Warfare and the Ethics of Jesus Christ – Part 1


The Sermon on the Mount

If Christian pacifism has a basis, it must be found in the New Testament. Yet to posit such a claim, Christian pacifists must show that New Testament ethics radically depart from Old Testament ethics.

It is not enough simply to claim that the New magnifies or expands on the Old. The first part of this series (War in the Old Testament) showed that God embedded killing in the law, that in the law love and going to war were not mutually exclusive.   Therefore, to magnify or expand the Old might expand the circumstances under which one might kill. If Jesus said that Christians were to keep the Old Testament law, then Christian pacifists have a problem. Pacifists teach against the plain statements in the law promoting capital punishment and regulating war.

There are degrees of pacifism. Some, for example, support the state’s right to execute criminals but deny that Christians can participate in executions. Others deny the state even that right. It is not our purpose to examine all varieties of Christian pacifism. We will, however, in what remains in this series, examine most of the New Testament scriptures that bear on this issue. Specifically we will explore whether New Testament ethics radically depart from those of the Old.

One other point: This paper will not challenge the claim that the early church fathers of the second and third centuries were all pacifists. That seems to be the clear testimony from the apostolic and ante-Nicene fathers. Their universal testimony combined with their proximity in time to the first Christians strongly suggests that this was how the first Christians believed Jesus’ teachings applied to them. They believed that they should be pacifists. This article and the next in this series will, however, implicitly ask the questions, Did the early church properly understand that teaching? Did Jesus’ ethic cover all situations? Or did circumstances later arise that showed to the church that it had not considered all aspects of the question, requiring a reevaluation of early church doctrine?

The new covenant

A survey of Christian literature on war and pacifism shows that many parties on all sides of the issue fail to consider a fundamental theological point of the New Testament. That fundamental point, when recognized, provides a framework for comparing and contrasting Old and New Testament ethics. Sadly, I have not come across a single modern discussion of war and pacifism that pays any attention to this point. Yet it is a principal theme of the book of Hebrews, plays a major role in Paul’s argument in Galatians and in 2 Corinthians, and is universally remembered by Christians when they take the Lord’s Supper.

What is that point? The Mosaic covenant with its law, having been a temporary supervisor (Galatians 3:24-25) and recognized now to have been a form of bondage in comparison to the new (Galatians 4:21-31), is abolished. It is obsolete (Hebrews 8:6-13). Jesus Christ, through his shed blood, has established a new and better covenant (Hebrews 9:11-26).

Then he took the cup, gave thanks and offered it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you. This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” (Matthew 26:27-28)

While pacifist Anabaptists emphasize the ethics of the cross, I find their discussion of it surprisingly void of any direct reference to the abolition of the Mosaic covenant. Why this is so I do not know, for it seems to give them the potentially powerful argument that Christianity is radically different from the Old Testament faith. Yet the Anabaptist works I consulted do not address the issue of covenant. The closest they come to covenant is when they discuss law.

Perhaps nothing more plainly explains the contrast between the old and new covenants than Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 3.

Now if the ministry that brought death, which was engraved in letters on stone, came with glory . . . will not the ministry of the Spirit be even more glorious? If the ministry that condemns men is glorious, how much more glorious is the ministry that brings righteousness! . . . But their minds were made dull, for to this day when Moses is read, a veil covers their hearts. But whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. (verses 7-16)

Is it any wonder that Paul, when he discusses Christian ethics, never turns to the old covenant law as the foundation of ethics? Instead he turns to the example and teaching of Jesus Christ and the fruit of the Holy Spirit. Or he reasons with his readers about what is ethical and what is not, illustrating his arguments with well-known examples and commonly accepted notions of virtue and vice. Paul rarely uses the law even as an example. He never quotes the old covenant law as the final authority that settles any matter of Christian ethics. For him, “the law of Christ” has become the law of the church (Galatians 6:2, 1 Corinthians 9:21). It is God’s commandments as revealed through Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit that we must follow, not the law revealed through Moses.

Foundational to Christian ethics is Jesus’ new commandment:

Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. All men will know that you are my disciples if you love one another. (John 13:34)

Why is this commandment new? The commandment to love is old. What is new is that Christians are to love one another as Jesus has loved them. Old Testament standards apparently are not high enough. A new standard, the love that Jesus had, is now in place.

Yet what did Jesus mean? Was the command for Christians to love one another as he loved them only applicable within the community of believers, or were they to extend the same love to outsiders? The context of the verse just quoted mentions outsiders as observers of this love, not as recipients of it (verse 35). Was there a different kind of love for those outside the faith?

Ephesians 2:14-17 declares that “Jesus is our peace” and “has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility” between Jews and gentiles. Jesus came, it tells us, to preach “peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near.” This peace is the peace that Jews and gentiles can have between them when they become believers in Jesus Christ. Peaceful relationships between believers and nonbelievers are not a concern of this passage.

