Pacifism, Matthew 5 and “Turning the other cheek”

Ethics Theology / Biblical Studies

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Long story short: “Turning the other cheek” does not mean becoming a pacifist. But some of you may require more persuasion than that, so keep reading.

On the 27th of October 2012 I enjoyed taking part in a panel discussion for Elephant TV on Christian views on war. Dr Chris Marshall (a former lecturer of mine) and Adrian Leason spoke on behalf of the Christian pacifist view, and Rev. Captain Paul Stanaway and I represented a just war perspective. Elephant TV is a fairly unique forum in New Zealand, bringing together Christians from different perspectives on contentious issues in front of an audience and cameras, getting a summary of their side of the story and putting questions to them to discuss. I think the event – and the series as a whole – is a fantastic idea to give exposure within the Christian community to the “elephant in the room” (where the show gets its title), those issues that we know are there and are important, but aren’t necessarily being discussed in churches in a way where all sides get a fair hearing.

The hope of all of this of course is not just that people will hear somebody say something they like and make up their mind on the spot, but that they will gain a new perspective to help them think more about these things for themselves. We were only able to scratch the surface of some of the issues mentioned, and as I said to people after the recording – there’s so much that we’d all no doubt like to have added, responded to, explained further, but that’s what blogs are for! Being stimulated to focus again on the issues of pacifism, the use of force and the role of Scripture in the discussion has meant that my thoughts have been occupied by some of the biblical material that frequently becomes part of the arsenal (pun intended) of Christian pacifists. Over the next little while I’ll be discussing some of that biblical material.

This is a discussion among Christians about what conclusions specifically Christian values should lead us to. But the fact is, I’m not a moral relativist, I happen to think that there really are moral facts, and I don’t think they apply selectively to people depending on their religion. If something is genuinely a moral requirement then it’s right no matter whether you’re a Christian or not. Similarly, that which is morally reprehensible is wrong for Christian and non-Christian alike. But still, as Christians we’re especially interested in how biblical values should inform our views on war, since we think there’s really something to those values – they’re more than just the views of ancient fishermen and sheep herders (or doctors or scholars in the case of Luke and Paul). In them we believe that God expresses his will.

Christians, whether pacifist or otherwise, agree that God’s will is uniquely revealed in the teaching of Jesus. Christian pacifists in particular have made much rhetorical mileage with the claim that their position, much more than any alternative, is a radical effort to take Jesus seriously and to really follow him, even when it’s hard, because Jesus was a pacifist. I have no doubt that those who say this actually believe it. But although I am open to changing my mind, I am fairly sure that they are wrong. The truth is, Jesus didn’t specifically say anything at all about whether or not there are ever circumstances where war is justifiable. However, one episode in the life of Jesus in particular has become the creed of Christian pacifism; the well-known “Sermon on the Mount” in Matthew 5, and the command to “turn the other cheek.” Here I’ll be looking at that instruction and a few others that appear in Matthew 5:38-41.

The chapter as a whole is a concentrated block of moral teaching, widely seen as teaching that exemplifies the transformed character of people who take part in the Kingdom of God, hailed by Jesus, through whom that kingdom is established. We begin with the beatitudes, calling “blessed” the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, those who endure persecution for the sake of righteousness, and those who are mistreated because they are followers of Jesus. Jesus calls his followers to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world, making a real difference. In a move not always as popular with pacifists, Jesus then announces that he has no intention of setting aside the law (Torah), but of fulfilling it all, saying that no part of it will pass away until everything is accomplished, that members of God’s kingdom must call people to obey the law and not to break it, and that their own righteousness must exceed that of the Pharisees. Then we come to the final section of the chapter, a series of moral teachings where Jesus says “You have heard it said… but I say to you.” One of those teachings is the one that I’m looking at today, in verses 38 to 43, and reads as follows:

You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.

Jesus gives three examples, which, given the structure of the sentences here, are clearly meant to all express the same idea. But what is that idea? Is it an idea that can be extended to the question of whether or not war is ever justifiable (i.e. the question of whether or not we should be pacifists)? I don’t think there’s anything here to suggest that. Let me break this paragraph down and explain why.

You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you…

“An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” is a quotation from the Torah, the law of Israel. it is the principle known as the lex talionis (the “law of the talon”). In brief, it meant that the level of compensation demanded for a personal injury could be as significant as – but not more so than – the harm done. Nobody could take sevenfold vengeance upon you for something you had done, since that would clearly be disproportionate. So while the law here guaranteed a person’s right to be compensated, it also protected those from whom compensation was required. There is no shortage of those who think that here Jesus is rejecting this principle, because he says “but I say to you.” The context in which Jesus said this, however, makes this claim very difficult to sustain. It is true that on a couple of instances Jesus did intend to be understood this way. A good example is: “You have heard it said, ‘You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…” Here Jesus takes a saying (one that certainly isn’t part of the Torah) and clearly rejects it by requiring the opposite. But he doesn’t always do this when he says “But I say…” For example in this same passage Jesus is recorded as saying:

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.

Here it is clear that Jesus is not rejecting the commandment from the Torah. Nobody imagines that Jesus thought that adultery was now acceptable. What he is doing is cautioning people not to think that simply following the commandment as written is enough to fulfil its moral purpose. Not only should people not commit adultery, but they should also cultivate attitudes that lead them away from committing adultery.

The same is true of Jesus’ use of the lex talionis. The point is not that people should reject it, and that civil justice for wrongs done should abandon the principle of proportionality. The point is that strict adherence to this practice does not get to the heart attitude that God wants, and people should be cautioned not to think otherwise. You might take a poor person to court because they crashed their car into your imported marble garden statue worth ten thousand dollars, and sue them for absolutely everything they have (all fifty dollars of it). After all, you’re entitled to be compensated for the amount of your loss – or as close to it as possible. And hey, you’re limiting your claim to the damage done right? You’re not taking any more than that, so you’re not being unjust, right? In rebuking a person who actually did this, you wouldn’t be renouncing the lex talionis principle. You would simply be recognising that on its own it doesn’t tell you how to be a person of wise or just character, and you can follow the letter of the law while still ignoring its intent.

It is important to note that this reference to the Torah sets the context for this cluster of sayings. When Jesus says “but I say,” we should see that Jesus is about to tell people the way that they should behave in the circumstances under which they might apply (or misapply!) the lex talionis itself. Hence, we are dealing with personal interactions within society where people might think that they have a rightful claim against another person for some grievance done to them. So let’s look at how Jesus wants to add to this.

Do not resist the one who is evil

One of the things that frustrates many pacifists is that they are sometimes misunderstood as saying that in the face of war, oppression, or attacks on the vulnerable, we should simply do nothing at all – that we should be absolutely passive. I agree with them that this characterisation is simply not fair. Pacifists advocate non-violent resistance as a protest against injustice. Of course, pacifists aren’t the only ones who advocate this. Anyone who thinks that the use of force should not be our first resort will readily admire and perhaps take part in non-violent protest. Martin Luther King is a great example of just such action. Non-violent resistance can be a powerful and moving act. But it is resistance nonetheless. Pacifists want to see this cluster of instructions as not being limited in scope, but applying to all circumstances. While they are opposed to the use of force, they are not opposed to resistance per se, so it appears that they cannot have it both ways. They cannot say that these teachings apply in all circumstances and that certain forms of resistance are acceptable. But if they are going to concede that resistance is acceptable after all, isn’t it a slide away from their radical following of Jesus teaching here? So why does Jesus say in such a blanket fashion, “do not resist the one who is evil”?

Pacifist author Walter Wink found fault with the translators of the King James Version here, claiming that they have terribly skewed the meaning of this saying:

When the court translators working in the hire of King James chose to translate antistenai as “Resist not evil,” they were doing something more than rendering Greek into English. They were translating nonviolent resistance into docility. The Greek word means more than simply to “stand against” or “resist.” It means to resist violently, to revolt or rebel, to engage in an insurrection. Jesus did not tell his oppressed hearers not to resist evil. His entire ministry is at odds with such a preposterous idea. He is, rather, warning against responding to evil in kind by letting the oppressor set the terms of our opposition.

A proper translation of Jesus’ teaching would then be, “Do not retaliate against violence with violence.” Jesus was no less committed to opposing evil than the anti-Roman resistance fighters like Barabbas. The only difference was over the means to be used.

This, certainly, would help the pacifist reading of this passage – although it would not make the case of course. It would help the pacifist cause because in order to take this passage as a call to pacifism – the rejection of force against all adversaries in all circumstances, it would have to be a passage telling people how to behave in all circumstances. Clearly, offering no resistance to evildoers in any circumstances is at odds with the pacifist principle of non-violent resistance. Wink thus seeks to resolve this tension by saying that Jesus wasn’t speaking against resistance generally, because the word specifically means violent resistance or revolution. Wink emphasizes this elsewhere:

[The translation is] not wrong – the word antistenai anti means “against” and stenai means “stand” – means to stand against somebody or offer resistance. But what was overlooked by the translators is that antistenai is a technical term for “warfare.” It refers to the marching up of two armies in solid ranks until they collide in this deafening cacophony of steel against steel, and they suddenly stand there and disembowel each other until one side has had all it can take and they break and run. Antistenai is the word that describes that bloody encounter.

However, this claim is not correct and is fairly easily falsified by the evidence. This Greek word (antistenai) really does just mean to resist or stand against in the general sense. True, a violent confrontation would be an instance of such resistance, but the claim that this word specifies violence and is a technical term for warfare is not true, which is why the translators consistently do not translate it that way in Matthew 5. A number of examples of this word’s usage in the New Testament readily confirm this. Here are a few:

And Stephen, full of grace and power, was doing great wonders and signs among the people. Then some of those who belonged to the synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called), and of the Cyrenians, and of the Alexandrians, and of those from Cilicia and Asia, rose up and disputed with Stephen. But they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he was speaking.

Acts 6:8-10

Here the word is translated as “withstand.” In context this clearly means that the men who opposed Stephen were unable to verbally refute what Stephen was saying. This was not the “bloody affair” that Wink claims is indicated by this word.

