Tensions run high in the world of Ben-Hur. Jerusalem is under Roman occupation. Jews live as political exiles in their own city. Soldiers march the streets, quickly resorting to violence in even minor altercations. Entertainment involves brutality and death. It is a culture ready to spill blood—only the strong survive and the powerful succeed.
Timur Bekmambetov's adaptation of Lew Wallace's novel and ensuing stage, movie, and TV versions, brings all these struggles to life again on the big screen.
As I sat in the theater, I couldn't help but recognize the tensions. We often resort to violence in our culture, too. Mass shootings are a regular occurrence. Police have killed innocent victims; innocent police officers have been killed. Political candidates sling accusations at one another. Bullying is getting national recognition. I began to wonder, how can we break cycles of violence?
Bekmambetov's Ben-Hur provokes this question, and it also points towards a solution.
A Different Response
Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston) is wrongly accused of treason by his own brother, an officer in the Roman army (Toby Kebbell). Five years as a galley slave leave him motivated only by revenge. He wants to right the wrongs done against him—matching violence with violence.
Running parallel to Judah's story, we catch in the actions and teachings of Jesus glimpses of a different response to injustice. Instead of making himself stronger than his enemies, Jesus becomes weak. Instead of seeking power over others, he comes alongside the suffering.
Jesus offers the enslaved Judah water, telling him, "Go and do the same." Later Jesus intervenes for a man being beaten, saying "This is your neighbor!" He goes on to explain, "You have heard it said, 'An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.' But now I tell you: do not take revenge on someone who wrongs you" (Matthew 5:38-39a).
Seek out the poor and afflicted? See your enemy as your neighbor? Don't retaliate against your oppressor? Don't seek revenge? In a culture as violent and domineering as the Romans, this could sound like defeatist thinking.
Yet Jesus' countercultural response leads to the real victory.
A Different Result
On the surface, Judah's path results in great success. He wins the cutthroat chariot race. He is celebrated and given victory over his enemy. But looking a little closer, his pursuit of revenge only perpetuates violence. Pontius Pilate looks out over the belligerent crowd and muses: now they want blood. Even the Jews have turned into violent Romans.
Jesus' path, on the other hand, ends in perceived failure. Jesus is also wrongfully accused. But instead of retaliating he is beaten, mocked, and crucified. As he hangs from the cross, Jesus looks out over the jeering crowd and prays, "Father forgive them, they know not what they do" (Luke 23:34). He chooses forgiveness instead of revenge. Peace instead of violence. His blood is forcefully shed, but willingly given.
Jesus' "failure" has vastly different results than Judah's revenge. Rather than continuing the cycle of violence, it leads to restoration. Judah's mom and sister are physically healed, and Judah seeks reconciliation with his brother. He follows Jesus' example—dying to his ego in order to extend undeserved forgiveness.
Breaking the Cycle
Extending undeserved forgiveness may seem impossible in our world today as well. But Jesus gives us an example to follow, and gives us his Spirit to carry it out (John 14:15-21). Rather than perpetuating cycles of violence, Jesus calls us to deal with the root issues: We have not loved God with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.
Jesus' way doesn't ignore injustice. Instead, it shows us that we can't treat the symptoms without first treating the source. It sees the futility in "eye for an eye" thinking and provides a better way forward.
Though Jesus' example may at first glance look like failure, it plants a seed that starts small and grows to great impact (Mark 4:26-29). It restores, makes whole. Jesus' way heals our broken systems from the inside.
What else does the Bible say about Jesus' countercultural response to violence?
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