Resisting Evil, Part I

Over the years, in revising, clarifying, and expanding the text, I divided it in two. The first volume, The Reign of Love, is completed, and I am in the process of revising The Reign of Hate.  I do not intend to post the entire text of any chapter, but to select out, from time to time, passages that discuss a single aspect of the argument.  The first chapters, which are devoted to the legitimacy of self-defense, begin with a discussion of Christ’s oft-quoted admonition to “turn the other cheek.”

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

Christ’s admonition “that ye resist not evil” is one of the most difficult ethical statements in the New Testament.  It is frequently quoted by pacifists, opponents of the death penalty, advocates of global government, in short, by everyone who rejects any particular duty—whether of persons, kindreds, or nations—to use violence in self-defense. Two questions arise:  The more obvious but less important question is whether Christian and Jewish Scriptures can be the foundation or even the buttress of secular law.  While nominal Christians still constitute a large minority in Western countries, a much smaller number believe in the application of Christian moral teachings, e.g., on abortion, contraception, and sexual relations to civil and criminal law.  And that small number who still take seriously Christian moral theology must decide if the advocates of non-resistance have correctly interpreted both the Scriptures and the Tradition that has flowed from the teaching of Christ and the Apostles.

Before tackling the moral theory of non-resistance, we should consider one general line of reasoning which that theory has been used to support.  The argument can be roughly summarized in these simple terms: Since mankind is (or ought to be) unified, no illusory distinction of race, religion, appearance, language, or ability should be allowed to stand in the way of our pursuit of human unity.  


[John Donne’s famous assertion that “no man is an island”] is often invoked to show that all men are connected with each other in a sort of panhuman ecological system in which each and every life is equally precious and deserving of preservation  Individualists would find the idea repellent, but there are ideologies—Marxism, Christian Universalism, and Nationalism (restricting mankind to a single nation) in which the brotherhood of man—or at least of co-nationals—is exalted above all distinctions…. 

If we can (at least for the moment) set aside this image of mankind as a global blob of protoplasm, divided only by illusions of personhood, species, gender, and kinship, and agree with the Reverend Mr. Donne that even death is a necessary evil, then the question is not how to lengthen the mortal existence of the greatest number but under what circumstances we, in our various capacities as parent, kinsman, citizen, magistrate, or soldier, are justified in putting another human being to death.

If we were to adopt Donne’s 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 that are themselves distinct and have a certain exclusive unity of their own.  Love and friendship draw men and women together into a community of shared interests, mutual affections, and common duties to each other—including the duty to defend oneself and one’s community— and it is this community that shapes our individual identities and not the other way around.  

This the burden of the argument in The Reign of Love, but if “the individual” is a social construction unknown to premodern societies such as Homer’s Greece and King David’s Israel, the human person exists, no matter how clumsy may be the language of identifying and describing the phenomenon.  Even the artificial terminologies of Freud and Marx cannot entirely obscure the significance of the human person.  This means that, while it is a mistake (rather an impossibility) 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 in favor of personal responsibility includes the implicit assumption—it almost seems foolish to mention something so obvious—that there is a person who actually exists to carry out the duties imputed to him.  And so, as most of us would acknowledge, a human person has a duty (or at least a powerful impulse) to preserve his own life, one that is prior to the duties that connect him with friends and fellows… 

As members of a community, we may be called upon to defend ourselves and 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 Apaches, Celts, and Germans who have asserted the right of self-defense.  Many 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 soon become a nation of slaves.  Since the Christian religion has not yet become 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.  Nonetheless it is by no means unusual to hear educated people arguing, on the same grounds, that German soldiers and concentration camp guards—and their latter-day counterparts—are to be held culpable if they failed to resist an evil regime.  

But Americans insist upon having their cake and eating it, and our great national poet boasted of contradicting himself.  What condition this childish egotism leads to, alas, we have learned to our cost.

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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

3 Responses

  1. Tim Dooley says:

    Dr. Fleming:
    Do you think these volumes will be available for purchase soon? It sounds like they concern a theme which preoccupies me, addressed, for example, in the choice in Genesis between the fruit of abstraction, instrumental reason, and hate, and the fruit of life, embodiment, and love:

  2. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Volume I The Reign of Love is in the hands of the publisher, and all that remains to do is to make sure the link-up between the typesetting system used with the publisher’s system is correct and to make final decisions on cover, etc. As soon as I have a free moment, I’ll check out your link. My operating premise for everything I have written is to use reason and science to understand institutions and traditions that are within our nature and cannot be eliminated or altered without grave risks.

  3. Tim Dooley says:

    Excellent—I will look forward to reading it relatively soon. I would be honored if you get a moment to read that short piece. It’s a footnote to a long series in which I’m grappling with a fear that my family’s Baptist and Presbyterian traditions are inescapably fundamentalist. I could use some Catholic input!