In part 1, I introduced this blog series on Christian nonviolence by (1) describing the Christocentric grounds of my position, (2) my love-hate relationship with the label “pacifist”, and (3) some of the general questions and concerns that arise when discussing this issue. In this post, I’d like to turn our attention to the Biblical data, and I can think of no better place to start a discussion on nonviolence than looking at Jesus’s teachings found in his famous Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7).
Why the Sermon on the Mount? According to New Testament scholar, Richard Hays, the sermon ought to be regarded as “Jesus’ programmatic disclosure of the kingdom of God and of the life to which the community of disciples is called” (The Moral Vision of the New Testament, 321). In other words, in this sermon Jesus reveals to his disciples what God’s kingdom looks like and instructs them on how to live in it. And lest you think that this sermon is reserved for Jesus’ 12 disciples and not for modern day Christians, consider the fact that just as Jesus taught his disciples using this sermon (Matthew 5:1-2), he also instructed these same disciples to go and make more more disciples, “teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19). Everything that he commanded them includes everything he commanded in his Sermon on the Mount. To be a disciple of Jesus, in other words, means obeying Jesus’ commands found in this sermon. And, as I will attempt to show in this post, Jesus instructs his disciples to be nonviolent.
Understandably, even the most serious disciples will not be able to perfectly obey Jesus’ commands. But we need not regard Jesus’ sermon as some “impossible ideal” (as has been taught by some theologians in the past), as some teaching reserved only for clergy (as was popular to believe in the medieval period), or as some tool to merely show us that we are sinners in need of grace (as Martin Luther taught). The sermon, as Richard Hays explains, was “meant to be put into practice” (MVNT, 324). As disciples of Jesus, those who regularly pray for the coming of God’s kingdom and live as ambassadors of this kingdom, we don’t just sit back and await the ultimate peace that will come when Christ returns, but–with the Spirit’s help–we seek to bring the peaceful kingdom of God “here on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10). With that said, let’s dive into this sermon!
The Beatitudes (5:3-12) describe an upside-down reality, one in which God’s blessing rests on the least expected members of society. Whereas the world privileges the powerful, wealthy, and successful, God reveals through the Beatitudes that in His kingdom the blessed are the poor in spirit (5:3), those who mourn (5:4), the meek (5:5), those who hunger for righteousness (5:6), the merciful (5:7), the pure in heart (5:8), the peacemakers (5:9), and those who are persecuted and reviled against (5:10-11).
Especially pertinent to a discussion on nonviolence, I think, are two of these characteristics. First, to be meek essentially means to be gentle (in fact, when Jesus describes himself as gentle in Matthew 11:29, he uses the same word as this beatitude). According to New Testament scholar Scot McKnight, “the ‘meek’ are those who suffer and have been humbled, and yet they do not seek revenge but God’s glory and the welfare of others. In other words, they lovingly trust God and hope in God’s timing and justice” (The Sermon on the Mount, 42). Their gentleness prevents them from using violence to get what they want and instead causes them to entrust themselves to God’s care.
Second, to be a peacemaker, according to McKnight, “is someone who is reconciled to God, knows God is for peace, and seeks reconciliation instead of strife and war” (SOTM, 46). To make peace, says Dietrich Bonhoeffer, peacemakers “renounce violence and strife.” Bonhoeffer continues: “Jesus’ disciples maintain peace by choosing to suffer instead of causing others to suffer” (Discipleship, 76). In other words, peacemakers are those who choose the difficult way of peace and aim to make peace from situations of hate and violence. In response to the question of whether or not this beatitude teaches pacifism, McKnight is clear: “pacifism was the way of the earliest Christians… because it was the way of Jesus” (SOTM, 47).
