A Political Non-Pacifist Reading of The Sermon on the Mount

constantineIt’s often alleged that any reading of Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount that doesn’t result in a pacifist ethic is a depoliticized and de-historicized one. Jesus’ commands against retaliation and of neighbor-love, (Matthew 5:38-48) set in a context of Roman oppression and violence must lead obviously one of non-violence lest the politics of Jesus be lost. Leithart notes that for John Howard Yoder without pacifism Jesus’ ethic loses its political force because Yoder believes that Jesus’ teaching offered no instruction for his disciples in political power because his followers were never to have that sort of power.

In a striking passage Leithart moves to counter that contention by offering a brief, non-pacifist, “political” reading of the Sermon on the Mount in which Jesus’ words for his disciples can shape the governance of those disciples who happen to hold political authority; for a way in which the “Eucharistic city” of the Church can offer guidance to the City of Man based on the teachings of her King:

  1. “Turn the other cheek” gives instruction not about self-defence but about honor and shame. To slap someone on the right cheek, you have to slap back-handed, and back-handed slap expresses contempt, not threat. Is this relevant to political ethics? Of course. The Roman Empire was built on a system of honor, insult and retaliation. Before Rome, Thycidides knew that wars arose from “fear, honor, and interest.” Remove retaliation and defense of honor from international politics, and a fair number of the world’s wars would have been prevented. There would have been a lot of slapping but not nearly so much shooting.
  2. The Eucharistic city would teach rulers to agree with their adversaries quickly, to defuse domestic and international disputes before they explode.
  3. What if rulers were instructed not to look at a woman lustfully? That would also prevent some wars, keep presidents busy with papers and things at their desks, protect state secrets, save money and divisive scandals. The church would insist that rulers be faithful to their wives and not put them away for expediency or a page girl (or boy.)
  4. The church would insist on honesty and truth telling, urging rulers to speak the truth even when it is painful.
  5. The church would insist that a ruler not do alms or pray or fast or do any other good things to be seen by others, especially by others with cameras—a rule that would revolutionize modern politics.
  6. Rulers would be instructed to love enemies and do good to all. Obama would be seeking the best for the Republican Party, Ms. Anonymous Republican would be doing her best to serve the president. A ruler would have to stand firm against the antics of tyrants, not out of hatred but out of love, to prevent the tyrant from doing great evil to himself and others. If the tyrant attacked, the rule would have to defend his people out of love for them and out of love for his enemy. Punishments would be acts of love for the victims, the public and the punished, just as a father disciplines his son in love. The church would insist that the ruler not use his legitimate powers of force for unjust ends, on pain of excommunication.
  7. The church would urge rulers to beware their own blind spots and remove logs from their eyes so they can see rightly in order to judge.
  8. The church would remind a ruler that she will face a Judge who will inquire what she had done for the homeless, the weak, the sick, the imprisoned, the hungry.
  9. At the extreme, a ruler might place himself on a cross, sacrifice his political future and his reputation, for the sake of righteousness. In certain kinds of polities, he would be the first soldier, the first to fly against the enemy, because being the leader means you get to die first. In great extremity, he might follow Jeremiah’s example and submit to conquest, defeat, deportation—endure a national crucifixion to preserve people for future rebirth.

Defending Constantine, pp. 338-339

Whether you’re in full agreement with this list or not, Leithart demonstrates that one doesn’t have to be a pacifist in order to give “an earful of the politics of Jesus” to any ruler.

Soli Deo Gloria

19 thoughts on “A Political Non-Pacifist Reading of The Sermon on the Mount

  1. How does Leithart understand pacifism? Obviously his conversation partner in this work is Yoder but does he go in depth with Yoder’s argument and analysis of the Sermon on the Mount or does he paint Yoder in broad strokes like most Yoderian critics out there?

    I’m asking because this “non-pacifist” political reading of the SoM is really quite pacifist and it reveals that Leithart and Yoder have more in common than he is willing to admit.

    • It is not an extended criticism of pacifism. I think he has a decent grasp on Yoder but he doesn’t do a crazy in-depth analysis of even Yoder’s pacifism. Although he deals with his whole corpus extensively. As for agreement, yes, he absolutely agrees with him at points and praises him for certain insights.

      • I guess what I’m wondering – which I didn’t take time to communicate earlier – is what makes Leithart’s reading of the Sermon on the Mount non-pacifist?

      • The fact that he doesn’t take Jesus’ love command and command to turn the other cheek to be a repudiation of all justified force & such in war-time. You can’t take those verses and say, “Therefore Christians should never participate in any war and no war is ever justified.”

      • That’s a rather negative description of the pacifist position. Admittedly many pacifists more or less boil it down to what you stated but I think a more faithful reading of Christ’s teaching would also put the pacifist’s theology in a better light. If we, as the Church were faithful to Christ’s teachings in the Sermon on the Mount (and the rest of the NT teaching on non-violence) war would become an irrelevant option to resolving conflict. It’s not that “Christians should never participate in a war”. It’s that we are called to be that colony of heaven, a prefiguration of the Kingdom that is to come where swords will be bent into ploughshares and that whole bit. We are called to cultivate a cultural reality where war is irrelevant until the Lord returns in the same way that God continues to do the good work within us that he started and will complete.

