Growing up my parents used to tell me two things that you may have heard in your youth; “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” and something along the lines of “Don’t start fights, but if you get hit, then finish them.” Their meaning was to only use violence as a last resort and then use only enough to stop the fight. There are believers that think using any form of violence is wrong. They often site a few different scriptures to support their arguments, and they site Martin Luther king and Jesus Himself as examples. I’ll be honest; I have never understood pacifists. I can understand not slugging everyone that frustrates me but I have always held the opinion that sometimes when a man steps too far, a whoopin’ is one of the fastest ways to set him straight and yes, myself included.
As followers of Christ we’re told that we’re to die to self and become more like Him. I found a martial arts class that I wanted to take so I decided to dig into the Word and pray about it, asking God for wisdom. If I came to the conclusion that the pacifists have it right, not only was I going to avoid the martial arts class but I was going to ask for God to change me into a pacifist. His will not mine be done, even if I don’t understand it.
The Old Testament
There are many examples in the Old Testament where God used violence, commanded His angels to, or commanded His people, the Jews, to use it. Some examples are; the flood, Sodom and Gomorrah, the plagues brought on Pharaoh and the Egyptians. I’ll stop before this article is even more long-winded.
“Thou Shall Not…”
I know there are some people who think that the Sixth Commandment states not to kill. However, “Thou shall not kill”, is actually a misquote of the actual commandment. The actual commandment is “Thou shall not murder”. All murder involves killing but not all killing is murder. There are some people who are confused by a Christian’s ability to be pro-life and pro-death penalty. What they fail to understand is that we are pro-life of the innocent, both child and victim of murder. The government is sanctioned by God to seek vengeance for crime and when government puts a murderer to death it is an example of when killing isn’t murder, its justice.
“An Eye For an Eye” Exodus 21:23-27
This is an often misunderstood verse. Gandhi is credited as saying “Any eye for an eye, leaves the whole world blind.” Gandhi did not understand rabbinical law. If he did he would have understood that this verse was not about retribution. Author R. Kent Hughes writes in his book The Sermon on the Mount: The Message of the Kingdom, that eye for an eye was “Far from being savage legislation, it was intrinsically merciful because it limited vengeance. The typical primitive blood feud knew nothing of equity. A small infraction by one tribe against another – for instance, trespassing – was met with a beating, which was returned by homicide, which was then countered with genocide.”
He goes on to explain that this law “was given to the judges of Israel as a basis for adjudication as Deuteronomy 19:16-21 makes so clear. Individuals were not permitted to use this law to settle disputes with others, only the courts were permitted to do so. Moreover it was not literally carried out by the Jewish legal system.” “The Mishna devotes an entire section entitled Baba Kamma to assessing proper damages”
The New Testament
As we saw in the Old Testament section, God used violence and commanded it to be used. As Christians we, in large part, use the New Testament and the life of Christ as our guide. While He didn’t directly use violence, was Jesus a pacifist?
The Sermon on the Mount – Mathew 5:38-48
This is one of Jesus’ most famous sermons and also one of the most cited to depict Him as a pacifist. In it Jesus explains how to deal with insult, unfair lawsuit, walking an extra mile and borrowing freely. Only one of these deals with the topic at hand, so I will only cover it.
Turn the Other Cheek
There are so many people who think this verse means, offer the other cheek to be slapped, to not only not defend yourself, but to ask for more. The trouble with this is that context is important. I have done a fair bit of research and I have found four theories that take the verse in context of the Jewish people at the time of Christ.
Here are some things to keep in mind.
Use of the Left Hand
Many cultures have used the left hand for “unclean” tasks and I believe some still do. I remember my father, who is left handed telling me that when he was a child his parents tried to force him to use his right hand for writing and other tasks. I mention this only to give some example of how widespread this practice was. Because the left hand was used for unclean tasks you would not use it, not even to strike someone you deemed less honorable then yourself.
Honor is something else that is lost on western culture. In many cultures, even today, honor is valued higher than life. This is why there are honor killings in some religions and cultures. Honor was also very important in the days when Jesus walked the earth. He condemned the Pharisees for always wanting to sit in the place of honor. He also rebuked the disciples telling them in Mark 9:35 “Anyone who wants to be the first must take last place and be the servant of everyone else.” One would only slap someone they considered less honorable then themselves and Jesus states, “If your right cheek is slapped.” Since the left hand would not be used, one would have to use their right hand for a backhand slap. A backhanded slap carries more dishonor then a palm.
From this point the four theories separate a bit. Theory one states that if, after the slap you “turned the other cheek”, the person would then either have to use their left hand to backhand slap you, which would bring them dishonor; strike you with an open palm or fist or the slapper would walk away. Either of the three options would put you at the same level of the slapper. So when Jesus said to turn the other cheek, He was telling those thought of as “lower” to put the slapper in a sort of checkmate, thus them declaring the slappee their equal.
