Several weeks ago I spent several successive blogdays discussing aspects of the Christian’s relationship to civil government. I don’t believe any of those essays dealt directly with resistance vs. nonresistance. It appears to be assumed by some Christians that followers of Jesus must always be submissive to government; other Christians presume that the nature of the conflict of the two kingdoms requires resistance at some points.
I might just note here, though, that the term “pacifist,” which I define in a somewhat uncommon way, has historically modified two distinct groups and their respective ideological paths. Some have ended up in resistance movements that had civil disobedience as one of their hallmarks. This group found it incumbent on them to follow Jesus in ways that meant active peace-making as it were. Others (think Amish, maybe? and I am also in this camp, to an extent) ended up in more or less passive pacifist positions that did not typically resist actively or become otherwise “involved,” but rather viewed themselves as separate from the world.
Dale Brown’s Biblical Pacificsm observes the following:
Vocational Ethic. Reinhold Niebuhr approved the vocational status of some who model a pacificist rule consistent with the ideals of the Sermon on the Mount. He derived this from his conviction that agape (love) example of Jesus and his contemporary followers is needed to help the rest of society determine lesser of two evils. Niebuhr approved the witness of the Mennonites who were satisfied to model the pacifism of Jesus in their communities without attempting to convert all of society to the same. He opposed those like Quakers [including former President Richard Nixon, curiously! -bc] who attempt to tell politicians in Washington D.C. what to do. He agreed with nonresistant pacificists in their belief that we cannot expect an unredeemed society to live by the Sermon on the Mount. However, Niebuhr did affirm the Sermon’s peaceful ways are normative for all faithful disciples of Jesus.
Personal Ethic. Martin Luther believed that the Christlike ethic of the Sermon on the Mount should guide personal relationships in what he called the “spiritual realm.” But in the temporal realm the divine order of God, discerned through ethics derived from natural law and reason, can demand the use of the sword. Unlike some Anabaptist ethical reasoning that proposes a kingdom ethic for Christians and another ethic for the state, Luther called Christians to live in both realms. As an individual Christian, one must refuse to take up arms even in self-defense. As a citizen soldier, one can be required by one’s government to kill for the good of one’s neighbor. p. 29-30
Despite general admiration for Luther and his opposition to corruption and misguidance in the Catholic system, and despite this courageous man’s articulation of some sound theologies, I find him dead wrong on this point. I cannot reconcile being one person one day, and another person the next–serving two masters, if you will.
It might also be noted that the so-called Sermon on the Mount was not necessarily delivered as one “sermon.” The assumption by scholars seems to be that Matthew collected the sayings which are duly attributable to Jesus, but that he arranged them himself in a literary formulation that was not in every point consistent with the chronology of Jesus’ delivery. Particularly, in this context: I certainly believe, with most other Christians, that Jesus taught such things as “turn the other cheek”; it is the literary proximity–the packaging-up, as it were–of these sayings in the “Sermon” that deserves inquiry.
Perhaps more clearly stated: Matthew and his successors in the early church appear to have found the cheek-turning teaching consistent with the character and teachings of Jesus, or this passage would not have found its way into the canon. But the particular order of points in Matthew 5-7 probably reflects more of Matthew’s (inspired) literary purpose than the actual historical order of Jesus’ oral delivery.
Now, more significantly for most lives in the West, the questions might be at what points do you consider nonresistance to government appropriate? Have you ever participated in civil disobedience for the cause of Christ?
As for me, I have decided that ignoring or reinterpreting “law” is sometimes called for, but I cannot honestly say that I have ever been put the position of choosing Jesus over Caesar. Humans tend to confuse their purposes with those of the kingdom of God, so instances of civil disobedience take on more of the flavor of pulpiteering or soapboxing than legitimate standing-up-for-Jesus. I routinely drive across parking spaces in shopping centers if it won’t hinder or hurt anyone else, but this is not a cause that has anything to do with the Kingdom of God. A more significant matter in our time would be pro-gay (and some anti-gay) activists who sometimes appear to feel they are doing something significant for religion, but they seem to me to be doing something more for themselves and for political causes than for the reign of God in human hearts.