Resisting Evil III

The admonition to resist not evil 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.  These would seem to be the enemies against whom we are asked not to retaliate.

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 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 deviated from the Christian mainstream.  More generally, however, many of the early Fathers either forbade or discouraged military service, though it is not at all clear how they would have responded after the conversion of the Empire.

Legitimate Violence 

The New Testament does not instruct soldiers to desert from the army or executioners to abandon their useful profession, and neither Jesus (Mat. 8:5-13) nor Peter (Acts 10) displayed any reluctance to associate with military men.  (Peter’s anxiety about meeting Cornelius the centurion concerned the prohibition on eating with gentiles.)  Although Christ certainly preached peace and told Peter to put away his sword, He also said that He came not to bring peace but a sword, and on leaving his disciples, he instructed them: “But now, he that hath a purse, let him take it, and likewise his scrip, and he that hath no sword, let him sell his garment and buy one.” [Luke 22:36]  Early apologists, such as the author of the “Epistle to Diognetus” and Aristides the Athenian single out Christians only for their comparative moral purity.  Otherwise, Christians are not distinguished from the rest of mankind by country, speech, or custom, and, although they are treated as aliens, they shoulder the burdens of citizenship. 

St. Augustine, who argues strenuously against particular applications of the death penalty, did not repudiate the right of the ruler to inflict it.  Christian pacifism, he insists, is a slander used to discredit Christians as loyal Roman citizens.  In a letter to Marcellinus, an imperial administrator whose queries helped to prompt the writing of the City of God, Augustine argued that the admonitions to turn the other cheek and not repay evil with evil have to do with the Christian’s mental disposition and not with the need to correct, with charity, an erring son, a criminal, or an invader. [Letter 138]. 

John the Baptist, after all, did not tell the soldiers to lay down their weapons and desert but was content with instructing them to “do violence to no man, neither accuse any falsely; and be content with your wages.” [Luke 3:14]  John's barbs were aimed at soldiers who augmented their incomes by collaborating in the extortions of the publicani, public contractors who collected the taxes. 

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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

2 Responses

  1. Brent says:

    Thank you, Dr. Fleming, for your helpful elucidation of Jesus’ words concerning non-resistance. Might a similar distinction be made for Christian charity? Members of my parish––I myself at times––struggle with the demands made of us by the random strangers who accost us at the intersection or who suddenly appear in the narthex asking for help with their cell phone bills. I’m with Dr. Johnson when it comes to rationalizing stinginess on the grounds that any charity will likely be wasted on liquor (given the need for nutrition, what better?). At the same time, ought our consciences be so burdened by poor we don’t know? Lazarus was at Dives’ gate every day. The lame man asking alms of those entering the temple was there every day. They were known by the community. Is this not a point worth making, for example, to our school teacher who just the other night, shopping for groceries, spent more on a complete stranger who buttonholed her in the cereal aisle than she did on her family of five? She was compelled, she said, by Jesus’ words, “Give to the one who begs from you.” (Her husband told her, “At this rate, that will soon include me and the children!”)

  2. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Thanks, Pastor, for your insightful analogy. I agree with you completely.