So, while Ephesians describes peace as a fruit of the gospel, it does not discuss the many complex issues relating to pacifism, including what a Christian should do when confronted with a professed believer who is behaving in a criminally violent manner. For example, as a member of an invading army.

Nonetheless, the establishment of the new covenant and its new law of love tells us that Christianity is something new — possibly something radically new. In this and the next article of this series we will learn if the New Testament departs so radically from the Old as to demand Christian pacifism in all situations. Are there situations where Christians may take human life? May Christians war?

The Sermon on the Mount

Moses at Mount Sinai mediated God’s law for Israel. The Ten Commandments formed the core of the old covenant.

Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount serves a similar purpose. Jesus, a greater than Moses, goes up a mountain to teach his disciples his law. His sermon has points of contact with both the Ten Commandments and other first-century Jewish practices. Jesus does not simply comment on the law and its traditions, but claims that he has authority to significantly modify their demands on his disciples.

If God makes radically different demands on the church than what he demanded of Israel, it seems that Jesus would have taught those radically new demands in the Sermon on the Mount. If the new covenant demands pacifism, this would be a good place to find it. Is that the case?

Matthew 5:7, blessed are the merciful

Jesus began the Sermon on the Mount with his Beatitudes. Each beatitude began with the affirmation “Blessed are” and was followed with a description of those whom Jesus considered blessed.

Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh have enriched our understanding of Jesus through their sociological studies of first-century Jewish culture. They argue that we can best understand the Beatitudes in the context of the honor/shame society of Jesus’ day.

Ancient Mediterranean honor-based cultures considered honor more valuable than money. Honor had a far greater value than it does in our modern Western cultures in part because people thought of honor as a limited commodity that could be gained or lost. If you gained in honor, it was thought that someone else had lost honor. One could even lose physically, yet win socially, if in the process one gained honor.

A modern example of this would be how Anwar Sadat restored the honor of the Egyptian army by defeating the Israeli defenses along the Suez Canal in 1973. In Egyptian eyes, though he lost the war, he won by restoring Egypt’s honor at Israel’s expense. This restoration of honor is what made it possible for him to later sign a peace treaty with Israel.

Anciently, honor could be obtained in various ways. Society or one’s peers bestowed honor on those thought worthy, or honor was part of one’s social status or family background. That is one reason why genealogies were so important. Shame was to be avoided at all costs. Social interactions between males were often subtle contests to enhance or protect one’s honor.

We can better understand much of the interplay between Jesus and others when we take this social setting into account. Consider that much of his teaching dealt with what God considers honorable and what brings shame. To varying degrees Jesus either challenged traditional views of what was honorable or called on people to do what everyone knew to be the honorable thing.

How does this affect our understanding of the Beatitudes? In that society, to be blessed was to be worthy of honor. Malina and Rohrbaugh believe that to convey this social understanding perhaps the best translation of blessed “would be ‘How honorable . . .,’ ‘How full of honor . . .,’ ‘How honor bringing . . .,’ and the like.” [Bruce J. Malina and Richard L. Rohrbaugh, Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992), 47.]

Malina and Rohrbaugh are right in observing that Jesus obviously considered the behaviors described in the Beatitudes as honorable. As honorable behaviors, disciples of Christ should copy them. To those who do, God will bestow honor.

We will begin our discussion of the specifics of the Sermon on the Mount with Matthew 5:7, “Blessed are the merciful [eleêmônes], for they will be shown mercy.” What does Jesus mean by merciful behavior and why does he consider it honorable?

In modern Western societies, being merciful is often associated with jurisprudence. We say that a judge is merciful if he or she gives a first-time offender a lighter sentence than the law allows. Such judges may not have any social obligation to do so, but act mercifully as they feel inclined. In the United States, judges who consistently show this kind of mercy may be considered “soft on crime” and thus lose the public’s respect.

Was this the kind of mercy that Jesus meant? Was he telling his disciples that those who do not require lawbreakers to fully pay for their crimes will themselves escape full punishment? Did he have the modern Western sense of mercy in mind? If so, this certainly sounds like the beginning of a pacifist ethic.

The word translated here as merciful carries the connotation of having compassionate pity or sympathy. [Horst Balz and Gerhard Schneider, editors,Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament, Vol. 1 (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1990), 428-9. Also Gerhard Kittel and Gerhard Friedrich editors,Theological Dictionary of the New Testament: Abridged in One Volume, translated and abridged by Geoffrey W. Bromley (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1990), 222-3.] This would appear to fit with our Western expectations.

However, Malina and Rohrbaugh argue that in first-century Mediterranean cultures mercy had a sociological meaning different from what we might assume based on its lexical meaning. They ask, What kind of behavior did that society define as merciful?

