The Consequences of Nonviolence

Matthew 13:24-30

We are exactly halfway through the season of Lent and our exploration of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s six principles of nonviolence and several of parables of the Kingdom of God from the Gospel of Matthew. Our intention for this season is to consider how God may be calling us to release some of our own comfort, safety, and power for the sake of the common good. This world needs to be different. And we can make it different. But in order to do that, we need to be different first. We cannot give what we don’t have. Our ability to act differently is what really matters in the long run, but it does start with thinking differently. Lent is a great season for deep thinking, so that’s what we’ve been doing together.

The first of Dr. King’s principles of nonviolence is that “Nonviolence is a way of life for courageous people. It is active nonviolent resistance to evil.” Pacifism, not passive-ism. It’s not that we do nothing. We do something different. We explored Jesus’ parable of the absurdly generous boss who pays all the workers the same daily wage regardless of how long they worked. To act nonviolently, we have to start thinking about the world in a different way.

The second principle is “Nonviolence seeks to win friendship and understanding. The end result of nonviolence is redemption and reconciliation.” For two weeks we explored the parable of the servant who was released from an unrepayable debt he owed to his employer but refused to release a fellow servant from a modest debt. This is part of Jesus’ teaching on how to sustain relationships in community. Forgiveness opens the door for friendship and understanding with our enemy.

The third principle, which we explored last week is “Nonviolence seeks to defeat injustice, not people. Nonviolence recognizes that evildoers are also victims.” Once we realize that we are all shaped by the system we live in, we can shift our animosity from our enemies themselves to the wider system of injustice that has shaped us both. The New Testament book of Ephesians says that our battle is not against flesh and blood but against principalities and powers. Things must change so that everyone can be free.

This week’s principle is “Nonviolence holds that suffering can educate and transform. Nonviolence willingly accepts the consequences to its acts.”

Although nonviolence is not passive, it does sometimes require the willingness to experience violence rather than inflict it on someone else. Even our most creative attempts may not result in our own safety. The system of this world operates by violence and physical force and when we choose to actively resist the system, we will likely suffer the consequences in the only way that the system knows how to dole out consequences: through violence.

At this point it is really important for me to acknowledge my own privilege and for you to acknowledge yours. I am committed to nonviolent resistance. But I have never been the victim of violence. I have never been personal assaulted. I have never been punched because I stood up for someone else. I have never even been to a protest that got violent, either on the side of the protestors or on the side of law enforcement. I am incredibly privileged that my commitment to nonviolence is so far conceptual. Now that commitment to the concept is still very important. I am growing in my ability to think nonviolently, to think about my enemies as victims, to recognize that God’s end goal for everything is redemption and reconciliation and so to try to put that into practice in my own life. I have though a lot about the need for me and for people like me to release some of our comfort and safety and power. And thinking like that, orienting myself that way in the world, is essential for how I live and how we raise Sammy and how I teach and preach. But I have not yet taken that experience into my own body.

Some people have. Since these principles come from Dr. King, he is the obvious example, and has this to say about his imprisonments (plural), the bombings (plural) of his home, the death threats against his children, and his near-fatal stabbing. He said “My personal trials have also taught me the virtue of unmerited suffering. As my sufferings mounted, I soon realized there were two ways in which I could respond to my situation—either to react with bitterness or seek to transform that suffering into a creative force.”

The willingness for innocent people to resist violence with their bodies, to let their own bodies be the place where injustice is revealed, that willingness is an act of holy sacrifice. Violence demonstrates the real values of the world’s system, its design to crush human flourishing, which is ultimately the weakness that will destroy it.

Think about what was revealed about the system of injustice when black Americans and some white Americans—in 1963 in Birmingham it was children who chose to be there— they allowed themselves to be attacked by dogs and knocked down by fire hoses putting out 100 pounds of pressure, enough to tear clothes and cause wounds. They were not doing anything to warrant this. In that moment, they suffered. And through their suffering, the horrible injustice of systemic racism was revealed. I think anyone with a conscience looks at those images and says, “That is not right. That is wrong.” Those images helped to change the tide of public opinion in this country. Those sacrifices shaped history.

Nonviolence holds that suffering can educate and transform. Nonviolence willingly accepts the consequences to its acts. Nonviolent resistance reveals the evil inherent in the system. When we allow ourselves to be the place where the evil is carried out, we will suffer. But what we know about God is that God does not ignore suffering. God honors suffering. God transforms suffering. God redeems suffering. Suffering is not good in and of itself; I am not advocating masochism. But suffering can be the manure, the fertilizer, in which amazing things can grow if we will allow them. We can become more than just our suffering.

