The Common Good
July-August 1996

Jesus the Protagonist

by Patrick G. Coy | July-August 1996

Narrative and nonviolence in the biblical story.

The task of responding with integrity to everyday violence is about as vexing as the violence itself is ubiquitous. The result is by now well known: Most throw up their hands and embrace what Robert Beck calls “the myth of constructive violence.” They simply respond to violence with more of the same, believing that it solves deeply entrenched social problems.

In the opening chapter of Nonviolent Story, Beck patiently explores the functions of this myth via popular narratives, using the Western stories of the prolific author Louis L’Amour as a literary benchmark. This is important work, not least because narratives influence our view of the world—and therefore our lives—in obscure yet significant ways. Beck phrases this relationship more deftly: “While life offers dilemmas for narrative to work through, narrative offers scripts for life.” The gospel of Mark’s narrative script for a nonviolent life is what this gem of a book is all about.

Narrative analysis identifies and interprets the structure of the plot, as well as the fluctuating relations and fortunes of the main characters, to uncover other, often less obvious, meanings of a story. Mark’s gospel is shown to follow the plot dynamic of challenge/response between Jesus as protagonist, and the Judean authorities as antagonist. Beck’s interpretation of the gospel’s plot structure highlights a Jesus who aggressively issues challenges and resists established power, even while creatively “interrupting” the violence cycle by steadfastly refusing to use it.

An insightful chapter explores the principal subplot of the narrative: the conflict amongst the disciples and between Jesus and the disciples over their refusal to confront established power, resulting in their inability to join Jesus in the main plot. Mark’s gospel is here understood as a powerful “counter-story” about nonviolent resistance and conflict resolution.

The implications of this approach are far-reaching. For example, Beck’s analysis lays to rest still other powerfully influential myths, including Reinhold Niebuhr’s “Christian realism” and its denial of a gospel-based, active nonviolence. Recent work by Walter Wink and Ched Myers has already weakened the popular image of Jesus as a meek, non-resisting martyr, while highlighting the profoundly political nature of Jesus’ ministry. This book provides more of the same, this time through a creative melding of narrative analysis, biblical exegesis, and the theories of nonviolent action of Gene Sharp.

Beck achieves the uncommon by presenting a complex and multilayered scholarly analysis in an engaging style. We are left with a stimulating and challenging read, one that is also at times disturbing. I suppose that is as it should be. For in the end, Beck’s investigation reveals that Mark’s gospel is essentially about “how we are to love under conditions of conflict.” The disturbing challenge rests in the reminder that these are the only conditions we know.

Review of Nonviolent Story: Narrative Conflict Resolution in the Gospel of Mark. By Robert R. Beck (Orbis Books, 1996).

PATRICK G. COY is assistant professor of political science at Kent State University in Ohio, where he teaches in the Center for Applied Conflict Management.

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