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.
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.