According to them, that honor-based society considered a person merciful (eleêmôn) who compassionately fulfilled his or her social obligations. These obligations arose from a social relationship between two parties, such as between a parent and child, a husband and wife or a patron and his client. [Malina and Rohrbaugh, 49]. Compassionately paying such “debts” was merciful. Not to pay them was unmerciful. For example, the wealthy had social obligations to be patrons and to give alms. Their higher social position indebted them to others in the sense that their wealth obligated them to give alms, to be patrons of the synagogue and to finance public works. (This was one way they overcame the suspicion that they were dishonorable.) When they did these good works, society considered them both honorable and merciful. Jesus’ concerns for mercy would seem to arise from people’s neglect of such obligations — especially toward the poor and the widow.

Malina and Rohrbaugh believe that Jesus was saying that those who do the honorable thing by compassionately fulfilling their social obligations (the merciful) are themselves honored (blessed), for they will obtain mercy (be treated with compassion by God). Such compassionate honor is not limited to judicial matters, but involves all areas of life. The merciful and God are in relationship.

This explanation seems to be supported by the Jewish usage of a related Greek word, éleos (mercy). (In James 2:13 éleos is used in the context of judicial judgment. We are not saying that it never has such a meaning. But notice that verse 12 implies a social obligation to be merciful.)

In the LXX éleos is mostly used for [the Hebrew word] hesed. This denotes an attitude arising out of mutual relationship, e.g., between relatives, hosts and guests, masters and servants, those in covenant relationship. . . . An element of obligation is thus intrinsic. . . .

The New Testament often uses éleos/eleé for the attitude God requires of us. In Matthew 9:13; 23:23 it denotes the kindness owed in mutual relationships. (Theological Dictionary of the New Testament: Abridged in One Volume, 222-3).

As this theological dictionary brings out, and as Malina and Rohrbaugh had concluded, mercy (éleos) often had to do with relationships and implied “an element of obligation.” [In James 2:13 éleos is used in the context of judicial judgment. We are not saying that it never has such a meaning. But notice that verse 12 implies a social obligation to be merciful.]

Returning to our discussion of merciful, the only other place in the New Testament where the Greek word eleêmôn (merciful) is found is in Hebrews 2:17. There Jesus is described as a merciful high priest who makes expiation for the people’s sins. Hebrews deliberately contrasts Jesus’ priestly role with the role of priests under the Mosaic covenant.

Under that old covenant, Israel was in a unique relationship with God. Their sins hurt that relationship. The priest was obligated to intercede on their behalf by offering sacrifices to God. To not intercede, to not fulfill this obligation, would have been unmerciful. Under the new covenant, Jesus through his sacrifice intercedes for us, thus becoming the greatest high priest. In Hebrews 2:17, Jesus is called a merciful high priest because he has compassionately fulfilled this role. Jesus has become the paradigm of what it means to be merciful.

Understood sociologically, the merciful (the eleêmônes) were people who compassionately fulfilled their social obligations. They owed those obligations to people with whom they had relationships within their own community or to the community itself, not to those with whom they had no social ties. People with money were obligated to the poor, the widow and the community. Not to compassionately fulfill such obligations was unmerciful. By Jesus’ selfless sacrificial example, Christians are encouraged to be merciful beyond what is socially expected. [According toWebster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary, our English word mercy derived from the Latin word meaning “price paid, wages.” Both are types of debts owed. The first for goods, the second for labor. So, even in the history of English the concept of mercy has evolved.]

Even today, by compassionately fulfilling social obligations, one fosters communal peace. So mercy is an important part of any peace ethic. Yet, based on what Malina and Rohrbaugh have observed, “blessed are the merciful” does not lay a foundation for Christian pacifism. Theoretically one can compassionately fulfill all social obligations, thereby foster communal peace, and also go to war to defend one’s own society. (One may even be socially obligated to fight. Society would think it unmerciful to sit back and let others take all the risks.) In first-century Jewish thought, being merciful does not exclude the possibility of fighting. As Ecclesiastes 3:1 says, “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven.”

Even if the mercy of Matthew 5:7 is the mercy we think of today, thus lacking the sense of compassionate social obligation, one can still argue that mercy may be found in war. For example, one can extend merciful conditions of surrender, or one can mercifully give prisoners of war fine medical care, clean clothes, decent food and adequate sleeping quarters. So, even in the modern sense, a merciful person may fight in certain situations. Their willingness to fight does not mean they are unmerciful. In their mercy, they may be defending the weak and defenseless. General Douglas MacArthur’s rule of post-Second-World-War Japan is widely recognized as the merciful administration of a great warrior.

So while Christians must be merciful, one cannot legitimately use Matthew 5:7 to establish a pacifist ethic.

Matthew 5:9, blessed are the peacemakers

“Blessed are the peacemakers,” Jesus said, “for they will be called the sons of God.” As the New Testament declares Christians to be the children of God (Romans 8), then Matthew must be telling us that Christians are to be peacemakers.

It is at this point in the sermon that nonpacifists often begin to squirm, especially if they are professional soldiers. Nowhere does the New Testament directly claim “Blessed are the soldiers,” or “Blessed are those who fight just wars,” or “Blessed are those who kill for justice’s sake.” (We will later consider whether the New Testament ever considers soldiers as honorable.) Yet Jesus did say, “Blessed are the peacemakers.” Jesus holds peacemaking — not simply being peaceable, but making peace — to be very honorable. Peacemakers will be called God’s children.

