Warfare and the Ethics of Jesus Christ - Part 2


Ralph Orr

The Sermon on the Plain

The Sermon on the Plain is quite similar to the Sermon on the Mount. Some conclude that the two sermons are differing accounts of the same event. Supposedly the Gospels portray them as two because of the diverging oral traditions that circulated in the early church. These diverging traditions were sources for the Gospels. Yet having preached two slightly different sermons on the same subject in two different congregations, I see no reason to reject the apparent testimony of Matthew and Luke that we are dealing with two sermons there as well. There are enough differences in the details and the occasions of the sermons to suggest that this was the case.

For our purposes we will focus our attention on Luke 6:27-36. The message here parallels the peace teachings of the Sermon on the Mount. It begins with "I tell you who hear me: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you." The observations we made about Matthew apply here. Jesus is speaking about personal injuries of a local nature — of being hated, cursed and mistreated. He is not addressing the defense of others or of the nation. Nothing in his words suggests any response to criminal behavior. Nor is he suggesting that the state stop enforcing its laws, refuse to punish criminals or cease defending its citizens. Finally, nothing in his words suggests that loving one's enemies, doing good for them and praying for them excludes any possibility that a believer, even under the most extreme circumstances, cannot take that same person's life.

Verse 29 reads,

If someone strikes you on one cheek, turn to him the other also. If someone takes your cloak, do not stop him from taking your tunic. Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back.

One possibly significant difference between this passage and the Sermon on the Mount is that instead of the disciple being struck on the right cheek, the blow comes to either cheek. This seems to envision more than a backhanded slap. What do we make of this? Is the verse expressing a general attitude toward personal abuse, or a commanded literal response applicable in all situations? If so, is it the only response permissible?

For example, one evening I saw a large man beating an elderly woman as they walked along a lonely downtown street. Should I have told the woman, Turn the cheek? Or, if I thought it necessary to save her life, could I have become violently involved in her defense? (As it was, I yelled at the man to leave the elderly woman alone. He turned his drunken rage toward me, at which point, to protect my wife who was with me, I drove away. We circled the block and were shocked to find the two walking together.)

Take another example. When I was a child, my family and I heard the screams of a neighbor as her schizophrenic husband was stabbing her to death. A laborer working next door to her house ran toward the screams in time to see her stumble out the door. She fell to the ground dead. If he were a Christian and had arrived in time to defend her, what was he to do? Turn the other cheek? Tell her to turn the other cheek? Of course not, this madman was taking a knife to her throat!

Were these the kinds of situations Jesus addressed when he advised his disciples to turn the other cheek? A careful reading of the text suggests otherwise. Even if the blow to the cheek is a punch, Jesus does not describe a full scale fight, beating or an attempted murder. It is one blow to the cheek that he mentions, perhaps delivered in a moment's outburst. Turning the cheek in that kind of situation can often diffuse the tension, preventing its escalation. He is not addressing a beating or an attempted murder of ourselves or of someone else.

Jesus' examples in this sermon are all on the personal, private, local and limited level. Jesus never suggests that Christians should never use violence in the defense of others. Nor does he absolutely rule out violently defending oneself. Jesus is not teaching pacifism as we generally understand the term. Pacifism has to be read into the text through a less-than-careful exegesis.

Bible students have long recognized Luke's interest in love and the poor, and his call for Christians to be willing to give up this world's goods. In the Sermon on the Plain, these emphases come across in several ways.

Do to others as you would have them do to you. If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even "sinners" love those who love them. And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even "sinners" do that. And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even "sinners" lend to "sinners," expecting to be repaid in full. But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. (Luke 6:31-35a)

In the Sermon on the Plain, Jesus first emphasizes the Christian responsibility to love our enemies. He illustrates his teaching with an economic example. Love of enemies is not a matter of feeling. Love is an action, here the lending of money. Those who love their enemies do good to them. Specifically they lend to them. They do not expect to get anything back.

