RR: Eli, you challenged my position on resistance to evil and I said I’d respond, but first let’s hear the rest of the story of how you got your name.
Eli: Buying a little time, huh? Well, as I said earlier, my driver’s license read “Eli Adamov,” but the last name was just a formality. I was really just plain old Eli. One day an Indian from San Felipe Pueblo showed up at our commune. San Felipe was the nearest pueblo to us and they grew amazing blue corn. The stalks were like eight or ten feet tall, with ears eighteen inches long and loaded with shiny, blue-black kernels. They also grew crazy melons in all different shapes and colors—you’d plant the seeds and never know what you’d end up with, but they all were sweet and juicy. So, this San Felipe man came up to trade with someone and I walked by in the evening as he was sitting in his pickup, probably getting ready to return home. We rapped for a minute and then he said “What’s your name?” I said, “Eli.” “Eli,” he said. “I will call you Eli Rivers.” Well, that was it—a cool sounding name (remember, we’re in arid New Mexico, where rivers can have mystical connotations), and one bestowed by an Indian!
RR: So did you get Jerry to change your driver’s license?
Eli: No, but a couple of years later, when Jane and I became followers of Yeshua, it dawned on us that maybe we should get married, so we needed another kind of license. Our motto in the hippie days was to go with the flow, but that didn’t always work if you were trying to do the right thing. To get married we had to patch up our old truck and scrape together enough gas money to get us to the nearest clinic, in the town of Cuba (seven miles out the dirt road and then another 35 on the highway) for a blood test, and then about 150 miles in the other direction to Tierra Amarilla, the county seat, for the license. Somehow, we managed to get this all done under the name Eli Rivers. A few months later it dawned on us that we’d tried to do the right thing and get legally married out of fear of the Lord, but we had a fake name on our marriage license. We called the justice of the peace in Tierra Amarilla and he said we could get married again and it wouldn’t be bigamy as long as we married the same person the second time. So, out with the baling wire and spare change. We got the truck on the road again for another blood test in Cuba and a new license in Tierra Amarilla, and got married again. But that’s part of your story, Russell, not mine.
RR: Thanks, Eli. Great story, and you just gave me a good lead-in to my view of war and violence, which you called a “chicken position,” I guess because I don’t just advocate simple pacifism, based on Yeshua’s teachings about non-resistance.
Eli: Yeah, you seem to want it both ways. I’m sure you’d claim that you’re trying to live by Yeshua’s teachings, but when it comes to loving your enemies enough not to kill them, you’re not so sure about that. You’d be less chicken if you were a total pacifist, or if you said that Yeshua’s teachings are just too idealistic for the real world and not meant to be taken so literally.
RR: It might be simpler to take a black-and-white position on war and non-violence, but you just said that doing the right thing doesn’t always mean following the simplest route, right? You had to find your way through all kinds of complications to reach the ethical goal of getting married under your legal name.
Eli: Sounds like a stretch to me. I don’t see the connection with non-violence.
RR: Well, it’s relatively simple to stake out a rigid position, and I’d agree that you can read the Sermon on the Mount (or, as I call it, Torah from the Mount), and decide that it’s never right to resort to violence in any way ever. That’s what Gandhi argued when he told the British that they should just let the Nazis take over without a fight (see my blog “Non-Resistance Revisited”). But I can’t stomach that conclusion, and don’t see it lining up with the whole of Scripture either.
Eli: But your interpretation sounds like bourgeois sentimentalism—you should cultivate some kind of warm feeling toward your enemies, even if you have to blow them off the face of the earth.
RR: No, my point is that sometimes we can only discover the right path by holding two black-and-white truths in tension. So, the Torah teaches that we are to love the stranger and Yeshua builds on that truth to tell us to love our enemies. But Scripture also teaches us to defend the weak and oppressed, and to protect human life because each person bears the divine image. In some situations it might not be so simple to find a response that honors both those truths at the same time. I’d think you would get that because it sounds kind of Eastern. When you push for a simple, either-or kind of response, you’re really thinking in Western, linear terms.
Eli: Ouch, that hurts! So, OK, let’s agree that the right way isn’t always the simplest way, but it still sounds like you’re saying that the Sermon on the Mount is just a nice ideal that no one can really carry out.
RR: Not at all—I’d say it’s foundational to real ethics. You can’t begin to figure out how to respond to your enemy until you recognize that he is a fellow human being, created in God’s image, worthy of the same regard as anyone else. Then, if you have to think about using force against him, it had better be totally unavoidable, and only to prevent some greater violation of humanity. You can’t begin to have a biblical response to questions of war and resistance until you get a biblical view of your fellow human being as a bearer of the divine image. Militarism and violence feed on demonizing the other.
I make a similar point in the immigration debate. The right response begins with a recognition of our shared humanity with the immigrant—even the illegal ones. Hardliners want to portray every undocumented alien as a Mexican drug pusher or hit man, but Yeshua’s ethics won’t let us start there at all. We doubtless need to tighten up our border, but we also need to guard against demonizing the illegal immigrants, most of whom we’re letting in on purpose to supply low-cost workers for American businesses and potential voters for American politicians. I don’t think you can follow Yeshua in the real world if you want to reduce everything to black-and-white, us-and-them categories.
Eli: OK, I’ll give you that one point. A couple of years after I started following Yeshua, I dropped Eli and went back to the name my parents had given me, largely because I wanted to obey the commandment to honor your father and mother. At the same time I went through a period of hyper-straightness, which I call my Polyester Phase, because I thought I had to do everything that was opposite to the counter culture. Black-and-white thinking, I guess. But now I’m starting to tell your story again, instead of mine.