A Commentary by John Stott

Matthew 5:38-42 A Christian’s righteousness: Non-retaliation.

One man whom Tolstoy’s writing profoundly influenced was Gandhi. Already as a child he had learned the doctrine of *ahimsa*, ‘refraining from harming others’. But then as a young man he read first in London the *Baghavad Gita* and the Sermon on the Mount (‘It is that Sermon which has endeared Jesus to me’), and then in South Africa Tolstoy’s *The kingdom of God is within you*. When he returned to India about ten years later, he was determined to put Tolstoy’s ideals into action. Strictly speaking, his policy was neither ‘passive resistance’ (which he regarded as too negative), nor ‘civil disobedience’ (which was too defiant) but *satyagraha* or ‘truth-force’, the attempt to win his opponents by the power of truth and ‘by example of suffering willingly endured’. His theory approached very close to anarchy. ‘The State represents violence in a concentrated and organized form.’ In the perfect state which he envisaged, although the police would exist, they would seldom use force; punishment would end; prisons would be turned into schools; and litigation be replaced by arbitration.

It is impossible not to admire Gandhi’s humility and sincerity of purpose. Yet his policy must be judged unrealistic. He said he would resist the Japanese invaders (if they came) by a peace brigade, but his claim never had to be put to the test. He urged the Jews to offer a non-violent resistance to Hitler, but they did not heed him. In July 1940 he issued an appeal to every Briton for the cessation of hostilities, in which he claimed: ‘I have been practising, with scientific precision, non-violence and its possibilities for an unbroken period for over fifty years. I have applied it in every walk of life – domestic, institutional, economic and political. I know no single case in which it has failed.’ But his appeal fell on deaf ears. Jacques Ellul makes the perceptive comment that ‘an essential factor in Gandhi’s success’ was the people involved. These were on the one hand India, ‘a people shaped by centuries of concern for holiness and the spiritual …a people…uniquely capable of understanding and accepting his message’ and on the other Britain which ‘officially declared itself a Christian nation’ and ‘could not remain insensible to Gandhi’s preachment of non-violence’. But put Gandhi into the Russia of 1925 or the Germany of 1933. The solution would be simple; after a few days he would be arrested and nothing more would be heard of him.’

Our main disagreement with Tolstoy and Gandhi, however, must not be that their views were unrealistic but that they were unbiblical. We cannot take Jesus command ‘resist not evil,’ as an absolute prohibition of the use of all force (including the police) unless we are prepared to say that the bible contradicts itself and the apostles misunderstood Jesus. For the New Testament teaches that the state is a divine institution, commissioned (through its executive office bearers) both to punish the wrong-doer (i.e., to ‘resist one who is evil’ to the point of making him bear the penalty of his evil) and to reward those who do good. (Rom.13:1ff.) This revealed truth may not be twisted, however, to justify the institutionalized violence of an oppressive regime. Far from it. Indeed the same state – the Roman Empire – which in Romans 13 is termed ‘the servant of God’, wielding his authority, is pictured in Revelation 13 as an ally of the devil wielding his authority. But these two aspects of the state complement one another; they are not contradictory. The fact that the state has been instituted by God does not preserve it from abusing its power and becoming a tool of Satan. Nor does the historical truth that the state has sometimes persecuted good men alter the biblical truth that its real function is to punish bad men. And when the state exercises its God-given authority to punish, it is ‘the servant of God to exercise his wrath on the wrongdoer’. (Rom.13:4).

Tomorrow: Matthew 5:38-42 A Christian’s righteousness:
Non-retaliation. (continued)

The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of the Sermon on the Mount. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.