“You have heard that it was said, An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. But I say to you that you must not oppose those who want to hurt you. If people slap you on your right cheek, you must turn the left cheek to them as well. When they wish to haul you to court and take your shirt, let them have your coat too.”
Biblically speaking, are our choices as Christians truly between violence and non-violence, or between a show of force or no force when it comes to resisting evil? Must we choose between “turning the other cheek” and self-defense? These choices, though perhaps posed as a false dichotomy, are not necessarily unfounded biblically or ethically on their own. Those who genuinely practice non-violence and stand up to evil are not best characterized as “passive.” Nor are those who risk their own lives with guns in hand on behalf of others, to save innocent life, or the state when it prevents individuals from continuing to harm others, merely vengeful or blood thirsty. And yet, is it most moral to refuse to stop violent men and women from marching into town and harming our neighbors, from harming the “outcast” or “strangers”? And, though often there are nonviolent solutions, sometimes using force is the only option open to effectively stop those who will take advantage of unprotected individuals. And yet also, when one takes up arms do we surrender the Romans 12 imperative to overcome evil with good? The one who lives by the sword, dies by the sword and do we effectively promote the kingdom of God characterized by different ethical norms including mutuality, peace, and turning the other cheek out of love for God and neighbor when we take up the sword? Have we compromised all that we stand for when this happens?
Cards on the table, I tend to think most of the way we as individuals should walk through life ought to look more like Martin Luther King Jr.’s Civil Rights movement: One must resist evil using non-violence mixed with truth-telling (in this case taking the form of civil disobedience). Yet, I also believe the Bible calls us to protect and defend our neighbors and self from harm (self-defense and justice), and this may include use of force. Most of us already practice this if we are the types of people who will call the police when there is a robbery or a child has been molested. The state will use physical force to restrain those who would continue to hurt innocent people. And yet I would also put forward that most of the time in our daily lives force is not necessary and it is easily justified to feed the preservation of one’s false self and easily rationalized as a “last resort” when one has no other choice when this is seldom the case. An aside: This is why a larger community accountability in the form of a legal system with inherent checks and balances on power and a notion that an individual person’s rights are sacred in crucial! The will to power may always be rationalized hence it must be limited and bound or the vulnerable (which any of us could be at some time in our lives) will be exploited with religious fervor and layers of justifications.
But, let me unpack some of my current thought. on the use of force and nonviolence:
On this side of the eschaton, the Bible appears to have three consistent messages that are relevant to deciding between retaliation, revenge, forgiveness and justice:
Love your neighbor as yourself.
Do not seek revenge, retribution or escalation.
Overcome evil with good.
Love your neighbor as yourself.
The Bible consistently teaches that we should love our neighbor as much as we love ourselves. Matthew 22 (Cf. Gal 5:14) records Jesus saying that alongside loving God with all our heart, that this is the clear foundation of the Law and Prophets as well (i.e. it is not something new he is introducing).
We should not put the value and preservation of the “self” over another in our every day dealings. And, if I value you as much as I do myself, I will probably end up showing you more grace, give you more chances and want the best for your well-being. By implication I will not try and steal your property, place in society, take you to court unethically so that I can “get mine” and more, but nor will I let you do the same to me for your sake, mine and society’s. To the best of my ability I will not let you exploit, abuse, or harass me if I can help it (and sometimes one can’t) nor allow you to do so to another. It’s bad for the soul, mars your character (as sin will do the more you engage in it), and puts you squarely against the true God of this world.
Yes, evil happens, primarily through people, but we are also people!
Let’s take a closer look at two relevant passages for our purposes: Leviticus 19:18 and Luke 10:25-37 and ask what it means for our larger question of what we do when someone wrongs or is attacking us.
“You must not take revenge nor hold a grudge against any of your people; instead, you must love your neighbor as yourself; I am the Lord.” -Leviticus 19:18
Alright. In the Old Testament, which Jesus appeals to, loving one’s neighbor as much as ourselves is framed as an alternative to what? Taking revenge and holding grudges. But, that is not all. It is set in a wider context of being an alternative to other behaviors such as: not oppressing or stealing from others, unjust laws, doing things like insulting a deaf person or putting physical obstacles in the way of blind people, slandering people, AND, less comfortably for many of our current shady Christian practices: “Do not stand by while your neighbor’s blood is shed” (16). And, one is not only culpable before God if one stands by and lets one’s neighbor be harmed. You have a responsibility to “Rebuke your fellow Israelite strongly, so you don’t become responsible for his sin” (17). You are required to openly denounce evil from your “in group” your “fellow Israelite.” Failing to do so biblically speaking makes you responsible for whatever the person does to another person.
