An authentic Christian response to violence (A sermon from Matthew 16:21-26; Romans 12:9-21)

Paul gives a number of admonitions all under the heading, “Let love be genuine.” Everything that follows from that opening statement is a description of what genuine love looks like. In the second paragragh beginning in v.14 Paul focuses on how we should respond to violence, echoing the teaching of Jesus about loving our enemies. Jesus’ teaching on the subject can be found in Matthew 5 and its parallel version in Luke 6. Paul, of course, is not quoting either Matthew or Luke, because Matthew and Luke were not written until two or three decades after Paul wrote his letters. Other than maybe the book of James, Paul’s letters are the earliest New Testament documents we have, most likely written in the 50’s of the C.E. So Paul would not have had access to the written Gospels. However, he would have had access to the teachings of Jesus and the stories about Jesus that had been circulating in the oral tradition, that is, teachings and stories that were being told and retold and passed on by word of mouth. And obviously, as these teachings were passed on different versions of them would appear.

I want to begin by reading and commenting on part of Matthew’s version of Jesus’ teaching. Jesus says in Matt. 5:38ff: “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 an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.” The gold star interpretation of Jesus’ teachings on nonviolence that has become the mainstay of mainline scholarship is Walter Wink’s interpretation in his award winning book, “Engaging the Powers.” Wink points out that Jesus is not instructing his disciples to be doormats and do nothing. He notes that the word translated “resist” means to resist violently, to revolt or rebel or engage in insurrection. In other words, Jesus is not forbidding resistance; Jesus is forbidding violent resistance. Jesus is telling them not to fight fire with fire, not to go blow for blow with the oppressor.

Jesus then offers some examples of how they might respond creatively to violence in their culture. I don’t have time to comment on all these, but this first example explains what Jesus is doing. He says, “If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” Why the right cheek? In that right-handed world you would think the blow would be on the left cheek. Jesus is referencing here a back-handed slap. The kind of slap that someone in power might deliver to a subordinate – a day laborer or slave – not to actually injure, but to humiliate, to insult, to put the subordinate in his or her place. This is a blow that a master might deliver to a slave, a Roman to a Jew, or a man to a woman or even a child. Now, in that culture any attempt to actually fight back would be met with instant force. It would be to put one’s life in jeopardy. Jesus’ instruction is: Stand right back up and offer the other cheek to be slapped. Jesus is giving them an example of a creative way to protest which is not likely to get them killed. By offering the other cheek the one slapped is refusing to be humiliated. It’s a way of claiming one’s humanity. It’s a way of saying, “No matter what you do to me, you do not take from me my dignity and humanity.” This is true of the other two examples Jesus gives about stripping off one’s clothing and handing it over to the oppressor even as the oppressor goes about confiscating their property, and walking an extra mile when a soldier orders you to carry his bags one mile. These are all creative forms of protest.

Walter Wink puts it this way, “He [Jesus] is formulating a worldly spirituality in which the people at the bottom of society or under the thumb of imperial power learn to recover their humanity.” So, rather than running scarred, or attempting to fight back, rather than responding by flight or fight, Jesus offers a third way. This “third way” became the basis for the strategies developed by Gandhi and King. Jesus is encouraging his disciples to be creative. Jesus is not saying, “Don’t resist.” Jesus is saying, “Don’t resist violently. Don’t respond in kind. Be creative and find a way to claim your humanity.”

When Paul says, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink” he is telling his readers to treat the oppressors as human beings. He is saying, “Don’t sink to the moral level of the oppressors or give credibility to the oppressors by responding in kind to the oppressors. Don’t allow the hate of the oppressors to become hate for the oppressors, because then you are no different than the oppressors. Treat them as human beings and in doing so you preserve your own humanity.” We “bless” the oppressor and “pray” for the oppressor because the oppressor bears the image of God no matter how marred and distorted that image may be. Both Jesus and Paul teach that we must not get caught up in a spiral of hate and violence. By treating the enemy as a human being, with human decency, we are able to hold in check our own anger and keep it from devolving into bitterness and hate. When Paul says, “Do not repay evil for evil” he is saying, “Do not mirror evil.” Do not let the evil in the oppressor become evil in your heart and soul.

