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Saint Augustine
Jesus and Pacifism - Turn the Other Cheek
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Article Index
Jesus and Pacifism
Personal Non-retaliation, Not Pacifism
Blessed Are the Peacemakers
Turn the Other Cheek
Live by the Sword, Die by the Sword
Two Kingdoms - The Strong Man
Jesus and the Roman Centurion -- Conclusion
All Pages



"But I say to you, do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also." (Matthew 5:39; cf. Luke. 6:29; John. 18:22-23)

It is Jesus‘ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount that gives us most pause to consider that the pacifist case is possible. The immediate context for this saying is located within the context of Jesus‘ Kingdom ethic. He taught that the Kingdom of God is a present reality (Matthew 4:17ff) for first century listeners (as it is for those who followed throughout the centuries).

The key word in this passage is ‘resist‘ [ἀνθίστημι] which in all 14 NT uses carries the meaning “to set one‘s self against, to withstand, resist, oppose; and to set against.”26 The word is useful for understanding the nature of both immediate and longer-term conflict. The immediate statement is intensely personal – an interpersonal principle that denies the believer the right of retaliation or vengeance - fully in keeping with the OT ethic.27 Jesus amplifies the personal subordination of the NT believer to God by denying the individual the possibility of retribution. The debate ever since has been if and how this principle of non-retaliation applies beyond the individual to social relationships and ultimately to governing authority. Ramsey contends that Christian love must have a “preferential ethics of protection” toward others.28 We must not misconstrue Christ‘s command to “turn the other cheek” (Matthew 5:39), which is intensely personal but does not also allow the believer to ignore the difficulty of other persons. “Coercive force, proportionate to the offense, is a just response in the face of violent aggression.”29

A matter of distress to all parties when considering the appropriateness of warfare for Christians is that Christ gave us no direction for the conduct of government, especially concerning the use of deadly force. Any application of Jesus‘ Kingdom ethic to the broader society is an argument either by extension or from silence. (The same could be said for many of the grievous social ills of Jesus‘ day – such as slavery, prostitution, usury, etc.) The principle of personal non-retaliation is not explained in detail by Jesus, it is left up to the individual and the church to work out the complexities of personal discipleship.

Christian Pacifists30 argue the case by extension. The ethic of radical, personal nonviolence taught by Jesus is to be the norm throughout the continuum of all human interactions. “That is why Christian ethics is not first of all an ethics of principles, laws or values, but an ethic that demands we attend to the life of a particular individual: Jesus of Nazareth.”31 To do this, the Christian must not ‘mimic’ Jesus but to boldly live a virtuous life in a virtuous community.32 The church without “the kingdom ideal” is without identity; and it is the church which gives that ideal its expression.33 For Hauerwas this is neither an abdication of the public arena, nor ‘a form of monasticism’ which would deny any political significance to Christians practicing non-violence.34 He maintains that there is a Christian responsibility to support the state except when “government and society resorts to violence in order to maintain internal order and external security.”35 The Christian continues to ‘turn the other cheek‘ as a matter of practicing the radical virtues proclaimed by the Savior. Hauerwas believes in, “the responsibility of Christians to work to make their societies less prone to resort to violence.”36

The Christian Warrior must carefully listen to the pacifist, for in doing so one finds motivation to pursue peace by non-violent means as a virtue. Warriors are those who wield the tools of violence, who can become overzealous in the exercise of power and too willing to ignore peaceful alternatives.

There are numerous pacifistic positions, all of which radically apply Sermon on the Mount teaching. The pacifist of absolute principle couples turning of the cheek with the OT command “You shall not murder.” (Exodus 20:13). The pacifist, Johannes Ude, admits to no exception to this unconditional command – “It is on a higher level of authority than the various other political practices and prescriptions in the Old Testament which still left a place for violence.”37 Thus for Ude, OT principle is completely superseded by NT grace.

All varieties of pacifists agree on the principle that violence is not the answer to life‘s problems and that peaceful, alternative pathways must be found to resolve conflicts between parties. Turning the other cheek, personal humility and sacrifice within the context of submission to God are the guiding attitude for establishing peace in all human relations.

Historically, the argument from silence has been developed by Just War advocates. Thomas Aquinas, writing on Christian charity, cites Augustine, who in a sermon cites John the Baptist giving ethical direction to soldiers (Luke 3:14). The Baptist does not direct the soldiers to give up killing or warfare but rather gives a proscription of personal morality – “Do not take money from anyone by force, or accuse anyone falsely, and be content with your wages” (Luke 3:14). Augustine concludes. “If he commanded them to be content with their pay, he did not forbid soldiering."38 Aquinas goes on to argue: “Those who wage war justly aim at peace, and so they are not opposed to peace, except to the evil peace, which Our Lord "came not to send upon earth (Matthew 10:34).”39 His view harmonizes with St Paul (Romans 13:3-5). Aquinas again cites Augustine: "We do not seek peace in order to be at war, but we go to war that we may have peace."40

C.S. Lewis, writing in the same vein, understands Christ‘s teaching to turn the other cheek in a very literal and practical manner that does not eschew all violence, simply the right of personal retaliation. He interprets this command to turn the other cheek as an uncomplicated command without a secondary conclusion or effect. What is relevant is the personal injury and the Christian‘s response. The believer must submit individual desire for retribution to God (Deuteronomy 32:35). Lewis maintains that when we read into this command any other conditions than the interaction between two individuals we have moved beyond the command. “Does anyone suppose 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?” He denies this is contained in Jesus‘ words.41 Lewis sees consistency with this viewpoint in the whole of Jesus teaching and the entirety of scripture. He cites Jesus praise of the Roman Centurion (Matthew 8:5-13; Luke 7:6-10) ‘without reservation‘; the Apostle Paul‘s teaching on the right of the sword (Rom. 13:4ff) and St. Peter‘s confirmation of governmental authority (1 Pet. 2:14).42 Lewis does not find a universal principle of non-resistance that applies in all circumstances, but one that Christ‘s hearers would plainly understand as a personal ethic and not more.43

Last Updated on Monday, 25 March 2013 18:17