Peacemaking, of course, is not limited to the prevention of warfare. Peacemaking includes removing all sorts of stress, tension or violence in all realms of life. A family counselor might be a peacemaker. A labor negotiator might be a peacemaker. A pastor counseling someone about a deeply personal problem would be a peacemaker if he helped bring peace-of-mind to that person. Peacemaking is far more than simply preventing or stopping war. For our discussion we will focus on peacemaking as it relates to shedding blood. However, it is important to remember that nothing in this verse suggests that Jesus meant for his teaching to be limited to a discussion of bloodshed.

The question before us is, Can one be a peacemaker, yet under certain circumstances be violent, without violating Jesus’ teaching? For example, may a Christian crisis-situation negotiator, who seeks a peaceful resolution to crises, ever kill a terrorist who is about to murder his hostages? Or do the Beatitudes rule out the taking of human life in all situations?

While many contrive situational arguments against pacifism, recent decades have given us enough hostage-taking incidents to know that the above scenario is far too real. Some pacifists insist that pacifism is such a basic moral principle that even a high plausibility that a terrorist will murder his or her hostages can never justify killing the terrorist to defend them. Their lives are in the hands of God. Such pacifists might argue that since one cannot know the mind of God, one cannot rule out the last-second miraculous deliverance of the hostages. Therefore, some allege that all such antipacifist illustrations are contrived, for they leave the omnipotent God out of the equation. But do they? Did David leave the omnipotent God out of the equation when he said God trained him for war, and gave him strength in battle? As we saw in the first installment of this series, he did not. So, one can imagine situations where God might require fighting — at least from an old covenant perspective.

However, we are concerned about the new covenant. Does “blessed are the peacemakers” automatically mean that a Christian peacemaker can never take up the sword?

The Beatitudes list general, not specific, approaches to life. Some passages, such as those honoring people who hunger for righteousness, those who are meek and those who are pure in heart are speaking of moral principles to be lived every day. Yet when verse 4 says that those who mourn are blessed, we have no reason to believe that Christians must mourn every moment of every day of their lives. Nor does verse 11 mean that Christians should constantly be persecuted for righteousness. So, though we may insist that peacemaking should be a major part of our Christian walk, does that mean we must therefore place peacemaking above all other values?

Sometimes being a Christian brings a sword (Matthew 10:34). It creates conflict between those who believe and those who do not. Peacemaking is not such a high value that Christians must avoid all conflict. To be a peacemaker in every situation would mean that Christians not preach the gospel where it brings strife. “Don’t rock the boat” could then be our motto. So while the verse does not justify warfare, neither does it justify peace at all costs. Though it teaches peacemaking, it does not address all issues of violence. For example, it does not deal with the defense of the helpless. Can bloodshed ever be a legitimate means to bring peace to some situations?

So while “blessed are the peacemakers” clearly places honor on creators of peace, the verse does not explain how they should create peace. Sometimes peace comes through violence: That is how God’s kingdom will be fully established. So, are the peacemakers of Matthew 5:9 those who pacify, or those who are pacifists? The two are not the same. “Blessed are the peacemakers” speaks of those who pacify.

Matthew 5:19, the least of these commandments

Jesus taught:

anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.

On the surface one might wonder what this verse has to do with pacifism. The answer depends on to what commandments Jesus was referring.

A common assumption is that Jesus was referring to the Ten Commandments. Yet Jesus did not say “Ten Commandments.” He said “these commandments.” Yet did not Jesus say a few verses earlier that he did not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it? Did he not teach that the smallest stroke of a pen would not disappear from the law until all was fulfilled? Yes, of course he did, and the law is much more than the Ten Commandments. Why, then, do some limit their discussion to the Ten?

If Jesus meant that the Old Testament law defines the commandments that Christians are to keep, his teaching creates severe problems for every Christian on earth. It creates problems for Paul, who taught that the law, or at least major portions of it, was done away. Are Christians really to practice stoning? Must we wear phylacteries? Are we to practice levirate marriage? Arguing that Matthew understood Jesus to say that the old covenant law applied to Christians seems far-fetched.

That leaves us with only one possibility. Jesus did in some sense fulfill all of the law and the prophets just as he said. Now that everything has been accomplished, though heaven and earth have not yet passed away, the least stroke of the pen may now disappear from the law. A new order has come.

It is not my purpose to explain how Jesus fulfilled all the law and the prophets. That would take another lengthy paper. Yet I do suggest that this must be the case. Otherwise, the verse makes no sense in the New Testament canon. Therefore, the commandments that Jesus urges his disciples to obey and teach — the least of “these commandments” — are Jesus’ own commandments. I remind the reader that Matthew ends the Sermon on the Mount with the parable of the wise and foolish builders. The wise builders are those who put into practice the words of Jesus. The implication is that those who put Moses’ words into practice, but ignore the words of Jesus, are foolish builders. Their house will collapse.

