As people of God, as participants of the Kingdom of Heaven, as God’s image bearers representing God in this place; how do we respond to evil?
This is an important question because evil is all around us. We are bombarded with evil through the news, and through our own lives. Whether it is violence in our streets or individuals using power and force to manipulate us and control us, we are faced with evil everyday. Our gut reaction to evil is often to rise up and strike evil with a mighty blow. Culture convinces us that evil can only be destroyed through a stronger show of force. But what would Jesus do? How does Jesus want us to respond to evil?
“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.” (Matthew 5:38-42)
Jesus reminds his listeners of a common practice for retribution, the eye for eye principle. If one was confronted with evil the response was often met with an equal amount of force. If someone killed your ox, you could kill their ox. If someone broke your arm, you could break their arm. It’s important to note that one was not required to exchange equal force, but in many ways this principle limited the use of excessive force. The wronged party was not allowed to escalate the violence, punishment was limited to equal offense. It would also hopefully serve as a deterrent to evil. If I know the same harm will come to me I will hopefully be less likely to commit an offense to another.
The problem is that this principle continues the belief that evil must be responded to with force. It promotes the false notion that evil will only be stopped or deterred by a strong response and punishment. This then becomes our natural response. If I’m yelled at, I yell back. If I’m threatened, I threaten back. It’s the mentality that “no one will mess with me.”
But is that the way of Jesus? Is that how Jesus responds to evil, or commands us to respond to evil?
“You have heard that its said, eye for eye and tooth for tooth, but I say to you, do not resist an evil person” The words of Jesus go against our natural reaction or first response. When we see evil we want to use force or power to put evil in its place. Jesus, however, says not only do you stop at eye for eye, you actually don’t resist evil at all. Jesus says the way to overcome evil is to actually not resist it in the first place. Followers of Jesus don’t demand their rights. They don’t rise up and say I deserve better. They don’t argue and fight to reclaim honor. Instead, just as Jesus willingly suffered on the cross to overcome the evil of sin, followers of Jesus willing accept suffering as a way to disarm the powers of evil in the world. Followers of Jesus refuse to fight evil with more evil.
The counter-argument is that this way of Jesus doesn’t work. If you turn the other cheek you’ll just get slapped twice. If you willingly suffer or accept oppression and even go the extra mile, all you are doing is asking for more oppression. You’re just rolling over and allowing evil to control the world. But turning the other cheek or going the extra mile is not acting as if evil isn’t real. Patient endurance of evil does not somehow justify evil, it instead disarms evil and shows it to be the terrible reality that it is. Jesus still calls his followers to declare evil is evil, and to stand up to evil in all of its forms. However, Jesus reminds us that the way to stop evil is not through force, violence or fighting for our own honor. The way to stop evil is to willingly suffer, and choose to love instead of hate. In doing so, evil loses its power and is disarmed.
Now I’ll admit this doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t make sense that evil is overcome with good. It doesn’t make sense that through willingly suffering evil’s power is undone. It makes about as much sense as a hundred year old man and a ninety year old barren woman having a child or sending a shepherd to fight a professional soldier who is also a giant with a few stones. It makes about as much sense as a virgin having a child or the resurrection of Jesus. But if we can believe the resurrection, then maybe we can also accept that evil is disarmed not through force, but through willingly suffering and responding with good.