In other words: the Bible condemns the exploitation of others even towards those who have already acted this way towards you. Trying to hurt someone back, letting others be exploited, and failing to condemn evil behavior all fall under not loving one’s neighbor as one’s self and set one against the God of the Bible. Consistent message: do not engage in exploitive and unjust behaviors towards others, regardless. And undo this paradigm, my earlier phrasing of “lettering others be exploited” does not quite capture the Bible’s perspective here. It seems to conceive of it not so much as a sin of omission at worst nor merely not going above and beyond at best. Rather, the text appears to think one is engaging in the sin itself and held responsible for it if one lets an evil person do evil. Corruption and sin take many forms.
Are you not the kind of person who would openly make fun of a boy with autism or say something at his expense in front of your “friends” that you know he can’t pick up? Well, according to the Bible you are liable and part of this sin when someone does this and you do not openly rebuke him.
So, what must you do if someone tries to murder, slander, exploit or take advantage of a neighbor? Put a stop to it. If someone is slandering another person you must rebuke them and if they are trying to kill them? Well, likely (but not always) you will need to stop them by force. And all of this is based in God’s identity “I am the Lord” and comes down to what at a later date Bonhoeffer keenly identified as “the cost of discipleship.” For all of our talk on whether nonviolence is easy (and it usually is not when it comes to our own exploitation), it is far simpler for us to do nothing and “mind our own business” or “lay low” when a neighbor is being harassed. And better still if we can claim the name of God or appeal to God’s love or grace as we do evil (fyi this is what it means to take the Lord’s name in vain).
And how does this square with the part about not taking revenge or holding a grudge? More to come. For now, our next point coming out of Luke 10:25-37.
A legal expert stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to gain eternal life?”
Jesus replied, “What is written in the Law? How do you interpret it?”
He responded, “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.”
Jesus said to him, “You have answered correctly. Do this and you will live.”
But the legal expert wanted to prove that he was right, so he said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
Jesus replied, “A man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho. He encountered thieves…
Alright. Interesting. We have an example where a legal expert is trying to vindicate himself. He rightly (according to Jesus) says that if he truly loves God and neighbor he will have eternal life (of course, gradually we come to truly see that Jesus is Yahweh hence he is the one we should put our faith/allegiance in and is the power behind our ability to do these actions of faith). But the legal expert was actually trying to get one up on Jesus and so was not satisfied with the standard answer. He retorts back with the question, “Who is my neighbor?”
Jesus paints a picture that expands one’s understanding of neighbor to go beyond one’s family, tribe, group, cliche, nation…take your pick…and to make matters worse he does not even allow one to take the pride of Israelite nationalism in the story as the one who fulfills the essence of the law in helping the poor foreigner. The one they should look up to and emulate is a Samaritan. The very outsider that was considered “not a neighbor.” The vilains in the story (besides the thieves) are the Jewish exemplars who on the outside appealed to the law, but truly did not follow it even towards a “fellow” Israelite (the ongoing criticism of the leaders exploiting their own people). They chose to let a man in their “in group” die whereas a Samaritan recognized a neighbor in one who was in the “out group” and showed himself to be the true keeper of the law and inheritor of eternal life. The Samaritan did what the law calls for towards neighbors and more that went well beyond the letter (is characterized by generosity towards what others consider an enemy). He loved the neighbor as himself by helping him out of his own resources and even left some extra money to help the man after the crisis was over taking responsibility for his after care should he need more. One who loves his or her neighbor as much as they love themselves will be characterized by a divine generosity that reaches out of one’s own abundant heart towards an enemy seeing instead a neighbor.
In v.36 Jesus asks, “What do you think? Which one of these three was a neighbor to the man who encountered thieves?” Then the legal expert said, “The one who demonstrated mercy toward him.” Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise” (37).
