Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

A Biblical Case for Christian Pacifism: The Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7), Pt. 1

 The Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7) is the largest block of Jesus’ teaching we have recorded.  For our purposes, it does not matter whether or not Jesus gave the Sermon at one point or whether Matthew has arranged various of Jesus’ teachings into this current form, as many scholars believe. (A wandering preacher would most likely repeat many teachings in different forms before different audiences.) Many have believed that Jesus’ here gives incredibly hard teachings–counsels of perfection–that only saints can live (the Medieval Catholic view) or that no one can fulfill and which drive us to the sheer grace of God (Reformer Martin Luther’s view).  I contend (with others) to the contrary that the Sermon is full of grace and shows us the God’s gracious way of deliverance from bondage to mechanisms of sin.  (I will give a small bibliography on the Sermon on the Mount in a separate blog posting, but I will say that I am drawing strongly from the work of Walter Wink and Glen H. Stassen for much of what follows.)

First, to help us see the empowering joy of the Sermon on the Mount, we need a better definition of grace.  Too often we understand grace only in terms of forgiveness, of “God’s unmerited favor on sinners.” But grace is not only forgiveness, but empowerment to follow God. Grace enables our faith to be lived out in faithfulness.  Of course, we are never perfectly faithful. We fail and need forgiveness.  But to use that as an excuse for continuing in disobedience is simply wrong–and leads us back into the bondage from which Jesus delivers us.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945), the German Lutheran pastor who defied Hitler, ran an underground seminary for anti-Nazi pastors, was marginally involved in a plot to overthrow Hitler, and whose work to smuggle some Jews out of Germany led to his arrest and execution, called this kind of thinking “cheap grace.”  He contrasted that with the costly grace of the gospel.  Likewise Miraslov Volf, a theologian from war torn Croatia, says that to accept the comfort of the Crucified One while rejecting his Way to advocate not only cheap grace but a deceitful ideology in place of the gospel.  So, let us approach the Sermon on the Mount prepared to hear it as a Word of empowering grace, delivering us from the mechanisms of bondage to various patterns of sin, enabling us as Christ followers to live by a new pattern, a way of life profoundly different from the world-system we know.

The Beatitudes (Matt. 5: 3-12).  The Sermon is given to Jesus’ disciples/followers and to crowds who are potential followers.  The crowds are not just any non-believers, but are those who have heard of Jesus (maybe even heard him directly) and are interested. They may even be half convinced that he is the Messiah, God’s agent for the redemption of Israel.  In presenting it in his Gospel, Matthew is saying that the Sermon is to be of continuing guidance for his Christian community–and the Church’s decision to include it in the New Testament is their recognition that Jesus continues to intend this Sermon to guide disciples and potential disciples, now.

The Sermon begins with words of grace, of blessing for those who are citizens of the Kingdom or Rule that Jesus brings.  Building on themes from Isaiah 61, these “beatitudes” are not commands or rules.  They proclaim God’s blessing or joy on those who display the grace filled virtues of the inbreaking Rule of God.  Because the characteristic of joy is so strong, Glen Stassen translates the beatitudes this way:

Joyful are the humble poor who know their need of God, for theirs is the very Reign of God.

Joyful are those who are deeply saddened to the point of action, for they will be comforted.

Joyful are those whose wills are surrended to God, for they will inherit the earth.

Joyful are those who hunger and thirst for restorative justice, for they will be filled.

Joyful are those who practice compassion in action, for they will receive God’s compassion.

Joyful are those who seek God’s will in all that they are and do, for they will see God.

Joyful are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God.

Joyful are those who suffer because of working for restorative justice, for theirs is the reign of God.

Joyful are you when they criticize, persecute, and slander you, because of me.

Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in God.  For in the same way they persecuted the prophets before you.