        And this is where I think the non-pacifist readings of the Sermon on the Mount largely miss the point. The text isn’t about war, it’s about violence. I think you’d have a hard time finding a non-violent war but violence starts much, much sooner than that. It starts when one brother commits in his heart to murder the other out of jealousy or rage or even being dishonored. Violence starts with the interior life and goes out from there. Christ’s instructions to not retaliate by turning the other cheek, to love one’s enemies to give to those in need and to pray for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven re-orientates the disciple’s heart from the violence within toward the One who suffered great violence for us as the perfect demonstration of divine love.

        Judging from what Leithart had written here in comparison with the likes of Myers, Yoder, Wink and even Cavanaugh there isn’t a whole lot of disagreement or deviation; which is why I’m skeptical as to whether this really is a “non-pacifist” reading of the Sermon on the Mount.

      • But really, with all of this, I think there is a lot to “pacifist” readings in the sense that you’re speaking of. All that you say, I’m there with you. I just still wrestle with the problem of what a Christian ruler is to do, or citizens, as citizens of the kingdom first and neighbors second. You know?

      • Oh, I totally get you there and that is why I’m usually reticent to engage in conversations that argue for what the Bible “clearly says” about pacifism or the justification of war. It’s unbelievably gray. You have these sorts of passages in the New Testament while at the same time you have scenes like in Luke 3 where Roman soldiers come up to John the Baptist asking him what they should do. I know the pacifist readings of that passage but in the end that fact that John DIDN’T say “Turn in your sword because God’s people shouldn’t have that kind of power” is inescapable.

        The punchline from Yoder’s argument, as your rightly stated, is that Christians weren’t given instructions for that kind of power because we were never meant to have it. My question is, “Is it really because we were never meant to have it or is it more likely that no such instructions were given because the author couldn’t imagine a Christian being in a position where he or she could have that kind of power?” That’s a bit speculative and by the way that I framed that question I kind of revealed which direction I lean (the latter for those who don’t know me as well as Derek).

        In the end I don’t think we have a clear cut answer from scripture to this question but I’m also inclined to believe that if a Christian ruler was wholly devoted to the letter and spirit of the Sermon on the Mount I think he or she would end up as described in point number 9 either literally or figuratively.

    • Yeah, I never bought the pacifist interpretation when I read it in the Politics of Jesus. His distinction between policing and soldiering is historically dubious as well as logically untenable. The same logic that justifies a police authority to maintain order justifies justice at the international level in war.

  2. I don’t even like using the label ‘pacifist’ because of its multiple meanings, but as said above, violence is the heart of Jesus’ sermon and how it is rooted in the heart. The issue is not that Scripture prohibits any career (it doesn’t), but whether you can reconcile following Christ Jesus with the world.

    A follower of Jesus cannot be a prostitute, not because there is something inherently wrong with the thing, but because that career/job/enslavement will be at odds with following the King. The same goes with soldiering and, in my opinion, most positions of governance. Go ahead ruler, go try and be honest, merciful, loving, willing to bear shame, and die. How many will be elected? How many would not be run out?

    The Church is not to hold gospel-living as a standard to hang over the heads of the non-believers. The politics comes in holding to them to their own standards, but ultimately, the politics is the call to repent and believe: for every throne will be swept away.

    While I’ve appreciated Yoder, ultimately Chelcicky has really given me the eyes to think and see about this through the Scripture. Not well known, but excellent brother from past.

    Also good blog 🙂

    2 cents from fellow reformed-ish,

    • Cal,

      Thanks for the follow-up. I get your concerns, I will say that I am a little taken aback that you would equate being a prostitute with law enforcement. I think there is a very big difference both in the ability to practice it honestly as well as the aim and intent. A prostitute’s job is inherently destructive and at odds with our created covenantal sexuality. Police-work is a means of restraining evil and establishing the harmony and order that God desires in the world, and can be reflective of God’s own sovereign law-work. Rom 13 speaks of God establishing the governing authorities and the OT is replete with judges, kings, and soldiers that God calls to do justice which includes retributive administration of the sword. Nowhere do we see prostitution commended or commanded.

      So, yeah, still not buying it.



  3. I didn’t mean to compare it in that way (i.e.constructive v. destructive tendencies). I agree that Romans 13 speaks to this and yes, Yoder’s distinction doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.

    However, in the Kingdom, I don’t see that as a possible option for one trying to remain faithful. Signing onto the modern police force requires an oath to a particular kind of violence and loyalty to the State that is at conflict. I know it’s not something most would accept, but I need something more than just appealing to Romans 13. Paul wrote that in the throes of the Church’s persecution by Nero. Yes, I pay my taxes, try and follow the laws of the State (except when conflicting with the law of God), but ultimately, that’s not where my loyalty or citizenship belong.

    This discussion demands more than small blog comments, but I don’t see it tenable in the long run. Either you compromise or you’re fired.

    Thanks for back and forth,

  4. Reblogged this on Manifest Propensity and commented:
    I follow and generally find much profit from the blog of Derek Rishmawy which is called “Reformedish.” I have an interest in the writings of Peter Leithart and his views of Constantine, and thought that this recent post was worth reblogging here.

  5. Pingback: Judgment and Doing Justice (Zahnd Review Follow-Up) | Reformedish
  6. Pingback: Reclaiming Christian Pacifism: The Sermon on the Mount (Part 1) | Theology Studio

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