Levellers

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 II

Sorry it took so long to get to this entry, Gentle Readers.  I was interrupted by the move.. 

I argued that Jesus does not teach impossibly hard ideals in the Sermon on the Mount. Despite the New Moses typology in Matthew’s Gospel (Jesus goes up on a high mountain to deliver the new teachings), this is not “new law” in the sense of new burdens, harder rules to keep.  It is, as I argued in the section on the Beatitudes, grace–the delivering love and empowering grace which enables faithful discipleship.  The Beatitudes describe the virtues, the character traits, of disciples living into the Kingdom/Rule of God which Jesus brings.  We aren’t burdened with this “hard teaching” as a way to earn divine favor, but are invited into the adventure and joy of the in-breaking Rule of God.

After the Beatitudes, the Sermon can be diagrammed as 14 (twice the holy number 7) triadic statements in which the first part of the statement gives a traditional moral rule or principle (all but one of them drawn from the First Testament), the second part describes the “cycles of bondage” or “mechanisms of enslaving sin” that keep us from following that moral rule or principle, and the third part (Jesus’ commands) shows the process of deliverance out of those sinful cycles of bondage.  In this exposition, I am closely following my teacher, Glen H. Stassen and will also draw from the work of NT theologian Walter Wink.  (See Stassen’s full exegesis of the Sermon on the Mount here which reproduces an article he first published in the Journal of Biblical Literature.)

Now, scholars have often been misled at this point.  They haven’t seen 14 Triads, but 7 antisthenes or contrast statements (“You have heard it said of old/But I say unto you.”) But this view sets Jesus in opposition to the First Testament, the Hebrew Scriptures that were his own Bible and the Bible of the earliest Christians.  But that cannot be right because Jesus constantly affirms the Hebrew Scriptures, indeed, in the very Sermon on the Mount, he rebukes those who would claim that he comes to replace the Torah or Law instead of fulfilling it (Matt. 5:17-19).  Also, in the phrases following Jesus’ “but I say to you” refrain there are no commands–no imperatives.  What follows instead are participles and gerunds–i.e., forms of speech showing continuous or ongoing action (the cycles of bondage).  The commands, the Greek imperatives, come later–showing the way of deliverance.  So, we have a three part structure in which Jesus does not contrast the traditional Jewish teaching, but rather affirms it, shows why it is often hard to keep, and then shows a way of deliverance than goes beyond the older teaching but does not contradict it.  The following chart shows the entire pattern from Matt. 5:21-7:12.

THE FOURTEEN TRIADS OF THE SERMON ON THE MOUNT 

 TRADITIONAL               RIGHTEOUSNESS              VICIOUS     CYCLE                  TRANSFORMING                    INITIATIVE  
         
1. You shall not kill   Being angry,or saying, You fool!   Go, be reconciled
              
2.  You shall not commit adultery    Looking with lust   Remove the cause of temptation (cf. Mk 9:43ff.)
         
3. Whoever divorces,give a certificate   Divorcing involves you in adultery   (Be reconciled: I Cor 7:11)
         
4. You shall not swear falsely   Swearing by anything involves you in a false claim   Let your yes be yes, andyour no be no
         
5. Eye for eye,tooth for tooth   Violently/revengefully resisting by evil means   Turn the other cheek; Give your tunic and cloak; Go the Second mile; Give to beggar & borrower
         
6. Love neighbor & hate enemy   If you love those who love you, what more is that than the Gentiles do?   Love enemies, pray for your persecutors; be all-inclusive as your Father in heaven is
              
7. When you give alms,   blowing a trumpet like hypocrites   but give in secret, and your Father will reward you
         
8. When you pray,   making a show like the hypocrites   but pray in secret, and your Father will reward you
         
9. When you pray,   babbling like Gentiles, thinking the wordiness will be heard   Therefore pray like this: Our Father….
         
10. When you fast,   appearing gloomy to others,like the hypocrites   but dress with joy, and your Father will reward you
         
11. Do not pile up treasures on earth (cf. Luke 12:16-31)     Where moth & rust destroy, and thieves enter & steal    But pile up treasuresin heaven
             
12. No one can serve two masters   Serving God & wealth, worrying about food & clothes   But seek first God’s reign and God’s justice/righteousness
         
13. Do not judge, lest you be judged   By the measure with which you judge, you’ll be judged   First take the log out of your own eye
         
14. Do not give holy things to dogs, nor pearls to pigs   They will trample themand tear you to pieces   Give your trust in prayer to your Father in Heaven

The items in bold show places where Jesus’ teaching is paralleled elsewhere–in the Sermon on the Plain in Luke 6, in Luke 12, in Mark. There are also partial echoes in Paul’s writings, in the Epistle to James, and even in Revelation.  These echoes are seldom in the sections describing the cycles of bondage (which some have viewed as impossible teachings or new rules) but either in the first section (reaffirming the Hebrew Scriptures) or in the third section (describing the way of deliverance and new life)–thus showing where Jesus was heard to place his emphasis.  

