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Pacifism, the Bible and the Sin of Selfishness

May 27th, 2011 by Madeleine

‘If someone wants something from us and we do not want to give it to them that is the sin of selfishness and the Bible condemns selfishness.’ This was one of the three points a Christian pacifist speaker made in defending his stance at the panel discussion on War Ethics that Matt mentioned in Pacifism and The Golden Rule.

Whilst there were a lot of issues raised that night that I wanted to respond to (being a member of the audience, I was only able to ask a question on one) it was this point that I woke up with in my head the next morning; I awoke with the question/statement I wished I’d have asked/said on the night fresh in my mind. Here it is:

Mr Pacifist, you said that if someone wants something from us and we do not want to give it to them that is the sin of selfishness; if someone wants to take from us we should let them without resistance because that is what Jesus did when he let himself be crucified. Is that about right?

Gun=Better Protection than any Pacifist Male

So if I go out to the parking lot and a man pins me to the ground and starts raping me and my hand find a rock in the darkness next to me, is what you are saying that I should let him take what he wants, that I should not use the rock to smash him in the head but rather I should lie back and think of Jesus?

I think the point you are missing is that Jesus let his life be taken to save humankind. If I let myself be taken I am saving no one; if I smashed the rapist in the head with a rock I could at least save the next victim. I could mount the argument that by responding with my choice to be pacifist I was selfishly not thinking of the next victim?

And what if it was my daughter? What if I heard a noise in the night and found some man pinning my 10 year old down raping her? Should I tell her to lie back and think of Jesus too? Not call the police who might force him away in handcuffs to face a justice system that will deprive him on his liberty? Not smash him over the head with a frying pan or attack him with a kitchen knife? Because I’ll tell you what, anyone who I found doing that to my daughter would leave my house in a body bag or I would give my life trying.

Pacifism might sound trendy but it misses the point that while Jesus might have lived a fairly pacifist looking life when he was on earth, Jesus is part of a Trinity and there are other parts of the Trinity that judge, that wage war, that strike down and destroy. Yet another part of the Trinity inspired the writing of  the whole Bible. All three elements of the Trinity’s example must be read together to understand the contexts they fall in and I believe Romans 13: 1-10 is the key:

On the Authority of the State to Govern Justly and the Directive to us to Consent to be Governed:

1 Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. 2 Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. 3 For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. 4 For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience. [Emphasis mine]

6 This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. 7Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.

Given the State’s Authority and our Consent to be Governed, how we should treat each other?

8 Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law. 9 The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not covet,” and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 10 Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.

The context of how we should live in peace and love must be read alongside the role and authority of the State to bring force and justice to those who do not. Choosing to only look at your perception of how Jesus lived without looking his example within the context of  what we know of God the Father and what the Holy Spirit has caused us to know through the Word of God is effectively denying the Trinity.

Recommended further reading:
Sunday Study R 13: Romans, Revelations and the Role of the State
All MandM War Ethics Posts
All MandM Old Testament Ethics Posts

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21 responses so far ↓

  • How do you reconcile this with Matthew 5:39-41?

  • Ryan, thats a good question, My (long winded) answer would be as follows.

    First, you need to note the context: this is from the Sermon on the Mount, in the beginning of this sermon Christ said he was not abrogating or contradicting the old testament, so to interpret it in this way would do violence to the context. The literary technique of contrasting “what you have heard” with “ I say to you” is a common way of setting out a rabbis teaching where one contrasts a superficial or excessively formalistic interpretation with the law with a more faithful one.

    This is borne out by the previous examples, when Jesus says “you have heard it said do not murder but I say” he is using the “but” of antithesis or negation, its not as if he is saying its Ok to murder he rather says one should go further and not engage in unjustified verbal abuse and slander. When he says “do not commit adultery but I say to you” he is not saying its wrong to refrain from adultery, the “but” is again not a but of negation or antithesis he goes on to say do not look lustfully at women. Both looking lustfully and slanderous abuse are in fact condemned in the old testament.

    Second, the Genre: most commentators note that the sermon on the mount vividly uses hyperbole to make moral points. Jesus talks about “if your right eye causes you to sin pluck it out” obviously he is not advocating mutilation. In one place he says “do your good deeds before men so they will see and glorfy your father” then he states “let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matt 5:14 ) but in Matt 6 he states:

    “Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven. 2 “So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. 3 But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4 so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”

    Now obviously, this is speaking in a loose hyperbolic way. To make to different points about the motives one has in doing good., he is not giving precise literal instructions.Similarly, the text states “do not swear at all” despite Jesus taking an Oath latter in the narrative and Paul swearing oaths. But in context the hyperbolic point is obvious, he is talking about people who try and excuse lying by claiming they did not swear a legally valid oath. He says judge not, and then says judge people by there fruit. Again the context shows what is meant, judging people in a petty hypocritical way.