One objection to this conclusion might be that the Sermon on the Mount hardly reads like a law code. That is true. Most of the Sermon is case law and wisdom teachings, not law code. Principles, examples, parables, midrash and encouragement combine to create a powerful sermon on Christian ethics. Disciples should practice these words (Matthew 7:24) just like Israel was to practice the old covenant law.

Some argue that Jesus meant the Sermon on the Mount for the millennium. Others believe he meant its teachings to be an interim ethic for the time immediately before the end. Neither position appears valid. Jesus expects us to obey his teachings now, not later. Though he may have thought the end was near, he never taught an interim ethic. He taught as one who believed that this was the way things ought to be — always.

For Christian pacifists and nonpacifists alike, this point becomes important. Statements such as “blessed are the peacemakers” are not merely Jesus’ suggestions. They express the heart of his ethic and wisdom, and therefore become commands for his disciples. We must be peacemakers. We must practice all the ethics and wisdom taught in the Sermon on the Mount. But to do so requires that we first understand what his teachings mean.

With that in mind, we now move on to other teachings from that sermon.

Matthew 5:21-26, murder and reconciliation

In a reference to the law, Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.'” Then, to affirm his authority as higher than the law, he said, “But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment” (emphasis mine).

Some ancient manuscripts have Jesus saying, “angry without cause,” instead of simply “angry.” Perhaps this textual variation is an editorial gloss that reflects either a copyist’s understanding or the church’s interpretation of Jesus’ words. In any event, Jesus taught a morality that was deeper, richer and in many ways more difficult to fulfill than the law. In Matthew 5, he seems to proscribe most, if not all, anger. He even adds that “anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.”

Strict pacifists argue that this automatically rules out all killing. How can one take a life without hating? Without being angry? Without having the spirit of the one who says “You fool!” Do not all military organizations try to instill that evil spirit in their recruits? Is not that the spirit created by war?

Here again, while pacifists call on Christians to stop trying to escape what they see as the clear implications of the verse, nonpacifists call for a more nuanced understanding. For example, though the verse eschews murder and anger, does this verse mean that all forms of killing are murder and that all anger is wrong?

One key to understanding the passage is to recognize that it deals with a disciple’s relationship to his “brother.” Disciples are not to murder, nor are they to have anger toward a “brother” or call a brother Raca. Knowing who a “brother” is helps us understand and apply the passage.

In Matthew’s context, “brothers” does not refer to males having the same parent. “Brothers” refers to men and women of the same spiritual family — in this case, to Jesus’ disciples (Matthew 12:48-50). This is a member of the church (Matthew 18:15-17; 28:10). We mean the same thing today when we speak of brothers and sisters in the faith. That is how the entire New Testament, especially Acts and the epistles, constantly uses the term. Exceptions, or nuances, are in Acts 13 and 23 where Paul calls his fellow Jews “brothers.” (Of course, they were of the same spiritual family — the people of the Mosaic covenant. See also Romans 9:3, where Paul speaks of “my brothers, those of my own race.”) The term refers to the members of the household of faith, not to the heathen.

Therefore, while we may be tempted to expand Jesus’ Sermon-on-the-Mount teaching on anger to cover all our human relationships, including war, to do so requires that brother take on a meaning that it simply does not have. To put it another way, for us to properly apply this verse to enemies, Jesus must at times use “brother” to refer to an enemy. Yet nowhere in Jesus’ teaching, nowhere in the New Testament, does brother ever refer to an enemy. Moreover, 2 Thessalonians 3:15 tells us that if we find it necessary to disfellowship a brother for moral reasons, we are not to regard him as an enemy. An enemy is not a brother.

So when Jesus teaches against anger directed toward a brother, Jesus is teaching his disciples to love one another. He is not commenting on their relationships with those outside the faith, or with those who have departed from the faith or with enemies. Jesus himself got angry with those who stubbornly resisted righteousness when they should have known better, and he called such people names (Matthew 23). What he would not stand for was for one of his disciples calling another disciple a fool. If we call a Christian brother a fool, we place ourselves in danger of “the fire of hell.”

What I have found especially odd is that both sides of the war issue have failed to address the question, Who is my brother? Perhaps the reason is that we often think of the brotherhood of men (or is it the sisterhood of women?) and then assume this was the biblical perspective. However, it is not. An enemy is not a brother. A brother is of the household of faith.

This whole issue of brotherhood is especially critical not only for understanding the passage in question, but also for understanding many other passages to which pacifists refer. Could much of their exegesis rest on a misunderstanding of   brother?

To return to the section of the Sermon on the Mount that we are now studying, notice how Matthew 5:23-26 uses the term “brother.” In these verses a brother has something against us. Jesus counsels us that before we offer our gift in the temple, we should go and be reconciled to our brother (verses 23-24).

