I am interacting with Dale Allison’s The Sermon on the Mount: Inspiring the Moral Imagination.
I said I would come back to the Sermon on the Mount’s paragraphs about oaths and resistance. The question about both of these is whether they apply more to private behavior or if they call for a radical opting out of society. If you don’t take oaths at all, then you can’t be a witness in court or serve in public office. If you will not resist evil at all, then you would have to be a pacifist. I would question whether you could even be a parent.
So how does Dale Allison deal with these questions. He says that Tolstoy took the most radical position on oaths. Jesus forbids Christians to take them. So we would have to abolish all courts of law in a Christian society.
Allison doesn’t think this is what Jesus was talking about. Contemporary Jewish writers, Philo and Josephus, point us in a different direction. Jews were prone to take frivolous personal oaths in Jesus’ day. Josephus praises the Essenes who didn’t need to take such oaths because their word was good without them. This seems pretty close to what Jesus calls for. Allison notes that Matthew’s gospel gives us a disastrous example of oath taking. Herod took an oath (Matthew 14:7) to give Herodias whatever she asked for, and ended up having to give her John the Baptist’s head on a platter. Herod’s oath was not the kind a witness in court takes or that of someone being sworn into office. It was a frivolous and probably drunken oath which Herod took seriously even though he shouldn’t have.
Allison calls his section on Matthew 5:38-42 revenge, even though it seems to me that it is not about revenge, but resistance.
I guess, he takes his theme from Jesus saying, “You have heard it said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’” (v. 38). The saying comes from Exodus 21:4 and Leviticus 24:20. In both cases it is part of a legal code. Although it may seem primitive to us, the saying states a principle of justice. From the context, I imagine it was being used in Jesus’ day to justify acts of terrorism against Herod or the Romans.
Jesus says not to resist (violently?) one who is evil. Someone may strike you on the cheek (as happened in the passion of Jesus), or take your garment (as happened in the passion of Jesus), or force you to go with them (perhaps carrying a burden as happened in the passion of Jesus). Jesus says not to resist, but to be proactive. Offer the other cheek. Give your cloak as well as your coat. Go an additional mile. This proactive stance goes beyond passive non-resistance and allows the oppressed person to take the initiative.
Allison does not think this necessarily requires pacifism or applies directly to foreign policy. His thesis is that Jesus’ words should inspire the moral imagination. They are not hard and fast rules, but when used imaginatively they may give us new options in conflict situations.
Moreover, we should not use these words to bind people in situations of bullying or domestic violence. Jesus does not support passivity in the face of evil. Taking this in context requires us to remember that Jesus actively denounced evil. Taking this in context also requires us to remember that Jesus actively took steps to help the poor and the needy.
In spite of the use of this passage by Gandhi and others to promote a strategy of non-violent resistance, in Jesus case it is not non-violent resistance; it is non-resistance, and it is not a strategy. At least it is not a strategy that worked. “We must not forget that the speaker, who embodies his imperatives, ends up on a cross” (p. 99).