Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The Possibility of Nonviolent Resistance in the 1st Century

A few years ago, as I recall, Stanley Hauerwas wrote an editorial/letter to First Things complaining that a recent article declared pacifists to be out of the loop in matters of politics because they opposed the use of violence. In response to this, Hauerwas retorted that the Christian has much to say about politics, even if he cannot use violence. He pointed to the same thing Yoder does in this very short (about four pages long) chapter, where he offers two examples from the first century to show that even though Christians may not take up the sword or use force, "effective nonviolent resistance was not at all unknown in recent Jewish experience.

The first example Yoder offers comes from Josephus, who wrote that at one point, Pontius Pilate decided to abolish the Jewish law. He set up idols of Caesar around Jerusalem, and when the Jews found out, they argued with him for days to remove the idols. On the 6th day, Pilate had the soldiers hide, and when the Jews came, the army appeared, surrounding them. Pilate told the people that unless they stopped disturbing him and went home, they would be immediately killed. Rather than acquiesce, they laid on the ground and declared that they would willingly die rather than allow their law to be broken. At this event, Pilate was deeply moved by their desire to uphold their law and he commanded the idols be removed from Jerusalem.

The second first-century example which Yoder points to (he calls it Ghandi-like) is when Caligula demanded formal worship of himself and became apoplectic when the Jews refused to do this. He ordered a Roman commander to put one of his statues in the temple at Jerusalem. The response by the Jews was a general strike. Fields were left untilled and tens of thousands of Jews petitioned the Roman commander to remove the statue. The Jews insisted that they didn't want war with Caesar but were prepared to give their lives and those of their wives and children to prevent the threatened sacrilege. The Roman commander finally went back to Caesar Caligula and argued on the Jews' behalf.
Thus collective nonviolent resistance by the Jewry of Palestine was successful against the Roman forces twice within a decade...[this] does suffice nonetheless to negate the sweeping assumption that in rejection the Zealot option Jesus' only other conceivable alternative would have been the end of the world or a retreat to the desert; in other words, to reject the responsible sword is to withdraw from history. (Pg. 92)

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