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.” Matt 5:39
This is Jesus speaking to those who would be his disciples. He added, “Why do you call me Lord and don’t do the things that I say?” We have built quite a different type of “Christianity.” We have built a doctrine of justification by faith, that allows us to continue in our normal ways of life without thinking too hard about how Jesus lived and what our call to follow him means. This is Gnosticism. It is having a heavenly faith, that doesn’t very much affect how we live on earth. It’s a religion. It is separating heaven from earth, having a faith in a “Jesus of heaven”, but seeing his way of life and teachings on earth as irrelevant, instead living by the pragmatic logic of this fallen age. We have taught that things like the Sermon on the Mount and Isaiah’s call to beat our weapons into instruments of peace belong to a future age. “They are not relevant to our time. We must ‘worship Jesus’, while fighting as the world fights in this current time.” This is not discipleship.
What did Jesus mean by “do not resist an evil person”? Jesus meant do not resist with violence. We are to resist evil in a different way. We aren’t to overcome violence with violence, because this still crowns violence as the winner in our world. Our world remains untransformed. Instead, we are to renew the world by resisting evil with good. This is how Paul put it, “overcome evil with 36 good.” This is the true way to overcome evil. If we overcome evil with evil, evil hasn’t been overcome, but it thrives.
By and large we have claimed to be Christians and to be those who follow Jesus, while resisting the main biblical revelation and resisting the message of who Jesus is and what his kingdom, in this world now, is to be. He is called the Prince of Peace. Isaiah also says, of the increase of his government and peace there shall be no end. His kingdom on earth, now in the church age, is one where his followers beat their swords into instruments of peace, and where former enemies, wolves and lambs, lie down together in harmony. This is the major part of the gospel. This is how his gospel changes our world. To ignore this, or to put it off to another day, is to decline to be part of this kingdom, to decline to be followers of this Jesus.
Many have argued about this, claiming that Jesus allowed for violence. “Don’t think I came to bring peace, but a sword…”, Jesus said. He was speaking here of the betrayal his followers would receive in the world. Following Christ would be a way of persecution. Our way of life would be contrary, not to other religions, but to powers that want to control wealth by dividing us. Our message of reconciliation and healing frustrates this. So the sword is not in our hands. Rather, we are to take up our cross.
“He said to them, “But now if you have a purse, take it, and also a bag; and if you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one.” (Luke 22:36) This is a figure of speech. Jesus was explaining the hostility the gospel of peace would receive in the days ahead. He contrasted this change with the hospitality the disciples earlier received when he sent them out two by two. They were welcomed then and fed. Now the communities in Israel would be offended by this Messiah, who gave his life instead of fighting their enemies. He would be rejected and his followers rejected with him. This would lead Israel into a downward path of increased violence, culminating in civil war and Roman destruction of Jerusalem. Jesus was warning the disciples of the violence that lay ahead. But he was using figures of speech that were common in his day. He was not speaking literally about the disciples taking up weapons to defend themselves. None of his disciples did that. They all died as martyrs, without the sword. They all followed Jesus.
Another justification for violence is claiming that Peter had a sword for selfprotection and used it to cut off the servant’s ear when they came to arrest Jesus. It would not have been a large sword. The word used means dagger or knife. Many people carried these for normal daily tasks, especially fishermen like Peter. Jesus told Peter to put the sword away, saying that all who live by the sword shall die by the sword. So this was Jesus’ reply, and this is his call to his disciples, or followers. He would not resist arrest with violence and he called his disciples to follow him in this. “A servant is not greater than his master.” If Jesus chose this path, then his servants should also. Jesus healed the ear that was cut off. What this teaches us is that Jesus loved his enemies, as he taught. He healed the one who came to arrest him. He did not do him harm. He did harm to no one. When the church uses violence against our enemies, the world cannot hear our message. It’s like we have cut off their ears.
Then there is the parable about Jesus calling those who did not want him to be king and having them killed in his presence. (Luke 18:27) This parable was given as Jesus entered into Jerusalem on a donkey, a symbol of peace. They wanted to make him king. So he contrasted his kingdom with that of Herod. Herod went to Rome to receive his rule over Jerusalem and then returned, just as the parable said. All the people hearing Jesus then knew what Jesus was referring to. Is this the 37 type of king they wanted, Jesus was asking? Herod returned and slew all his enemies. Do they know what they mean by demanding for a king? Is it a king like the nations around them have, like Israel demanded for before? Or is it a king like Jesus who calls us to give our lives in loving and serving others? If we have served this kind of harsh master in the parable, why not serve the kind, selfgiving king instead? Isn’t this a better choice?
Another claim is that Jesus made a whip and drove the sellers from the temple. They say this was violence. The word for whip refers to an instrument that was used to move livestock, like sheep. This is what Jesus used it for. He did not use it to hit anyone. He used no force against any people. He overturned the tables showing that God was, through the peaceful means of the cross and resurrection, moving the temple out of that building into the hearts of women and men. And the most important thing is that this action of Jesus wasn’t aimed at the church’s enemies. It was aimed at the church of his day, the people of God then. They weren’t serving their enemies. The temple was to be a house of prayer for the nations, to heal the nations, for the welfare of our enemies and of sinners. Instead, we had turned it into an avenue for our own welfare. Jesus’ act was calling the people of God to a life of compassion and service to others. It was the very opposite of an act justifying violence against our enemies. It is calling us to love and serve them. This is Jesus’ way.
Leaving Jesus, many turn to Paul to justify violence. God gives the sword to our governments, said Paul, to punish evil doers. But that is not the call of the church. In the previous chapter of Romans, Paul outlines in great detail our call. We are to love our enemies, and to feed them. We are to forgive them and show kind service to them, just as Jesus showed. And in doing this we are to be a light to our governments, so their rule over the nations will also be renewed into a just and kind rule, helping the weak and poor, bringing stability to our world this way, rather than through brute, unjust violence. If we use the governments to do our bidding of violence against other people, then we are like the Pharisees who killed Jesus using Rome. Revelation called them the whore, who rode on the beast’s back. They were the whore because they forsook the teachings and way of Jesus, of the cross, and cleaved instead to worldly power for their security, just as Israel did when they chose a king. Instead of killing our enemies we are to be their advocate, just as Jesus was our advocate when we were dead in sin. This is the church’s role.
When we talk about nonviolence, we are getting down to the guts of what Jesus taught, the kind of king he is.