Why I am not a pacifist
Once again, after working through the Sermon on the Mount, I am faced with the blunt reminder that I'm not following Jesus. He said we're supposed to gouge out our eyes and cut off our hands if they offend us. He said we're not supposed to call anyone a fool. He said we're not supposed to take revenge. He said we're supposed to love our enemies.
Here is my confession: I want to follow Jesus, but I don't. I want to turn the other cheek, but I can't. I want to be a pacifist, but I'm not. Here's why.
1. Hypocrisy. I don't believe those who live in America can be pacifists. To me it is hypocrisy to enjoy "peace and security" via violent resistance (police and military protection) and claim to follow the way of Jesus, i.e., non-violent resistance. It reminds me of the wealthy who are troubled by their fate--how horrible it is to be imprisoned by the power of money and greed. The easy solution? Give away your wealth. But, we won't do that, will we? We'd rather complain about how hard it is to live with money than do something about it. Pacifists who complain about the injustices of war and benefit from military protection have little moral authority to preach their sermons. Genuine pacifists live under facist dictators, where the context of Jesus' teaching matches the conviction of those who would live out non-violent resistance. Even though I think the Amish come closest in our country to following the teachings of non-violent resistance, even they will call the police when an unspeakable tragedy has befallen them (Paradise, Pennyslvania).
2. Interpreting Jesus. None of us take Jesus' sermon literally. Even though he lived what he preached (read the rest of the story. Did he not turn the other cheek? Did he not love his enemies?), we don't. Take for example the way we read his teachings about lust. Bonhoeffer rightly suggested why Jesus targeted eyes and hands as instruments of offense. These are the tools of lust. Yet, I have never met a single disciple of Jesus who is maimed or blind because they tried to follow Jesus' teachings literally. Instead, we recognize that Jesus' may have used hyperbole (exaggeration for effect) when speaking of the dangers of lust. Was Jesus also exaggerating when he talked about giving away our coats or turning the other cheek? At the same time, we know that lust is sin; violence is evil. So, the fact that Jesus was exaggerating to make his point doesn't excuse our behavior, either. Can you imagine any disciple of Jesus saying, "I'm still going to harbor lustful desires for another woman. I'm still going to hate my enemies and try to destroy them"? Whether we like it or not, we still have to intepret what Jesus said not only by what we think he meant, but also by what he did. Who is following him?
3. Context is key. Jesus gave instructions for his disciples in a time when Roman Imperial oppression was reality. I'm a white, male who lives in America (no oppression). I don't live in a land of foreign occupation (I'm not full-blooded Indian). I've never been struck on the cheek. My government defines who my enemies are supposed to be. Even though, as an American, I have certain rights and privileges protected by law (violent resistance!), here I am, wanting to follow Jesus because I claim to be his disciple. Is that possible? Jesus' world was so different from mine. What is non-violent resistance supposed to look like in place like America? Maybe it looks like Martin Luther King, Jr. Maybe it looks like an abused wife who refrains from killing her husband. Maybe it looks like American Christian Arabs who live under the oppressive weight of suspicious neighbors. It certainly doesn't look like me.
Lord Jesus, help me follow you.
Next post: why I don't believe in a just war.