Appalled at the actions of my “Christian” nation, I never would have guessed then that Jesus’ radical way of voluntary nonresistance was the answer I sought.
I grew up in a home with no faith or religion. There was an expected standard of decency and morality, but Christianity and Jesus were seldom spoken about, and certainly not as a source of moral direction. Christians were just as good or bad as everybody else, and we all supported our country and its wars without question.
I came out of that home firmly committed to the “American Dream,” and I was in hot pursuit of an education that would lead to a good job and to riches. Then came the Vietnam War and the antiwar movement, which was especially demonstrative on college and university campuses. It was a time of healthy questioning of the foundations of our American society and economic system; it was a mass movement especially among young people, who were rejecting the “establishment” and seeking for a basis of love and peace and justice—a time like none other before or since.
I was a student at the University of Akron, just 15 miles from the killing of four students by the Ohio National Guard at Kent State University in 1970. My government of freedom and democracy had just gunned down citizens exercising their First Amendment rights. This changed my life. I would never be the same. I began a journey in search for the true meaning of, and basis for, life.
The first issue to deal with was the military draft, as I became more and more convinced that I could not participate in killing people I didn’t know for no justifiable reason. My local draft board rejected my application for conscientious objection. Since I was not part of a “peace church,” I had no one to speak up for me. Fortunately, at the time of my physical examination I was found to have a medical condition that would exempt me from military service.
It is always easy enough to find the things that are wrong and broken and need to replaced and fixed, but discovering answers, the solutions that can build a new society, is a very different matter. Still, the hippie movement marked a unique moment in the Western world. Young people full of hope for a better world were pushing forward into that hope, searching for answers.
My wife, Susan, who had been raised in a fundamentalist Christian home, shared my hope and my search. In looking for an answer, Christianity was never an option for us. Preoccupied with personal salvation and personal welfare and carrying Bibles all over the world, sowing economic exploitation and wars in the name of Christ, Christians were part of the problem, as far as we could see. We looked to other faith movements, where love and peace and justice might be found.
Then we stumbled upon a little-known book by Leo Tolstoy, My Confession, My Religion: The Gospel in Brief, and came face-to-face with Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Our hearts leapt after reading Jesus’ words. This is exactly how we felt, what we thought should rule over the earth, what we were seeking. We became certain that Jesus was the way of absolute love, without the “just war” exemptions that compromise most of Christendom. But where were the Christians who lived by these words, who took them seriously? We had never seen them. That did not mean that there were no such people, only that we had not found them.
Gary and Susan with their daughter Sarah
As we read more about Jesus, especially his words and life as recorded in the Gospels, it became clear that his cross represented much more than the atonement for our wrongdoing. It was the way. The devil could be overpowered in no other way. The devil’s works could be destroyed in no other way. The devil’s power over humankind could be broken by no other means than the suffering of innocent love laying down his life on the cross. The 12 legions of angels available in Gethsemane could not do the job, all though what more of a just war could be imagined than the righteous angels routing the devil and his minions.
This way of Jesus’ cross is the way of nonresistance, which makes no sense to the wise and worldly. “But I tell you, do not resist an evil person” (Matt 5:39). But more alarming, Jesus tells us to take up the cross and follow after him, to lose our lives that we might gain them. The believer’s cross is not the ordinary daily burdens we each have to suffer. It is not sickness or tension or other common forms of suffering. Instead, the believer’s cross is the cost of nonconformity to the ruling powers and principalities. It is the consequence of being an affront and threat to the devil’s power administered through his lackeys, through the political, religious, and economic powers of our time, just as Jesus was an affront to the Romans and the Jewish temple authorities of his day.
The cross that Jesus calls us to is entirely avoidable. It lies in the narrow way, freely chosen after we have counted the cost. If we represent this new order of the kingdom – if we refuse to take part in violence and injustice – we will be hounded and suffer as Jesus had to suffer. Yet Jesus also says, “Whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it” (Mark 8:35). This is the hope for the world – the way that leads to true and lasting love and peace and justice.
Gary Frase lives at Fox Hill, a Bruderhof in Walden, New York.