Having looked at some Old Testament reasons for why I’m not a pacifist, It is time to move on to the New Testament. It is possible to see the Old Testament as allowing the use of force but that things may have changed with the coming of Jesus. Perhaps Jesus has called us to a higher standard.
Turn the Other Cheek
For some, the teaching of the Sermon on the Mount is clear evidence that Christians are called to be pacifists. Here is one of the main passages:
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 the evildoer. But whoever strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other to him as well. (Matthew 5:38-39)
Being commanded to turn the other cheek seems to point toward a posture of nonresistance. If someone tries to harm us, we are to allow them.
The concern I have is that it is not at all clear that striking the cheek is speaking of a life-threatening situation. I have been punched in the face before and it was not an attempt on my life. It was someone trying to prove he was a tough guy. He was hoping I would retaliate so he could put me in my place (I didn’t).
In fact, I believe that this passage is speaking specifically about retaliation. Jesus is saying that if someone tries to provoke us to further violence, we are not to retaliate.
Pacifists might agree with that but I would say that this does not prevent any use of force. I believe that Jesus is speaking specifically of use of force as revenge against someone who dishonoured us in word or deed.
How can I say that?
This teaching by Jesus includes a response to an Old Testament teaching that was given to limit revenge. The eye for an eye and tooth for tooth teaching was meant to prevent insults or attacks from turning into blood feuds. The furthest revenge could go is the act that was originally done against us.
So Jesus does call us to a higher standard, but a higher standard when it comes to our desire for revenge. It might be helpful to quote Paul.
Do not repay anyone evil for evil; consider what is good before all people. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all people. Do not avenge yourselves, dear friends, but give place to God’s wrath, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay,” says the Lord. Rather, if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in doing this you will be heaping burning coals on his head. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:17-21)
Revenge is clearly prohibited for the Christian. I will return in a later post to how Paul calls us to treat our enemies when I look at the command to love our enemies.
But I can think of plenty of uses of force that are not done with the motivation of revenge. Ideally, all actions by police, even when using force, should be done without an element of revenge. As a student of military history, I can see specific incidents when force was used as revenge and when it was not. For example, while the topic is more complicated than this, there are some that approved of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, not just because of the potential saving of military lives in an invasion, but as revenge for what the Japanese did at Pearl Harbour. Such revenge is not supported by the Bible (not even the eye for an eye teaching).
But there is more.
It is not at all clear how Jesus’ teaching to turn the other cheek fits with what we do when we see violence being used against another person. Jesus is not addressing that situation at all here, which is surprising if his purpose was to prohibit the use of force in all cases.
We may choose to allow someone to use force on us, but does Jesus really command us to allow people to use force on others? Perhaps, but it is not clear in this teaching.
One of the most powerful parables ever taught be Jesus was the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25–37). I once heard someone ask about what would have been appropriate for the Samaritan to do if he arrived during the attack on the Jew and not after.
Something to think about.
I do not believe that Jesus’ teaching on turning the other cheek prohibits all use of force by Christians. Next time, I will look at the command to love our enemies.