what Hershberger (and later Sider) wrote. I wondered how the Church came to use, or allow for the use of, violence.

Hershberger quotes James Westfall Thompson regarding the fourth century, the time of the Constantinian “shift” (also referred to as the alteration, heresy or the second Christianity).

The triumph of the Church in the fourth century was one of the dearest bought victories in the history of humanity. With Constantine the governing classes, the rich, the worldly came into the fold in numbers, bringing with them their normal moral qualities and social standards, their normal ways of conduct. The result was a blurring of the line between the Church and the world, the subordination of religion to policy and politics, the invasion of “marginal” men and women into the Church, the lowering of ideals, the corrupting influence of sudden wealth, spiritual sclerosis. . . The Church yielded to the world in order to gain support of and acquire the property of the rich and influential pagan aristocracy. The increase of its authority was paid for by a loss of spiritual vitality  . . . there were not a few of those more spiritually minded who declared that the Church had more reason to deplore its prosperity than the adversity and persecution which it had suffered in the third century (WPN, 72).

With this alteration the justification of violence overwhelmed the nonviolent Way of Jesus. I can only assume that since the time of Constantine many thoughtful parents struggled with this dilemma, as I too was becoming aware of the struggle. How does one nurture children to follow Jesus while allowing for the use of violence; is that even possible? How does one nurture children to follow Jesus’ seeming rejection of violence when no one else is doing so? By the time in my life that I had several little children I had become very particular in what I read as so little time could be spent in such a manner. So although I was struggling I had an insight that kept me on a saving path.

I knew that the better we know someone the fuller that relationship is. My desire for myself and for my children was to know Jesus fully, to live in his Light. I turned to scripture scholarship for insight. Who better to turn to than those who really know what scripture is communicating. I returned to the guidance of a man I met in college who suggested I read Rev. John L McKenzie.

Rev. McKenzie was the premier Catholic Biblical scholar in the mid-twentieth century; he was considered the dean of Catholic Biblical scholars, and was the first Catholic ever elected president of the most prestigious grouping of Biblical scholars, the Society of Biblical Literature. While this level of scholarship was foreign to me at that time I could tell Rev. McKenzie wrote with the best of scholars. But he also insisted that scholarship was meant for all people. Thus, the majority of his books are readable, and well worth the reading, by lay people. I’ve included several short but personally meaningful quotes from Rev. McKenzie. The first two are from his last book which he wrote reflecting on his 50 years of scholarship.

 If Jesus can be trusted to have said anything at all, he renounced violence: interpreters have preferred to think that his words are irrelevant to politics, which should be discussed without any reference to anything He said, did or was. (The Civilization of Christianity, 1).

 The simple see at once that the “way” of Jesus is very hard to do, but easy to understand. It takes real cleverness and sophisticated intelligence to find ways to evade and distort the clear meaning of what Jesus said (CC, 205).

 If Jesus did not reject any type of violence for any purpose, then we know nothing of him (NTWI, 252).

 Matthew 5:39 ‘do not resist the evil one’: The customary principal of self-defense is rejected by this saying of Jesus; and the customary principle is not replaced by another principle of self-defense. ‘if anyone strikes you’: physical violence is not to be met with physical violence; it is to be suffered (Commentary on the Gospel According to Matthew, 21).

 Love of neighbor is extended to all people; by loving one’s enemies one ceases to have enemies (Light on the Gospels, 39).

 The sharp rejection of the use of arms (Mt 26: 52) is entirely in accord with the teaching and practice of Jesus; . . . the rejection of the use of arms is general, not a remark adapted to this particular situation (CGAM, 137).

 While Rev. McKenzie wrote on many topics, the topic at hand was addressed by McKenzie as consistently as it was lived by Jesus, the Son of the God who is Love. I had to ask myself, was Rev. McKenzie unusual? Were the findings of other scholars in agreement? I knew by this time early Church historians communicated the same message. As scholars wrote more about this I read what I could all the while pondering the dilemmas that surface for parents. I could barely tolerate the aloneness I felt, but what was I doing with my children in this? Still the more fully we know a person the richer the relationship. So I continued delving into the topic of who Jesus is and what Jesus taught. I came across a theologian who wrote about healing and nonviolence. This was right in my area of interest, healing and nonviolence.

 Rev. Bernard Haring, a moral theologian of renown in the late 20th century, pondered deeply this dilemma of ‘Christian’ violence. He knew the use of violence evidenced a serious sickness and I felt as though my struggles were symptoms of this sickness. Regarding Chapter I of his book The Healing Power of Peace and Nonviolence he writes: “We shall ask ourselves what are the place and role of the gospel of peace and reconciliation and especially of nonviolence in the whole of moral theology and in Christian life (HPPN, 5). In his preface he acknowledges “So far as I know, no moral theologian or ethicist has given, up to now, systematic attention to a therapeutic approach…none thus far has tried to present a therapeutic spirituality and strategy” (HPPN, ix). In his section on Peace: A challenge to all of theology, he says:

 It is especially encouraging that in recent years outstanding biblical scholars, aware of the burning actuality and in dialogue with other disciplines, have dedicated their efforts to the meaning, purpose and horizons of peace, and particularly of nonviolence in the Old and New Testaments. One of the precious results is the clear insight that the point of departure for a theology of peace is not just particular words of Jesus but his whole life, his actions and his death. Due attention is given to the undeniable fact that Jesus understood his mission in the light of the Old Testament theology of the Servant of Yahweh in Deutero-Isaiah. So it is not just a question of an abstract concept of peace but of God acting in Jesus Christ. (HPPN, 10)

Rev. McKenzie’s way of wording this is: “Jesus’ own death illustrates better than anything else his principle of not resisting evil (Mt 5:39). That evil is overcome by nonresistance has been comprehended by very few Christians. These few were convinced that Jesus presented in his words and life not only a good way of doing things, not only an ideal to be executed whenever it is convenient but the only way of doing what he did. They did this in pure faith, because there is no reasonable motive for acting in the way which he shows” (The Power and the Wisdom, 107).

It is noteworthy that while Rev. Haring uses the word “peace,” he clarifies the meaning by also using the word “nonviolence.” Towards the end of his book he writes:

 A central task of the pastors of the Church is the integral and credible proclamation of the gospel of peace, including, above all, healing nonviolence in the perspective of the all-embracing redemption…But the real question is one of faithfulness to Christ, knowing Christ in his nonviolent, long-suffering love, redeeming and healing sinners (HPPN, 126).

Rev. Haring sought to begin to bring healing to the church in his discussion of peace and nonviolence, the basis being that hurting others is not healing or life giving, it is destructive. I felt safe reading the works of these men. I was convinced healing within the church was possible as it was in me. I was convinced I was on the path of knowing Jesus more fully.

 Perhaps Rev. Haring did begin an endeavor that other theologians, moral theologians, can take up. In the meantime Rev. McCarthy’s retreats, Behold the Lamb; Boldly Like God Go Against the Sword; and Truths and Choices present an impressive theology and spirituality of Gospel Nonviolence moving the Church towards the healing of the Christian schizophrenia of violence justified in Jesus’ name. Besides being the man who encouraged me to read Rev. McKenzie, he is the world’s foremost speaker and practioner of Gospel Nonviolence. He has lived and preached this Way as a married priest with a large family within a very Constantinian and reluctant Church. He has addressed this topic with his razor sharp mind for nearly 50 years. He has heard all the human logic used to justify violence. These issues center around what Rev. McKenzie referred to in his comment above: “It takes real cleverness and sophisticated intelligence to find ways to evade and distort the clear meaning of what Jesus said.”

