We picked up our series in the Sermon on the Mount last night at Bloom with one of the most difficult and controversial passages in all of the teaching of Jesus: Matthew 5:38-48:
38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ 39 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. 40 And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. 41 If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. 42 Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. 43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47 And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
What possibly could Jesus be advocating here? Is this not the epitome of insanity? Not standing up for your rights? C’mon Jesus!? Is this practical? Practicable? Wouldn’t society deteriorate into a mad rush of violence if all the good people of the world simply yielded to evil?
Passages like this, so radical, so bold, so counter-intuitive, have been part of the reason that the Sermon on the Mount, and Christianity in general, has been held to scorn. Theologians of previous generations have often said on the basis of passages like this that Jesus clearly was advocating an “unrealistic” ethic, on account of the fact that he expected the imminent end of the world and the coming of the kingdom. But of course since he died and the kingdom didn’t ACTUALLY come as he and all of his followers anticipated, we need to live our lives by different standards. “Practicalities” and all. Even more, guys like the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche and Adolph Hitler thought that Christianity was a poison to society because of passages like this, breeding week-willed, smarmy, self-deprecating weaklings. You can’t possibly build a society on people that love peace can you?
All of these misunderstandings (which sadly still exist today) hinge on the fact that the the basic Story of Scripture, out of which this passage arises, is not grasped by most. OUR STORY, the Christian story, is a story that runs counter to the world’s account of power, evil, justice and the like. For at the center of the Christian story stands the cross. And the cross changes everything.
“Eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth…” This of course is how most of us think that “justice” ought to operate; on thin, emaciated, pale concepts like “equality” and “fairness”. Not that “proportional justice” is a bad thing, mind you. The Psalmists frequently called upon Yahweh, the righteous judge, to mete out justice in response to evil. I think that our revulsion at evil and our longing for justice is part of the moral blueprint of our souls. God the Righteous One validates that sense.
And YET… Jesus calls attention to the deficiency of “eye for an eye” as a way of finally dealing with evil. For God understands what most of us do not: and that is that evil is not vanquished by a frontal assault. Something in the nature of evil is such that when it is resisted, it does not go away; it simply redoubles its strength. And so, paradoxically, the law of “eye for an eye”, while meant to LIMIT EVIL, actually contained, validated, and gave more power to evil.
Jesus’ intent, of course, is not simply to “limit” evil, as we’ve been learning all along in the Sermon on the Mount. He wants to do away with it completely among his followers. His dream is that the renewal of the world would begin among his people. And so in the place of “do not murder” he calls us to forgo contempt. In the place of “do not commit adultery” he calls us to chastened desires. In the place of divorce he calls us to keep our promises. In the place of “do not break your oaths” he calls us to truthful, simple speech. And in the place of “eye for an eye” he gives us something bold, bracing, and energizing. He gives us a call to love beyond the evil. Here and only here is evil finally conquered.
This intuition, that evil is overcome not through direct assault but through an assault of love, is nowhere better exemplified (indeed, it is grounded in) one place: the cross of Christ. Here evil took its best shot, and strangely… it exhausted itself. When we threw the Son of Man up on the cross, what rained down was not divine vengeance, but forgiveness. The renewal of the world begins at Golgotha. The followers of the Crucified Christ are called to make Golgotha’s truth known in the warp and woof of their daily lives, testifying to the reign of God’s peace… which finally is a more satisfying form of “justice” than the tit-for-tat legalism that merely encodes bitterness between human beings, clans, families, cultures, and finally nations too. We can do better than simple “proportionality” if we follow Him.
I realize of course that some will see this as dangerous, even foolish. How would we get on in the world if we simply allowed evil to run around unchecked? Those are hard and important questions. Yet I think it would be unwise to distract ourselves with them. Whether or not the call to “love our enemies” is a practicable method at the level of international geopolitics should not blind us to the fact that it is most assuredly a practicable method at the level of our interpersonal relationships… You have to walk before you can run, as they say. And perhaps until we can figure out how be peaceable at the most basic level of our social selves, husbands to wives, parents to children, bosses to employees, and so forth, we stand no chance of speaking a morally coherent word to the powers that be. As Wendell Berry once famously put it: “Amish pacifism works because the Amish are peaceable all the time. If they attacked their neighbors and then, when their neighbors retaliated, started loving them, praying for them, and turning the other cheek, they would be both wrong and stupid.” This is a way of life first, and only afterward a political critique.
That said, I suggest four movements towards peaceableness, which is finally the beginning of the end of evil:
1) We must strive to make Jesus’ words practical reality in our lives. Vast evils stand on small evils, and most of those small evils are the habits and practices of our daily lives. We return evil for evil in our homes and then raise a public outcry when bombs are dropped on cities. The moral incoherence of our lives should be spoken of more plainly, so that we avoid hypocrisy. Peacemakers make peace not merely by attending anti-war rallies (when war is really a moral animal so complex that it’s difficult to speak of it intelligibly with a 4×4 foot cardboard sign… duh) but by refusing to let the sun go down on their anger.
2) We’re going to need to do a lot of repenting. Whether we realize it or not, WE are the violent ones that Jesus came to save. He intends to undo the evil in us. And so when I overreact to my kids disobedience, it is crucially important that I have the moral wherewithal to ask forgiveness. Ethan and Gabe need to hear dad say when appropriate, “Guys, dad’s sorry he overreacted to that. Will you forgive me?” Owning my complicity with evil helps me overcome it.
3) We’re going to need to be able to do all of this cheek-turning while still speaking truthfully. No one is helped by quietism, and indeed even Jesus himself was rather vocal when he was on trial… “And you will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven” is a truth-statement that contains its own judgment on the powers that threw him up on that cross. It was not vindictive. It was illuminating. Truthful speech is part and parcel of what it means to be the people of God.
4) We’re going to need to learn how to embody this truthful speech towards the powers that be. In his pastoral constitution Gaudium et Spes (“Hope and Joy”), Pope Paul VI declares that the Church is to be the conscience of the world, the “soul of the world” as he puts it. It is simply not to be taken for granted that “the way things are” is in fact “the way things must be”. We are a sign and foretaste of a new humanity that Christ has brought and ever is bringing into existence by his love, and part of our task is to put hard questions to the world… a world that must ever deal with the complexities of vast evil. Not because we’re hoping to condemn the world, but because we share in the joy and hope of the world and know something ABOUT the world that it does not know… namely, that it is loved by a God that longs to put it right again. Our speech should help expose to the world that there is always a better way available.
Make us instruments of your peace Lord God.