Christian Practice, Part 1: Ahimsa

I'm back. Great vacation. (Except for breaking down 20 miles outside of Abilene and getting towed into town. Nice way to end a vacation, getting dropped off at home by a tow truck.)

Some Preliminaries
Before I left I promised I would return with a discussion about what I consider to be the essential components of Christian Practice. That is, what activities might behaviorally define Christianity? I spoke about the importance of this issue in my prior posts. This is important in that a clear and robust notion of Christian practice buoys faith in times of doubt. Further, lots of people in the world own the title "Christian" without any real notion of how following Jesus should shape them behaviorally.

So, in the next few posts I'm going to sketch out what I think are the essential components of Christian practice. As I thought about this, I quickly confronted two issues.

First, I'm reinventing the wheel. As mentioned in my prior posts, Christians have been thinking about this issue for some time. And they have probably done a better job than I can hope to do here. So why bother? Well, I like to think things out on my own first and then, once done, check back to prior sources and authorities. There is a comfort in working through a set of ideas and independently converging upon a prior consensus. Plus, you never know when an independent analysis might yield a novel insight or combination.

Second, I found that as I thought about Christianity the scope of the task seemed huge. I decided that I couldn't outline practice for every single aspect of Christianity. So, I had to decide what was fundamental or essential. And obviously, that act would embody certain theological commitments of my own. So the final product here may be idiosyncratic. However, I will try to offer some warrant for my choices.

Finally, a word about method. In defining practice I had to focus on behavior rather than mental states. For example, to practice something like forgiveness I could not simply speak about forgiving someone "in you heart." Rather, I would have to specify actions that practiced the act of forgiveness.

When I thought about the essential teaching of Jesus, the aspect of his teaching that was at the core of this ethical vision, this was the passage I converged on:

Matthew 5: 38-48
"You have heard that it was said, 'Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.' But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.

"You have heard that it was said, 'Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Turn the other cheek. This, to me, is the hub of Christianity, the ethical center of its vision. This passage is the crown jewel of Jesus' most famous sermon, the Sermon on the Mount.

How to summarize this notion? Various terms have been used: Non-violence, non-retaliation, pacifism, etc. I've chosen the Sanskrit word ahimsa to capture this notion. I do this for two reasons. First, to signal solidarity with other non-Western religious traditions who also hold ahimsa at their core. Second, this word also draws us close to the great modern practitioner of ahimsa: Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhi said that the Sermon on the Mount, "went straight to [his] heart": "When I read in the Sermon on the Mount such passages as...'whoever smiteth thee on thy cheek turn to him the other also' I was simply overjoyed."

I know in today's America ahimsa is unpopular and controversial. And I have done very little in trying to reflect on how ahimsa scales up to political entities (Can a nation practice ahimsa?). Further, the idea of ahimsa is broad. It can extend to animals, plants, and eco-systems. And those issues are also controversial. In short, there is a lot to discuss that I cannot get into here.

All I want to reflect on is a more workaday application of ahimsa: Turning the other cheek in everyday life. Regardless of what you believe about just war or vegitarianism, if you are a practicing Christian you "turn the other cheek" at home and work. In the language of Romans 12:

Romans 12: 9-21
Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in brotherly love. Honor one another above yourselves. Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Share with God's people who are in need. Practice hospitality.

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited.

Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God's wrath, for it is written: "It is mine to avenge; I will repay,"says the Lord. On the contrary:

"If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head." Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Plenty to practice in that passage! Whatever you think of the Apostle Paul, you have to give him this: He got the heart of Jesus' message loud and clear. Do we?

I can't say more than what Jesus and Paul have already said. To practice Christianity is to "turn the other cheek," to "bless and not curse," to "live in harmony," to "not repay evil for evil," to "not take revenge."

To practice ahimsa.

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5 thoughts on “Christian Practice, Part 1: Ahimsa”

  1. Thank you for setting the virtue of ahimsa within our own faith tradition. This has been most beneficial as I have recently been considering ahimsa in connection with thinking about my respect ( or lack of it )for the eco-system and those who share it with us.

  2. Ahimsa is a doctrine of non-violence mostly used in Jainism which is thought to be one of the most moral religions in the world and it continues to be. Incorporating the practice of ahisma in Christianity is sort of sad to do knowing that "Christians" have caused a lot of violence in the past including the Christian crusades and proclaiming their right for violence in the name of God. It would be ideal to practice in Christianity, but not realistically since violence has been a significant part of its history.

  3. looking through your posts on peace and ahimsa, came back to this one.  another great post.  but, was just going to share an experience like the end of your vacation, only backward.  when Kate and I went to move to CA from Abilene...loaded up the uhaul, her car in the trailer on the back, all loaded and set for the long drive to CA.  Made it about 20 miles and the Uhaul (i think the trailer if i remember correctly) had a blowout.  what a way to start, or end, a long trip.  

    Btw, Kate and I continue to be regulars on your blog and continue to find it blesses and challenges us along our journey.  Share with friends and acquaintances about it regularly.  

    Wednesday will be sharing the Wendell Berry poem you shared recently at a peace vigil.  A couple people get together, read the names of those fallen in military service that month, have a moment of silence, read something if anyone brings something, talk about any upcoming opportunities to take action for peace (city councils, letters to politicians at particular times, rallies, etc.), then stand and hold signs about the cost of war on a street in a posh suburb as people drive by. 

    A new kind of experience (political action...small, awkward, or futile as it may be) when I first did it a couple years ago, but I find it to be a good discipline to take me out of my work and day-day routine, and actually do something in support of non-violence. 

    This will be second time I've shared a thought from your blog there.  Thanks for sharing your thoughts, experiences, studies, and reflections.

  4. Hi Chad,
    Thanks for the note. So fun and encouraging to hear about what you all are up to. My best to Kate.

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