The Sermon on the Mount Is an Ideology?

The right-wing Christian Post picked up on the Dallas youth pastor fight club silliness, and did a follow-up interview with the Keysi Fighting Method instructor, Jeff McKissack.  CP picks up on my blog post,* then gets this odd defense from McKissack:

“Over the years I have encountered truly sincere people who believe we
should always ‘turn the other cheek’ … at all costs. The problem with
that ideology lies in the fact that it does not only foster martyrs,
but victims as well,” he argues.

Let’s think about that for a minute.  The Sermon on the Mount is an ideology?  I suppose that, as defined, “turn the other cheek” and the other exhortations in the Sermon on the Mount could be considered a “doctrine, philosophy, body of beliefs or principles belonging to an individual or group.” 

But let’s be honest.  McKissack is using “ideology” in a pejorative sense, implying that an overarching commitment to non-violence trumps common sense.  He appeals (surprise, surprise!) to Jesus’ post-Last Supper statement in Luke 22 to the disciples, “and if you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one.”

So here’s where, as usual, hermeneutics comes in. I realize that some readers will argue that every jot of scripture is equal to every other tittle.  Leviticus = John = Ephesians = Amos.

Well, if common sense is at issue, is it really commonsensical to argue that Jesus’ remark about swords is equivalent to the Sermon on the Mount?

Of course not.

*Christian Post didn’t give me the benefit of an inbound link, so I’m not linking to them either.  Yes, that’s how I roll.  🙂

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  • Concerning “Turning the other cheek”, it’s not so much a pacifistic view as it is a way of insulting someone through pacifism. It was, in essence, a way of saying “If you want to continue in this violence I’m going to force you to defile yourself by hitting me with your left hand and making yourself unclean.” But regardless, Pacifism is still a major theme in the New Testament; the Gospels in particular.
    I also think it’s significant to ask the question, even if Jesus did tell his disciples to buy a sword, where in scripture do we ever find accounts of the disciples using them? Only once in the garden, and then Jesus rebukes Peter for using it.
    Last thought. Jesus was a Victim of the Romans and the Jewish Sanhedrin. If we’re supposed to be like Jesus then maybe, just maybe, we are actually supposed to be victims too. Paul told us in his letters that the wisdom of God is foolishness to men. So of course not everything about Christianity is going to line up with Common Sense. That’s kind of a given.

  • Larry

    Sounds like the gospel as the Romans would have it. Turning the other cheek is only if you have no other choice, otherwise its OK to kick the snot out of another person, and all in the name of Jesus. And we should all be glad that Jesus refused to allow himself to be victimized.
    It is a source of continual amazement how gun lovers manage to twist Luke 22 around, the purpose for the swords is specified in the package and it is not for self-defense.

  • larry

    ‘Cuz, then, when the death sentence was pronounced on him, he could have totally avoided crucifixion and just went all Jean-Claude on them.
    Paul too.
    And Peter.
    And James.
    And Andrew.
    And Bartholomew.
    All those guys would have been a lot better off if they’d have focused on *that* verse instead of those Sermon on the Mount suggestions.

  • Larry

    package -> passage (I’m not quite sure how that came out).

  • I agree with McKissack that “an overarching commitment to non-violence” does trump “common sense.” Though I should probably point out that I read Scripture to learn how to be faithful not sensible! 🙂

  • Tony,
    I just read this post and the previous fight club post. As a youth pastor i have also been in some scary and dangerous situations with students on mission trips. I never imagined that i would have to resort to violence to protect my ‘flock’ in order to accomplish our part of God’s mission at that particular time and place. This sounds to me more like preparation for a hyper-fundamentalist holy war against all ’emergers,’ ‘pagans,’ and ‘sinners’ to reclaim America the beautiful…starting down in the streets.
    As far as the sermon on the mount, your critique is spot on. If Jesus didn’t mean that we are to not resort to violence, what else did he not mean? (i also understand that this arguement could be used the other direction at times, but i think you will understand my point). If we are suppossed to follow Jesus shouldn’t we respond to evil more like him and less like a character from Mortal Combat?! And what about the Spirit of God in these situations? Does not the Spirit councel us and give us the wisdom needed to navigate through difficult situations? Well, I think it is time for the hyper-Right ready to fight conservatives to start recognizing how unbiblical they are becoming when they are training pastors to be ninjas at home and want to drop bombs overseas!

