Posted by: sean | December 21, 2007

Nonresistance Only Applies to Private Matters Not Matters of the State

Taken from pages 78-81 of The Kingdom that Turned the World Upside Down © David Bercot. Used by permission. Copies can be obtained from Scroll Publishing Co., P. O. Box 122, Amberson, PA 17210 or see their website at http://www.scrollpublishing.com.

But don’t Jesus’ words apply merely to private retribution–not to state-sponsored actions?

Some Christians maintain that if we pay back evil for evil as individuals, it’s wrong. However, if we do it under state authority, it doesn’t violate Jesus’ teaching. This argument makes me think of a pamphlet that Adin Ballou wrote, entitled “How Many Men Are Necessary to Change a Crime into a Virtue?” In it, he asked:

“How many does it take to annul the commandments of God, and render something lawful that He has forbidden? How many does it take to metamorphose wickedness into righteousness? One man must not kill. If he does, it is murder. Two, ten, one hundred men, acting on their own responsibility, must not kill. If they do, it is still murder.

“But a state or nation may kill as many as they please, and it is not murder. It is just, necessary, commendable and right. Only get enough people to agree to it, and the butchery of myriads of human beings is perfectly innocent. But how many does it take? This is the question.

“Just so with theft, robbery, burglary, and all other crimes. Kidnapping is a great crime in one man, or a very few men only. But a whole nation can commit it, and the act becomes not only innocent, but highly honorable. So a whole nation can rob on the largest scale, and perpetrate burglary on an entire city by martial power, without crime. They can do all these things with impunity, and call on the ministers of religion to say prayers for them. Verily there is magic in numbers! The sovereign multitude can out-legislate the Almighty, at least in their own conceit. But how many does it take?”

If the state orders me to worship idols, would that make it right? In other words, is it wrong for me to worship idols as an individual, but perfectly right to worship idols if I do it under the authority of the state? Is it wrong for me to practice divination as an individual, but acceptable if I do it under state authority? Is it wrong for me to commit adultery as an individual, but not a sin if the state orders me to do so? Is divorce wrong for me as an individual, but perfectly legitimate if the state authorizes me to divorce my spouse?

Or suppose a Christian lives in a country where the government orders women to obtain abortions for the good of the country. Perhaps the country is overcrowded, and the government thinks the most feasible way to end the overcrowding is by reducing the birth rate. Does that make it lawful for a Christian woman to kill her baby through an abortion? If not, why is it different when the same government orders its citizens to kill others in a war?

When Jesus gave His commandments on nonresistance and loving our enemies, did He make any distinction between private actions and state-sponsored actions? Not at all. In fact, His teaching was supplanting an Old Testament law that itself pertained to state actions, not private ones. As you remember, Jesus began His message on nonresistance by saying, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I tell you not to resist an evil person” (Mt. 5:39). Now, where had his listeners heard “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth?” They had heard it from the Mosaic Law, where it appears three times.

The first passage where that expression occurs is in Exodus, which says, “If men fight, and hurt a woman with child, so that she gives birth prematurely, yet no harm follows, he shall surely be punished accordingly as the woman’s husband imposes on him; and he shall pay as the judges determine. But if any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot” (Exod. 21:22-24). Please note that the judges were involved in this action; it was not private vengeance.

The second passage is found in Leviticus, concerning an incident where a man with an Egyptian father and an Israelite mother had blasphemed God. When the Israelites inquired of the Lord as to what they should do, God replied, “Whoever blasphemes the name of the Lord shall surely be put to death. All the congregation shall certainly stone him. …Whoever kills a man shall surely be put to death. …If a man causes disfigurement of his neighbor, as he has done, so shall it be done to him–fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; as he has caused disfigurement of a man, so shall it be done to him. …Then Moses spoke to the children of Israel; and they took outside the camp him who had cursed, and stoned him with stones” (Lev. 24:16-23). Is this passage talking about private actions? Hardly! The whole congregation of Israel was to be involved in meeting out the punishment.

The final passage is in Deuteronomy: “If a false witness rises against any man to testify against him of wrongdoing, then both men in the controversy shall stand before the Lord, before the priests and the judges who serve in those days. And the judges shall make careful inquiry, and indeed, if the witness is a false witness, who has testified falsely against his brother, then you shall do to him as he thought to have done to this brother; so you shall put away the evil from among you. And those who remain shall hear and fear, and hereafter they shall not again commit such evil among you. Your eye shall not pity: life shall be for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot” (Deut. 19:16-21). Once again, this passage does not refer to a private form of justice. Both the priests and judges were involved.

So the context of Jesus’ teaching on nonresistance concerned national and judicial retribution, not private vengeance. After all, that’s what the “eye for an eye” standard was all about. And Jesus’ teachings replaced that standard.

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