The term “Mennonite” describes a broad spectrum of people. There’s everything from the liberal “progressive” types who ordain lesbians to those still using horses for transportation in the outermost conservative backwoods. But there is one thing that unites all Mennonites under one banner and that an inheritance of pacifism called non-resistance.
It is a theological perspective I’ve argued in favor of many times. In fact, it was a case that I made in an essay while enrolled at a secular university in front of a room full of incredulous classmates.
In retrospect, the Gnadenhutton massacre (when a native American tribe of pacifist converts were senselessly slaughtered by Pennsylvania militia men) was not as compelling an example of faith to those who did not already share my Mennonite indoctrination. I can’t recall anyone in the room who accepted my reasoning that it was better these people not to defend themselves and their families.
But, for me, like most born into a Mennonite home, non-resistance was simply the most plain and obvious reading of the teachings of Jesus. How could someone read “love your enemies” and not reject all use of force?
Well, with a few more years under my belt, it is time to revisit the topic of non-resistance and take a closer look at the proof-texts used keeping a couple questions in mind. What does the text of the passage actually say and what does the greater context of Scripture provide to us as additional clues?
I’ll start with the linchpin…
1) What does Jesus mean by love your enemies?
The Sermon on the Mount, where the phrase “love your enemies” is used by Jesus, seems like the most reasonable starting point. This is the text:
“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. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matthew 5:38-48 NIV)
First, Jesus brings up a part of Old Testament law that was being used in a literal and incorrect way to govern interpersonal relationships. The “eye for an eye” concept was not intended so that everyone would go around as vigilantes and demanding punishment. It was, in the context it was given, a guideline to keep civil punishments in proportion to the crime rather than too harsh or too lenient.
Jesus gives an alternative to the tit-for-tat misuse of the law of Moses. He says to do the opposite. Instead of returning return slap for slap he says to turn the other cheek. Rather than fight a lawsuit over a shirt he says to give the person your coat. He says to go the extra mile rather than resist going only one mile. What he presents is an a means to break out of a downward spiral where everyone loses. In other words, it is better to be twice insulted or doubly inconvenienced than it is to live out an endless feud like Hatfields and McCoys.
Jesus confronts this idea some had that it was okay to only love those who treat them well (their neighbors) and not their “enemies” or those hostile towards them. However, he does not use life-or-death situation to illustrate his point nor does he argue against protecting the innocent. There is no indication that his words are aimed at the work of government either. He is speaking about personal rather than national enemies.
2) What does “vengeance is mine” mean?
Another important non-resistance prooftext is found in the book of Romans. The apostle Paul, in context of how to love and serve others, says:
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited. Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:14-21 NIV )
This passage basically restates what Jesus taught. Paul expounds on the idea of not answering evil with evil and backs this claim using passages from the Old Testament. The words “vengeance is mine” come directly from the book of Deuteronomy and is not a repudiation of legitimate justice being served or it would contradict the context in which it was given. Instead, this phrase appears to be directed against taking personal revenge outside of what God has established. I say this because Paul does:
Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience. This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor. (Romans 13:1-7 NIV)
It is interesting that Paul instructs to “overcome evil with good” and goes on to explain that those in authority who punish the evildoer are “God’s servant for good” and not to be resisted when serving in that role. If it were sinful for governing authorities to punish evil it is strange that they are described as servants of God.
Does this mean that we can punish those who personally offend us?
No, absolutely not.
It is not okay for us to take matters of justice into our own hands. There was never a license for individuals to act unilaterally and outside the established justice system in the Old Testament. The role (or rule) given for individuals was the same then as it was when Paul restates the argument. Love for “enemies” is not a new teaching:
If your enemy is hungry, give him food to eat; if he is thirsty, give him water to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head, and the Lord will reward you. (Proverbs 25:21-22 NIV)
That is Proverbs.
That is how they were to treat their personal enemies in Old Testament times.
That is how Paul taught that Christians must deal with their personal enemies in his time.
Many arguing for non-resistance cherry-pick the phrase “vengeance is mine” and “overcome evil with good” and “heap burning coals” while neglecting important context. These phrases must be understood in the context they are given. Jesus was not contradicting the Old Testament nor rebuking government officials, rather he was correcting those who were misusing the words as an excuse to be unloving, to fight evil with evil and take personal vengeance.
3) My kingdom is not of this world…
When Jesus was arrested he told Peter to put his sword away and, remaining consistent in his message, warned that people who live by the sword will die by the sword. Even when faced with the corrupt use of government power we are not given a pass to resist with violence. And Jesus goes further to explain this when being questioned after his arrest:
Pilate then went back inside the palace, summoned Jesus and asked him, “Are you the king of the Jews?”