    So the language here is clearly hyperbolic. So you have to be careful about taking phrases like “do not resist one who is evil” ( actually in the greek it’s something more like, “do not resist by evil means”) in a unqualifiedly literal way, one needs to look at the context to see the point being made.

    Now turning to the passage you refer to. The phrase “an eye for an eye” was a legal maxim which stated the victim of a crime was entitled to commensurate compensation. So the first point is that anyone who things Jesus is rejecting this principle in an unqualified sense must claim that the New Testament claims victims can’t be compensated. This would also mean Christ was rejecting the Old Testament, which he has explicitly denied he is intending to do, the context then seems to rule this interpretation out.

    What Christ means is made clearer by the example he gives. “If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.” In 1st century Palestine a slap on the cheek was a severe insult. In 1st century Judaism a slap on the right cheek was a paradigm of an offence which though extremely insulting but caused no actual harm. One could, under the “eye for an eye” principle sue a person for the damage caused by an insult even though no actual harm was caused.

    I think to extrapolate from this, that Christ meant a women who is raped should turn the other cheek is a stretch. Its odd that if he meant this he would use a example of a minor offence which causes insult but no harm to illustrate it. I would say a more sensible reading is that Christ is saying that, although one has a legal right to sue for compensation one should let minor offences go, and not be petty and vindictive person.

    The two other cases do not involve assault or attempted murder. They involve a case where an enemy, demands something from you that they are legally entitled to. ( court awarded damages to an enemy and conscription to walk a mile by a roman soldier) The example Jesus gives involves not just giving them what they have a right to but also going beyond this and doing the superogatory act of giving them more than they are entitled to.

    This is in fact entirely compatible with the old testament, the idea that one should graciously give to those who are ones enemies is in fact taught in the old testament, where is occurs along side laws telling the state to punish rapists and murderers and laws allowing the killing in self defence.

    I don’t think you can go from, “when your enemy has a legal right to something of yours give it to them and in fact give them more than they entitled to” To, “if your enemy wants to illegally rape you spread your legs.”

    I final point is that when Paul, elaborates Christ teaching in Romans 12 he states

    ” Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath,for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,”[d] says the Lord. On the contrary:
    “If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
    if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
    In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”
    Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

    Paul here cites the Old Testament to back this teaching up, suggesting it is not a rejection of the old testaments position. Moreover, in the very next verse however he states

    “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience. (Rom 13:1-5)

    The chapter distinction between these passages is not in the original nor was it added till after the late middle ages, its not therefore part of Paul’s letter. As Paul formulates Christ teaching here, he commands believers to not repay evil for evil and commands them ot to “not take revenge” but “leave room for God’s wrath,for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” IN other words, follow the old testament teaching about loving your enemies.

    He then immediately states that the government has been given by God the sword, to take revenge and exercise Gods wrath on those who do evil. (the greek words are the same here) And this authority is morally legitimate ( they submit out of conscience, because it has this authority) because its granted to them by God. So Paul seems to state that the very things Christians are forbidden to do in regards to not repaying evil for evil, is what the state has been given the legitimate authority and right to do.

    In light of this I think one can’t sensibly read complete pacifism into Christ’s teaching here. I think he tells people to seek to give to their enemies, to give them what they are entitled to and supergoatory enrich them, he tells people to not be petty and willing to injure insults and unjust actions perpetrated against them that are minor and not be petty or vengeful and I think people should do this. But I don’t think he says that the government should not use force to stop crime, nor is he rejecting the old testament notion that those who have suffered “serious injury”( which is what the old testament stated) such as a violent assault are not entitled to get compensation from the person who did it.

    I also think that telling people he does can very harmful to people who are victims of rape and serious assault and pastorally very dangerous and insensitive. It sounds great when one is talking about bombing children in the middle east, (which can be condemned on other grounds) but if one thinks about situations where women are beaten by a husband or raped, it can actually boarder on the perverse to tell them to “turn the other cheek”.

  • Alexander Pruss has a post about pacifism that I agree with: Look here: http://alexanderpruss.blogspot.com/2009/01/pacifism.html

    In that post, Pruss argues that pacifism can actually be problematic (not in and of itself, but with regards to the world in which we find ourselves living in).

    In the comments, Pruss says that the best justification for war is not necessarily in self-defense but rather that of the defense of the innocent.