The take away for our question regarding justice, revenge and violence? Well, at the least we understand that we are to treat enemies as neighbors and love them as much as we love ourselves when the opportunity presents itself. And, we are to be characterized by divine generosity. In the law this is based on God’s character and in the gospels Jesus is the basis (Jesus is God with us). Between these two passages (and others not covered) we have enough to know that our dealings with other people should be oriented towards self-giving generosity and one that puts aside old and present grievances whenever one is able (meaning, if the thieves are still attacking you, do not pretend they are finished). Our lives embrace personal risk socially, financially and in terms of physical harm. Those who say they serve God and yet are without mercy and use religious and ethically loaded rationalizations in order to avoid responsibility are exposed for who they are by what they do (walk away and around the one in need).
Do not seek revenge, retribution or escalation.
If you love your neighbor as yourself (and your “neighbor” includes outsiders and enemies), you will not: seek revenge, retribution or escalation. This mentality is applied to situations where we have the upper hand and in situations where we have experienced crushing and unjust defeat at the hands of another. Many enemies think in terms of zero-sum. If I win, you must lose. In order to feel big, safe or strong, you must be put down, exploited or annihilated. In order for my God approved organization to thrive, I must sacrifice your health and well-being (*cough S. Baptist convention). Those who truly subscribe to Judeo-Christian values and worship Yahweh (who by the way decided to decorate his temple with plants, flowers and images of peace rather than Near Eastern temple war images), will strive towards Yahweh’s goal of peace. This entirely rules out retributive violence, but not true justice.
In biblical law context the aim of justice is to 1) limit the cycles of revenge, 2) aim towards restoration i.e. the original metaphor of an “eye for an eye” was meant to convey that one should receive back what is owed and no more and usually took the form of a fine rather than a literal eye gouging. Later in Jesus’ day it was misapplied to be interpreted in the context of revenge. Here it means that the person who is harmed or damaged gets restored or compensated. And finally, the law aimed to 3) prevent future evil, hence someone who murders another person is himself killed (though there are several exceptions), with the basis in human beings being made in the Image of God in Genesis. Some individuals, organizations, churches, agencies…etc will simply continue to do evil if they go unchecked.
Unlike justice, revenge does not aim primarily to end cycles of revenge unless it means annihilating another. It is “me at the expense of you” type thinking. It does not aim towards restoration. I.e. it is not enough that if you hurt me that you pay my losses, I want you to hurt and bad the way you hurt me. Nor does it does it primarily seek to prevent future evil where reconciliation or conciliation is impossible. Rather, revenge seeks to gain pride of place, ego, brute force and power for itself. Insisting on justice respects the image of God in oneself and in the other (often it is better for the other to experience the consequences of their actions so that they can truly turn to God and not just try to save face). Revenge seeks to destroy the image of God (agency, gifting, and mutual power/rule) in the other because we have been hurt or had our image smashed.
And sometimes we have been truly crushed and injured beyond our control and despite our best efforts to live in peace. We live in a vicious world where people do horrendous things to us while others watch, rationalize away their horrendous behavior, try and ensnare innocent people through misrepresentations and technicalities (all for the greater good of course), victim blame, overtly join in and, there is no justice. No safety. No restoration of loss or even the effort to do so. We live in a world where the innocent are scapegoated as criminals and their destruction and pain celebrated. And yet, we must see these people as our neighbors and as Romans 12:18 says, “If possible, to the best of your ability, live at peace with all people” and v.14 “Bless people who harass you—bless and don’t curse them.” The passage acknowledges that it may not be in our ability to live in peace. After all, a person or organization who is harassing another, is not living in peace. If the context lets their evil continue, the so-called bystanders will be living in sin and there will be no peace even if they do so in the guise of “peace.” i.e. we exploited you and created an uncomfortable dynamic and so now we feel uncomfortable and will expunge you. Yet, in these situations we can only do the best we can without compromising God’s truth. After all, Jesus was killed as a “criminal” who threatened “peace” (Roman defined of course) so will those who follow God’s call and bear his image be exploited and have their characters slandered.
That said, lets look at a couple of passages on not taking revenge (there are a ton and we are not even scratching the surface):
“You have heard that it was said, An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. But I say to you that you must not oppose those who want to hurt you. If people slap you on your right cheek, you must turn the left cheek to them as well. When they wish to haul you to court and take your shirt, let them have your coat too. When they force you to go one mile, go with them two. Give to those who ask, and don’t refuse those who wish to borrow from you.”
Arguably, the best translation of ἀνθίστημι is not “resist” both lexicaly there are other options and also other options in terms of reading in the wider biblical context. A range of other options from LSJ which I prefer: “set against” set in “opposition,” “outweigh”…etc. Basically, do not play the game. They want to hurt you (zero-sum). Do not buy into their premises. It leads to eternal death and is not living out one’s calling to be like and worship God. Its not worth it. Its better to suffer loss than to be like them (hence if your eye causes you to sin pluck it out!). Resist them another way (see below on overcoming evil with good). And besides, they will think you are insolent, a threat and/or evil and interpret your actions that way anyway just by virtue of disagreeing with them, insisting you are also a person, or by following the way of Christ. Though not always. Blessed exceptions.
That said, folks often interpret someone slapping you on one cheek and turning the other as a license for taking repeated physically abusive behavior (which is absurd). Contextually, the sense is more one of not returning insult for insult. Someone insults you to bring you down a peg. Don’t insult them back. Turn your metaphorical cheek. Jesus did. And he spoke truth back at them and was “disagreeable.”
Why not return insult for insult? Because you can face them with your new identity in Christ. The world is tight fisted and enslaved to false images. Just because they are defeated or deceived by evil does not mean you need to be led into the temptation to do the same. Ironically, do not be defeated by an unjust defeat. Face them without shame because you have the face of Christ and his sacrifice gives their evil towards you new meaning since he stands in your place and you in his in solidarity. Back to our passage: the end brings it back to a core characterization threaded throughout our passages: one of generosity.
One who is insecure seeks to bring others down, misrepresent, look for not picky ways to undermine and tear apart, scheme, stack the cards against, encircle and gang up on others. One who is secure in Christ has more than enough in himself that he or she will not return an insult, but returns with open hearted generosity when compelled (even if unjustly). Sometimes this means giving someone who refuses to treat you well many chances even if you have grounds for calling them to account (this is for each person to decide and one should be careful in applying this in cases of abuse). I can think of an instance at some time in my life where someone attempted to get me fired and it exposed her own misconduct. I was asked if I wanted to take it higher up and I let it be.
Also note that the above passage addresses a situation where one has already suffered loss or defeat. There is no choice. You cannot get them to stop or protect yourself. Damage is already done. They have you and you have no hope for justice. You are still a person of the kingdom and in this vein “let the weak say I am strong” and the “poor say I am rich because of what the Lord has done…”
“While Jesus was still speaking, a crowd appeared, and the one called Judas, one of the Twelve, was leading them. He approached Jesus to kiss him.
Jesus said to him, “Judas, would you betray the Human One with a kiss?”
When those around him recognized what was about to happen, they said, “Lord, should we fight with our swords?” One of them struck the high priest’s servant, cutting off his right ear.
Jesus responded, “Stop! No more of this!” He touched the slave’s ear and healed him.
Then Jesus said to the chief priests, the officers of the temple guard, and the elders who had come to get him, “Have you come with swords and clubs to arrest me, as though I were a thief? Day after day I was with you in the temple, but you didn’t arrest me. But this is your time, when darkness rules.”
Context: Jesus is raw. Jesus has been betrayed on so many levels. Jesus knows his other friend Peter is going to pretend not to know him later even though he made such a show of what a loyal and heroic person he was. And, Jesus was so scared he sweat blood. This is a symptom of very extreme chronic stress and anxiety, not just fear in the moment. Perhaps Jesus agonized over the pain of the upcoming betrayal, the humiliation and the long excruciating death awaiting him. Throughout the gospels he talks about this fate to his disciples and others, but no one understood he really thought bad things were ahead for him. To make matters worse, even though he asked his friends to just pray they wouldn’t fall into temptation (i.e. not take revenge later), they slept instead, and then…fell into temptation when push came to shove.