When they [Barnabas and Saul] had gone through the whole island as far as Paphos, they came upon a certain magician, a Jewish false prophet named Bar-Jesus. He was with the proconsul, Sergius Paulus, a man of intelligence, who summoned Barnabas and Saul and sought to hear the word of God. But Elymas the magician (for that is the meaning of his name) opposed them, seeking to turn the proconsul away from the faith.

Acts 13:6-8

Here a man is ideologically opposed to these Christian missionaries, and this opposition is expressed with the same word used in Matthew 5. Elymas did not violently attack or engage in war against Paul and Barnabas.

But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned.

Galatians 2:11

Here Paul is recalling his confrontation with Peter about his partisan behaviour towards Gentiles when fellow Jews were around. While we might not have a word for word account of everything that transpired, the deafening cacophony of clashing steel and the disembowelling of poor Peter is unlikely to be what Paul means. This was a verbal confrontation.

I won’t cite more examples. The above is enough to show that Wink’s claim is not correct. The Greek term used for “resist” in Matthew 5 is not a “technical term for warfare.” The word occurs twelve times in the New Testament including Matthew 5, and not one of those is a reference to physical force of any sort, let alone warfare.

If the instruction applies to all possible contexts (i.e. its scope is universal), then this does in fact mean that people should never offer any resistance of any kind to any evildoer, which is clearly not what most pacifists believe, provided they endorse non-violent resistance. This leaves the Christian pacifist with two options when it comes to Matthew 5. They can take it as a condemnation of all forms of resistance, whether violent or not, or they can grant that there is a context to Matthew 5 that is less than universal in scope, thereby surrendering the claim that this passage must militate against the views of Christians who think that war may be acceptable under some conditions. I propose the latter option for two reasons: Firstly, Jesus resisted people who did evil in one form or another, an observation that I take to be fairly uncontroversial. The clearing of the temple is a well-worn example, and there are numerous examples of verbal confrontation on Jesus’ part. Hence it is unlikely that he would also tell people that there is never a time where resistance against evil is appropriate. This suggests that the prohibition here is intended to apply to a specific type of context. Secondly, as we saw above when discussing the lex talionis, the context of this saying is one of personal interaction in response to wrongs done against you (i.e. the sorts of conditions under which one might think that the lex applies), and the examples that follow show us what was meant by not offering resistance to the evildoer. They provide the scope of the sorts of interactions that Jesus is drawing attention to, and they also tell us who is meant by the term “evildoer” in this context.

But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.

The three examples of non-resistance that Jesus offers are meant to serve the same purpose – to illustrate what it looks like to not resist the evil one in the sense that Jesus intended. Let’s start with the striking of the cheek.

Turn the other cheek.

The specific language, not of beating or injuring a person but striking them on the cheek, is a reference to a demeaning gesture, not to the kind of assault that could plausibly require forceful self-defence. In 1 Kings chapter 22, the King of Israel gathered his false prophets before him to reassure him of victory in his approaching battle with Syria. One of those false prophets, Zedekiah, proclaimed that he would push the enemy back and destroy them. However, Micaiah, a prophet of God, arrived and announced that God had sent the King prophets – false prophets – to deceive the King so that he would rush out to battle and be defeated. “The Lord has declared disaster for you,” he proclaimed. Then comes verse 24: “Then Zedekiah the son of Chenaanah came near and struck Micaiah on the cheek and said, ‘How did the Spirit of the Lord go from me to speak to you?’ ” The King has Micaiah seized and thrown in prison. Zedekiah was not attacking Micaiah or trying to injure him. He was showing him contempt, acting in the King’s presence as though Micaiah was a charlatan.

Perhaps a much clearer example appears in Lamentations 3 as the writer is describing the way that a suffering person waits for the Lord’s deliverance. Verse 30 reads: “let him give his cheek to the one who strikes, and let him be filled with insults.” Here is a device in Hebrew verse called a parallelism, where the same idea is expressed twice in two different ways. Having one’s cheek struck is set in parallel with being insulted, indicating that a strike specifically to the cheek is seen primarily as an insult.

As a number of commentators have, Herman Ridderbos draws attention to the significance that Jesus refers to the right cheek first:

Jesus specifically mentions the right here, even though a blow from a right-handed person would normally fall on the left cheek. This probably means that the blow is delivered with the back of the hand, since then it would indeed fall on the right cheek. We know for certain that such a blow was considered particularly insulting. The injustice that is willingly accepted here is therefore not so much a matter of body injury as of shame.

H. N. Ridderbos. Matthew: Bible Students Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan), 113.

The left hand would not have been used here. Right-handedness was the norm, with the notable exception of the tribe of Benjamin, and a number of people have noted the association of the left hand with unclean acts (e.g. washing after defecating). To strike the right cheek was therefore to use a backhanded slap with the right hand, as Ridderbos noted. It is a slight against the other person, demeaning their status and shaming them. But what is the significance of the response – turning the left cheek to the person who has demeaned you?

Some have said that by turning the left cheek to the superior, one is simply making it practically difficult for them to slap, since you can’t easily hit the left cheek with the back of your right hand. I go further. You can’t backhand the left cheek, but you can punch it with the right fist. Here the insulted person would be saying. “You’ve insulted me. Now are you going to beat me too?” The presumed answer among people who care deeply about their own honour and status would be “No, of course not.” To do that would be to make it obvious just how evil their attitude towards you really is. People – even people who treated others with contempt at times – were not morally dead, and a response like this would (hopefully) stir them from their moral slumber. It would bring shame upon them, to publicly beat an oppressed person. Rather than seeking redress (i.e. according to the principle of eye for eye), Jesus’ follower who finds himself in these circumstances uses them to expose the unjust treatment dealt out by the respectable members of society. Others have taken the gesture to simply mean “try again – you have failed to put me in my place, and I am not insulted.”

Wink also took the turning of the cheek as a (perhaps purely rhetorical) invitation to punch the other side, as I (tentatively) do. However, he took this to mean that the aggressor is being called to treat the other as an equal:

Notice Jesus’ audience: “If anyone strikes you.” These are people used to being thus degraded. He is saying to them, “Refuse to accept this kind of treatment anymore. If they backhand you, turn the other cheek.” (Now you really need to physically enact this to see the problem.) By turning the cheek, the servant makes it impossible for the master to use the backhand again: his nose is in the way. And anyway, it’s like telling a joke twice; if it didn’t work the first time, it simply won’t work. The left cheek now offers a perfect target for a blow with the right fist; but only equals fought with fists, as we know from Jewish sources, and the last thing the master wishes to do is to establish this underling’s equality. This act of defiance renders the master incapable of asserting his dominance in this relationship. He can have the slave beaten, but he can no longer cow him.

By turning the cheek, then, the “inferior” is saying: “I’m a human being, just like you. I refuse to be humiliated any longer. I am your equal. I am a child of God. I won’t take it anymore.”

What Jesus is calling people to do then, in this view, is to assert themselves and their status. I have a couple of reasons for doubting this. Firstly, it is very far from obvious that to beat a person with the fists (not spar, as in a boxing match) is to treat them as an equal. Wink does not name any Jewish sources and I am unable to find any to support this contention. Certainly the members of the prestigious Sanhedrin would have regarded Jesus as an inferior, yet that most Jewish Gospel, Matthew, notes (26:67) that “they spit in his [Jesus’] face and struck him. And some slapped him.” Slapping is here distinguished from the striking method that was used by some, and the Greek word used for “struck,” ekolaphisan, specifically refers to a blow with a closed first. More importantly, in context (especially in light of the two examples that follow), it is highly unlikely that Jesus is really calling people to assert themselves, as I think the reader will appreciate shortly.

I maintain, then, that Jesus really is saying: When the one who does evil to you – in this case someone who presumes to be a social superior – slaps you, insulting and demeaning you, turn them the other cheek as well, which they will have to hit with their fist if they hit it at all. However, it is important to note what I take to be the cultural assumption being made here: That the person who strikes your right cheek is someone who is concerned with status and honour, and that in offering them your left cheek, your assumption is that they will not launch into a physical attack on you.

Let them have your cloak as well.

The second example is even more clearly associated with the lex talionis, as it involves one person suing another. But why would anybody sue you and take your tunic? Surely if somebody is suing you for recompense, they want money (or perhaps a replacement for something you broke). The reference to taking a person to court for their tunic is drawn from the Torah, in Exodus 22:25-27.

If you lend money to any of my people with you who is poor, you shall not be like a moneylender to him, and you shall not exact interest from him. If ever you take your neighbour’s cloak in pledge, you shall return it to him before the sun goes down, for that is his only covering, and it is his cloak for his body; in what else shall he sleep? And if he cries to me, I will hear, for I am compassionate.

Here, a poor person has borrowed money and given their cloak as collateral. Why their cloak? Because they have no other possessions. Even when they give their cloak as collateral, the lender must return it to them at night – after all, it’s all they have, and they need it to keep warm. Here, the cloak is held as more of a token gesture than anything else. It’s not worth a lot, but merely signifies the existence of the debt. Here’s the rub: When a person defaults on a loan, the lender has the legal right to sue them for the collateral and keep it to defray their loss. But just imagine a lender in the above scenario who decided to sue this poor person for their cloak. Would they really be living out the intention of the Torah here? Clearly not. This would be a moral outrage, an inexcusable mistreatment of somebody with no means of their own.

