“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 anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. Matthew 5:38-42
When taken at face value, this is one of the more difficult sayings of Jesus. Is he promoting the kind of absolute pacifism that makes no exception for self-defense? What if the evil person is attacking a child or other innocent? What about war? The entire Jewish population of Europe might have been exterminated had the Third Reich not been violently opposed. Some Christians have taken this passage in the Sermon on the Mount very literally, refusing to participate in any war or to even defend family members from attackers. Others have resorted to all kinds of theological and verbal gymnastics to explain away the “clear meaning” of this passage. They’ll reference Jesus’s instructions to the disciples to buy swords in the days leading up to his crucifixion, or quote him as saying “I have not come to bring peace but a sword” and use those words to justify “stand your ground” laws and preemptive wars.
I don’t think there is a simple answer. I think Jesus often made provocative statements in order to get people to thinking. When I come across a difficult Bible passage, particularly if it something Jesus is reported as saying, I always try to look for the principle behind the literal words, and to compare those words with everything else Jesus said and did. There’s an apocryphal Gandhi saying, “An eye for an eye will leave the whole world blind“, and I think that’s the principle Jesus is trying to get his disciples to see. Violence, even when it is meant to promote justice, usually leads to unforeseen negative consequences. Violence often begets more violence in an escalating spiral. Children who are abused often grow up to be abusers themselves. A punitive criminal justice system often results in recidivism and even worse offenses. World War I, the “war to end all wars” sowed the seeds for World War II, which was even more devastating and deadly. Perhaps Hitler would not have come to power had it not been for the crippling war retributions Germany was forced to pay after losing the first war. You may be able to control human behavior with the use of overwhelming power, but that kind of control is powerless to change human hearts, and in many cases serves only to harden them. Jesus wants to break that vicious cycle by changing hearts and minds. Gandhi and Martin Luther King understood that principle and tried to apply it to effect lasting change in the unjust societies in which they lived. They trained their followers to literally “turn the other cheek”, even under extreme duress. Through their efforts, many hearts and minds were changed.
I started writing this post a couple of days ago, before the US attacked the Syrian airbase following the horrific poison gas attacks on Syrian civilians in rebel-held areas. I don’t know whether it was the right response or not. On the one hand, I don’t think Gandhi’s techniques would have worked very well to protect Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe. On the other hand, I’m quite sure that there will be considerable unforeseen negative consequences, for the US, for the Syrian people, and for the world.
Is resistance futile? Jesus certainly gave us something to think about with this one.