As in Matthew, the enemy that Jesus envisions lives within the disciple's community. The enemy lives close enough to ask for a loan. Furthermore, the disciple is not at war with the enemy. Their socially calm relationship makes the lending possible. If practiced, Jesus' teaching would help maintain that social calm, and perhaps win the friendship of the enemy, through kind benevolence. Nothing in Jesus' teaching suggests that if the enemy is acting criminally toward the disciple that the criminal should go unpunished or unrestrained. Nor does Jesus suggest that a disciple can never participate in that restraint or punishment. The teaching assumes a calm social relationship that makes it possible to conduct normal commerce.

Keep in mind that in the law, one can punish those whom one also loves. In the law, love and capital punishment are not mutually exclusive. Jesus never disputes this. One is to love one's enemies and God, the state, neighbors and all the believers. Love of enemies does not replace all other love obligations, and Jesus does not suggest that it does. Sometimes these obligations conflict, a point we shall discuss later in this series.

Another difference between the Sermon on the Mount and the Sermon on the Plain can be found in Luke 6:36, "Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful." The Greek word translated here as merciful is different from that found in Matthew 5:7. The word in Matthew (eleêmôn) often referred to those who compassionately fulfilled their social obligations. The word in Luke is oiktirmôn. It also includes the concept of compassion and appears to be a close synonym for Matthew's word. [William F. Arndt and F. Wilbur Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1973), 564.]

In Luke's sermon, Jesus calls on his disciples to have the same kind of mercy/compassion that the Father has. As we have observed, our God is a compassionate God and also a warrior. The two traits are not mutually exclusive.

Immediately after the Sermon on the Plain, Luke relates the story of the compassionate centurion who asked Jesus to heal his servant (Luke 7:1-10). Luke describes this soldier as a deserving man (verse 4). Jesus himself singles this centurion out for his exemplary faith. Being a soldier, Jesus shows us, is no evidence of weak faith or a lack of compassion. This soldier's faith and compassion are examples for us. The Gospel says nothing negative about soldiering. Luke portrays this soldier as honorable and exemplary. Nor is this the only place where Luke speaks positively about soldiers.

Luke 9:55-56, the Son of Man did not come to destroy

Some manuscripts of Luke include the teaching that "The Son of Man did not come to destroy men's lives, but to save them." The specific incident prompting this teaching was a Samaritan village's rejection of hospitality to Jesus and his disciples. They refused hospitality because Jesus was heading for Jerusalem.

In anger James and John asked, "Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?" (Luke 9:54). Jesus rebuked them and said they did not know what spirit they were of. It is at this point that some manuscripts add "for the Son of Man did not come to destroy men's lives, but to save them."

Whether this additional saying originated with Jesus or was an editorial gloss meant to explain his rebuke of the two disciples, we cannot say. For our purposes, it probably does not matter. James' and John's responses went beyond what the law allowed. The Samaritans had not committed a capital offense.

That the Son of Man came to save human lives is not in doubt. That salvation, however, was not physical, but eternal. The passage contrasts James' and John's quickness to destroy people with Jesus' desire to save them. It does not comment on whether they could have destroyed the Samaritans under different circumstances. It simply illustrates the general approach Jesus took with people. He did not defend his honor from every slight. That Jesus will come with a different purpose the second time is well attested to in the book of Revelation.

We should not misapply these words to circumstances they did not address. While soldiers may not find this passage justifying many of their attitudes, neither will pacifists. Eternal salvation as opposed to a vengeful spirit is the issue at stake, not self-defense or military service.

The Good Samaritan

Since the law tells me to love my neighbor as myself, the question naturally arises, Who is my neighbor? An expert in the law once asked Jesus the same question. Luke tells us that the lawyer asked this because he wanted to justify himself. Apparently the man did not love his neighbor, and he thought he had good cause not to. Lest we forget the context of the original law, it is found in Leviticus 19:18. In the law a neighbor was someone who lived in proximity to you. By implication he was a fellow Israelite.