In other words, Jesus doesn’t say, “You have heard of old “Thou Shalt Not Kill,” but I say to you “Don’t be angry.”  Who could never be angry?  Jesus was moved with anger (at the way that ritual rules harmed the sick) when he healed a man with a withered hand (Mark 1:41) and he demonstrated anger at the moneychangers in the Temple (an incident we will revisit later in this series).  Nor does Jesus say, “You have heard it said of old, “Thou Shalt not Commit Adultery,” but I say to you, “Don’t ever lust.”  Nor does Jesus say, “You have heard it said of old, “Whoever divorces must give a certificate,” but I say to you, “Never divorce.” 

Instead, Jesus says, “You have heard it said of old, “Thou Shalt Not Kill,” but I say to you that nursing anger (the Greek is the verb for holding onto –the way some people treasure grudges) and calling people “Fool!” leads to judgment. ” So, how to get out of this bondage to anger than leads to various forms of judgment and sin–including, often enough, killing? Here comes Jesus’ gracious command! “If your brother has something against you GO TO HIM and seek to be reconciled.”  This is so important it must take precedence even over worshipping God (leave your sacrifice and go).  Now, THAT we can do!  We cannot guarantee that the brother will want to make peace (Jesus’ audience would surely have remembered Cain and Abel).  But we don’t have to wait for him to come to us.  We can take the initiative, no matter who was at fault. We can seek to repair the breach in fellowship (“brother” was probably also heard by Matthew’s readers as referring to “fellow church members”) instead of nursing our anger or calling names or congratulating ourselves on our self-righteousness.

And nations can do this, too.  One government offends another.  Can we ask that a government not be angry? No, but we can ask that it not nurse that anger or refuse to speak to the enemy nation or congratulate itself on its own righteousness.  We can ask that one government go to the other and seek to make peace.  After all, when you speak of the grievance between you it may include hard words of truth that the other might not want to hear–so we should be prepared to hear such ourselves.  Will this guarantee peace? Of course, not! But REFUSING to speak almost always guarantees strife and war–vicious cycles of violence and judgment.

Likewise, we avoid committing adultery by removing the causes of temptation that lead us to lust.  Here, Jesus uses typical Hebrew hyperbole.  We should not literally pluck out our eyes (I can lust with both eyes closed) or cut off our hands (I can lust without any hands!).  But we should remove ourselves from temptation.  If working late nights with a beautiful colleague alone is tempting you to break your wedding vows, then don’t work with that one alone–always meet where there is plenty of light and crowds.  If you have to, get another job.  Don’t troll the internet for pornographic sites.  Don’t do things which are likely to lead to your lusting (“committing adultery in your heart”) which will all too often lead to actual adultery.  Walk away from the conditions or people or contexts which tempt you.

In order to keep this post brief enough, we will skip several of these to go to another that bears directly on our topic of Christian pacifism.  The 5th Triad (5:38-42) gives the traditional teaching, “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” Even in the First Testament, the intent of this rule was to limit revenge.  The common pattern in the ancient world, and today, is for unlimited revenge.  You take my eye, I take both your eyes. You take my tooth, I just may take your life. You take my life, my brother wipes out your family.  This is the “morality” of the Mafia or the Japanese Yakuza. It is the “morality” of street gangs–and of most nations during wartime.  To this, the Hebrew Scriptures tried to place a break:  All you may take in revenge for a lost eye is the enemy’s eye.  All you may take for a tooth is the enemy’s tooth.  But Jesus knows this is not sufficient.  If we seek revenge, we get caught in escalating cycles of vengeance and violence.

Now, most English Bibles are not helpful here.  Verse 39 is usually translated as “Do not resist evil” (KJV) or “Do not resist an evildoer” (NIV).  The first is ridiculous. Jesus resisted evil every time he cast out demons or confronted the Scribes and Pharisees.  “Resist the Devil,” we are told, “and he will flee from you.” (James 4:7).  The NIV translation is grammatically possible, (taking ponero as a substantitive dative) but it doesn’t fit much with Jesus’ own actions, either.  As Clarence Jordan and others have noticed, ponero is most likely an instrumental and so should be translated as either with evil or by evil means.  Further, as Walter Wink’s exhaustive search of secular Greek shows, antistemai doesn’t mean any kind of resistance, but VIOLENT resistance–it is the term used for rebellions and armed insurrections.  So, 5:39 should be translated something like, “You have heard it said of old, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” but I say to you “Do not resist violently or by evil means.”  Rather, if someone strikes you on your right cheek. . .