  • Angela Harms

    People are always telling me that when Jesus said “turn the other cheek” he meant “within reason,” that when he said to carry the pack an extra mile, he meant “if it won’t make you late for an appointment.” I’ve come to believe that instead, turn the other cheek meant to surrender, to lay down your life, to present yourself to be crucified, if that’s the way of love.
    I am cautious about being too quick to tell myself that the path of love involves kicking the crap out of someone. On the other hand, I am also a student of the martial arts. It strengthens my body and mind so that I am better able to stand and look someone in the eye with love (instead of fear) and say “Let’s not do this.”

  • McKissack’s stupid scriptural defense notwithstanding (when I read the Luke quotation I just stared at the page blinking in disbelief), there is something to be said for a critique of the ethics of the gospel from the standpoint of those who are concerned with victimization. But that kind of critique–that turning the other cheek promotes aggression against the weak–only makes sense if you hold certain values. Emphasis on victimization says a lot about a person’s assumptions–the importance of this world, the goodness and progress possible in this life, even where our ultimate responsibility lies.
    Certainly, there is a tension between the importance of this world and the next, between protecting the weak and turning the other cheek. Certainly, teaching moral principles is less complicated than living them.
    But morally justifying a thorough ass-kicking? In front of the youth group?

  • Dan

    So let me understand. My four-year old son or my wife is being held at knife point by a drug-crazed thug. My responsibility as a Christian is to non-violently watch them get sliced into bits?
    I think it is good hermeneutics to balance all the biblical passages about defending the defenseless with the sermon on the mount teaching that we should not retaliate against personal insults. Did not the OT also allow for self-defense? Is there nothing in the commands to go to war in the Old Testament that is consistent with God’s character? Is there no distinction between diffusing a hostile situation with kindness and allowing the innocent to be slaughtered?
    Turn the other cheek does not equal turn thy brother’s cheek.

  • Your Name

    the swords verse in Luke is probably a creation on the part of the author or one of his sources in the interest of making it appear that prophecy has been fulfilled. In fact it blatantly says as much in the immediate context. The gospels are rife with these sorts of supposed fulfillments which are really just the products of the authors’ own imaginations…especially in Matthew. Very much a non-issue.

  • Rick

    Jesus’ radical ethic was probably thoroughly inspired by his mistaken eschatological beliefs. So I wouldn’t look to him for advice on how to live in a “real world” where God isn’t going to appear coming down from the sky on a cloud at any moment.