“Is that your own idea,” Jesus asked, “or did others talk to you about me?”
“Am I a Jew?” Pilate replied. “Your own people and chief priests handed you over to me. What is it you have done?”
Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.”
“You are a king, then!” said Pilate.
(John 18:33-36 NIV)
Pilate was trying to establish the guilt or innocence of Jesus. The Jewish authorities presented Jesus as someone deserving death. The Romans only used capital punishment in some cases and that is why it was very important how Jesus answered. If he answered “yes” when asked about being “king of the Jews” that would amount to insurrection and a crime punishable by crucifixion. So Jesus presents himself as being of a different kingdom and one that is not a threat to Roman rule.
It is important to understand “my kingdom is not of this world” in that context. Jesus is never at odds with the established government. That isn’t his realm, he did not rebuke Pilate or the soldiers for doing their jobs, the legitimate punishment of evildoers is not something a Christian should ever oppose. Jesus, even when wrongfully accused, did not curse his captors or repay their evil for evil. Instead, he said “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do!” (Luke 23:24) That is an example to follow in our own experience with injustice.
That is not to say we should give up our rights and renounce our citizenship anymore than we should give up eating physical food. Paul, in Acts 16, after being unlawfully detained and beaten, expected his privileges as a Roman citizen be respected and demanded that he should be released out the front gate. But he did so in the right time, when the mistake was already acknowledged by the authorities, and without resisting arrest or imprisonment. Paul, like Jesus, was willing to suffer personal loss as means to show God’s love. He positioned himself as an ambassador of another kingdom and yet was not opposed justice in this world.
False dichotomies, non-resistance proof-texts and truth…
“A text without context is a pretext for a prooftext.” (Dr. D. A. Carson)
Proof-texting is a misuse of a Biblical text. It is when a person takes small snips of a text to make their argument and neglects important contextual information in the process. Mennonites, despite their very sincere intentions, are no exception—they are not free from this tendency to be led by confirmation bias. They, like all other people, have an emotional attachment to their established beliefs, which causes blindness to evidence that runs contrary to their existing ideas, and this limits their ability to reach a fuller understanding of Scripture.
My youthful black and whiteness, while self-satisfying at the time, did not well-represent the texts used. The either/or propositions of those arguing non-resistance are often false dichotomies based in misapplication of a Biblical text. For example, the phrase “my kingdom is not of this world” is not an excuse to skip out on your taxes, the words “vengeance is mine” are not a repudiation of those employed by governments to punish evil, and “love your enemies” does not mean looking the other way and turning a blind eye towards injustice or abuse. It is possible to both represent the kingdom of heaven and physically protect the innocent.
The truth is often represented by both/and. Personal vengeance is forbidden, punishment of evildoers is ordained, and it takes wisdom to know what applies to the circumstances one finds themselves in. Sometimes we need to be vocal about our rights, like Paul, other times we should maintain our silence and endure the abuse, but we should always place the welfare of others above our own. Turning the other cheek does not imply giving a sexual predator your daughter after he raped your wife. Overcoming evil with good does not mean being a pacifist doormat.
Mennonite non-resistance goes wrong when it is used as basis to judge those who God has ordained to punish evil. If someone believes that resisting evil through physical means is always wrong and itself evil, then they are accusing God of hypocrisy for what he instituted. Jesus questioned the judgment of the Pharisees, but he never questioned the authority of the Romans nor did he call for them to lay down their weapons as he did with Peter.
It is not our role to judge those who use the sword to punish evil and protect the innocent.
Love does not require others to die on behalf of our own personal convictions.
Jesus never spoke against defending the weak nor did he make a case against subduing (or otherwise stopping) a deranged person intent on doing harm. Being of a heavenly kingdom, at very least, does not mean one should be opposed to justice being served by those whom God has ordained and instituted for that purpose. We can both support those who punish the evildoer and also “love our enemies” without the two ever coming into conflict. In fact, if we oppose the protection of the innocent, we are ourselves in conflict with the command to love as Jesus did and giving preference to evil.
Does this mean I’m going to start to pack heat during a church service? No, not at all! Mass shootings, put in proper statistical context, are not something that concerns me. I choose not to live my life as one paranoid. I’ve put my trust in God. I’ve decided that firearms used for protection are better in the hands of those better trained.
My own perspective, in further reflection upon Scripture, is a bit more nuanced than before. However, I will say this in closing, it does reflect poorly on Christians when they appear to be more fearful of death than their supposedly faithless neighbors.
In context of eternity what will we lose in sacrificing ourselves for the good of others?