The Bible is full of violence – troubling, painful, angry, ugly violence. The Bible shows us innocent suffering, unjust retribution, harsh vengeance and senseless massacre.

The world portrayed in the Bible is not a world I want to see, much less to live in. But for many people throughout history it has been their world. Even today, violence continues to be the defining reality of many peoples’ lives.

For people who share the privileged little world I inhabit, the violence of the biblical story seems far removed from our daily reality. We see pictures in the paper of death and mayhem. We hear news stories of horrifying human cruelty; but mostly we are comfortably sheltered from the worst manifestations of the world’s suffering.

But I cannot afford to be complacent about the reality of violence even in the protected little world in which I am mostly privileged to live. Jesus took the issue of violence to a completely new level when he said,

You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. (Matthew 5:2122)

The world of the Bible is violent because we are violent. There is violence in all our hearts at times; it may not manifest as murder, but it is none the less destructive to our deepest being and to the well-being of the world and the human community. In Jesus’ view, the violence of a harsh thought or an angry word is ultimately no different than the violence of murder.

The fact that my life circumstances may have prevented me from actually acting on my murderous thoughts does not excuse me from guilt. Had my circumstances been a little different, my internal conflict and pain might well have brought me to a much darker and more painful place than the privileged comfortable world I inhabit.

The problem is that even subtle violence causes harm. When I belittle another person, or respond with harshness rather than gentleness, I inflict pain that spirals outward to affect the whole human community and the world we share. But it is not only the victim of my words or actions who is hurt, I am also damaged. My violence diminishes me as a human being created in the image of God. Jesus said,

it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles. (Matthew 15:11)

My violence defiles my own deepest and most true being whether or not it manifests in actual physical harm.

I was not created for violence. I was created for gentleness and openness. I realize the fullness of my humanity, not by imposing my will upon the world and getting my way, but by yielding. The winners never win. Jesus said,

Many who are first will be last, and the last will be first. (Matthew 19:30)

Violence ends when someone chooses to give way.

This is the powerful and troubling wisdom of Jesus’ words,

If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. (Luke 6:29)

This is not intended to be social policy. But it is deep truth pointing to the fact that, only when I am willing to let go, to surrender my cherished position, will new ways open and new hope be born. It may not feel fair but the cycle of violence will only begin to unwind when someone puts an end in their own heart to retribution and self-protection.

The way of the cross shows that I am the winner when I am willing to be the loser. When I can bear the violence of life without retaliating, something deep and true opens within me and in the world. The light that is my true nature begins to bear fruit in the world.