Apr 24 2010

Misusing Scripture #3

Category: Bible,Scripture,theologyharmonicminer @ 8:46 am

The previous post in this series is here.

In the comment stream of another post, I wrote the following in response to a question, and then I realized it really belonged in the “Misusing Scripture” series, so after minor editing here it is….

Re: the “turn your cheek” comment of Jesus, it is a mistake to try to turn such comments into fully-orbed theories of human interaction and just response to threat.

Every time you see in the New Testament a suggestion about how individuals should respond to individuals with whom they are in conflict in some way, I suggest always rewriting the scripture so that the potential or actual victim is an innocent child. Then review what the responsibilities of adults are, to children. Then consider that in God’s eyes, we ALL are children, and furthermore, children He wants to adopt.

If you run an orphanage, you do not tell weaker children to let stronger children prey upon them. You do not stand by and watch as one beats another, even if you must use force to stop it, perhaps even risking danger to yourself. And if you have a truly difficult case (a child who is in fact a threat to the group, and possibly strong enough to threaten YOU), you may have to use considerable force to stop a situation from getting out of hand. And this is key: you absolutely must protect yourself in the process, because if you don’t, who will protect the rest of the children?

The fundamental flaw in “proof-texting”  for non-violence in the scriptures is that nearly all such scriptures are about individual responses to particular kinds of situations, NOT about corporate responsibilities (i.e., the responsibilities of governments and families to protect those for whom they are responsible), and even those about individual responses are often more metaphoric than anything.

Some will quote Paul: “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.”

OK. But this presumes I have the power to feed an enemy who does not have the power to feed himself. It assumes I have the power to give him a drink, which he will not have without me… else he will not now be thirsty. In other words, it assumes my enemy is the one now in discomfort or disarray, and that he is no particular threat to me at the moment. What other reasonable explanation could there be that I have food and drink to share, and he does not?

Paul is not saying that if someone is threatening your family, you should offer them a happy meal. Nor is he saying that the USA should have shipped food to NAZI Germany instead of invading it. Although, and this is key to the American ethos in such matters, we did go to considerable lengths to rebuild Germany after it was no longer a threat to us, which is exactly the kind of situation Paul must have been referring to in his statement.

Some say, “I’d say loving our enemies means caring for their family after they’ve killed mine.” The problem is that if you are doing that before you STOP your enemy from killing anyone else’s family, out of an excess of misplaced piety, you are showing NO LOVE AT ALL to the future victims of the murderer.

Will you be delivering food to the family of the murderer when they are still hiding him in the basement? And planning his escape into the next county? If so, what will be your responsibility for the future victims of the murderer? And what about justice, even if you are certain the murderer will never kill again? Keep in mind that the visible presence of that justice in society (and in international relations) is one thing restraining OTHER potential murderers. It is not mere “score settling.”

Jesus’ “turn the other cheek” comment is metaphorical about general human interaction, and exactly on par with other comments He made about “soft answers” and the like. Despite the physical metaphor, it is not mostly about physical violence, else, given His propensity for eye-catching metaphor, He might have said, “If someone strikes you over the head with a club and knocks you cold, when you awaken, stand up and give him a better target next time.” Or, “If someone cuts off your right arm with a sword, offer him your left arm, too.”  This last would have been perfectly in character, if He had meant that. And he made metaphors that strong in other places.

The reason Jesus chose the “cheek” metaphor is precisely because a slap of the cheek is not serious, is unlikely to cause significant harm, is mostly merely insulting, and He is suggesting that we be able to tolerate mere insult without over-reaction or escalation of the conflict, insofar as we have control over it.

It is NOT a general comment about not defending yourself (or your family, or your nation) when required, and it certainly is not a general comment encouraging the neglect of others who are in danger (which often includes protecting them), nor is it a statement that allows us to escape the demands of justice, which includes our responsibility to prosecute it when required.

The next post in this series is here.

7 Responses to “Misusing Scripture #3”

  1. innermore says:

    Jesus’ “turn the other cheek” comment is like most of his teachings. It’s about what is in your heart. If you have hatred in your heart, it makes no difference to God if you slap somebody or shoot’em, it’s still the same hatred. So don’t respond hatefully to hatred, is all he’s saying. That said, is an act of violent self-defense an act of hatred or fear?

    Which leads me into this love my enemy thing. First of all, if I can’t love my enemy, I don’t think I’ll go to hell for it. Second, if I love an enemy, obviously that person by nature does not love me and probably won’t accept any love, or food or water from me. At least not in this life, but perhaps in the next. SO, maybe my current love for my enemy will be responded to more positively in the next life, yes?. The point seems to be that good always overcomes evil: individually, corporately, universally, absolutely, and ultimately. Whether we annihilated all of our enemies, or all the enemies on earth slaughtered us; love prevails. It ultimately doesn’t matter if violent or non-violent people defended the Jews from the Nazis. We all end up in front of God one way or another. At that end point it would occur to me that it might be an appropriate place to again show forgiveness and love to my enemy.

  2. Bob says:

    So…you don’t think it matters that Jews were slaughtered in the Holocaust, because we all end up in front of God either way?

  3. innermore says:

    All suffering matters in all universes. What doesn’t, ultimately, is our judgment concerning such matters; and whether or not a certain rescue approach is “better” than another. Some people would feel an urge from deep inside them to spring into action and prevent suffering by any means possible. Nothing morally wrong with that. Others may have issues with some of those means, or would rather pursue peaceful means. Nothing wrong with that either. It’s not about rating a person’s compassion according to a lower tally of suffering or a body-count. To me it’s a little futile to argue and certainly never agree about which passionate direction is more Christ-like or Biblical or whatever. We’re all (I hope) doing the best we can with the puny minds we have here to minimize the suffering. God knows this; that’s what I meant. I’m sure the violent defender types aren’t gonna come and wipe out all the pacifists some day, or vice-versa. So don’t worry about it. For either side, if it turns out you were wrong, at least when you’re ultimately in front of God you’ll have a chance to admit it and receive forgiveness. Both from Him and from all of those people who you may have caused to suffer by this approach or that.