The “poor in Spirit,” are called simply the physical poor in Luke 6:20 (which we’ll examine more fully in our chapter on Luke) and are contrasted with those who are “rich now.”  So, who does Jesus bless, the poor or the poor in spirit?  The problem disappears when we realize that Jesus is referring to Isa. 61.  The anawim in Hebrew are traditionally the “humble poor.”  They are economically poor but they also, perhaps because of their poverty, realize their need of God. The rich often believe they have no need of help from God or anyone.  They trust in their riches.  But if you are poor, one lost paycheck can lead to hunger; one serious illness can lead to foreclosure and homelessness. One divorce (perhaps even against one will), one catastrophe, is enough to turn their lives from barely liveable to disastrous.  So, many poor more naturally turn to God.  Luke emphasizes the Old Testament theme of God’s care and protection for the economically poor (e.g., Ex. 22:25-27; 23:10-11; Lev. 19:9-10; 23:22; Deut. 15:7-11; 2 Sam. 22:28; Ps. 72:2, 4, 12; Isa. 26:6, 49:13, 66:2; Zeph. 3:12).  Matthew does not exclude this, but he puts the emphasis on their empty hand of faith before God.

The 3rd Beatitude is usually translated “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness sake,” but the same Greek word (dikaiosune) means both righteousness and justice.  And today’s English tends to mean by “righteousness” what the Bible means by “self-righteousness.” They make it about ourselves, about a personal quality of righteousness.  But Jesus wants disciples to be other directed, to seek to set right what is wrong.  He wants us to hunger and thirst for the kind of healing  justice that tends the wounds of individuals and societies. 

I skip the details of the other Beatitudes for brevity’s sake.  I note that they all fit together.  Life in the Jesus Way is characterized by poverty of spirit (knowing one’s need of God), by mourning/grieving the things that grieve the heart of God–so much that we are moved to action; by  wills completely surrendered to God.  The Jesus Way people hunger and thirst for justice, who are merciful (practicing compassion in action), by purity of heart, by suffering for the sake of justice, by being persecuted for the sake of Jesus (just as the prophets were persecuted).  In this pattern are the peacemakers–not the warmakers–who are called the children of God.  Again, at this point, there are no commands.  The Beatitude does not command us to be peacemakers in order to earn status as God’s children.  Rather, Jesus’ followers are God’s children and joyfully make peace because they are God’s children.  In describing this vision in the Beatitudes, Jesus is not heaping burdens upon his listeners and potential followers, but describing a vision of JOY and INVITING us to participate.  This is the pattern of participation–a pattern that includes joyful peacemaking. 

Of course, while all of us disciples and would-be disciples want to live a pattern of life like this, full of joy displaying the joyous virtues of the Way of Jesus, but we also know that we often find ourselves trapped in other, more destructive patterns.  In our next installment we will see how the main body of the Sermon address these forms of bondage in 14 Triads that present a traditional moral teaching, describes the mechanism of bondage that make holding to that teaching nearly impossible, and then presents transforming initiatives–Jesus’ new commands that show us the way out of the destructive cycles that bind us–empowering grace, indeed.

October 21, 2009 - Posted by | Biblical exegesis, discipleship, ethics, Jesus, peacemaking, Sermon on the Mount


  1. Good stuff. Looking forward to more…

    Comment by Dan Trabue | October 22, 2009

  2. I’m trying to keep the installments brief enough for blog posts. But I am getting so few comments that I wonder if there is really any interest here. I need feedback to know whether to write this as a book (trying to have a rough draft done before January is over) or should concentrate on other, more academic projects.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | October 22, 2009

  3. Definitely interest. So far I think there’s less to quibble with, which may be why so few comments. ?? One question here: Is it that we joyfully make peace because we are God’s children, or that making peace shows us to be God’s children, and we can now do that “joyfully” (makarios-ly) because God’s kingdom is here, and it is a kingdom that “calls” (i.e. identifies) peacemakers God’s children? Not sure if it makes much difference…

    Comment by Michael DeFazio | October 26, 2009

  4. I think the answer is “yes,” Michael. It seems to me that those are two sides to the same coin.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | October 26, 2009

  5. I haven’t commented simply because I want to read the whole thing.

    Comment by Steven Kippel | October 27, 2009

  6. True, true. That question made more sense before I typed it out. One last thought – if your goal is to convince those who aren’t convinced (in this section specifically), you might spend a bit of time arguing why you think being peacemakers is incompatible with violence. It sounds funny to say that, but of course shalom/peace in Israel’s sacred traditions stood alongside violence, not instead of it. I know this is just one section and that point begs for what will be the rest of this chapter, but if I didn’t already agree with you I wouldn’t see anything in your explanation of this section that points convincingly toward pacifism.

