I knew last month’s e-teaching would be controversial, because many good folks who love Jesus hold different views on the subject of nonresistance, war, and Christian participation in the military. Not everyone agreed with my teaching. (Surprise!) I received comments on both sides of the issue, and some that were in the middle. In light of those comments, I decided to write a follow-up, but first wanted to get some additional feedback. So I posed the following questions on my Facebook page, requesting response from pacifist friends:
Three questions for my pacifist friends: The original apostles are all at a church gathering along with their wives and children. A lone gunman enters and begins shooting everyone, starting with the children. What is (1) the application of Jesus’ commandment to “not resist an evil person,” (2) the application of His commandment to give the offender an opportunity to do twice the harm intended (as that IS what Jesus commanded….”turn the other cheek, go the second mile, give him your coat”), and (3) the application of His commandment to love one’s neighbor as oneself?
I used the original apostles in my example because I knew everyone would see them as key people in God’s plan to redeem the world and, as such, it would have been tragic if all their ministries were cut short.
I also used the original apostles because all Christians consider them to be devoted followers of Christ who would surely do what Jesus would want them to do in such a circumstance—and, having lived with Him for three years, would likely have understood Jesus’ teaching better than any who followed.
I used a lone gunman in my hypothetical situation so readers would realize that he could potentially be overcome fairly easily by 11 or 12 men, not to mention their brave wives and older children.
My scenario had the gunman start shooting children to elicit some anger and sympathy from readers, and to allow the adults in my example more time to overcome the killer.
And then, of course, I posed my three questions regarding how the apostles would have applied three of Jesus’ very clear commandments.
I knew those commandments, however, would create an obvious tension for both pacifists and non-pacifists, as it does not appear that all three can be simultaneously obeyed in such a scenario. If one does not resist the gunman, how can it be said that he loves the potential victims? If one tries to stop the gunman, how can it be said that he did not resist an evil person? Moreover, how can (and why would) one possibly give the gunman an opportunity to do twice the harm intended?
The obvious truth is that those three commandments, as they are often interpreted, cannot be harmonized. And since God’s commandments can never contradict one another, there remains only one possibility: there must be something wrong with our interpretation of at least one of those commandments.
The varied responses I received—all from sincere followers of Jesus—helped me to write what follows.
How should we respond to evildoers? I hope to answer that question in light of all three of those commandments. You can be the judge of my success or failure. (But please read all of what follows before you render judgment!)
A Look at Commandment #2
I was not surprised that just about everyone who responded to my questions ignored the #2 commandment I listed (Give the offender opportunity to do twice the harm intended by turning the other cheek, giving also your coat, going the second mile.) I’m sure they had reasons, but please allow me to focus first on that commandment, erasing any doubt of its meaning and essential relevance.
First, it is important to see that Jesus’ instructions regarding nonresistance fit into the larger theme of loving one’s enemies, something that was, as I showed in last month’s e-teaching, an old covenant ethic found in the Mosaic Law (Ex. 23:4-5; Prov. 25:21-22). God does not only expect us to passively not hate our enemies. He expects us to love them, actively. We should, according to Jesus, do good to those who hate us, bless those who curse us, and pray for those who revile us (Luke 6:27-28). All those things require action, not passivity.
Second, it is important to acknowledge that the three actions Jesus prescribes for non-resisters (turn the other cheek, give also your coat, go the second mile) do not only mean “Don’t retaliate.” Of course, they include the idea of non-retaliation. But they mean more. They convey an active returning of good for evil. They go beyond simply “not resisting.” They require action.
And third, it is also important to see that the #2 commandment (in my list of three commandments) is actually part of the #1 commandment. Or, to say it another way, commandments #1 and #2 on my list are actually two requirements found in one single commandment. Let’s read it:
You have heard that it was said, “An eye for any eye, and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say to you, [here comes the first requirement of the commandment] do not resist an evil person; but [here comes the second requirement of the commandment] whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. If anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, let him have your coat also. Whoever forces you to go one mile, go with him two (Matt. 5:38-41).
Generally paraphrased, Jesus said, “Don’t do A, but rather, do B.” Again, it is one commandment that includes two requirements: (1) Don’t resist an evil person, but rather (2), give him an opportunity to do twice the harm intended (turn the other cheek) or help him do twice the harm intended (give also your coat; go the second mile). Stated more simply, that single commandment could be paraphrased, “Don’t resist! Rather, assist!”
One who obeys the first requirement but disobeys the second requirement does not obey the single commandment. It is akin to Jesus’ commandment to not lay up treasures on earth, but in heaven. Both requirements are integral to a single commandment. Again, “Don’t do A, but rather, do B.” (In fact, in that case, not doing A necessitates doing B, and vice versa.)
