Non-Resistance Revisited

In one scene in the movie Julie and Julia, Julia Child has completed her massive book on French cooking and is meeting with her editor to brainstorm on a title. They write various words and phrases on sheets of paper and shift the sheets around in endless combinations on a big display board until—voila!—they come up with Mastering the Art of French Cooking. I actually did something like that with my publisher for my book Creation to Completion. Divine Reversal was the opposite. The title came to me early on in the process and stuck. As time goes on, since completing the book, I see more and more evidence that the title really does capture the essence of Yeshua’s ethics in one phrase.

I’m in the midst of reading The Moral Vision of the New Testament, a magisterial book by Richard B. Hays, first published in 1996 (New York: HarperOne). I know, I should have read it before I wrote Divine Reversal, because it lays a groundwork for much of what I discuss in that book. But that’s one of the benefits of writing on a popular rather than academic level—you don’t have to know about to everything ever written on your topic. So, it was a big deal to discover after the fact the idea of divine reversal in Hays’s book:

The theme of reversal seems to have been pervasive in his [Yeshua’s] thought. . . . This reversal motif is built into the deep structure of Jesus’ message, present in all layers of the tradition; thus, the criterion of multiple attestation validates this theme as a foundational element of Jesus’ teaching. (p. 163)

I felt mostly positive about this discovery, even though it meant that my idea of divine reversal was not entirely original. But, in truth I’d be nervous if I came up with something entirely original in my interpretation. If no reader of Scripture, Jewish or Christian, had discovered it yet in nearly 2000 years of study, it was more than likely in error. The positive side was that my insight was confirmed by a writer who ranks among the finest active New Testament scholars in the world.

Later in Hays’s book I discovered that another one of my ideas was far from original. In considering Yeshua’s teaching on non-resistance—And I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also—I write this:

Yeshua phrases his whole instruction in Matt. 5:38-42 in personal terms. In the plain sense he speaks of “you” being struck, being sued, being forced to go a mile. It is one thing for me to turn my other cheek to the one who struck me. It is another thing to figuratively turn someone else’s cheek by not resisting the evil perpetrated against them. It is one thing for me to relinquish my own demand for justice, quite another to demand that someone else give up his or her demand for justice. The individual believer may practice something that corporate groups cannot, or should not, practice, given the realities of evil in our world. (p. 109)

Now, I learn from Hays, this interpretation of Yeshua’s teaching on non-resistance is similar to the one taken by Augustine, of all people: “These words [Matt. 5:38–48] literally forbid self-defense, but they do not preclude fighting in defense of an innocent third party. This was Augustine’s reading of the text” (p. 320). This reading would permit violence by the state in defense of the innocent, thus leading to the idea of a just war.

Hays does a pretty good job of dismantling Augustine’s position, which is close to the position I advocate in Divine Reversal.  

 [R]eaders of the Sermon on the Mount continue to debate whether Yeshua is laying out principles for public policy, or only for personal ethics. In 1940, for example, Gandhi applied, or misapplied, Yeshua’s teaching to preach non-resistance to the British in the face of Nazi aggression: 

“I want you to fight Nazism without arms or . . . with non-violent arms. I would like you to lay down the arms you have as being useless for saving you or humanity. You will invite Herr Hitler and Signor Mussolini to take what they want of the countries you call your possessions. Let them take possession of your beautiful island, with your many beautiful buildings. You will give all these but neither your souls, nor your minds. If these gentlemen choose to occupy your homes, you will vacate them. If they do not give you free passage out, you will allow yourself, man, woman and child, to be slaughtered, but you will refuse to owe allegiance to them . . .”[1]

As wicked as these words must have sounded to British ears in 1940, they sound even worse to Jewish ears. Surely, they do not represent the intent of Yeshua, whose teaching is so deeply informed by the Torah, which prizes human life and protection of the innocent.  (p. 122-123)

Notice that I’m interpreting Yeshua’s words in light of Torah. I’ve complained about those who try to read the whole Bible through Paul, since Paul himself wouldn’t do such a thing. Rather, I’ve said, we read the whole Bible from the foundation of Torah, as Paul and Yeshua himself did. So one of my arguments against absolute non-resistance is that Torah clearly does not support it, so Yeshua wouldn’t either.

For Hays, however, “The claim that Jesus’ death and resurrection is the central decisive act of God for the salvation of humankind means that the cross becomes the hermeneutical center for the canon as a whole” (p. 309). Therefore, “If irreconcilable tensions exist between the moral vision of the New Testament and that of particular Old Testament texts, the New Testament vision trumps the Old Testament. . . .  Jesus’ explicit teaching and example of nonviolence reshapes our understanding of God and the covenant community in such a way that killing enemies is no longer a justifiable option” (p. 336).

I can’t agree with the idea that the “New Testament vision trumps the Old Testament.” Rather I see Yeshua restoring the core message of the “Old Testament,” revealing the heart of Torah in light of the presence of the Kingdom of God. Indeed, I spend some time in Divine Reversal showing how non-resistance is already woven into the narrative of Torah. The controversy is whether Yeshua’s message on non-resistance is to guide believers in all aspects of their life, public as well as private, so that we would have to reject military service or any form of violence, even in defense of the innocent.