  • Hrmpfh. I could write volumes in response to the different assumptions and assertions already popping up here. But I’ll try to keep it brief. 🙂
    First of all, the silly “knife to my child and wife” thing is such a tired counter-response. I recommend John Howard Yoder’s “What Would You Do” as an excellent, thoughtful, short response (that even includes an article from Janis Joplin). If you are seriously interested in how the nonviolent person responds to the issue of the lone knifeman, please check it out. If you are interested, but don’t want to shell out the 10 bucks, please email me at mark [at] and I’ll actually pay for it myself and ship it to you. Seriously. I want to do my small part to get people to stop using that argument. 🙂
    Regarding the passage where Jesus tells his disciples to carry swords: Jesus tells his disciples to each have a sword…they feebly respond that they have two already…Jesus gets frustrated. And later, when he’s arrested, Jesus rebukes Peter for using one of the two swords that they already had.
    What’s the point? Why does Jesus tell them to have swords? Given the context and Jesus’ larger teachings on nonviolence he was trying to make a larger point that his disciples were too obtuse to get. Which is why he told them “Enough of this!”
    Jesus is being ironic. It is the only thing that makes sense of the passage. Jesus, on his way to being arrested, knows that the time of trial has come. And in order to prepare them for the hostility that is to come, tells them, in effect, to posture themselves for war.
    But they take Jesus literally, still unable to interpret the words of their Master in a way that fits with his overall teaching on the Kingdom of God. Jesus’ words mustn’t be taken as justification for armed resistance or self defense. Rather, he is calling his disciples to face the coming confrontation boldly, doing revolution in the way he taught them. Jesus taught them a peaceful way to resist the Enemy. Paul’s teachings on resisting the powers (rather than flesh and blood) aren’t his innovation—they flow out of the teaching of Christ. Yet here, in this passage, at this point in the story, the disciples still don’t get that.
    At any rate…it seems clear to me (whether you read this as simply Jesus fulfilling prophecy so that he can fulfill Isaiah 53 or you see Jesus as being ironic) that this passage simply cannot be used to legitimize self-defense. That isn’t the point…and the context actually refutes that point.

  • Jack Bauer

    Dan, I totally know what you mean. I would encourage you to save your daughter and wife through whatever means necessary.

  • this is inspiring a blog post of my own..
    but to summarize myself before I write it, let’s do some math….
    a positive plus a negative is what?
    oh.. and thanks to mark van steenwyk for the wisdoms above

  • Mark Russell

    Wait. If we always turn the other cheek, how are we going to kill our enemies? You’re not going to suggest we’re supposed to love them too are you? You emergent people have really deviated from the biblical refrain of God bless America.

  • Timmy C.

    Equivalent quotes:
    “…and if you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one” = “we’re going to need a bigger boat.

  • Herb

    Thank you for the offer about paying for Yoder’s info. Very kind of you. I’m sorry, but saying that something is tired does not make it invalid.
    Jesus being ironic makes no sense in view of what Christ says in John 18:11, “Put your sword away! Shall I not drink the cup the Father has given me?” The point is not the sword, the violence, or the non-violence. The point is Christ submitting to the will of God and not letting anything (even the actions of his disciples) get in the way.
    I do agree with you: this verse offers no support in favor of violence/self-protection. But it gives no support of unquestioned non-violence either.
    My question (another tired one?) is what about Christian soldiers? Do they fight or not?

  • Larry

    My question (another tired one?) is what about Christian soldiers? Do they fight or not?
    The pre-Constantine church made soldiers that joined the church vow to never kill anybody. They didn’t seem to concerned over the practicality of this.

  • davidw
  • I’m sorry, but saying that something is tired does not make it invalid. True. But an over-stated invalid argument often makes for a tired one. And in this case, the argument is tired, not because I say so, but because it is over-used and has is easily disarmed (pun intended). I didn’t challenge it here because Yoder’s book covers so many of the different ways of challenging the argument that I feel that mailing the book would be a better way to more thoroughly engage the issue.
    The unquestioned support for nonviolence comes from everything else Jesus said. 🙂
    The early church seems to agree with the seeming New Testament belief that violence is never a Christian option. Yes, I know that Jesus never told specific soldiers to put away the sword. But he did tell his disciples not to take one up, to turn the other cheek, and to love one’s enemy. So, I firmly believe that Christians are not to engage in warfare. Ever. And when they do so they aren’t following the way of Jesus.

  • Herb

    I would love to read from you how the argument is easily disarmed.
    Following the logic of your belief that Christians should not engage in warfare (I assume that you mean, therefore, that Christians should not be soldiers), then Christians should not be police officers either. What about Congressmen or Senators? They permit and allow violence to happen. What about sports that are “aggressive”? No Christian boxers or MMA or hockey or football.
    So then those who enforce laws and ensure (supposedly) justice are only to be non-Christians? Where is the support for that? In everything else that Jesus said? Does that include Luke 12:49-53?
    My dad spent 24 years in the Navy. My brother-in-law is in the Air Force. My other brother-in-law is in the Marines. Are you really going to tell me, without having met them, that they were/are not following the way of Jesus? If so, would you include David not following Christ?

