“Do not resist an evil person”: why Jesus taught what he taught

My last posts (1 2) argued that the apocalyptic vision in Psalm 37 served as the background for many of Jesus’ teachings on violence in the Sermon on the Mount. Psalm 37 speaks of  imminent reversals: the wicked would soon be destroyed, the just would soon be vindicated and rewarded. Therefore, the psalmist implores, do not strive for retribution and justice.

The literary connection between this psalm and Matthew 5-7 went some of the way toward explaining why the early Christian communities were committed to nonviolence despite the proclivity of divinely-sanctioned violence in their scriptures, the Jewish Bible. I want to explore here more fully why such an interpretation of Psalm 37 appealed to early Christians. I also want to argue that given their fundamentally apocalyptic framework, Jesus’ teachings on violence now lack their raison d’être. Jesus in fact, I argue, ordained Christendom’s maintenance of the sword.

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Unlikely Bedfellows: Apocalyptic and Nonviolence

One defining characteristic of the Jewish-apocalyptic mindset is the belief that the current cultural, religious, and political systems of the world are so corrupted that only God can redeem them. The Egyptian prophet that Josephus notes for instance, did not directly attack Jerusalem; instead, he waited with the expectation that God would first tear down the walls of the city. Another prophet, Theudas, attempted to miraculously cross the Jordan but was seized by Roman authorities. Presumably Theudas believed that by this deed of power God would install him as the new Joshua and thus the rightful king of Israel. The Essenes too, did not attempt to reclaim Mount Zion from the false priests; rather they waited for God to destroy the false Temple and vindicate the Qumran community as the true tent of YHWH. Apocalyptic worldviews such as these could thus inculcate a form of nonviolent, passive resistance against what were perceived to be indelible powers. Only by God’s command did these figures and communities believe they could achieve victory.

What this means for Jesus is that his teachings on violence fit comfortably among the teachings of other Jewish-apocalyptic movements from the same time period. Instructions such as “turn the other cheek” and “do not resist an evildoer” then have more to do with Jesus’ eschatological vision than with his supposedly enlightened understanding of justice. By drafting his own vision of imminent religious-political reversals, Jesus did not eliminate divine retributive justice, he rescheduled it for the end of the age and put it entirely in God’s hands. The faithful follower—the one who trusted Jesus’ message that a flood was coming to remove and replace condemned Second Temple Judaism and later Pagan Rome—would leave room for God’s imminent vengeance. She did this both because human resistance was futile and because submission to evildoers was a radical act of faith in the God of resurrection.

What then distinguishes Jesus’ approach among apocalypticists? Whereas others taught that the faithful reach the eschatological reality without suffering, Jesus insisted that the faithful would both suffer and die before the day of judgement. The Christian communities would experience long and difficult periods of tribulation before their fortunes would be reversed. An even greater faith was therefore required.

As history would demonstrate, Jesus’ teachings and vision were vindicated. The events of AD 70 in particular can be highlighted. Jerusalem violently revolted against the rulers of the age and was destroyed. Israel refused the way of obedience to God unto death and lost its life as a result. The Christian communities, on the other hand, accepted the cross and through the fires of persecution inherited the once pagan nations.

This leaves us then with a final question. What would happen after the apocalyptic narrative had run its course? How were Christians to behave after the pagan powers were condemned and replaced by powers that confessed Jesus as Lord? What would it mean to be the people of God while Christ ruled over the nations for a thousand years?

In such a context Jesus’ teachings on violence lack their original framework. There is no longer a threat of imminent retribution or a promise of imminent reward. The Christian polis, much like the Israelite polis before it, was therefore obligated to righteously bear the sword for the maintenance of peace and justice. This was not a betrayal of Jesus’ ethics, it was the fulfillment of his apocalyptic vision.

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