Now Jesus’ reference to a person being sued for their tunic makes sense. In the Torah the cloak refers to the outer garment, whereas in Matthew 5 the word translated “tunic” appears to serve that role. If someone is suing you for your outer garment, they are rich and you are poor. They are a lender and you have nothing. You are in their debt and no way of redeeming yourself. As in the previous case, there is a serious imbalance in the status of the two parties. What should the poor person do in this situation? As in the previous example – shame them. The other person has behaved inexcusably towards you and there’s no resistance you can offer. You’re powerless, resourceless, exposed and absolutely weak in this scenario. The powerful person is doing what gives rise to our English expression, to “take the very shirt off someone’s back.” In the previous example the victim was to offer the abuser the opportunity to go over and above what any honour-conscious person would consider, for the sake of shocking them into realising the nature of their actions. The same applies here: Give them your undergarment as well. What was left? Nothing – or at least nothing worth speaking of (if anything). Public nakedness was equated with shame in the culture into which Jesus was speaking – it was shameful for one adult to just look at a naked adult other than their spouse (as in the story of Noah in Genesis 9:20-27). Your would be graphically showing them the shameful, unjust nature of their actions. Although not a common gesture, I know of a case where a man who felt oppressed by a government agency charged into their office and literally threw his shirt at them, exposing himself as he cried – “Why don’t you just take the bloody shirt off my back!” This is what is happening here. It is not a gesture of loving generosity as some imagine it to be (not that there’s anything wrong with generosity of course!), but a desperate act of exposing unbearable injustice in the only way that one is able.

Go with him two miles.

Why would anybody force you to go with them for a mile? Are people that desperate for friends?

Judea was an occupied territory, dragged kicking and screaming into the Roman Empire. If you were a Jew who didn’t like it, that was frankly too bad. There was nothing you could do about it, and violent resistance was not only futile, it was downright suicidal. The Jewish attempt at revolt in AD 66 led to an unspeakable slaughter of Jews, leading up to the utter destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in AD 70. Along main Roman roads are mile markers. A standard Roman mile was a distance slightly less than the modern mile. It was supposed to represent the distance covered with one thousand paces, and was about 1,479 metres (4854 feet) long. According to Roman law, a Roman soldier could require a local civilian in an occupied town to relieve him by carrying his pack for the distance from one marker to the next – but for no further than that.

This provides the historical background to Jesus’ instruction. Again, it is a situation of power imbalance. You couldn’t resist the Roman Army, no matter how put out you were. For a Jewish peasant, having to walk a mile carrying a load on your back from where you were presumably toiling to make a living and then having to walk back again was no small inconvenience. According to Roman law – to the rules of the oppressing power – he had the right to take your time and energy. Very convenient for Rome, but manifestly unfair to those on the receiving end. They didn’t even want the Romans occupying them, let alone making them carry heavy loads. If a solider of the occupying Roman army commands you to carry his pack for one mile, go further. He wasn’t entitled to require you to go further – just like the person had no right to hit your other cheek, and the lender had no right to take all your clothes. This is the pattern – get the wrongdoer (the one who is evil, as Jesus puts it) to see that they are doing wrong by lowering yourself to the very bottom. “Fine – why don’t you just treat me like a slave!” Yet again, the assumption is that the oppressor will not do what you are allowing him to do because he knows he has no right to do it (and in this case he may get into trouble for doing it).

What all three of these scenarios have in common is that they are instances of a person abusing power over the powerless, and the powerless literally has no way out of the situation. The use of force would either land them legal trouble or get them killed. They had no legal comeback, and it is doubtful that the oppressor would simply have listened to a polite request (although in some cases, who knows?). In those circumstances, the appropriate response is to lower oneself in such a way as to vividly demonstrate the abuse that is taking place, shaming the one who is perpetuating it. It’s important to note what they are not: Scenarios where a person is in physical danger, being violently attacked. It would be unconscionable for Jesus to have said that those who are the victims of physical abuse should simply acquiesce, and allow the abuse to continue.

A direct consequence of this observation means that it is not legitimate to take this cluster of commands – including the widely quoted “turn the other cheek” – as a moral prohibition on the use of force under all circumstances, because it is clear that not all circumstances are like the ones Jesus has in mind. What, for example, do these moral appeals call us to do if we are in a position of seeing people viciously beaten, clearly about to lose their lives, and we have the ability to forcefully intervene to save them? Nothing, as it turns out. That is a set of circumstances entirely unlike the ones described here. In that situation, we are not powerless, the offence is not merely one of demeaning others or exploiting a social power imbalance but of serious physical harm where an immediate response is called for, and the lex talionis has nothing whatsoever to do with it (we are not talking about a wrong that was done to me for which I might seek redress, but rather the defence of helpless victims from a likely untimely death).

For these reasons, it is not legitimate to appeal to the instruction to “turn the other cheek” as a justification for moral condemnation of the use of all force against others (“violence,” as pacifists prefer to call it). Those Christians who do use force to defend others should not – on the basis of Matthew 5:38-43 at least – be accused of being disloyal or disobedient to Jesus.

Glenn Peoples

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{ 54 comments… add one }
  • Jason October 29, 2012, 8:06 am

    Thanks. Very good.

    What I’ve read suggests in the case of the second mile, that before you’d walked too many more steps the soldier would be pulling the pack off your back and ordering you to go away. The other point of course is that these are all public displays, as would be expected in an honour/shame culture. Personal guilt as such wasn’t important, but to be called to account in the public eye… oh the humiliation.

  • Alabaster October 29, 2012, 11:46 am

    Great post Glenn! This does give me some insight into an issue I’ve never had time to properly look into. I’ve been thinking a bit about what I may be misunderstanding due to not sharing the cultural outlooks the writers of the gospel held. Are there any books you could recommend for a layman that explore their worldviews?

  • Hugh October 30, 2012, 2:56 pm

    Thanks Glenn I haven’t heard this perspective on this passage before, it was a cool interesting read. I have an issue with it though.

    You said this with regards to Jesus’ “but I say to you” responses to the law:

    What he is doing is cautioning people not to think that simply following the commandment as written is enough to fulfil its moral purpose.

    Which is something I wholeheartedly agree with. How I’ve previously understood this notion is that such laws in the torah are in effect “limits” put in place to keep some order in spite of our hardened hearts. So I have trouble reconciling the idea you present in reflection of the “Do not resist an evildoer” passages with this (the idea being to expose the shame/moral bankruptcy of the aggressor).

    Jesus says “You have heard it said ‘an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth’ “, which is the prescribed limit for recompense for an unjust act. I would have thought His main point in giving personal examples was to communicate that when you yourself have been wronged, don’t try and get back as much as you can get under the law, rather do the complete opposite, which would be totally unexpected. Perhaps to show that you are a person of grace, or something like that. I think it’s a different kettle of fish for injustices against others, mainly because I would have thought that the lex talionis principle only makes sense if the offence is against you (or your family).

    Are our ways of seeing it compatible/am I mistaken? It would be nice to hear your thoughts.

    Thanks.

  • Glenn October 30, 2012, 5:07 pm

    Hey Hugh

    I think in context each of those examples would, in fact, shame the person who is engaged in moral wrongdoing, for the reasons suggested here. However, I wouldn’t say that this is incompatible with the idea of being gracious, taking the higher road and choosing not to claim back everything you’re entitled to. What any of us should do on any given occasion will be determined by the facts specific to the situation.

    I think that on the whole this is another case of Jesus taking sides with the weak, the poor and the powerless. There’s nothing else that they could have done in the circumstances they have described. I think the Torah itself was meant to be understood with the sort of love and grace that Jesus calls for. You should of course want to compensate those you have hurt. Remember when Zacchaeus repented, the first thing he said he would do is to pay back those he had robbed, fourfold (Luke 19:8). This is what the law required when somebody stole a sheep (Exodus 22:1), and it seems pretty clear that it was a good thing to do. The powerful should definitely do what they can to restore the weak and poor when they’ve harmed them – and it would be even better if they went above and beyond this out of love.

    But when the poor owe you a debt, then we need to take their poverty into account – as, for example, the person who sues them for their tunic does not. Whatever strictly legal right we might have against them, we should be compassionate. So the lex talionis remains totally valid, but the way that we apply it needs to be informed by love.

    I don’t think there’s any conflict between this and Jesus’ call to those who are the weak and powerless – and I think it’s clear that this is who he is addressing here. The can’t pay anyone back because they have nothing, and because of the injustices they face, they have very little by way of clout to demand anything back from anyone. The answer for them is to shock the moral senses of the ones who are wronging them, not by retaliating, but by shaming.

    So I do see all this as compatible. How any of it will apply depends on the circumstances we face, and where we are along the spectrum of power and powerlessness.

  • Sandra October 30, 2012, 8:06 pm

    This blog post was really good – and your last comment, Glenn, was gold – beautiful!

    It frustrates me, especially after reading this sort of stuff, that trendy Christian pacifists get to talk up their view as the radical one that takes Jesus’ command to love seriously.

  • Cal November 2, 2012, 5:43 am

    Glenn:
    The problem is partaking in institutional violence as a means of solving problems as a Christ-follower. I’d consider myself a pacifist but I would not condemn a man who defends his sister from a rapist or a thug. I, and Christian-pacifists, take problem with Christians who participate in armies and police forces that blatantly use violence. These are just not career options available and the weight of the early church falls squarely on the pacifistic side. The Jesus’ commands inform (such as the one above) but they’re not some sort of proof text. The whole grain of the New Testament in self-sacrifice in redemption and re-creation. This World runs on violence but the World To Come runs on sacrificial communion. The Church is to be a beacon for the latter, not the former (as it has been in so many places and in so many manifestations).

    Sandra:
    I don’t know if you live in the US, but anything Jesus said with a little context is always radical given our individualistic, violent, Roman war-culture.

  • Glenn November 2, 2012, 12:27 pm

    Cal, unless I’ve made some errors in the analysis presented in this blog post, while of course the material from this part of Matthew 5 does inform us, it does not inform us in a way that implies that we should be pacifists. You appear to have in mind a case for pacifism outside of this biblical passage, which is fine, but the analysis in this article wasn’t intended to anticipate any arguments for pacifism outside of this passage.

    My next substantial blog post on pacifism will focus on the allegation that Christianity was a pacifist movement in the early centuries.

  • Mike November 7, 2012, 5:45 am

    I’m glad I finally got a chance to read this. I had never thought of the “turn the other cheek” etc. injunctions in this way and I’m happy to adopt it as my preferred exegesis as of today.