Jesus did not answer the lawyer's question directly. Instead he spoke the parable of the Good Samaritan to illustrate the behavior of one who puts the law of loving neighbor into practice. The parable is found in Luke 10:30-37. At the conclusion of the parable Jesus asked, Who was a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers? The lawyer replied, The one who showed mercy. [eleos here means compassion without the implication of any social obligation.] Jesus then told the lawyer to do likewise. So showing mercy to the wounded and suffering fulfills the New Testament's perspective of loving our neighbors.

Jesus does not suggest that the thieves, who left their victim for dead, should be shown mercy. Nor does he explain what others should have done had they come on the robbery while it was taking place. We cannot determine an all-encompassing Christian ethic on the use or nonuse of violence from this parable. It does encourage selfless sacrifice to relieve the suffering of others, even those with whom we might otherwise be in conflict. Yet it does not address the more complex issues of defense and justice.

Peter's sword

As he was preparing to leave the upper room for the Garden of Gethsemane, and knowing that the authorities would soon arrest him, Jesus reminded his disciples of their first evangelistic tour. He asked, "When I sent you without purse, bag or sandals, did you lack anything?" "Nothing," they answered. Jesus then said to them, "But now if you have a purse, take it, and also a bag; and if you don't have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one. It is written: ‘And he was numbered with the transgressors,' and I tell you this must be fulfilled in me." In reply "the disciples said, ‘See, Lord, here are two swords.' ‘That is enough,' he replied" (Luke 22:35-38).

Sometimes people cite this text as proof that Jesus approved of Christians arming themselves. A legalist might even claim that they are commanded to do so. Yet such a conclusion does exegetical violence to the text. Jesus says nothing about whether Christians should routinely arm themselves. When the disciples say they have only two swords, he replies that two swords are enough. Enough for what? To fulfill the prophecy "He was numbered with the transgressors." Apparently the charges that the authorities would bring against Jesus included sedition, for he claimed to be King of the Jews. Though the Gospels do not record it happening this way, Jesus' accusers could have used the fact that his disciples carried swords as evidence that he was an insurrectionist.

Later, as Jesus was about to be arrested, his followers asked, "Lord, should we strike with our swords?" (verse 49). Peter did not wait for an answer. He struck at the high priest's servant, cutting off his ear (verse 50, also John 18:10). "But Jesus answered, ‘No more of this!' And he touched the man's ear and healed him" (Luke 22:51).

Each Gospel treats this incident differently. Where Luke has Jesus saying, "Enough of this!," Mark has Jesus asking, "Am I leading a rebellion?" (Mark 14:48).

In John, Jesus rebukes Peter with the words "Put your sword away! Shall I not drink the cup the Father has given?" (John 18:11). Matthew gives us a significantly different version of Jesus' rebuke. "‘Put your sword back in its place,' Jesus said to him, ‘for all who draw the sword will die by the sword'" (Matt. 26:52). Jesus then adds: "Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels? But how then would the Scriptures be fulfilled that say it must happen in this way?" After which he challenged the crowd with "Am I leading a rebellion?" (verses 53-55a).

Pacifists almost universally see in these events a confirmation that God calls Christians to nonviolence. When faced with an armed crowd and a kangaroo court, Jesus denied his right to resist. He not only commanded his followers to put up their swords, but taught them that "all who draw the sword will die by the sword." What plainer call to pacifism could there be?

But is it?

All pacifist discussions of this event seem to miss the point. Jesus' renunciation of the sword at this crucial moment is not because he is espousing a universal pacifist ethic. He had an army at his command. Nevertheless, for Jesus to use that heavenly army would be contrary to why he came to Jerusalem. He came to die for our sins. He could not both fight and fulfill God's sacrificial purpose for him. It was just then that the sword had to be denied. This was to be the supreme example of Jesus' love for his disciples. They were to love each other as he had loved them.

