Not long ago, a friend of mine challenged me theologically on how the Christian church is to interpret the teachings and example of Jesus, particularly in terms of nonviolence.
Here is my response.
The text in question, primarily, is the Sermon on the Mount, spoken in 1st century Palestine to Jesus’s closest followers, plus an apparent crowd of Jewish folks from nearby villages may have been listening in. Looming large is the question of how Jesus’s teachings relate to Christians living in the 21st century, whether American-or not-and how to receive the radical challenge Jesus gives his Jewish-turned [over just a few years]-multinational audience.
Jesus begins his sweeping homiletic discourse with the Beatitudes [verses 2-12]. Essentially, Jesus insists that we are blessed or happy or in a really good spot when our present conditions are, seemingly, not so blessed.
Already, Jesus is painting a picture of a very different world.
Next, salt and light [verses 13-16]: Jesus calls out a special community, a people set apart to flavor the world with a new way of existing [i.e. the Beatitudes!]. They are called also to be a model, an example, a “city on a hill,” a light set on its stand to brighten planet earth with new ways of coexisting, governed by a new law of love.
Interestingly, Jesus goes on to connect his teachings to the Jewish law that came into practice centuries earlier, the ancient code that set the people of Israel apart from the nations as a people who knew the one true God, Yahweh.
What is happening here? Is Jesus insisting all the details of the law must continue? Shall the new converts following Jesus continue wearing clothing consisting of just one fabric, or can they mix it up [Lev. 19:19]? Can they plant two kinds of seeds in their fields now? How about that bacon they have always wanted to try?
Without a doubt, Jesus is underscoring certain aspects of the law while reappropriating other portions of the ancient Jewish code, for as his earth-shaking sermon continues, he casts new light on six categories of human interaction. Each teaching assumes knowledge of the exterior guardrails of the law, the rule-keeping; but Jesus’s words get at the inner motivation contained in the human soul:
- Loving One’s Enemy
How can Jesus on one hand insist he’s fulfilling the law, and holding followers to do the same, while also re-working it?
I turned to one of my commentaries, searching for quality language and scholarship to help give meaning to how exactly this fulfillment/completion paradoxically radicalizes-and changes-Old Testament law:
It is inadequate to say either that none of the Old Testament applies unless it is explicitly reaffirmed in the New or that all of the Old Testament applies unless it is explicitly revoked in the New. Rather, all of the Old Testament remains normative and relevant for Jesus’ followers (2 Tim 3:16), but none of it can rightly be interpreted until one understands how it has been fulfilled in Christ. Every Old Testament text must be viewed in light of Jesus’ person and ministry and the changes introduced by the new covenant he inaugurated.*
I bolded that last section because it’s important. We don’t see many Christians holding tight to the ancient laws, and this is one of the theological reasons why. Jesus changed everything, so much so that we now observe all of Scripture using the new lens of His teachings and atoning work on a Roman cross.
It’s not that the law disappears; instead, it is seen in new light.
Possibly the strongest example of Jesus radicalizing the expectations of the law follows in 5:38-42. Here, He actually overrules the Torah! Referring to the lex talionis or “an eye for an eye” presented in Deuteronomy 19:15-21. Exodus chapters 21 and 22 codify self-protection norms; for example, a nighttime intruder can be killed, but if they break in during the day, the defender is guilty if they kill.
Not so for Jesus.
Here, he insists even self-defense is prohibited:
38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 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. 40 And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. 41 And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. 42 Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.**
Emphasizing various cultural factors, a number of theologians have attempted to soften the theological force of this passage. And it makes sense why this happens: how could we possibly live like that?
It seemed appropriate to turn to a respected scholar for insight. No matter how we look at it, Richard B. Hays is pretty hard to keep off a top-5 list of theologians of our era. What might he have to say about the Sermon on the Mount? After a thorough defense of how the teachings of Jesus square not only with the Matthean witness but with the whole canon, he offers his perspective on the how the strange pacifist teachings found in the Matthew 5:38-42 work in reality:
“The posture of the community is not to be one of supine passivity, however. The actions positively prescribed here are parabolic gestures of renunciation and service. By doing more than what the oppressor requires, the disciples bear witness to another reality (the kingdom of God), a reality in which peacefulness, service, and generosity are valued above self-defense and personal rights. Thus, the prophetic nonresistance of the community may not only confound the enemy but also pose an opportunity for the enemy to be converted to the truth of God’s kingdom.”***
My last blog post was on my own convictions regarding gun violence, and it contained some political questions native to this important discourse. But I didn’t touch on examples that may help some of us rethink our assumptions. By assumptions, I mean the characteristic attitude that I have anecdotally found to be almost universal among a great percentage of Americans: “if someone comes into my house, they’d better be ready to deal with ME and MY GUN.”
