In talking about the reason Christians have so flagrantly ignored the demands of the Sermon on the Mount, Wendell Berry puts his finger on one of the keys when he says “They have justified their disobedience on the grounds of the impracticality of obedience, though we have little proof of the practicality of disobedience…The implication invariably has been that for a few feckless worshippers of God to obey Christ’s commandments may be all right,but in practical matters such as war and preparation for war we will obey Caesar. The Christian followers of Caesar have thus committed themselves to an absurdity that they can neither resolve nor escape: the proposition that war can be made to serve peace; that you can make friends for love by hating and killing the enemies of love. This has never succeeded, and its failure is never acknowledged, which is a further absurdity.” (pp. 5-6).
Berry goes on to stress that the reason that the world has continued into the modern era despite all these wars is because heretofore the scale of the destructive power of the weaponry was small enough to prevent the total annihilation of a village, a town, a city, a culture, a people. But today, there are no such limits on our capacity for mutual self-destruction. As Berry says, the most absurd thing of all is the notion that “we might have to destroy a large part of the rest of the world in order to protect ourselves” and our standards of living. He adds “If we ever should become sane enough to reject total destruction as a means of victory, then….our evolutionary biologists will have to reckon how we could have received the best instruction for our survival two thousand years before it was most desperately needed.” (p. 7). Of course he is referring to the teaching of Jesus— which is always timeless and yet timely as well.
And this brings me to the point about impracticality. This is just a variant of saying that Jesus was like the Man of La Mancha, tilting at windmills, and calling us to sing the song ‘To dream the impossible dream…’etc. In other words, Jesus was an idealist with his head in the clouds.
The problems of course with this view for orthodox Christians who believe the Bible is God’s Word are many. Here are just a few of them: 1) Jesus said the divine saving reign of God was breaking into human history through his own ministry. If it was true, then he was arguing that those whom God was saving were being enabled by grace to obey the new teachings of Christ. So either you believe in God’s enabling grace or you don’t. If you don’t then of course the Sermon on the Mount will look like idealism. If you do however, then it looks like Jesus was absolutely serious when he told all his followers ‘if anyone would come after me, let them take up their cross and follow me’. 2) In other words, Jesus called us to self-sacrifice, not to a life of self-protection and self-preservation. If the whole or major rationale for allowing private citizens to carry guns is ‘self-defense’, then it is in order to point out that Jesus called us to give up that modus operandi and embrace another one— self-sacrifice. 3) there have been exemplary Christians throughout human history that have indeed been able to emulate Christ’s lifestyle, renouncing violence, and practicing love, even love of enemies. Take for example an ancient saint like St. Francis, or a modern one like Corrie ten Boom who even forgave the Nazi death camp guard who brutally murdered her sister. In other words, it may be difficult in a fallen world to follow the teachings of Jesus about peace, and being peacemakers, and forgiving, but impossible or impractical it is not!