Wednesday, September 3, 2014

The Ninja Samaritan

Continuing on this blog’s life as a supplement to Creideamh, I will now write something about pacifism Christological non-violence. I have been reading a couple of commentaries on the Sermon on the Mount as a way to see if Jesus really meant that we shouldn’t be anxious about tomorrow and about important things such as clothes and food. But as the topic of pacifism was hot I decided to see what the authors had to say about these verses in Matthew 5:38-42:

“You have heard it said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to anyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.”

I'll use Charles Talbert (and his book on character formation and ethical decision making in the Sermon on the Mount) as my sparring partner.

As a collection of directives which impinge on our moral imaginations by the sheer force of their rhetoric, Talbert sees in this passage the type of language which functions to form moral character: “It is a catalyst for one’s becoming a person who does not retaliate” (91). With this I wholeheartedly agree. This Sermon is about forming humans into the image of Christ, who is our forerunner in the refusal to retaliate.

But when it comes to discussing the implications of this passage for “ethical decision making” Talbert makes a complete hames of it. First he leans on Eugene Boring, who says that this passage on non-retaliation cannot be taken literally because such a reading would lead to anarchy, the multiplication of evil, and an increase in suffering and oppression. Boring’s (and Talbert’s) mistake is to think that Jesus is instructing everyone. He is not. He is instructing those who would be his disciples, those who would show themselves to be sons and daughters of God. The move to not take these instructions literally is a move which obliterates the peculiarity (and anarchy) of discipleship. What Boring and Talbert are saying is, effectively, “if these instructions cannot be followed by everyone then they can be followed by no one.” But that is a deeply problematic way to make ethical decisions.

By way of illustration, the instruction to not take any risks with one’s money is not for a professional gambler. The professional gambler is someone who by definition takes risks with his money. He cannot possibly keep this instruction and remain as he is. It is not for him in his current status. He can of course choose to obey the instruction, but at that point he is no longer what he once was. To bring this back to the Sermon, Jesus isn’t telling soldiers to refuse to retaliate. Retaliation belongs to the very definition of a soldier. A soldier who doesn’t retaliate is like a gambler who doesn’t take risks with his money. It is nonsensical. So if a soldier wants to obey the commands of Jesus, he will logically cease to be a soldier. The attempt to make these commands into something that a soldier can obey is to put the cart before the horse. Talbert says that “a Christian who works for the State may find it necessary to retaliate in that role” (93). But if Jesus’s words are to be taken seriously, it is the role and not the call to non-retaliation that is in question.

This is not the biggest problem with Talbert’s exposition, however. He goes on to say that “the hermeneutic of the Matthean Jesus placed love and mercy as the overriding concerns in terms of which everything else is to be interpreted” (91-92). That’s a fair enough statement. But what Talbert does with it is exegetically and theologically specious. He thinks that, given this concern for love, “then love of neighbour would override the value of non-retaliation” (92). He uses a hypothetical version of the Good Samaritan parable to demonstrate his point. Suppose that instead of coming along after the attack and robbery the Good Samaritan turned up right in the middle of it. If the Samaritan placed non-retaliation above love of neighbour, he would have waited until the attack was finished and then tended to the wounded man’s needs. In Talbert's eyes, putting non-retaliation before love of neighbour is a reversal of the true order of things. If the Samaritan had acted the Jesus way, Talbert argues, he would have placed love of neighbour before non-retaliation, and “would likely have taken his staff, cuffed the robbers about their ears and driven them off, and then gone to the man. In so doing he would have made his ethical decision out of a character that gave mercy and love for the neighbour priority” (92).

The first and overriding problem with Talbert’s exegesis is that he thinks of “love of neighbour” and “non-retaliation” as two separate ethical directives. But non-retaliation is precisely a way to love one’s neighbour. Talbert presumes to know what love is, but it is Jesus’s words in this Sermon that give love its true definition. Furthermore, non-retaliation is a way to love one’s enemy. The parable of the Good Samaritan is told precisely to change the way we think about who is the neighbour and who is the enemy. If we kill our enemies to protect our neighbours we have not carried out Jesus’s commands. Allowing our neighbours to die by refusing to kill on their behalf is not wrong  - in fact, this is what Jesus told Peter to do when he told him to put away his sword (“for all who take the sword will perish by the sword”). God, after all, allows us all to die! But killing our enemies in no way belongs to the New Testament ethic of love. In his hypothetical version of the Lukan parable, Talbert make absolutely no room for love of enemy in his ethical decision-making process.

There is also a practical problem which is ignored by Talbert: he assumes that attacking the attackers will work. But what would prevent both the Samaritan and the other man from lying helplessly on the road having both been beaten up and robbed? In Talbert’s hypothetical version the lesson we might well end up learning is that fighting violence with violence is useless, because then there is nobody left to help the wounded. The parable would end tragically with the Samaritan and the Jew lying half-dead on the side of a road without anyone to come to their aid.


  1. 3 q's : we take this command literally but don't take the command to pluck out your eye or cut off your hand if it causes you to sin?
    and; if all of this verse is to be our model and taken literally then we should be open to giving whenever asked by others for money, yet Paul appears to place considerations on giving that would contradict giving whenever asked (in 2 Cor 9:7 )
    So the SOTM does not supply a universal ethic eh?.... That's what you and Andy were arguing about... I don't really have a question but i suppose this is the point that needs to proven in regard to Rom 13 right? one world- many missions/mandates..

  2. Answer 1 - Yes. We do not cut off our limbs but we do practice non-retaliation.
    Answer 2 - Paul in 2 Corinthians 9 says that "the one who sows sparingly will reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will reap bountifully". I'm all about the contradictions in Scripture (as you know), but we look in vain for a contradiction here.
    Answer 3 - I'm not sure what has to be proven in regard to Romans 13. Here is a list of instructions for Christians in Romans 13:

    Be subject to governing authorities.
    Don't resist them!
    Do what is good.
    Pay taxes.
    Pay respect.
    Love one another.
    Lay aside works of darkness and put on the armour of light.
    Live honourably.
    Put on the Lord Jesus Christ.

    Do any of those instructions nullify or contradict the Sermon on the Mount? I don't think they do, Furthermore, I don't think any of those instructions are for the "authorities" or "rulers." Paul is not talking to them. He is talking to the church in Rome. It would be interesting to see how Paul would instruct the authorities, but that is not what he is doing here.

    Arguably the most important bit of "ethics" in Romans is when Paul says at the beginning, "To all God's beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints."