Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also. Matthew 5:38-39 KJV
Of all the commands of Christ, this one might be the most debated and/or ignored. Because it is a polarizing statement, one which causes even devout Christians to take sides. And whichever side you land on, it is somewhat easy to string together verses to support your personal viewpoint.
One version of the “American way,” in my generation, at least, is that we, (the USA), are the good guys. We help the poor and oppressed around the globe, and encourage their freedom by coming to their aid with a lot of legitimately good things, like providing food, water, infrastructure, schools, etc. And, as an added bonus, we kill bad guys.
Conversely, do the nation/states we fight look at themselves as the bad guys? “Uh-oh, the Good Guys are coming to the aid of those we are pillaging!” Maybe sometimes. In general, though, they, too, probably view their cause as just, and maybe even bolstered by faith of their own. For example, the Soviet government has often co-opted the Church to bless their soldiers and armaments, in ways that look and sound very similar to what might be done in the West.
Sometimes the “bad guys” think they’re the “good guys” and convince themselves that their cause is just. Is it out of the question to think that this could ever apply to our country? Or are we exempt? Are we always the good guys fighting the “axis of evil” because allegiance to God is printed on our dollar bill?
The command to “resist not evil” gets even more difficult the closer the evil gets to our door. Are we to abandon our guns, as one group wants, or are we to stock our gun cabinets and be ready for anything? These are difficult, divisive questions in our culture. Today, it seems like both major political parties view themselves as the good guys and the other side as, not just bad, but evil. No matter if you are red or blue you probably have strong feelings on certain issues, and can’t imagine anyone in their right mind being on the other side.
How in the world could we possibly obey Christ’s command to “resist not evil” in a mean, violent, hateful, selfish world like ours? We would be setting ourselves up to be trampled upon and silenced, marginalized and forgotten.
Or would we?
The Russian author of what many would say is the greatest novel of all time, War and Peace, the brilliant Count Leo Tolstoy, seemed to be continuously thinking about his faith and the interplay of Christ and Culture. Late in life, he penned the non-fiction, My Religion, and The Kingdom of God is Within You, books which outlined his social doctrine in detail.
Tolstoy’s observations were, in a nutshell, that Matthew 5:38-39 comprised the essence of the doctrine of Christ, and the key to understanding everything as a Christ-follower. His premise was that historically, well-intentioned people had totally missed the mark and that Christ’s personal example of non-resistance was the only way to truly change the world.
His arguments are so compelling that both Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King jr. adopted and developed Tolstoy’s concepts into their theories and practice of non-violent resistance. Practice that is born out in the context of the command to “Resist not evil”.
“You have heard the law that says the punishment must match the injury: ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say, do not resist an evil person! If someone slaps you on the right cheek, offer the other cheek also. If you are sued in court and your shirt is taken from you, give your coat, too. If a soldier demands that you carry his gear for a mile, carry it two miles. Give to those who ask, and don’t turn away from those who want to borrow.” Matthew 5:38-42 NLT
1 – An eye for an eye – Do not repay evil for evil, do not respond in kind. Gandhi once said something to the effect that if we all require and eye for an eye nothing will be accomplished except that all will be blind. Repaying evil with evil just makes things worse.
2 – Turn the other cheek – In a right-handed culture, a slap on the right cheek would have to come from the back-hand, that is, an insulting, demeaning attack, not an actual blow meant to harm or kill. Offering the other cheek says to the aggressor, you will not escalate his aggression. The first slap, insulting and demeaning, was his choice, let the second one be your choice because you refuse to be insulted by the aggressor.
3 – Give your coat, too – This is a picture of a poor person losing to a powerful person in court. If the powerful man takes your shirt, to give him your coat as well, Yes, it will leave you naked and embarrassed, but to him, it will bring public shame for taking advantage in such a way.
4 – Go the extra mile – it was lawful for a soldier to force a civilian to carry their equipment for one mile, but no more. If the civilian would protest by willing walking further than the law required, the soldier would then be breaking the law by allowing it, and, subsequently, be punished.
5 – Give to those in need – If someone has a need and you have some resources, be generous, help in any way you can.
So Jesus is introducing a new way to combat both insult and injustice—stand up to the bully with non-violent resistance, do good, and expose the error of their ways.
It is possible to obey Jesus’ command to “Resist not evil” if we practice loving others and cultivate self-control, taking a non-violent stand for what is right and good, both in society at large and on behalf of the marginalized and vulnerable.
Satan is the personification of evil and, as James writes, the only way to make Him flee is to resist him (James 4:7). These passages, (resist not evil / resist the devil) are not contradictory. Instead, they demonstrate that the weapons of resistance can be, physically, non-violent toward the people for whom Christ died, and at the same time, spiritually, devastating to Satan and his evil intentions.
Love, prayer, gentleness, self-control, confidence, and faith in the presence and power of Jesus will empower you to “resist not evil”, and doing so, become truly weatherproof in life, a change-agent for Christ in the world.