Foundations: Resist Not

I think at this point I can drift away from the Osama Bin Laden talk.  He’s been dead almost two weeks now, and I think most people have started to move on.  Plus, my last post was several days ago.  Not cool. So, onward with foundations…

This is one of the key passages nonviolent Christians reference to found their stance on.  It’s also a good place for me to address the issue of self-defense a little, at the request of Arik.

Here’s the passage:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.

(Matthew 5:38-42 ESV)

A lot of commentaries I’ve read in the past have looked at this passage in light of responding to a direct offense to the individual, saying it has nothing to do with violence, self defense, or war.  It’s simply a way we should react if someone offends.  John Piper, evangelical scholar, author, and pastor in the reformed tradition, has this to say on the matter:

First, we need to clarify what the problem is not. The problem is not that Jesus appears to be telling us to lie down and let evil overtake us. That is clearly not what he is saying. Instead, he is telling us what it looks like “not [to] be overcome by evil, but [to] overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:21). We have all seen the wisdom of Jesus’ words here in our everyday lives. Much of the time, the most effective way to overcome evil is by not resisting. If someone says a mean word, it is far more effective to respond with kindness than with another mean word in return. If someone tries wrongly to cut you off on the freeway, it is usually best just to let them do it. If we would learn these principles, our lives would be much more peaceful and, ironically, we would be vindicated more often.

So the problem is not that it looks as though Jesus is telling us to let evil steam-roll over us. The problem is that it looks like Jesus is telling us that the only way we should ever seek to overcome evil is by letting it go and responding with kindness. It looks as though he leaves no place for using force in resisting evil.

I think Piper is definitely hitting close to the right interpretation of the text in this excerpt from this article (the full text of which can be read at  However, and far be it from me to simply write off a great scholar like Piper, I think he’s only scratching the surface of something deeper, the reason why being a certain misconception about pacifism and devotion to nonviolence, which Piper perpetuates here:

To let someone murder when it is in your power to stop them is completely contrary to our moral sentiments. If a Hitler is on the move and seeking to bind the world in tyranny and destroy entire ethnic groups, it would seem very clearly wrong not to oppose him with force (which sometimes is the only effective method). It is true that war itself is harmful and tragic; but pacifism would result in even more harm to the world because it would give wicked people virtually free reign. We of course must be open to letting the Bible transform our moral sentiments, but this observation should at least cause us to pause and reflect more deeply before concluding that Jesus is intending to teach pacifism.

Again, I can’t pretend to be better than Piper, but this idea that pacifism is just letting people walk all over you is unfair and inaccurate, as can be demonstrated by the above scripture portion.  Jesus was speaking somewhat cryptically to us, but to the context in which he speaks, he spoke volumes.  Let’s take it one section at a time here.

Do not resist an evil person.

One of the most universal truths spoken refers to what happens when evil meets no resistance, best summed up, in my opinion, by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in a passage I’ve cited in previous posts:

The only way to overcome evil is to let it run itself to a stand-still because it does not find the resistance it is looking for. Resistance merely creates further evil and adds fuel to the flames. But when evil meets no opposition and encounters no obstacle but only patient endurance, its sting is drawn, and at last it meets an opponent which is more than its match. Of course this can only happen when the last ounce of resistance is abandoned, and the renunciation of revenge is complete. Then evil cannot find its mark, it can breed no further evil, and is left barren.

Many nonviolent activists have come to this understanding as well.  When evil is repaid with evil, only more evil is produced, but if you repay evil with good (through no resistance) evil is vanquished.  There are a lot of objections here (the case of Hitler, for example), but we won’t address those right now.  Moving on…

When someone slaps you  on the right cheek, turn to him the other as well.