  • Mark Van Steenwyk

    Of course David didn’t follow Christ. He lived a long time before Jesus was born. I realize that this is a silly thing for me to say; but people act as though we have a flat Scripture that doesn’t develop and a way of faithfulness that is the same for Abraham as it was for the Apostle Paul. This sort of approach to Scripture is part of the problem.
    Regarding whether or not someone can be a football player…I think there is a clear line between violence (which is destructive) and other sorts of physical force. I have no problems with many forms of restraint or with aggressive sports. When someone dies from restraint or from playing hockey, it is called an “accident” for a reason. When someone is killed in war, it is called “success.” Because of the subtleties in this distinction, I’m not sure how to handle the police. Some police forces utilize non-lethal restraint and are, therefore, much less problematic. And because of this issue, it is also problematic for people to be in positions of governmental power where, even though they don’t do violence with their own hands, they still do so with their will. Personally (and I know this will likely raise more questions than I’m able to answer right now), I don’t personally vote for certain elections because of this reality. And I am also discerning through how I should approach taxation for the same reasons.
    Regarding Luke 12:49-53: I don’t know of a single reputable scholar who honestly believes that this passage is talking about war or physical violence. I could be wrong on that. But it is clear in the context that Jesus is talking about the breaking of relational ties.
    Finally, I did not say that say that someone in the Navy isn’t a follower of Jesus. I said that they aren’t following the WAY of Jesus. Specifically, they aren’t being obedient to Jesus’ rather stark call to 1) turn the other cheek or to 2) love one’s enemy (it is almost impossible to love someone while you are trying to kill them).
    Often, in these conversations, folks bring up the fact that one of their relatives fought for my freedom. I find that heroic and noble, but ultimately short of the way of Jesus. To such folks I say: “No, I don’t believe they did.” The only ones who sacrificed for my freedom are Jesus and the martyrs…all of those who suffer for the Faith. If by adopting pacifism I dishonor America’s soldiers, by renouncing pacifism I dishonor the blood of Christ and the martyrs.
    At this point in a conversation, my dialog partner is likely to point out that it is “easy for me to believe this.” True. True. I believe that it is easier to be a pacifist in America than anywhere else. But that doesn’t mean that my convictions are cheap. Many Christians have suffered for their nonviolent convictions. For them it was costly.
    My Anabaptist fore bearers died for the right to put away the sword. They weren’t cowards. And they weren’t passive…at least not in the beginning. [By the way…despite popular beliefs, there is no linguistic tie between the words “pacifism” and “passive.” A “pacifist” is one who practices or makes peace. A peace maker. A peace-ist.] Many brave Christians have died throughout the ages turning the other cheek–laying down their lives so that Christ could be clearly revealed to the world. This is a greater sacrifice than that soldiers makes in service of their country. It is kingdom patriotism…laying down one’s life in the cause of Christ.

  • Mark Van Steenwyk

    Regarding my comment about the argument being “easily disarmed.” That is true. But it isn’t “quickly disarmed.” This is exactly the sort of discussion that can’t be adequately covered online. It requires an actual conversation. This is because the large number of assumptions that may (or may not) be tied up in the scenario. Yoder’s book (which again, if you email me your address (mark at, I’d be more than happy to mail you for free) adequately (though not exhaustively) handles the common ways of getting at the scenario through the lens of nonviolence.

