King James and why your violent Christianity isn’t violent enough!

In Matthew 5:39, Jesus tells his followers in the Sermon on the Mount “do not resist an evil person.” Of course, Jesus didn’t say it quite like that, and Matthew didn’t record it in the English of the NIV. Matthew uses the word αντιστηναι in greek – ‘antistenai‘. If I tell you that ‘stenai‘ means to ‘stand’, you can guess that it literally means ‘stand against’. ‘Resist’ seems like a good translation until we look at the cultural context of the word.

I’ve been reading Walter Wink for a seminar tomorrow and I discovered this series of videos called ‘Nonviolence for the Violent‘. Wink explains how the word also had a technical usage. When two ancient armies met, they would ‘face off’; posturing, shouting, waiting for the battle to come. As battle started, the two lines of soldiers would advance at each other until the lines collided. There would be swinging of swords and axes, blood, severed limbs, disembowelment and finally one of the lines would break and flee. This was called ‘taking the stand’; whoever could resist would win.

Jesus says ‘do not violently resist evil. For example…’

Wink goes on to suggest that one of the purposes King James had at the end of the 16th Century in commissioning the  the ‘Authorised Version’ was to combat the teaching of the Geneva Bible, imported by the Presbyterians. They taught that it was permitted to overthrow a tyrant – the very opposite to the ‘divine right’ that James wrote two books on. His authorised version was to teach that there were two options when faced with evil – fight or flight. Fight is not permitted, so flight, passivity and being crushed is the only option. Wink says that Jesus in the following sentences shows that there is a third way, a non-violent resistance that means we do not ‘take a stand’ violently and militarily, but we do not allow evil to run amok.

His teaching is sound; James did hate the Presbyterians, Jesus did teach non-violent resistance (see the second video for his explanation) and this is a message that dictatorial governments do not want to be heard. But the Geneva Bible (1587) uses the same word ‘resist‘ as the KJV. King James’ scholars may not have given us the best translation, but neither did Geneva. Wycliffe says ‘against-stand‘ in a direct translation; Tyndale uses ‘resist‘; the evidence for this political translation is not good.

In another example of confirmation bias, I found a post from Peter Rollins that says “Fundamentalism isn’t too violent, it isn’t violent enough.” When fundamentalists (largely looking at the US here) defend the use of violence it is in a conservative way (small ‘c’) Defending the status quo is an impotent kind of violence. Resisting evil with violence continues the cycle of violence and oppression. Rome knew what to do with Zealots, they knew what to do with invading Goths, but killing Christians did not diminish them. Regimes know how to handle terrorism, but people peacefully sitting in the biggest square they can find will bring down tyrants.

The violence of conservatism isn’t violent enough for Jesus – it brings no change. Real change comes (says Rollins) from “people like Mother Theresa and Martin Luther King who, in their pacifism, are truly violent”. By attacking ‘the powers’ with weapons that they can’t handle, structural change happens as it is brought in through a vision of a better world.

Thus, the next time we hear of some blustering speaker attempt to bolster their support by making themselves sound like the follower of a cage-fighting, bodybuilding Jesus, we should avoid the trap of arguing that their image of Jesus is too violent and instead show how it isn’t nearly violent enough. Drawing out how, amidst all their seeming machismo they are little more than a timid sheep in wolves clothing.