“You can’t overcome force with force. You can only overcome force with love.” – N.T. Wright, on The Nomad Podcast (episode 124)
I love this quote because I think it speaks to our humanity so well. We, as humans, tend to fight fire with fire so to speak. It comes naturally for us to respond to someone in the same manner with which we are approached, rather it is negatively or positively. If someone is kind to us, it’s very easy for us to return kindness to them even if we’re having a bad day. And likewise, if someone is rude to us, it’s likely we’ll return the favor.
In our attempts to conquer force with force, we so often fail to realize all that is happening is a mere exchange of power. No real change or good has actually been accomplished in this exchange. This is what Jesus knew, and what we see in his expression of love on the cross. In him, we see that the way to overcome force, violence, oppression, and even systemic government seeking to rule over people in unhealthy ways; is love. Self-giving love.
When N.T. Wright made the statement that I opened this article with, he was referring to the fact that violence cannot truly be conquered by more violence, and that it is the victorious nature of Jesus’s self-giving and sacrificial love as put on display for us by his death on the cross; that actually conquered the systems of power and violence.
Obviously, Jesus’ death was the pivotal centerpiece in all of human history, coupled with his resurrection, which inaugurates the beginning of a new creation bursting onto the scene. I could easily focus on this, but so many people have done that, and have done it much better than I ever could.
What I’ve noticed about Jesus’ act of love on the cross, is the thing that caused him to go the distance in the first place. Love. Self-sacrificial love. Doesn’t it seem crazy? Who would do that for me? For you?
The old hymn “I Surrender All” comes to mind for me when I think about this amazing act of love that Jesus took on for all of us. I know the song isn’t about Jesus, but rather about our own act of surrender to God in repentance.
However, this old song is more than a personal proclamation of one’s own state and intentions, but it’s also an invitation to participate in the Jesus way. We’ve been invited to follow the way of Jesus, and in that, we find that the nature and character of the God revealed in Jesus is one of self-giving love. Therefore, surrendering all could be considered a necessity for those who desire to follow the way of Jesus.
We give all we have, and in the giving we receive. It’s counterintuitive to us because our mindsets are shaped, first and foremost, for self-preservation. Fight or flight. Whichever our tendency, are both rooted in our attempts to preserve our way of life, safety, finances, etc.
The apostle Peter personified this mentality when he cut off the ear of a soldier who had come to arrest Jesus [i]. In Peter’s mind, this man was attempting to do harm to not only his friend but at this point, Peter had already recognized Jesus to be the Messiah. Peter couldn’t stand for this. He had to defend Jesus! After all, Jesus wasn’t doing anything to defend himself, so Peter jumped to action.
I think most of us can identify with Peter. Rather it’s the Peter cutting off the soldier’s ear, or the Peter entering into “flight” mode when he denied Jesus three times in order to hopefully preserve his own life [ii]. Self-preservation and our need to protect our interests can often get in the way of self-giving love.
If you believe that Jesus was the word become flesh [iii], God incarnate (as I do), then it’s likely you also believe that Jesus didn’t need anyone to come to his defense as Peter did with the soldier and the sword [i]. How preposterous to think the Son of God needs one of us to defend him! So, how does Jesus respond to this act on Peter’s part?
Jesus picks up the ear of the soldier and heals him by placing the ear back where it belonged. As if that’s not crazy enough, he then turns to Peter and proceeds to tell him, “Put your sword back in its place, for all who draw the sword will die by the sword.” In that moment, Jesus was telling everyone listening, and now us as readers, that force never triumphs over force. Force only begets more need for a show of force to maintain the control you’ve just achieved. It takes a different type of power, or as C.S. Lewis puts it in The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe: “A deeper magic.” [iv]
Jesus, in that moment, chose a different way. He chose the deeper magic. Choosing healing and forgiveness, even unto death, because Jesus carried a bigger vision for the world than his own physical preservation. Jesus knew something with confidence, that the rest of us struggle with, and that is that all of us may die one day, but it’s not the end of the world. Eternity is a reality and Jesus lived from an eternal vision rather than a temporal one, which allowed him to value the bigger view than his finite time here on this earth as a man.
Often, we seek to hold onto what we have, only to lose it anyway. I value you what I’ve been given in this life to steward as much as the next person, therefore I will do my best to steward it well. However, I think we can easily miss the bigger picture that is happening all around us. We, as Jesus followers, are called to a way of seeing and interacting with the world which sees the world as it will be not as it currently is. I believe Jesus, and his way of love, beckons us to come surrender all. To take up our own type of cross and follow him along his path.
When we seek to hold onto what we have, then we risk becoming like Peter; seeking self-preservation over self-giving love. Sometimes we lose relationships along the way as we attempt to maintain our grasp on all that possess materialistically. All the while, we forget that it is in the giving that we receive, and it is in the losing that we gain.
“The kingdoms of this world have become the kingdoms of our Lord and of His Christ, and He shall reign forever and ever.” – Revelation 11:15
Force, violence, and political hierarchy have been defeated (and obviously the satan/sin). Not through their own methods and efforts, but by the deeper magic found in the self-giving love of Jesus Christ. We may not see the full resolution of this today, but we are called to envision this reality and live and interact in this world as beings of a new creation. The already here, and the not yet is the tension we are born into as sons of God. Therefore, what was once up, is now down. And what was once out, is now in.
[i] Matthew 26:50-54
[ii] Luke 22:54-62
[iii] John 1:14
[iv] Lewis, C.S. (2017). The lion, the witch, and the wardrobe. Waterville, ME: Thorndike Press, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning.