Coming to Grips with the New Testament Teaching on Nonviolence: Richard Hays

Richard Hays’s The Moral Vision of the New Testament may well be the best book on New Testament ethics written in the past two decades. It is certainly the most helpful exegetically based book that I have read. To be sure, that does not mean that I agree with Hays on every point, or even on some of Hays’s most important points. But Hays does a brilliant job letting the various texts of the New Testament speak for themselves, refusing prematurely to force them into a synthesis or a systematic ethics. As a result, he helps the reader come to grips with what the texts are really saying, allowing the reader (or the church) to do the hard work of determining how to bring the various texts together. (Note: this post is part 2 of my series on pacifism.)

Probably the most significant area in which I disagree with Hays is his affirmation of pacifism, an affirmation in which he breaks with the Christian tradition’s long-held just war doctrine. In particular I find Hays’s rather dismissive treatment of Romans 13:4 somewhat unconvincing.

But Hays nevertheless makes as solid a case for pacifism as I have ever read, and he makes an eminently persuasive (and sound) case for interpreting the Gospel of Matthew as calling Christians to a life of suffering service and nonviolence. To be sure, Matthew’s voice is not the sole word on the subject; Matthew does not raise the question of civil government or just war, and we should not force Matthew to say more than he is saying. But by that same token, we should hear the voice of the Spirit (and our Lord) in what Matthew is saying, and we should follow it.

Hays begins his presentation of Matthew’s teaching on nonviolence by noting that the Sermon on the Mount calls the church to be a light to the world and a city on a hill, “to exemplify the reality of the kingdom of God in a pluralistic and sinful world” (321). The Beatitudes proclaim God’s blessing on those who mourn, on the meek, on the peacemakers, and on those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness and of Christ, promising to these the kingdom of heaven. Jesus calls his disciples to follow the way of reconciliation with one another rather than anger, to renounce retaliation, and to imitate God by loving and blessing their enemies.

You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also … Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. (Matthew 5:38-39, 44-45)

The age-old question, of course, is whether or not this amounts to a call on Christians never to use violence, not even if it is necessary to defend one’s own life, or the lives of others, or even if Christians hold a position of lawful authority. As Hays points out, Christian theologians have offered all sorts of explanations to demonstrate why – in relation both to Jesus’ teaching on violence and on other subjects – Jesus’ words should not be interpreted or applied in the way that would at first seem obvious. These explanations range from claiming that Jesus’ concern was merely with the heart but not with actions, to suggesting that the most stringent commandments are merely counsels of perfection intended for a class of particularly holy Christians.

Hays helpfully suggests that we interpret the Sermon on the Mount within the context of Matthew’s broader narrative.

In the temptation narrative (4:1-11), Jesus renounces the option of wielding power over the kingdoms of the world, choosing instead to worship and serve God alone. In the three passion predictions (16:21-23, 17:22-23, 20:17-19), Jesus foretells his fate as one who will be ‘persecuted for righteousness’ sake,’ and he intimates that those who follow him will suffer the same fate (16:24-26). In Gethsemane, Jesus struggles with this vocation but aligns his will with the Father’s will that he should drink the cup of suffering (26:36-47). As Yoder has persuasively suggested, the temptation to refuse the cup is precisely the temptation to resort to armed resistance. Jesus, however, chooses the way of suffering obedience instead of the way of violence.

This point is even clearer in Matthew’s story than in the synoptic parallels, for at the moment of Jesus’ arrest, he admonishes the disciple who attempts armed resistance: ‘Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword’ (26:51-54). As Ulrich Mauser observes, ‘Jesus does not yield to the temptation to preserve his life by resisting evil with evil’s own armor. If anything in Matthew’s Gospel, this scene at the arrest is the authentic interpretation of the sentence in the Sermon on the Mount, ‘Do not resist an evildoer’ (Matt 5:39).’ Thereafter, the passion narrative plays out to its inevitable conclusion: Jesus dies powerless and mocked (27:39-44). Thus, the death of Jesus exemplifies the same character qualities that are taught as normative for Jesus’ disciples in Matthew 5. (322)

Of course, that is not the end of the story. Jesus rises from the dead, demonstrating that he has conquered violence, injustice, and death, and he tells the disciples that he has been given all authority in heaven and on earth. He commands them to make disciples of all nations, teaching them to “obey everything that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:20).

Although these few quotations are insufficient to demonstrate the point or to capture Hays’s full argument, I believe they accurately summarize the teachings of Matthew’s Gospel. In fact, as Hays points out, this perspective is replicated with impressive consistency in all of the New Testament writers, including in particular Luke, Paul, and John. In Revelation it is the lamb who was slain who conquers the violent forces of history by the power of the word of his mouth. The call of the faithful is to conquer through their suffering, in faithful witness to him.

Again, this is not the whole story. But however we interpret Romans 13 (and associated texts) and whatever we do with the various passages which are silent on whether or not Jesus or his apostles told soldiers, centurions, jailers, government officials, and tax collectors to abandon their vocations, our interpretation must embrace the teaching of Jesus as recorded in Matthew’s Gospel and the other parts of the New Testament. If we dismiss this teaching, or explain it away, we reject our Lord.

As I hope to demonstrate in further posts this week, the key involves recognizing that because the kingdom is already but not yet, God does indeed give civil government the power of the sword, calling it to use that sword justly (i.e., just war theory) rather than unjustly. (In all honesty, I do not understand how those who reject the two kingdoms perspective can possibly make sense of the disparate data. But let’s save that for the Calvin post.)

But that does not solve the problem. It merely tells us how we can begin to start thinking about how to solve the problem. The question remains, what does it mean for a Christian magistrate, or a Christian soldier, or a Christian citizen, to conform to Christ’s call to put away anger, hatred, and violence, and to follow Christ’s example as a suffering servant, even to the point of the cross?


About Matthew J. Tuininga

Matthew J. Tuininga is the Assistant Professor of Moral Theology at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Posted on September 25, 2012, in Just War, pacifism, Sermon on the Mount and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Coming to Grips with the New Testament Teaching on Nonviolence: Richard Hays.

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