So there is no universal pacifist ethic in these events. Jesus is speaking to the special circumstances of his death.

Those who see Jesus only as God might argue that Jesus' right to use the heavenly armies was his right as God, for only God can take life. Yet in the Old Testament, God has clearly delegated to humans authority to take human life. In the New Testament that authority has not been recalled.

Furthermore, the assumption that Jesus at that moment was speaking as God raises theological problems. It suggests that God is limited because he needs angels to rescue him. The opposite is true. Humans occasionally need angels to help them conquer their enemies, not God.

The correct understanding of who Jesus was recognizes both his full divinity and his full humanity. Verses suggesting his humanity should not be confused with those suggesting his divinity. This is a case in point.

To be rescued, the human side of Jesus needed the help of others. As King of the Jews, Jesus had the right to command armies. This could not be so if he were a pacifist. Therefore, one cannot legitimately use Jesus' teaching at the time of his arrest to support pacifism.

How then should we understand his aphorism "all who draw the sword will die by the sword"? The first step is to recognize that it is an aphorism — a brief wisdom saying. It is a general truth that in the proper circumstances generally happens. It is not a divine law or unconditional prophecy. Many soldiers have died peacefully — General Eisenhower, for example. Their deaths prove this verse is not a divine law or prophecy. Jesus' words in this instance are words of wisdom. They are an aphorism, not a law.

Peter drew the sword, of course, but did not die by the sword. This illustrates the general nature of aphorisms. Jesus is simply saying that those who resort to weapons as their primary way of dealing with life's problems will often have their lives ended with weapons. Gang violence is but one example of the general truthfulness of this aphorism. In this specific case, Peter surely would have died violently had not Jesus quickly calmed the situation. The armed crowd far outnumbered the apostle.


We have now completed our study of war and pacifism in the Gospels. We have seen how verses that on the surface appear to support an unconditional pacifist ethic do not. While they are concerned with interpersonal ethics lived out in communities, they leave totally unaddressed the broader issues of life-saving self-defense, defense of third parties, national defense, capital punishment, military service and war. They never challenge the old covenant perspective that love of God, country and neighbor may require the execution of criminals or the instrument of war. The radical departure from old covenant ethics required to justify a new-covenant-based pacifism is not present.

Nor do the Gospels ever suggest that those who war somehow lack faith, patience, compassion or love. That some soldiers lack these traits is obvious, but not all soldiers lack them. As our first article in this series began to point out, in the Old Testament and the Gospels love and killing are not mutually exclusive. The God of love kills.

The Sermon on the Mount tells Christians to be pacifiers — peacemakers. This is how all people ought to live. Sadly, not everyone does. What ought to be is not what is. The world has its criminals and its criminal nations. Violence is a part of our world. How are governments and Christians to respond to this violence? Since the responsibility of an ordered society has been placed in human hands, how are humans to deal with violent murderous criminals?

The Gospels never call on Christians to be pacifists. God, the great peacemaker, is also a warrior. Jesus has armies at his command. We are his disciples. When he returns, the armies of heaven will come with him.

We could have said more. As we hinted earlier, we could have discussed how the Gospels portray soldiers. If we had, we would have seen that some soldiers are spoken of respectfully, while others are not. Yet the Gospels tell neither the good nor the bad soldiers to give up their profession. The military and those in it come under no broad moral judgment. On the other hand, Jesus took a clearly negative approach toward Pharisees, scribes, tax collectors and lawyers. Yet few believe that Christians cannot be scribes or tax collectors or lawyers. The Gospels never describe soldiering as sinful.

Before completing this series we need to survey the epistles and Revelation. In Paul's writings especially we find verses that many pacifists believe support their position. We would be remiss if we did not discuss them. We plan to do so in the next part.

Ralph Orr

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