A Commentary by John Stott
Matthew 5:38-42 A Christian’s righteousness: Non-retaliation.
How does this principle apply to war? No slick or easy answer either for or against war seems possible, although all Christians will surely agree that in its very nature war is brutalizing and horrible. Certainly too the concept of the ‘just war’ developed by Thomas Aquinas, a war whose cause, methods and results must be ‘just’, is difficult to relate to the modern world. Nevertheless, I would want to argue on the one hand that war cannot be absolutely repudiated on the basis of ‘Resist not evil’ any more than police and prisons can, and on the other that its only possible justification (from a biblical viewpoint) would be as a kind of glorified police action. Further it is of the essence of police action to be discriminate; to arrest specific evildoers in order to bring them to justice. It is because so much modern warfare lacks anything approaching this precision either in defining the evildoers or in punishing the evil that Christian consciences revolt against it. Certainly the indiscriminate horrors of atomic war, engulfing the innocent with the guilty, are enough to condemn it altogether.
The point I have been labouring is that the duties and functions of the state are quite different from those of the individual. The individual’s responsibility towards a wrongdoer was laid down by the apostle Paul at the end of Romans 12: ‘Repay no one evil for evil (surely an echo of “do not resist one who is evil”), but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all … Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” No, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals upon his head” (i.e. shame him into repentance). Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.’ (Rom.12:17-21.) It will be seen that Paul’s prohibition of vengeance is not because retribution is in itself wrong, but because it is the prerogative of God, not man. ‘Vengeance is mine,’ says the Lord. His purpose is to express his wrath or vengeance now through the law courts (as Paul goes on to write in Romans 13), and finally on the day of judgement.
This difference of God-given function between two ‘servants of God’ – the state to punish the evildoer, the individual Christian not to repay evil for evil, but to overcome evil with good – is bound to create a painful tension in all of us, specially because all of us in different degrees are both individuals and citizens of the state, and therefore share in both functions. For example, if my house is burgled one night and I catch the thief, it may well be my duty to sit him down and give him something to eat and drink, while at the same time telephoning the police.
Luther explained this tension by making a helpful distinction between our ‘person’ and our ‘office’. It was part of his teaching about the ‘two kingdoms’ which has, however, been justly criticized. He derived it from the text ‘Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s’. He saw in these words the existence of both a divine or spiritual realm, ‘the kingdom of Christ’, and a secular or temporal realm, ‘the kingdom of the world’ (or ‘of the emperor’). In the first, which he also called ‘the kingdom of God’s right hand’, the Christian lives as a ‘person’; in the second ‘the kingdom of God’s left hand’, he occupies an ‘office’ of some kind, whether as ‘father’, ‘master’, ‘prince’ or ‘judge’. ‘You must not confuse the two,’ Luther wrote, ‘your person or your office’.
Here is part of his application of this distinction to the command not to resist evil: a Christian ‘lives simultaneously as a Christian towards everyone, personally suffering all sorts of things in the world, and as a secular person, maintaining, using and performing all the functions required by the law of his territory or city…’ ‘A Christian should not resist any evil; but within the limits of his office a secular person should oppose every evil.’ ‘In short, the rule of the kingdom if Christ is the toleration of everything, forgiveness, and the recompense of evil with good. On the other hand, in the realm of the emperor, there should be no tolerance shown towards injustice, but rather a defence against wrong and a punishment of it,…according to what each one’s office or station may require.’ ‘Christ…is not saying “No one should ever resist evil” for that would completely undermine all rule and authority. But this is what he is saying: “You, you shall not do it”.’
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.