Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Sprinkle's Pacifist Reading of the Sermon on the Mount

This is the fourth post on Preston Sprinkle's book, Fight: A Christian Case for Nonviolence.

I think Sprinkle's strongest argument for his version of pacifism is probably his argument from Jesus's Sermon on the Mount, which shouldn't be all that surprising since this is one of the key passages used by most Christian pacifists.  Sprinkle does his best to mitigate the seemingly obvious cases where violence is permitted in the Old Testament, but he seems to concede (a bit reluctantly perhaps) that certain acts of violence and killing were indeed permitted in Old Testament times.  But Jesus changes things, and changes things radically.   Jesus's pacifist position is so radical, Sprinkle's section in Chapter 7 ("Love Your Enemies") is titled "Outrageous Nonresistence."

Problem #1 with Sprinkle's Interpretation:

On the one hand, Sprinkle thinks that Jesus' pacifist position is so outrageous that we should think Jesus rules out self-defense, Christians killing as police officers or soldiers, and even stopping an attacker at the door of your loved ones by violent means. It is true that Jesus never explicitly rules such things out, Sprinkle says, but his message is radical and we should thus expect that these things are ruled out as well as other acts of nonviolence.

On the other hand, Sprinkle's view is not radical enough.  Consider his remarks on Matthew 5: 38-39:

You have heard that it was said, "An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth."  But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil."
What in the world does "do not resist the one who is evil" mean?  Can we really live this way?  Yes, we should.  Indeed, we can.  The Greek word for "resist" is anthistemi, and it often (though not always) refers specifically to violent resistance.  Throughout the Old Testament, for instance, anthistemi refers to military action: Israel resists its enemy in battle...Put simply, when Jesus says, "Do not resist the one who is evil," He specifically prohibits using violence to resist evil."

Note that Sprinkle takes anthistemi in Jesus's statement to pick out only acts of violent resistance.  But why should we think that it refers only to violent resistance rather than to ANY type of resistance whatsoever?  After all, if Jesus's ethic in the Sermon on the Mount is as radical as he thinks, then why think that any resistance is permissible?  Why does Sprinkle (p. 220) allow for 3 types of resistance (including hitting and kicking) instead of reaching the more radical conclusion that Jesus allows for no resistance period?  His view seems to be not radical enough if we are to take Jesus's words literally.

I take it that the reason that we should not think that Jesus rules out resistance of any form is the same reason why we would should think that he does not rule out all types of violence--namely, there are times when (violent) resistance is the better option all things considered.  (I think it's plausible that Jesus doesn't make this explicit because he knows of the human tendency for violence and doesn't want to exacerbate it).

What then should we make of the Sermon on the Mount, turning the other cheek, loving your enemies and the like?

Whereas Sprinkle interprets the Sermon on the Mount as Jesus primarily advocating an ethics of nonviolence, I think the Sermon on the Mount is Jesus advocating his ethics of love, and Jesus' ethics of love is consistent with some violent actions being permissible.  But before I give a sketch of my interpretation, I first want to consider a bit more of Sprinkle's interpretation and why I think it is problematic.  Consider Matt. 5:39-42 and his gloss on it:

But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.  And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well.  And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.  Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.  (Matt. 5:39-42)
These five statements define what Jesus means by "do not resist the one who is evil," and each one covers a different sphere of life.
Problem #2 With Sprinkle's Interpretation:

I find this interpretation difficult to square with the text. If someone takes my tunic and I give him my cloak, the act of also giving my cloak is odd to think of as an act of nonresistence.  Letting my tunic be taken would be an act of nonresistance, but not giving my cloak away on top of it.  If someone forces me to go one mile, and I go a second mile, the act of going a second mile is much more than an act of nonresistance.  If someone asks me for money, I'm hardly resisting an evildoer if I give her the money.  (On p. 137 Sprinkle says that there is some sort of evil behind the asking for money here, but that's nowhere to be seen in the text.).  In fact, it makes little sense to think that if I give someone money who asks that I'm thereby nonviolently resisting that person, or if I don't give the money, that's an act of violent resistance.  Sprinkle is reading his pacifism back into the text.  Jesus's Sermon on the Mount is not a treatise on pacifism or nonviolent resistance.

