The Politics Of Violence — Part Two

[If you prefer there to be illustrations in the articles you read, my apologies for not providing any. I found the process of finding appropriate illustrations tedious and time-consuming, sometimes taking as much time as it took me to write the article.]

Turn The Other Cheek

In Matthew 5:39 Jesus said, “Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, offer the other cheek also.”

We find these words in what is called the “Sermon on the Mount”. It has been said that this actually wasn’t a single sermon Jesus gave, but a compilation of things he taught on many occasions — a sort of distillation of his teachings. There is also some debate about it being a sermon at all. Matthew 5:1 tells us that seeing the crowds of people following him, Jesus walked up the hill, sat down, and his disciples came to him. Was he going to a high point, so as to make himself better seen and heard by the crowds, or was he trying to get away from the crowds, so he could teach his disciples?

Matthew 5:2 says Jesus opened his mouth and began to teach them. Personally, I think “them” refers to his disciples, rather than the crowds. However, it is a fair assumption that some part of the crowds consisted of his disciples. Perhaps Jesus going up the hill was his way of drawing his disciples out of the crowd to him, so he could teach them. In any case, I believe his words are also for us, today. Therefore it is appropriate for us to want to understand exactly what he meant.

We know the earliest followers of Jesus were Jews. We know that he openly taught in synagogues and in the Temple courts in Jerusalem. As in other cases where Jesus spoke to Jews, the “Sermon on the Mount” relies heavily on his listeners being familiar with Jewish Scripture and Jewish Law. In Matthew 5:17 Jesus tells “them” (us) not to think that he’s going to abolish the “law and the prophets” (meaning Jewish Scripture), but that he’s going to fulfill them.

He then begins citing specific religious, moral teachings which were clearly understood by Jews. In each instance, he compared their old religious views with the new, “fulfilled” understanding. The basic upshot of his message was that the old way of looking at morality and religious purity was based on an outward practice of legalism, while his new way focused on what goes on inside a person’s heart. Hate is as bad as murder, lust is as bad as adultery, etc. and equally, on the flip side of the question, Man’s outer acts of righteousness are no better than the faith that motivates such acts. Jesus’ main point was that being a child of God isn’t a matter of adhering to religious practice, but a spiritual reality that involves change (even rebirth) in a person’s heart.

The point he makes in Matthew 5:20 must not be missed. (“…unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”) When Jesus said this, the Pharisee sect was known as the most righteous of all Jews. They studied Mosaic law with minute, methodical attention, and they were legalistic sticklers on doing everything just so. They had a big reputation, and every Jew either feared or respected them. But Jesus was now saying that to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, your righteousness must even be greater than that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the “Law” (Torah). His point is that even religious perfection isn’t enough to enter heaven. We need our hearts to be changed by Jesus. We need to be made new on the inside.

So, we must not take all of the Sermon on the Mount literally, particularly statements such as Matthew 5:29, “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell.” To take this at face value is to abrogate the doctrine of salvation through faith. It is not the body, or any part of the body, that causes us to sin. It is our sinful “heart” — our sin nature. The salvation of our souls does not depend on our getting rid of “parts” of us that cause us to sin. We must allow ourselves to be changed from the inside out, completely dying to self and living in Christ (Galatians 2:20).

Take, for instance, the idea of plucking out your eyes because they make you sin. In 1 John 2:16 we read, “For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride in possessions—is not from the Father but is from the world.” If we consider “the desires of the eyes”, are we to believe that a blind person is exempt from that temptation? Of course not. “The desires of the eyes” is coveting something — not that you “see” it, but that you want it. And if your eyes can’t tell your brain something is there that you want, your other senses can. It’s the knowing that leads to temptation. Seeing only helps us know. 1 Corinthians 10:13 says that all temptations are common to man. A blind person must also deal with “the desires of the eyes”. The problem of sin isn’t physical, it is spiritual. So tearing out ones eyes in order to not sin simply won’t work. The point of 1 John 2:16 is that the focus of believers should be on the Creator, not on his creation.

Jesus used word pictures to make a point, much as he used parables. When asked by his disciples why he spoke in parables, Jesus said, “The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them.” (Matthew 13:11). Because Jesus was teaching a spiritual awareness, rather than just an intellectual understanding, he used symbolism to convey his intent to hearts who were open to him. And when the risen Christ says, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock,” (Revelation 3:20), he isn’t speaking of any door I’ve ever seen. But there is a door to my heart. And I didn’t exactly hear his knocking but I knew he was there. How did I open a door I didn’t even know was there? I don’t know. These things are spiritual, not literal (1 Corinthians 2:13).

