Text: Matthew 5:38-48
If and when word gets out that you’re a pacifist, or that you’re committed to nonviolence , you will no doubt, at some point, encounter questions like these: What would you do if someone broke into your home and attacked a family member? If we have another 9/11 should we all just turn the other cheek? And what about Hitler? If we were all pacifists, Hitler would have won and Nazism would have taken over the world. Sound familiar?
These questions carry certain assumptions about what it means to live nonviolently. They may be asked out of genuine curiosity – like, really, how would it work? I’m interested. Or they may be intended to make peaceableness appear weak, ineffective, intellectually ridiculous, and just downright impossible, even immoral. After all, what kind of person would just stand by and do nothing while someone they loved was being harmed? Perhaps you’ve been asked questions like these in conversations where you’ve “come out” as being against violence. Perhaps you’ve asked questions like these to yourself, wondering if nonviolence is a path you are able to take with integrity.
It would be hard to overemphasize how key to this discussion are Jesus’ teachings in Matthew 5:38-48. Packed into this short passage are the core principles of Christian pacifism. And just as an aside, you may already notice that I’m using some language interchangeably so as not to get hung up on “pacifism” as a rigid ideology. Nonviolence. Peaceableness. A newer field of thought talks about Just Peacemaking. Within this core teaching are also phrases often used as weapons against pacifist understandings to prove their impracticality. It’s a passage Mennonites, more than most streams of Christian tradition, have tried to live out. Although since I said something good about Mennonites I have to follow it up with the more humble and self-deprecating observation that we have also used this text in harmful ways. I’ll give an example in a bit.
Today’s teachings follow the text Mark preached on last week. Jesus is offering concrete illustrations of how scripture might be fulfilled, of what the God-ward trajectory of shalom, holistic well-being, might look like. This section includes the final two of those “You have heard that it was said…but I say to you…” lines from Jesus
Verse 38 begins: “You have heard that it was said, ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’” Gandhi had his own observation on this by famously saying, “an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” As harsh as the ancient measure sounds in its tit for tat demands, it’s likely that this law was initially intended as a limitation of violence. In a world where a wrong done against a family member or tribe called for seven-fold, or hundred fold vengeance against the offending party, defining justice as a one for one exchange would be a major step in stopping the escalation of violence. An eye for an eye – No more! But even this, Jesus teaches, does not break the cycle of violence.
How one translates the next words goes a long way in how one understands the thrust of Jesus’ teaching. The NRSV says, “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.” If one takes this translation choice, which, nearly all English translations have done, we are taught that an evildoer should not be resisted. In other words, pacifism as a passive act. Faithfulness as nonresistance, whatever the harm may be. Nonresistance became the main interpretative emphasis of North American Mennonites in the 20th century – and here’s that example. This interpretation led many Mennonite leaders to not join or support the Civil Rights movement because it involved too much active and assertive and public resisting. “Do not resist an evildoer.” Full stop. Nonresistance.
Fortunately there has been some important scholarship and thinking to help us now resist that interpretation.
When the word translated “resist” shows up in other literature, including the Greek translation of the Old Testament, the Septuagint, it is frequently used as a military term. To resist violently. To resist with lethal force. Some better ways of wording this remark from Jesus could be, “Do not violently resist an evildoer.” Or, “Do not resist an evildoer in such a way as to perpetuate harm.” Or, more concise: “Do not mirror evil.” The apostle Paul gets at this idea in Romans 12 when he says “Do not repay anyone evil for evil…if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink…do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” Don’t respond to violence in kind. Don’t let violence limit the options from which you respond. Resist with good.
This one shift of translation in Jesus’ words changes the entire tone of the teaching and is more in line with the transforming initiatives that follow. Rather than passively accepting one’s fate, Jesus gives different examples, specific to that time and culture, of how one might transform a situation without causing harm to the other person.
This is what we had some fun with during the children’s time with turn the other cheek, give the second garment, and go the extra mile. The two additional teachings, “Give to the one who begs,” and “”Don’t refuse the one who wants to borrow,” are examples of the disciple being the one in the position of power. But in those first three, the disciple has less power – a familiar arrangement for this open air congregation of Jewish peasants living in Roman occupied Palestine.
Rather than being instances of allowing the other person to express abusive power unchecked, Jesus presents his listeners with examples of transforming a situation by doing an unexpected act – asserting one’s dignity as a human being, calling on the other person to recognize one’s humanity. Although there’s no guarantee it will “work,” it has the effect of actively disrupting the oppressor/oppressed relationship. It provides opportunity for something new to emerge.
Here’s a 21st century story of this in action. It comes from a friend, Jeremy Garber, and was included in an article he wrote a number of years ago:
Jeremy and his friends frequented a restaurant that had hired a new security guard who seemed to especially enjoy his power. He would “use his taser on the metal edge of the serving counter and snap at people for putting their feet on the scuffed plastic tables, just to prove he was in charge and had the weapons to back it up.”
One day the guard was sitting, leaned back in his seat, feet up on a table. One of Jeremy’s friends, Paul, being a fair minded person, thought he would hold the guard accountable to his own standards so went up to him and said, “You really shouldn’t yell at people to keep their feet off the table and then do it yourself. It sets a poor example.”
Jeremy writes: “The guard drew his loaded handgun from his holster and set it on the table. He responded with menace in his voice, ‘That’s why I get to do what I want.’”
So Paul had some options. He could have done something that might have escalated the violence, he could have made a logical argument against gun violence, he could have walked out….