One of the 12 Jesus invested so much of himself in humiliates him in public (with a merry band of Jesus’ enemies and soldiers). Judas has shown his true colors, ironically in the form of intimate friendship: a kiss. Jesus has let him down and he wants it to hurt. Otherwise, why a kiss? Now Jesus will be arrested and killed like a criminal. He will not die officially for his character or message. They will try to make him look guilty and like he had it coming. Those with him don’t stand a chance. They can either 1) run, 2) get arrested, 3) get arrested but take as many down as they can first! One of them opt for the latter. Jesus, who is being taken (others can run) opts to get arrested and not escalate needlessly. Why? The trap has been set. He has “lost.” What good would hurting the high priest’s servant do? And of course, there is a deeper divine plot in motion.
And yet, Jesus feels free to call his enemies out on their behavior (people don’t like that very much). They want him to die like a common thief and are making a show of treating him like one (definition of scapegoating). And yet, he is showing them they are truly evil and have other motives and calling them out on it.“Have you come with swords and clubs to arrest me, as though I were a thief? Day after day I was with you in the temple, but you didn’t arrest me. But this is your time, when darkness rules.” If he was so clearly guilty, why did they pick this time and not act earlier? This is the story of all scapegoating and illuminates that one has rationalized the destruction of a perceived threat rather than truly being concerned with justice and goodness.
When justice is not immediately in sight and one has already “lost” in a worldly sense: do not seek to do maximal damage to an enemy for the sake of the self at the expense of the other. Do not try and just cause more pain because you are hurt and need to project it out. But do be cheeky, and call them out on in if you can. ;) They don’t like to see themselves for who and what they are. And, contrary to popular believe, narcissists and those drunk with preserving false images rather hate mirrors.
“They also led two other criminals to be executed with Jesus. When they arrived at the place called The Skull, they crucified him, along with the criminals, one on his right and the other on his left. Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing.” They drew lots as a way of dividing up his clothing.”
Context: Jesus is being brought to corrupt leadership on the basis of false charges using trigger words aimed at compelling Pilate to respond with brutal force.
At first Jesus is made into a sick joke where Pilate passes him off as an entertaining crazy holy man to an old revival he wants on his side (and Herod is delighted). There is a sick pleasure they all get in making Jesus “King of the Jews” since they despise the common Jewish people and have sworn their allegiance to the power of Rome. Pilate almost lets Jesus go after humiliating him. He hates the Jews and thinks it will piss them off and perhaps is feeling superstitious about Jesus maybe being a holy man (Cf John 19:11-12). But, in the Gospel of John, we hear more trigger words:
“The Jewish leaders replied, “We have a Law, and according to this Law he ought to die because he made himself out to be God’s Son” (John 19:7). God’s Son = title of a rival King
And it gets worse. V12 continues:
“The Jewish leaders cried out, saying, “If you release this man, you aren’t a friend of the emperor! Anyone who makes himself out to be a king opposes the emperor!”
And combine this with the Luke portrayal of a growing riot to release Barabbas and crucify Jesus (because they are such good Roman citizens), done. We hear elsewhere that Jesus was so depleted and weak (for heavens sake, he just sweated blood for tears) that he is crushed by the weight of his own cross. He can’t even carry it. He is not able to face his death with grace and poise. And yet along the way he ironically proclaims judgment (vv27-31)!
And then, he is killed like a criminal. That is what abusive people and “bystanders” do, they make the scapegoat the criminal because they cannot face themselves and will not surrender power to God. He is mocked more by everyone except an actual common criminal who sees through the illusion, accurately perceives himself and thus truly sees Jesus.
But Pilate gets his. He places the words “King of the Jews” over Jesus’ head as his crime. Take that Jews. Your king is a pathetic loon and criminal that we have killed in a gruesome way.
And yet the text, true to Rene Girard’s observation, is allowing us to see through the scapegoat ruse, and it is in this context that we hear the ultimate divine pardon:
“Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing.” They drew lots as a way of dividing up his clothing” (v34).
Biblicaly speaking (drawing from Romans and an Old Testament view of deception), they knew they were killing and wrongly blaming an innocent man. They knew they were lying and manipulating. Deep down past the layers of self-deception and exchanging the truth for a lie they knew they were trying to hold onto power and that Jesus was innocent. What they didn’t know: Jesus was not just another innocent man they killed horrendously as a sacrifice to their self-aggrandizement, he was Yahweh. God had always spoke about loving one’s neighbor as oneself on the basis of his character. He was now being vulnerable and running through the full course of their sin because God’s heart truly is for the outsider, abused and is truly opposed to revenge and loving one’s enemies.
