The Wisdom the World Needs

Book cover
Gandhi and Jesusby By Terrence J. RynneOrbis Books. 228p $20

Rarely are books on religion both timely and of enduring value. By and large, if they respond to the pressing needs of the moment and even earn a coveted spot on The New York Times bestseller list, they will be soon be remaindered once the ephemeral interest has waned. Or if they achieve the status of a classic by unveiling perennial albeit unpopular truths about the human condition, they may not appeal to the wider public and will gather dust on the bookshelf. This work by Terrence Rynne is an exception. It is timely, responding to the immediate needs of our time; at the same time, its ideas, expounded with passion and compassion, will, if put into practice, permanently change our world. As Rynne puts it simply: “Imagine the impact on secular society if the entire body of Christians rejected the exclusive identification of justice with retribution, turned to the concept of restorative justice, and embraced, modeled, and lived the way of nonviolence.”

At the heart of Gandhi and Jesus, then, is nonviolence—not as a military tactic and a political strategy for conflict resolution, but as a way of life or Christian spirituality. To flesh out this concept of nonviolence, Rynne turns to the life and teaching of Mohandas Gandhi (1869-1948). He begins with a brief account of Gandhi’s childhood in India, adult years in England and South Africa and political activities in India. He goes on to show how Gandhi, though deeply rooted in Hinduism, especially as embodied in the Bhagavad Gita, modified his understanding of Hindu teachings through his encounters with the teachings of Jesus and Leo Tolstoy.


Nowhere is this transformation more evident and socially relevant than in the concepts of moksha (release, liberation), ahimsa (non-injury) and tapasya (suffering). This means that for Christians it is necessary to reformulate the notion of salvation itself. What is the root metaphor to understand being saved by God: violent sacrifice or nonviolent power?

To answer this question, Rynne (who founded the Marquette University Center for Peacemaking) examines at length Gandhi’s notion of satyagraha. This term, coined by Gandhi because of his dissatisfaction with expressions such as “passive resistance” and “civil disobedience” to describe his method of nonviolence, literally means to firmly hold (agraha) the truth (satya) or “truth force.” Rynne points out that central to Gandhi’s understanding and practice of nonviolence is his conception of sat (reality or truth), which he takes to be the moral law governing the universe and which he identifies with God. Such reality and truth can be grasped and realized not through the intellect but only through action.

According to Gandhi, however, a person’s grasp of reality or truth, which is absolute, is always partial and relative, and therefore should not be forced on others through violence. Associated with satyagraha are the other concepts that Gandhi makes essential to the practice of nonviolence—namely, ahimsa (non-injury), which is nonviolent force in situations of conflict, and tapasya (suffering), which is the willingness and readiness to accept personal suffering for the sake of justice and reconciliation.

Has Gandhi’s notion of satyagraha found any echo in Christian theology? Rynne turns to the works of four theologians: Charles Freer Andrews, an Anglican priest and a close friend of Gandhi’s; John Howard Yoder, a Mennonite theologian; Bernard Häring, a Roman Catholic moral theologian; and Walter Wink, professor of biblical interpretation at Auburn Theological Seminary. Common to these four theologians is a consistent effort to understand Christian salvation in the light of Jesus’ life, ministry, death and resurrection, highlighting nonviolence as the central feature of his preaching and practice. This insight leads Rynne to offer an extensive critique of Anselm’s satisfaction theory of redemption, which in his eyes is predicated on a faulty understanding of God, lacks a biblical basis, ignores Jesus’ unique mode of ministry and glorifies human suffering.

At the heart of Rynne’s theology, then, lies a new soteriology, one that is rooted in Jesus’ way of nonviolent resistance to evil powers and is thus connected with Gandhi’s satyagraha. Rynne develops a theology of salvation that emphasizes human responsibility for history, is rooted in Jesus’ nonviolent life, ministry, death and resurrection, conceives salvation as requiring the rejection of the “domination system” that uses violence as a means to resolve conflicts, accords priority to praxis, and presents the church as a community of disciples enacting Jesus’ nonviolent way of life.

This soteriology has implications for understanding the Eucharist. Rynne reveals how it has changed his own understanding of the Mass from “sacrifice” to a call to “discipleship”: Jesus’ injunction “Do this in memory of me” now means “Do this way of acting that I have shown you. Do this way of resisting evil and returning good for evil that I lived and taught. Do it even if it is hard and stirs up resistance. Do it filled with love, because you know that you are loved.”

In retrieving the teaching of Jesus on nonviolent resistance and in formulating a soteriology based not on the notion of satisfaction and sacrifice but on God’s nonviolent power in correlation to Gandhi’s understanding and practice of satyagraha, Rynne’s work will join the ranks of classics on Christian nonviolent resistance. It also fosters an ecumenical and interreligious dialogue, now more necessary than ever, through his studies of Protestant theologians and Gandhi.

At the same time, it is appropriate for our times. In this season of presidential elections, it is a must-read for Christians—Democrat and Republican alike. When the nominees of both parties still invoke violence and war as a means to combat terrorism for fear of appearing “weak,” and when both nominees make a show of their “Christian” faith to get votes, Rynne’s book serves as a prophetic wake-up call to Christians to rethink their discipleship to Jesus as the nonviolent one.

I recall the discomfort I felt at seeing a banner spread across a Mennonite church on my way to work in the face of chauvinistic patriotism in the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001. It cited Rom 12:21: “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” I am now haunted by Rynne’s inconvenient question about what would happen “if the entire body of Christians rejected the exclusive identification of justice with retribution, turned to the concept of restorative justice, and embraced, modeled, and lived the way of nonviolence.”

After reading this book, we should ponder the possibility of American soldiers, the majority of whom are Christian, laying down their arms in the name of their faith in Jesus (and not for political reasons!) and vowing to struggle against terrorism by every means available except violence. Would this be any less effective in the long run than “preventive war” to achieve peace and national security? What would happen to the witness of the church as a community of disciples to Jesus? To Christianity’s relation to Islam? To the American military complex and politics? To the survival of our planet? Hard questions indeed, but asked they must be, for Jesus’ sake. And our thanks to Rynne for raising them, not as theoretical questions but as incentives for action.

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David Riesbeck
10 years 6 months ago
"...if the entire body of Christians rejected the exclusive identification of justice with retribution, turned to the concept of restorative justice, and embraced, modeled, and lived the way of nonviolence.” I'm a bit troubled by the idea that we have to choose between non-violence and a conception of justice as retribution. No doubt many conceptions of retributive justice are crude and more or less equivalent to vengeance. Nonetheless, it is hard to imagine a real human community that rejects retributive punishment in favor of 'restorative' justice and non-violence. Perhaps Rynne acknowledges this when he encourages us to abandon the *exclusive* identification of justice with retribution. The unfortunate problem for any program of radical non-violence and 'restorative' justice is to give a plausible account of just how communities that embrace those principles can survive, let alone flourish. Some radical Christian pacifists might argue that giving weight to these worries amounts to compromising with the very forces that the Gospel is supposed to overcome, and that the life of non-violence can only make sense when we reject the goals of flourishing for the sake of the Kingdom of God. There's something to that, I'd say, but following it through consistently seems to me to lead to a thoroughly other-worldly Christianity, which leads in turn to theological problems that, so far as I can see, are insurmountable. Ultimately, my concern comes down to the question: must we really choose between radical non-violence and justice as retribution? Perhaps it is a mistake to suppose that non-violence is essentially tied up with the issue between restorative and retributive forms of justice?


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