I began summarising Chapter 14 – “Violence in Defense of Justice” of Richard Hays’ Moral Vision, but realised it would take hours to finish, so I’ve stopped after the first section. This beginning is still pretty helpful though, I reckon:
The Church has often accepted war as a practice that Christians may at times be required to pursue. But is it appropriate for followers of Jesus to take up lethal weapons against enemies? Is it ever God’s will for Christians to employ violence in defense of justice? NT at first glance seems to say ‘no’, but human experience presents us over and over again with situations that appear to require violent action to oppose evil.
The just war tradition was developed to limit the use of violence, but as Hay’s previous chapters’ survey of theological ethicists (Reinhold Niebuhr, Karl Barth, John Howard Yoder, Stanley Haueras and Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza) show, there are serious questions to be raised about whether this tradition can be justified on the basis of the NT’s teaching. What norms concerning the use of violence might be derived from the NT? First let’s look at the Sermon on the Mount:
“Do not resist an evildoer”, “turn the other cheek”, “go the two miles with someone who forces you to go one”, “love your enemies”, etc.
The Church has had trouble with this text – it’s clear but very difficult to follow. That difficult has given rise to at least six interpretive strategies: It’s about life in the future kingdom of God, not for now; It’s an ‘interim ethic’ which made sense because Jesus thought the world was about to end; It forbids self-defense, but not fighting on behalf of a third party; It’s a ‘counsel of perfection’ which only apply to a special class of holy Christians; It’s located within a specific social setting, limiting the scope of the injunctions, so “Do not resist an evildoer” means “Don’t oppose an evil person in court”.
But a careful consideration of these sayings in their broader Matthean context shows that none of these strategies fits within Matthew’s theological vision. So let’s see how they do, first within the Sermon on the Mount: They make up the climactic parts of the Sermon, Jesus’ basic training on the life of discipleship. The Sermon is the first of the five main blocks of Jesus’ teaching in Matthew. Being delivered from the mountain echoes Moses and the Exodus and suggests Jesus is giving a new Torah, a definitive charter for the life of the new covenant community.
The Sermon to the disciples takes place in front of the crowds, reinforcing Matthew’s conviction that the community of disciples is called to be a light for the world. They are supposed to live in accordance with these stringent standards precisely because of a concern to exemplify the reality of the kingdom of God in a pluralistic and sinful world.
The character of the kingdom, however, is surprising. The Beatitudes reverse common sense by declaring that God’s blessing is on the mourners, meek, peacemakers, and especially the persecuted. An upside-down reality. The community of Jesus’ followers is to be a “city built on a hill”, a model polis that demonstrates the counterintuitive peaceful politics of God’s new order.
Matthew intends this countercultural polis as a fulfilment rather than a negation of Torah. The demands intensify those in the Torah. It’s not a comprehensive legal code, instead it suggests by way of a few examples the character of the new community that Jesus is creating.
The kingdom of God shown in Matthew 5 is full of surprises. The transcendence of violence through loving the enemy is the most salient feature of this new model polis.
This fits into the wider Matthean context thusly: In the desert temptation, Jesus renounces the option of wielding power over the kingdom of the world, choosing to worship and serve God alone instead. In the three passion predictions, Jesus says he will be “persecuted for righteousness’ sake” and that his followers will too. In Gethsemane he struggles with this vocation but aligns his will with the Father’s that he should drink the cup of suffering. Yoder has persuasively argued that the temptation to refuse the cup is the temptation to resort to armed resistance. Jesus chooses suffering obedience over violence. Jesus’ death exemplifies the character qualities taught in the Sermon on the Mount. In the Great Commission Jesus tells his disciples to make disciples of all nations, “teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.”
So Matthew doesn’t regard those teachings as an impossible ideal, but instead they’re the way of life directly commanded by Jesus. They’re not impossible because the risen Lord is present in the community, “to the end of the age.”