Nonviolence for Some: Swami on the Sermon, Part 4

Cambridge, MA. The Gospel for Sunday, February 20 includes two famous and most challenging teachings of Jesus: The first is “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. (5.38-41) The second is “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (5.48) In this fourth in my series on Swami Prabhavananda’s The Sermon on the Mount according to Vedanta geared to our Sunday Gospels until Lent, I will consider his view of radical nonviolence, and in a fifth (soon to follow), his view of Jesus’ call to perfection.

I mentioned at the start of this series that, contrary to how we often think about the universality of Jesus' message, Prabhavananda thinks the Sermon is for advanced disciples, not for a crowd hearing Jesus for the first time. This is why Jesus can put this “highest truth” of non-resistance (or nonviolence) before his listeners, even if it is “nearly impossible to understand and follow.” While we can see instances of great saints who live out such non-resistance, “few people struggle to achieve the lofty spiritual state which would enable them to practise this non-resistance.” Moreover, Prabhavananda adds (quoting Paul Elmer More) that the world would come apart if we applied “the laws of the spirit to the activities of this earth.” We must admit that beings are at various grades of spiritual advancement, most not ready for the nonviolence Jesus teaches: “Non-resistance is therefore recognized by Vedanta as the highest virtue, but all people under all circumstances are not expected to live up to it in its highest form.” Some are violent, or cowardly, or lazy — and must deal with these defects before they imagine living out the nonviolence Jesus teaches.


Prabhavananda illustrates this by telling the story of two disciples of his own guru, Ramakrishna. A disciple overhears people speaking ill of Ramakrishna, and reacts heatedly, threatening to upset the ferry on which they ride; Ramakrishna scolds him for his anger and his lack of detachment. A second disciple, hearing similar gossip, does nothing — and Ramakrishna scolds him for his lack of loyalty to his teacher. The point, says Prabhavananda, is that Ramakrishna was teaching each differently, in accord with where he was on his spiritual ascent. This is why, he adds, Jesus can teach nonviolence to his advanced disciples, while Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita counsels detached action, duty, and even warfare, when speaking to the warrior Arjuna - who has not yet renounced the world.

There is no value, Prabhavananda says, in allowing people to push us around, or harm our families. Resistance, free of hatred, is necessary for most of us, much of the time. But “the devotee of God who perseveres in his spiritual practices eventually reaches a state in which non-violence in thought, word, and deed is natural to him. Then, with mind absorbed in God and heart purified by devotion, he does spontaneously what Christ asks of him — he loves his enemies, blesses those that curse him, does good to those that hate him, and prays for those who persecute him.”

I know that some readers will resist the idea that Jesus taught different listeners differently, depending on their capacity. We tend to be democratic, believing Jesus had one message for all. But perhaps here at least the Swami is right. If we act as if radical nonviolence really is mandated for everyone, then when that does not happen, we are watering it down to a kind of soft inner disposition (just as we don’t seriously expect everyone to give all their possessions to the poor). But if we take Jesus’ command literally, we may judge nearly the entirety of our society drastically disordered — not just in the violence of warfare or the militarized state or the abomination of proliferating handguns, but also in the failure of individuals to turn the other cheek in all situations of violence small and large. A Gospel for all, all the time, could be rather ineffective: if not too soft, then too hard.

While reserving the command to radical nonviolence to a small group of advanced souls sounds terribly elitist and may seem to let the rest of us off the hook, Prabhavananda is suggesting that this is nonetheless the deep, concrete realism that undergirds Jesus’ most demanding teaching. It is a spiritual advance in itself to admit when you cannot in fact live up to the teachings of Jesus.

(To be continued.)


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Beth Cioffoletti
7 years 11 months ago
"It is a spiritual advance in itself to admit when you cannot in fact live up to the teachings of Jesus."

Or that the emptiness and despair of our ego-driven attempts to manage God, the world, and salvation are necessary before anything happens.  Even nonviolence.

Do you suppose this means that we shouldn't even *expect* anything resembling nonviolence from the masses?  That it really is meant for a small group of people?

Response: Beth: Swami's view is rather that we should always be expecting people to be on the move, growing in nonviolence; but also that it does no good to expect people to leap all the way to radical nonviolence from where they happen to be. It would therefore be a gradual process, with the Sermon's ideal far along in the process. FXC
Chris Sullivan
7 years 11 months ago
While it may well be true that less then 5% of Christians are currently prepared to comit to fully following the demands of the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew seems to have anticipated this objection with "be perfect as God is perfect".

Now it's true that perfection is a journey but Vatican II's appeal for universal call to holiness still pertains.

God Bless
Robert Riley
7 years 11 months ago
Beth opined that ''Matthew seems to have anticipated this objection with ''be perfect as God is perfect''. 

My understanding is that the meaning of the Greek is not that one is morally perfect (who is?), but rather that one willingly being transformed by the Spirit moves towards being ''perfectly merciful'' (perfectly compassionate).  The New Jerusalem Bible (largest seling Catholic English Bible in the world outside of the USA, I have read) puts it beautifully, ''Let your love have no bounds.''  I.e., no exceptions.  Here, the Buddhist concept helps me - there truly is no EVIL human being, but rather human beings in a state of relative spiritual ignorance - who can indeed do dreadful things.  Thus compassion (even while there is room for legal sanctions and restraints) is always the appropriate response to malfeasance, no matter how extreme.  ''Judge not, that you be not judged'' is also a key from the Sermon on the Mount - you don't know how the wrongdoer got to be so rotten, so don't imagine that you can - just love the God-given being that he/she actually IS (an extension/Creation of the Father), even as consequences are called for - not in ultimate judgment but in compassion.  To see the world with eyes of rejecting judgment brings damage to self and others - see Mt 6:22-23.  Instead, see with the eyes of Love.
PJ Johnston
7 years 11 months ago
I think I would have been much more comfortable with Prabhavananda's spiritual hierarchy system if he created a hierarchy of devotees with different religious duties if he didn't subsequently use this approach to argue that violence can be right for some people in some circumstances.  That's the deal-breaker that makes the whole approach seem disreputable to me.

Violence ISN'T right for anybody under any circumstances, and to say it is OK for somebody under some circumstances is basically to give up the Christian faith.  (I suppose this is something you believe definitionally if you're a Christian anarcho-pacifist, but I recognize that most people do not start out from there and therefore do not see this as obvious).  I do think, given this criterion, that all of our social institutions are hopelessly broken and in need of reform - we have a military to abolish, jails to empty, and aggressive behaviors of our own to purify and abandon.  But that isn't just advice for an elite, it's for everybody.  What's the point of Christianity if one says non-violence is such an unrealistic ideal that it can't be part of Christianity for everybody?  Obligatory non-violence is the appeal of Christianity, not a liability or a problem to be worked around.  It is what makes Christianity a good and appealing as opposed to a bad and unappealing religion.

There was a visiting lecturer at my university who ruined my intellectual interest in Buddhism (which I'd begun to study in order to find conceptual tools I could borrow to purify the Christian tradition of its propensity to violence) by showing that violence is a normative part of some Buddhist traditions.  I think the same thing would probably result if someone could actually convincingly show that non-violence wasn't the normative teaching of Christianity and that it's not meant for everybody.
Juan Lino
7 years 11 months ago
What I like about your post Fr. Clooney is that it highlights the "newness" of Christ!

While I can accept that growth into non-violence is a process, just as growth into "Christlikeness" is a process, the question I would have for the swami is: Are we really the protagonists in this process or is Another the protagonist?

I am asking because I know that Buddhists do not really have a theology of grace, as Christians define it.  Is that also true of the Swami's faith?
PJ Johnston
7 years 11 months ago
To appreciate the Bhagavad Gita properly, I have to do what Gandhi did to it or Gregory of Nyssa did to the Old Testament in his Life of Moses - allegorize the surface meaning of the text beyond recognition.  At least that's a time-honored strategy for dealing with violence both for Vedantins and Christians.


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