So what did Jesus mean when he said turn the other cheek? Are Christians to avoid violence at all costs? In the verse preceding his admonition (Matthew 5:38) Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.'” This refers to the legal principle of exacting punishment equal to the injury suffered by the victim (Exodus 21:20-27; Leviticus 24:17-20; Deuteronomy 19:21). One drawback to the old, legalistic approach to administering God’s laws of crime and punishment, was that it nurtured an attitude of “getting even” in the minds of people. They saw the law as a means of taking revenge, as opposed to a reflection of God’s justice. Jesus was addressing this issue of taking revenge.

An interesting sidelight to this sense of justified revenge was the establishment of cities of refuge in what Christians call the Old Testament. They provided a safe haven for those who unintentionally killed another person. Accidents were not treated the same as murder, which was punishable by death. But the common practice back then was for the families of the victim to take revenge on the person who had unwittingly or unintentionally committed manslaughter. So the earliest law in Israel allowed for those kinds of “killers” to flee to one of the cities of refuge to legally live in safety. But if they ever left that city, they would be placing themselves in jeopardy of being killed by the aggrieved family, avenging the blood of their dead relative.

It seems odd to us today, but the idea of revenge had more standing back then. The so-called “honor killings” allowed under present-day Sharia law are not dissimilar. Yet many otherwise “modern” thinkers call for the establishment of Sharia, with its brutality and revenge, here in the United States — just another example of how confused our society has become over violence.

Anyway, after Jesus referred to this traditional principle in Hebrew law, he pointed out how forgiveness and not seeking revenge is the fulfillment of the law. But again, he was using word pictures. Crimes were still crimes. He wasn’t saying there are no longer consequences, just because the victims were believers. The picture Jesus painted was of a man striking another on his cheek. It is not a picture of a person attacking someone else with a weapon or with the intent to kill. The act of striking someone on the cheek, was considered offensive, not because it was an act of violence, but because it was an insult. The association of insult with striking on the cheek is also found in Job 16:10, Lamentations 3:30 and is implied elsewhere.

The main issue concerning being struck on the cheek, is the idea that you are being insulted. The idea of insulting a brother is even compared to murder in Matthew 5:22. So Jesus is telling believers that when they are insulted, they should not reel in humiliation or indignity. They should stand in the strength of their character, unmoved by the insult and turn their other cheek to the insulting party to demonstrate how impotent his insults are. Paul had learned to do this, and in 2 Corinthians 12:10, wrote of being “content” with insults (among other things). The LORD had told him (in verse 9), “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” This means that God’s power to use his believers in order to achieve his ends is made perfect by the fact that his believers are simply too weak to accomplish God’s purposes without him. And so we act in faith, believing God will bring about his will.

Stand your ground or Retreat?

But this teaching doesn’t mean that if you or your family are attacked, Jesus doesn’t want you to fight back. Survival and self-defense don’t fall under the heading of spiritual teachings. Before you can live as a Christian, you have to be alive. Jesus doesn’t want us to toss out common sense. Yes, if someone insults you with a slap to your face, you should be composed and demonstrate that your strength of character is in no way threatened by him. But, if a bully hits you, his intent isn’t just to insult you. He wants to intimidate you and keep intimidating you — to hold some control over you, by making you fear him. If you stand up to a bully, if you hit him back and show him he can’t intimidate you, he’ll leave you alone. But if you do nothing, he will continue to bully you.

Though the Christian faith points to a greater reality beyond the here and now, I am convinced that the Lord wants us engaged with our communities, influencing the real world for Christ. The peace of Christ is not the pacifism of Gandhi, which was nothing but a political ploy; get huge crowds of people involved in civil disobedience, thereby rendering the British colonial government ineffective. Nor is “peace” what Islam anticipates when the whole world is Muslim and no more will they have to fight the infidel wherever them find him (Sura 8:39). Eastern religions tend to see peace as ceasing to strive, something modern thinkers have confused with Psalm 46:10 (“Be still, and know that I am God”). But once the seeker has found God and has inner peace, he is not then supposed to revel in oblivion.

Jesus teaches us just the opposite. We are to actively do good (1 Timothy 4:10 and elsewhere). We are to strive to work (occupy, do business, use our talents) for his Kingdom until Jesus returns (Luke 19:13). We are to do works of faith for the purpose of glorifying our God, not shrink from the enemy. We are to resist the devil (James 4:7). Though we war not against flesh and blood (Ephesians 6:12) we are to fight the good fight of faith (1 Timothy 6:12) which involves standing your ground (Ephesians 6:13).

Christians, what fellowship has light with darkness (2 Corinthians 6:14)? Make your stand and stand your ground!

About retiredday

I am Michael D. Day, a regular, everyday guy -- retired. I stand for God-given freedom, which means I think for myself. I believe in being civil, because the Bible teaches that we should love our enemies. But I also believe in saying it how I see it, and explaining just why I see it that way, sort of like 2 Timothy 4:2.
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