Bonhoeffer :: Chapter 12 Revenge

As you know, we are traveling through Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s book The Cost of Discipleship. Bonhoeffer has been describing what discipleship is and what the life of discipleship might look like. For the last few chapters we have been in the Sermon on the Mount; Jesus instructions to his disciples as recorded by Matthew. This week’s selection is entitled "Revenge".

Matt 5:38-42
38 "You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.' 39 But I tell you not to resist an evil person. But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. 40 If anyone wants to sue you and take away your tunic, let him have your cloak also. 41 And whoever compels you to go one mile, go with him two. 42 Give to him who asks you, and from him who wants to borrow from you do not turn away.

Here again we see Jesus assert his primacy over the law in even more dramatic fashion. So far his commands have more modified than reversed the Law’s commands. His admonition, for example that lusting is as much a sin as adultery spoke to the heart and intent of the Law that already existed. Jesus’ words have raised the bar on the Law’s standard for the disciples’ behavior towards each other and demanded a new emphasis on integrity. Now however, instead of "getting to the heart of" or "exposing the true intent of" the law, Jesus is completely reversing it.

The Old Law delimits a world of strict justice. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth: revenge is codified into instructions about how exactly wrongs are to be righted. Even here we see that God’s intent was not to let man’s sinful nature reign; the Law’s instructions were not so much prescriptive (you must put out eyes and extract teeth in response to wrongs) as they were limitative (only this and no more may you do). Never the less, the Law does allow execution, maiming, and all sorts of violence as a response to evil.

We can of course see the necessity for this sort of order. For society or a nation not to descend into chaos, wrong deeds must be punished and the innocent must be protected. Imagine how difficult life would be if there were no one to oppose evil doers. And yet…

Jesus rejects this order of necessity. He doesn’t call his disciples to enforce order or to concern themselves with the punishment of wrongdoing. Jesus is concerned only with their response to evil that confronts them. So what exactly does Jesus want?

"But I tell you not to resist an evil person". I must admit that I instinctively recoil from this saying. Can Jesus really mean for us to be passive in the face of evil? Does he intend that any time we come into conflict with evil, we must passively allow evil to triumph? Surely not: Jesus next words shed some light on what he intends. If someone slaps you, Jesus does not command you to do nothing. If someone seeks to steal your cloak, Jesus does not counsel you to merely let him get away with it. If the law compels you to bear burdens unfairly, Jesus does not ask your complacent obedience. No, Jesus commands us to go the extra mile, to present again a face unbowed by violence, to give freely after we have been compelled to give up our possessions. This, then, is not passivity; this is action. But what a strange action it is!

Perhaps the writer of Romans explains Jesus’ intent best.

Rom 12:17-21
Repay no one evil for evil. Provide things honest in the sight of all men. If it is possible, as far as is in you, being in peace with all men. not avenging yourselves, beloved, but giving place to wrath; for it is written, "Vengeance is Mine, I will repay, says the Lord." Therefore if your enemy hungers, feed him. If he thirsts, give him drink. For in so doing you shall heap coals of fire on his head. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Jesus intent for us is that we never repay evil with evil. Here on a mountainside, against the backdrop of a nation oppressed by foreign invaders, Jesus unqualifiedly places violence outside the sphere of the Christian. Jesus does not call for the overthrow of governmental power or assert that Christians should attempt to impose this ethic upon the secular institutions of the world, he simply reminds his disciples that they are his, they have chosen to walk upon his path, He has called them to a radically different state of being.

It is ironic, to me at least, to hear Christians equivocate about this clear command of Jesus. I have, upon more than one occasion heard the idea put forth that Christians are subject to two laws: as part of the institutions of this world (martial, judicial, and governmental) we may justly use violence to suppress evil, but in our own sphere as private citizens we must follow the Law of Christ.

Very well, I might say in response, no violence is acceptable as private actors but only as agents of the government, if I understand you correctly. The response is almost always further provisos: After all, we have a duty to provide for our families and that surely involves protecting them! Therefore violence is acceptable to protect others.

Now I understand! Violence is acceptable in defense of others, but of course as regards our own person and body, we will obey Christ’s commands. Even here, most Christians seem unwilling to rest. Isn’t it true, I have been questioned, that we should want to do good to our enemies? Well "good" means preventing them from doing harm which they might later repent of. Therefore we can use violence to protect ourselves and restrain others.

To each of these statements I can only say "that makes some sense to me". But their effect is to render the word of God null, to make the content of Jesus message to us nothing more than pious platitudes that have no actual application. Jesus calls us not to rationalize, not to fight with carnal weapons, but to fight the more important spiritual battle against evil. We are not to empower violence by justifying it, we are to starve it by refusing to succumb to its seductive logic.

How can this play out in our lives? How do we live by this hopelessly naïve ethic? I will give one example on a national level: I am not sure that our duty as Christians is to condemn the current war-to-be with Iraq and call our country to behave like a Christian. Jesus did not come for nations, he came for people. I am sure, however, that we are not to justify or support this war (or any war) on a so-called Christian basis. I have heard a lot of rhetoric about a "just war" and invocations of God’s blessing on our efforts. As Christians we must deny these attempts to hijack the gospel to provide moral cover. We can, by rejecting violence and rejecting its justifications, mediate the vengefulness that otherwise exists (witness the current public debate over the propriety of torturing terror suspects). By denying moral legitimacy to those who act in a violent manner we can cause them to question their own actions.

I am not always sure what Jesus would have us do – in our personal lives, in our response to others, in our response to our nation, sometimes the questions are complicated and confusing. I am sure, however, that as he sat on a hillside 2000 years ago and looked his disciples in the eyes, he meant for his words to be taken seriously and lived out in the lives of those who would follow him.