  4. Katherine says:

    It seems to me like Jesus was actually talking about letting oneself be practically taken advantage of. If you literally followed his command not to defend yourself from being shamed, being robbed, giving away yours goods to untrustworthy people, etc., then it seems that you would become very poor very quickly– in terms of self-esteem, finances, and having the time to focus on what you want in life (like if it becomes known that I’ll effectively build houses for anyone for free because I won’t do anything if they refuse payment, everybody will want me to build them a house, and pretty soon I won’t have any money or time for myself). It seems like Jesus is trying to erase personal boundaries and one’s rights to defend those boundaries. Of course, he himself ended up being abused pretty badly, and he says that no disciple is above his master, so maybe I shouldn’t complain….

    I’ve heard more sermons than I can count on this sermon, and they all spiritualize or subjectivize it– “Blessed be the poor– meaning, the humble toward God”. This is similar to Innermore’s comment about how “It’s about what’s in your heart”. I have to disagree; Jesus specifically places the emphasis on ACTION in the next passage through the parable of the house on sand vs. rock.

    The idea of not having practical personal boundaries seems unhealthy to me. What do you all think?

  5. harmonicminer says:

    Katherine, I haven’t forgotten that I owe you a post on this topic. And I’ll do one, in about a month, when I’m out of school, have visited my soon-to-be 95 yr old mother, and gotten my son through his operation.

    In the meantime:

    You have to interpret part of scripture in the light of the whole. You can’t take any part in an absolute sense, unless it is clear that the absolute sense is consistent throughout scripture.

    So Jesus said what he said about turning cheeks, yet didn’t stand around and let crowds beat him up before it was his time (and used His supernatural power to get away… not normally an option for most of us). He said what he said about given away cloaks and shirts and clothing, but appears to have hung onto his own, a rather high quality one at that. He talked about selling what you own and giving it away, yet the people who knew him best had no trouble starting churches in the homes of wealthy people, and even sending slaves back TO those wealthy people, so clearly those disciples/apostles did not interpret that incident to be a blanket demand on everyone, or even every wealthy person. Further, unless you’re a dispensationalist, you have to acknowledge that the fact that God gave great wealth to some people in the OT, wealth that he expected them to keep, it seems, must mean that God has no particular resentment of wealthy people whose hearts stay right with Him.

    The problem is when their love for their wealth leads them away from Him.

  6. innermore says:

    OK miner, going over Matthew 5 6 7 should be a sufficient whole. Rereading the Sermon On The Mount, Jesus starts by talking about the bad stuff. He’s telling us to do better than “The Law”. He then provides rather extreme, impracticable (impractical?) truth-examples of what he means. Layman’s paraphrase: being mean to someone is judged as just like murdering him, lust is adultery of the heart, etc. Then at the end the final blow: don’t resist an evil person, and love your enemy(?!?).

    Again, he’s outrageously illustrating how to do better than just The Law, which is a good life-strategy. But could anyone really think he’s establishing a new moral standard, and commanding us to literally perform these acts? That’s ridiculous. It could be a moral goal. Maybe he’s suggesting that we should be fully capable of, or be willing to go to extreme unworkable measures for righteousness’ sake, depending on the circumstances naturally.

    In 6 and 7 he comes from the other direction. Beyond recognizing and repelling bad stuff, now he’s talking about motives for acting good. For offensively effective illustration, he initially rips on “those hypocrites” who do acts of righteousness to “be seen before men”, or pray elaborately to impress people or show off their piety. Then he says don’t worry about your own social status, and don’t judge others in a way that you would not want to be judged. “Do to others as you would have them do to you,” “by their fruit you will recognize them,” etc.

    As a “whole” it sounds to me like he’s trying to teach us not only how to act (ACTION emphasis here Katherine), but (more importantly I think) what the acceptable motivations for righteous behavior are. In other words, what’s in the heart. Perhaps a more subtle approach on this is found in 1st Corinthians 13. You can go around and do all the good that Jesus did and more, but if your motivation for doing so is not “love” (i.e. fame, jealousy, ego, lust, self-aggrandizement, church tradition), then it’s all worthless.

    Obviously, actions are that which we are judged by our neighbors. We currently exist in a physical world. Here, our actions are the only known, and trustworthy evidence of our unknowable motivations. I don’t know if Jesus was too concerned about how far we need to responsibly apply extreme pacifist concepts like cheek turning and enemy affection to conflicts. But, perhaps more significantly, Jesus’ teachings about the proper motivations behind such actions seems clear and limited.

  7. harmonicminer says:

    I’m not sure that I disagree with that much of what you said, except for the first line.

    The Sermon is Jesus teaching on a hill one day. It is not His life, His death, His resurrection, nor the actions of His church, or His apostles, etc. It really is very limited, and capable of endless distortion and false emphases if it is not evaluated in the context of all the OTHER stuff Jesus said and did, and taught his disciples to pass on in their own time. In fact, Jesus doesn’t really teach anything much about Himself in the Sermon.

    So, good as it is, and wonderful and revealing as it is, it is not “sufficient context” for itself, the simple proof being the people who have keyed off it and gone horribly astray by ignoring the rest of scripture.

    But, the general emphasis on the heart is certainly true.

    The reason you deem “ridiculous” the notion that some of the specifics are moral goals in themselves is that you are using other materials and information from scripture to inform your understanding about what He must have meant.

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