  • Herb

    Finally, I did not say that say that someone in the Navy isn’t a follower of Jesus. I said that they aren’t following the WAY of Jesus. That’s what I said. You should know a person first to determine if they are following the WAY or not. I don’t think one’s job determines if they are following the WAY of Jesus. Don’t you think Christ would’ve made it clear that his followers shouldn’t be soldiers/policemen/congressmen? I know that’s an assumption but why would God want us not to have a certain job but not tell us not to have a certain job? (How many “not’s” can I get into one sentence?)
    Specifically, they aren’t being obedient to Jesus’ rather stark call to 1) turn the other cheek or to 2) love one’s enemy (it is almost impossible to love someone while you are trying to kill them). But turning the other cheek does not imply passivity. Like I said in another post, the rest of the verse puts it in context. (Just like what you said about the Luke reference). It means giving of oneself to everyone even when it hurts or doesn’t make sense to us. As far as loving one’s enemy goes, the context of violence or aggression is not stated or even implied. Just because I have not murdered someone (externally…but very guilty internally per Matt 5:21-22) does not mean that I have loved my neighbor. An enemy could be anyone, not just people you are at war with.
    I live in Colorado Springs (…insert unChristlike fundamentalist jokes here). The sad day when the shooter went in to New Life and murdered those people…that was evil and wrong. When the security guard shot him (thinking that she had killed him; but later found out he killed himself)…that was not evil nor wrong. Her protection was good. Why? Because of justice. Protecting the weak (Is. 1:17) is just. Not as a license to act violently whenever we please or to even justify violent actions.
    Truthfully, I’m not entirely against nonviolence. There are many times and places where that is the right action. But there are times when it is ok act with aggression (ie defending/protecting the weak). I don’t think this is a topic that is exhaustively one side or the other (nonviolence is always right/violence is always right). I’m just saying that it is okay to practice both depending on the circumstances.
    Thank you, again, for being willing to pay for the book. I’m considering it (the pile on my nightstand is only half-full).
    Oh, and as far as David goes, I don’t see how he couldn’t have followed Christ (yes, I realize that he lived way before Christ came to earth but, as Christ said, “Even before Abraham was, I am.”). David had a heart after God and followed His law (obviously not perfectly). Christ came to fulfill His law. How can they not be in the same vein?

  • Herb

    Not saying that you would make fundamentalist jokes, btw. It’s just bringing up CSprings makes A LOT of people say stuff like, “Oh, well then, that explains it.” Stuff like that. Talk about tired examples.

  • Ethan

    “Of course David didn’t follow Christ.”
    follow Christ in bodily form or follow Christ spiritually?

  • Mark Van Steenwyk

    David anticipated Christ, he didn’t follow him. There is a huge difference. A follower of Jesus is Jesus’ disciple. Moses and David and others anticipated Jesus, but they didn’t know him. Nor did they know God to the extent that Jesus and his disciples did. David’s understanding of God was incomplete, and, dare I say, ultimately inadequate.

  • HErb

    David’s understanding of God was incomplete, and, dare I say, ultimately inadequate. So that would include everyone who lived in old testament times, from Adam to Job to Solomon to Isaiah etc. That’s a bold statement, Mark. Just because we live on this side of the cross does not mean that we have a better understanding of God.
    Also, let’s not confuse our “knowledge” of God as the same thing as following, obeying, or loving God and His people. Judas was a disciple by all outward accounts but that doesn’t mean that he knew God.
    Moses and David and others anticipated Jesus, but they didn’t know him. How can men who talked with God, walked with God not know Him?
    I don’t want to jack the thread (I’ve enjoyed the conversation about violence with you and am curious to your response) but those are some big claims.

  • Mark Van Steenwyk

    Isn’t it fair to believe that we know more about God on “this side of the Cross?” After all, Christians of any tradition generally assume that Jesus reveals God to us in a unique way. And of those, most believe that Jesus is the fullest revelation of God.
    I didn’t say that Moses and David didn’t know God. I said that they didn’t know Jesus. While Jesus is certainly God, it is important not to simply boil down the Spirit, the Son, and the Father as being interchangeable or equivalent.