Summary: Many Christians believe that in Matthew 5:39 Jesus is calling us to pacifism. If that was the case, he would be negating the Old Testament! Jesus does call us to nonresistance, but in certain situations only - as his examples show. He isn't pacifist and he doesn't call us to to pacifism.
I trained to become a Baptist minister at Bristol Baptist College. While I was there, a Canadian couple called Tom and Rebecca Yoder Neufeld gave a talk. The Yoder Neufelds are Mennonites.
Mennonites trace their origins to the Anabaptists, and the Yoder Neufelds were at Bristol Baptist College to mark the opening of an Anabaptist Centre at the college.
Anabaptists and Mennonites believe in non-resistance or pacifism. They often prefer the word ‘nonresistance’, based on Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:39, ‘Do not resist.’
I don’t remember much of the Yoder Neufelds’ talk but I know they argued the case for pacifism.
Shortly after coming to Bristol Baptist College, Tom Yoder Neufeld took part in a debate in London with someone called Nigel Biggar. Both Yoder Neufeld and Biggar are Christians. Both are professors. Both had recently published books. In his book, Yoder Neufeld argued the case for pacifism. In his, Biggar argued the case for just war.
The two men’s contrasting views reflect the situation in the church. Some Christians, like Yoder Neufeld, say there’s no place for violence. Others, like Biggar, say the use of force is sometimes justified. Which view is right?
Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church hosted the debate. They advertised it with this poster [picture]. It asks the question, ‘Who would Jesus shoot?’ When we look at the poster we think, Jesus wouldn’t shoot anyone! So, surely, neither should we!
I didn’t attend the debate, but I heard it was good.
Here at Rosebery we’ve been working our way through the Sermon on the Mount. I’m now going to skip over a section in which Jesus teaches about anger, lust, divorce and oaths. Those are all important subjects but I want to give an overview of the Sermon on the Mount rather than look at all of it in detail.
Today, we’re looking at Matthew 5:38-42. It’s a short passage, but a really important one! I want to focus on one particular thing Jesus says: ‘Do not resist the one who is evil’ [5:39]. Is Jesus telling us to be pacifist?!
This is a key verse for many of the Christian groups which advocate pacificism. Mennonites Amish, Quakers, Christadelphians and Seventh-Day Adventists all refer to Matthew 5:39 in their defence of pacifism. Jesus clearly says ‘Do not resist the one who is evil.’ Does that mean that we should never resist a person who is evil? Does it mean we should be pacifist? Or does Jesus’ instruction apply to particular situations?
Before going on to that, let’s consider if it’s important anyway. It certainly is! Let me give you some examples.
In 1994, the plane carrying the Hutu president of Rwanda was shot down. That sparked the Rwanda genocide. In a period of about 100 days, about 600,000 people were killed, mostly Tutsi. The rest of the world did very little.
Twenty years after the genocide, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon visited Rwanda to remember the event. In his speech he said, ‘We could have done much more. We should have done much more ... In Rwanda, troops were withdrawn when they were most needed.’ Mr Ban thought that more military action was called for.
The world wasn’t passive because it believed in nonresistance. It simply didn’t do anything much. But the result was the same. No one intervened and stopped the killing.
The same year as Ban Ki Moon visited Rwanda, nearly 60 countries came together to counter the threat from Islamic State. They took military action and, in the years that followed, defeated ISIS.
In which of those examples did the world do the right thing?
Perhaps we think, these are matters for our political leaders. We don’t need to trouble ourselves over these difficult ethical questions. But in the UK, the government is elected by the people. So we actually do have to trouble ourselves over such questions.
The same kinds of questions are played out on a smaller scale much closer to home. Police are called to respond to domestic violence. A teacher sees a child bullying another at school. How does Jesus’ instruction ‘Do not resist the one who is evil’ apply?
We have to take a view on what Jesus meant. And we need to do so sooner rather than later. When the moment of testing comes, we will almost certainly need to act quickly. There will be no time for reflection then! We need to do the study and reflection before we face the situation.
So, Matthew 5:39 is an important verse and the passage it comes in is an important passage. But there’s actually more at stake than how we resist the one who is evil.
Another reason why this verse is so important is because how we understand it will influence our view of the Old Testament.