It’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:
- “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.
- The Eucharistic city would teach rulers to agree with their adversaries quickly, to defuse domestic and international disputes before they explode.
- 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.)
- The church would insist on honesty and truth telling, urging rulers to speak the truth even when it is painful.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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