“Do not resist one who is evil.” Matthew 5:39
“Love your enemies.” Matthew 5:44
Did you hear about the Irish Christian boxer gone into the bar for a drink? Recognized and challenged by a local brawler anxious to make a name for himself, he took a hard punch to his left jaw! Reeling for a moment, he steadied himself, looked full into the young aggressors face and turned his other cheek, whereupon he received a second blow. Recovering he said, “That’s both cheeks. Now I have no further instructions from Jesus.” And he lit into his opponent with relish!
Obviously he missed the point. Yet the question remains: “How many times must I turn the other cheek?” Does the Sermon on the Mount, indeed, teach pacifism? Nowhere is the challenge to believe and obey greater in Christ’s sermon than in verses 39 and 44. “Resist not one who is evil.” “Love your enemies.”
Does “Resist not one who is evil” mean we dismiss the police force? That we disband the army? That we forego self-defense?
Clearly these two verses amount to two of Christ’s hard sayings. And there are those who have taken them literally in every situation. Like the monk who let the lice nibble him. Rather than kill them, he felt it was Jesus’ mandate not to resist evil.
In 1884 Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy wrote What I Believe. He said that, “Left alone with my heart and the mysterious Book,” the Bible, particularly the Sermon on the Mount, he became a Christian. What’s more, Tolstoy decided Jesus meant exactly what he said. So Tolstoy decided to follow Him into His ethic of not using violence as an individual or as a member of society. He urged the disbanding of the police and army. The money could be better spent. His critics pointed out that if evil came then many would be slaughtered. Tolstoy’s retort: “No man will be found so senseless as to deprive of food or to kill those who serve him.”
Count Tolstoy and Christ were a huge influence on Ghandi the liberator of India. “It is the Sermon on the Mount that has endeared Jesus to me,” wrote Ghandi. And he put into practice Christ’s non-violent ethic with colonial India’s English overlords. He called his followers the “Truth Force.” They stood up for what was right and, when opposed by force, endured suffering willingly. If you want to see this portrayed splendidly, watch the film, Ghandi.
During World War II, the gentle Ghandi urged England not to resist Adolf Hitler’s armies. The church disagreed, pointing out
that Mr. Ghandi’s quarrel in India was with Great Britain, a somewhat Christian influenced foe. But the Nazis were a different sort of enemy without a Christian conscience. And at his fingertips was an arsenal of tanks, rockets, and perhaps nuclear warheads. If Hitler wasn’t arrested in his evil reach, then surely we’d all disappear.
Both Tolstoy and Ghandi greatly influenced America’s Martin Luther King, Jr. in the 1960’s Civil Rights movement. What could have easily turned into a bloody race war found blacks meeting hate with love. And, as with Christ, the lifestyle of truth and peaceful non-violent, non-cooperation, ended with King’s martyrdom. At the Reverend Dr. King’s funeral, Benjamin Mays spoke, “If any man knew the meaning of suffering, King knew. House bombed, living day by day for thirteen years under constant threat of death; maliciously accused of being a communist; falsely accused of being insincere; stabbed by a member of his own race; slugged in a hotel lobby; jailed over twenty times; occasionally deeply hurt because friends betrayed him– and yet this man had no bitterness in his heart, no rancor in his soul, no revenge in his mind; and he went up and down the length and breadth of this world preaching non-violence and the redemptive power of love.”
King’s marches and protests were appeals for equal justice under the law. And they were the embodiment of Jesus’ words to love ones enemies and resist not one who is evil. When hurt, his followers absorbed it. When provoked, they refused to retaliate. And in the end passive resistance won out over bigotry.
At the least, what Christ is saying is that when wronged our first recourse is not to insist on our own rights nor to fight. Our first duty is patience, mercy, and love. And some say we resort to violence only as a last resort, only after going the second mile and turning the other cheek.
Yet be quite clear– true pacifists say there is never a time for war. So say Tolstoy, Ghandi, King, Ron Sider and William Barclay. They point out Jesus never killed. He blessed only the peacemakers. At His arrest, He refused to defend Himself. He caused His followers to put away their swords decrying, “If you live by the sword you will surely die by the sword.” (Matthew 26:47). And like a lamb led to slaughter Jesus went to the cross. And to be Christian, to really believe in Jesus’ word, we must, therefore, act like Christ in every instance.
Critics of this position point out that human nature being what it is– sinful, aggressive and evil– pacifism causes the very war it seeks to avoid.
I once rented a boat in London to take a girl rowing on an autumn evening. We got out on an island to stroll, and when we returned, the boat was gone. I reported it stolen. The police came. And I got a ticket! It seems I had forgotten to lock my boat. And in my failure was fined for “tempting a thief.”
The same idea comes into play by maintaining a credible army. If I am strong, my foreign neighbors will behave. My strength and willingness to fight will serve as deterrence to war.