A better interpretation, I think, is that Jesus is giving concrete and memorable illustrations of his ethic of love,  which includes (among other things) non-retaliation, and non-retribution.  I don't have the time to properly exegete the passage, but here is a paraphrase of what I take the central message of Jesus to be:  Love.  Love even your enemies. And don't get even.  Don't set yourself on trying to settle the score.  You say an eye for an eye, I say, Don't get even and stop thinking in terms of the code of reciprocity. If a soldier asks for your tunic, you should love that soldier--you should have in mind the well-being of the soldier.  If someone slaps you on the cheek, you are to love that person and are to think of that person's good and not simply your own rights. Give up your right to get even for the sake of love and unity.  If someone asks you for money, you are to love that person and not think selfishly about your own good and your rights to your money.  

Jesus replaces the ancient and ubiquitous ethics of retaliation and retribution--the mindset of evening the score, with an ethics of love.  Instead of having the mindset that we are to get even when wronged, we are to consider the good of others, even our enemies.  In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus is giving a general ethic of love, beginning with the Beatitudes, which beautifully illustrate God's blessings for the spiritually pure as well as the spiritually, emotionally, and physically downtrodden.

But can we get a lot more specific?  Perhaps with some verses we can.  But can we take from this text that Jesus' ethics of love rules out all types of resistance and rules out shooting a serial killer in an act of murder?

I don't think the text is clear enough that we can get a lot more specific.  I don't think Jesus is laying out precise rules of conduct in many of these cases.  Jesus's words often seem to be instances of hyperbole, and I take the purpose of that hyperbole to be so that his words are striking and memorable. Few Christians have thought that Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, meant for them to cut off their hand when their hand is a means of sin.  Few Christians have thought that if a drug dealer asks you for your money that you're duty bound to give him that money.  Few Christians have thought that if someone asks you for your coat, that you are thereby obligated to strip naked and give away your undies.  Few Christians have thought that if someone is set on harming you, that you or others should in no way resist.

Sprinkle at times seems to entertain the view that the Sermon on the Mount is indeed advocating non-vengeance and non-retaliation.  In discussing a horrific story about what happened to a lady he refers to as Emily, Sprinkle says "If there ever is a time to find a place for violent retaliation and vengeance, this is it" (p. 139).  He also quotes 1 Peter 2:22 to the same effect, "[Jesus] did not retaliate when he was insulted, nor threaten revenge when he suffered" (p. 146).  With all of this, I agree.  Jesus teaches the opposite of retaliation and revenge.  (Romans 12:19 and Hebrews 10:30 will reiterate this theme of not taking revenge). But the opposite of retaliation and revenge is consistent with sometimes using violent means as a last resort when the alternative is worse.  Not retaliating and not being vengeful is consistent with stopping a mass murderer by lethal force, waging war against malicious invaders and the like.

But if Jesus is teaching an ethics of love wherein we are to love even our enemies, how is this consistent with sometimes using violence?  First, let us understand violence not in Sprinke's loaded sense that includes an intention to harm or destroy another against his will, but rather as an act which harms someone against his will.  That is, let us think of violence in the ordinary sense which does not include an illicit intention as a part of the act (as Sprinkle often does himself).

Could one love someone and shoot him?  It might seem obvious that one cannot, but I don't think the answer is that obvious.  It is good for a murderer to have his murders be stopped (regardless of what he thinks about being shot).  If shooting a would-be-murderer in an act of murder is the only reasonable way of stopping the murder, then it would be good for the murderer to be shot.  (See Breaking Bad for an excellent illustration of when it is better to die of cancer than to continue to live).  From the Christian point of view, there are worse things that can befall one than being shot or dying.  ("Tully, it is downright scary that you just entertained the view that you could love someone by killing him."  Response: it is at least as scary that you entertained the view that it's never right to use lethal force when innocents are being slaughtered.)

But maybe we should think that one cannot love a murderer by shooting the murderer.  Even though we are to think of the murderer's good--we are to have his good in mind and not merely our own in considering our actions--perhaps one can love only the victims being killed by the act of shooting the murderer.  Still, insofar as the act of shooting the murderer is intended out of love for the would-be-victims, an act of shooting can be an act of love for them.  What the Principle of Double Effect (see my previous post) might rule out, though, would be an act of shooting the murderer out of hatred of the murderer such that one intends evil to befall the murderer.

But, really, what is the alternative in the attacker-at-the-door scenario?  Is refraining from pulling the trigger a greater act of love?  Is not resisting at all a greater act of love?  A greater act of love for whom?

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