Properties of Blood I.4: Hate as the Instrument of Self-Defense, Part A (Free)

I find to my chagrin that in rearranging the parts of this book project, I neglected to post the chapter on Self Defense, which precedes the chapters on Revenge and Defending Honor.  Fortunately, anyone sufficiently interested will be able, some time in the not too distant future,  to read it as a print volume or ebook.


I.4 Defending the Self

But I say unto you, that ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on they right cheek, turn the other to him [Mat 5:39]

Human beings are not, as John Donne famously observed, islands separated by vast stretches of water, but if we were to adopt that metaphor, we should have to stipulate that these human islands—individuals, as we mistakenly  call them—are bridged by affections and obligations that create interrelated archipelagos.  Love and friendship draw men and women together into a community of shared interests, mutual affections, and common duties to each other, and it is this community that shapes our individual identities and not the other way around .

This has been, so far, the burden of the argument, but if “the individual” is a social construction unknown to premodern societies such as Homer’s Greece, the human person exists, no matter how clumsy may be the language of identifying and describing the phenomenon.  Even the preposterous languages of Freud and Marx cannot entirely obscure the significance of the human person.  This means that, while it is a mistake to attempt to abstract that person from all the contexts in which he operates, human beings are social animals but not social insects.  Each man and woman has his own happiness to consider, and—this is a truism of liberal philosophers of left and right—each has a course of life to pursue.  Any argument for personal responsibility includes the implicit assumption—it almost seems silly to mention something so obvious—that a person actually exists to carry out his duties.  Thus, prior to the duties that connect him with friends and fellows, a human person has a duty to preserve his life.

A human being’s duty to preserve his own life—and the lives of those who depend on him—is something quite different from a so-called “right to life,” a phrase that implies either some universal right of living things, from viral plagues to virgin saints, to exist for as long as they are able, or, at least, the right of all humans to be kept alive by everyone else, whether the life-saving is done by a mother, a stranger, or a national government.  The idea is so preposterous, it seems astonishing that such a phrase would have made any headway with Christians, but I am reserving discussion of such matters to the next volume.  Here we are more concerned to elucidate particular, rather than universal duties, and one of the most necessary of those duties is to preserve one’s own life, though not, necessarily, at the expense of other obligations.

As members of a community, we may be called upon to defend others who are threatened with the violence of war, assault, robbery, rape, or murder, and our defensive actions most often involve a counter-assertion of violence.  It is not just violent barbarians—Apaches, Celts, and Germans— who asserted the right of self defense; ancient philosophers and religious teachers, Jewish, Greek, and Roman, conceded the necessity of such measures, and if one looks around the world, the doctrines of non-resistant pacifism are held only by a small minority, generally a religious sect or order safely ensconced in a nation protected by warriors and policemen, judges and executioners.  An entire nation that adopted a policy of pacifism would become all too soon a nation of slaves.  Since the Christian religion has not been the exclusive preserve of fools, cowards, and idiots, it is strange how many people believe that Christ requires believers never to resist evil by force.  The refusal to resist evil means, in all too many cases, collaboration with evil.

Resisting Evil

Christians have interpreted Christ’s injunction to turn the other cheek in different ways.  Over the centuries Catholic authorities have generally and consistently upheld the righteousness of self-defense, just war, and capital punishment, while the Orthodox have been more prone to view all war, just and necessary as they may be, as sinful and requiring absolution.  Neither church, it goes without saying, instructed its followers not to resist the aggression of evil men.

Clergymen are a special case.  Catholic priests are not only forbidden to take part in duels, but they are not supposed to take up arms or serve on a jury in a capital case.  Quakers abjure all use of violence, but then Quakers have always enjoyed the military and legal protection afforded by a non-Quaker majority.  There remains, however, an uneasy question: How should Christians, who have no trouble in seeing Christ’s admonitions on charity as the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy and the perfection of Greek moral philosophy, make use of the pagan acceptance of individual and political violence?

The injunction to turn the other cheek is a provocative verse.  Taken at face value, out of context, and in isolation from other passages of Scripture—the exegetical method favored by pacifists and other leftists--it seems to say that Christians are never justified in resisting evil, much less for using violent means of resistance.  Before we proceed to show the obvious absurdity of this argument, we should first be sure of the literal meaning of the words used.

The Authorized Version is virtually alone in translating the Greek as “resist not evil,” which might be misinterpreted as a fatalist injunction to accept not just human aggression but even natural misfortune.   However, the adjective poneros (evil, wicked) is much more likely to refer to a person; indeed, it is often (though, certainly, not here) used of the Devil himself, and most interpreters  assume it is an evil person and not an evil or wicked thing.  In English the phrase "resist not" might be used to indicate a range of actions or non-actions.  The Greek means literally, "do not stand or rise up to fight" or even “do not refuse a challenge."  So, when an ill-intentioned person tries to provoke you into a fight, do not rise to the bait.  It might mean, "do not attempt to protect your life and limb," but it need not, and in the broader context of Scripture and Tradition, it cannot.

