Nonviolence 101 – Resistance is Futile… or the Meaning of ἀντιστῆναι (part 2)

Nonviolence 101 – Resistance is Futile… or the Meaning of ἀντιστῆναι (part 2) February 7, 2011

The following is part of a fairly long series on the theology and practice of nonviolence.  If you would like to read all of the posts, you can do so here.


Key Texts

Throughout the New Testament there is a common thread of nonviolence.  My goal in this section is to look at several of the key texts that present such a view.  Forgive me if I do not cover every passage that deals with this subject, but hopefully the data presented will suffice to support my position on this particular discipleship issue.

Matthew 5

Matthew 5-7 is the most famous section of teaching that we have in the Gospel accounts.  The Sermon on the Mount is a center for Anabaptist theology, for in it we are given a description of the demands of discipleship.  This is one characteristic that makes the Anabaptists stand out from the other reformers. In his book on this passage: A Gospel for a New People, Herb Kopp makes the following observation:

The Anabaptists lived by the simple edict that if the words of Jesus in the Scriptures called for obedience, then the followers of Jesus ought to heed and obey.  For them “the great word was not ‘faith,’ as it was with the reformers, but ‘following.’”[1]

The Anabaptists chose to take the teachings of Jesus seriously, even to the point of death.  Following Christ, even to the cross, is the primary summons of the Christian life.

In the beatitudes is the declaration: “Blessed are the peacemakers.”  Following this, Jesus gives ethical teaching on various elements of life and society.  In verse 38 we come to the most important section with regards to the question of nonviolence.  Jesus states:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’  But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.  And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well.  If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles.  Matthew 5.38-41

In verse 38 we are given the First Testament command “eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.”  It is commonly noted that such a law was a preventative measure to ensure that punishment was proportional to the crime, and no more.[2] “Where the Torah restricts retaliation, Jesus forbids it all together.”[3] This is clear by his exhortation that disciples are called to “not resist an evil person.”  Now the issue that was alluded to earlier with the word nonresistance needs to be dealt with properly.  Is Jesus saying that one must not resist at all?

Resistance is Futile?

It is interesting to note that the Greek word for not resisting is: ἀντιστῆναι (antistēnai).  The way that this word is translated in this passage gives the impression that any form of resistance is unacceptable.  If this is indeed the case, then nonresistance is the more faithful term to describe the New Testament position against violence.  But, it seems that this word has a deeper meaning than is often attributed to it.  Walter Wink helpfully points out that “antistēnai… means to resist violently, to revolt or rebel, to engage in an armed insurrection.”[4]

Support for this translation is not unwarranted as antistēnai is the word repeatedly used in the Greek version of the Hebrew Bible as “warfare” and is also used in Ephesians 6.13 in the context of active military imagery.[5] In the famous “armor of God” passage the rhetoric clearly indicates an offensive  military-like “stand” that is able to both pursue and undo the works of the powers of evil.[6] Wink’s argument is further affirmed by N.T. Wright who translates verse 39 in the following way: “But I say to you: don’t use violence to resist evil!”[7] Jesus “is telling us to transcend both passivity and violence by finding a third way, one that is at once assertive yet nonviolent.”[8] Those who are outside of the nonviolence realm may want to resist this translation, but the evidence seems to stand in opposition to such detractors.

In the next post we will examine Jesus’ statement about turning the other cheek.

[1]. Herb Kopp, A Gospel for a New People: Studies in the Sermon on the Mount (Hillsboro, KS: Kindred Productions, 2003), 8.

[2]. Richard B. Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament: Community, Cross, New Creation: A Contemporary Introduction to New Testament Ethics (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1996), 324.

[3]. Ibid., 325.

[4]. Walter Wink, The Powers That Be: Theology for a New Millennium (New York: Doubleday, 1998), 100.

[5]. Ibid.

[6]. Thomas Yoder-Neufeld, Ephesians, Believers Church Bible Commentary (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 2002), 294-95.

[7]. Tom Wright, Matthew for Everyone, 1 (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), 49.

[8]. Wink, The Powers That Be: Theology for a New Millennium, 101.

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  • This is really exciting. The word 'faith' is so abused in much of the church. Its really refreshing to be called to 'follow' which doesn't sit easily with many who want power without accountability. Its notable that many of the reformers became abusive when they took the theological high ground while the Anabaptists held their allegiance to the Lamb by following the Spirit rather than being bound to the letter.

    The power of nonviolence is amazing. I think of Martin Luther King Jnr and how he met the violent hatred of racism with love and respect, not even despising those who were beyond contempt. How powerful are the weapons of peace.

  • Rob

    Thanks for this post. Ever since I read Matthew 5 through for myself the first time and realized just what it entailed, I've struggled with whether or not this verse precludes nonviolent resistance. The fact that this term has violent connotations seems to make a lot of sense in context of the broader Biblical mandate to witness against evil in creative ways. This is very reassuring.

  • With you so far, Kurt. 🙂

    • Kurt

      I will deal directly with your question… but it will not be for about 4 or 5 more posts 😉

  • Layla

    I have a question about the “Blessed are the peacemakers" passage. I have heard that it is supposed to be translated to mean "Blessed are those who bring the peace of God," which infers bringing the conviction of God before peace can be attained. I'm not sure if I'm remebering this correctly, it was several years ago that I read it and unfortunately didn't follow through with further research. Any thoughts?

  • Mike Ward

    None of the major translations qualify the resisitance in the Sermon on the Mount as violent resistance. There’s no reason to chose a translation from a single one-man translation over all the others, especially, since doing so radically alters not only the meaning of the verse itself, but results in a completely different teaching.

    Jesus gives three illustrations of his command of not resisting. All three describe complete non-resistance and not passive resistance: Turning the other cheak, walking two miles instead of one, and giving two items of clothing instead of one.

    • jonathanhakim

      I’m not fully convinced by Wink’s translation either, but “none of the major translations” isn’t a very strong argument. All of the major translations come out of a fairly narrow slice of cultural experience and assumptions that has quite a large distance from Jesus’s time, 1st-century Jerusalem, and the early Church. Translation can never be an exact science – there are multiple ways to translate many words. It’s very easy to imagine that in an era where Christian societies largely dominate the world’s power structures, most “Christian” nations have wholeheartedly accepted violence as a solution, and the church is speaking from a position of power, that the “major translation” would all miss the boat in the same way, even inadvertently.

      For myself, the most important point is that Wink’s interpretation best fits Jesus’s own actions and the rest of his preaching, which shows to me that it is how Jesus intended his words to be taken, whatever the technical definition of the word used its.