Jesus then follows this teaching with an example that is similar but in some ways significantly different. In verses 25-26 he discusses a situation where we have an adversary who is taking us to court, apparently over a debt that we owe. Jesus counsels that we settle quickly with those to whom we owe money, before they drag us into court, lest the judge throw us into jail.

Neither case addresses warfare, violent life-preserving self-defense or the defense of others. Both cases assume we are in the wrong. Both cases counsel us to correct the wrong. In these cases, there simply exists no cause for violence.

So what have we found in these passages? While the pacifists’ interpretation of these passages might be initially attractive, they cannot sustain it. These teachings of Jesus focus on love within the community of faith and the payment of debts to those outside it. As such, they illustrate how one can be a peacemaker. However, we cannot build an ethic of war and peace on these verses, for war and self-defense are not their subject. They do not eliminate the possibility that one could severely punish even those whom one loves. That one can love the family, pay one’s debts, and morally fight the nation’s enemies remains a possibility. We must search elsewhere for a viable pacifist ethic.

Matthew 5:38-42, eye for eye

The Mosaic law regulated punishment and vengeance so that their effects would not exceed the crime. Jesus referred to these regulations when he said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth'” (Matthew 5:38, referring, perhaps, to Exodus 21:24, Leviticus 24:20 and Deuteronomy 19:21). That people applied these verses to personal vengeance outside the judicial system seems very likely, though that was not the original intent of the law. The law expected Israel to administer such sentences within the judicial system (Exodus 21:22; Leviticus 24:22-23; Deuteronomy 19:16-20).

Jesus, in referring to these laws, commented, “You have heard that it was said. . . ,” not, “You have read what was written.” He, therefore, may not have been directly referring to the written law. Perhaps he had in mind the oral law or the common beliefs about the law. The average person could not afford a copy of the Scriptures. They only heard the law read to them. Still, whatever Jesus was referring to had as its basis the Mosaic law.

Jesus, in giving his antithesis of the law, again positioned himself as a greater authority than the law. He said:

But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. (emphasis mine).

Let us study his comments in detail.

Jesus begins with a general principle: Do not resist an evil person. Christian pacifists often call this passage a key to the scriptural foundational of their position. Jesus illustrates his ethic of nonresistance with four examples: 1) turn the left cheek to the one who strikes you on the right, 2) give both your cloak and tunic to the one who wishes to sue you, 3) go two miles if forced to go one, and 4) give to those who wish to borrow.

Each of these cases is limited. Jesus obviously means for them to illustrate his teaching not to resist an evil person. Left unanswered is, Do we apply this teaching in all situations, to all evil persons? Those trained to think in terms of law, not cases, would be less likely to ask this kind of question. But we should ask about cases, for what are these passages but examples of specific cases?

One striking observation about these passages is that Jesus never discusses a government’s responsibility, or the responsibility of government agents, to protect citizens from the evil actions of others. Nor does he discuss if a Christian might violently come to the defense of a third party, either as a government agent or private citizen. Furthermore, though the law originally placed “eye for an eye” within the frame of jurisprudence, Jesus does not discuss jurisprudence either. Each of his examples deals with conflicts that individuals might face in their private lives. Public and civic duties, duties toward innocent third parties, are not an issue.

The first example he gave is that of being struck on the right cheek by an evil person. Why the right cheek, and not simply being struck anywhere? Why not mention being clubbed or attacked with a knife? The most likely way to be struck on the right cheek is with a backhanded slap. If Jesus had a backhanded slap in mind, then it appears he was referring to being insulted, as opposed to being involved in a knock-down, drag-out fight. At least that was what Augustine argued. [Paul Ramsey, Basic Christian Ethics, Library of Theological Ethics (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1993), 166. Ramsey rejects Augustine’s reasoning, arguing that a mere insult does not fit the context of Jesus’ teaching not to resist an evil person. Yet it seems to me that it is Ramsey who is in error. Augustine was much closer in culture to Jesus than Ramsey, so was in a better position to understand the implications of Jesus’ remarks. Ramsey is viewing the passage more through American eyes than ancient Mediterranean ones. Ramsey too easily dismisses Jesus’ mention of the right cheek. Why not the left? A back-handed blow to the right cheek is an insult. Such a blow comes from an evil person.]

In which case, Jesus was teaching that Christians should not return insult for insult. [My wife calls this passage “the little sister verse.” She explains that if a little sister knows what is good for her she will not hit back when her big brother clobbers her. Why? Because if she does hit back, he’ll hit her again. It’s better for her to scream for her parents instead.]

Was Jesus teaching more? Remember, he gave these examples to illustrate how not to resist an evil person. Every example given by Jesus to illustrate this principle deals with abuses of various types against oneself. Abuses against others he does not discuss. Nor does Jesus discuss all possible situations.

