Suffering, most often, is the result of circumstances uncontrollable to the victim. Born into: an abusive home, a third world ghetto, a warzone, disease, broken family, poverty, famine, or _____________. Changes: job loss, regime change, governmental budget cuts, bad diagnosis, death of loved one, war, restrictions lifted off of big business, house burns down, bankruptcy, robbery, physical or economic oppression, or ___________. Suffering inevitably happens when circumstances reflect the brokenness of the kingdoms of the world.
Suffering of another sort exists. This suffering results when circumstances provoke action. Passivity perpetuates suffering. Action exposes the root causes of suffering. One question must be asked: What sort of action in the face of suffering will we take?
One sort of action reflects a first century reality – that of zealots. Zealots, exhausted by Empire overlords, chose the path of violent resistance. Such a response to the circumstances of one of the greatest examples of “99 to 1” in history is found in the early Roman Empire. Without a middle class of any kind, at least 97 percent of people in the Empire lived in poverty.
Fed up with the pattern of suffering of the Jewish people (with the exception of those who compromised to line their pockets), zeal filled these men with violent rage. They vowed to bring the glory of God back to their people and land by force. Only then would justice be served. These attempts ultimately failed to produce lasting change.
Another sort of action presents a possibility in circumstances of suffering. Paralleling another first century path, the way of Jesus, is a vision of nonviolent prophetic resistance. Jesus taught his followers this response to suffering in places like Matthew 5 where he taught to “love your enemies,” to “go the extra mile” to “turn the other cheek” (exposing the dehumanizing systems of the day), and to “pray for those who persecute you.” Jesus demonstrates here that a third way exists between violent zealotry and unempowered passivity. Ultimately, this is the pathway to the cross.
Jesus modeled nonviolent resistance as reflected in 1 Peter 2.19-24. Here, Christians are encouraged to “bear up under the pain of unjust suffering;” to “suffer for doing good;” to endure after the pattern of Christ’s suffering as “an example… [to] follow in his steps.” Following Jesus in this way remembers how when he was insulted “he did not retaliate” or make “threats.” “Instead, he entrusted himself to God who judges justly.” And what was the result of this approach to the circumstances that caused suffering (both physical and spiritual)? The world was changed… forever.
Paul describes one aspect of the victory of Christ on the cross. He states:
And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross. Colossians 2.15
Why did Christianity grow as it did following the death and resurrection of Jesus? One reason certainly includes the fact that those who were suffering under the thumb of the Empire understood that Christ’s sacrificial act, enduring the full wrath of the powers of the day (both in physical and spiritual manifestation), exposed the oppressive evil of the kingdom of the world. The suffering of Jesus on the behalf of the suffering people around him, shamed the governing authorities that put him on the cross. Suffering begets suffering – but when subverted – raises the awareness of the cruelty of systems of Empire. Movements like this create momentum that not even persecution can blot out. In fact, persecution fuels the refining fires of passionate justice.
This is what took place this past Friday. I don’t know any of the peaceful protesters at UC Davis personally, so I can’t say that they were intentionally following the example of Jesus. Yet, they chose to take peaceful action in the face of a nation and world that is suffering. This nonviolent prophetic resistance resulted in further suffering as they endured the prophetic fumes of oppression, doused by weaponized pepper spray. Whether they knew it or not, in that moment with linked arms of solidarity, they were imitating the outstretched arms of the greatest Revolutionary in history.
Suffering for good in the first century and today disarms the powers and authorities, making a public spectacle of them. Zealotry destroys credibility and results in no change. Actions that model Jesus’ call to expose the dehumanizing systems of the world through enduring their wrath; these are what revolutions are made of.
 Warren Carter, The Roman Empire and the New Testament: An Essential Guide(Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2006), 10.
Kurt Willems is an Anabaptist writer and pastor who is preparing for church planting next year by finishing work towards a Master of Divinity degree at Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary. He writes at: the Pangea Blog and is also on Twitter and Facebook.