But instead Paul did something that neither Jeremy nor the guard expected. He reached back to the counter, grabbed a plastic spork, and in a mock-menacing voice said, “Well, I have a spork.” And then Jeremy writes this. “The guard, disarmed by Paul’s humor, laughed, put the gun back in his holster and took his feet down off the table. The entire restaurant breathed a sigh of relief, and (our group of friends) bought Paul’s meal in celebration of his creative response.” (All quotes taken from article, A Spork in the Road, from The Mennonite, pp. 12-14, November 16, 2004 issue)
A way Anabaptists have come to talk about such transforming action is a “third way.” The primary two options we often see as available to us are deeply engrained in our evolutionary biology. Fight or flight. We can engage with all the strength and force we’re capable of, knowing that one or both parties are going to lose – fight; or we can turn and run, leave the situation and concede power to the other – flight. We now know that these responses are embedded in the oldest part of our brains, near the brain stem, sometimes called the “reptilian brain.” They are responses the animal kingdom developed for survival, so we can be grateful to them in many ways. They are there as options, but they are not the only responses available to us, and this thing called the prefontal cortex enables us to tap into another level of consciousness.
Jesus, and other great spiritual leaders, suggest we can rise above our reptilian inheritance and consider third ways. Whether it be asserting one’s dignity, as in the case of turning the other cheek. Or publicly exposing the injustice and unfairness of a situation, as in the case of giving the second garment (quite literally exposing), or whether it be using the just laws of the land in one’s own favor, as is the case of going the extra mile. Or, to misquote Yogi Berra, when you come to a spork in the road, take it.
So, we might suggest something like this for those opening scenarios: If foreign terrorists attack your country, go on a school building rampage all over the lands they come from. If someone breaks into your house while you’re home, ask them what they need and if you can help them find it. Regarding Hitler – Martin Luther King Jr. suggested that if enough of the population of the pre-dominantly Christian nation of Germany would have also put on those armbands with yellow stars, in solidarity with Jews, it would have been much more difficult, if not impossible, for the Nazi forces to isolate, round up, and execute the Jews.
All these responses are highly contextual, and, again, they are never guaranteed to work. They may be different for men and women. There may be times when flight is by far the best option. Sometimes a wise use of strength and force may be what is needed to protect innocent life. And I don’t know this for sure, but I’m guessing Jeremy’s friend Paul was white. Had he been a young man of color, reaching back for an unknown object may be one of the most life-endangering things he could have done.
All this to say that this is not a new legalism, but a new way of thinking and acting. It’s vitality important that we elevate these stories to invigorate our imaginations. So I am officially opening a Third Way Thinking file on my computer that I would love to populate with stories from your lives. Not stories about King or Gandhi, but everyday stories, either about something you did, or something you observed, even an online exchange. I’d like to collect these, and will find a way to share them down the road. Here’s another example, very simple, that I remember from someone in the Cincinnati congregation where I pastored before. I’ll call her Cindy. Cindy had two school aged children and another mother would frequently say negative things about Cindy’s children to Cindy. So she decided every time this happened, she would give a compliment to that mother’s children. Miraculously, the insults soon stopped and the relationship improved. I anxiously await your stories, this week, or half a year from now. I’ll keep the file open.
But we’re not done quite yet with this passage.
After giving some examples of ways of resisting harm without mirroring it, Jesus goes nuclear, or un-nuclear, dropping the ultimate peace bomb, one of his most radical teachings, the final “You have heard that it was said.” “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemies.’ But I say to you, ‘Love… your…enemies.’” Just when we thought we were getting the hang of this… All of those transforming initiatives and creative, witty responses are overshadowed by these words: “Love your enemies.” The point is not to win. Love, it seems, is its own point. Its own end. As the scriptures say elsewhere, love is the ultimate fulfillment of the law.
Booker T. Washington once said, “Don’t ever let them pull you down so low as to hate them.” (don’t know reference).
In a polarized climate, Loving your enemies can feel like a betrayal of one’s tribe. Like, how could you? Especially when the enemies are actively harming you and/or people you love and/or vulnerable people. How could you? How could you? It likely has something to do with the difference between loving and liking. We don’t have to like our enemies, at least not yet. But love, in this context, has less to do with feeling, and more to do with concrete ways that we relate to one another.
And there’s always that closest of all enemies, our own inner violence and tendency to project our own pathologies onto other people. If we look with any kind of honesty at all, we will find plenty of violence within us. We are our own enemies. But Love your enemies. Love is the fountain of all transformation. Love is so close to that Reality we call God that the letter of 1 John goes right ahead and says “God is love.” Christ is love. Christ in us, which is so much more than just us trying to be good. It is the life of God at work within us. We too are the ones in need of transformation.
We may not always be so quick on our feet as to grab the nearest spork when someone whips out a gun, but we can prepare ourselves to love. Love of enemies is the ultimate third way.
“So that you may be children of your Father/Mother in heaven,” Jesus says, “who makes sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.”
This is the entire shape of the gospel. In Jesus’ ultimate confrontation with evil, his execution on a Roman cross, he resists with transcendent love. Violence depends on others internalizing the violence inflicted on them and passing it along to others. It feeds on itself, as it cycles and snowballs through history. Jesus triumphs over evil by refusing to mirror its ways, by transforming it in his person into relationship-restoring, resurrected love. And what he passes on to those ready to receive it is the Spirit whose fruit is love, joy, and peace. Evil has been defeated because it has been halted in its tracks, and a better way is opened up to us. Call it a third way. Or just call it The Way. The love of God, triumphant, recklessly pouring itself out on the righteous and unrighteous.