Monday, February 09, 2015

Are Christian Pacifists Misunderstanding These Words of Jesus?

Are Christian Pacifists Misunderstanding These Words of Jesus?
Matthew 5:38-48:38 You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 But I say to you, do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. 40 If anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, let him have your coat also. 41 Whoever forces you to go one mile, go with him two. 42 Give to him who asks of you, and do not turn away from him who wants to borrow from you.
43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47 If you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48 Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

I was asked recently by a friend to comment on Matthew 5:38-48.  My friend knows that I am not a pacifist but like many other Christians believe in what is known as the “Just War Doctrine”.  I believe that my friend struggles with this position of mine.  I struggle with his position that the New Covenant (read New Testament) replaces most of the Old Covenant (Old Testament). As such, he would like me to consider the passage from strictly the New Testament’s perspectives only and to keep away from commentators who actually support the Just War Doctrine.  It’s a tall order but he knows I’m up to a good challenge.  As a minimum, I will avoid the use of commentators.
Let me state up front that I am in no way trying to convince anyone to change their mind on the issue of war and its permissibility for a Christian.  When I study the Word of God I do so as part of my own regular devotions and am only happy to share it with others.  What I end up writing is what I believe the Spirit has me think about a given passage, almost entirely for my own edification.  As such I am thankful for the opportunity to seriously examine the position that my friend holds and whether or not this passage of Scripture supports it.
This passage is part of Jesus’ well-known Sermon on the Mount in Matthew chapter 5.  It is generally agreed that this sermon is preached, or the teachings are taught to the masses that followed Jesus – masses which are made up of ordinary people.  He was not speaking to the local Chamber of Commerce, the political rulers of the day, the military generals in the vicinity, or the Sanhedrin.  He was speaking to the masses as individuals.  These were individual men, women, and children.  They were fathers, mothers, sons and daughters.  In His entire ministry, when Jesus preached and taught, and especially when He spoke – He spoke to individuals.  This fifth chapter of Matthew begins with the “Beatitudes”, all the “Blessed are . . .” references.  And all those references are about “individuals”.
I have come to the personal conclusion that what Jesus was saying here was intended for individuals, not collectives.  This is the way Jesus wanted you and I to live our lives as individuals, yet one with another.
Even the part of the Old Testament that He quotes in the beginning of this passage we are studying comes from a law given in Exodus 21:24, a law for individuals.  It actually had to do with two men struggling with each other and in the process hurting a woman with child.  He was not talking about a nation going to war.
In verse 39 of our passage, Jesus instructs us not to resist an “evil person” and equates such as one who may slap “you on your right cheek” in the course of your daily life’s work.  He was not talking about an army of soldiers marching against you.
It is the same with verses 40 to 42 where Jesus singles out those who want to sue you (no one sues a nation), those who want “your” shirt, those whose take you for a ride or ask you for a favor.  None of these examples deal with relations at the national or international level.
It is as if Jesus was leaving that to His Father who taught it to us in (and I ask my friend to forgive me) the Old Testament, or Covenant, as he would call it.  There was no need for Him to reteach it here in Matthew.  No, God created mankind and the world and cared for them, but Jesus came for you and me, the individuals in that fallen world, and He died for each of us as individuals, taking our own specific sins upon Him.  His teachings therefore were to intended for how you and I should live our lives at the individual personal level.
That thinking that I have shared here would lead me to conclude that what Jesus was teaching in Matthew 5 was not to be taken as being contrary to Jehovah God’s practice of leading His people to war against His Enemy and ours.  Jesus stayed clear of that.  His job was to redeem you individually.
Based on that we can, at the national or international security level go with what God did for the children of Israel or we can say that Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 5 contradicts that or wipes it out.  If we take the latter approach, we are doing it at our peril.
