The Beautiful Alternative


“Evil is to be overcome by forgiveness. As likewise is violence.”
-John Milbank, Christ the Exception

Jesus gives us an alternative to violence. Forgiveness. Jesus didn’t just theorize about it, he lived it. On the cross Christ made his message credible. He lived it all the way to the end. And calls us to follow him.

I believe most of us long for it to be true. We long for the Jesus way to be the beautiful alternative to the ugly way of violence. Romanticized violence can be appealing—imagined musketeers and Hollywood shoot ’em ups—but real violence is always ugly. In a world awash in endless cycles of violence we know it’s appalling and we wonder if the beautiful way of Christ is a viable alternative.

What if?

What if the Jesus way is liveable? What if we could follow in the steps of Christ in the practice of radical enemy-love? What effect would a life of love modeled after the pattern of Christ have on those outside the Christian faith? Christianity might just find a new credibility and an interested audience. Of course we might also die in the attempt…which is kind of what taking up the cross and following Jesus is all about. As David Bentley Hart has observed in his magisterial The Beauty of the Infinite

Christianity must always obey the form of Christ, its persuasion must always assume the shape of the gift he is, it must practice its rhetoric under the only aspect it may wear if it is indeed Christian at all: martyrdom.

During the first three centuries of the church martyrdom was the ultimate rhetoric and the final endorsement of the Christian message. In the early church the model set forth was that a Christian would choose to die before he would depart from the Jesus way. I’m not committed to nonviolence as a social theory. I’m committed to Christ. And I look to Christ to see how he informs us on the subject of violence. But now is not the time to get into all of that. What I really want to do is share with you a story that makes my point. I have a friend who is living overseas in a Middle Eastern country. Saturday he sent me this little story:

I was invited by a friend this evening to have coffee with some friends of his. They were two Muslim brothers, early thirties maybe, one a dermatologist and the other an eye surgeon. Both were very bright and inquisitive and also, very kind. They brought their friend, who is a lawyer, also a Muslim. So, we had coffee with two doctors and a lawyer. Anyway, the younger of the brothers, the more outspoken, quickly directed the conversation toward a discussion about religious violence, which lead to a discussion about violence in general. He, the younger brother, is a non-religious Muslim, but I do not think he is an atheist, at least I don’t remember him saying so.

We were immediately engaged in a discussion about the message of Jesus and violence. He quickly took it there and I was a little taken back, not expecting the conversation to head in that direction. They had some questions concerning New Testament thought on the subject and, of course, we spoke about Christian history in the midst of that. They knew the version of popular Christian eschatology of today (and its fascination with violence) and brought that into the picture. At one point he said to me in response to the turning of the cheek, “But nobody has ever done that.” I said, “But Jesus did it.” He agreed and we spoke a bit more about the message of Christ in light of that. In any case, we spoke about Islam and again about Church History in light of violence. It was a nice conversation. But at the point that he spoke about the turning of the cheek, I kid you not, I could tell that deep down he really wanted to believe that it is possible to overcome violence in that way. I’m sure I will see them again.

“Deep down he really wanted to believe that it is possible to overcome violence in that way.”

Don’t we all.

And we who confess Christ should dare to believe it.

Because it’s part of believing in Jesus.


(The artwork is The Crucifixion by Fra Angelico.)