The second consideration is the context, which is the middle of the Sermon on the Mount.  In that first major sermon, Jesus appears to turn Judaic moral teachings on their head, though he is in fact using them as a springboard for a higher morality.

Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloke also.  And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain.  Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away.  Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy.  But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.

In the immediate context, He has cited the lex talionis--an eye for an eye, tooth for tooth--only to reject it in favor of his instruction not to retaliate against what an enemy might do.  The point, in other words, is not to take personal revenge for an injury.  It is not at all clear what relevance the passage might have for situations involving personal self-defense, much less defensive warfare, where the motive is survival and not revenge.

If this admonition were meant to exclude just war, the defense of household, and the protection of family members, it would be a radical departure from the Old Testament in which these actions are portrayed as not only justifiable but necessary.  Throughout the Gospels, Jesus corrects and reinterprets the old law in ways that, so He says, fulfill but do not overturn the law.  The emphasis is often on maintaining an inner purity as distinguished from outward observance.  It is not enough, for example, for a man to abstain from adultery if he still nourishes lust in his heart, and it is not enough for him to refrain from physical violence if he gives way to hatred of his brother.  In both cases, it is not an act He is condemning but a spiritual and moral condition.

These are not innovations, He tells us, but a restoration of the true meaning of the commandments.  In His strictures on marriage, Adam and Eve in Genesis are taken as the model marital couple, whose perfection we are to imitate.  If the first recorded sin was Eve’s and Adam’s disobedience in the Garden, the second was Cain’s murder of his brother.  All sins flow from man’s disobedience, but our sinful propensities are held in check by social institutions such as the laws governing sexual conduct and homicide.  Marriage, not abstinence, is the remedy for fornication and adultery, while in the Pentateuch, not nonviolence but revenge and payment for blood constituted the law on homicide.  However, in both the later parts of the Old Testament and in the New, the institution of revenge has been entrusted to to the rulers of the commonwealth.

The instruction is not aimed at army commanders, kings, and emperors, much less at settlers in a violent wilderness or urban homesteaders, but at members of a face-to-face community of the sort that Jesus had experienced in Galilee and in which Christians are going to live as members of a parish and diocese.  Like other Mediterranean peoples, the Jews were a fractious and litigious lot, forever quarreling with neighbors and all too prone to break friendships over minor disagreements.  In Greek, the enemy referred to is an echthros, that is, a personal enemy, and not the foreign enemy (polemios) who rides in to slay, rape, and pillage.  A personal enemy is someone with whom you are having a dispute over a property line, an inheritance, or insults that may have been exchanged when the two parties were in their cups.  Anyone who has lived in a small town, suburban neighborhood, or coop apartment building knows that man is not just wolf to man but also weasel and jackal, forever ready to start a lifelong quarrel over a loose dog, an unpainted fence, or a noisy party.  What a waste of time and energy this can be, especially among the brothers who are told to love each other!

Modern Christian pacifism is less a product of the Scriptures and Tradition than it is of the Enlightenment and of the Enlightenment's legitimate disgust with European wars.  In the early days of the Church, it is true, some eccentric Christians (e.g., Montanus and Tertullian) had rejected the legitimacy of the Roman Empire and, consequently, all forms of imperial service, including soldiering and serving in the bureaucracy, but they were for the most part extreme rigorists who withdrew from the Christian mainstream.

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Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

8 Responses

  1. Dot says:

    I write this because I am quite miffed.

    The past few weeks I have been getting spam e-mails of a pornographic nature. I do not know where they could have emanated except from this site. It is the only site in which I make a commentary on a written topic. It is the only site in which all commentators are male. I do not open these e-mails but immediately delete them. I thought this site was secure but apparently it isn’t. And let it be known to all who read or comment on this site, I probably am a whole lot older than any of you and I am no troll.

  2. Robert Reavis says:

    Dr. Fleming writes ,
    “Love and friendship draw men and women together into a community of shared interests, mutual affections, and common duties to each other, and it is this community that shapes our individual identities and not the other way around .”

    Visually speaking, men working together is probably not as common as it once was. Hilaire Belloc has a beautiful essay, Mowing a Field , that is more poetical and less lyrical than Frost’s poem below but Tom’s description of a community reminded me of these two enjoyable works.

    The Tuft of Flowers

    By Robert Frost

    I went to turn the grass once after one

    Who mowed it in the dew before the sun.

    The dew was gone that made his blade so keen

    Before I came to view the levelled scene.

    I looked for him behind an isle of trees;

    I listened for his whetstone on the breeze.

