Nonresistance and context

The Resistance is the name now used for die-hard opposition to the Trump administration. It recalls the partisans, particularly in France, who resisted the Nazi occupation.

Sometimes this resistance has been violent. When the press reports a “mostly peaceful” protest, they mean “partly violent”. Of course, some argue that destroying or vandalizing property is not violent. This seems to me to show no human empathy for the real damage done to real people. Even blocking traffic, much used by protesters, can amount to more than an inconvenience. See here. So I do not just mean bodily harm when I speak of violence. I mean the coercive use of force against others.

There is a whole modern narrative about violence and the Sermon on the Mount. This narrative is relevant. It makes some assumptions that I question.

The Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5:5-7 seems like a compendium of Christian ethics. But I think there is a danger in universalizing the sayings of Jesus as though they apply to all people in all situations.

If you take the sayings from another discourse in Matthew, the Missionary Discourse in chapter 10, most would see immediately that the sayings apply to particular people in a particular situation. Don’t carry money, or luggage, or extra clothing when you travel (vss. 9-10). Would anybody try to apply that universally to everybody who traveled? I think most of the sayings of Jesus were made in a particular context, so that applying them universally is a misinterpretation.

But some of the sayings in the Sermon on the Mount routinely get interpreted as though they were meant as fiat, across-the-board, demands by an unreasonable God. I am thinking, for instance, of the damage done to many by the apparent attack on human sexuality in Matthew 5:28 where Jesus says that to look at a woman with lust is unlawful. Is Jesus really making a universal condemnation of the influence of hormones on humans?

Some, particularly some Lutheran interpreters, have emphasized the impossible nature of such commands as Jesus’ way of showing us that humans cannot keep the law of God, so that we must all throw ourselves on God’s grace.

With all due respect to the truth that we all need God’s grace, I think it would be better to interpret Jesus as reprising the 10th Commandment about not coveting another man’s wife. We might apply it others who are sexually out of bounds as well, like those who are close relatives or under age. It is best to manage our desires so that they do not lead us toward violating boundaries. To interpret “woman” in the passage as the entire opposite sex is unreasonable. And to see it as a ban on sexual attraction just leads to people who are sexually normal hating themselves.

This is true also of the command in Matthew 5:38 that says not to resist an evildoer. Many see President Trump as an evildoer who must be resisted. If the election had gone the other way, others would be calling for resistance against –or at least calling into question the legitimacy–of a different “evildoer”

But Jesus said “don’t resist”. This seems unreasonable because it runs against human nature and the survival instinct, just as the saying about lust seems to run against human nature. If I feel strongly about issues, should I suppress my urge to resist?

Since Gandhi and MLK, there are those who have reconciled Jesus’ saying about nonresistance with non-violent resistance. That is not exactly what Jesus said.  It seems to me that we have to see Jesus’ saying in the context of the whole Bible, which usually strongly encourages resisting evil. Even violent resistance is okay in most of the Bible. The original saying of the historical Jesus here may have a context similar to the commands in Matthew 10 against taking “baggage” with you on a missionary journey. Jesus, no doubt, encouraged some unusual tactics for those he sent out to teach and heal. But it would make no sense to apply these to all Christians throughout history.

Living in a democracy, even a far-from-perfect one, gives resistance a different context. Those who use resistance to blur the line between violence and a robust national argument, use Marxist social conflict theory to position whole blocks and identities of people as oppressed. Now oppression without democratic recourse was the situation in France during the occupation. It was the situation in Jesus’ day. But not today. Women constitute the majority of voters in most American elections. Racial minorities and gays have had a powerful voice that has attained real changes here.

So analogies from the teaching of Jesus or from other places in history need to fit the context of America today. We need to find channels of open debate and voting. Those who lose one election may win the next one. And even folks like me, who have become alienated from both major parties, shouldn’t just opt out of the system or try to bring it down.

In some ways I can support the President. (I have written before about how bad a law I think the Affordable Care Acts is). But in some ways I will resist by being critical. (Although technically illegal, many aliens were tacitly welcomed into our country because we needed their labor, so I think deporting them now would be unfair and inhumane.

But not recognizing the legitimacy of the government or turning on our neighbors could have gruesome consequences. The history of America in the bloody 1860s provides a sober warning.

Jesus apparently saw a nasty war coming in his day and wept about it. He passionately wished that people had known “the things that make for peace” (Luke 19:41-43).

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About theoutwardquest

I have many interests, but will blog mostly about what I read in the fields of Bible and religion.
This entry was posted in Ethics, The Sermon on the Mount and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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