CoD Part 6, Revenge

After the initial scene-setting, ‘big picture’ discussions on grace and discipleship in the first five chapters, Cost of Discipleship to exposit the Sermon on the Mount (Mt 5-7). I shall not endeavor to take the time to look at each of Bonhoeffer’s chapters, but there are a few select topics about which I feel compelled to write. The first of these is his chapter on revenge, which is an exposition of Matthew 5.38-42:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.” (Mt 5.38-42, ESV)

Lest anyone be caught off guard, Bonhoeffer was, somewhat paradoxically, a pacifist…as such, his words should not surprise us. “The right way to requite evil, according to Jesus, is not to resist it. This saying of Christ removes the Church from the sphere of politics and law. The Church is not to be a national community like old Israel, but a community of believers without political or national ties.” These words represent a classic Lutheran of the doctrine of two kingdoms…and one that I believe is spot on.

With reference to the church as a whole, I agree completely that the church ought not be a politicized sort of religious community. Unfortunately, this doctrine has been lost on much of contemporary American Evangelicals and the so-called ‘Religious Right’ who claim much credit for the election of President Bush and aim at legislating Christian morality in the United States. Though the aim of living in an upright nation is laudable, the problem of legislating morality remains an impossibly elusive one due to the sinfulness of man. I would even reject the so-called return of the Ten Commandments to the city square on the grounds that the introduction of the decalogue (cf. Ex 20.1) clearly reminds its readers that these words were given to a redeemed people, not a nation of unbelievers striving to lead moral lives.

With regard to not resisting evil, Bonhoeffer again cuts right to the heart of Jesus’ teaching:

When a Christian meets with injustice, he no longer clings to his rights and defends them at all costs. He is absolutely free from possessions and clings to Christ alone…The only way to overcome evil is to let it run itself to a standstill because it does not find the resistance it is looking for. Resistance merely creates further evil and adds fuel to the flames. But when evil meets no opposition and encounters no obstacle but only patient endurance, its sting is drawn, and at last it meets an opponent which is more than its match. Of course, this can only happen when the last ounce of resistance is abandoned, and the renunciation of revenge is complete. Then evil cannot find its mark, it can breed no further evil, and is left barren. By willing endurance we cause suffering to pass.

On a personal level, Bonhoeffer is surely correct. Though turning the other cheek often goes against every fiber of our beings, the words of Jesus are plain. Many times we rationalize his hard words by quipping something along the lines of, “Jesus told me to turn the other cheek, but he didn’t call me to be a doormat to be trampled on.” Well, it is true that Jesus does not call us to be doormats, but he also fails to set a limit to our endurance of evil or answer the question, “How much is too much?” If we were to answer, we may be surprised, like the disciples when Jesus was asked how many times they should forgive one another?

Bonhoeffer extends Jesus’ teaching here to the political or national level, and this is where I must take exception and disagree. He writes, “[The Reformers] distinguished between personal sufferings and those incurred by Christians in the performance of duty as bearers of an office ordained by God, maintaining that the precept of non-violence applies to the first but not to the second…It was along these lines that the Reformers justified war and other legal sanctions against evil. But this distinction between person and office is wholly alien to the teaching of Jesus. He says nothing about that” (emphasis mine).

While teaching on the subject of the power of the state to punish may have been omitted by Jesus, Bonhoeffer’s statement is troubling from the start as he immediately sets up a false dichotomy between “the teaching of Jesus” and the whole panoply of Scripture.  The Apostle Paul, for example, taught state-governed consequences as a divinely sanctioned responsibility in Rom 13 and wrote:

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer (Rom 13.1-4, ESV).

Clearly, then, the state does have a God-ordained duty to punish wrongdoers, which includes physical punishment as appropriate (i.e., bearing the sword).  As biblically correct as personal pacifism might be, unless we are to suggest that Christians may not hold any sort of public office that may be subject to Rom 13, this extension of pacifism to the state or political level simply because Christ did not specifically teach on it does not pass muster.

While I clearly did not witness life first-hand under the Third Reich in Nazi Germany, I can certainly empathize with Bonhoeffer’s terrible predicament and think I can possibly begin to understand how he could have recoiled so vehemently from state-sponsored punishment of ‘revenge.’  The horrors he witnessed could surely lead one to such a pragmatic position, though I still think biblically it is incorrect.  These thoughts aside, great value can be gained from considering Christian pacifism on a personal level as I think Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount really do raise the bar this high.


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