Before moving on to the rest of the sermon, its important to recognize something theologian Stanley Hauerwas has argued: “the source for any understanding of the Beatitudes must be Jesus” (Matthew, 64). That is, we ought to let Jesus himself show us what meekness and peacemaking looks like. Jesus shows us that he is the meek messiah king who, instead of using violence and power to assert his reign, enters into Jerusalem on a donkey, thereby fulfilling an Old Testament expectation of a meek king (Matthew 21:5; Zechariah 9:9). And in Jesus we see a true peacemaker because he was the one who made cosmic peace through his death on the cross (Colossians 1:20). In Jesus, we see a picture of meekness and peacemaking that, I would argue, points us in the way of nonviolence.
Turning the Other Cheek
Another important passage to consider from the Sermon on the Mount is Jesus’ teaching on retaliation in Matthew 5:38-39. There we find Jesus saying, “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.”
What Jesus is doing here is citing Exodus 21:24: “eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot” (ESV). This “law of retaliation” (Latin–lex talionis) was God’s means of maintaining justice among the Israelite people in the Old Testament. This law was meant to limit retaliation, meaning that if someone cut off your hand, you couldn’t just kill the person. If you took him to court, he would receive a punishment that matched the crime. He would have his hand cut off.
Jesus’ response to this law is shocking. It is not as though Jesus is abolishing what was previously said in Exodus 21:24 (see Matthew 5:17), it is instead that Jesus is heightening the law’s demand. As Richard Hays explains, “where the [Old Testament law] restricts retaliation, Jesus forbids it altogether” (MVNT, 325). Instead of retaliation, Jesus commands his disciples (both then and now) to “not resist the one who is evil”.
What does it mean to resist an evildoer? The Greek word for “resist” is anthistemi, and as New Testament scholar Preston Sprinkle points out, “it often refers specifically to violent resistance… Throughout the Old Testament, for instance, anthistemi refers to military action… In the New Testament, other words related to anthistemi refer to violent revolts, insurrections, and war.” (Fight, 134). So when Jesus instructs his disciples to not resist evildoers, it is very likely that he is specifically prohibiting them from using violence to resist evil.
But important to also recognize is that Jesus is not instructing his disciples to maintain a passive posture in the face of evil. By commanding his disciples to turn their other cheek if and when they are hit on the right cheek, Jesus is actually providing a nonviolent way of resisting evil. Theologian and advocate of Christian nonviolence, Walter Wink, is incredibly helpful on this point:
There are three general responses to evil: (1) passivity, (2) violent opposition, and (3) the third way of militant nonviolence articulated by Jesus… Jesus abhors both passivity and violence as responses to evil. His is a third alternative not even touched by these options… How does one strike another on the right cheek anyway?… To strike the right cheek with the fist would require using the left hand, but in that society the left hand was used only for unclean tasks… The only way one could strike the right cheek with the right hand would be with the back of the right hand. What we are dealing with here is unmistakably an insult, not a fistfight. The intention is not to injure but to humiliate, to put someone in his or her place… Why then does he counsel these already humiliated people to turn the other cheek? Because this action robs the oppressor of the power to humiliate. The person who turns the other cheek is saying, in effect, ‘try again. Your first blow failed to achieve its intended effect. I deny you the power to humiliate me. I am a human being just like you. Your status does not alter that fact. You cannot demean me.’ Such a response would create enormous difficulties for the striker. Purely logistically, what can he do? He cannot use the backhand because his nose is in the way. He can’t use his left hand regardless. If he hits with a fist, he makes himself an equal, acknowledging the other as a peer. But the whole point of the back of the hand is to reinforce the caste system and its institutionalized inequality. Even if he orders the person flogged, the point has been irrevocably made. The oppressor has been forced, against his will, to regard this subordinate as an equal human being. The powerful person has been stripped of his power to dehumanize the other. This response, far from admonishing passivity and cowardice, is an act of defiance.”Jesus and Nonviolence: A Third Way, 12-17.
For many, the position of Christian nonviolence seems to imply a posture of passivity, but what Jesus instructs his disciples here, as Wink shows persuasively, looks nothing like passivity. Instead, it looks like nonviolent resistance. As I discussed in part 1 of this blog series, the position I am attempting to defend is not the caricature of pacifism that might as well be spelled p-a-s-s-i-v-i-s-m, but instead a pacifism that aims to overcome evil with good (Romans 12:21). I can hardly think of a better biblical example of this (other than Jesus’ own death and resurrection) than Jesus’ teachings here in Matthew 5:38-39.