  • Jarrett, Pruss’s argument is similar to the one I made on the panel. I put forward the contention: the state has a right to use violence to uphold justice in the geographical area in which it governs. I then suggested that if you accept this, it does not matter whether the person committing the crime is a citizen or a foreign soldier. I suggested if you reject it, then you also have to reject courts, parliament, police, taxes, and even social welfare. I then suggested the only way to make sense was to limit ones opposition to “non lethal violence”. I suggested that cases like Aramoana presented a counter example, and even if one did make this argument, the problem is the biblical texts they cited could not bear the distinction between lethal and non lethal violence in this way. The claim “love your enemies” or “resist not evil” or “repay not evil for evil” or “turn the other cheek” taken the way they take them could not justify this distinction.

  • Thanks for the follow-up, Matt.

    Did the people on the panel simply have to bite the bullet with regards to your suggestions?

    I little while back, I was commenting on a blog post by Ben Witherington III–a conservative NT scholar/historian–and he’s a self-confessed pacifist (I don’t mean any negativity by that) . One thing I noted, among others, is wouldn’t it be strange, since on his (Witherington’s) view Christians are not suppose to carry out violence (even for sake of justice), that in his view that only non-Christians can serve as cops and serve in the military. This wasn’t really an argument per se but the point was to illustrate the absurdity of his belief. In the U.S., a strong majority identity themselves as Christian, but wouldn’t it be bizarre if only non-Christians served in these very courageous roles like being a police-officer and protecting our country by being in the military. At the very least, it should make one pause for a second and rethink their position.

  • Jarrett, actually they never addressed my point, one responded by talking about how he visited Africa and saw that a civil war there had hurt the poor. The other simply cited a series of passages out of context, such as “turn the other cheek” and “do not resist evil” so I simply repeated my point.. At one point someone from the floor explictly challenged them to address my argument and they changed the subject to the killing of Bin Laden. . It was fascinating, in normal University contexts one could counter these kind of things fairly easily, but in an audience of evangelical educated layman, who are used to persuasive preachers and “stories” and “narratives” and so forth it required a slightly different strategy to get the point across.

    As to the issue you raise, that was in fact another point I made, many historic Christian pacifists, did not so much claim the state could not use force, but argued Christians should not be involved with the state or politics but had a different vocation. I suggested this was a consistent position, but one that engaged in political lobbying against war faced the dilemma I stated. Pacifists who tie their masts to leftist activism, face the dilemma that they actually demand the state use force to uphold “social justice” all the time.

  • The right to life is also the right to defend it…. that’s all that needs be said.

  • I love your answer Mat very sensible and grounded

  • “So if I go out to the parking lot and a man pins me to the ground and starts raping me and my hand find a rock in the darkness next to me, is what you are saying that I should let him take what he wants, that I should not use the rock to smash him in the head but rather I should lie back and think of Jesus?”

    When sexual assaults are discussed it is interesting that it’s always Sid the Psycho who is put forward as the example offender, yet the stats tell a slightly different story and I think it changes the angle of the pacifism argument.

    Without wishing to be too personal the likelihood that you are (a) going to be attacked in the manner suggested (b) defend yourself in the manner proposed is extremely remote.

    It’s far more likely that the person attacking you will be not only known to you but intimately known to you, so what will your response be then ?

    A woman is in far more danger from her life partner than from any Sid the Psycho character.

    So, if it was Matt – would you hit him with a rock or would you be a pacifist ?

    I’m no pacifist myself but equally I don’t think it’s the simplistic worldview that you’re portraying.

  • This is a really good post. Hearing fundamentalist/evangelical preachers talking about turning the other cheek growing up just made me bitter and angry. I became kind of a recluse, because I was tired of people finding out I took Christianity seriously, then they’d take advantage of me in many small ways, and I felt like I had to just put up with it. Now that I look back, I did not really put up with it, it just came out in passive-aggressive ways.
    I was reading an Eastern Orthodox pastor the other day, and he said kind of the same thing. Striking someone on the cheek in the Middle East was not extreme violence, but a kind of insult, and we should just let insults to our character go.
    One Reformed pastor I read said that the Sermon on the Mount is not something we should feel obligated to obey. Jesus was often attempting to raise the bar so high that people ended up frustrated and discouraged in their own ability to save themselves. Then they would be able to appreciate Jesus’ substitutionary atonement. We should rely more on the letters from apostles in the New Testament in how to live our lives. I went to an evangelical church that had one of the best pastors I’ve ever heard, and he pretty much said the same thing.
    Government is key. I don’t think God is saying not to punish bad people, but let the authorities do it. Don’t be a vigilante. In my experience, I’ve seen people want to get revenge 10-20 times more than what was did to them. Then the other person thinks “maybe what I did was bad, but I didn’t deserve THAT!”, and they plot their revenge that is exponentially worse, and violence can spiral out of control. There is something about government involvement that tends to stop, or at least put a damper on things getting out of control.