Theory two is much like theory one, except by turning the cheek you could see the true motives of the slapper. If they regained composure and left you alone, then you have not acted out of vengeance. If they truly meant you harm and went for a punch or left handed attack you could then defend yourself and not be acting out of vengeance.
Theory three asserts that Jesus was not talking about an actual slap, but was talking about an insult. He meant that we should not trade insults or an eye for an eye, that we should ignore the insult. This is perhaps the first version of “sticks and stones”?
Theory four comes from R. Kent Hughes and his book The Sermon on the Mount: The Message of the Kingdom. He states “When Jesus spoke of being slapped on the right cheek He was describing an insult that comes because of ones faith. It was an insult for which a Jew could seek legal satisfaction according to the law of Lex Talionis. That is, he could seek damages. But do not do it “If you are dishonored as a heretic,” says Jesus, “you should not go to law about it; rather you should show yourselves to be truly my disciples by the way in which you bear the hatred and the insult, overcome the evil, forgive the injustice.” In short, though you could take your opponent to the cleaners, do not do it, instead lovingly absorb the insult.
What this means for us is that when we are insulted or abused for Christ’s sake (whatever form that insult may take), we must not respond by getting even, by getting our legal pound of flesh according to Lex Talionis, but must turn the other cheek. Jesus calls us to swallow our pride and give up our “rights” to reparation and fairness. That is the basic, essential interpretation.
The four theories while different have the same basic message; don’t react to insult, whether physical or verbal. None of the theories assert that Jesus was telling us to “turn the cheek” to take another slap. I think that is because when you put the verse in the context of the culture in the day in which it was written, it just doesn’t make sense.
The Two Swords Luke 22:35
During the Last Supper in Luke 22:35 Jesus reminds the disciples that when they go to spread the good news to bring nothing with them. Then in Luke 22:36 Jesus tells them something very interesting; He said to them, “But now if you have a purse, take it, and also a bag; and if you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one.” Here is another place where context is key. In R. Kent Hughes book The Sermon on the Mount: The Message of the Kingdom the author is explaining Mathew 5:40 and in it he explains how valuable the cloak was in that day; “It was possible in that day to sue others for the very shirt on their backs. However, no one could take anothers cloak for a permanent, twenty-four-hour-a day possession. A cloak or outer robe was indispensable for living in Palestine. So even if you lost your shirt (or tunic) in court and your opponent asked for your cloak and won it he had to return it every evening for you to sleep in.”
Seeing how important the cloak was, why would Jesus then tell the disciples to sell it if they did not have a sword? The closest thing I can think of that we would depend on as much as they depended on their cloak is our vehicle. This would be like Jesus saying, find another way to get to work, another way to get the kids to practice and sell your car and buy a rifle. Why would He do that? I believe that He knew He would be leaving soon and He wanted to make sure the disciples were equipped to defend themselves physically.
A sword, like a rifle, is a weapon used for violent acts or for the threat of violent acts. Whether offensive or defensive it is still a violent act. Jesus could have told the disciples to run away if faced with danger. He could have told them to call on the Father to send a fleet of angels but instead Jesus told them to get swords. In Luke 22:38 the disciples said, “See, Lord, here are two swords.” “That is enough,” he replied. We can only speculate but I think that Jesus wanted them to be able to defend themselves but not be seen as an armed force.
Peter in the Garden of Gethsemane John 18:10, 11
Then Simon Peter, who had a sword, drew it and struck the high priest’s servant, cutting off his right ear. (The servant’s name was Malchus.) 18:11 Jesus commanded Peter, “Put your sword away! Shall I not drink the cup the Father has given me?” Jesus knew Peter had the sword; He had just told them to buy them at the Last Supper. Jesus stopped Peter from interfering with God’s will. In Mathew 26:52 Jesus tells Peter “Put your sword back in its place,” Jesus said to him, “for all who draw the sword will die by the sword.” Two things stand out here. Jesus did not say that none of His followers should live or die by the sword. Jesus was telling Peter that he should not live by the sword because Jesus had already told Peter in Mathew 16:18 “And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.”
The Second Coming Revelation 19:11-21
The first time Jesus was here He tossed the temple tables but never used violence on another person. However, when He comes back, Revelation 19:11-21 describes Jesus killing with His very words and treading the nations in the wine press of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty. That doesn’t sound like a pacifist to me.
I do believe that under certain circumstances we as Christians are allowed if not required to use violence to defend ourselves, our loved ones and those whom are unable. What are those circumstances? The same ones my parents gave me when I was young, “Don’t start fights but if you get hit finish them.” Violence should always be as a last resort. When it is used there should be sufficient violence to stop the threat. When the threat is removed, if you do not stop, you are no longer defending yourself but taking vengeance and vengeance belongs to the government and ultimately to our God.