Monday, 31 October 2016

Is Christ's injunction to 'Love your enemies' pacifist?

“Love your enemies, do good to them which hate you, Bless them that curse you, and pray for them which despitefully use you. And unto him that smiteth thee on the one cheek offer also the other; and him that taketh away thy cloke forbid not to take thy coat also. Give to every man that asketh of thee; and of him that taketh away thy goods ask them not again.”

Brett Stevens at Amerika.org said last week that this particular section of 'The sermon on the mount' was his least favourite part of Christianity - and he described it as 'pacifism'.

http://www.amerika.org/politics/snapshot-the-problem-of-christianity

I can certainly see how he would make this interpretation. There is a common, misleading and unfortunate habit - both from real Christians and anti-Christians - of supposing that the Bible (or the New Testament, or Gospels. at least) must be 100 percent true, when taken literally (i.e as statements of facts and universal laws) one sentence at a time.

I can see how this situation has arisen, given the tendency of Men (and nowadays especially 'liberal Christians') to distort Christianity to be compatible with those secular and political ideologies which are that person's primary motivation.

But really it is nonsense! Nonsense in general, and in this specific instance; because Jesus obviously did not intend this this statement to be taken as a universal law - for two reasons, one because he did not himself behave this way, and two because it is impossible to behave this way.

We could add that any specific virtue, pursued exclusively, leads to sin - and that therefore no statement or rule is universally applicable - but ought to be taken as part (typically a small part, given the large number of specific virtues) of that larger whole of 'Good'. Jesus was crystal clear that the Good human life is not one of passively obeying a list of rules (i.e. Phariseeism); it was the inner motivation that mattered supremely - plus of course a willingness to repent our many and frequent inevitable moral failures.  

Those three reasons  - Christ's example, impossibility and 'prudence'; the virtue of a balanced Good - should suffice to prevent us from regarding this passage as a stumbling block. We could, if required, add in that Christianity is about 2000 years old, while pacifism is only about 250 years old (arising first in England among some Nonconformist Protestants - esepcially the Quakers).

Is more needed? Not necessarily. Not every sentence in the Bible is relevant to our condition, whether as a society or as a person. Probably everything in the Bible has been, or will be relevant to some people at some time - but certainly not to all people at all times and not equally - the necessary emphasis, the primary moral problems and their solutions, will be very different in The West nowadays from - say - Rome AD 200, Constantinople in 500, England circa 800 or 1350, or New England circa 1750...

So weshould not expect to, do not need to - and almost certainly cannot - personally properly understand all the statements in the Bible. And indeed we do not always know how these statements were intended, nor in what sense they were meant.

For example, with the first chapters of Genesis, The Song of Solomon, the Book of Job and Revelations of St John it is very hard for us modern Westerners to understand what is being done - certainly the meanings and implications are not easy nor transparent.

So we could leave aside this particular passage; or we could try to understand what Christ was getting-at, now we know he was not compiling a set of bureaucratic instructions.

I think the meaning comes from the first sentence - which is indeed a universal truth (properly understood: i.e. we must indeed all and always strive for a state of love, which is the bond and unity of all life in God's reality; and must repent states of resentment, although they are inevitable).

“Love your enemies, do good to them which hate you, Bless them that curse you, and pray for them which despitefully use you."

And the last two sentences are vivid, memorable illustrations of specific situations that might illustrate the principle: these are things it may be necessary and best sometimes to do; things we must be prepared to do when that is overall Good.

"And unto him that smiteth thee on the one cheek offer also the other; and him that taketh away thy cloke forbid not to take thy coat also. Give to every man that asketh of thee; and of him that taketh away thy goods ask them not again.”