Pacifism: A Place to Begin

An excerpt from my Sermon on the Mount [see Sidebar to your right], but just an excerpt, and this one opens up the “Live the Story” section on Matthew 5:38-42:

(The issue here is kingdom living vs. “realism,” the view that one must live responsibly in this world in light of this world’s realities over against the idealisms of Jesus and the Sermon on the Mount. Realism has its varieties, and we begin here with Luther’s incredible comment.) Now to the excerpt:

Our antithesis on the lex talionis is a watershed when it comes to how to live out the Sermon on the Mount. Luther has his followers and contended famously that the problem here is the failure to “to distinguish properly between the secular and the spiritual, between the kingdom of Christ and the kingdom of the world.”[1] Some of the saddest lines I have ever read by a Christian, let alone one of Luther’s status, are these:[2]

[In speaking of “holy martyrs”…] When they were called to arms even by infidel emperors and lords, they went to war. In all good conscience they slashed and killed, in this respect there was no difference between Christians and heathen. Yet they did not sin against this text. For they were not doing this as Christians, for their own persons, but as obedient members and subjects, under obligation to a secular person and authority. But in areas where you are free and without any obligation to such a secular authority, you have a different rule, since you are a different person.

Utter nonsense. Another Lutheran responds: “But this distinction between a private person and bearer of an office as normative for my behavior is foreign to Jesus…. ‘Private’ and ‘official’ spheres are all completely subject to Jesus’ command. The word of Jesus claimed them undividedly.” Is it realistic? Of course Jesus knows the reality of sin and “Jesus calls evil evil and that is just why he speaks to his disciples in this way.”[3] This command, as Bonhoeffer routinely observes, is anchored in the cross that Jesus himself bore. Which is why Bonhoeffer can also say “only those who there, in the cross of Jesus, find faith in the victory over evil can obey his command.”[4] One of the main thrusts of the ethic of Jesus is the radicalization of an ethic so that we live consistently, from the so-called “private” to the “public” spheres. There is for Jesus no distinction between a secular life and spiritual life: we are always to follow him. His ethic is an Ethic from Beyond. But others, in words not so wrong-headed as Luther’s, have continued Luther’s personal vs. public or spiritual vs. secular distinction when it comes to ethics.[5]

Thus, Peter Craigie, himself a Mennonite: “Contrast the different spirit in the … teaching of Jesus, though the context there has do with personal behavior and attitudes and not with the courts of law.”[6] Oddly, the lex talionis antithesis is a public (not private) framework and that is what Jesus is stopping. Although he is exploring rather than expressing his view dogmatically, Dale Allison approaches this Lutheran view when he says Jesus is “speaking about interpersonal relations and declaring that it is illegitimate for this followers to apply the lex talionis to their private problems.”[7] And I would add “And to their public problems as well.” Along the same line Charles Quarles can somehow manage to convince himself of this: “No evidence suggests that Jesus intended to contradict the lex talionis of the Mosaic law.”[8] Let the word be as rugged as it really is; its ruggedness carries its rhetorical power to call his disciples into the kingdom where retaliation will end.

The question that confronts any serious reading of the Sermon on the Mount is this: Would Jesus have seen a difference between a kingdom ethic for his followers in their so-called private life but a different ethic in public? I doubt it. Why? Because Jesus’ Messianic Ethic, an Ethic for his community of followers, is an Ethic from Above and Beyond. The question every reader of the Sermon must ask is this: Does that world begin now, or does it begin now in private but not in public, or does it begin now for his followers in both private and to the degree possible in the public realm as well?

 


[1] Luther, Sermon, 105.

[2] Luther, Sermon, 110.

[3] D. Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, 134-135.

[4] D. Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, 136.

[5] Calvin’s form of the two realms thinking (Christ vs. Caesar) is not as severe as Luther’s; see Calvin, Sermon, 1.193-195; Hagner, 1.131-132; Turner, 174.

[6] P. Craigie, The Book of Deuteronomy (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1976), 270 n. 21.

[7] Allison, Sermon, 93.

