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 forty 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?

  • 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”:

    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.

  • 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.


  • 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.