  • Erik November 13, 2012, 5:15 am

    Glenn, maybe ironically enough Wink gives nearly the same exposition of these verses that you gave in his short book “Jesus and Nonviolence: A Third Way”. He doesn’t seem advocate doing nothing if someone is being violently beaten in your presence, he just takes exception to killing in order to save and advocates a third way, which might require some creativity.

  • Glenn November 13, 2012, 8:07 am

    Right Erik – Pacifists tend not to say do nothing. They would just say that we should use nonviolent responses of one kind or another.

    The trouble is, there’s a point at which “creativity” effectively becomes magic. When the planes appear on the horizon carrying a deadly payload, no amount of nonviolent protest is going to stop them. People can say “use non-violent means” all they like, but often there simply is no such course of action. of course all of us would (should) prefer non-violence means where they genuinely exist.

    I think Wink’s exegesis is helpful for some of the verses I cover here for the sake of showing that they simply aren’t about our response to violence that threatens harm (so they have little to tell us about pacifism), but as noted I think he is wrong about the scope of the instructions Jesus gives, and as a result he reaches for false solutions so that he can make them apply in a pacifist manner to all situations without leading to horrific conclusions (hence his tortured appeal to a possible meaning of “do not resist the evil one,” which I covered in this article).

  • Ciaron November 13, 2012, 9:30 am

    I look forward to your next post Glenn as I have found this (and your other short posts) most helpful. I have to admit, I can’t reconcile an active military career with the example of Christ. But I am sure this owes to my extremely limited grasp of the material.

  • Marcus November 15, 2012, 3:51 pm

    >> I have to admit, I can’t reconcile an active military career with the example of
    >> Christ. But I am sure this owes to my extremely limited grasp of the material.

    Ciaron,

    There is nothing faulty with your grasp of the material. You are correct, one cannot reconcile military service with Christian discipleship. The only way one can make an argument for Christians to take up the sword and to slay others for the sake of Caesar is to pretend that Christians are the modern day equivalent of the nation of Israel and claim that what Israel did militarily under God’s kingdom on earth is still applicable to Christians today. But such logic conflicts with the teachings, life and example of not only Jesus himself, but of his disciples as well. Christians have not been given any physical territory by God to defend and kill for. Christians were to be strangers and pilgrims, a tiny minority, who were to suffer for righteousness sake.

    Marcus

  • Glenn November 15, 2012, 6:00 pm

    Marcus: “The only way one can make an argument for Christians to take up the sword and to slay others for the sake of Caesar…”

    One of the areas where I think Christian discussions about war must be improved is in our ability to understand and be fair to each other’s point of view. For example, take your description there of the view that some Christians take: That war is acceptable. You’ve essentially described it as something simply done for Caesar’s sake. This is clearly not charitable or fair, and I really want to see a decrease in Christians talking abut one another that way.

    Nobody – I hope – thinks that liberating death camps using military force is right just for the sake of “Caesar.” I certainly do not.

  • Marcus November 15, 2012, 6:44 pm

    Glenn wrote: “One of the areas where I think Christian discussions about war must be improved is in our ability to understand and be fair to each other’s point of view.”

    Glenn,

    Similarly you shouldn’t be trying to bolster your non-pacifist position by depicting some noble international cause, such as “liberating death camps,” as justification for Christian involvement in the military. No nation has ever entered a war for the sole purpose of “liberating death camps.” America did not go to war against Germany to “liberate death camps.” And even if such an imagined goal was the cause of a military conflict, Paul taught against “doing evil that good may result” (see Romans 3:8).

    I understand your point of view. The problem is, your posts are attacks against pacifism. They ignore the real issue, that is, following and imitating Jesus. As John Yoder pointed out in his book “Nevertheless,” there are over 2 dozen forms of pacifism, therefore an attack against one doesn’t disprove the others. Bottom line: Jesus was not a pacifist, (if being “anti-war” is your definition of a pacifist), so trying to argue against pacifism misses the mark. You are essentially chasing a red herring. The ultimate issue for a Christian is not whether a Christian should or should not be a pacifist, but rather, does a Christian follow the example and life of his master by participating in Caesar’s armies and taking up the sword in exchange for a paycheck? The answer is ‘no.’ This simple answer is what your recent posts have obfuscated.

    You criticized me for being unfair, “You’ve essentially described it as something simply done for Caesar’s sake. This is clearly not charitable or fair.” In making reference to “Caesar” I was only using the instruction that Jesus gave us: “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God, the things that are God’s.” When you take up the sword at the command of Caesar, one is serving Caesar, not God. American soldiers invaded Afghanistan and Iraq, not because God instructed them to, but because Caesar (Bush) instructed them to. In such cases, Christian soldiers are obeying Caesar, not God. They kill whomever their democratically elected president instructs them to kill. You may label this as uncharitable, but it is the truth. Perhaps I did not word my previous posting as best as I could, but the fact is, unless God instructs us to kill, Christians have no command or authority to take those things which belong to God (the lives of others, since God is the giver of life) and render them to Caesar. Jesus did not teach an ethic of natural law survivalism or the preservation of one’s mortal existence.

  • Glenn November 15, 2012, 9:21 pm

    “Similarly you shouldn’t be trying to bolster your non-pacifist position by depicting some noble international cause, such as “liberating death camps,” as justification for Christian involvement in the military. ”

    Marcus, I want to clarify something with you. Your last comment appears to say that if people used force – even lethal force – for the purpose of liberating death camps but not for other things, then that would be justified. Indeed, the approach taken in your last comment appears to attack the notoriously unpopular invasion of Iraq as just the sort of thing that Caesar has men do, but which is wrong.

    I could have misunderstood you, so I won’t misrepresent you, I will ask you to clarify, if you don’t mind: If people were to take up arms and go to war simply to liberate death camps, would you consider it justified?

  • Marcus November 18, 2012, 2:41 pm

    Glenn wrote: “I could have misunderstood you…”

    Glenn,

    Yes, it appears that you have misunderstood me. But before we get started, I must preface my remarks with a statement, and that is, that I write and reply as a Christian. The position that I take is that of one who attempts to follow the teachings and example of Jesus and his disciples. Jesus said that his flock was “small,” and that the road to life was “narrow,” and that few would travel that road (see Matthew 22:14, 7:13–14, Luke 13:24, Luke 18:8b).

    This means that the majority of citizens within any nation at any time will not be followers of Jesus. This division of the world into followers of Jesus, and non-followers, must be kept in mind as you read my replies.

    Now, with regards to liberating death camps, no war has ever been started for the purpose of liberating prisoners from death camps. Second, if such a war were to occur in the future, then the follower of Jesus is not to participate in evil for the purpose of accomplishing good. The apostle Paul taught against “doing evil that good may result” (see Romans 3:8). Jesus taught that his followers were to be “wise as serpents, yet innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16). There is no way to engage in war and remain “innocent as doves.”

    If non-Christians wish to embark on such ventures, then Christians are to abstain. Yes, you may howl at such non-involvement in the face of evil, but may I remind you, it is not the Christian’s calling to avenge evil using mortal weapons on this earth. God will avenge evil doers in His time. The early Christian church suffered injustice at the hands of the Jews and the Romans, but never will you find any record of them taking up the sword to defend their lives or to wreak revenge upon their persecutors. You should be familiar with the observation from Tertullian: the blood of the martyrs was the seed of the Church. Tertullian also described how the early Christians refused to resort to violence against their enemies, even though it was within their power to do so:

    “Yet, banded together as we [Christians] are, ever so ready to sacrifice our lives, what single case of revenge for injury are you able to point to, though, if it were held right among us to repay evil by evil, a single night with a torch or two could achieve ample vengeance? But away with the idea of a sect divine avenging itself by human fires, or shrinking from the suffering in which it is tried. If we desired, indeed, to act the part of open enemies, not merely of secret avengers, would there be any lacking in strength [amongst us], whether of numbers or resources?” (Quoted from “Blood Guilt: Christian Responses to America’s War on Terror”, New Covenant Press, pg. 167).

    Marcus

  • Marcus November 18, 2012, 2:53 pm

    >> it is not legitimate to appeal to the instruction to
    >> “turn the other cheek” as a justification for moral
    >> condemnation of the use of all force against others
    >> (“violence,” as pacifists prefer to call it).

    Glenn concludes his essay by stating, “What all three of these scenarios have in common is that they are instances of a person abusing power over the powerless, and the powerless literally has no way out of the situation.” Glenn’s statement, however, is not true. Someone who is struck on the cheek is not powerless. Unless a gun or sword is aimed at his head, the victim has all the power in the world to respond with a counter blow. There is nothing that keeps the victim from responding blow for blow, or getting even at some later time.

    What Glenn overlooks in his essay is how “turning the other cheek” serves as a metaphor for having the power to retaliate against a malicious foe, yet choosing not to. In the real world, the concept rarely has anything to do with cheeks.

    I agree with Glenn that Jesus’ command to “resist not evil” does not mean that Christians should never take a moral stand against immorality, falsehood or injustice. However, there is a huge chasm between taking a moral stand against falsehood and sin and taking up a sword to kill enemies of the State…which is where I sense Glenn is trying to steer the reader. If there be any confusion as to what Jesus was prohibiting when he taught “resist not evil,” one need only consider the writings of both the Apostle Paul and Simon Peter:

    Never pay back evil for evil to anyone. (Romans 12:17)

    See that no one repays another with evil for evil. (1 Thessalonians 5:15)

    Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord. (Romans 12:19)

    Do not repay evil with evil… (1 Peter 3:9)

    Though he doesn’t come out directly and state the real purpose for his essay, one gets the impression that Glenn’s ultimate goal is to provide Biblical support for Christians who wish to serve in the military. Glenn’s effort calls to mind a criticism that comedian Bill Maher leveled against Christians shortly after the assassination of Osama bin Laden in 2011:

    — begin quote: —

    For almost 2000 years, Christians have been lawyering the Bible to try and figure out how “love thy neighbor” can mean “hate thy neighbor,” and how “turn the other cheek” can mean, “Screw you, I’m buying space lasers.”… New rule: If you’re a Christian who supports killing your enemies, and torture,…you have to come up with a new name for yourself [applause]…And, not to put too fine a point on
    it, but,…non-violence was kind of Jesus’ trademark…kind of his big thing. To not follow that part of it is…like joining Greenpeace and hating whales. [Laughter.]…But you see, I can say that because I’m a non-Christian [long pause]…just like most Christians. [Laughter, long applause.]