    Very sorry about the deaths.

    Comment by Michael DeFazio | October 28, 2009

  7. […] Michael presents A Biblical Case for Christian Pacifism: The Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7), Pt. 1 […]

    Pingback by Around the Blogs « Christ, My Righteousness | October 29, 2009

  8. Michael,
    Since you began this study, I’ve wanted to read and comment, and I thought that the first installment on the Sermon on the Mount would be a good place to start. Thanks for including Glen’s paraphrase. Though it’s a bit clunky at times, it does bring the issues to the fore. And perhaps more than anyone, Glen is bringing an ethicist heart and mind to the Sermon! (And your reference to Glen gets me in the mood for my article for your book!) But I particularly want to address your comment above about whether to go forward. I hear your frustration about what direction to go. I too have so many ideas I don’t know what to pursue. But I applaud you for putting it out here. That’s an excellent way of discernment. You can discern the call (or lack of it) as you write and as others respond (or don’t!). I’m reminded of an article by Ron Sider in an issue last year in Prism, in which he talked about the need for scholar-activist-popularizer. He’s certainly modelled that role for us. I see this series as your pursuing that role. is there a market for it? Omigosh, I said the dreaded “M” word! I think so. I think there’s a hunger for such material, as shown by N.T. Wright’s and J.D. Crossan’s publishing success.

    One further comment about this post: It’s interesting that you skip over “Blessed are the peacemakers.” Or did I just miss it? That’s the key one, isn’t it? What is a peacemaker anyway? I remember back in my SBTS World Peacemaker days Adrian Rodgers said something like “A peacemaker is someone who brings another person to Jesus Christ.” That’s a nice, conservative, evangelical approach . . . and one which you and I find totally inadequate!! But what does Jesus mean in the context of the beatitudes, the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew? I know that you’re getting to all that in future post. is a peacemaker a pacifist? Rodgers obviously didn’t think so. Why not? Why do you? How does our social location shape our biblical interpretation? You may have covered that in previous posts. I’ll need to read them. But more and more I’m seeing that our politics, socio-economic class, etc. predetermine in many ways our interpretation of the Bible. But how can we read the Bible in ways that open us up to new ways to hear (and do!) God’s Word.

    Those are just a few random thoughts on this Saturday morning. More later.


    Comment by Michael Willett Newheart | November 7, 2009

  9. Hi, Michael. I mention the blessing on peacemakers, but I don’t do enough to explicate it. As you know the Greek is active: “Joyful are those who make peace!” Not the peace-lovers or the peaceable and not peacekeepers. The Beatitude itself does not spell out pacifism, but it does point to an active peacemaking that is evidence of being children of God–i.e. of displaying the very character of God.

    It is also clear that the Beatitudes include no blessing on warmakers or the violent.

    But to get to pacifism (as the word now means–originally it just meant “peacemakers”) takes a total gestalt on the gospel. The Beatitude will not get you there by itself.

    Social location does play a major role, but all I can do is exposit the case, as I see it.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | November 7, 2009

  10. Michael,
    Thanks for your response. On social location, I wonder if your series might be enlivened by some personal narrative. How did you move from soldier to pacifist? What role did the Bible have in your transformation? For example, when I was at SBTS I heard Clarence Jordan’s widow Florence say that Clarence was persuaded of the truth of pacifism through reading the Sermon on the Mount. I think some autobiographical info gives some “juice” to exegesis.

    Comment by Michael Willett Newheart | November 8, 2009

  11. Hmm. I had thought to leave me out of it, but I may reconsider. Perhaps before my next installment, I’ll publish revised editions of the installments to date taking the dialogue into account.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | November 8, 2009

  12. MW-W,
    Alright! I made it back here!
    I’ve become more and more convinced that we never can “leave ourselves out of it.” Indeed, I think that the more we “hide ourselves,” the more we unconsciously reveal about ourselves, and that’s usually not pretty. Anyway, I look forward to whatever you feel (un)comfortable in telling.

    Comment by Michael Willett Newheart | November 9, 2009

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