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.
The third attempt Allison tries to make to undo any pacifist interpretation of Matthew 5 sees a contradiction between total pacifism and the all-important command to love. He argues, “One can also, on the basis of the command to love (7:12; 19:19; 22:37-39), question the pacifist’s interpretation. Each situation envisioned in 5:38-42 is one in which the disciple alone is insulted or injured. But what does one do if others are being insulted or injured…Non-retaliation is one idea embodied in our text; but what if the equally important imperatives for justice or defense of the innocent appear to demand the exercise of force?” Allison proposes some interesting problems, but the assumed answered to his own questions leave a lot to be desired, as, to a degree, do the questions themselves.
For example, he makes an allusion to the imperatives for justice and defense of the innocent in the Sermon on the Mount but curiously offers no citation. He came up with three separate verses from Matthew as a whole for the command to love but can apparently offer none at all for the command to defend the defenseless or dole out justice. That is not to suggest that justice and concerned for the defenseless are not biblical principles. If Allison were willing, he might point to the command to give alms in Matthew 6 as an example of such a measure on behalf of the weak. Of course, it would, unfortunately for him, be an example of positive yet non-violent social action and wouldn’t further his point. In fact, the absence of a supporting citation turns out to be because there is no text which might further his point, in Matthew or elsewhere in the New Testament. The reader is never presented with an occasion when “defense of the innocent appear[s] to demand the exercise of force.” Perhaps the biblical authors just left it out. After all, the Greco-Roman world was such a friendly, well-policed place—unlike the modern West. They probably never encountered the kind of injustices demanding violent reaction that we do on a daily basis in America.
More importantly than the now characteristically extra-biblical methodology, however, is the implied answer to Allison’s question. It is true that ethical cases do arise in which the love of neighbor and the love of enemy do conflict, and Allison seems to admit that to respond with violence toward our enemy is to do something other than to love him (something which not all proponents of violent Christianity are willing to admit). Setting aside the evocation of the illusory moral category of “innocents,” the problem, unfortunately, with choosing love of neighbor over love of enemy is that it seems to directly contradict the very logic of Jesus presented in the command to love one’s neighbor. Jesus makes the point very explicit, and Paul will later as well, that human logic would suggest that we give preferential treatment to our neighbor. In Christ, however, no one gets preferential treatment. The commands to love our neighbor and our enemies are parallel, and there is no ethical hierarchy about them. If anything, indulging the vulgar tendency to love our neighbors just a little better than our enemies undermines the Christian spirit and nullifies the teaching. Allison admits, and I agree, that the conflict between loving one’s neighbor and loving one’s enemy are impossible to resolve perfectly and logically. We differ in that I embrace the reversal of terrestrial logic imposed by God in Christ and argue that it is nearer to the heart of the Gospel to shower your enemy with love than to love him only when there is no impediment to that love, when it doesn’t get in the way of you loving the people you really want to love.
(Parenthetically—which is a word I feel strange using when there are actual parentheses visible—my wife joked with me that we ought to buy each other guns so that, by Allison’s logic, so long as we’re together we can be protected. If someone attacks me, she could shoot him and be morally justified because her action was the defense of others rather than self. If someone attacks here, the situation could play out in reverse. It was so magnanimous of God to give us such a convenient end run around ethics.)