[8] C. Quarles, Sermon, 146.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • Michael Mercer

    Yes. Luther said a lot of crazy things. One thing to remember was that he lived in a much different context than we do — a time of huge church/state upheavals and rethinking. One question I have for today: could a Christian therefore serve in the U.S. government at all today in good conscience, knowing that our constitution, which he/she would be sworn to uphold, provides for war powers? If we are truly pacifist, must we then be committed to separating from any responsible connection to war?

  • http://lotharlorraine.wordpress.com/ Lothar Lorraine

    “Some of the saddest lines I have ever read by a Christian, let alone one of Luther’s status, are these:”

    I personally fail to see that Luther was a Christian of such a “status”:

    http://lotharlorraine.wordpress.com/2013/08/15/on-luther-hitler-and-religious-confusion/

    unless of course uttering murderous threats against Jews is something really pious.

  • attytjj466

    Not sure what Luther wrote in his time and place was really utter nonsense. Yes, from a theological and exegetical standpoint, it does not stand up. But it is one thing to defy a very powerful Pope and religious institution, with the help of powerful Princes and Kings. It is another thing all together to also defy those powerful Princes and Kings and teach your followers to do the same. In an era of absolute rulers, it would have meant inprisonment, torture and death to defy such Political authorities. And we might not have had Luther around any more either. Yes, there were some radical anabaptists who taught exactly that and led many to their deaths. Was that really the right way to go? Are the principles of the Sermon on the Mount really all or nothing, in every context, in every age? Is the Kingdom of God here in full in all its implications and applications, or it is not here at all? I think Luther was offering his followers in his context a way of application and obedience that was reasonable and doable for them and their families, a place to start until such time as they could reasonably go further in living out TSOTM principles. And of course individuals could certainly choose to go further as a personal choice. But to preach and teach such for all as the only way to follow Jesus and be part of the Kingdom of God would be a most difficult and painful thing for Luther and those who followed him. Maybe a compromise on his part, but not nonsense. So yeah, maybe I am at the third option, but also acknowledging that TKOG is always pushing and prodding us to go further in living out its principles.

  • attytjj466

    I think Luther did not want to lead a society of martyrs on this issue/principle. I think there is a place for taking a Kingdom principle and contextualizing its application in a particular cultural time and place and situation in a responsible and appropriate manner. I think that is what Luther was trying to do. He may not have fully succeded but to call it utter nonsense Is saying too much. IMHO.

  • Tom F.

    The standard by which you judge people who fail to see past some part of their time will be the standard by which you are judged. So Luther messed up: that means that all of what he said is worthless? This is cheap and easy and oh-so-condescending. The people of 500 years from now will look back on all of us and have a million things they could judge us on. Do you really think you will be able to stand up to that kind of scrutiny in the light of history? I think not: you will fail on something too.

    Get over yourself.

  • http://lotharlorraine.wordpress.com/ Lothar Lorraine

    Dear Tom, if you read my post, you will realize I reject the idea that everything that Luther said or did was wrong.

    Respectfully.

  • Tom F.

    You are certainly more nuanced in your post. I apologize, I may have been too hasty.

    You might want to let your summaries of your posts reflect the nuance of your posts. I assumed that your summary was an accurate reflection of your actual post.

    Sorry.

  • Luke Breuer

    How sure are you that you haven’t made some grievous error which everyone around you accepts, such that you aren’t prodded to question it yourself? This seems to be an extremely dangerous precedent to set, for I think God will judge us by our standards, not his. This may be a bit unorthodox, but I don’t think it is so far-fetched if one examines the scriptures without too much in the way of theological glasses.

    As an example, what if it’s the case that [certain] animals have a vast, untapped potential for becoming sentient and sapient, and that our arrogance toward them has prevented this for millennia? This is a very nice analogy to the Jews, since they were viewed as ‘lower lifeforms’.

    Finally, I think you grossly underestimate the courage, fortitude, intelligence, and shrewdness it took for Luther to stand up to the Roman Catholic Church, the reigning authority in the land. He didn’t even want to schism—he wanted to reform! It’s not just any old person who can successfully challenge authorities who have great power. I think we ought to respect Luther quite a lot on that account—more than you seem to be doing.