  • “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. 2 Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. 3 For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. 4 For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.”

    I disagree that pacifism is trendy. I say stupidity is trendy and pacifism falls in that category.

    Madeleine: Are you kidding with that quote?
    Greg

  • Romans 13.1-3:

    1 Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. 2 Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. 3 For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong.

    According to this, Hitler and Saddam Hussein were established by God. Not only that, but when the citizens of Nazi Germany and Iraq rebelled against being gassed to death and put into camps… they were, “rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.” So it’s their own falt! Verse 3 really caps it off – Hitler and Hussein only hold terror for those who do wrong. So according to this, the 6 million Jews and all the others killed by the two dictators deserved their punishment.

    Remember – the verse is absolute – not contingent on anything, “there is NO authority except that which God has established.”

  • But you cut the quote short

    v 4 carries on “For he is God’s servant to do you good…”

    The authorities are not acting as God’s servants when they indulge in genocide or mass murder etc. Authorites lose their legitimacy when they do evil to their populations.

  • That doesn’t change the fact that according to the verse, they were established by God. It says there is no authority but ones God has established.. and that, “rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong.”

    The conclusion is unavoidable – there is no authority other than those that have been established by God.

    It’s certainly a troubling passage to grapple with.

  • Its not actually new though. God gave Israel a king, Saul. But Saul even though he knew his throne and kingship had been established by God went throughly off the rails and abused his kingship. I suspect there is a degree of difference between govt being established for our benefit by God and whether or not that govt is behaving as it ought. Its not like it is any difference for the individual. We mostly know how we should behave and we often dont behave that way. I guess even Hitler and Stalin had the opportunity to be good leaders for their countries…. they didnt have to be despots.

  • Here is the first sin committed outside the Garden Of Eden. The first sin committed on the Earth as we know it was selfishness. That terrible selfishness resulted in the first murder and every single murder, whether direct or indirect ever committed since. How did that look to God?

  • “I think the point you are missing is that Jesus let his life be taken to save humankind. If I let myself be taken I am saving no one; if I smashed the rapist in the head with a rock I could at least save the next victim. I could mount the argument that by responding with my choice to be pacifist I was selfishly not thinking of the next victim?”

    I really appreciated Paul Baird’s take on this. Women are most likely to be assaulted by an intimate partner or husband. Just as you suggest pacifism to be wrong and selfish, that could also be said about the submission of women. Submission of the wife to the husband has the potential of begetting incredible violence and utter futility.

    I don’t think we have to use “what if” here. Women around the world are beaten and raped by their husbands. What is the advice? Should women resist before the assaults begin in earnest or wait until it gets bad?

  • @Michael, isn’t it authority per se that Paul is talking about here and not any one individual who may happen to be in power? Otherwise, doesn’t that preclude even voters in a democracy from tossing out the current leadership in favor of someone new?

  • I think there is some confusion going on here between “pacifism” and “nonresistance” or even “nonviolente resistance.” Pacifism itself I do not think has anything to say about the exercise of force by the state internally. It is the use of external force which concerns pacifism. That is why Yoder allows for a (highly-scrutinized) criminal justice system.

    All that being said, I do think that the hard sayings of Jesus teach nonresistance. How we are to apply that is the crucial question.

  • I just want to say to Jim below who mentioned reading an Eastern Orthodox pastor (actually they are priests) –I am Eastern Orthodox (from the Greek branch) and you are entirely correct.

    Jesus was referring to personal insults and that is understood as a metaphor in my Church. Also when Jesus said to rip out your eyes for it is better to go into heaven blind then to hell that is also a spiritual metaphor. God does not want you to self mutilate. In my church the vocation of a soldier is seen as the same as the vocation of any God called work.

    Luke 3:14 “Then some soldiers asked Him [Jesus], “And what should we do?” He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely–be content with your pay.”

    Notice He did not say “stop being soldiers”. Why not? He could have easily said: “stop being soldiers, make your swords into plowing tools”. He did not. Because “there is a time for war and there is a time for peace”.

    Also, I believe its best if Christians are in all levels of government so that a Christian society can evolve as its the best for all people: pagan and believers. Even though pagan authority is under God’s control I do not believe God wants Christians to withdraw from society (arts, politics, medicine,you name it) and that includes government.

    God bless you Matt and Madeleine you have a great website
    In Christ
    Nikos

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