Sisters and brothers, it takes great moral strength and courage to follow Jesus’ third way. When Jackie Robinson became the first black player in major league baseball, Branch Rickey of the Brooklyn Dodgers pressed him to not fight back, to not respond to the abuse that he would have to put up with. Robinson said, “Mr. Ricky, are you looking for a Negro who is afraid to fight back.” Rickey replied, “I’m looking for a ballplayer with enough guts not to fight back.” Gandhi taught that one could not go from flight to Jesus’ third way. He did not want people joining his movement who did not have the courage to fight back. He said if one didn’t have the courage to fight for their independence, then one didn’t have the courage to engage in nonviolent resistance.

For the most part Christians have ignored Jesus’ teaching on nonviolence. In fact, most Christians have embraced violence as a legitimate way of overcoming violence. Of course, it never works. It just escalates the violence and lowers us to the level of those who initiated the violence. Ethicist Richard Hayes gives the example of the time an Ozzy Osbourne concert was cancelled after protests and threats against the performer’s life. The people who issued the threats said that Osbourne represented “anti-Christian values.” See the irony. The ones who threatened violence were ever bit as much anti-Christian as Osbourne.

Father George Zabelka was chaplain for the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bomb squadrons. He was the chaplain who administered mass to the Catholic bomber pilot who dropped the atomic bomb on Nagasaki in 1945. Later he came to repent of his complicity in the bombing of civilians. Writing much later in Sojourners he said, “To fail to speak to the utter moral corruption of the mass destruction of civilians was to fail as a Christian and a priest as I see it . . . I was there, and I’ll tell you that the operational moral atmosphere in the church in relation to mass bombing of enemy civilians was totally indifferent, silent, and corrupt at best — at worst it was religiously supportive of the activities by blessing those who did them.”

He is describing how the vast majority of Christians in America respond toward the mass destruction of civilians – “indifferent, silent, and corrupt” are the words he uses. And that has been for the most part the prevailing attitude in the church since Constantine. This wasn’t the case in the first three centuries. But when Christianity became endorsed by the Empire, the church conveniently started ignoring the teachings of Jesus. Now, there have always been pockets of resistance to violence, communities that bear prophetic witness to both the church and society with regard to Jesus’ nonviolent life and teachings, but for the most part, the church at large has acquiesced to violence. That has been our sad history.

The Catholic priest writing in Sojourners talked about walking through the ruins of Nagasaki after the war and feeling sick. He wrote, “When I look at it today I pray God forgives us for how we have distorted Christ’s teaching and destroyed his world by the distortion of that teaching. I was the Catholic chaplain who was there when this grotesque process that began with Constantine reached its lowest point — so far.”

Most all of us here I suspect were indoctrinated and socialized into a form of Christianity that completely ignored Jesus’ teachings about non-violence. Religion professor Charles Marsh at the University of Virginia wrote a book back in 2007 titled, “Wayward Christian Soldiers.” In one of the chapters he evaluated (spent several days reading) some of the sermons by leading Christian evangelical ministers like Charles Stanley, James Kennedy, Franklin Graham  and others leading up to the war with Iraq in 2003. He noted that Jesus made only an occasional appearance in these sermons and his teaching on non-violence was completely ignored. He said there was no struggle to make sense of Jesus’ teachings about love of enemies. There was no apprehension on the part of these ministers. Nothing about the violence that would be inflicted on civilians. No words of caution, no sense of anguish about the harm war would inflict on so many people. Just supreme self-confidence that killing the enemy was God’s will. If you remember that war, there is no way under heaven it could ever be called a just war. This was not war as a last resort. This was a war for pride and glory primarily. And secondarily, it was one to advance national interests. Stories about Saddam Hussein trying to make nuclear weapons were conjured up to justify it. Marsh says that when Christ was referenced in these sermons it wasn’t the Jesus whose portrait we have in the Gospels. It was an American Christ who championed American policies and interests.

You know, sisters and brothers, many Christians talk about God and country as if they both demanded the same devotion. They don’t and never will. It’s never God and country. It’s always just God. It’s always just the peaceable kingdom of God. It’s always just God’s household. It’s never God and anything. Nothing is on a par with God. In a recent OT reading from Isaiah (56:7), the prophet says that God’s house, referencing God’s temple, is to be a house of prayer for all peoples. I suspect this was one of several reasons Jesus protested the temple religion of his day. God’s house is not just for people of a particular race, or a particular faith, or a particular heritage, or of a particular place or position. No! It’s for all people. Why do we still not get it?