I have quite often heard Christian pacifists make the claim, “Jesus said, ‘Do not resist an evil person,'” but in light of what we’ve just read, that really isn’t true. They’ve truncated the commandment. Jesus actually said, “Do not resist an evil person, but rather, assist him.” Pacifists, however, must truncate that single commandment, because they naturally know that, when the evil intended by an evil person is greater than what Jesus illustrated in Matthew 5:38-41, it would be evil to assist such evil.
When Christian pacifists awkwardly admit that, out of “obedience to Christ,” they would do nothing to stop a rapist or murderer from raping or murdering their wife, I’ve asked them, “And once you’ve watched your wife be raped or murdered, would you then say to the rapist or murderer, “Please, let me also now give you my daughter to rape (or murder), because Jesus said I should give you the opportunity to do twice the harm you intended”? I don’t think I’ve ever received an answer to that question. But if Christian pacifists were consistent in how they interpret Jesus’ words about nonresistance, they would have to admit to our horror that they would, in fact, offer a daughter in such a circumstance.
When pressed on this point, some Christian pacifists redefine the phrases “turn the other cheek…give also your coat…go the extra mile” as if they were synonymous with the phrase “Do not resist an evildoer.” But words do have meanings. And Jesus did not use those phrases synonymously with “Do not resist an evil person.” Rather, He used those phrases to communicate a contrast. Again, don’t do A, but rather, do B. Thus, A and B cannot be the same thing. We should not ignore or pervert Jesus’ words as His followers.
Now, please keep all of this in mind as we continue, because this is the key to reconciling Jesus’ three commandments that appear contradictory.
The Non-Pacifist Pacifists
I also found it interesting that some of my Facebook friends who identified as pacifists said that if they found themselves in a church gathering where a gunman entered and began shooting children, they would do something. Some said they would rush the gunman and try to wrestle the gun from him without harming him, or they would call the police, or command the gunman to cease, or fervently pray.
Although I was encouraged by their intended acts of love for the potential victims (obedience to commandment #3), I pointed out to them that they would be disobeying both commandments #1 and #2.
Rushing the gunman and trying to wrestle the gun from him, or calling the police and so on, would be acts of resistance. All would be attempts to thwart the harm intended by the gunman. That is resistance. Anyone who thinks otherwise is just fooling himself.
Additionally, all such attempts to thwart the harm intended by the gunman would be a transgression of commandment #2, as they would not assist the gunman in any way to do twice the harm intended. Rather, such attempts would be the exact opposite of giving the gunman the opportunity to do twice the harm intended.
Again, commandments #1 and #2 are a single commandment as found in Matthew 5:38-41. The #2 commandment only elaborates on the #1 commandment, revealing the degree to which Jesus does not want His disciples to resist evildoers. Jesus commanded zero resistance, to the degree that His disciples should do the opposite of resist, that is, they should assist. There is no room in Jesus’ commandment for any degree of resistance.
All of this is to say that, it became clear to me that some of my Facebook friends who consider themselves to be pacifists are not actually pacifists. They intuitively knew that love (commandment #3) demands some action to attempt to stop the murderer, but they had fooled themselves into thinking they would be obeying commandment #1 (Don’t resist!) as long as they didn’t physically harm the gunman. They also, like the true pacifists, ignored any application of commandment #2 (Assist!)
Interestingly, none of my Facebook friends said they would attempt to flee if they found themselves in such a circumstance. (Maybe no one wanted to be thought of as a coward?) Fleeing, of course, would seem to be an act of obedience to commandment #1 (Don’t resist), but it would surely be an act of disobedience to commandments #2 and #3 (assist the evildoer and love your neighbor).
Also interestingly, I noticed that the true pacifists (who would do absolutely nothing to resist the gunman) did not answer my questions by telling me what they would do. Rather, they told me what the apostles would do. Whereas everyone else told me what they would do. I sensed that the true pacifists were very uncomfortable admitting that they would do nothing as children were being murdered in front of them, even when they could likely put a stop to it, or at least make an attempt.
And one other observation that I found interesting: Only one person pointed out that attempting to stop the murderer would be an act of love towards him, curbing his sin.
Although I requested responses on my Facebook post from my Christian pacifist friends, many non-pacifists weighed in as well. All said that they would rush the gunman or attempt to stop him in some way. All knew that they would be risking their lives and might be killed, but at least one reminded me that “Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends” (a verse I’m thinking must have been omitted from the Pacifist Bible). However, none of my non-pacifist friends explained how they would avoid disobeying commandments #1 and #2.
