Jesus, the church, and non-violence (Part 1)

I recently saw a movie that was powerful in the way it dealt with some of these issues. Steven Spielberg’s Munich is a retelling of the events of the 1972 Olympic Games held in Munich, Germany. It was during these games that members of Black September, a Palestinian terrorist organization, took hostage members of the Jewish Olympic team. One or two were killed during the initial hostage-taking when they resisted the terrorists.

Within 24 hours all of the hostages and all save three of the terrorists would be dead. Long story short, the German police attempted a rescue, which went badly wrong largely because it was poorly planned. When the hijackers realized the trap, they killed the hostages.

Within a month, the remaining captured terrorists were released after other members of Black September hijacked a Lufthansa airliner and demanded their release. They were released to Libya where they were treated like celebrities.

The movie itself deals with the Israeli response to the attacks. Golda Meir, the Israeli Prime Minister decided that the response ought to be swift and large enough in scope to serve as a deterrent to future attacks. Over the next several years Israeli assassination units killed dozens of high profile Palestinians and Arabs across Europe.

The movie follows the leader of one of these squads. It chronicles the toll that on-going vengeance took on one person. One man who killed to avenge the deaths of his fellow Israelis. By the end of the movie he is barely functioning in normal life as a result of the on-going stress and pressure of functioning covertly in a high stakes games of assassinations.

Interestingly, one scene frames the underlying conflict. The Mossad bomb-maker finally gives expression to his feeling that all of this killing is somehow in conflic with the values of Judaism. He notes that Jews are called to be holy and righteous. “We are not like the other nations.” Their actions as warriors seem to be in stark contrast with their values of Torah. A couple of scenes later, he is killed presumably by Palestinian terrorists who are now seeking the Israeli assassins. As Jesus said, “Those who live by the sword shall die by the sword.”

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The role of the Christian church in the world is to be a counter-culture, a new society that is based on the values of the kingdom and shaped by the teaching of Scripture and headed by Christ himself, a new Israel. It’s important to note that the role of the church and of the state is not the same. The function of the state is to restrain evil and to promote good.

Nowhere is the vision of this new counter-culture more compellingly communicated than in the Sermon on the Mount.

This is especially true when it comes to enemies and war. I’d like for us to explore these topics by looking at two passages of scripture from The Sermon on the Mount.

In Matthew 5:38-42 Jesus talks about retribution. Since Jesus doesn’t talk that much about war and since our enemies are mostly enemies since they’ve done something to us that we think is unjust, we’ll use this passage to think a little about how we respond to people who wrong us.

We will also look at Matthew 5:43-48 where Jesus talks about how we relate to our enemies. 

War and Violence: When to resist (Matthew 5:38-42)

38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ 39 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. 40 And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. 41 If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. 42 Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. (TNIV)

Jesus offers a response to the culture of the day (part 1). An “eye for eye, tooth for tooth” (v. 38) was a principle of limiting retribution to what is a just amount (the punishment must fit the crime). The purpose was to avoid the sort of blood feud that could embroil multiple communities in generations of senseless violence.[1] By the time Jesus spoke these words, it was common practice to impose financial sanctions rather than physical punishment.[2]

Jesus is speaking to Jews who have come to view him as Messiah. It seems that his words are aimed at reforming and renewing Jewish society through this new movement of Christ-followers. They are a grass-roots source of influence that will bring change about outside of the normal structures of power and influence.

Jesus was not opposing brutality or physical retribution since these weren’t the common responses to injustices in the ancient world of Jesus’ time. Instead, it seems that He is opposing the principle of insisting on legitimate retribution, specifically using legal means to settle a score with another individual.[3]

Jesus says, “do not resist…” (v. 39). This is wider, however, than simply insisting on not getting even. It is really, in the affirmative, a willingness to accept ill treatment and even to participate in it (by turning the other cheek, or giving your coat away, or walking a second mile). And it is not limited to simply physical nonviolence. Instead, what is said here also refers to the use of legal means to “resist” an unjust action.[4]

The cases in point are all cases in which an individual comes into contact with another individual who does something wrong or unjust. Jesus is not outlining responses to evil in the abstract. These are concrete responses to concrete examples of wrongdoing. As a result, they’re not really verses that are meant to be applied to society as a collective. Many Christians have traditionally made a distinction between the actions of individuals and the actions of the state. Elsewhere in the NT we are told that the state has the power of the sword. That power, however, is never vested in individuals.

Jesus was not attempting to reform the legal code, but is suggesting an attitude that is loose on rights and entitlements. As I mentioned before, it is an attempt at changing attitudes and subverting the dominant values of a society.

Concrete examples:

  1.  “…turn the other cheek” (v. 39b) A backhanded slap to the face was an expression of contempt and extreme abuse…punishable by a fine.[5] Jesus’ disciples are asked to accept the contempt and abuse without recourse to their legal rights in the situation.
  2. “…hand over your coat as well” (v. 40) The OT Law forbade the confiscation of the coat on humanitarian grounds (Ex 22:25-7). If it was taken as collateral, it had to be returned by sundown so its owner could sleep in it.
  3. “…go two miles” (v. 41) The reference is specifically to the practice of Roman soldiers commandeering local citizens to serve as porters to carry cargo, etc. Instead of telling his disciples to resist members of an occupying force, he tells them to do more than required. This would have been very controversial and set Jesus apart from the Zealots who attempted to drive Rome out of Israel.
  4. “…give to those who ask…” (v. 42) Matthew’s retelling has in mind a specific instance. The verb he uses refers to a single act. The principle is that we ought to place the needs of others before our own convenience or our own rights.

R. T. France notes, “A willingness to forgo ones personal rights, and to allow oneself to be insulted and imposed upon, is not incompatible with a firm stand for matters of principle and for the rights of others. Indeed the principle of just retribution is not so much abrogated here as bypassed, in favor of an attitude which refuses to insist on one’s rights, however legitimate.”[6]

There will be times when we as followers of Christ are entitled to use legal means to compel someone else to stop doing something to us that is wrong. However, Christ here suggests that we shouldn’t consider our entitlements and our legal rights as supreme. There will be times when we are called on essentially give up our rights in an instance and give to the other person something they don’t deserve. 

 


[1] R. T. France. Matthew. TNTC. 125

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid, 126.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Jonas, NTT, 239.

[6] Ibid.