    — end quote: —

    (Source of quote: Blood Guilt: Christian Responses to America’s War on Terror (New Covenant Press, 2011), pp. 541-2.)

  • Geoff November 18, 2012, 3:06 pm

    I’m afraid, Marcus, that there is no way, as a Christian, or a moral human being, that I could stand by and let millions of people get murdered in concentration camps. To do nothing would be a far greater evil than the act itself. If you willingly let someone be murdered in front of you, you too, are guilty of murder.

    Can’t happen.

    Gen 9:6 “Whoever sheds human blood,
    by other humans
    must his blood be shed;
    for in God’s image
    God has made humankind.”

  • Marcus November 18, 2012, 3:27 pm

    >> that there is no way, as a Christian, or a moral human being, that I
    >> could stand by and let millions of people get murdered in concentration camps.

    Geoff,

    I see. And out of curiosity, how do you plan on liberating all of the millions of people who are in these concentration camps? And which commandments of Jesus will you be following as you attempt such a feat? “Love thine enemies?” Or perhaps “Love thy neighbor as yourself”? How do you plan on invading a foreign land without harming those who come out to oppose you? How do you reconcile the “collateral damage” that you are bound to inflict upon the citizens of the country you plan to invade with Jesus’ command to “be innocent/harmless as doves”?

    And I assume the Christians of the first century were negligent in “standing by” and watching their brethren get killed in concentration camps (a.k.a. The Roman Colosseum)?

    Marcus

  • Marcus November 18, 2012, 3:31 pm

    >> Gen 9:6 “Whoever sheds human blood, by other humans must his blood be shed;

    Geoff,

    That’s all nice and fine, but try invading a foreign country without shedding the blood of those who have not shed human blood. If you are going to quote this Old Testament verse, then you better live by it when you do your “liberating” in a foreign land. How will you know if the first person you put a bullet through has in fact “shed human blood” or not? If you don’t know for sure, then you are the one who is guilty of shedding human blood, and therefore you will be the one who will deserve to be killed, according to this Scripture.

    Marcus

  • Glenn November 18, 2012, 5:20 pm

    Marcus, just two brief comments:

    ” the follower of Jesus is not to participate in evil for the purpose of accomplishing good.”

    I hope we all agree with this. After all, evil is just that which we ought not do. And I think (hope!) that we agree that we should not do the things that we ought not do! But the question, obviously, is whether or not engaging in force against others to liberate death camps is evil. Is it really something that we ought not do? I see no reason to think so, but I welcome good arguments for that claim if somebody wishes to make them. You quote numerous biblical comments about not taking vengeance or repaying people, but obviously using force to liberate death camps is not done to take vengeance or to repay people, so we don’t even need to have that argument over this example.

    So I’ll rephrase my earlier question for you, Marcus: What is so evil about using force to liberate death camps?

    Second comment: “Glenn’s statement, however, is not true. Someone who is struck on the cheek is not powerless. Unless a gun or sword is aimed at his head, the victim has all the power in the world to respond with a counter blow.”

    I don’t think you read the blog article fully. May I suggest that you go back and read the details surrounding what the backhanded slap meant, and the context in which it would likely have occurred? Additionally, your reference to a “counter blow” appears to assume that the act was an assault intended to physically harm someone. But again, if you have another read through the section where I deal with what that gesture actually was, you may wish to re-think this assumption. None of the examples that Jesus gave are of violent assaults that require physical defence.

    Cheers
    Glenn

  • Geoff November 18, 2012, 8:36 pm

    Marcus,

    That “old testament verse” is for all time. It’s not superseded by Jesus or any other Law. The one who murders another’s life is forfeit, by human hand. Even the animals will have to account for any human life taken (in the verses previously).

    Whilst I might not personally be able to liberate people, I would if I could, and I would not hold it against any person, Christian or otherwise who is called to do so. I’d like to see you stand by and have your family murdered in front of you.. knowing you could have prevented it, but unable to do so because.. well..

    So many situations there could be in which you should and must act.. or be guilty of the same crime that is happening.. I’ll say it again. To stand by and let murder happen and not even try and prevent it is the same as committing the crime itself (not to mention just plain inhumane and several other things I shall refrain from mentioning).

  • Ciaron November 19, 2012, 1:57 pm

    Geoff,
    You say: . I’d like to see you stand by and have your family murdered in front of you..
    As a Christian, I would have thought it propper to have no reason to fear death, whatever it’s form. For once that happens we can look forward to eternity with Jesus in the new creation where all lifes struggles will become but a distant memory…

  • Ciaron November 19, 2012, 3:35 pm

    Just having re-read my comment, I don’t want to sound condescending, and perhaps my question could be rendered better. Again, I must stress that my knowledge is limited in the extreme and I am searching for answers rather than defending a position.

    What I am asking, is that if we as Christians believe that upon our death, we will join Christ and there will be a final judgment where Jesus will judge all, why be concerned with the iniquity of this life at all when God has it all in hand?

    As William Lane Craig points out; the purpose of this life is not to be “happy” but to know the Lord. He also points out that we do not have the scope to judge Gods reasons for allowing evil, so It seems to me that your argument about standing idly by is a charge from human emotion rather than God’s word but I would like to know if it is otherwise 🙂

  • Geoff November 19, 2012, 5:08 pm

    Ciaron,

    I don’t really see the relevance. Whether we fear death or not personally has little bearing on whether we are allowed to put to death people who take the lives of others (via war or the judicial system depending on circumstance).

    The reason why we must be accountable now is because in the first instance, we are commanded to (gen 9). That is, if we are certain someone has taken someone’s life (lets say the scenario I mentioned), then we can not stand idly by. At the very least the judicial system needs to come into play.

    Let’s say someone invades another country and starts killing people and torturing people ruthlessly. You are in a position to do something about it, but you do not. Effectively YOU are killing and torturing those people because you are allowing it. Now you have an ethical dilemma. Either you put a halt to the killing by killing the murderer(s), or you do nothing and become a murderer by proxy.
    I’d take my chances personally. I could not live with myself…

    Matt 26:51 But one of those with Jesus grabbed his sword, drew it out, and struck the high priest’s slave, cutting off his ear. 26:52 Then Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back in its place! For all who take hold of the sword will die by the sword. 26:53 Or do you think that I cannot call on my Father, and that he would send me more than twelve legions of angels right now?

    Few things to note about this, firstly, Jesus didnt stop the Peter from bringing the sword – Peter would have thought he was going out with the Messiah to bring in the new Kingdom by force. This is evidenced in part by the military language used by Jesus and other things. This is one example – surely Jesus should have said “oi.. put that sword away, we’re pacifists” – not “if you use that sword, you’ll die by it, besides the Father can send my army, I dont need your help”.

    Sure.. avoid the taking of human life if at all possible. But to make a blanket ruling about whether Christians can or can not… cant be done.

  • Glenn November 19, 2012, 5:22 pm

    What I am asking, is that if we as Christians believe that upon our death, we will join Christ and there will be a final judgment where Jesus will judge all, why be concerned with the iniquity of this life at all when God has it all in hand?

    This argument works against social justice in general. If God is going to put all things right one day, then why not just let injustice run rampant now? Let people be stolen from, enslaved, exploited, raped, murdered etc. This bad state of affairs is only going to be temporary.

    But I’m sure that’s not how you approach justice in general, is it?

    Or why even discuss these things with others? One day God will let them see much more clearly, surely, what is right and what is wrong. Why try to persuade them now?

  • Ciaron November 20, 2012, 6:56 am

    But I’m sure that’s not how you approach justice in general, is it?

    Well, no. But I understand that as a young Christian some of my old ideas about what justice really is are wrong, and I’m trying to understand justice and it’s application from the perspective of the Cross and how to live that in my life every day. Like I keep saying my understanding is limited, and I seek your guidance and correction.

  • Ciaron November 20, 2012, 7:13 am

    Geoff;
    I can’t disagree with you (I’d like to think I would do something were I to find myself in that situation), but we have digressed from wether it it proper for a Christian to serve in the military to your narrow hypothetical scenario. Personally, I’d like to be able to say that military service is an option for Christians, but I cannot see it in the example of Christ.

    Thankyou both for taking the time to help me 🙂

  • Geoff November 20, 2012, 4:41 pm

    Military service, should be “just another job” – the only issue arises if you end up having to fight someone.. and it would only be a problem if it was unjust.. if you get what I mean.

    I know a few people who fought in Vietnam and other places, who are Christians.

  • Glenn November 20, 2012, 5:22 pm

    “I cannot see it in the example of Christ.”

    Neither can I. Among the list of things that I cannot see in the example of Christ would be:
    * Being a baker
    * Being a musician
    * Being a lawyer
    * Swimming

    And probably many other things. But as followers of Christ, I do not think it’s required of Christians to do everything Jesus did and refuse to do anything Jesus didn’t do. I just don’t think “WWJD” is the right approach to ethics. He did much that I cannot, and I do much that he never did. I think it’s more important to live in accordance with his instructions. That’s why I wrote this post – to show that in fact his instructions in these well-known verses do not require us to be pacifists. I don’t think any of his instructions require this, and in time I’ll writer other posts to look at some of the other biblical instructions that some think call us to pacifism.

  • Ciaron November 21, 2012, 7:06 am

    Point taken Glenn.

    But, none of those vocations you mention involve specific training (and a good chance one would be asked to) to kill people. 🙂

    Shall we continue after your next post?

  • Mark December 4, 2014, 3:25 pm

    This one died a death some time ago, but let’s try anastasis, or, perhaps, Devil’s Advocate.

