Resisting Evil, Part II

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 nonetheless sinful and requiring absolution.  When a Byzantine emperor asked his Patriarch to proclaim as martyrs all the soldiers who died fighting Islam, he was refused.  Neither Church, it goes without saying, instructed its followers not to resist the aggression of evil men....


The injunction to turn the other cheek is a provocative verse of Scripture.  Taken at face value, out of context, and in isolation from other passages of Scripture—the exegetical method favored by pacifists, vegetarians, and other leftists--it seems to say that Christians are never justified in resisting evil, much less in using violent means of resistance.  Before proceeding, both words in the phrase “resist not evil” require some attention.

The Authorized Version is virtually alone in translating the Greek as “resist not evil,” an expression that might be misinterpreted as a fatalist injunction to accept not just human aggression but even misfortunes such as diseases and accidents.  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 thing or action, much less a misfortune.  

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 the higher morality he is revealing.  

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 most obvious 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 and praiseworthy.  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.  Jewish moral traditions made a sharp distinction between a man’s duty to his “neighbors,” that is people to whom he was personally connected by bonds of kinship and identity that did not stretch beyond the Jewish people, and strangers, outsiders, gentiles to whom he owed little or nothing. 

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 punishment and deterrence of murder, though in the later parts of the Old Testament, the institution of revenge is said to have been entrusted to the rulers of the commonwealth.

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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. Dom says:

    Two of the apostles were packing heat and Our Lord instructed the others to do the same. My take is that you may be blessed when they persecute you for My sake, but if it is just for the money bag or the cloak that you must acquire then go ahead and run them through.
    I have not read the Pentateuch for a few years, but I have the impression the death penalty under the Old Law had an aspect that any Christian should appreciate: it is not so much a means of “protecting society” as of annealing the social stresses brought on by certain horrible crimes. The internet sleuthing I did before posting this did not turn up anything conclusive, so maybe I am off-base on this (admittedly, internet-sleuthing Scripture is bad business.)

  2. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    In other parts of this and later chapters, I go over a good deal of the OT and NT evidence. I’ll try to post some of it. For volume I had posted most of the early draft, which included some parts put off to volume II, but there were several problems with my approach. First, I had to put up either whole chapters or large parts of chapters in sequence, and people simply do not read 7500 words on a website. Then there was the problem of putting up drafts, which would discourage readers from getting the completed and perfected text. But, the problem with snippets is that the connection between the parts is not apparent and much citation of texts is omitted.