This seems like a passive action, but it’s quite the contrary.  When you slapped someone across the face with an open hand in Jesus’ time, it was an insult to their dignity. It made them seem inferior to you.  Here’s the catch: you could only use your right hand to hit someone.  Why?  Your left hand was used for wiping your butt (as many important scholars have said in the same terminology).  Hitting someone with your left hand could get you expelled from the community permanently.  That leaves using the right hand on the other cheek, but you wouldn’t backhand someone, which was reserved for slaves and animals.  That leaves one thing: the fist.  Striking with the fist meant you viewed the individual as an equal.  It was stricken’s way of saying, “Hit me all you want; you will NOT take my humanity.”

If someone takes your tunic, give him your cloak as well.

A reference to court procedure regarding debt and lawsuits.  If you owed someone money then, they could sue you for everything up to and including your tunic.  Oftentimes, the poor were the victims in these cases.  They had lost everything, so the greedy repo man seeking to take everything but the outer garment was in for a surprise if the impoverished debtor in question took it all off, handed it over to them, and stood there naked.  In the case of public nudity, the individual who caused the nudity was punished, not the naked person.  It was a way of saying, “Here, take everything from me, even my undies, but you cannot have my soul and dignity.”

If someone demands you go with him one mile, go with him two miles.

This is pretty well known from what I’ve noticed in talking with people.  Roman soldier had to carry a large amount of stuff with them, and depended on civilians to help them carry it around, but could only rely on them doing so for a mile.  Going more than that was an infraction of military code.  Many Zealots who heard Jesus saying this were probably infuriated by the very thought of such a thing.  It was insulting to them enough to have centurions force on them their dirty work, but to do so happily?  Not a chance!  Still, Jesus’ methods of not passivism, nor violent reaction shine through here.  What IF you did what the man who is oppressing you told you to, and not only that, but did so happily and offered to break military code to go above and beyond, and talked to him and befriended him all the way?  Wouldn’t you have then lost an enemy by winning him over with the power of love?

So what?  What’s this got to do with self-defense?  Well, as far as those who inflict violence these days, we seem to have more to worry about than what they did in Jesus’s time.  Most of what is spoken of here refers directly to oppression and mistreatment by those over us or those who wish to make us seem inferior.  It shows how pacifism is not being a doormat to people, but is in fact an alternative to violence that can achieve the best end result for all involved (and not just the majority).

However, what about a mugger?  What about someone holding at you at gunpoint for your money?  Well, there are some alternatives…like this guy who took his mugger out to dinner…

Or how about how the Amish reacted to a mentally ill man who shot ten girls in one of their schoolhouses?  They came to them and comforted them…

One of the hardest things in the world to do is to not react angrily to things like this, but it’s something we must do.  When you understand that your attacker really is as human as you are, you look at things a little differently.  Even so, it’s a scary thought, and risky to do.  However, as I’ve been saying, when evil meets no resistance, it loses its force.

So, do you always need to defend yourself?  Not necessarily.  There are other methods one can use.  Don’t react in the way they’d expect you to, but be calm and extend God’s love in ways similar to what the above-mentioned people have done.  Your life is still valuable, but so is theirs.  It should be noted, however, that several noted pacifists, including Gandhi and Thomas Merton, were fine with self-defense. There is even a form of self-defense called aikido which focuses on bringing the least amount of harm to your attacker and to yourself.

But what about defending others?  A friend of mine recently asked me what I would do if someone broke into my home and started relentlessly beating Christy.  Would I just pray that he would stop or something?  Again, this isn’t a passive ideal we’re talking about here. While I wouldn’t attempt to severely harm an attacker of that nature, or kill him, you better believe I’m going to be getting in the way, getting the attacker away from my wife and making sure she sees as little harm as possible.  Again, this can be done with bringing as little harm to the assailant as possible.  It might take all my strength, and I might take some damage in the process, but 3 lives have been saved here, not just 2, or only 1. (Note: John Howard Yoder published an excellent book on this very subject called “What Would You Do?” Read it for a better view of what is actually a very vague scenario).

Well, that was a long one there.  My word count is showing 2000 words, but it’s hard to explain these things in shorter form.  Ha ha, let’s see how many of you ACTUALLY read this one.

So, what do you guys think?  Sound valid?  Think I’m off my rocker? Have any of you heard of other alternatives to self-defense?


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