After watching a film on the life of Dietrich Bonheoffer a few days ago, the question of violence has been tugging insistently at my heart. Naturally, then, I would like to explore the text at the heart of Bonheoffer’s peculiar variety of non-violence which nonetheless led him to be involved in the assassination plot for which he gave his life.
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. — Matthew 5:38-41
Leaving aside the question of whether Jesus’ teachings add up to a categorical prohibition against the use of violence, there are a number of points concerning which disciples of all traditions can come to basic agreement.
Violence is a form of self-righteousness. To demand an eye in return for an eye is to pronounce righteousness for ourselves before men. It is an attempt to do for ourselves what God has promised to do on our behalf.
Violence is a form of misplaced allegiance. When we place our trust in coercive force, be it wielded by the State or our own hands, we betray our allegiance to the One Who wields the sword at His pleasure.
Violence is a form of doubt. By resorting to violence, we take the Lord’s name upon ourselves: Yahweh Yireh. We doubt that God will see to it – that He will deliver us from our dilemma – and so we seek to deliver ourselves.
Violence, manifested in litigiousness, jingoism, or physical aggression, has no place in the life of a disciple of Christ. Let us repent of our self-righteousness and unbelief. In conclusion, allow me to share a favorite poem of mine, the story of Abraham and Isaac retold from the perspective of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.
Parable of the Old Man and the Young
So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
And took the fire with him, and a knife.
And as they sojourned both of them together,
Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
And builded parapets and trenches there,
And stretchèd forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him. Behold,
A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.
But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.
Chris Jones is a former member of the blogosphere. His former blog, The Thinkery, is now operated by someone else, and everyone should add it to their reading lists. Chris presently teaches high school Policy Debate, which he finds very fulfilling. Though he is merely a layman, his academic interests include language and theology, especially textual criticism. He would like to get involved with missionary work eventually.