We make a lot of choices, some important, some not so serious. Still other choices will shape our stories in profound, irrevocable ways.

There is a famous story of an early Anabaptist reformer named Dirk Willems. During the time of the Reformation, many Anabaptists were persecuted for their theological convictions that differed from the state churches around them. Dirk, arrested and imprisoned in the Netherlands, managed to escape. While fleeing across the ice with his captors in pursuit, Dirk realized that one of his captors had fallen through the ice into the frigid water.1 What choice would he make?

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Matthew 5:38-48 (NIV)

So when we start talking about turning the other cheek and loving our enemies, lots of important questions and objections are raised. What about Hitler? What if no one had fought in the war to stop him? Or what would you do if an armed criminal broke into your house? These objections, while certainly straying to the worst case scenario, are indicative of deep questions and concerns that surround the topic of non-violence. However, drawing from Matthew 7:24, the Sermon on the Mount is about hearing Jesus’ words and putting them into practice. Turning the other cheek and loving our enemies is something we do because Jesus asks us to, not based on whether it works or not.

Photo credit Allen Taylor

So have you ever had this sort of fight with a sibling? You are playing around and you’re having a good time and all of a sudden, you push or punch your sibling just a little too hard. As they start to cry, you begin to bargain with them. “You can hit me back just as hard – just please don’t tell mom,” or “you can have my dessert for a week if you just stop crying.” Even for children, there seems to be an innate sense of some sort of justice in the world. In verse 38, Jesus is quoting the Old Testament law. Exodus 21:24-25 says “Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, wound for wound, burn for burn, bruise for bruise.” And Leviticus 24:19-20: “Anyone who injures their neighbor is to be injured in the same manner: fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth. The one who has inflicted the injury must suffer the same injury.”2

Sounds a little bit brutal, doesn’t it?

Now before we get too indignant, it’s important to realize that the purpose of these Old Testament laws is to “uphold the right of injured parties to compensation or retribution”3 and to “limit the extent of retaliation to punishment appropriate to the crime committed.”4 We as humans, left to our own concepts of justice, so quickly fall into revenge that outweighs the original crime committed as so many interpersonal conflicts and wars testify to. While not the final say on the subject, these Old Testament laws help to prevent revenge from becoming a burning forest fire, burning out of control and destroying everything in its path.

But now Jesus is calling us to a better way of fulfillment of the law. We are now called not to merely stay within the given bounds of retribution, but we are to respond to violence by choosing the fruit of the spirit – peace (I’m following Kurt Willems’ lead here). And when we choose this fruit of the spirit, we do away with the endless cycle of revenge. We are called to confront evil, not by playing evil’s game, but by stopping it in its tracks. Jesus illustrates what this might look like for us in three vignettes.

  1. Turning the other cheek
    When someone slaps you on the right cheek, this is an insult because you are being hit with the back of one’s hand. Turning the other cheek certainly does invite another blow, but if you must hit me, this time hit me as an equal.
  2. Handing over your coat
    If someone is taking your shirt, go another step further and offer that they take your coat as well. NT Wright says, “Show him what he is really doing, shame him with your impoverished nakedness”5 as you hand over your clothes to him.
  3. Go the extra mile
    Roman soldiers could force an average civilian to carry their pack one mile but no further. If you were to carry their pack another mile, you might shock that soldier. And he could get in trouble since he is only allowed to ask you to carry the pack for one mile.6

Often, verse 39 has been taken to mean to sit passively in the face of evil: “Do not resist an evil person.” However, as these vignettes illustrate, there is a certain kind of resistance happening here. It isn’t a violent resistance, intent on getting even, inflicting further pain and violence, but it also isn’t a call to passivity, to sit by and let evil go unchecked.

“Whatever situation you’re in, you need to think it through for yourself. What would it mean to reflect God’s generous love despite the pressure and provocation, despite your own anger and frustration?”7

We need eyes touched by the Holy Spirit, who gives us the fruit of peace, to imagine what it might look like to approach each situation, not with revenge and violence, but with self-sacrificial love. I am fascinated by the study of history, and when I look at the indescribable evil that has occurred throughout human history, it seems overwhelming to even begin to imagine what it might look like to resist this kind of evil without violence. The carnage of the world wars, the heinous evil of the holocaust, the unspeakable horror of various genocides… Where is the Sermon on the Mount in all of this?

But just because it isn’t easy, doesn’t mean Jesus doesn’t ask us to.

And not only does Jesus ask us to do it, he shows us how to do it.

Continue reading > Peace Amidst Violence, Part II

Watch the full message

Taken from Stephanie Christianson’s message at Forest Grove Community Church, North Site, 2021
Transcribed by Cheryl Ashton

1Tieleman J. van Braght. Martyrs Mirror.
2 D.A. Carson. Matthew. The Expositor’s Bible Commentary. Revised edition. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010. Page 189.
3 Richard B. Gardner. Matthew. Believers Church Bible Commentary. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1991. Ebook.
4 Richard B. Gardner. Matthew. Believers Church Bible Commentary. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1991. Ebook.
5 NT Wright. Matthew for Everyone Part One. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2002. Page 52.
6 NT Wright. Matthew for Everyone Part One. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2002. Page 51-52.
7 NT Wright. Matthew for Everyone Part One. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2002. Page 52.

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