Eric Lee asks how a non-pacifist interprets such Biblical passages as Jesus’ commendation of nonresistance in chapter 5 of Matthew’s Gospel. Now, not only am I not a biblical scholar, I’m not even a particularly well-versed or frequent reader of Scripture! So, hopefully someone with a real theological education will jump in here.
Nevertheless, bloggers rush in where angels fear to tread, so here goes.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. (Matt. 5: 38-42, NIV)
Now, some have interpreted turning the other cheek to mean simply that we should shrug off casual insult and slander. While there may be something to this interpretation, I agree with those who take the pacifist line that it doesn’t do justice to the radicalness of what Jesus is saying, nor is it borne out by the rest of the passage.
What I would suggest is that what Jesus is saying here is that Christians must renounce retribution, retaliation, and even sticking up for our “rights.” No more looking out for number one. I must surrender even what seems due to me according to justice (“an eye for an eye” is not some barbaric primitive code, but rather the baseline of most systems of justice: you get what’s coming to you).
C.S. Lewis put it better than I ever could:
[I]nsofar as the only relevant factors in the case are an injury to me by my neighbour and a desire on my part to retaliate, then I hold that Christianity commands the absolute mortification of that desire. No quarter whatever is given to the voice within us which says, “He’s done it to me, so I’ll do the same to him.” (C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory, p. 86)
However, along with Lewis I find it difficult, bordering on impossible, to believe that Jesus’ hearers would’ve taken him to mean that they shouldn’t, e.g. resist someone bent on murder:
Does anyone suppose that Our Lord’s hearers understood Him to mean that if a homicidal maniac, attempting to murder a third party, tried to knock me out of the way, I must stand aside and let him get his victim?
What’s key here is the distinction between retribution or revenge and restraining someone bent on doing evil (even, as a last resort, to the point of killing them).
I think this leaves it an open question whether the command not to resist an evil person on our own behalf means even unto our own death. The example of Jesus and the martyrs indicates that this may be what is meant. Or maybe only some are called to that kind of witness.
I’m completely open to correction on whether this is the right interpretation. But I do want to point out that, even if this is right, it’s still a very radical teaching (not for nothing has it been considered one of Jesus’ “hard sayings”).
For instance, imagine what the foreign policy of a people who had given up on seeking retribution or even looking out for their own “interests” would look like. Or what our individual lives would look like if we gave to everyone who asked of us! Or if we refused to stick up for our rights in court when someone wanted to sue us!
In any event, that’s my rather tentative take.