Sunday, December 20, 2009

Thinking Biblically about Bearing the Sword and Turning the Cheek

Does Jesus' command to his followers to "turn the other cheek" mean that the state cannot legitimately bear the sword? David VanDrunen has written an excellent article for Themelios on the difference between the church's responsibilities and that of the state.

Among the many biblical passages that provoke controversial questions about Christian non-violence and cooperation with the sword-bearing state, perhaps none presses the issue as sharply as Matt 5:38–42. When Jesus prescribes turning the other cheek, giving up the garment, and going the second mile as an alternative to the lex talionis—the eye-for-eye principle of strict, proportionate justice—he addresses a key element of justice not only in the Mosaic law (Exod 21:22–25; Lev 24:18–21; Deut 19:21) but also in the Noahic covenant of Gen 9 and in countless human legal systems, such as the Law of Hammurabi and the Roman Law.2 Applied literally and universally, Jesus’ words leave little room for Christian participation in the coercive enforcement of justice in civil society. Yet NT texts such as Rom 13:1–7 continue to speak positively about civil government and its justice and about Christian submission under its regime. Interpreting Matt 5:38–42 in light of the broader biblical witness, therefore, has proven to be an arduous and controversial endeavor.

In recent years a number of eloquent writers have defended a rather literal reading of Matt 5:38–42 and surrounding verses. This often entails a non-violent or pacifist position that avoids cooperation with the civil state, though ordinarily its advocates seek not to withdraw from society but to develop a radical, peaceful, counter-intuitive strategy for effecting social transformation.3 Into the present day, however, most Christian theologians have held that Christians may be faithful to the Sermon on the Mount even while circumspectly supporting the coercive enforcement of justice. They often defend this view through highlighting the hyperbolic character of verses such as 5:38–42, which Jesus did not necessarily intend to be performed literally.4

My sympathies are clearly with the latter line of thought, though I defend the compatibility of the Sermon on the Mount with the continuing legitimacy of civil authority in a distinctive way. In this article I argue both for a strong—even literal—reading of Matt 5:38–42 and for the ongoing legitimate role for the sword-bearing state and Christian cooperation with it. Recognizing the lex talionis as the principle of strict retributive justice is crucial for my argument. Jesus truly decreed that the coercive application of the lex talionis was not to be pursued. Yet in doing so he did not intend to undermine civil authority or to prohibit Christians from supporting the work of the state. In Matt 5:38–42, Jesus announces that the pursuit of retributive justice has no place in the kingdom of heaven. Though the kingdom of heaven is ultimately an eschatological realm, to be fully revealed in the age to come, in Matthew Jesus points to the church as the particular community that embodies the kingdom’s way of life here and now. Many recent scholars argue against interpretations that limit the application of the Sermon on the Mount to the church.5 Christians, indeed, are citizens of the kingdom in all that they do and should always seek opportunities to express the Sermon’s ethic of forgiveness and reconciliation. Nevertheless, I argue that in Matt 5:38–42 Jesus defines the unique character of his church and does not redefine (or eliminate) the state or his disciples’ basic responsibilities toward it. The state is to continue its work of coercively enforcing justice in civil society, with Christians’ support. But the church is a community that shuns the application of the lex talionis. In anticipation of the eschatological kingdom, the church is not only a non-violent community but also, even more importantly, a community defined by an ethic of forgiveness and mercy rather than by retributive justice.

I also claim that a two-kingdoms doctrine as commonly expressed in historic Reformed theology provides an effective theological framework for appreciating these exegetical conclusions. Though most people today do not readily associate Reformed Christianity with a two-kingdoms doctrine, the early Reformed tradition did develop two-kingdoms categories similar to, though also distinct from, the Lutheran tradition. I argue that this Reformed two-kingdoms doctrine better captures Jesus’ teaching in Matt 5:38–42 than does either a Lutheran two-kingdoms doctrine or the neo-Calvinist paradigm popular in contemporary Reformed thought.
Read the entire article HERE.

No comments: