It surprises me sometimes, that people are quite happy to listen to Buddhists speak of ahimsa, but get quite agitated when Christians speak of nonviolence.

I’m not sure what it is, whether it’s the exotic unfamiliarity of Buddhism in contrast to the assumed familiarity of Christianity, or the fact that Buddhists are less numerous and politically significant in the West, or something else entirely. But when the Dalai Lama speaks of ahimsa, people lap it up. But when a Christian speaks of nonviolence, people call it irresponsible.

This gets me to wondering, maybe we need to de-familiarize the New Testament, to help people see it with fresh eyes? To help people approach it with a beginner’s mind? What if we were to translate the New Testament a different way?

Ahimsa in the New Testament

Blessed are the ahimsa practitioners, for they will be called sons of God. (Matthew 5:9)

Finally, brothers, good-by. Aim for perfection, listen to my appeal, be of one mind, practice ahimsa. And the God of love and ahimsa will be with you. (2 Corinthians 13:11)

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, ahimsa, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness (Galatians 5:22)

He came and preached ahimsa to you who were far away and ahimsa to those who were near. (Ephesians 2:17)

Hold them in the highest regard in love because of their work. Practice ahimsa with each other. (1 Thessalonians 5:13)

Make every effort to practice ahimsa with all men and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord. (Hebrews 12:14)

But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then ahimsa-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. (James 3:17)

What happens for you when you encounter the words of the ancient messengers this way? Do you object to the translation? Do the implications disturb you? Does it encourage? Or give you a fresh perspective? On Buddhism or Christianity?

6 thoughts on “Ahimsa, Christian style

  1. If the Hebrew ‘shalom’ lies behind the New Testament use of the Greek ‘eirene’ in those passages, then I’d think it contains a very non-Eastern view of what constitutes peace. More like flourishing than being in state of tranquility, in broad-brush terms.
    (I base this impression mostly on Cornelius Plantinga Jr., ‘Not the Way it’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin’, from about 10 years back.)


  2. I would suggest that it comes down to perception which is largely fashioned by the evidence of the countless millions of bloodied corpses created by the Christian West.
    Summed up with: Onwards Christian soldiers forever marching into war.
    Such was inevitable when the church was co-opted by the Roman state, and by the “great commission” to convert the entire world to Christianity.


  3. I’d say John’s right on the perceptions. When we don’t learn from history we are condemned to/for Empires.
    The questions this raises for me are:
    a) Do I link the wars of the ‘Christian West’ to Christian principles (vs. the principles they stood in conflict with)?
    b) Do I think the Christian principles should have overcome the others sooner than they did (which I’d make end of the 17th century in Europe’s case)?


  4. I’d say John’s view of the East is somewhat romanticized. Buddhists and Hindus have both spawned terrorist organizations, and armies and theocratic states. And he seems to have missed my point, which is, why do people prefer Christians would not talk of nonviolence? I think John prefers it for apologetic reasons, from what he’s said previously that is.


  5. Excellent post Matt.
    I think John is right in part, that people see hypocrisy when they hear Christians talking about nonviolence. That is certainly something I have come across in my nonviolence work.
    I also think it’s less confronting when Buddhist say it for the reasons you mention: we think Buddhists are non-threatening, often de-politicised, cuddly, etc. I don’t think Buddhists are these things, but that’s the way they are often portrayed in our society.
    So when they talk about ahimsa, we hear spiritual, personal nonviolence, rather than a challenge to the systems and structures of violence. That’s not threatening to anyone. When Christians talk about nonviolence, they are always explicitly talking about those systems and structures, and often acting boldly in opposition to them. When we get it right, that’s very threatening to the upholders of the status quo!


  6. Justin, good observation about the personal/individualistic emphasis of Buddhist nonviolence teaching in contrast to the political/systemic emphasis of Christian nonviolence teaching. Yoder distinguished between vocational nonviolence, characteristic of state sanctioned monastic systems, and countercultural nonviolence, characteristic of state repressed reforming communities. Buddhist teachers tend to be more representative of the monastic type than the reforming type, barring a few exceptions. After all, most Dalai Lamas have commanded armies without seeing that as a violation of ahimsa.
    Oh, and note, why I’ve countered John has nothing to do with an inability to acknowledge hypocracy in the history of Christianity. Rather it’s his own tendancy to throw rocks at others for non being “open”, when he’s rather closed himself. John doesn’t want Christianity to be any different, he likes it being the boogyman.


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