 Rev. McCarthy says

 To “put on the mind of Christ” is indeed to put on a mind that rejects violence and refuses to condone or cultivate the will to kill. But in the first instance the mind of Christ is not a “No” to violence or greed or to anything else. The center, the circumference and everything in between of the mind of Christ is a “Yes” to Abba, the true God who is unconditional Love and everlasting Mercy. This, accordingly, is also the Alpha and the Omega of all Christian nonviolence (from a personal email).

 This quote from Rev McCarthy broadened my understanding of Gospel Nonviolence. Much more than anti-war or anti nuclear weapons, Gospel Nonviolence is about living moment to moment as Jesus would live. Come what may, I choose to be Jesus’ hands and feet and voice, never abandoning Him.  I am to live a “Yes” to Abba. In the twelve years since I was given this quote-gift I’ve come across two other significant scripture scholars.

 John P. Meier is currently completing the 5th volume to his book The Marginal Jew, a twenty-five year project! He is referred to as “the most distinguished Roman Catholic biographer of Jesus.”  He writes:

 The one thing that cannot be found anywhere in the ancient Mediterranean world prior to Jesus is the terribly terse, totally unexplained, in-your-face demand “love your enemies.” Consequently . . . I am inclined to allow that [it] goes back to the historical Jesus” (The Marginal Jew, 573).

 Gerhard Lohfink writes an amazing reflection using language based in the Greek word agathos, “good, suitable or appropriate.” This is from his interpretation of the Workers in the Vineyard which refers to Jesus as the “appropriate person.”

 “In the reign of God, different rules apply. . . When the landowner gives the last just as much as the first he acts properly, reasonably, and therefore well. He is, of course, not ‘reasonable’ according to the standards of a society shaped by struggles to divide things but reasonable by the standards of the reign of God. Jesus was the first to fully grasp the reasonableness of the reign of God. It is reflected, for example, in his demands in the Sermon on the Mount. Renunciation of violence (Matt 5:38-42) is the only possible way to bring about genuine peace. Jesus rejected all violence in principle and thus set in motion a sequence of effects that could not have been foreseen. Therefore he is the suitable, the appropriate, person” (Jesus of Nazareth, 113).

 So here is the crux of the matter. Throughout top level scholarship in the disciplines of church history, scripture and morality, we come to the conclusion that Jesus lived and taught a way of nonviolent love based in his relationship with his Father. In his very person we have Nonviolent Love. I desperately need the nonviolent love Jesus has for me; I want and need that love no matter how I act. In fact, I need that kind of love especially when I act without holy love, when I sin. The difficulty for me, and I think all of us, is that we are asked, invited, expected to live that same love for all others, even enemies! We are expected to live that love in the moment, in desperate situations, in all aspects of life at all times.

 As I stayed with the topic over the years I’ve come to understand better what is meant by using reason to evade Jesus’ teaching. And this has become important to me. If others use reason to evade Jesus’ teaching I find that terribly unfortunate in that the strength of the whole church is so drastically compromised. The vibrancy of the vine is less, the sap is weak, or flows slowly. Even so, I will continue to move deeper and deeper into a relationship with Jesus, saying “Yes” to Abba as fully as He said “Yes.”

 I am helped by Rev. McCarthy. The cleverness behind evasion of Jesus’ Way is addressed in his equally clever question to anyone who supports Christian justification of violence. “Is Jesus’ command, ‘Love your enemies,’ as Jesus taught ‘Love your enemies,’ by His words and deeds in the Gospels—that is, devoid of any violence, as in the ‘new commandment,’ ‘Love one another as I have love you,’—at the heart of faith, at the heart of the Gospels, reasonable as taught by Jesus or does it have to be altered by interpretations based on fallible human reason to include killing enemies as a way of loving enemies as Jesus loved His enemies?”   (from a personal email) Human reason is given to us as a tool for life. For the Christian this means using reason to fulfill what divine revelation brings us, not to evade God’s revelation as has been done regarding the use of violence since the time of Constantine.