By this time, I hope, you’ve figured out the answer to my original question about obeying all three of Jesus’ commandments. In case you haven’t, let me tell you. The answer is found in plain sight in Jesus’ own words in Matthew 5:38-41.
But first, a little refresher in Bible interpretation: The most important rule in interpreting the Bible (or any book, or anyone’s spoken words) is to consider the context. For example, in the King James Version, Matthew 5:31 reads: “But I say unto you, that ye resist not evil.” If we isolated those words from their context, we could conclude that Jesus does not want us to resist any evil, and thus, He does not want us to resist temptation, sin, or the devil!
When we continue reading, however, gaining some context, we read: “but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.” So now we learn that Jesus is talking about not resisting evil people, not evil in general. Ah, now we’re getting some insight from the helpful context! (The NASB translates Matt. 5:39: “Do not resist an evil person.”)
But what kind of evil people was Jesus speaking about? Murderers? Rapists? Thieves who break into our homes? Child abductors? Invading armies? Gang members? Perhaps if we keep reading, the context will tell us.
And behold, it does! The kind of evil people Jesus was speaking about are, first of all, people who harm you, not people who harm others. Jesus said, “If anyone slaps you on the right cheek…if anyone wants to sue you… whoever forces you to go one mile.” You, you, you.
So Jesus’ words about nonresistance do not preclude defending others. Hooray! That agrees perfectly with the rest of the Bible (that Jesus inspired)!
Deliver those who are being taken away to death, and those who are staggering to slaughter, oh hold them back (Prov. 24:11)
Rescue the weak and needy; deliver them out of the hand of the wicked (Psa. 82:4)
Moreover, the kind of evil people Jesus was speaking about are people who commit relatively minor offenses against you, like slapping you on the cheek and forcing you to carry their gear for a mile. Those minor offenses they commit against you are such that (please read slowly), if you personally assist them to do twice the harm they intended—as Jesus commanded—you do not commit any evil yourself.
In light of those facts, Jesus’ words about nonresistance and turning the other cheek obviously have no application to the imaginary scenario I described in my Facebook post, otherwise we’d have to conclude that Jesus would want us to help the murderer kill even more people than he intended. While the killer was shooting with the obvious intention of ultimately killing everyone, and while I was still alive, I would be allegedly expected by Jesus to slip outside and corral a group of outsiders into the church so that the murderer could kill twice as many people. That, of course, would be very evil.
In contrast, when one responds to a personal, relatively minor offense by “turning the other cheek,” “giving also his coat,” and “going the extra mile,” one commits no evil, even as he assists the evildoer in doing twice the harm intended. The idea is to shame the evildoer through mercy, to “overcome evil with good,” and thus turn an enemy into a friend. In such cases, the non-resister makes a decision to personally suffer a little; he is not making a decision that causes others to suffer greatly or die.
So we see that the deathblow to Christian pacifism is found right within Jesus’ very words about nonresistance, words that Christian pacifists must ignore or pervert. Just as it would be a grave error to read Jesus’ words, “Resist not evil” (as they are recorded in the King James Version) apart from the context that follows—revealing that Jesus was referring to evil people and not to evil in general—so it is also a grave error to read Jesus’ words, “Do not resist an evil person” apart from the context that follows—revealing precisely what kinds of offenses and evil people Jesus had in mind.
And the correct answer to the three questions that I posted on Facebook? Commandments #1 and #2 are completely irrelevant in the scenario I created. They have no application whatsoever because the evildoer was not a “cheek-slapping evildoer,” nor was the offense that was about to be committed singularly personal. And contrary to Christians pacifists’ idea that rushing the gunman would be a sin, the truth is, not rushing at him, if one has a chance of success at stopping him, could be considered a sin.
And this is why everyone—including Jesus, who said “no greater love has any man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends”—considers people who risk their lives to stop evildoers to be heroes and great lovers of their neighbors. Meanwhile, Christian pacifists unwittingly denigrate such folks, certain that they (Christian pacifists) are much more devoted to Christ.
All of this is to say that Jesus’ words regarding nonresistance do not preclude Christians from rescuing others from harm (loving them!) or from resisting evildoers whose offenses are significantly more evil than the cheek-slapping offenses Jesus described. And neither do His words preclude Christians from serving honorably and morally in the military or as police.
The Earliest Church Father Weighs In
All of this is why church father Clement, a bishop in Rome at the close of the 1st century and the earliest of the early church writers—one who likely enjoyed some direct or indirect influence by at least a few of the original apostles—could write an entire book on the theme of love and unity, repeatedly admonishing his readers to humility and submissiveness, but also include praise for a person who carried out a military assassination of an evildoer.
