As part of my research for the Anarchy in May series, I was lured in by the title of Dale Allison’s The Sermon on the Mount: Inspiring the Moral Imagination. Hoping to have my moral imagination inspired, I cracked the spine only to find that I still feel more invigorated by the old familiar text of Matthew 5 than by Allison’s exposition of its meaning. More than anything, his attempt to take to task the pacifist interpretation of the command to “resist not the evildoer” stirred the polemicist in me, unsurprisingly. In fact, quite contrary to the very limited homiletics training I had many years ago, I managed a list of five distinct problems with his critique that can be answered with relative ease.
Allison's fifth and final argument, the last, desperate refuge of every uncomfortable exegete, is to claim hyperbole and then lean back in his armchair puffing his pipe and thumbing his monocle sinisterly.* Before launching into the "even if I'm wrong, I'm right" portion of his argument, he concludes, "It is, furthermore, even possible that the pictures offer impractical advice. If, after being struck on the right cheek with a back-handed insult from an enemy's right hand, one were literally to turn the other cheek, the slapper would either have to switch hands to give a back-handed insult or use a fist. And if one were to give away one's undergarment as well as one's overgarment, the result would be nudity. The very strangeness of these images warns that we may have here exaggeration or hyperbole." Admittedly, the advice Jesus gives here, and frankly just about everywhere else, is impractical by almost ever standard of pragmatism. Unfortunately, Allison had not yet realized, though he would on the very next page, that "the Sermon on the Mount does no promote utilitarianism." Jesus is concerned ultimately with what is right not with what is practical.
Hyperbole is that delightful hammerspace into which scholars like to cram all the teachings of Jesus and the apostles, particularly those on discipleship, which are unsettling. They then, of course, turn around and laud how revolutionary the Gospel is, but they apparently only want it to upset things they think need upsetting and in ways they think need upsetting. The Sermon on the Mount is the worst offender in hyperbolic language. Giving to everyone who asks of you. Being better to maim yourself than to sin. Going into a closet to pray. Not letting our right hand know what our left is giving in alms. (The only alms we like to give secretly are to politicians.) Not judging others for sins which we are presently committing. Can you imagine a world where people actually did those things? Me either, but it has more to do with the inability of my imagination to overcome human frailty than it does with the absurdity of the suggestions. Allison's suggestions aren't even the most shameful attempts at hyperbolically arguing for hyperbole I've witness. I was personally present when Sean Hannity--responding to a question about speaking at historically pacifist Harding University--said to a student, "If someone broke into your house and was raping your wife, are you telling me you wouldn't stop him" (paraphrase), Hannity apparently confusing what a university freshman would do if transported into a horror film with what is morally upright and commanded by Christ. The appeals, whether they be to nakedness or to home invasion and rape, all fall along the same lines. I admit that hyperbole is a legitimate rhetorical tool, one which was available to the biblical authors and figures and one which they likely made use of, but I am skeptical about painting every radical command with the nullifying label "hyperbole" as an expedient so we can all sleep easier at night.
The truth is, there seem to be very good biblical examples of Christ and early Christians taking these commands very seriously. After all, when someone begs a coin of Peter in the temple, he is forced to confess that he has no money--mirroring perhaps the radical poverty and charity of his teacher. More on point, Paul apparently had no problem being naked for Jesus, impractical though it may have been to labor, to toil, to lose sleep, to thirst, to go without food, and to endure the cold naked. He even thought nothing of becoming the scum of the earth, blessing when he was reviled, entreating when he was slandered, and enduring all manner of persecution. It could be, just possibly, that Paul took seriously the teaching and, more importantly, the example of Christ himself who, in the words of Peter, "when he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly." And what is more radical, more impractical, more difficult to believe: that someone might be naked for Christ or that someone might die for him? The problem with painting this particular text as somehow invalidatingly hyperbolic is that there are too many biblical examples of it being lived out in a very literal way.
All of this without mention of Allison's most ridiculous point of all. The idea that turning the other cheek literally is logistically problematic is far and away that worst possible argument that could ever be made against pacifism. If you'll pardon the hyperbole.
*I don't actually know what Dale Allison looks like, but I suspect he doesn't smoke a pipe or wear a monocle or do anything remotely sinister...Or does he?