Going the Extra Mile
Another part of Jesus’ sermon that, I believe, points us in the direction of nonviolence is Matthew 5:41: “if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles” (ESV). A plain reading of this verse might lead us to think Jesus is just talking about taking a stroll with some random person. But what Jesus likely has in mind, explains Preston Sprinkle, is first-century Palestine, “where Roman soldiers force Jews to carry their packs… Think about this. The Jew carrying the soldier’s gear eases the burden of his oppressor–the foreigner who invaded his homeland” (Fight, 137).
Now understandably, Jesus isn’t specifically saying anything about the topic at hand. He isn’t saying whether or not violence and killing is ever permissible, but just consider the implications of this verse. Think for a moment about who you would consider your enemy. Would you be willing to ease his or her burden? Would you be willing to serve him or her? That’s the attitude Jesus is instructing his disciples to have. I can’t see how it could be possible to have this kind of attitude or this kind of grace if you are willing to kill your enemy.
Loving Your Enemies
Although there is more in the Sermon on the Mount that, I believe, points to the position of Christian nonviolence, for the sake of brevity I will conclude with one last passage. In Matthew 5:43-48, Jesus instructs his disciples to not only love their neighbors, but also their enemies and to pray for those who persecute them (5:43-44).
The pacifistic implications of this passage should be obvious. As Hauerwas once cleverly said in a debate, “it’s hard to love your enemy if they’re dead.” In other words, its hard to conceive how we could say we love our enemy if we are willing to kill them in the name of self-defense, war, etc. We could say all we want that we love our enemies, but words without action mean nothing. Love is an action, its other-oriented, its not self-seeking, and it doesn’t keep a record of wrongs (1 Corinthians 13:5). As Bonhoeffer puts it so well:
But love must not ask if it is being returned. Instead, it seeks those who need it. But who needs love more than they who live in hate without any love? Who, therefore, is more worthy of my love than my foe? Where is love praised more splendidly than admidst love’s enemies?Discipleship, 109
Consider also Jesus’ similar statement in Luke’s gospel as well: “But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back” (Luke 6:35). If love is an action inherently directed toward someone else’s well-being and an action that is not self-seeking, then it seems inconsistent to me to think that someone could love their enemy and also be okay with killing them in certain circumstances.
Perhaps the death of Jesus could provide a picture of this for us. Jesus was killed by his enemies, yet he died for them (Romans 5:8-10). Jesus didn’t just theoretically love his enemies or think positive thoughts about them. Jesus actively demonstrated love for his enemies by dying on the cross in their place for their benefit, without any consideration for how this act might benefit himself. In Jesus we see what true enemy-love looks like, and it looks like the cross. At the cross we see enemy-love demonstrated in its most beautiful form.
For many, these arguments on their own are likely not completely persuasive. Other than some key biblical texts which are often used as objections to Christian nonviolence (which I plan to address in a future blog), I’ve found that one of the biggest hurdles others have in coming to this position is the fact that it seems so unreasonable, impractical, and unwise. And to be honest, I get it; there is nothing that instinctually makes sense about this position, especially in a world like ours filled with so much evil and violence.
In closing, however, I’d like to point us back to something Jesus says toward the end of this famous sermon: “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock” (7:24). Whether we may realize it or not, there is wisdom in obeying these difficult teachings. It may not be a wisdom that our world recognizes, but remember that our world doesn’t recognize the wisdom of the cross (See 1 Corinthians 1:18-31). There is a wisdom that comes from above, from a kingdom not of this world (John 18:36)–a kingdom of peace with a king who rules with peace. I want to be the type of person who pursues that kind of wisdom and aims to follow Jesus even if it goes against all of my intuitions. Will you join me?