Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.
Other Cheek Diplomacy?
By William Edgar
August 18, 2014
The ongoing conflicts between Israel and Hamas, between Russia and the Supreme Council of Crimea, and in so many other places, pose the age-old question: when to be patient, and when to fight? Advocates of patience would appear to have the Sermon on the Mount on their side. In his radical restating of the Old Testament commandments, Jesus seems to reject the “eye for an eye” doctrine of retaliation in favor of nonresistance, turning the other cheek, and giving away your goods (Matt. 5:38-42). Not stopping there, he tells his hearers to love their enemies and pray for their persecutors (vv. 43-44).
The renowned atheist Bertrand Russell once said that Jesus’s teaching to turn the other cheek was lovely but unworkable. Don’t go and strike the Prime Minister (no doubt a sincere Christian) on the cheek; you would find out he believed Jesus’s idea to be only figurative. Similarly, he thought “judge not that you be not judged” could never be practiced in law courts of Christian countries. Unwittingly, Russell represented a large group of commentators who think the Sermon on the Mount is putting forth an impossible ideal, telling us how much higher are God’s ways than ours.
Pacifist Richard Hays rightly disagrees that the Sermon is impossible. Rather, he says, it is a way of life, but only for believers, and does not apply to public policy. Jesus is teaching a way of suffering to his disciples, a way that contradicts the lex talionis (law of retaliation) of the Torah. Similarly, when he discusses Romans 13 on the civil magistrate, Hays says no Christian should execute God’s wrath on wrongdoers. “There is not a syllable in the Pauline letters that can be cited in support of Christians employing violence,” he tells us (p. 331). Romans 12 is for Christians in the church, Romans 13 is not.
Such a view isolates one part of Scripture from another, but chapter divisions were not actually in the original texts. Christians indeed ought to love one another and live peaceably, but there is no indication that they should not participate in government, or, for that matter, in any other legitimate sphere. When penitent soldiers came to John the Baptist and asked what they should do, he did not tell them to take off their uniforms, but to do their work honestly (Luke 3:14; see Matt 8:5).>
How then should we understand the radical nature of Jesus’s commands in the Sermon? One common solution is to say they apply only to certain limited circumstances. Martin Luther thought the Sermon only applied to individual Christians but not to civil magistrates, even Christian ones. The prince, he said, must reign as a prince, not “as a Christ.” In this view, the Sermon applies to persons, not officials. But surely such segmenting of life is out of accord with the Lordship of Christ over every realm (Col. 1:15-20).
A better way is to understand the Sermon as a series of illustrations of its first principle, that is, the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets in Christ (Matt. 5:17). Unlike what Pharisaical religion had developed, Jesus shows how the law applies not only to the outside but to inward disposition. At no time should a contrast be set up between Jesus’s commands and the Old Testament law. Only, one cannot live every point of the law at every moment, nor will the application of the law be the same in every circumstance. Otherwise one part of the Sermon would conflict with another. On the one hand we are to let our light shine before others (5:16); on the other we mustn’t practice our righteousness before others (6:1). On the one hand we mustn’t judge (7:1); on the other we must stay away from the dogs and the swine (7:6).
While the emphasis in the Sermon is on patient love, Jesus himself in other places did indeed resist evil, even violently in the case of the money changers in the temple. All of revelation, including Romans 13, is meant to guide us in applying wisdom to Christ as fulfiller of the Law and Prophets. How does this relate to Gaza and Crimea? There surely are no simple answers. But going forth we need not hang our Christian hats in the cloakroom and become merely pragmatic. What does proper patience demand? What does protective justice demand? Finding answers will mean drawing upon all of Scripture, using all of God’s wisdom, in community, to apply his ways to our patently severe problems.
- William Edgar is Professor of Apologetics at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia.
 Richard Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament, HarperSanFrancisco, 1996, pp. 319ff.
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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”