If the penalty for knowingly murdering another person made in God’s image is death, what is the penalty for murdering God himself!? Jesus pardons them for their crime. God is all powerful and yet characterized by loving generosity not revenge, so should we be. And yet ironically, it is a crucified criminal who is the only one in the narrative for a while who sees this and asks to be “remembered” in paradise. A lesson for repentance and casting off false images of oneself. And, in the Old Testament, when God “remembers” someone, he forgives and rescues them (Cf. Jeremiah 31:34: "For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more"). Will God “remember” you?
I’ll leave it at that for now.
Overcome evil with good.
If you love your neighbor as yourself, you will not seek revenge, retribution or escalation. And, if you are not to retaliate in kind when someone wrongs you, what should you do? True to God’s character and example and the life of Christ, you will not only step in when your “neighbor’s blood is shed” or speak out against sin but, seek to overcome evil with good.
Earlier we saw that God does not want us to let our neighbors be overcome by evil people and desires true justice (this is dominant throughout the Old and New Testament). God does not want us to be submitted to abuse! This is more than clear throughout the Bible. And we misread Scripture when we see Jesus acting in solidarity with the marginalized as advocating the marginalized remain marginalized (how absurd!) or reading in the idea of Jesus the lover of sinners into giving a break to powerful people that exploit others. We also saw that the metaphor of turning the other cheek was not about submitting to more physical assault but a metaphor for not returning evil for evil/insult for insult.
And yet, much of the world pre and post biblical does not live in just systems and will never see justice in their time. They are crushed by the weight of “the might of Rome” and perverse power hungry leaders in their own unique contexts. Most cannot get justice. One should try if they can (i.e. the apostle Paul often speaks of how one should act as a slave even though he encourages one to gain freedom if able), but often one cannot get justice in this life. But God’s kingdom is more powerful than the zero sum game and because of this, as we strive (and sometimes fail to receive) for justice and strive to pardon over revenge, we buy into the kingdom reversals of power and this creates something wonderful inside us even as we go through seasons of crippling anxiety, our own tears of blood, and debilitating physical weakness. The Lord’s prayer that calls us to seek our daily bread and not fall into temptation in the context of forgiveness bases this call in God’s kingdom. It is in swearing allegiance to this power and claiming it for ones own (and this allows us to, just as Jesus did, proclaim our power in the Lord even as we stand in chains and defeat).
Buying into a crucified savior like the thief on the cross re-patterns our lives (Rom 12:2). We may stand our ground because we are made in the Image of God and we may find the strength to move forward, but we go towards different ends and this continues even as we lack the physical strength, and as our anxiety gets the better of us, as we are unable to smile at times and unable to be on the surface, “joyful.” And, contrary to heretical thought, I am going to venture Jesus was not laughing while dying on the cross.
In the every day when we are insulted by people consumed with making themselves bigger (or merely assume they are big and you are small), we turn our face towards them and against all odds, status and worldly authority, say “bring it,” not returning evil for evil, but like Jesus exposing it for what it is in a way that is ultimately illuminating and constructive. When compelled (no choice) to go a mile with an enemy soldier, we recognize our neighbor and throw another freebie his way because God has poured out his generous love in our hearts in the Spirit. We are joyfully his even as we mourn and are bear silent traumas.
In Romans 12, we learn that our lives, if we have sworn our allegiance to Christ and his vision of a kingdom and power, will be oriented towards Christ (different goals than not losing face, not suffering loss, or not losing pride of place) and we will be people disposed towards seeing others as “equals” (i.e. neighbors), and as our own body—belonging to one another. This is only natural, or a logical outcome λογικὴν of worship. To do otherwise is to reveal a different logical orientation that is directed towards a different end goal of “faith” perhaps one of self preservation at the expense of another?
That said, I will now turn to some constructive elements in Romans 12 about how to worshipfully overcome evil with good and what that means.