I’m not ready to advocate that sort of position, or to buy Hays’s entire approach, as much as I appreciate his book. First, I give more weight to Torah as normative than he does. Yeshua is the ultimate interpreter, and his torah is the true Torah, but to understand what Yeshua is really saying, we must continually reference Torah. Second, recent Jewish history suggests that dogmatic non-resistance will lead to a tragic results for our people.

Nonetheless, I’m learning something vital from Hays’s perspective on nonviolence. Violence is at best a grim necessity, never to be glorified, and war is above all an act of violence. My colleague Rabbi Paul Saal once suggested that we can’t really speak of “just war,” but only, possibly, “necessary war.” I see too much glorification of violence-for-the-cause in the Messianic Jewish and conservative Christian communities. I recently pulled into the parking lot of a synagogue for Shabbat services and there was a van painted military olive drab with an American flag mounted on the roof and militant pro-Israel bumper stickers scattered about. Hardly the right get-up for Shabbat.

As with my discussion of immigration in “Cinco de Mayo and the Jews,” I’m not looking at the whole political-social issue here, but suggesting that our language and imagination need to change before we can discuss it wisely. Just as we need to embrace Yeshua’s teaching on love for the outsider before we tackle the issue of immigration reform, and his portrayal of marriage as an unbreakable covenant in God’s sight before we discuss divorce and remarriage (which I’ll probably do before long), we need to embrace Yeshua’s teaching and example of nonviolence before we discuss the exceptions and accommodations to the grim realities of history. When we get our attitudes and language straightened out by Yeshua’s example and teaching of unconditional forgiveness, love for the outsider, and non-resistance toward the enemy, we have a platform to begin discussing how these values apply today.  


[1] “To every Briton,” 1940, citied at http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Mahatma_Gandhi, accessed 9/5/2008.

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3 thoughts on “Non-Resistance Revisited”

  1. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this issue. I had no idea that Gandhi gave the advice he did! Thank you for showing they are a misapplication of Yeshua’s teachings and for the balance in what you write.

  2. This is a very important point you are bringing up here Rabbi Russ. The inability to see the balance in Yeshua;s teaching on these matters can be disastrous. I thank you for working to restore Yeshuas multi-faceted approach to matters of social justice and God’s will for our behavior and heart in these matters

  3. Jews had practiced physical nonresistance for hundreds of years ever since their Khazar ancestors lost their empire to the Russians. They had suffered much abuse and persecution, many being murdered and many more being robbed and driven out of their homes. But not until the Nazi genocide did anyone organize on a mass scale to totally destroy, to annihilate them from the face of the earth, or for so far as their persecutors could hunt them down.

    Christians had long before been subjected to periods of severe persecution, robbery, abuse and murder, but only in different regions at different times. Even during the Roman persecutions, in some provinces the Christians lived in peace while in other provinces they were being driven out of their homes, robbed and murdered. Never were they subjected to genocide throughout the entire empire at once.

    Gandhi gave different messages at different times and to different audiences. Nonresistance to British occupation of India was the only practical choice as the British empire was the preeminent military power of the world, well organized, trained and equipped. Direct armed revolt against the British raj was not possible unless the British could be convinced that continued occupation of India was unprofitable – profit being the original motive for invading India. Gandhi also called the British disarmament of the Indian people the greatest crime.
    “Among the many misdeeds of the British rule in India, history will look upon the act of depriving a whole nation of arms, as the blackest.”
    Gandhi, An Autobiography, p. 446 (Beacon Press paperback edition) http://www.fightthebias.com/Quotes/arms_quotes.htm

    On personal nonresistance and forcible defense of others: One cannot defend another from violence without simultaneously defending himself from the violence of the perpetrator which will likely be turned from the victim to the defender. The only possibility of this would be for an individual perpetrator to be subdued by the initial act of the defender/rescuer. If the first blow of the defender was insufficient to disable the perp, and the perp then attacked the defender, for the principle of non-self-defense to be adhered to would require the defender to cease and submit to whatever the perp determined to do to him. Can you imagine a soldier defending his fellows against an enemy, but refusing to defend himself when the enemy directed their attack against him? Or a policeman coming to the defense of a victim, but then, when the criminal turned his violent attention to the policeman, for the policeman to cease and put his weapon away or drop it? None of this makes any sense at all.

    Jesus’ instructions were not to respond with violence to challenges to fight, which is what the blow on the cheek is. The blow on the cheek is not in itself an attempt to destroy the victim of the challenge. If you just stood there and allowed me to strike you on your cheek with full force, no second blow would be needed as you would be unconscious or dead.

    Jesus also taught us not to seek revenge, that is, to “pay back” affronts and injuries. Too often personal administration of justice is ill-considered or inappropriate, or mistaken.

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