Now, many people read the Sermon at this point to be teaching a “doormat” approach to life.  In fact, in popular speech, “turn the other cheek,” is code for “let people abuse you–even invite their abuse.”  Even many who see a positive dimension to these teachings often view them as “surrending one’s rights” for the sake of God’s Rule.  Instead, I follow the work of New Testament theologian Walter Wink in seeing Jesus’ transforming initiatives here as teaching nonviolent resistance to evil, a “third way,” other than surrender or violence.  Wink urges the reader to pay close attention both to the language of the text and to the historical and cultural background in first-century Palestine.  “If someone strikes you on the right cheek. . .”  In Jesus’ culture the left hand was reserved for “unclean” acts (it was an age before toilet paper) and the cultural taboo against touching someone with the left hand was very strong.  In fact, one could be fined heavily for touching someone with the left hand.  So, we are to imagine that the striker used his right hand.  But the only way to strike the right cheek with the right hand is to use the back of the hand.  So,  this is not a punch, but a backhanded slap across the face.  But this immediately tells the audience that this is not a fight between equals, but the abuse of a social inferior by a social superior.  One does not backhand someone except to humiliate him or her, to publicly put the inferior in his or her “place.”  Equals do not backhand each other.  Masters backhand slaves or servants; the rich backhand the poor; abusive husbands backhand wives; tyrannical fathers backhand children (maybe even an adult or nearly adult son who is being deeply humiliated).  In such a situation, the social inferior usually does not dare to strike back. The rich man who backhands his servant has guards or can get them.  The wife, in a culture where divorce can only be initiated by the husband and where restraining orders for domestic abusers are unheard of, must live in the home.  Does the inferior nurse resentment and plot revenge in the night? Does s/he instead simply “take it” and cooperate with her or his own oppression and self destruction? No, Jesus says, “turn to him the left cheek also!”  But the social superior cannot backhand the left cheek without using the taboo left hand–which would humiliate the oppressor and leave him open to court action!  If he strikes with the right hand, he has to punch the inferior, which involves treating him as an equal!”  In “turning the other cheek,” the abused person refuses to be a victim, but also refuses violence and revenge. Instead, the “victim” confronts the abuser with her or his full humanity and demands to be treated as an equal–inviting repentance from the abuser.  If the humiliating slap was public, the tables have been turned.  Like the nonviolent activists of the civil rights movement, the abused one is told by Jesus to refuse to cooperate with evil or to respond with violence–a way of deliverance from the cycle of abuse–culturally specific–is demonstrated.

Jesus’ next example of this “third way” involves corrupt law courts.  “If anyone would sue you for your coat. . .”  The basic attire in the Palestine of Jesus’ day, as it had been for centuries, was two long robe-like garments, a lightweight inner robe and a thicker, heavier, outer robe.  If someone was so poor (homeless) that they needed a loan and had no other collateral, the Law of Moses, allowed the lender to take the outer garment in pledge.  But, the outer garment or cloak had to be given back at every sundown because, of course, the poor man would need to sleep in it. Without it, he could die of exposure in the desert air.  But courts can become corrupt and side with the rich against the poor.  Centuries before Jesus, the prophet Amos had condemned those whose corruption was so great they were copulating on “garments taken in pledge,” (Amos 2:8). This may have been hyperbole, but it shows the prophet’s anger at the abuse of the poor and the rejection of the protections for the poor in the Law of Moses.

Jesus shows similar anger at the courts of his day who were letting lenders actually sue homeless people for their outer garments–in effect condemning them to death by exposure!  So, Jesus says, “give to him your tunic also.” In other words, strip butt naked in the courtroom!  Now, remember, that while Jewish society had strong nudity taboos, the shame fell mostly on those VIEWING the nudity rather than on the nude person.  Thus, drunken Noah’s curse on son Ham and grandson Canaan for laughing at his drunken, naked old body. And thus, the faithful sons walk backward to cover Noah. (Gen. 9:20-27).  So, Jesus is again advocating a nonviolent protest that could shame the court (literally EXPOSING its lack of justice) and of the lender! (Jesus’ original hearers were probably dying of laughter at the imagined scene.) Of course, this move probably would result in getting the nude protester thrown in jail, but he would at least not die of exposure.  And it probably would result in some new rule against nudity in court or something. Jesus is not giving hard and fast rules, but trying to teach a METHOD of confronting evil and oppression without violence.  Thus, he is also inviting his hearers to use their own liberated, sanctified, imaginations to think of continuous similar examples in ever-knew situations as one lives the Third Way of the in-breaking Kingdom in the midst of this still-Fallen, often oppressive, world order.