Let’s look at another parable of God’s Kingdom from the gospel of Matthew. This is one of my favorites. In fact, it’s the parable that was the text for the first sermon I ever preached in this church, way back in the summer of 2017 when I was just here as a guest preacher. This parable is found in Matthew chapter 13. The parable itself is not very long and full disclosure later on in the chapter the disciples plead with Jesus for an interpretation and he gives them one that is harder to unpack so we’re not going to include it this morning. We can tackle that another time. This is Matthew chapter 13 verses 24 through 30.

Jesus put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field, but while everybody was asleep an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat and then went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?’ He answered, ‘An enemy has done this.’ The slaves said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ But he replied, ‘No, for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest, and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.’ ”

These are the words of God for all people. Thanks be to God.

What I invite you to notice this morning is that the farmer’s choice not to uproot the weeds had a price. Weeds take up nutrients that are needed by the crop. The grow annoyingly fast and can choke out the plants you are trying to grow. It’s very likely that the farmer will get less of what he wants because of this choice. But he accepts the consequences of his actions. Not out of care for the weeds, but out of care for the wheat. The results of violence tend to bleed out in ways we don’t anticipate. The choice to violently uproot the weeds would have also damaged the wheat. And so the farmer chose the nonviolent option, allowing the weeds to grow, and accepting the consequences of what that might mean for the eventual yield of the crop.

Now this raises all kinds of other fascinating questions like, “Is this parable trying to say that we should let injustice grow? Do we just wait for God to sort things out?” I hope that you’ll talk about those questions in the car when you leave and at the lunch table. Parables are supposed to provoke us and make us think.

Violence is not the only option. And violence also has consequences. When we choose violence, I believe we do damage to our own souls, to our own humanity. And if we choose violence, we have to accept those consequences. They are not insignificant. When we choose to inflict violence on someone else, even as a measure of self-defense or defense of someone else, we damage ourselves, and we really don’t know where that cycle of violence will end and what else will be destroyed in the process.

But nonviolence also has consequences. We will likely suffer. And let’s bring it back to my level. When I choose the nonviolent option of seeing my enemies as victims, that has consequences for me. Sometimes people get upset that I don’t jump on all the angry bandwagons. Nobody thanks you for bringing up the other perspective. I get accused of being not as committed to “the cause” whatever it is in that moment. Now that’s not physical suffering, but it is consequences. Albeit, small ones. But friends, accepting those consequences is our training for someday maybe accepting larger consequences from more significant acts of nonviolence.

If we are going to change the system that is designed to keep some people on top and some people on the bottom, if we are going to change the cycle of retribution, if we are going to change our habits of violence, both interpersonally and geopolitically, we are all going to have to voluntarily give up some of our comfort, and power, and yes even our safety. And some of us have more of those things to give up than others do. The more we are used to being in charge, the harder it is to let someone else take the lead. The more we are used to having everything we want, the harder it is to deny ourselves. This is why we have Lent, a season of deliberate practice. The more we are used to never facing any sense of threat to ourselves, the more ridiculous it seems to ever willingly put ourselves or our loved ones in harm’s way. But my dear ones that is exactly what Jesus did. We’ll talk more about this in a few weeks, but Jesus gave up all of his comfort and safety and power and allowed his very body to be the place where all of the evil in the world was revealed. What happened to him was terrible. And he chose that. Not because he was a masochist, but because he trusted that his suffering, his act of sacrificial love, could change things. He accepted the consequences of his actions, trusting that his suffering would be honored, transformed, and redeemed. And so can ours.

I want to close with one more quote from Dr. King, from his sermon on loving your enemies in the book Strength to Love. This quote brings together the principles from the past three weeks: 1. the goal of nonviolence is reconciliation; 2. evildoers are also victims; and 3. suffering willingly accepted can transform the world. Here’s what he says: “To our most bitter opponents, we say: ‘We will match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering.  We will meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will, and we shall continue to love you. We cannot in all good conscience obey your unjust laws because non-cooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good. Throw us in jail, and we shall still love you. Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our communities at the midnight hour and beat us and leave us half-dead and we shall still love you. But be ye assured that we will wear you down by our capacity to suffer. One day we shall win freedom, but not only for ourselves. We shall so appeal to your heart and conscience, that we shall win you in the process. And our victory will be a double victory.'” 1


  1. Martin Luther King Jr., Strength to Love (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2010), 50-51.

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