As we have seen, Jesus’ first example deals with being struck on the right cheek. The second example, of surrendering more than what one is being sued for, shows how nonresistance can take many forms. The evil person is using the judicial system to get one’s tunic. One should give him one’s cloak as well, Jesus advised. He did not suggest that individuals surrender their whole wardrobe, or the wardrobes of their children.

This lawsuit example had a basis in the real-life experiences of many first-century Jewish peasants who were often abused by wealthy landowners. The corrupt judicial and economic systems favored those in power. Poor Jews related to what Jesus was teaching. Corruption was common. (Remember the illegality of Jesus’ own trial, and his parable of the unjust judge.)

In Jesus’ day, the law of retribution (eye-for-an-eye), which was meant to curb vengeance, could be used to exploit others. That was because corrupt officials used it to rob the defenseless. Paul Ramsey observes that Jewish teachers interpreted the law of retribution to mean

monetary reimbursement for injuries. . . . [With that understanding] legal procedure, then, attempted to estimate the value of a wound or limb lost; just retaliation meant suit for damages. (Ramsey, Basic Christian Ethics, 67)

Instead of an eye being taken, the supposed value of an eye was taken. Just retribution, however, did not always occur. The poor had little ability to defend themselves. In Jesus’ example, the plaintiff is evil, not because he had no basis for his claims, but because he was trying to take the very clothes off the poor defendant’s back, the tunic that kept him warm. The evil plaintiff had no concern for the poor. Nevertheless, Jesus taught that those dragged before such a court should also surrender their cloak. On a practical level, where the courts are stacked, legal resistance is futile. It is often better to sacrificially give in than to suffer a worse fate for resistance.

What Jesus did not explain is whether a Christian must never violently resist an evil person’s attack on a third party, say the widow next door, or more broadly, on another nation. What if an evil person is suing the widow, are Christians to stand back and allow the widow to be abused? What if an aggressor nation threatens to invade a peaceful nation? Where there is an honest government, are Christians in that government not to resist the evildoer? If God has placed a gun within their reach, must they never use it? How long will civil society stand if it does not violently resist violent evildoers?

The passage we have just studied is not, strictly speaking, a pacifist passage. Even pacifists could violate it if they resisted passively. It is more accurate to call this a nonresistance passage. The examples that Jesus gave us are limited to injuries suffered by a private individual in one-to-one situations. Jesus is denying private revenge to the private citizen. He does not discuss the broader issues of protecting the innocent and the government’s responsibility to maintain civil order. Jesus makes no claim that nonresistance applies to matters of national defense, the judiciary or the protection of third parties.

Again Malina and Rohrbaugh give us fascinating insights as they place this teaching in the context of the Mediterranean honor-shame societies.

The . . . scenes here all describe having one’s rights infringed on in a humiliating way: being struck on the right cheek by a backhand slap is an insult, as humiliating as being successfully sued in court or being forced to carry military gear for a mile. All such humiliating behavior required defense of one’s honor. . . . The key to imagining the scenarios here is to realize that all of them presume an audience. In the Mediterranean world no one fights in public without others intervening to break it up. Barroom fighting between two he-men with all bystanders watching is North American behavior. Should someone be publicly insulted, the bystanders are sure to intervene. The real question raised by the image here is whether an insulted person should seek to defend his own honor or let another person defend him. Allowing others to come to one’s defense enables one to be reconciled later with the one who dishonored, and not proceed to a demand for satisfaction and feuding. (Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, 55)

While their insights are helpful, I believe they miss the mark in one minor point. Malina and Rohrbaugh go on to argue that we should understand the fourth example — lending to those who ask without expecting repayment — separate from the first three. They do not associate this example with public humiliation. In that honor-shame culture, giving money as alms and patronage was one way a wealthy person maintained or gained honor.

However, the behavior described by Jesus is giving neither alms nor patronage. It was lending. To repay a loan was both a financial and a social obligation. To repay showed honor to the lender. Jesus asks potential lenders to give up their right to repayment. In effect, he asks them to give up their right to be honored. This fourth example is also a one-on-one situation. On these grounds the fourth example belongs with the preceding three.

Therefore, based on the evidence available to us, it is a misunderstanding of the text to claim that Jesus addressed here the subject of pacifism. Instead, Jesus told his disciples that they should be willing to give up their right to defend their individual honor. In this way, they would maintain and extend social peace within their communities. By giving this teaching, Jesus redefined what kind of behavior was honorable. He was not teaching that Christians could never violently defend the honor of, protect, or rescue others. (To refuse to defend would have been dishonorable.) Nor was he discussing the proper Christian response to violent illegal activity. Nor was he addressing the responsibilities of the police, military or the state. In this passage, these were not his concerns.

Matthew 5:43-48, love your enemies

As we have seen in the first article in this series, Leviticus 19:18 teaches that the people of God should love their neighbor as themselves. Under the old covenant, love was compatible with capital punishment and many forms of war. A neighbor was someone from one’s own community, not someone afar off. Jesus, in his antithesis of this law, appears to challenge these ideas.

