How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Powerlessness

Henri Nouwen In The Name of Jesus
Don’t worry about what this guy has to do with the topic. I’ll get to that eventually.

Since my first Bible study I’ve always wanted to be decisive in interpreting Scripture. I want to understand what I’m reading, make a decision, and live it. Especially on practical matters.

But there was one issue where a firm decision eluded me for a long time. That was the question of an absolute commitment to nonviolence.

The Gospel teachings in favor of nonviolence were obvious. Jesus’s rejection of the “eye for an eye” ethic and command to turn the other cheek.1 Jesus’s statement to Peter that all who lived by the sword would die by the sword.2 Paul’s insistence on not taking vengeance into our own hands but doing good to those who hurt us.3 Most important to me was Jesus’s imperative to love our enemies4 and his placing of love of God and love of neighbor at the center of all commands.5 How could trying to kill someone ever be an act of love? The advocates of total nonviolence had a case.

Yet I was hesitant. My primary resistance did not come from any particular Bible verse, but from my own feelings about what it meant to “do good.”

I grew up on a steady diet of Tom Clancy novels and Cold War hype. My ideal self was somewhere between Diego Chavez in Clear and Present Danger and the teenagers of Red Dawn. The thought of acting as a soldier of vengeance, of protecting the weak and innocent from the evil and strong, was massively appealing. I never seriously considered a military career, but before I left for college I met with recruiters from both the National Guard and the Army Reserves, liking the idea of going through Basic Training and thinking it would help me pay for college.

In the end a schedule conflict forced me to choose, and I picked playing for the college football team over joining the army reserves. But the random thought of violent glory stayed with me for years afterwards

Those thoughts didn’t leave when I became a Christian. Clancey’s soldiers were on the side of good. In that moment where the bad guy has a knife to the throat of the innocent girl and you’re the sniper who can take him out, then you do that, right? That’s what a hero should do.

Yet I couldn’t back it up with Scripture. Any pro-killing Scripture I came up with had to be drawn from the Old Testament, and the ethic of war and violence there is explicitly transformed by Jesus’s teaching in the New Covenant.6 It felt impossible to use Old Testament violence in a Christian context in any authoritative way. And the more I learned about the real history of war, the more ambiguous the actions of many of my heroes became. Had any war ever been undertaken in a Christ-like manner?

Sometimes I nuanced my position, considering that perhaps a true “just war” had never happened, but that it still might theoretically be possible. At least I wanted it to be.

And so I was stuck between a strict interpretation of Scripture and what “felt right” in defense of the innocent. I taught both Just War Theory and Christian Nonviolence to my Sunday School students, and told them that I fell somewhere in the middle but didn’t know where. Reckless violence like the Iraq War had to be opposed, but didn’t the Taliban need to be defeated with firepower?

And if someone’s life could be saved with violence, if I’m that sniper looking at the man with the knife at an innocent’s throat, then it must be right to choose violence. Maybe. I wasn’t sure. I knew that I was called to practice nonviolence as often as possible, but…

There I remained for over ten years.

Oddly, my eureka moment came when I re-read In the Name of Jesus for the fifth time. It’s weird enough that a book I’d already read several times changed my mind on a major issue. Even stranger when you consider that In the Name of Jesus doesn’t mention violence or nonviolence even once.

But it’s a really good book.

The 80-page text consists of a speech that Henri Nouwen gave on 21st-century leadership. The speech, delivered to a cadre of leaders in Washington D.C., is built around the lessons Nouwen had learned since he left the highest levels of academia7 in order to become a priest to the disabled in a L’Arche home. His final point suggests that the true Christian leader learns to accept his own powerlessness, our ultimate lack of control over events, and understands the brokenness that results from trying to usurp God’s authority over our lives. It is a beautiful meditation, and I reread it whenever I discovered it in someone’s home.

On this fifth read, at least half a decade after the first one, I realized something. Fr. Nouwen has learned what it means to trust God.

I’m not referring to the “I trust God” slogan wheeled out as a sledgehammer in Scriptural debates. Nor am I talking about learning to trust God with your life – at this point Peregrine and I had already given away most of our possessions and moved to Thailand in order to do exactly that.

Nouwen taught me to trust God to act in this world in ways beyond my own control. To accept that my job is to be obedient to God and God would handle the rest.