And as for the very first disciples of Jesus they had trouble getting it too. The Gospels portray them as unenlightened and confused about what Jesus was about. It wasn’t until after he died and God raised him from the dead that they begin to come around. In our Gospel reading today Jesus tells the disciples that he is going to suffer and die. He knows that the powers that be will not allow him to live. Jesus has challenged their version of truth and their misuse of religious teaching and authority on numerous occasions. And once he overturns the tables in the Temple as he plans to do he knows his demise is certain, he knows that will seal his death. He tries to prepare the disciples. But they don’t want to hear it. Peter tries to correct Jesus. Peter, who functions as spokesman for all the disciples tries to set Jesus straight. They don’t want a Messiah who suffers violence. They want a Messiah who enacts violence. That want a Messiah who will lead the charge against the Romans and break the backs of the oppressor. And Jesus is so upset with Peter (and all of them) Jesus calls him “Satan.” Then Jesus goes on to say, “If that is how you try to save your lives, then you will lose your lives.” “But,” says Jesus, “if you take up your cross and follow me, if you give your life as a living sacrifice to God’s peaceable kingdom of justice and mercy, if you pursue the way of love and peace, then you will save your lives – no matter what the worldly powers do to you.” They just didn’t get it, the same way so many of us still don’t get it.   

I will close with this. Both the Gospels and Paul are clear: Disciples of Jesus are committed to nonviolence. (Now, that is not to say we don’t struggle with this. And that is not to say that we wouldn’t or shouldn’t use violence as a last resort, and I think God understands that. But Jesus calls for commitment to nonviolence.) Both Jesus and Paul say, “Do not mirror hate. Do not seek vengeance. Do not return evil for evil. Bless your oppressors even as you refuse to cooperate with injustice. Strive to live peaceably, even with those who want to hurt and harm you. Bless them and pray for them even as you insist on your own dignity and liberation.” Both Jesus and Paul teach this. But it’s interesting how they ground this teaching on different rationales.

Paul hopes that by refusing to return evil for evil the one doing the evil will be changed. Paul also makes an appeal to God’s judgment. It is God’s work to judge, says Paul, and God will judge righteously. It is our work to bless so that we might heap burning coals on their heads and overcome evil with good. This reference to burning coals is probably a reference to the shame of remorse that leads to repentance. Paul suggests the possibility of piercing the conscience of the oppressor and winning them over.

Jesus, on the other hand, makes no reference in his teaching about winning over the enemy. Cleary that would be a good thing, right, to win over the enemy, to turn the enemy into a friend? But according to Jesus in Matthew’s version that’s not why we bless and pray and participate in nonviolent resistance. The reason we do it, says Jesus, is because that’s who we are and that’s who God is. God loves all God’s children, even those who do evil and commit grave injustices. (Now, there are other teachings in the Gospels where Jesus makes reference to God’s judgment. God will judge justly says Jesus, but Jesus also teaches that God never withdraws God’s love and grace. Whatever God’s judgment will involve, God never locks the door. Whatever judgment might look like its purpose is to change us, not condemn us. Its purpose is to redeem us, not destroy us.) God sends sunshine and rain on the evil and the good, says Jesus. Because that is who God is. Why do we bless and pray, and courageously meet our oppressor without returning the hate or evil? Because we bear the image of God. Because that’s who we are as daughters and sons of God. So I will end with this question and it may be the most important question you will face: Is that who you are? Is that who I am?

And that’s the question we face as a nation today right? What kind of people are we? Who are we going to be? Sisters and brothers, we love inclusively. We stand with the dreamers and we advocate for the most vulnerable among us. (And let me add this: the question of what is legal is totally irrelevant to followers of Jesus. The question for us is: What is moral? What is right? What is compassionate? Who are we? Are we going to be followers of Jesus or are we going to play politics. Who are we going to be?

O God, it’s very clear or should be, that we can be Christian and yet not be very Christian at all. We can be Christian, and not be much like Jesus at all. We have been so conditioned by our culture, by our society, by our peers, by our nation’s leaders, even by our church leaders – that it is very easy for us to simply ignore these teachings of Jesus and Paul on nonviolence. And to obey them takes more fearlessness and more courage and more inner strength than we think we have. It’s just so easy to get sucked in to the spiral of violence, to return the hate heaped on us, to repay injustice in kind. Help us, O God, to live out Jesus’ third way. Help us to be intentional through your Spirit to embody the way of Jesus. Forgive us when we fail, for we do indeed fail. And give us the courage and desire to pick ourselves up, to take up our cross, and to stay on the narrow path that leads to life and peace. 


  1. Chuck, thanks for this wonderful article! I wish it could be widely heard and understood.


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