    But he had gone his way, the grass all mown,

    And I must be, as he had been,—alone,

    ‘As all must be,’ I said within my heart,

    ‘Whether they work together or apart.’

    But as I said it, swift there passed me by

    On noiseless wing a ‘wildered butterfly,

    Seeking with memories grown dim o’er night

    Some resting flower of yesterday’s delight.

    And once I marked his flight go round and round,

    As where some flower lay withering on the ground.

    And then he flew as far as eye could see,

    And then on tremulous wing came back to me.

    I thought of questions that have no reply,

    And would have turned to toss the grass to dry;

    But he turned first, and led my eye to look

    At a tall tuft of flowers beside a brook,

    A leaping tongue of bloom the scythe had spared

    Beside a reedy brook the scythe had bared.

    I left my place to know them by their name,

    Finding them butterfly weed when I came.

    The mower in the dew had loved them thus,

    By leaving them to flourish, not for us,

    Nor yet to draw one thought of ours to him.

    But from sheer morning gladness at the brim.

    The butterfly and I had lit upon,

    Nevertheless, a message from the dawn,

    That made me hear the wakening birds around,

    And hear his long scythe whispering to the ground,

    And feel a spirit kindred to my own;

    So that henceforth I worked no more alone;

    But glad with him, I worked as with his aid,

    And weary, sought at noon with him the shade;

    And dreaming, as it were, held brotherly speech

    With one whose thought I had not hoped to reach.

    ‘Men work together,’ I told him from the heart,

    ‘Whether they work together or apart.’

  3. Dot says:

    Mr. Reavis,
    Thank you for your comment. I make sure I don’t open any e-mails from names that I don’t recognize. There were four of these and another tonight. I don’t know how much these things can be controlled even with a security program.

    Also thank you for the poem. The last two lines were meaningful. His poem, “The Road Not Taken” has a special place for me because so many times in my life I have taken a road less traveled by – and that made all the difference.

  4. Robert Reavis says:

    I have noticed whenever I visit a site of some significance, at least for me, that the uninvited advertisements are always decadent and degenerate. I think like Mr. Navrozov that this is planned and not simply random coincidence but it is also possible that it is a reflection of what e.e. cummings described as “mostpeople’s” interest in our age. So while I attempt to avoid the hysteric neurosis and suspicion from the Left of the Russians electing Donald Trump as the only viable explanation for Hillary’s loss, or the Illuminate have invaded my cyber space, nothing much surprises me these days. In fact I may have achieved the Left’s ultimate dream for humanity, my mind (but not my heart) is forced to remain open and alert all the time to whatever hellish winds are blowing from any given direction on any given day. I can assure you, however, that I seriously doubt the Fleming Foundation blog is composed of folks who go around the web seeking someone to devour and disturb but nothing else would surprise me.

  5. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    There is probably no way whatsoever that this site is responsible for the spam you are receiving. Our own spam filters are so effective that it has been many months since we had to do anything manually to prevent them from appearing in the comments section. I am not an expert on these things, but ordinary people are vulnerable in many ways:. Spammers can get into servers, for example, and use other people’s computers as a slingshot to send out their messages. There are apparently harmless websites that can be penetrated, and some of it is quite random. At some point, you may have opened what seemed to be an innocuous message, and–bam–they have you and they sell your address around the globe. What you–or some tech-savvy friend–need to do is to adjust your junk filter. You can probably also ask it to eliminate the specific addresses that are attacking you.

    There are two problems with blaming our website: First, it is libelous and may cause a great deal of damage to innocent parties, and, second, your mistake is an obstacle to discovering the true source of the problem.

  6. Dot says:

    I am glad to know that your spam filters are probably impenetrable and will put that to rest. I do not open any sites in which I do not recognize the senders name. However, there is one person who will send something that states “no virus detected” and I have opened it. Usually, it is something of a comical nature. I will delete anything she sends unless it is related to an organization that she and I belong to. I am sorry for causing you problems.

  7. Andrew G Van Sant says:

    Dot – There is one simple thing you can do to reduce the chance of clicking on a malicious link. If you hover your cursor over the link, somewhere on your screen (usually the lower left corner) will be displayed the actual destination of the link. A friendly looking link may be a disguise, but the actual destination revealed by this method is accurate. Be careful to look for a slightly different spelling of a trusted site. That is a common way for hackers to get people to go to malicious sites.

  8. Dot says:

    Mr. Van Sant,
    Thank you for your advice. I have written it down and will be aware of that.

    Many times I can’t control the browser or the size of the font and I may have hit a malicious link without knowing it. I also am not going to open any e-mails that this person sends that is outside what I expect from her because this may be where the malicious link came from.

    I have high regards for Dr. Fleming, for his knowledge and goals for the Fleming Foundation.

    I feel terrible about this and may stop the comments or greatly reduce them.

    Thank you Mr. Vant Sant.