Last summer delegates to the Christian Reformed Church’s annual meeting considered a study report titled “War and Peace.” Synod 2006 recommended the report to the churches for study because of the abundance of helpful information it offers on this relevant issue. The war-and-peace debates usually center on two topics: pacifism or the just-war principles (conditions that must be met before a nation can morally go to war). This article presents a third voice in the discussion.
In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus says, “Do not resist an evil person.” He then encourages turning the other cheek, giving away your cloak, and going the extra mile. In personal relationships this text has been interpreted to mean that in conflict we must give in, surrender all rights, and live in peace. In international relationships, pacifists have said this is proof Jesus would never go to war. But if we look more closely at Jesus’ words in their historical and social context, and explore his intentions, we have a fresh alternative on how we might resolve personal and international conflicts, quite the opposite of the traditional understanding of this text.
Jesus says, “Do not resist an evil person,” but then with three examples illustrates a surprisingly strong response to an evildoer (see Matt. 5:31-42). Jesus suggests that by using creative pressure, without belittling, a victim can strongly appeal to a perpetrator’s conscience, to the perpetrator’s God-given sense of right and wrong. In this way both victim and victimizer can become part of bringing about justice.
Turning the Other Cheek
First, Jesus teaches that when a person is slapped or hit on the right cheek, that person should turn the other cheek as well. This has often been interpreted as meaning that we should be passive in the face of injury, turn another cheek, and receive more abuse. But some emerging studies of ancient Jewish culture reveal a little-known meaning of turning the left cheek.
Being hit on the right cheek requires the aggressor to use the left hand, but to hit a person on the left cheek involves using the right hand or fist. Attacking a person with the right fist in ancient culture is another way of saying, “I acknowledge you as my equal in this conflict.” In hitting with the right hand, the aggressor surrenders his dominance. So he will probably retract his right hand and not slap again. In this way the oppressor has been pressured into stopping his denigrating and insulting behavior. To turn the left cheek then is to strip the “superior” of his power to dehumanize. We see in this example that Jesus does not teach passivity but a strong, assertive response to an oppressor.
Giving Away Your Coat . . . and Then Some
Jesus’ second example portrays a creditor taking a poor man to court over an unpaid debt. The dilemma is what to do when a drought makes it impossible for the poor farmer to repay his loan for spring seed. Deuteronomy 24:10-13 lays out the arrangement that a banker can take a person’s outer robe as collateral for a loan but must return it each evening so the impoverished farmer can keep warm.
Jesus suggests that if a lender continues to press a debtor, oppress him, and takes him to court, the debtor should strip off his undergarments and hand them over to the lender as well. Now he stands stark naked in court. Nakedness is taboo in Judaism. The shame now transfers from the naked debtor to the creditor who has caused this shame. The debtor challenges the creditor, and the wealthy lender drops his unreasonable claim against the poor, helpless farmer. Jesus hereby gives Jewish impoverished debtors, who had little but the clothes on their backs, a way to continue to maintain their dignity in the face of demanding wealthy creditors.
Going the Extra Mile
The third example involves Roman occupational soldiers who coerce Jewish residents into carrying their heavy military backpacks for one mile. Jesus suggests to the people whose country is occupied by an oppressor that they carry the soldiers’ packs not just one mile but two. However, for a soldier to have his pack carried more than one mile by a local citizen is an infraction of the Roman military code. Now the oppressor has a problem. So the soldier begs the humble citizen to return his pack. The citizen, in continuing to carry the military pack beyond the one mile, reverses the roles. The soldier is no longer in control; he no longer has the upper hand. In this simple nonviolent way, the victim recovers his dignity during the second mile.
Jesus’ Teachings at Work
I would characterize Jesus’ three examples in the Sermon on the Mount as creative, empowering ways to bring about justice. A victim does not need to acquiesce to injustice but can confront abuse strongly with a nonviolent approach that shames the oppressor into more just behavior and possibly a change of heart.
Because we believe the law of God is indelibly written on everyone’s heart, the intent of this approach is not to resist or to belittle, but to help oppressors see the moral bereftness of their actions. So the genius of Jesus’ teaching is that it not only gives the oppressed a way to level the playing field, it also gives the oppressor a way to save face by choosing justice.
In the face of despicable evil, creative use of nonviolent pressure has been used in conflicts in recent history. During World War II, Bulgaria’s Orthodox Bishop Kiril led a campaign of nonviolence, appealing to the Nazi leaders’ sense of right and wrong, to protect the Bulgarian Jews from concentration camps. Interestingly, most of Bulgaria’s Jewish citizens were saved from the Nazi death camps.
No matter how depraved and dulled one’s conscience becomes, the God-given sense of right and wrong remains in the heart of the most evil person. There is always at least a flicker of light, placed by God, to which one can appeal.
Quite in contrast to how the American colonists received their freedom from the British Empire, Gandhi and the people of India gained their freedom without the use of military weapons. Instead, they exerted the power of creative pressure to gain their independence.
During the racial struggles of the past century in the United States, while white people used hangings, guns, and dogs to assert their side of the argument, Martin Luther King Jr., the freedom marches, and sit-ins finally shamed the majority conscience into recognizing God-given human rights. Appealing to a higher moral authority eventually won governmental civil rights.
The injustices of South Africa’s apartheid came to an end after many prayers offered by church folk worldwide. And creative pressure was brought to bear on the white government’s conscience through international shunning, moral outrage, ecclesiastical discipline, and economic sanctions. Eventually apartheid ended. Justice was not won by military action, but it was awakened by the pangs of pricked consciences. Many lives were spared on both sides because justice was pursued through nonviolent means.
Additionally, the apostle Paul taught, “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” He concludes his thoughts by saying, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Rom. 12:18, 21). Jesus provides three ways to do just that. He does not suggest that the victim roll over in the face of evil; rather, he shows us how, with creative use of pressure, to challenge the perpetrator’s God-given moral sensitivity, which can never be fully lost. This response becomes a powerful option in settling personal conflicts and a unique negotiating tool in addressing international disputes. Jesus’ approach to peace has the potential for not only changing the behavior of perpetrators but also for transforming their hearts.
Christians caught in personal conflict speak quickly of retaliation or suing, or in international conflict, of using the military option. But we are a people who hold a high view of the authority of Scripture. Let us take seriously Jesus’ and Paul’s words. If the Bible says, “live in peace” and “overcome evil with good,” let’s trust it. And if we believe it, let’s live it.
Students and practitioners of this third option provide us with new material and new approaches to ponder as we seek to biblically settle personal conflicts, seek justice, and struggle to find our way on the road to peace between peoples and nations.
- Is this article helpful in the discussion of war and peace? What inspired you? What do you disagree with?
- How does Vander Zee’s explanation of Jewish law impact your understanding of Scripture? Of social interaction and treatment of the poor?
- Rev. Vander Zee says that “no matter how depraved and dulled one’s conscience becomes, the God-given sense of right and wrong remains in the heart of the most evil person.” Do you agree? Discuss.
- Scripture asks us to “live in peace” and “overcome evil with good.” Give a concrete example of how these words might apply to a conflict situation in your life with a friend, a family member, or a colleague at work.
- How can the CRC apply the wisdom of this article in its deliberations about war and peace? Give examples.