    Imagine everyone is a pacifist. Imagine countries imbued with national identity but without hateful nationalistic ideals of superiority. Imagine an overarching law mandating that citizens comply with shared supranational standards of peace and civility for the common prosperity of a global brotherhood – which is what Jesus evidently had in mind.

    Now imagine an even more unlikely scenario: one country goes rogue. Tens of thousands of pacifists convert and form a militia . . . OK, forget that: too big a stretch.

    Imaging the worst, then: that Hitler’s Third Reich had not been resisted, and had conquered Europe, Russia and the Western Isles – Pacifists let invading armies take power unopposed. Right there, on the scales of human suffering, we just saved several million lives, for starters. It wouldn’t be the first regime change in Europe: administrations come and go. They don’t make much difference to Jo Public and they barely touch the most important component of a Christian’s life.

    Remember how Hitler acquired power. Nazism thrived – depended – on resistance. It defined itself by conflict. It fed on vulnerability. Unopposed it would have collapsed. Success would have killed it. Had it become the Rome of its aspirations Hitler wouldn’t have lasted five minutes: crazy Caesars were unpopular and short-lived. Such is inherent in the power the empire wielded.

    Consider also Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot. Pragmatically, resistance was futile. There are times in this world when an evil grows too big to be fought. It’s perhaps the most tragic indictment of humanity. Hunger, poverty and organised crime fall in the same category. Resistance is futile. Nipping such evils in the bud should be the aim of any sane government, but seriously – what can you do that will make a difference? Which is better: to ‘stand idly by’ while evils unfold? Or to discard your life on a fool’s errand? In war, who adjudicates the justice of the cause? Each man set to kill his fellow believes his masters to be right: both equally sincere, worthy of praise – or condemnation? Once begun, can a cycle of violence help but make sinners and victims of all its participants?

    From a secular perspective these questions are not easily resolved. From Jesus’ perspective they are shockingly clear. All governments supplant God. They temporarily exist with God’s permission. To greater or lesser extent all are corrupt and self-serving; none have his blessing. “My kingdom is no part of this world . . . If it were my followers would have fought.”

    Man’s problems are not soluble by man. “To earthling man, his way does not belong.” Fortunately, “Judgment is mine; I will repay”, God says. “Do not show yourself heated up because of evildoers”. “He who lives by the sword will die by the sword.” Etc.

    We can change our world and, to some extent, those in our orbit – but…

  • Mark December 5, 2014, 1:03 pm

    . . . It’s not a Christian’s job to change the world; it’s God’s.

  • Veronica January 2, 2015, 11:47 am

    I thought your argument was well presented and even convincing but in the context of the rest of the passage (Matt 5:40 – 42), it seems clear Jesus is not saying to turn the other cheek in retaliation.

  • Frank February 26, 2015, 9:31 am

    “Imagining the worst, then: that Hitler’s Third Reich had not been resisted, and had conquered Europe, Russia and the Western Isles – Pacifists let invading armies take power unopposed. Right there, on the scales of human suffering, we just saved several million lives, for starters.”

    Except, of course, that 6 million Jews still would’ve been murdered, and all of the other non-desirables as well (disabled persons, blacks, gypsies, homosexuals, etc.). It would seem that Jesus was a little narrow in his assessment of who would die by the sword. Apparently, even those who don’t live by the sword will die by it.

  • Mark February 26, 2015, 10:54 am

    “ Apparently, even those who don’t live by the sword will die by it.”

    Indeed. Necessarily so. From Abel through Isaac to Jesus the tradition continued via Christians who refused to take up arms against Nero (similarly intent on their eradication), Hitler, Stalin, or Pol Pot. Ye of little faith!

    It’s no coincidence that primitive ‘Christianity’ profoundly derailed about the time of the currency of that oxymoron, the ‘Christian Soldier’. “The weapons of our warfare are not fleshly, but powerful by God for overturning strongly entrenched things.”

    As to the specific example of the Third Reich, it’s important to recognise its birth in desperation at a freakish time; cometh the hour, cometh the man. Nation states require external demons for internal unity.

    The point stands that if pacifism had prevailed in Germany, the regime would have obtained no traction. Debate over whether ‘weaponised’ pacifism (satyagraha) was insufficient to contend with Hitler’s war machine does not diminish pacifism: in fact, it highlights its importance: had it prevailed on the home front, no war machine could have been assembled.

    However – crucially – if this is a debate over the pragmatism of pacifism as a political tool, surely it sorely misses the point! Jesus said – demonstrated – that his Kingdom was no part of the world; after his baptism he rejected an offer of ‘all the kingdoms of the world’ from Satan who (Luke tells us) had been given authority over them. Hence, his followers were not to be inveigled into involvement in the political or economic norms of those kingdoms – or be surprised if they manifest the selfish, aggressive and short-sighted behaviour of their master. The world is messed up. The role of the Christian is not to be. Only a solution on a God-like scale can fix the big issues.

    Consider the model prayer: Jesus conspicuously left his followers a commission, not to right wrongs (symptoms) but while waiting for the Kingdom, to seek to change hearts and minds (causes) – starting with our own: “To be transformed by making [y]our mind over”. “You can’t put new wine in old wineskins”. Everything must go. “Vengeance is mine” sayeth the Lord.

    Pacifism is a profoundly personal decision. It’s a matter of principle over which no authority has dominion, save your conscience alone. Political propaganda is powerful; nationalistic sentiment is easily stirred. Everywhere, rival ideologies are demonised. But for a Christian, the question: “Are you prepared to die for your country?” is much less vexed than “Are you prepared to kill for your country?”

  • Frank February 26, 2015, 4:01 pm

    You asked us to imagine if Hitler’s Third Reich had not been resisted, concluding that pacifism would’ve saved lives (which is utterly absurd). Let’s imagine another scene. Let’s back up Jesus’ story of the good Samaritan and imagine that he comes upon the scene while the robbers are beating the traveler to Jericho:

    Jesus replied and said, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among robbers, and they stripped him and beat him, and went away leaving him half dead. And by chance a priest was going down on that road, and when he saw him [being beaten], he passed by on the other side. Likewise a [pacifist] also, when he came to the place and saw him [being beaten], passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, who was on a journey, came upon him; and when he saw him [being beaten], he felt compassion, and [kicked the robber’s asses verily, yea mightily, and the robbers escaped by the hairs of their chinny-chin-chins. Then the Samaritan] came to him and bandaged up his wounds, pouring oil and wine on them; and he put him on his own beast, and brought him to an inn and took care of him. On the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper and said, ‘Take care of him; and whatever more you spend, when I return I will repay you.’ Which of these three do you think proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell into the robbers’ hands?” And he said, “The one who showed mercy toward him.” Then Jesus said to him, “Go and do the same.”

    Which of these three do you think proved to be a good neighbor?

  • Glenn February 26, 2015, 4:47 pm

    “But for a Christian, the question: “Are you prepared to die for your country?” is much less vexed than “Are you prepared to kill for your country?””

    Mark, I hope it’s really clear that Christians who are not pacifists are not thereby committed to the nationalism you express with those words. I am not a pacifist. I regard it is a bad, harmful idea. But the thought of killing for my country is scarcely any better.

  • Mark February 27, 2015, 12:11 am

    “Mark, I hope it’s really clear that Christians who are not pacifists are not thereby committed to the nationalism you express with those words. I am not a pacifist. I regard it is a bad, harmful idea. But the thought of killing for my country is scarcely any better.”

    In peacetime, sovereign states rarely demand allegiance that conflicts with Jesus’ teaching. However, Jesus warned this situation would occur, and that it would test Christians’ allegiance. Peter & John found themselves on this spot before the Sanhedrin a few months later and concluded: ““Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge.”

    The conflict expressed above between the reluctance to kill and the impropriety of inaction is common to all Christians, and is individually resolved to the satisfaction of each conscience. But the issue is sometimes starkly forced on Christians in a way that doesn’t permit fence-sitting.

    However, what exactly do we weigh against the absolute imperative ‘do not kill’?
    Who adjudicates just cause?

    Christians – indeed most persons of faith – have a shocking track record re: discerning judgment calls in wartime: devout leaders and believers in Germany, England, Italy, Romania, America, France, Belgium, Russia et al sided with their government in WWII, believing nobly unto death – betting their lives on the justice of their actions – murder and martyr. Behold the faith of the Nazi Protestant and Hutu Catholic.

    I’m English. We’re known earthwide as arbiters of fair play. Many generations of my kin have only known what it is to be on the right side. We defend the innocent and uphold truth and justice. For several centuries have brought democracy and enlightenment to many less fortunate nations. Therefore I can only imagine how hard it would be NOT to go along with my government making a ethical error in its foreign policy that caused suffering or injustice abroad. It’s never happened. So far as I can tell, they’ve always been very civilised. It makes me very proud. For you it will probably be different.

    War erases the distinction between defense and aggression and abstracts like ‘justice’ quickly disappear in the crossfire. Had the Falklands Crisis escalated, for us in the UK, it would have been a just war of defense – to reclaim what was ours. Never mind the legality of its first acquisition. See also Ukraine. Wars all seem just to the participants. Limited faculties of judgment is one of the problems.

    Pacifism is not inaction, incidentally.

  • Mark February 27, 2015, 12:49 am

    @ Frank: It seems a powerful line of reasoning: “Where do you think we’d be now if everyone has capitulated to Hitler?!” I hope I’ve demonstrated the question stands on a faulty premise.

    But I still think it’s a interesting question. It does seem unthinkable, but don’t give up: imagine the bloodless coups of France, Belgium, Austria and Poland. Imagine the righteous outrage engendered. Imagine how many enemies Hitler would have had. Look to history for examples of how long the regimes of lunatics last – with and without popular support. Characters like Hitler are empowered by dire circumstances. Peace would have killed him off more surely – though perhaps more slowly – than war.

