In His sermon on the mount, Jesus makes several startling statements that seem to go against the grain of our common way of thinking. His teaching on our treatment of those who we consider enemies, those who despitefully treat us, seems at times ludicrous. Yet the kingdom of Christ transcends the ways of this world. Love reigns supreme, going to the farthest lengths to reach out to others, including our enemies.
Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: but I say unto you that ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.And if any man will sue thee at law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloak also. And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain. Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee, turn not thou away.You have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbor, and hate thy enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you. That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise upon the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust. For if ye love them that love you, what reward have ye? Do not even the publicans the same? And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more than others? Do not even the publicans so? Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect. (Matt 5:38-48 KJV)
Our culture has bought into the “eye for an eye” mentality. I fear to a great extent this attitude exists within Christianity as well. We have bought into the idea that it is okay to take revenge in certain situations. We may not call it revenge, at least in those words. We rephrase it using terms such as self-defense. The argument always seems to come up when this subject is broached, “What would you do if an armed man broke into your home? Would you defend yourself, and your family?” But yet as difficult as it is to fathom this, what does Jesus say in the above quoted passage of scripture? Was He merely using literary license? Is He only speaking figuratively, using metaphors, and not really meaning what He seems to be saying? In what appears to be plain language, He tells us to turn the other cheek.
The same could be said about war. When is war just? When can an individual, or a nation engage in the killing of others, and it be right in the eyes of God? Is the death penalty just? Can a Christian demand the death penalty under certain circumstances? Is it lawful in the eyes of God for a Christian to participate in the execution of another human being?
These are all questions that have been asked by believers down through the centuries. Many, have accepted the teachings of Augustine, that yes, war can be just, it is right to kill another human being under certain situations, and yes the Church can participate in these killings. This is what Augustine, and those who have followed after him, including the reformers of the sixteenth century have taught. Yet, what does Jesus teach us?
To make the case for Christian participation in war, men have referred to Israel under the Old Covenant, where God allowed them to fight, even granting them victory over their enemies. They refer to the Old Testament laws where the death penalty was imposed for various crimes such as adultery, idolatry, and murder. Yet when Jesus came proclaiming the kingdom of heaven, a new era was begun. What was allowed for Israel under the Old Covenant, is not allowed for the Church under the New Covenant. In other words, God is not calling the Church today to participate in war, to participate in the death penalty, to participate in the killing or mistreatment of another human being. In the Old Testament law, there was a place for an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. Now Jesus proclaims to us that we resist not evil, but turn the other cheek to the one who strikes us.
This is not to say that we just carelessly go through life not caring about others and the tragic things that evil men commit against one another. We read in Romans thirteen that God has ordained the governments of this world to police the world. They are his servants to execute judgment, to carry out justice, inflicting punishment upon those who break the law. This is ordained by God. He is concerned for the safety of others, and He has put this in place to keep at least some order in this fallen world. However, this role God has reserved for the kingdoms of this world, not for those who have become citizens of Christ’s kingdom.
Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation. For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid the power? Do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same: For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil. Wherefore, ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake. (Romans 13:1-5 KJV)
Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake: whether it be to the king, as supreme; or unto governors, as unto them that are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers, and for the praise of them that do well. (1 Peter 2:13-14 KJV)
It is interesting to note that the government in place during the days of the apostles was the corrupt government of Rome, who ultimately persecuted thousands of Christians. It is possible for human government to overstep its God given role, yet we see that we as Christians are to be subject to it, as far as is possible, and still be faithful to Christ. We are called to be subject to, but not to participate in government. A Christian serving in government will ultimately find himself confronted with a choice to either follow the teachings of Jesus, or to compromise his convictions. Instead, we must let the world take care of the world so to speak, we will serve Christ!
It is a case of two kingdoms; the kingdom of this world, and that of Christ. We as Christians, followers of Christ, belong to His kingdom. This is where are true allegiance lies. It is our job, in fact our highest priority, to seek first His kingdom and righteousness. We are not called to seek first the betterment of this world; to advance its principles and programs. While we live in this world, we are not of it. Therefore, like Christ’s disciples, we do not fight (John 18:36). As followers of Christ, we are to emulate His life, walk in His steps, and even lay down our lives as He laid down His. No matter how we may attempt to justify war, violence, revenge, etc. we find that it violates the core of the Christian life, to love our neighbor as ourselves. We find in Christ’s teaching that our neighbor can be our enemy, yet we are to show him love. Augustine taught that it was okay to kill in war as long as you loved your enemy within your heart. This is absurd. How can we say we love an individual when we desire his death, when we desire revenge, when we are willing to go to war, even to kill him ourselves.
Again, Christ’s teachings sometimes shock us. We may consider it absurd to refuse to defend ourselves or our families. Yet this is what many have done down through the centuries as Christians have faced persecution and hostility in the advancement of the gospel. Missionaries have refused to defend themselves, being willing to die themselves, rather than to kill another, thus sending a lost individual to an eternal hell.
We find the definition of love in the thirteenth chapter of 1 Corinthians. We read that charity is longsuffering and kind, it is not puffed up, is not self seeking, is not easily provoked, thinks no evil, does not rejoice in iniquity, it rejoices in truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things. We are instructed not to take revenge, but to leave room for the wrath of God. Vengeance belongs to God, and He will repay. Instead we are called to feed our enemy if he is hungry, give him something to drink if he thirsts. Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good. Romans 12:19-21)
As our highest example, we see Jesus face the hostility of wicked men against Him, yet he went willingly to His death, laying down His life so that we could have new life (Heb 12:3; 1 Peter 2:21-25). We are not promised a good life, a comfortable life, a life free of pain and trial. To the contrary, we are assured that we will suffer persecution and tribulation for the name of Jesus Christ. It is not our job to bear the sword, to defend ourselves, or even our nation, but to follow Christ, to spread His gospel, and to advance His kingdom. This is love.