That person’s name was Judith, and she is the central figure in the Book of Judith that we find in every Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Bible, in the Protestant Apocrypha, and in the Septuagint. Within the context of Clement’s lengthy letters to the Corinthians, he cites some inspiring examples of great lovers from the past, and then he focuses on one of them, Judith:
We know that many among ourselves have delivered themselves to bondage, that they might ransom others. Many have sold themselves to slavery, and receiving the price paid for themselves have fed others. Many women being strengthened through the grace of God have performed many manly deeds.
The blessed Judith, when the city was beleaguered, asked of the elders that she might be suffered to go forth into the camp of the aliens. So she exposed herself to peril and went forth for love of her country and of her people which were beleaguered; and the Lord delivered Holophernes into the hand of a woman (1 Clement 55:2-5).
All of Clement’s contemporary readers knew Judith’s story in much more detail. Judith unselfishly risked her life on behalf of her countrymen whom she loved, going out of her besieged city to win the trust of the enemy Assyrian general, Holophemes, whom she personally decapitated while he was drunk. She then took his head back to her fearful countrymen; and the Assyrians, having lost their leader, dispersed. Israel was saved.
Church father Clement, who so lauded Judith, added no apology or disclaimer to remind his readers that, had she done the same act under the new covenant, she would have been sinning for her resistance. And one reason is simply because Holophemes was no cheek-slapping evildoer.
The reason I included this bit of information from the earliest church father is because my pacifist friends are apt to produce quotes from various church fathers that, quite understandably, express disapproval of Christian involvement with the military that would require that they sin.
Within the greater context of the entire Bible, the view I’m advocating finds perfect harmony as well. I suppose a small book could be written on the subject. But, as one example of harmonious biblical context, note that the same Jesus who spoke about not personally resisting cheek-slapping people in the Sermon on the Mount said through His prophet Moses more than a thousand years earlier:
If the thief is caught while breaking in and is struck so that he dies, there will be no bloodguiltiness on his account (Ex. 22:2).
The person who struck the thief who was breaking into his house [obviously, resisting an evildoer, but not a cheek-slapping one] has not committed murder and is guilty of no sin. Rather, he has protected his family as an act of love. That is what Jesus said in the Mosaic Law.
Take note that we have just considered, from the Mosaic Law, some more biblical context. During His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus spoke His words about nonresistance to people who were under the Law of Moses. Had Jesus contradicted the Law, it would have proved to His audience that He was not the Messiah and was not God. It would have also proved Him to be a liar, as just minutes before He spoke His words about nonresistance, He explicitly declared that He had not come to abolish the Law or Prophets (Matt. 5:17).
If anyone had asked Jesus right after He spoke His words about not personally resisting cheek-slapping evildoers, “Jesus, what about resisting thieves who are breaking into our houses?”, Jesus would have said something like, “I, of course, agree 100% with the Mosaic Law on that topic. I did not come to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it.”
Even More Context
It is also important to note that Jesus’ words about nonresistance in His Sermon on the Mount were a counterpoint to something His audience had previously heard. Let’s look at the context:
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 an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also (Matt. 5:38-39).
By His counterpoint, Jesus could not have been contradicting or correcting the Mosaic Law, of which He was the divine author. Moreover, as the Mosaic Law’s author, Jesus was well aware that the “eye for an eye” passages were addressed to court judges who were required to mete out commensurate justice to lawbreakers. He also knew that the Law forbade personal revenge (which is one reason God established a court system in the Mosaic Law). That being so, Jesus could not have meant, “You know that, under the Law of Moses, God wanted you to always take commensurate personal revenge by getting ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,’ but starting today, obeying that commandment will be a sin.”
Considering His counterpoint in which He prescribes “personal nonresistance and assistance,” it is only safe to conclude that Jesus was correcting false teaching of the scribes and Pharisees (as He so often did throughout the Sermon on the Mount). They apparently had perverted God’s instructions given to Israel’s judges about “an eye for an eye,” and in so doing gave all Israelites a license to take personal revenge whenever they suffered some small offense, something forbidden under the Mosaic Law.
What About Persecution?
Should our reaction to evildoers depend on the motives of the evildoers? Do the rules regarding nonresistance change if we are being persecuted for our faith rather than being harmed for some other reason?
Those are questions I’ll try to tackle in next month’s e-teaching. It should be interesting, as we’ll look at least five instances when Paul did not “turn the other cheek” when facing persecution. — David