“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also…“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 children of your Father in heaven” (Matt 5:38-42).
Here’s an excerpt from my teacher, Scot McKnight’s, commentary on the Sermon on the Mount tackling Jesus’ radical non-violent ethic in Matt 5:38-42.
It is hard for me to square any Christian military posture toward “our enemies” — the kind of label unworthy for the follower of Jesus — with what Jesus both performed in his last week and what he teaches here (as well as at Matt 26:52). Prior to Constantine (d. 337), apart from a few exceptions, Christians refused to participate in the military. No theologian or leader supported participation in the military. Their nonparticipation was not ethic of resignation to Rome’s might but an ethic of resistance in the form of creating an alternative political society, the church. Beside their obvious denunciation of the pervasive presence of idols and false religions in that military, the earliest followers of Jesus did not enter the military because they believingly thought Jesus meant business in the passage under discussion. The issue for the pre-Constantine church was killing those made in God’s image.
Pacifism isn’t quietism or withdrawal or inactivity, and it isn’t simple submission. Pacifism’s root is connected to the peacemaking beatitude, rooted in love and expressed when the follower of Jesus actively seeks peace. Pacifism isn’t a lack of interest or noninvolvement, but the hard work of seeking peace. Pacifism is nonviolent resistance, not nonresistance. What Jesus teaches his followers to do illustrates the sort of pacifism he advocates: turn the other cheek, surrender even more clothing, go the extra mile, lend and do not charge interest or require a payment back. Hardly the stuff of the inactive. These acts subvert the Roman system.
The dominating idea here is that following Jesus matters above everything else. My own posture is one of pacifism, and here is the logic that I find compelling:
I cannot kill a non-Christian, for whom Christ died and to whom I am called to preach the gospel, for the state; that would be rendering to Caesar what is God’s and deconstruct the kingdom mission.
I cannot kill a fellow Christian for the state; that would be rendering to Caesar what is God’s. My first allegiance is to the King and to his Kingdom people.
I am called to cooperate with the state to the degree it is consistent with the kingdom; I cannot in good conscience cooperate with the state when it is inconsistent with the kingdom; that would be to render to Caesar what is God’s.
I cannot ask in the first instance if this is practicable. I am to ask in the first instance what it means to follow Jesus.
Pacifists have been criticized as maddeningly impractical. “How,” many ask,”can such a posture by followers be realistic in our world?” Some have quipped in clever rhetoric that the problem with Tolstoy’s and Ghandi’s idealism was not that they didn’t live it out but that they didn’t live in the 1930s and 1940s in Germany. I find the quip disrespectful of the radical lifestyle of each. Both would have been executed by Hitler, which is just the point.
Unrealistic? The early Bonhoeffer talks back: “It is the great mistake of a false Protestant ethic to assume that loving Christ can be the same as loving one’s native country, or friendship or profession, that the ‘better righteousness’ and justitia civilis are the same.”
Realism reveals the problem: Why would a follower of Jesus be driven by what is “realistic”? … The words of Jesus stand up on the page of the Bible we are reading. They stare at us in their rugged vision. The end of the Sermon makes it clear that Jesus expects his followers to take up his words and live them out regardless of the cost. I know of no alternative. Take them or leave them, is what I say to myself.
I’ve been asked time and time again these two questions: Do you think the entire country should demilitarize? (What the country does is the country’s business. As a citizen I advocate following Jesus.) What about a person who invades your home? (I’d use force to the point of not murdering him.) These two questions get wrapped up in this question: Isn’t this incredibly naive or maddeningly impractical? No and Yes. No, this is not naive. This is kingdom behavior in the here and now. Yes, this is impractical because Jesus doesn’t spell things out. Perhaps this is Jesus’ point.
Dale Allison’s expression emerges once again: Jesus summons us here to live in our world with the kingdom’s “moral imagination.” Those expressions of Allison’s are not so much impractical as they are countercultural. And that, reader, is the point of the Sermon on the Mount over and over. The kingdom is amazingly practical.
-From Scot McKnight, Sermon on the Mount, The Story of God Commentary, pp. 130-134.
Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount ends with a challenge to put these teachings into practice: