There are a number of remarkably well-written pieces in the latest issue of the Harvard Ichthus devoted to the theme of Christianity and pacifism. Various perspectives are ably represented and defended, and my initial (foolish) desire as I began to formulate a response was to attempt a broad interaction with a number of the arguments laid forth in them. However, I will limit my focus to only one prominent idea that recurs a few times in this issue and frequently in all discussions about “just war” theory–namely, that Jesus’ radical message in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7 demands a pacifisitic position for Christians.
In particular, one of the pivotal texts inevitably highlighted by Christian pacifists is Jesus’ memorable injunction to his followers to “turn the other cheek” when they are personally insulted or affronted by those who are hostile to them (5:39). This ideal of non-retaliation is then interpreted by pacifists as implicitly forbidding any Christian involvement in war or defensive employments of violence whatsoever. My simple aim here is to dispute that this reading accords with Jesus’ historical intention in the Sermon on the Mount.
My first point is the most crucial. Matthew 5:21-47 consists of six pairs of contrasts, of which Jesus’ admonition to forgo personal vengeance is but one instance. The first half of each contrast cites or alludes to a legal command from the Mosaic Law (generally introduced with “you have heard that it was said”). The second half of each antithesis would seem, on the surface, to contradict the former OT requirement and to replace it with a brand new exhortation from Jesus himself (“but I say to you”). It is quite easy to be sympathetic to the pacifist interpretation of 5:38-42 at this early stage: Moses allowed for strict retributive justice in the affairs of God’s people, but Jesus’ way entails mercy and forgiveness when his disciples are wronged. The lex talionis is done away with in all spheres of life for the Christian, no exceptions.
Yet this grasp of the relationship between the six contrasts between Moses and Jesus flies directly in the face of Jesus’ stated aim in 5:17-20. As virtually all Matthean scholars recognize, Jesus’ introductory words in 5:17-20 function as a “control” over everything that follows in 5:21-47, quite plausibly because his forthcoming words could be (and so often have been) misunderstood in their essential thrust. 5:48 then provides the proper conclusion to this section of the Sermon, creating an “inclusio” with 5:20–both emphasizing in vivid manner the necessity of a deeper righteousness for Jesus’ band of followers than that possessed by the Jewish leaders who wash the outside of the cup while the inside is full of ravenous corruption.
The unmistakeable force of 5:17-20, however, is to insure that Jesus’ words not be taken to imply a contradiction between his teaching and the Mosaic law, nor the abolishment of the latter with Jesus’ new “torah” replacing it de facto (this essential continuity between old and new is a special focus of Matthew’s Gospel). The relationship between Jesus’ message and the Old Covenant is, rather, one of fulfillment. I take this to mean, at the very least, that Jesus’ commands may go beyond the stipulations of the Mosaic covenant in radically internalizing them or drawing out their true meaning or essence, but never against them. And yet, the Mosaic covenant is filled with numerous laws concerning war, courts of justice, self-defense, etc. The implications of this cannot be missed if we hope to faithfully render the aims of Jesus here. Jesus is not Marcion, if any need reminding. In the Law and the Prophets, the God of Israel often commanded His people to engage in acts of warfare (let alone other sorts of behavior contrary to strict pacifism). This blatant fact must not be forgotten or swept under the rug when Jesus insists that his teaching does not abolish that OT revelation.
The most illuminating, brilliant treatment of the Sermon on the Mount I have come across is this short volume by Dale Allison, undoubtedly the most renowned biblical scholar in the English-speaking world today on the Gospel of Matthew. He fleshes out the significance of 5:17-20 for interpreting “turn the other cheek” like this:
“To do justice to Matthew, the reader must take seriously 5:17-20, verses which plainly say that the Law and the Prophets are still in force. This declaration stands as the preface to the imperatives in 5:21-48, about which there has been so much debate and confusion. We have here not a vestigial sentiment of an obsolete Jewish Christianity but a hermeneutical key—and one that proves fatal for the absolutist approach of Tolstoy and like-minded others. For their interpretation of 5:21-48 lands one in fundamental, irreconcilable conflict with the Hebrew Bible, which accepts armies, courts, and oaths as necessary; and it would seem to follow, on that interpretation, that ‘Jesus Christ has retracted what had earlier been established by God his Father’ [quoting Calvin]. But for Matthew old and new hang together. Jesus did not recklessly contradict or abandon Moses and his laws. ‘I came not to abolish the law and the prophets.’ As 9:17 has it, old and new are to be preserved together. What follows? If the absolutist position be maintained, then Matt. 5:17-20, understood in its natural sense, must be reckoned misleading and indeed false, for the main purpose of the passage is to deny any genuine contradiction between Jesus and the Torah. In view of this, however much one may admire the courage it takes to try to live the Sermon literally, and however true it may be that the Sermon demands radical obedience, a literal-minded and legalistic observance cannot be, at least over the whole range of life, in accord with the Matthean intention.” (pp. 8-9)
Later, Allison reaffirms the same point but applies it specifically to pacifism:
“…if indeed Matthew understood 5:38-42 to enjoin an absolute pacifism and so to outlaw participation in all wars, it is very difficult to see how he could have included in his Gospel 5:17-20, with its strong affirmation that Jesus did not come to abolish the law.” (p. 96)
A number of other points can and should be raised against the pacifistic argument from the Sermon the Mount (such as the importance of remembering that Christians are citizens of two cities, two kingdoms, as Augustine and Luther rightly recognized–though I cannot pursue this line of thinking now). Very few Christians would argue that “turn the other cheek” means, in the original intention of Jesus, that a judge must free all hardened criminals who continue hell-bent on reaking havoc upon innocent, helpless citizens, or that a policeman must continually open himself to attack from brutal gang members and never use warranted force in response if he hopes to honor Jesus in his line of duty.
Why? Because common sense intuits here that such an inference badly misses out on why Jesus gave this command–namely, to regulate the lives of his people as they live in the midst of an evil world and to prevent them from taking personal revenge for attacks made upon them as Christians (this is the true context of virtually all non-retaliatory texts in the NT, as John Jospeh Porter astutely points out in his new article). Jesus did not mean that I am to sit idly by as my wife or children or neighbors are raped or murdered. I am only told to turn my cheek to the evildoer, not those of another human being for whom I may have grave responsibility. I would contend that the clear biblical admonition in that case is to defend the weak and helpless, for such is love.
I conclude with another insightful observation from Allison, who draws out a corrollary to this:
“One can also, on the basis of the commandment to love (7:12; 19:19; 22:37-39), question the pacifist’s interpretation. Each situation envisioned in 5:38-42 is one in which the disciple alone is insulted or injured. But what does one do if others are being insulted or injured? Although this is a crucial question to which Matthew returns no explicit answer, in the parable in 18:23-35 a king, out of mercy, releases a servant from debt. But when that servant mistreats another, the king intervenes with punishment. In this story the king lets himself suffer wrong; but when it is another who suffers, mercy gives way to justice. Could it be that a similar sort of distinction should be read into 5:38-42?” (p. 96)
*Still worth considering is C. S. Lewis’ classic essay “Why I Am Not A Pacifist,” which can be found in this collection of essays