Do not put your self in a higher place above others (Rom 12:3-8). Acknowledge your own gifting and that of others. Note this is a two way street and is consistent with the NT generally when it comes to people society deems more worthy, honorable and superior seeing themselves as more lowly AND those who are lowly finding the courage to see themselves more highly. Our savior and his followers after were most bold when in chains or outnumbered. The tendency is for those with an inflated sense of self to be offended when someone lower takes agency and those who are insecure to shrink. Do not shrink, but do not try to put others down either. God has gifted you, use it.
Be characterized by a love that is not deceptive or false (vv.9-12). So much of the political game whether nationwide or in the context of a small office has to do with false shows of affection, morals and respect where each does ultimately what is in his or her own best interest. Contrary to the world, we should not be pretenders, but lovers of truth and enemies of evil. We value each other as insiders or members of our own family looking only to outdo each other when it comes to highlighting the good of the other.
Cling to God no matter what season you are in (vv 11-12). Be enthusiastic and happy. But also “stand your ground when you’re in trouble, and devote yourself to prayer.” God does not want “go alongs” or people who will only put on smiles. He wants people who will stand up to evil and trust him when things are going well or bad.
Be generous in your material spiritual life (vv13-17). When one has the Lord and is “storing up riches” towards his kingdom and is already filled with the Spirit he or she will provide for other Christians and strangers financially and materially when they need it. One can “bless people who harass you” and not curse them and sit with others in every season whether they are happy or mourning. Again, everyone will be considered “as equal” and you will associate with those targeted by the powerful, by the group, those others look down on for various reasons—those who “have no status” and this spirit rules out “pay back” and promotes the respect for other people’s well being.
“If possible, to the best of your ability, live at peace with all people” (v.18). Even if you have the upper hand try your best to promote peace. Vv19-20 say that instead of trying to get revenge leave room for God’s wrath. “Instead, If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him a drink. By doing this, you will pile burning coals of fire upon his head.” Those who do evil despite goodness especially when they have portrayed ‘you’ as the evil one. Count on them rationalizing your behavior away and perhaps not accepting your assistance, but ultimately, though out of love and generosity we would like to convert him or her, we do these things so that evil does not claim victory over us.
“Don’t be defeated by evil, but defeat evil with good” (v.21).
What we say and do in this world will not make sense to those who have not truly given their lives over to God.
They will expect that as good “Christians” we will be weak willed and submit to their false self and to injustice and be surprised when we don’t. They will be surprised that when they come for our neighbors, that despised one or people group everyone knows is the “problem,” that we stand in their way. They will be surprised when we kick them out of our churches, and call the police when they abuse someone in our congregation even though they have the title of “Pastor.” They will be shocked that we openly disagree with them or sue them when they assault us (and yes, you can sue another “Christian” more on this later). Upholding human dignity and preference for one’s neighbors needs above one’s own is truly rare and not understood when there is nothing to be gained, when you will be seen as a traitor or hypocrite for doing so.
They will expect that we will try and take them for all they are worth when they are destitute, vulnerable and exposed and be surprised when we lend them our assistance and hand. They will wonder what our motives ‘really’ are. They will interpret it as manipulative. They will be angry and offended that their inferior has “condescended” to them. They will be angry because it exposes that we are the true inheritor’s of the kingdom and they did evil at every turn. They will interpret our patience, graciousness and generosity as weakness as though we could not act swiftly and with devastating force or need to appease them in some way. And perhaps, just perhaps a few will realize their own need for a Crucified Messiah and join us in our journey. And of course there will be those others looking on at your behavior and tell you you ought not give so many chances, be gracious…etc. Let them wonder.
So, after everything has been said, what do I believe the Bible teaches about nonviolence and the use of force? Approaching one coming from the vantage point of non-violence I would say that when all other options are exhausted, if able, use physical force and the law to keep people from preying on the vulnerable and innocent. Do not uphold injustice in the name of ethics. Approaching one from the vantage point of using force, put down your sword. It is better to suffer devastating loss physically, emotionally and materially than to take revenge or become what we fight against. Better to miscalculate or error on the side of grace and have it “come back to bite you later.”
However, ultimately we all have to decide what to do in each situation. My only advice is to do so prayerfully and worshipfully seeking the good of the “other,” but without sacrificing one’s own or another’s sense of value and worth before God.
Its a both/and.