    Did combined military opposition and the deaths of tens of millions save six million Jews? How did that work out? But the point is made as a thought experiment only, to suggest (as Gandhi did) that the kind of non-violence Jesus advocated can be suprisingly effective in the long term. I’m not really interested in the politics of belief – and neither was Jesus, I believe.

    Throughout his ministry, and especially in the Sermon quoted above, he shifted the emphasis from the political to the personal, reversing a Pharisaic trend. Lex talionis was a legal principle of proportionality, for the judiciary to administer. It can’t be spun into a credo for vigilantism. The principle Jesus wanted embedded in individual hearts and minds in all their personal dealings was actually the opposite: not retaliating under pressure. That’s the key to understanding the whole section of that teaching: forget the legal and political; transform yourselves into the kind of people God can bless. “Humble yourselves under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time.”

    Pointedly, Jesus did NOT invent the Good Samaritan on those lines! And I think you’re still muddling the political and the personal: we can’t use an imaginary parable to support involving ourselves in the self-seeking behaviour of unscrupulous political regimes (by which Jesus means all of them). Especially when evaluating whether to transgress the fundamental law ‘do not kill’. We find no basis for anything other than strict neutrality and point-blank refusal to kill in Jesus’ words and actions. In any case I would struggle to extend even the behaviour of your Kick-A$$ Samaritan 2.0 to a justification for “learning war” in the sense of marching under a national banner.

  • Frank February 27, 2015, 6:45 pm

    Mark, of course you must realize I didn’t suggest that Jesus invented the Good Samaritan on those lines; I invented it on those lines. So what? Merely dismissing it because Jesus didn’t say it is simple evasion. Moreover, I didn’t offer my revision of Jesus’ parable to “support involving ourselves in the self-seeking behaviour of unscrupulous political regimes.” How absurd and self-serving to frame it that way. It was meant to illustrate that sometimes using deadly force against evil men in defense of the weak and the defenseless is an act of love. That is the context of Jesus’ parable: Love thy neighbor.

    The point stands. What would you do if you came upon the very same scenario that Jesus spoke of, but while the man was currently being beaten half to death? Would you be a neighbor to him? Or would your theology keep you from loving him? Like the Pharisee, would you, the pacifist, keep yourself formally pure, crossing your theological T’s and dotting your religious I’s, when it is in your power to defend the weak?

    “Rescue the weak and needy; deliver them out of the hand of the wicked” Ps 82:4

    By the way, you are mistaken. There is no fundamental law ‘do not kill.’ That’s not in the bible.

  • Frank February 28, 2015, 3:22 am

    This video explaining the biblical distinction between killing and murder may be helpful:
    http://youtu.be/0RENPaY043o

  • Mark February 28, 2015, 11:20 am

    Inventing your own theology is appealing – ask Adam & Eve. We’re free reign to ignore divine principles but are told the consequences. How has that worked out? Millions of devout Christians and Muslims using deadly force at the request of their respectively self-interested regimes?

    Prager’s distinction between killing mosquitoes and murdering humans is spot on. However, ratsach is not distinguished by its illegality, but by its deliberate quality. For instance, ratsach (“Murder”) describes the lawful killing of a manslayer (Num. 35: 27). Hence the Torah’s elaborate distinctions between capitally culpable (intentional) and accidental killing.

    The difference between lawful killing and murder is the law. But, unlike the God-sent wars of yore, laws governing human squabbles are relative and malleable. A good Christian Nazi conscript killed underwritten by the law: it was illegal NOT to kill. However, if a higher court rules the premise of a war unjust, the killing becomes unlawful. American and British soldiers were given licence to kill on the basis of neutralising weapons of mass destruction in Iraq that turned out not to exist. Russian troops are given licence to kill on the basis of that regime’s view of the ownership of Ukraine. Who arbitrates justice? Whose law is Law? Surely only God has the authority to give or take life.

    Therefore the really heinous mis-step is to twist ‘You shall not kill/murder’ (the distinction is abritrary here) into a biblical endorsement of STATE-endorsed killing. The bible contains many examples of GOD-endorsed killing. The difference is crucial.

    We find nothing in the NT that supports state-sponsored violence. Quite the reverse. In the absence of a divine political instrument, there are only warnings about the godlessness of all political regimes, and exhortations to peace: In Matt. 5: 22 Jesus went beyond ‘do not murder’ to root out even aggressive attitudes. I’m English, but I’m pretty sure even this isn’t ‘God’s Country.’

    Reading the Samaritan parable as a justification of deadly force is indefensible. It addressed the question “Who is my neighbour?” It tackles prejudice and racism: it warns that we become dehumanised when we dehumanise foreigners. It exhorts the most inclusive kind of common decency.

    Jesus pointedly did not have his Samaritan arrive earlier – during the attack. But we’re free to speculate “What if . . . ?” On a personal level, rescue, aid, defense and resistance are occasionally pragmatic necessities – but these are rare, special cases.

    For a Christian, there’s a responsibility to help others. But neither human courts nor bible principle condone deadly force against a robber. We are not free to deliberately take the lives of our fellows.

    If there’s nothing better to weigh against that than “A politician told me to do it”, sentiment stirred by local propaganda, or even a materialistic concern that our quality of life is under threat, the choice is stark: God’s way or man’s.

    Granted, there are cases when the lines of right and wrong seem, at that moment, to be clearly drawn: an overwhelmingly powerful enemy looms to oppress a peace-loving, defenceless minority, and we simply cannot stand idly by and let it happen – or hope ineffectually that God intervenes. Let me know what examples you can summon . . .

    Once rolling, the military machine obliterates distinctions of right and wrong; morality is overridden by the necessity to win…

  • Frank February 28, 2015, 1:08 pm

    “Let me know what examples you can summon…”

    I provided you with an example, and you didn’t answer it. I invite you to tell me how you would act in that situation.

    In the interest of full disclosure, I am not professionally trained in OT Hebrew – not even a little bit. I am in the rather common position to trust those who are actually trained, such as Dennis Prager (he taught the Hebrew Bible verse-by-verse at the American Jewish University from 1992 – 2006). Incidentally, are you professionally trained in OT Hebrew?

    What interests me about what you’ve written is that you seem to be very concerned about the legality of killing evil people who are actively victimizing the weak (“The difference between lawful killing and murder is the law.” “Who arbitrates justice? Whose law is Law?”). But you seem much less concerned about the people, the victims, who would be saved if you weren’t so concerned about legality. I submit that you may be exactly the opposite of what you suppose yourself to be. Your view is not so Godly as you suppose; in fact, you actually end up transgressing both laws that were the backdrop of Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan: Love God and love you neighbor. You end up doing neither by maintaining your so-called purity and refusing to kill the person who is brazenly beating the man to death.

    What’s more, you think that states shouldn’t come to the defense of such victims because, well, because they’re states. You say “We find nothing in the NT that supports state-sponsored violence.” I’m sure you meant to say “state sponsored defense of victims,” but whatever. We don’t find anything in the NT that supports flying in airplanes, or eating ice cream sundaes, either. Should we stop those, too? This line of reasoning is silly.

    You are guilty of creating what I call “balloon animal doctrines.” You take one verse or passage of scripture and blow it up beyond its intended meaning, and then you twist it together with other exegetically distended bible verses and voila! A new doctrine that looks very much like a very colorful giraffe.

  • Mark February 28, 2015, 2:41 pm

    If I saw someone – of a race generally despised by my countrymen because of long-standing civil war – being robbed, I hope I would intervene. I probably wouldn’t want – or need – to blow the robber’s brains out. That would be illegal by any reckoning.

    Though it was fun to entertain, the scenario is doubly irrelevant: Jesus didn’t use it, and it doesn’t bear on the question of enrolment in the military: helping your neighbour is a differently coloured giraffe to surrendering oneself to a kill-or-be-killed situation in service of a political ideology unrelated to God’s kingdom. Never mind the ethics of just war, how is that not idolatry?!

    I certainly wouldn’t put myself forward as an authority on OT Hebrew: I’m merely a student. But when ‘ratsach’ is plainly used to describe the ‘murder’ of a manslayer within the bounds of the law, it’s evidently not reserved in the way Prager suggests. There’s a gap between the text and his interpretation you don’t need to be a genius to observe.

    Of course we should focus on victims – those killed – preservation of life is paramount. And that’s where ‘Eye for an eye’ does applies: the Mosaic Law stipulated the death penalty for deliberate man-killers, to compensate for the life they took without authority to do so – for ‘playing God’, if you like. Logically, you mighty argue that killing a soldier who is guilty of killing another solder is not culpable – that he deserved to die – but that quickly becomes circular, as he could make the same plea . . . another example of the madness of war. Live by the sword, die by the sword.

    Whether you consider it from the viewpoint of the perpetrator’s integrity (his ‘soul’, or relationship with God – see Isaiah 1:15) or from the victim’s (whose God-given right is to live, and whom only God can justly kill) it’s all the same: the bible offers nothing but antipathy to the concept of just war.

    It’s not hard to balance this fundamental principle with pragmatic, personal self-defence without becoming a killer.

    The example I’m still looking for you to supply is that of a just war, one which God unambiguously supported – one we could all, in good conscience, get behind. One in which no Christians killed each other. The Crusades, perhaps?

  • Mark February 28, 2015, 2:50 pm

    I’d just like to apologise for the ghastly typos and slovenly writing above! Can’t find an edit function for submitted posts . . . for a start, the OT offers plenty of support for just war. Actually, so does the NT, but only on a cosmic scale (for instance, Revelation 6:2). Jesus stressed repeatedly that his coming Kingdom was no part of the world, and therefore his followers were not to fight, physically, even on ITS behalf. Unthinkably, then, on behalf of his enemies: the political kingdoms of man the white horse rides against.

  • Mark February 28, 2015, 3:52 pm

    Re-reading the thread, in which impassioned disagreement has just about been restrained from fermenting into hostility, I’d like to endorse Marcus’ comments.

