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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