Do you really think it is possible that when Jesus was saying “But I say unto you . . .” He really was saying, “Hey listen, My Father which gave you the law in Exodus was wrong”?  I don’t think so.  I believe He was saying that “I have come to show you another way that is now or soon will be possible because of Me and what I am about to do for you individually on the cross. In fact, that is why My Father sent Me.”
And yet Jesus was silent, at least in this passage we are studying, on the issue of nation against nation, or groups of nations against their enemies.  Jesus was not addressing that nor was He challenging or changing what His Father had said or done about that.
We come next to the latter part of the passage chosen by my friend.  It continues in the same vein.  A single ‘neighbor’ is compared to a single ‘enemy’.  In my opinion, I cannot jump to the conclusion as many have that Jesus is telling me to be a pacifist on a national basis.  He is not.  He is telling me to live my ‘personal’ life that way.  (And that’s why Christians do not take Christians to court.  But even there that is limited to Christians and we are free to take others to court.)
One could argue that elsewhere Jesus in the New Testament tells us to “render unto Caesar the things that are his” and while Jesus was using a coin to teach that, it is clear that He was referring to things in a broader sense, including these days military service.  While David may have loved to have sat down with Goliath and talked him into signing a peace treaty without any further shedding of blood, God inspired him and protected him in taking Goliath on as representative of the enemy’s army and helped him kill him.
Yes, I am to love my personal enemies and to pray for them who personally persecute me.  It is those actions that make me a son of the Father in heaven for God too loves each one of His children equally, “the good, the bad, and the ugly.”  But He does not condone all of everyone’s actions.
The rest of the verses in the passage are all references to personal activities – loving those who love us and greeting our brothers as tax collectors and the Gentiles do.  Jesus wants us to personally love those who are not our brothers and those who do not love us.
Perhaps the best example I can give to express what I feel is being taught here is this: Suppose for a moment that God has appointed you as the Prison Warden for one of the top ten high-security prisons in the world (you can Google them if you want to pick one).  As a Christian, Jesus calls you to try and reach every one of the prisoners individually with His love and gospel through your love.  But as a citizen and employee of the nation, when all the prisoners riot, take hostages, and start killing them and your prison guards, your mission changes.  You call out your full force of guards, as well as military reinforcements, and you join them in eliminating the chief trouble-makers, even killing them.  If you disagree with this statement, then I would have to say that a) you should not be a Prison Warden, and b) by extension neither should any Christian, and furthermore c) by further extension, ideally all people not in prison should be Christians, and thus d) no one would take the job of a Prison Warden.  That then leaves the prisoners in charge free to escape and create destruction everywhere they go and killing all that disagree with them in the process.  All because someone felt that Jesus was telling us not to take up arms in Matthew 5.
If one believes that, then we are clearly on two different pages and I would find it unproductive for either of us to try and resolve our differences on this topic.
In conclusion, I strongly believe that Jesus does not require us to refrain from helping others who are persecuted.  Elsewhere He clearly teaches us to defend the widows and the orphans.  In James 1:27 we read, “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.
While He tells us to pray for those who persecute us, we are also to defend others who are persecuted.
This passage then, in my humble opinion, states nothing to dissuade one from the Just War Doctrine implied elsewhere in Scripture, nominally the Old Testament.  And neither do other peace-making passages in the New Testament, as they focus on “how then I should live” individually and personally.
I hope I have done justice to both the passage and to my friend’s requests of me.  At the very least I am thankful for the opportunity to further crystallize my own thinking on the subject.
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1 comment:

  1. I have posted here a link to a contrary position by Gary Patton, I will let you read it for yourselves, as somehow the system did not allow him to post it. Here is the link:

    This will give you another perspective. You can choose your preference. As I was driving yesterday I had a chance to listen to "Insight for Living" with Dr. Charles Swindoll and was pleasantly surprised to hear him take the same approach as I had -- that in these matters Jesus was referring to how a Christian should live the life he is in charge of, his/her own. And thus I conclude this is not license to object conscientiously or otherwise to national defense initiatives.