Though originally published over thirty years ago, Jesus and the Nonviolent Revolution is as timely as its subject matter is to violent conflict. André Trocmé's approach in the book is relatively simple: he asks what kind of political ethic we find in Jesus, taking seriously the Old Testament and the first century culture. Many of Trocmé's conclusions parallel and indeed precipitated John Howard Yoder's work, especially in the latter's The Politics of Jesus (Eerdmans). This edition is edited by Charles E. Moore to include a biographical Introduction along with extensive comments and references to some recent scholarship in footnotes.
Central to the book's thesis is the Jubilee, a practice Trocmé traces from the Old Testament through to Jesus' proclamation and ministry. Trocmé uses the Jubilee to contrast the way of Jesus with other first century revolutionaries, who are finely illuminated largely with the help of Josephus. Trocmé notes that Jesus certainly faced two major categories of political temptation. On one hand, there was the zealot temptation to engage in violent revolt against Rome; on the other, was the temptation toward purity by either withdrawing to the desert or else into a sectarian enclave. But Jesus refused these two and instead advocated a 'third way'—the politics of nonviolent servanthood which defines the Christian cross.
Nevertheless, this is not a 'peace and justice' book typical of Orbis Press. Most significantly is how Trocmé attends to the way that Jesus' two temptations translate into the two contemporary temptations Christian face: effectiveness and passivism. Effectiveness is Christian nonviolence that owes much to Reinhold Niebuhr's 'realism'. It takes nonviolence as a strategy for abolishing war. But Trocmé rightly sees that nonviolence is not finally separable from the positive practices of witness and service that make nonviolence a requirement for Christian authenticity. As a result, nonviolence may not always achieve the 'results' of peace since 'achieving peace' can often sound more like war than witness. Obedience is incumbent on Christians who then are able to leave the results of such obedience to God without making nonviolence a means to something else. As a means, it cannot help but become subordinated to other ends, meaning that the gospel is reduced to what Trocmé calls calculatory arithmetic. The Lamb does not fix the world, but saves it.
If effectiveness is a temptation for would-be practitioners of nonviolence, passivism is the misunderstanding which besets its critics. The conceptual mapping of an action-inaction dichotomy onto war and peace wrongly accepts the determinativeness of violence. Instead, rejecting war is not the negative act of saying no to military service but, for Trocmé, it is the positive act of someone "who is so busy helping his neighbor that to interrupt his activity to undertake the task of killing is unthinkable to him" (152). This is the basis of Trocmé's discussion of the church's function vis-à-vis the state. He rightly notes that there is no state-as-such but the various states which the church must call to greater justice (thus rejecting passivism) without assuming it must administer the state itself (thus rejecting effectiveness).
Trocmé admits to "limited exegetical and historical competence" and was not a professional academic. As a result, most of the synthetic work is original, not making much reference to other scholarship and, while this makes the book quite 'fresh' in its approach and applications, it nevertheless will likely leave scholars somewhat frustrated. And Biblical scholars will probably find opportunities to dispute some of the claims made. But what is lacking in scholarly comprehensiveness is almost made up for in concreteness and conviction. Trocmé wanted to avoid the abstraction to which academic works are prone since abstraction only serves the "power establishment" (xix). If so, then reckoning with Trocmé's book is going to be only partly a matter of academic engagement, but more a matter of faithful living and obedience, making the book difficult to ignore. And why should we expect anything less from Jesus' revolution?