I offer an extremely brief overview of Jesus Christ’s most radical and–in human terms–absolutely insane teaching.
“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 evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also…You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good.” –Mt 5:38-39,43-45; cf. Lk 6:27-36
I claim that, despite what our fallen self-preservation instinct and our fallen sense of justice may tell us, Jesus actually meant what he said here: Christians should completely abstain from violence, even at the cost of their own lives. The New Testament teaching on total nonviolence and self-sacrificial love for enemies is one of the most explicit and unambiguous in the whole Bible:¹ it is never qualified, equivocated, watered down, or conditioned. Yet, it is also perhaps the most overlooked, vilified, and frequently disobeyed command in the whole Bible.
To adopt this position sincerely and rigorously will seem stupid, outrageous, and even repulsive unless it is set against the proper theological backdrop. In order to take the teaching seriously, you will first have to believe that Jesus is the Son of the true, living God. You will have to embrace his call to follow his example by dying to yourself.² This means adopting the “cruciform” (cross-shaped) lifestyle: living as Jesus lived, loving as he loved, and if necessary dying as he died. Only if you have truly died to yourself and find yourself alive in Christ,³ do you no longer need to defend yourself. Moreover, you must “not be conformed to the image of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God.” (Rom 12:2) The call to love our enemies so deeply undermines ‘the pattern of this world’–human culture, our most primal instincts, the teachings of great philosophers and sages–that Paul must issue this appeal for radical psychological transformation (dare I say, rebirth?) just before launching into one of Scripture’s most emphatic and unambiguous passages commanding nonviolence in Romans 12:9-21. Paul expounds on the call to “bless those who persecute you” (v. 14) and to “overcome evil with good” (v. 21) with an urgency bordering on exasperation. One can almost hear him straining with the weight of this revolutionary message, hoarse as any visionary preaching rebellion to deafened ears. Jesus encountered the same deafness: “But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” (Lk 6:27-28, emphasis mine)
So, will you listen? For just a moment, try to push aside the slew of “but’s” now thrusting themselves upon you, and simply absorb this teaching on its own radical terms. Can you actually hear Jesus and Paul say what they are saying?
For the record, I’m not sure that I can either. I’m a philosopher (with a brother at West Point), a self-professing skeptic and cynic. I like rationality, logic, and justification. I like Hobbes, Neitzsche, and Kant. I’ve studied many teachings and worldviews that are primarily ethical, philosophical, political, or doctrinal in nature. This is simply not one of them. It is a calling and a lifestyle which can only be embraced, or even seriously considered, in light of a baptism into Christ’s death and his resurrection life. Otherwise, it demands far too much of us. And we will never justify it on our own terms.
[part 2: some objections]
¹ Other passages where Jesus teaches nonviolence most clearly: Lk 9:54-55 esp. v. 56 in some manuscripts (“What spirit you are of”), Mt 26:51-53 (Peter rebuked at Jesus’ arrest: “all who take the sword will perish by the sword,” cf. Lk 22:49-51: “No more of this!”), Jn 18:36 (Jesus’ followers’ refusal to fight as proof that his Kingdom is supernatural), Mt 5:9 (peacemakers are sons of God), Mt 10:16-23 (call to endure persecution by testifying in the Spirit and fleeing). Elsewhere in the NT: Rom 12, 1 Tim 1:13, 1 Pet 3:9. Pertinent OT passages include 1 Ch. 22:8 (David’s violence disqualifies him from building God’s temple); Is 2:4, 11:6-9; Ex 20:13 (“Thou shalt not murder”).
² Cf. Jn 12:24; Gal 2:20, 5:24, 6:14; Rm 6:1-23, 8:17-18, 12:1-2; 1 Pt 4:1-2; Rev 20:6.
³ Cf. Jn 6:51, 11:25; Rom 6:11, 8:11; Gal 2:20; 1 Cor 15:22; Eph 2:5: Col 2:13, 3:1.