  • Luke Breuer

    The guiding scripture on this seems to come out of Romans 14, and those which speak of keeping a pure conscience. Some Christians will have consciences which allow them to participate in war, while others will not. To insist that all Christians take the same stance in this respect smells of uniformity, which is not the unity that Jesus, Paul, et al command and plead for.

    Now, there are places in war which seem to require a seared conscience. This is a very common theme in literature, TV, and movies when it comes to espionage. The person has to be fully compromised so that he/she can be fully controlled by the higher-ups. I don’t think a Christian can avoid having his/her conscience seared in such a situation, but perhaps reality is better than fiction, thereby making me wrong!

  • Luke Breuer

    Huh, this reminds me of the perhaps-unexpected softness of the NT on slavery. I don’t think any of the authors wanted to lead a revolution. I think they knew that true change happens in heart-attitudes, not outward behaviors. The idea of “some people are better than others” would need to be expunged, and a mere revolution would likely not accomplish that. But even given this, it probably would have been very bad for early Christianity to try and get political—Christianity may not have survived!

  • http://lotharlorraine.wordpress.com/ Lothar Lorraine

    1) your suggestion about the relation between our knowledge and moral accountability rings quite true to my ears.
    My contention is that Luther should have known better, not least through the very apostle Paul whose steps he pretended to follow.

    2) Luther was undoubtedly much more courageous than I am.

    However I fail to see such a huge progress in his theology.
    He just replaced an oppressive theological system, namely salvation by works; by something far worse, namely God PREDETERMINING many people to burn forever.
    And if you read Roger Olson, you will see this is what Luther believed and taught.

  • Luke Breuer

    1) I would still be careful that you do not ask God to judge you by a strict standard, one to which you may not adhere. This is my interpretation of Mt 7:2.

    2) How are you measuring ‘huge progress’? It seems to me that getting out of being under the thumb of Rome was a Pretty Big Deal, regardless of whether there was a huge amount of progress yet to be achieved. Indeed, I believe there is always infinitely more progress to be achieved, because I believe God to be infinite in description, and yet we are told that “eternal life is to know God”. Unlike some, I don’t believe there is any ‘upper bound’ to how much we can get to know God on this side of heaven.

  • http://lotharlorraine.wordpress.com/ Lothar Lorraine

    1) Roman 2. (and C.S. Lewis for that matter) argue also that man can be quite culpable in his refusal to apply everywhere certain things he takes for granted as soon as he is himself concerned.

    2) You seem to hold to the view that whatever God wills is right, am I correct?

    2013/11/1 Disqus

  • Luke Breuer

    1) I’m not sure I quite understand what you say, but I will say that I think God judges people by their own standards, but with the hypocrisy-blinders removed. (Hence the “even excuse them” in Rom 2:15.)

    2) I believe Rom 8:28 “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”—if you call this ‘right’, then I agree. I don’t necessarily believe that the OT is a perfect perception of Yahweh; it isn’t problematic for me for canon to have the best possible perception that people at a given point in time could have. We know that God is infinite and that we are to come to ever better conceptions of him. What I will say is that if there were a better way for God to make us gods (Jn 10:34, Ps 81), God would do it. Satan’s lie to Eve contained a truth: that she’d become like God. I think God merely meant for that “becoming like” to happen a different way.

  • http://textsincontext.wordpress.com Michael Snow

    In a sermon where Mat. 5 is his text, Charles Spurgeon states, ” it is a dangerous state of things if doctrine is made to drive out precept…”
    Amen.
    http://spurgeonwarquotes.wordpress.com/2013/01/08/holy-living-spurgeon-precepts-war-chritistians/

  • scotmcknight

    Amen, brother. I read Luther first (after dipping into patristics) all the way through the Sermon and believe now more than ever that his theology dictated what he saw in this text, which means it impacted his theology hardly at all. I’m sorry to say that, but I gave the man a full and fair reading.


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