It is interesting how cleverly some pacifist get around things here. Like the Amish farmer who wakes up in the middle of the night to find an intruder in his home. “I have a gun,” he yelled. “I am going to shoot downstairs. You better remove yourself or you could be hurt!”
Then there is the Quaker milking his cow. The cow put his foot in the milk bucket. Unperturbed, the farmer washed it out and started over. This time the cow kicked the bucket over. The Quaker, clearly bothered, simply started over. But next the cow kicked the Quaker hard, sending him sprawling. The farmer got up, brushed himself off, went to the cow’s face, pointed his finger at her, and said, “Thou knowest that I be a Quaker and can do thee no harm. But if thou bother me hence, I will sell thee to a Presbyterian!”
When one comes to a hard saying in the Bible, the best commentary is more Scripture.
It is popular to think of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount as the perfect sermon, entire of itself. Yet no mere sermon, even a series of sermons, can capture the full expanse of deity.
I have heard persons call the Lord’s Prayer “the perfect prayer.” Yet it includes no thanksgiving. And most certainly gratitude is a vital portion of our interface with God.
Likewise, Jesus never even once mentions the Holy Spirit in the Sermon on the Mount. And how can one ever hope to be like Jesus without God’s invasive power? Likewise, in this sermon Jesus does not mention the cross or the resurrection or even the second coming.
Clearly, then, the Sermon on the Mount must be placed in context with not only all that Christ said and did– the New Testament– but all that Christ quoted and obeyed– the Old Testament.
The Rest of Scripture
King Solomon, the wisest of kings, wrote in Ecclesiastes 3:1 and 8, “For everything there is a season… There is a time for war.”
The psalmist even praised, “Blessed be the Lord who trains my hands for war…” (Psalms 144:1)
Deuteronomy 21:10 explains, “When you go to war…” Not “if” but “when.” Because of human sin, violence is inevitable. Wilbur McClean learned it the hard way during the American Civil War. In 1862 this peace loving Virginia farmer’s land was overrun in the first Battle of Bull Run. He surveyed the terrible carnage and decided to get as far away from battle as he could. So he picked up and moved his family to the absolute middle of nowhere– a tiny crossroads hamlet called Appomattox Court House. There in 1865 one of the last battles of the war was fought on his property. Lee surrendered to Grant in his living room.
In Revelation 19:21 Jesus makes His second coming. He came first as a lamb, a suffering servant, a dying Savior. But at His second advent He arrives as a lion, a conquering Lord. He is described as being astride a white war horse. He slays the wicked with the breath of His mouth. And Christians ride in the army behind Him.
It seems to me, then, that the question is not, “Will I kill?” Indeed, I shall. The question is more rightly put, “Under what conditions will I take another life?”
The Case For a Just War
Proverbs 20:18 counsels, “By wise guidance wage war.” And there is no better counsel than that of St. Augustine of Hippo, North Africa writing over 1600 years ago. He give us the seven criteria for a just war.
- Personal revenge is forbidden. “Vengeance is mine. I will repay, saith the Lord.” (Deut. 32:35). And the sixth commandment in Exodus 20:13, when it says, “Thou shalt not kill,” uses the word for “murder.” We are not forbidden to kill when sanctioned to do so by the state. We are simply to refrain from personal unauthorized human slaughter.
- The taking of human life belongs to God and to His established governments. Take a hard look at Job 1:21 and Romans 13:1-7.
- God will judge a nation that is oppressive, unjust, and that makes war for evil purposes. Check out Amos, Chapter 1.
- Before a nation resorts to war, peace must be sought, every effort at reconciliation must be proved. We must go the second mile, turn the other cheek, give up our cloak. We must never be trigger happy. War must forever be our last recourse, not our first impulse.
- A nation must make God her trust, not the army. In Deuteronomy 17:16-17 God forbid Israel to multiply three things– silver, horses, and wives. He did not want His people turning in trust to family, war machines, and bank accounts. As the psalmist put it in Psalms 20:7, “Some boast in chariots, and some of horses; but we boast of the name of the Lord our God.”
- If one must fight, there should be just grounds. Augustine lists several.
- Protecting national interests. Such as when Joshua fought that Israel might have a homeland.
- To rectify wrongs. In Genesis 4:9 Cain asks, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” The answer is yes. And when a neighbor is being savaged we are to go to their aide.
- The pre-emptive war. If you are a clear menace to me, and I know I will have to fight you eventually, I may strike you first before you have a chance to fully arm yourself. By this means there will be less bloodshed.
- War must be proportional. This means we make war on the army not the civilians. We use only enough war to reestablish peace.
No better conclusion can one come to than the words of St. Augustine. “Peace ought to be your desire, war only your necessity. Hence, even in warfare, be a peacemaker. Let it be necessity, not your desire, which slays the foe in fight.”
Jesus, help me to put away my warlike ways and study peace where I live. Amen.