Though we have looked quickly with the lens of scholarship from different disciplines, the Truth of Jesus’ way of loving, non-dominantly, non-violently, is the revealed Truth. McKenzie summarized the situation well. “Any moral justification of violence must rest on other than biblical grounds” (National Catholic Reporter, 2/22/80). For centuries fallible human reason has trumped divine revelation. Millions of people have lived lives attempting to bring peace, but because their peace was with violence, as if enmity and killing will drive out enmity and killing, it was not peace. Reason in the Reign of God means the Christian abandons him or herself to living peace in Abba by rejecting the use of violence in all circumstances. This doesn’t look reasonable to the world, of course, as Rev. Lohfink has said. But it is authentically reasonable for followers of Jesus to trust the revelation of the one they claim to follow.

Trusting divine revelation requires humility, abandonment, and dependence. When we listen to God with children, we who are associated with CGS, we at times do hear this dependence, this abandonment, this humility. This article and this series are an attempt to show through scholarship support for an understanding of nonviolence. We also know that all around us are not just angry people willing to kill to defend property and personal life, shooting into homes where children sleep as the nightly news reports. We know Christians use and justify violence and say such methods of addressing problems are acceptable to Jesus. We see Christians confused as to what Jesus said, confused as to what is expected of them.  Are we preparing our children for the overwhelming neglect of Jesus’ way of addressing evil and violence that meets them in the adult Christian world?

This article looks at the reality that tends to be nurtured out of children from different angles. If adults in the child’s environment have the language, mindset (and hopefully, eventually, the lifestyle and community style) of the nonviolent Christian, the child will be less likely to abandon the purity of the gospel message of nonviolent love as the child leaves childhood and enters adulthood. With the understanding of Gospel Nonviolence, discussed with language such as “Jesus rejected the use of violence,” “Jesus acted nonviolently,” “children of God do not act in certain ways, even ways we frequently see in the world around us, such as with violence,” our Catechesis children will be more prepared to meet the justification of violence found both in the world and in the Church.

We remember that we have real human help from Dr. Montessori in her method of allowing the child to unfold in such a manner that the innate “original holiness” of the human being created in God’s image is preserved.

We are given revelation—Jesus, a real human being who lived without using violence even in extreme dilemmas.

And we have Grace, the energy supplied for us which brings healing. Rev. McKenzie said it simply: “There is just no calculating what grace can do” (CC 88).

I have become hopeful and much comforted as I accepted the strength available from relying on these sources of help.

 Sofia Cavalletti, Maria Montessori and Gianna Gobbi use the word peace to convey a fullness of meaning that excludes the justification of violence. They trusted in Jesus’ Way and in the child who is guided by the inner teacher. In Catechesis of the Good Shepherd we give Jesus, who acted nonviolently according to his relationship with the Father. In the next article of this series we will look at Catechesis presentations to note their consistency with the understanding of nonviolence of the scholars presented here.

Glory be to God,

whose power working in us

can do infinitely more

than we can ask or imagine.

Eph 3:20


 Haring, Rev. Bernard, C.Ss.R., The Healing Power of Peace and Nonviolence, (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1986).

 Hershberger, Guy, F., War, Peace and Nonresistance, (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1944, 1981). Lohfink, Gerhard, Jesus of Nazareth, (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2012).

 McCarthy, Rev. Charles Emmanuel,;

            Behold the Lamb (1988).

            Boldly Like God, Go Against the Sword (1985).

            Truths and Choices (1976).

            2 quotes are from personal email conversations.

 McKenzie, Rev. John L.

            The Civilization of Christianity, (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, [1986], 2008).

            Commentary on the Gospel According to Matthew, (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2015).

            Light on the Gospel, (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, [1976], 2008).

            New Testament Without Illusion, (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, [1982], 2009).

            The Power and the Wisdom, (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, [1965], 2008).

            “Religion and the Humanizing of Man,” Plenary Address, International Congress of Learned Societies in the Field of Religion (1972).

Meier, Rev. John P., The Marginal Jew, (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009).

Sider, Ronald (editor), The Early Church On Killing, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2012).

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