This article is part of the What Did Jesus Teach series.
Nonviolence and the Sermon on the Mount
Does Jesus’s teaching in the sermon on the Mount to “turn the other cheek” and not resist evil require pacifism on the part of Christians?
Since most religious pacifists ground their convictions in a purported nonviolent “love ethic” of Jesus that is understood to be the teaching of Matthew 5:38–42, it is imperative that the meaning of Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount be assessed.
Matthew 5:38–42 is one of six case illustrations of Jesus’s teaching on the law (Matthew 5:17). With the other five, it is Jesus’s affirmation of the ethical requirements of Old Testament law—requirements that are enduring. And in similar fashion, it begins with the formula that Jesus has already used four times in this body of teaching—“You have heard that it was said, . . . But I tell you . . .”
While some students of the biblical text interpret these particular words as referring to Mosaic law, such a reading does not fit the context. To introduce his teaching, Jesus has just reiterated that the law as revealed in the old covenant, continually reaffirmed by the prophets, is not to be set aside (Matthew 5:17); it is binding.
Jesus cannot be contradicting himself. What the context does require, however, is that contemporary notions— indeed, contemporary distortions of the law—need adjustment. One such illustration of contemporary error concerns retaliation.
Jesus and the Lex Talionis
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is not setting aside the idea of restitution itself, nor the “law of the tooth” (the lex talionis as a standard of public justice.
Rather, Jesus is challenging his listeners to consider their attitudes so that they respond properly to personal injustice or insult. That insult (personal injury) rather than assault (public injury) is at issue here is suggested by the mention of the right cheek being struck. And it is clarified by the further illustration, “If someone wants to . . . take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well” (Matthew 5:40). Handling insults and matters of clothing (a basic human need) are not the realm of statecraft and public policy.
In truth, all four illustrations of nonretaliation—turning the other cheek, offering the shirt off your back, carrying someone’s baggage an extra mile, and lending to the one asking—correspond to the private domain. These are issues of personal inconvenience or abuse, not matters of public policy; they bespeak insult and not assault.
Personal Injury, Not State Policy
Thus, Jesus’s injunction not to resist evil (Matthew 5:39), contextually, must be located in the realm of personal injury, not state policy. Matthew 5–7 is not a statement on the nature and jurisdiction of the state or the governing authorities; rather, it concerns issues of personal discipleship. Its affinities are most closely with Romans 12:17–21, not Romans 13:1–7.
In the sphere of the personal and private, justice does not call for retribution. In the sphere of the public, where the magistrate is commissioned to protect and defend the common good, justice demands retribution. This is the unambiguous teaching of the New Testament and not the supposed “compromised” thinking of imperialism or Constantinianism, so called.
Help from C. S. Lewis
In his fascinating essay “Why I Am Not a Pacifist,” C. S. Lewis considers Jesus’s injunction regarding “turning the other cheek,” which he believes cannot be intended to rule out protecting others. “Does anyone suppose,” he asks, “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?”1
If Jesus is calling for absolute nonviolence based on Matthew 5:38–39, then we would be under obligation to turn the cheek of a third party. Lewis prefers to accept the plain reading of this text.
Jesus’s audience consisted of “private people in a disarmed nation,” and “war was not what they would have been thinking of” by any stretch of the imagination.2 Lewis’s understanding proceeds on a plain reading of the text.
Called to Resist Evil
In the end, the Christian is called to resist evil when and where it is possible, as saints past and present always have understood. And the apostle Paul states in no uncertain terms that the magistrate exists precisely for this divinely instituted function:
For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God's servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God's wrath on the wrongdoer. (Romans 13:3-4)
Even when Jesus forbids the sword as a means to advance the kingdom of God, the New Testament does not teach an absolute or principled pacifism. Nor does it forbid the Christian from “bearing the sword”— or serving as a magistrate, for that matter—in the service of society and the greater good of the community.
1. “Why I Am Not a Pacifist,” in The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses, rev. ed. (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), 86.
2. Ibid., 50.