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 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'.

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.”


Gerry T. Neal said...

The command to "love your enemies" in Matthew 5:44 is in Greek: ἀγαπᾶτε τοὺς ἐχθροὺς. The word ἐχθρός was used of a personal enemy. It literally means "that which is hateful to one". The Greeks had a separate word for "enemy" in the sense of the foe your country is at war with. That word was πολέμιοι, the masculine plural of the adjective that means "pertaining to war" used as a substantive. It should also be noted that the verse occurs in the context of the "you have heard it said...but I say unto you" section of the Sermon the Mount. This section, prefaced by a warning against taking it as nullifying the Law and the Prophets, i.e., what we call the Old Testament today (vv. 17-19)explains that the righteousness God requires of us is greater than the external, formalism preached by the Pharisees (v. 20). There are three couplets of Old Testament verses, to which the Lord gives a "but I say unto you". The first couplet, the basic commandments against murder and adultery from the Ten Commandments, He amplifies by saying that the commandments are broken by anger and lust as much as by the literal acts proscribed. The second couplet, from the civil law of the Old Testament, are the laws concerning divorce and the swearing of oaths, and the basic point the Lord is making here is that such provisions are accommodations included because man is sinful of which a man with the kind of heart righteousness God is looking for has no need. The final couplet includes an eye for an eye, and a commandment to love your neighbor and hate your enemy. Verse 44 is the "but I say unto you" to the second of these. What the Lord says about the Lex Talionis is instructive of what he means when he says "love your enemies". He tells people to turn the other cheek when struck on the right cheek, a sign of insult and a personal challenge. The "eye for an eye" is an instruction to civil magistrates for the administration of justice - not a justification for returning insults, fighting duels, or seeking revenge. It is not intended, as His warning in the earlier verses (17-19) makes clear, to nullify the Lex Talionis as the standard of justice of civil magistrates. Neither is the command to love your enemies grounds for pacifism, conscientious objection, or anything of the sort. Hence the use of the Greek word for "personal enemy" and not the use of the word for "enemies in war".

AdamW said...

I am to love God with all my heart, all my mind and all my might. *By way of contrast*, I am to love my neighbour as myself. Augustine says somewhere in the Confessions that the first kind of duty is represented in the first three commandments, and the second kind of duty is represented in the remaining seven.

Luke has a passage where 'he who does not hate his brother &c cannot be My disciple', repeated in a slightly diluted form also in Matthew. This bears some thought. I think it's about being sure to acknowledge and confess our human sins.

'Turn the other cheek' is a middle way: one is not to retaliate; neither is one to back down or run away from conflict.

Peter said...

I think we are supposed to follow a set of rules - just not "merely". Pharisaism is "merely" following rules.

Love your enemy is clearly a rule we should follow.

A strange comment - that Jesus did not act this way. He clearly followed it to the ultimate.

It is possible that the Sermon on the Mount is an extreme illustration and not to be taken quite 100% literally - but it clearly means we should go very far indeed, short of suicide perhaps, in that direction.

Indeed it makes crystal clear that this new rule is utterly different from the common sense merely hyman justice the Jews had up till that point.

To modern people puffed up with pride and ego there is no way this will not be a stumbling block. Even if not taken quite literally, it clearly means a level of self denial that no modern is comfortable with.

To try and soften the edge of this radical challenge to modern conceptions of how life should be lived is to rob Christianity of its power to change lives.

To me, the Sermon is perhaps the most beautiful and important part of the Gospels - and quite similar to the beautiful parts of Buddhism and Taoism - and a modern man SHOULD be deeply unsympathetic to it - I would be shocked if he wasn't.

And his growing sympathy with this message, should it occur, would be a reflection of his movement away from modern notions of what is good.

Bruce, I find it interesting that when it works in favor of a point you are trying to make, the history of traditional Christianity is a legitimate guideline, but when you wish you are quite prepared to say that millenia of Christianity is quite simply wrong and needs to be reinterpreted - indeed that is a major part of your project on this blog.

Chent said...

Ah, the art of Biblical interpretation! Sometime ago, this same passage was used by a independent "pastor" in Youtube to justify support of Christians to a kind of ritual used to celebrate a certain sinful personal relationship which shall remain unnamed.

“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.”

The "pastor" argued that, if your neighbor asks you to help because he wants to celebrate this kind of sinful relationship, you give them double help.

So, if your neighbor asks you for a pound of poison to kill his wife, should you give them two pounds?

I think it is pretty clear that loving your neighbor cannot go as far as collaborating with evil. After all, loving your neighbor is only the second commandment and the first commandment (loving God) has preference over the second one.

This is the danger of isolating a single verse and using it to justify everything. The Bible has to be read globally: some verses enlighten other verses. The people who wrote the Bible didn't mean to write a Windows manual. Their ways of expression were different from our ways of expression. Saying that Jesus was emphatic is a huge understatement.

Do you want an anal-retentive description of doctrine? Go to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (I say this as a Catholic). The Catechism is very ordered, without contradictions or paradoxes. Each sentence can be isolated and used separately. That is, it is written in a modern style. It is boring as hell and I thank God the Bible is not written this way.

But Bible writers are not like this. Their sentences are disordered (Pascal says that the Bible follows the order of the heart and not of the mind), paradoxical, incomplete, full of exaggerations, symbols and metaphors. You cannot isolate a single verse and pretend this is the truth.

You must love your enemy, even when you oppose his evil deeds, even when you defend yourself and your people from them. You can love your enemy while fighting against them (old-fashioned soldiers didn't have a problem with that).

Love is an internal thing but pacifism is an external thing. A Christian king should love the anti-Christian rebel he puts into jail. And he should pray for the guy in jail while making sure he does not escape. The same way our Heavenly Father loves people who are in hell.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Peter - You are perhaps one of those people that lead to this stumbling block I am discussing. I would just say : Taint necessarily so...

Peter said...

Bruce, I am indeed! But I am not in favor of removing stumbling blocks. They are there for a reason. They tell us we must utterly change our lives.

It has been said before that Christianity will be seen as a stumbling block and a foolishness, yet this was not taken to mean it should be softened.

Nathaniel said...

After considering your explanation, it seems almost obvious that this is applicable to our personal relationships with neighbors, and not to let small slights and disagreements turn into bitterness, hatred, revenge, etc. - to forgive.

It is odd that people twist that into almost committing suicide through inaction, or that it would permit one to stand aside while others harm your neighbors and loved ones. What nonsense! said...

I should point out that there is at least some controversy over whether some early Church fathers espoused pacifism. See quotes by Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria, Irenaeus, and others from the first two centuries of Christianity that claim that Christians were non-violent, did not serve in the Roman military, had forsworn weapons of war, etc.

This may not be decisive in answering how we are to understand the Sermon on the Mount but I wanted to point out that Christian views arguing that faithfulness requires rejecting violence did not originate with the Quakers and are as old as Christianity.