The Christian embrace of powerlessness is true humility. Such humility can only come from a living faith that knows that God is bigger than myself, more powerful than myself, and doesn’t need my strength and authority to get things done, but only my love and obedience. That willingness to accept my own powerlessness is what finally led me to realize that a consistent ethic of nonviolence was certainly of God.

If God desires us to act with overriding love in ALL situations, if God wishes us to love our enemies at ALL times, then we can act in obedience and trust God with the results. Like Shadrach,8 Mishach, and Abednego, we can trust that God can act to save us from the fiery furnace, but even if He does not we will not disobey.9 There is more to life than what we mortals see right now, there is far more in God’s eyes than what our faulty minds can imagine about the future. I. Can. Trust. Him. With. The. Results.

That doesn’t mean that I will ever just sit back and do nothing. As I hope you’ve garnered from my stories, I believe that love often calls us to direct, sacrificial intervention in violent events. But the intervention must involve love towards all involved. And if someone’s life is at stake, then the most Christ-like response includes the possibility of giving up one’s own life. There is no greater love than this.10

But it cannot involve taking a life.

I know many people still object to this. They mock the claim that love can stop an act of violence. They sneer that I must not love my family if I would not shoot someone in the head in order to defend them. They laugh at the idea that prayer would be a meaningful part of my response,11 that I could ever appeal to the violent person’s soul, that I am even willing to consider that God might work miraculously though my actions.

Yet I have to trust that God’s vision is greater than my own. While we can only predict what “might” happen in the short-term, God knows far more about what can and will happen in both the short-term and the long-term, and I have to trust that God wishes for good to happen, and knows how I can help attain that good far better than I do.

Since 2010, since that fifth re-reading of In the Name of Jesus, I have committed myself to a consistent ethic of nonviolence in all situations. The ethic of enemy love, the ethic of refusal to condemn another to death, the ethic of leaving the wrath of God in God’s hands and knowing my place as God’s servant. The obedience that says that I will give my life not only for my friend, but for my neighbor even when my neighbor is my enemy.12 The ethic that says that those who live by the sword will die by the sword, while those who live for the Kingdom of God act towards that day when all swords will be beaten into plowshares.13 The ethic that believes that we can only prepare ourselves and our community for the Prince of Peace14 if we act out of the peace He preaches.15

While I believe that this ethic is objectively a very effective one for stopping violence, I don’t need to prove those utilitarian results in order to follow it. All I have to believe is that God is in control, that God’s power and authority are ultimate, and that if I act in obedience then all things will work towards good16 regardless of what anyone else thinks.

Footnotes:

[1] Matthew 5:38-42

[2] Matthew 26:52

[3] Romans 12:14-21

[4] Matthew 5:43-48, Luke 6:27-36

[5] Mark 12:31; see also Leviticus 19:18; Matthew 19:19, 22:39; Luke 10:27; Romans 13:9; Galatians 5:14; and James 2:8

[6] See for example Matthew 5:21-48, along with many other passages where Jesus states that he is bringing in a new covenant and transforms/furthers the laws of old (Mark 7:14-23, Luke 6:1-11, Matthew 19:3-12), as well as passages where the prophets predicted a coming era of peace (Jeremiah 31:31-34, Ezekiel 37:24-27, Hosea 2:18, and Zechariah 9:9-10).

[7] At the time Nouwen entered the L’Arche community he was a renowned professor at Harvard, had also  spent a decade as a professor at Yale, had written twenty books including several best-sellers, and was a sought after public speaker.

[8] Shad is a good name

[9] Daniel 3:13-18

[10] John 15:12-14, 1 John 3:16

[11] I, too, am incredulous when people respond to a desperate situation with, “let’s offer up a prayer for…” and appear unwilling to respond in any more concrete way. But to deny that prayer could have an impact, to deny that prayer can change a situation, and to suggest that a disobedient response to violence is superior to the power of prayer, I believe is to shortchange the Gospel and the authority of God.

[12] Luke 10:25-37

[13] Isaiah 2:4, Micah 4:3

[14] Isaiah 9:6, Isaiah 52:7

[15] Matthew 5:9, Acts 10:36 

[16] Romans 8:28

2 thoughts on “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Powerlessness

  1. ostomacadel

    Excellent post. Is there a typo in the final paragraph? Ie, stopping nonviolence should be stopping violence? Cathy

    sent from Cathy’s phone – sorry if I’ve been too brief

    Like

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