As I just mentioned in the mysteries blog post one of the courses I’m in this semester is Theologies of Violence/Nonviolence. The first book we’re using in that course, and one that forms the foundational framework for the course I think, is Saving Paradise by Rita Nakashima Brock and Rev. Dr. Rebecca Parker. In the prologue they discuss how the book came out of their interest in the lack of crucifixion imagery in the first century after Jesus’ death on the cross. One quote from the prologue that interested me especially was from page xix: “They [early Christians] saw life as an arena of struggle to gain wisdom and to live ethically and responsibly toward others, so that love might flourish in their communities and so they might live now in paradise together.” This, paired with the subtitle of the book (How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire) got me thinking on something relatively interesting, perhaps even profound.
But first minor background as it may be needed for some: Here at St. John’s us undergraduate and graduate students aren’t alone. We share this land with a Benedictine community of monks that live here and were the start of this university. They remain today an active part of the life of any student who is willing to open their heart and mind to them. We’re neighbors here (in various ways: in my case my dorm room is literally 10 feet from the apartment of the monk who’s one of two faculty residents in the residence hall I live in that also is connected through the Quad to the monastery itself; just down the hall, and as someone who spent part of a weekend in the monastery last term as one of a few students each semester that manage to get the unique privilege of that experience I’d know, from where two of my classes are, Theologies of Violence/Nonviolence included, are residences of the junior monks; and we share everything from the church to the arboretum with the monastic community), and neighbors that together share the mission of stewardship and sustainability of this peaceful land around Lake Sagatagan.
So, what is this meaning for Benedictine monasteries that I’ve discerned this first week (only three class sessions) of my Theologies of Violence/Nonviolence course? This book points out that for the first century of early Christianity they considered paradise to be on Earth, and that only later did the imagery turn Jesus’ death into a violent act allowing for the use of violence in the crusades and missionary work. Benedictine monasteries are some of the few places that remain here on Earth that, as my view of them (as a Catholic, university junior, peace studies major, and after the short experience of monastic life here), hold true to the paradise on Earth notions that the earliest Christians held but have since dropped far out of the official interpretations of the death of Jesus. They are the true embodiment of nonviolence in the Catholic church, where the Vatican has issued statements and teachings that are violent in meaning if not physically violent. In the prologue to the Rule [of Benedict] there are passages that hint at such a purpose for Benedictine monasteries, among them: “If you will have true and everlasting life, keep your tongue from evil and your lips that they speak no guile. Turn away from evil and do good; seek after peace and pursue it” and “…let us walk in His paths by the guidance of the Gospel, that we may deserve to see Him who has called us to His kingdom”. Of course, part of what we’re doing in this course that I hadn’t done before this week is look at certain passages of biblical text through the lens of violence and nonviolence, and it is from there that I see this connection. But, ultimately, holding on to the early Christian paradise on Earth in today’s unquestionably more violent world is in part what Benedictine monasteries are meant for, in my recently-discovered opinion from just a week of this course.