    And to add that a failure to stop societal evils single-handed doesn’t make one responsible for them, or complicit in their guilt. You cannot personally stop global warming. You should do what you can, but you shouldn’t assassinate an oil baron. Marcus well made the point that the early Christians ‘stood by’ in the sense that they didn’t take up arms against a Cae(sar) of troubles. In so doing, they followed Jesus’ instructions. Peter, Paul and James were snuffed out like flies on a windscreen, apparently defenceless. And yet their example and writings helped inspire a movement that changed the world.

    However strange Jesus’ instructions may seem, God still blesses obedience; conversely, taking the law into our own hands still invariably has a bad outcome. QED. James 4: 10, 1 Peter 5: 6, et al. Many dictators have risen and fallen, but they are all now dead and disgraced, while true Christianity thrives.

    Quoting the bible only works up to a point. The message of the NT is so luminously transparent on this point that if you believe military service is compatible with Jesus’ example it’s because you’re determined a priori to believe that, and you will believe that, no matter what. If you really want to know what Jesus said, sit down with a blank notebook and an open mind and draw two columns: pro and con Christian militia. Quote anything that might reasonably be interpreted as belonging in either column. See which column is longer.

    In summary, though, because I don’t think we’re getting anywhere . . . I would suggest that objections to this compatibility include, but are not limited to:
    1) Disloyalty (supporting God’s enemy – James 4:4; 1 John 5: 19; John 12: 31, 14: 30, 18: 36, Luke 4:6)
    2) Disrespect for the victims of willful killing and the sanctity of life
    3) Disrespect for God as the only authority over life and death (Commandment VI)
    4) Failure to ‘wait on God’ to solve world problems: Jesus taught to pray for Kingdom to come (Daniel 2: 44; Revelation 11:15, etc)
    5) Pragmatic limit to what we can achieve; not Messiah
    6) Willingness to compromise personal morality: first casualty of war is innocence, etc
    7) Willfully ignores Jesus direct teaching and example of “not living by the sword”. Also Paul (2 Tim. 2: 24, 2 Cor 10: 4)
    8) Bad fruitage (Matthew 7: 16-20) Not only catastrophic holy wars, but bloodguilt from collateral damage. (see Isaiah 1) Tens of nillions of devout believers have been misled into killing each other in the last 100 years, largely over territorial disputes clearly unrelated to God’s purpose
    9) Places unwarranted trust in corrupt, godless governments to adjudicate just cause (see 1).
    10) Misunderstanding of why Holy Wars took place in a limited period of the NT (ie, protection of Messianic bloodline and territory of a tightly defined, chosen nation). Jesus opening membership of the ‘Israel of God’ to all nations made an impossibility of a just territorial war (Acts 10:35). Bond not political, but spiritual (John 13:35).

  • Glenn March 1, 2015, 4:34 pm

    Mark, you quoted my comment in reply, but you didn’t really, as best I could tell, endorse it or rebut it, instead just adding more comments. But my comment to your remains true. So I’ll reiterate what is a pretty much unassailable truth: Christians who are not pacifists are not thereby committed to the nationalism you express with those words. I am not a pacifist. I regard it is a bad, harmful idea. But the thought of killing for my country is scarcely any better.

    Were I to intervene on behalf of the defenceless and use force to defend them, nothing about my actions would imply nationalism. Defending the little boy from an abusive father or a woman from her would-be rapist. There’s not a whiff of nationalism there. Delivering the Jew from the Nazi – similarly, this is not nationalism. I understand the appeal of depicting non-pacifists as Caesar worshippers (and that’s only a slight overstatement of the sorts of comments I have received). We we must make ourselves able to distinguish between those issues.

  • Mark March 2, 2015, 10:54 pm

    Glenn: I’ve tried rather painstakingly to point out the difference between personal pacifism and political Pacifism. The recurrent conflation of the two has confused the thread somewhat. But, as I’ve said, deliberate taking of life remains a common denominator: defence of a boy from an abusive father, a woman from a rapist, or a Samaritan from a robber, rarely (if ever) requires terminal force.

    Granted, in the heat of the moment, there can be a fine line between defence involving physical altercation, and an act of offense that results in fatal injury. Legal professions of various times and places have wrestled with this conundrum and typically endorse use of ‘reasonable force’ in such instances, but invariably condemn self-defence that crosses the line – especially when disproportionate to the crime being prevented: ie, murdering a robber.

    Such scenario bear not on the ethics of joining the military. Conflating the two is spurious and overreaching. We need to sharply distinguish them.

    1. Examples of personal defence of the innocent’ this far discussed have been ad-hoc, unpremeditated actions. Joining the military involves intensive preparation training participants to kill, conflicting with “You shall not learn war”, Jesus’ teachings on cultivating murderous attitudes and later exhortation to ‘put on the new personality’. Such training inculcates the primacy of survival of oneself and one’s tribe above all, upending the foundations of Christianity. Soldiers are indoctrinated with the triviality of ‘collateral damage’; the value of an individual life is cheapened: whereas God “numbers the hairs of our head”. Such training necessarily dehumanises and instills hatred for foreigners, directly conflicting with the bible’s exhortation to “work what is good toward all”, “be peaceable to all men”, and “God is not partial, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable.”

    2. When personally defending the innocent, the defender retains mastery of their actions, choosing to escalate or refrain from aggression as befits the situation. They have freedom to talk the situation down (as Jesus always did) or to escape with the innocent (as Jesus always did). Non-violence is more workable personally than nationally. UK police are trained in defensive means of taking control of violent situations, and mandated to account (and are sometimes punished) for use of force. It can be done. Guns are rarely carried; lethal force rarely used. Whereas enrolling soldiers surrender free will to the regime. Of necessity, they are reformed into efficient fighting units that respond instantly with deadly force when thrust into a kill-or-be-killed scenario. Unthinking loyalty to the the chain of command is deeply embedded. They place themselves in situations where they are not free to exercise a moral choice about the rightness of a given action. Although soldiers have disobeyed ‘immoral’ orders, it is uncommon, and heavy punishment (even capital) is exacted. The soldier is not at liberty to judge the innocence or guilt of the individual or groups they are asked to kill. He subcontracts his conscience to a political entity of doubtful integrity, whom Jesus views as in opposition to his Kingdom. None of the above apply to an personal defensive intervention.

    3. Personal defence involves no change of allegiance; joining the military does. This is pivotal. Early Christians viewed all such issues as idolatry.

  • Rebekah April 27, 2015, 2:55 pm

    Thanks for writing this, Glenn. It’s excellent and very helpful for me.

    I’ve been struggling with how to obey these commands of Jesus without becoming a complete pacifist in every situation. They certainly seem to be situational in the sense that they should not be applied in every circumstance – like a just war, ending real life-threatening injustices, etc. You make the case for this quite well.

    However, I do think that these might apply to the situation in my country in which Christian businesses being targeted and sued by LGBT activists for declining, out of conscience to provide services for same-sex weddings. I’m inclined to think that they are right to refuse but, instead of letting it be taken to court, they should quietly leave the wedding business. The message this might send to the homosexual community might be similar to the messages you described above.

    I’m curious to hear if you think they may apply and how you think Christians should handle this situation. It really is a difficult one and there are quite a few opinions (that often ignite into heated, ugly arguments) as to how to best honor and obey our Lord in all of this.

    Kindest regards.

  • David Hillary May 19, 2015, 5:28 pm

    Taken by itself the passage you have used is not directly about warfare. The Sermon on the Mount is more about civil litigation than it is about warfare.

    However, let me suggest that Jesus means what he says: do not resist evil. He didn’t say to resist it non-violently he said not to resist it. He said seek first his kingdom and don’t worry about evil. The Christian doctrine is:
    ‘Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord. On the contrary:
    ‘If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
    if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
    In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.’
    Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.’

    So what does it mean ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ ? It means that evil creates poison that kills and God lets men drink it. It is not God who kills, it is evil that kills. (Alternatively, the means God kills is by allowing the poison of sin to corrupt.) This can be seen from the context of the passage Paul quotes:
    ‘Their vine comes from the vine of Sodom
    and from the fields of Gomorrah.
    Their grapes are filled with poison,
    and their clusters with bitterness.
    Their wine is the venom of serpents,
    the deadly poison of cobras.
    ‘Have I not kept this in reserve
    and sealed it in my vaults?
    It is mine to avenge; I will repay.
    In due time their foot will slip;
    their day of disaster is near
    and their doom rushes upon them.’

    When Jesus says those who draw the sword will die by the sword this is what is means. Violence begets violence, and not only will those who draw the sword die by the sword but generally others too.

    The conclusion Jesus makes in the Sermon on the Mount is not ‘don’t sue the powerless’ It is not ‘judge your neighbor fairly,’ and it is not ‘be creative and find a non-violent way to resist evil.’ The conclusion is ‘Do not judge, or you too will be judged.’ Note that this has the same form as the teaching on drawing the sword and the message is the same. The use of judicial power results in an oppressive and litigious society. Judicial power is coercive and uses coercion (a form of evil) to combat evil, which Jesus identifies as hypocrisy (Mat 7:1-6). (Jesus removes these coercive powers from the court in Mat 18:15-20, compare Mat 5:25-26, James 2:6.) Note that the word translated ‘judge’ also includes ‘sue.’ So the conclusion is stated for us: do not resist evil by litigation and judicial remedies. We don’t have to guess what the point of the whole message is because Jesus tells us explicitly the legal implication.

    However, if we are prohibited even to sue and apply judicial remedies against evil, surely even more we are prohibited from going to war against evil. This is exactly the point made by Tertullian:
    ‘Shall it be held lawful to make an occupation of the sword, when the Lord proclaims that he who uses the sword shall perish by the sword? And shall the son of peace take part in the battle when it does not become him even to sue at law? And shall he apply the chain, and the prison, and the torture, and the punishment, who is not the avenger even of his own wrongs?’

  • Russell Mozingo February 25, 2016, 7:02 am

    Really appreciate this excellent summary. This passage always seemed to stand at odds with all the other passages throughout the Bible, but a lot of self-defense responses simplify things too much. I think this is the best in-depth look at the passage that I’ve found. Really helps to clarify in what situations Jesus was meaning!

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