You have heard that it was said, “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven.

Some late manuscripts add after enemies, “bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you.” These additional words are either the historic teaching of Jesus or a Christian community’s commentary on his words, i.e., how they believed loving one’s enemies was to be lived out. Because the Sermon on the Plain in Luke 6 associates these thoughts, a copyist may have added them to Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount. That would explain why not all ancient texts of this passage include them.

The interpretive key to this verse is understanding exactly who is our enemy. The second key would be to understand what loving them entails. Often people assume they know without carefully considering the issues.

Verse 47 says, “And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?” Jesus gave this example to illustrate how we are to love our enemies. We should do better than pagans, who greet only their brothers. Because we have already established that brothers are those who share a common faith, we must conclude that an enemy is someone who is outside that common faith, in this case not a disciple of Christ. However, that is not the only criterion, as pagans and tax collectors — both mentioned in the text — are not necessarily enemies. Furthermore, an enemy is someone one might come across while going about in public. It is in that circumstance that the question about whether to greet him or her might come up. Jesus is not describing a battlefield, warfare or the execution of a crime.

Jesus’ prime concern is our general attitude toward enemies within our own town. We should pray for them. Greet them. Extend blessings to them just as God gives rain and sun to the just and the unjust. If we copy God’s example we will be perfect, just as our heavenly Father is perfect. And we will have greater social peace.

Yet, if the Father’s behavior toward the unrighteous is to be our guide, we cannot escape the fact that he also deals with some unrighteous in markedly violent terms. In his entire teaching, Jesus does not rule out the severe judgments of God. Nothing in the Sermon on the Mount suggests that perfection be found only in God’s benevolence and not in his violent justice. Having noted this, we also note that nothing in Jesus’ statement suggests that the state, the courts, the church or individual Christians should ignore criminal behavior. We have no reason to conclude that loving your enemy automatically rules out punishing him or her when the occasion warrants. Biblically, love and punishment, love and killing are not mutually exclusive.

Matthew 5:43-48 does not address the broader social responsibilities of Christians to maintain social peace or reestablish it in the face of violent criminal activity. Instead, it discusses our everyday relationships with those people in our community who freely move about, yet, though they may not be criminals, for some reason have become our enemies. These we must love by praying for them, greeting them and blessing them.

So while we might assume that Jesus’ command to “love your enemies” demands pacifism in the face of international strife or violent criminal activity, his concerns in this passage are much more parochial and everyday. Careful exegesis should not allow us to expand his teaching beyond the kinds of circumstances he was discussing.

General observations

The Sermon on the Mount appears to be a powerful pacifist sermon. Jesus’ call to believers to be both merciful and peacemakers, his expansion of the commandment against murder to include both hatred and name-calling, his insistence on reconciliation and out-of-court settlement, his substitution of nonresistance for personal revenge, and his teaching that we love and bless our enemies all paint a consistent picture. Jesus calls his disciples to live a fundamentally peaceful life — a life that at its core willingly denies the self for the sake of peace. Yet is this truly a totally pacifist ethic?

As we have seen, Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount never addresses significant concerns that pacifism ultimately embraces. Jesus never denies that there may be a place for taking human life. He never rejects capital punishment, nor does he deny the state the right to violently protect its citizens. He does not criticize soldiering, and he does not discuss all issues regarding self-defense (such as the possibility of a husband protecting himself for the sake of his family). More notable is his failure to mention whether one can come to the defense of another — violently or otherwise. On issues of criminal justice, he is silent. Group-to-group and nation-to-nation interactions are not a part of this sermon. Finally, he does not mention whether a disciple can, as an agent of a government, carry out the government’s God-given authority to use the sword (an authority the Bible readily recognizes).

The perspective of the entire sermon is personal activity at a community level. The community could be the church or the town in which one lives. The people with whom one might be in conflict are people one probably knows. They are church members, or they are one’s fellow townspeople. They are not those with whom one or the state may be at war. They are not criminals engaged in rape and murder.

Of course the Sermon on the Mount is not the sum of Jesus’ ethics. In other places he does teach that disciples should strive to live at peace with those with whom they might otherwise be in conflict, such as the Samaritans. Jesus’ vision of whom his followers will be ultimately includes people of all nations. Christianity is to embrace everyone. Thus we tend to universalize the ethics of the sermon and apply it to all situations. Yet upon closer inspection, the peace passages all deal with personal concerns within a limited locale. The Old Testament call for national Israel to defend the fatherless, widow and poor, and to act for social justice are simply not present in these teachings. Jesus does not explain how the state and its citizens should collectively maintain an orderly and safe society, one protected from criminals and criminal organizations both within and without.

In short, nothing in the Sermon on the Mount totally rejects violence and bloodletting. Jesus’ sermon may teach peacemaking, but pacifying is not unqualified pacifism. Many pacifists fail to perceive this distinction.

Author: Ralph Orr

Was this Article Helpful ?  

Help us provide more content like this by giving today

Donate