Sunday, October 2, 2011

Unhelpful Answers: Jesus as Universal Pacifist

 “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.  (Matthew 5:38-39 ESV)

There are many Christians who understand those words to mean that Christians are to passively undergo abuse regardless of the situation. How does this relate to our responsibility to protect our families and our own lives? Some teachers make a distinction between active defense (i.e. fighting back) and passive defense (i.e. locking our doors) but when we look closely at that distinction it becomes rather problematic to apply practically.

While some use this verse to support universal pacifism and see willingness to do so as a hallmark of faith we must be careful about establishing whole doctrines on single verses. I believe that closer examination will show that using this verse to support universal pacifism is inappropriate.

Jesus begins this teaching with the phrase ““You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you…” Some people understand these words to mean that Jesus is giving a new teaching and that He is somehow superseding the law with a superior ethical standard. Jesus, however, makes it clear that He is not abolishing or changing the Law that was delivered through the prophets.

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.”
(Matthew 5:17-18 ESV)

The phrase “you have heard” is not a reference to the law itself but rather to the way it was being taught. Jesus is responding to teachers who were taking the word of the law out of context and misleading people. The general issue was that the law was being taught as if it were a series of regulations that, if kept, would make people righteous in God’s sight. This was never the intention of the law (c.f. Rom 3:20, Gal 2:16) and is why Jesus says in verse 20 “…unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Jesus is making it clear that conformity to outward regulation cannot make people righteous because they are by nature sinful.

In this particular case it seems that the Pharisees were misapplying one of the penalties of the law. In the law an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth was a sentencing guideline to be applied by the judicial authorities after a conviction resulting from the Jewish legal process. Its purpose was actually to protect against revenge driven sentences and ensure that punishments were proportional to the crime. The Pharisees had apparently distorted the teaching by making it a personal standard of retribution that was never intended in the law.

If we look closely at the example that Jesus gives when teaching on this we may also notice something that is often missed. Jesus specifically mentions being hit on the right cheek. This is interesting since most people are right handed. If Jesus is speaking here of being punched in the face by someone who is trying to do great bodily harm  it is much more likely for them to be struck on the left cheek. If, however, Jesus was talking about a backhanded slap then the detailed reference to the right cheek makes sense. If He is referring to a slap rather than a punch then his admonition to turn the other cheek takes on a different light.

A slap of this sort is generally not intended to cause great harm but rather is intended to humiliate. To be slapped in the face is an affront to ones honor and is a bold insult. The context where these verses appear, the fact that Jesus is addressing the personal application of a legal standard, and this insight into the type of physical aggression all point to the fact that Christ was talking about retaliation and vengeance in this passage and not about defending oneself when in great bodily danger. Rather, He is explaining that we are not to engage in the kind of tit for tat retaliatory responses that escalate into feuds. We are not to see challenges to our honor and personal slights as a reason for getting even the way the world does. It is the same point that Paul makes in his letter to the Romans:

“Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 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.” To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”  (Romans 12:17-21 ESV)

In neither Jesus’ words in Matthew 5 nor Paul’s words in Romans is there any command that we do not defend ourselves from immediate danger. There is a distinction between a necessary defensive response and a vengeful one. In the book of Exodus the law governing the protection of ones home gives us interesting insight into that very distinction.

“If a thief is found breaking in and is struck so that he dies, there shall be no bloodguilt for him, but if the sun has risen on him, there shall be bloodguilt for him. He shall surely pay. If he has nothing, then he shall be sold for his theft.”     (Exodus 22:2-3 ESV)

Notice that this law establishes for the protection of both the thief as well as the victim. The defender has a right to defend themselves and their property and yet has no right to respond vengefully. If they are startled in the dark they are able to respond as they see necessary. However; if the opportunity exists for them to identify the thief and go to the authorities they are required to do this and are not free to respond with deadly force. The ability of people to defend themselves and for restitution to be made is protected; however, they have a responsibility to assess the situation. If the circumstance was such that the case could be taken to the proper authorities (the thief can be identified) this is what should be done. The property owner did not have the right to take the life of the intruder.

The expectation that people may defend themselves from immediate and severe bodily harm is not just found in the Old Testament. Consider the instructions Jesus gave to His disciples prior to his arrest.

And he said to them, “When I sent you out with no moneybag or knapsack or sandals, did you lack anything?” They said, “Nothing.” He said to them, “But now let the one who has a moneybag take it, and likewise a knapsack. And let the one who has no sword sell his cloak and buy one. For I tell you that this Scripture must be fulfilled in me: ‘And he was numbered with the transgressors.’ For what is written about me has its fulfillment.” And they said, “Look, Lord, here are two swords.” And he said to them, “It is enough.”    (Luke 22:35-38 ESV)

Jesus tells His followers to sell their cloaks and purchase swords. Many commentators understand this in a spiritual rather than a literal sense but there are a few reasons to believe that He is speaking literally. First, He begins by referencing previous instructions that He had given regarding knapsacks, moneybags, and sandals. Those were literal instructions and so it seems reasonable that these are literal as well. Also, after these instructions the disciples show Him that they already have two swords and Jesus replies that “it is enough”. These were literal swords and Jesus did not correct them as He had done so many times before when they misunderstood something He had said.

Notice that the disciples already were carrying swords. We know that these swords were not used offensively so we may assume that they were carried as defensive weapons. Jesus did not rebuke them for having them but rather gives his approval by saying “it is enough”.  Much is made of His later rebuke of Peter for using his sword but that is a completely different circumstance. First, Jesus intended to go to the cross and fulfill the scriptures and secondly Peter did not use his sword for personal protection. The guards had been sent by those in authority, they were not thieves or robbers.

In Matthew 5 Jesus is clarifying the teaching of the law and is not establishing a requirement for universal pacifism. We are to trust in God and His ultimate justice in the face of personal indignities and not engage in vengeful retaliation. This does not mean that we cannot defend ourselves and our families against an illegal, direct, and immediate threat to an extent sufficient to remove the threat.

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