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    painting of the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness

    The Sword and the Cross

    A Latin American theologian pushes back against revolutionaries who say Christ's tactics have failed.

    By Gonzalo Báez Camargo

    January 21, 2024

    Available languages: español

    • John Mitchell

      It seems that the specifically Christian aspects of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s struggle for racial justice and peace are out of favor nowadays with those involved in mainstream social justice movements, who sometimes justify violence, exclusion, and other behaviors antithetical to the teachings of Jesus. That is of course a more natural approach than following Jesus's radical teachings, but it's disheartening to see how MLK Jr.'s core teachings have lost their influence with time.

    The partisans of organized violence – those who see catastrophe as the only path to world renewal, and believe that justice, goodness, brotherhood, and equity can and must be imposed by force – declare, with pedantic emphasis, that Christianity has failed. In doing so, they only repeat what everyone – friends and enemies alike – believed when, one tragic morning, three crosses were raised on Calvary, and the Prophet of the New Order, Jesus of Nazareth, died as he hung on one of them. In fact, from a human point of view, Christ’s death put an end to his crazy venture of wanting to transform the world. The agitator is dead – thought the enemies – it is all over. Our leader is dead – thought the friends – it is all over. The disciples themselves returned from Calvary cowed, sorrowful, and disillusioned, the gall of failure eating away at their spirits.

    The people most convinced of Christ’s failure were undoubtedly the radical zealots. Some of them had followed the revolutionary carpenter from Nazareth, believing he would lead an armed insurrection which would overthrow the Roman regime, establish the dictatorship of the chosen people, and bring about the advent of the kingdom of peace and justice, under the hegemony and splendor of Israel. When these revolutionaries saw that Jesus, instead of leading an uprising, let himself fall without resistance into the power of his enemies to be crucified ignominiously, they were enraged. What Jesus had done seemed to them the height of stupidity.

    painting of the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness

    Briton Rivière, The Temptation in the Wilderness, 1898

    This reproach of Christ made by his contemporary advocates of organized violence is the same one that reappears, under a different guise, through the present advocates of violence. They want to see Christ as a sentimental, romantic, low-spirited reformer, who failed because he did not want to impose his authority violently, nor lead the oppressed masses to victory through armed insurrection.

    The Symbol of the Desert

    What the Gospels describe as forty days of temptation in the desert was simply the period when Christ considered the vital question of what tactic he would employ in the struggle against evil, which roadmap he would use for building his new order. Christ discarded the three methods of human domination which are the essence of various forms of organized violence:

    • Economic might (producing bread as plentiful as stones and distributing it to the multitudes), under the illusion that a full belly is all that is needed to solve all human problems.
    • Political power, indissolubly linked to military power (the worship of Satan, in exchange for the kingdoms of the earth, the impérium universalis), trusting that humanity can be reformed by means of laws, decrees, and regulations, imposed by an authority supported by the police and the army.
    • Ecclesiastical power founded on terror and superstition (to throw oneself from the battlements of the temple and come out unscathed).

    In the desert, Jesus chose his tactics, which have seemed true madness and crass folly to desperate people through the ages, to those who do not know the reality of human nature, and to the optimistic believers in evolution, economic progress, or dictatorial statism. In the desert, Christ discovered an eternal and awesome truth: the means determine the ends. A cause can be as noble and great as you want, but if you use means that do not correspond to it, it simply will elude your grasp. Many of his enemies, and more than a few of his friends, would supplant this truth with another, diabolically inverted one: “the ends justify the means.” But Jesus saw that organized violence of any kind, regardless of the end or ideal with which it seeks to justify itself, is always self-defeating, betraying the ends for which it is employed.

    Dictators and Redeemers

    In other words, Christ discovered that justice, brotherhood, and peace, all deep yearnings of humanity, all ideals of social coexistence, can neither be dictated nor imposed. As a supreme realist and a profound connoisseur of human nature, he neither deluded nor deceived himself with reformist utopias. He believed that a kingdom of justice can only be built by just persons, a new world by new people, “new wine in new wineskins.” He warned that people cannot be reformed by force, nor rehabilitated by violence; they must be born again through the working of vital powers of a higher order, which he came to imbue in us. That is why Christ rejected Spartacism and imperialism as methods of social transformation. A popular insurrection can change regimes, but it cannot change people: neither its opponents, whom it does not change, but destroys, nor its proponents, whom it does not change, but corrupts. Christ – the supreme realist – saw that a simple regime change would only mean substituting one set of exploiters for others. That is why Christ ordered Peter: “Put your sword back in its sheath,” because violence only engenders violence. Spartacism is the father of tyranny. And substituting one tyrant for another does not improve the lot of the oppressed.

    The current advocates of violence reproach Jesus for not having decided to use this method and attribute to it what they call the failure of “the two thousand years of Christianity.” They forget that, to a large extent, the reason Christian actions have watered down, delayed, or paralyzed the faith’s transforming power is precisely because the followers of Christ have often succumbed to the temptation of trying to Christianize the world through violence. They have wielded the sword in the name of the one who repudiated the sword. And they have sought to redeem humanity from its evils by means of organized violence, in the name of the one who condemned violence.

    When faced with the sword, Jesus erects the cross and climbs up on it. The cross is the love that sacrifices itself, that gives itself for others. He who conquers, dominates, and imposes himself, cannot redeem. He only redeems who denies himself out of love and gives his life for the good of others.

    Source: Pedro Gringoire, Las Manos de Cristo (México, D.F.: Casa Unida de Publicaciones; Buenos Aires: Editorial La Aurora, 1950), 129-135. Translated by Coretta Thomson.

    Contributed By Gonzalo Camargo Baez Gonzalo Báez Camargo

    Gonzalo Báez Camargo (1899–1983) was a Mexican Methodist pastor and theologian, writer, and Bible translator.

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