That attitude is as deeply felt as it is widespread. For so many Americans, it is part and parcel of our national framework for seeing all of life.
What might be another approach? Like, an actual example?
How about the 2006 West Nickel Mines Shooting? On an early October day 11 years ago, Charles Carl Roberts entered an Amish school and, after a hostage situation, shot 8 out of 10 female hostages aged 6-13 years old. He killed 6, including himself, and there were 5 non-fatal injuries.
It wasn’t long before the Amish responded. But it wasn’t with calls for justice; instead, the response was the embodiment of forgiving love. They decisively forgave the shooter, and took it upon themselves to visit his surviving family. They also set up a charitable fund for Marie Roberts, the shooter’s wife.
One Amish man held Roberts’ grieving father in his arms for nearly an hour, allowing him to simply let go of his tears and lean, literally, on someone who apparently cared.
I also think of certain movements, revolutions in the history of the world that feature nonviolent actions. Imagine the work of Martin Luther King Jr. suddenly infused with violence and self-protection? Is not the power removed?
Yes, we know that there were small pockets of violence that erupted among protesters, but this was not characteristic of the Civil Rights movement as a whole. I must imagine that if it had been, America would not have made the same progress.
Going back a bit farther in history, it’s hard not to mention Dirk Willems, an Anabaptist who was imprisoned for his beliefs. After forging a simple knotted rope, he escaped from a window, then fled his captors over the surface of a frozen castle moat. He was thin from prison rations, but his heavier pursuer fell into the ice.
Gripped with compassion, Willems turned to pull the man out, and was able to save his life. Unfortunately, the man was less than grateful; Willems was imprisoned again, this time in a far more secure facility where the possibility of escape was nought.
He was then burned alive.
Such a radical act smacks greatly of the kind of enemy-love Jesus enjoins us to practice. If this isn’t “do not resist the one who is evil” I’m not sure what is.
Unfortunately, we too often attempt to soften the strong words of Jesus in his great Sermon. Instead of recognizing them for what they are and attempting, through the power of the Holy Spirit, to respond with our lives, we theologize about how the commands of Christ are impossible ideals [Reinhold Niebuhr].
We revert the Old Testament lex talionis eye-for-an-eye paradigm that Jesus modified. We talk about how we’re just looking out for our families, a noble cause indeed.
We as Christians have the hope of New Creation, of heaven being reunited with earth, of rejoicing forever with the family of believers; yet so many of us cling to our guns, our 2nd Amendment *rights*, and our middle-class worries about the safety of our families.
So many Christians are positionally convinced on a great many other ethical and soteriological questions, such as what constitutes a marriage, what salvation means precisely, what loving one’s neighbor means, creation care, and a host of other important questions.
We have verses to back it all up of course.
As an American, I have a great deal of sympathy for those who feel compelled to arm and defend themselves out of fear of attack. I am uncomfortable with passivity when it comes to the safety of one’s family. And I recently wrote about this, in some detail.
I write my position as an invitation and good-hearted challenge, not as the sole way of reading Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount. There are many who see it differently.
I understand that we receive grace and how God’s forgiveness is boundless. At the same time, I am reminded that the same Jesus who insisted we turn our cheek; that we are not to resist an evil doer; that we are to give away our cloak and tunic; yes, that same Jesus [in the same Gospel account!] invites us to take up our cross and follow Him [Matthew 16:24].
He also says, in the next verse, that those who lose their lives for Him will find it. Much of the time, this is certainly metaphorical.
But what if it were literal?
It was for Stephen, who was stoned to death for insisting Jesus was Lord [Acts 6].
It was for Philip, whose head was bound to a pillar before he was stoned to death.
It was for James, who was thrown down from a great height before being beaten to death with a club.
It was for Simon Cleophas, crucified under Roman emperor Trajan.
It was for Ignatius, torn apart by wild beasts at a Roman circus.
I want to spark new thoughts on this topic of nonviolence, not get into the weeds on American politics [though I do have some thoughts on that!]. My goal, really, is to encourage a new look at old words.
Friends, Jesus is calling us to great things. He’s calling us to rise with Him in baptism, to walk with Him in new life, to become-with the community of believers-a light on its stand.
And he’s calling us to die to our old self.
Or maybe, every once in a while and in a tragic story that makes no sense this side of eternity…
…to literally die.
*Blomberg, C. (1992). Matthew (Vol. 22, pp. 103–104). Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers.
**The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Mt 5:38–42). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.
***Hays, Richard B. The Moral Vision of the New Testament: A Contemporary Introduction to Christian Ethics [San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1996], 326.