Jesus’ third example comes from the Roman occupation of Palestine–which, like all occupying armies, was hated by the locals.  But Rome was a smart empire that liked to limit the times it needed to use the Legions to suppress local uprisings.  So, Roman law had limits placed on the oppressive actions of the occupying troops and strict penalties (usually death) for breaking them.  One of those rules allowed for any Roman soldier to grab any local in a conquered territory and force him to carry a burden, such as the soldier’s pack, for the soldier.  (When Jesus is crucified, this is what happens to Simon the Cyrene, who is forced to carry Jesus’ cross.  See Mark 15:21) But the local could be forced to carry such a burden only one mile.  After that, the soldier had to take back the burden or get another carrier.  The Roman roads were marked throughout the empire with mile markers for many reasons, but they made it easy to check that this rule was carried out.

Now, even though this was limited, naturally locals hated ANY forced labor by occupying troops. It reminded them that they were not free. Specifically in Palestine, it reminded faithful Jews that the Holy Land was occupied by godless, pagan, Gentiles who could, like Egypt of old, treat God’s people as slaves any time they felt like it.  Imagine the anger, the resentment that could build up, the cycles of bondage to violence that could result. (Note to American readers: Then imagine how the local Iraqi or Afghan people, EVEN IF THEY FIRST WELCOMED THE U.S. TROOPS as an alternative to Saddam or to the Taliban, respectively, feel about the occupying troops. The longer those troops stay, no matter how noble they believe their mission, the more hated they will be.  Think how the average American would feel if foreign occupying troops paraded down our cities and towns!  Back to Scripture.)

In that situation, many Jews associated with the resistance movement (later called Zealots) advocated assassination of Roman soldiers.  By contrast, the Herodian puppet government and the Sadducees and Temple elites, urged cooperating with the Romans no matter what they did.  Jesus does neither. Instead, he says, go a second mile.  The enemy soldier wonders what’s going on. Is this Jew trying to get him in trouble with his commander? Is he leading him into an ambush? Is he insulting his strength, saying that the mighty soldier is too weak to carry his own pack?  Imagine him begging to get his pack back or ridiculously knocking down the pack carrier to take it back! On the other hand, the second mile, provides the pack carrier time to confront the soldier with the injustice of forced labor and of the occupation at all. It gives time to sow seeds of repentance and peacemaking. At any rate, the pack carrier is transformed from a forced laborer–an object–into a volunteer–a free moral agent.  Here is the pattern. Jesus teaches not nonresistance to evil, but nonviolent, creative, transforming, resistance to evil that can deliver both oppressors and oppressed from cycles of destructive anger and revenge.

 The 6th triadic statement reinforces our theme.  The traditional teaching is to love one’s neighbor (Lev. 19:9) and, in Jesus’ day, many interpreted that to mean also “hate your enemy.”  There is no command to hate enemies in the First Testament.  But that is how the command to neighbor love was understood in Jesus’ day–Love your fellow Israelite.  Much as contemporary Americans seem to think they are to love only other Americans (or only “REAL” Americans) and hate people in other countries–a view surprisingly found in many U.S. churches!  The second section, the mechanism of bondage, is given as a rhetorical question, “If you love only those who love you, what more are you doing than the Gentiles?” Even the pagans have THAT much morality! By giving this as a rhetorical question, Jesus calls into question the supposed moral superiority of God’s people and reminds them of how often they have failed to be a “light for the nations,” and fell under God’s judgment. He invites them to remember the destructive cycles just described as the results of just loving those who love you.

The way of deliverance is to love your enemies. (This command of Jesus, to love enemies, is quoted throughout the New Testament and throughout early Christian literature. Nothing else Jesus said was remembered by the early church as being so central as this command.) And Jesus tells how one is to love enemies: praying for them.  This will show that one is “perfect” (i.e., perfect in compassion) as God is–giving rain and sun to both the just and unjust. 

Here is the heart of Christian pacifism because one cannot love an enemy by killing him or her.  Notice how practical Jesus is–he assumes his hearers, including his disciples, will have enemies.  This is not pie in the sky naivete.  Too many Christians think they are too “nice” to have enemies.  Jesus is more hard-headed and practical.  He often is matter of fact about how following him will give one enemies.  But the key to Christian living is how one deals with enemies–loving them and praying for them.  Working to make peace.  One may have to confront their evil actions as the previous triadic teaching showed.  One may need to confront massive evil with massive nonviolent direct action. But one must hold out hope for the repentance of the enemy, for their conversion.  One must not respond with violence that continues the cycle of revenge.

We’ll stop here for this post.  The biblical case for Christian pacifism, for gospel nonviolence, is much broader, but nowhere is it clearer.  This is the heart of God’s call in Jesus to a new life, a new way of life, which shows a new pattern to the world.  The church, as the disciple community of Jesus, is to be the first fruits of the in-breaking Rule of God–and this is what that fruit looks like.  The heart of Christian living is love of enemies.

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November 6, 2009 Posted by | Biblical exegesis, discipleship, ethics, Jesus, love of enemies, New Testament, nonviolence, pacifism, peacemaking, Sermon on the Mount | 17 Comments