The Evangelical Universalist Forum

Jesus Commanded Non-Resistance

(Matthew 5:39 ESV) But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.

Many professing Christians cannot take seriously these words of our Lord. They argue, "If an evil person begins to fire a gun at you and your family, are you going to stand there and let him do it?

Leo Tolstoi was a man who took Jesus’ words seriously. Tolstoi carried out practically what Jesus commanded. He was a rich count in Russia who owned many lands. He gave his money and his lands to the peasants, and lived like a peasant himself thereafter. Here’s what he wrote about non-resistance:

Jesus has shown me that the fourth temptation destructive to my happiness is the resort to violence for the resistance of evil. I am obliged to believe that this is an evil for myself and for others; consequently, I cannot, as I did once, deliberately resort to violence, and seek to justify my action with the pretext that it is indispensable for the defence of my person and property, or of the persons and property of others. I can no longer yield to the first impulse to resort to violence; I am obliged to renounce it, and to abstain from it altogether.

But this is not all. I understand now the snare that caused me to fall into this evil. I know now that the snare consisted in the erroneous belief that my life could be made secure by violence, by the defense of my person and property against the encroachments of others. I know now that a great portion of the evils that afflict mankind are due to this,—that men, instead of giving their work for others, deprive themselves completely of the privilege of work, and forcibly appropriate the labor of their fellows. Every one regards a resort to violence as the best possible security for life and for property, and I now see that a great portion of the evil that I did myself, and saw others do, resulted from this practice.

And here is his answer to the objections people raise to practicing what Jesus commanded against resistance:

I once thought that if a foreign invasion occurred, or even if evil-minded persons attacked me, and I did not defend myself, I should be robbed and beaten and tortured and killed with those whom I felt bound to protect, and this possibility troubled me. But this that once troubled me now seems desirable and in conformity with the truth. I know now that the foreign enemy and the malefactors or brigands are all men like myself; that, like myself, they love good and hate evil; that they live as I live, on the borders of death; and that, with me, they seek for salvation, and will find it in the doctrine of Jesus. The evil that they do to me will be evil to them, and so can be nothing but good for me. But if truth is unknown to them, and they do evil thinking that they do good, I, who know the truth, am bound to reveal it to them, and this I can do only by refusing to participate in evil, and thereby confessing the truth by my example.

“But hither come the enemy,—Germans, Turks, savages; if you do not make war on them, they will exterminate you!” They will do nothing of the sort. If there were a society of Christian men that did evil to none and gave of their labor for the good of others, such a society would have no enemies to kill or to torture them. The foreigners would take only what the members of this society voluntarily gave, making no distinction between Russians, or Turks, or Germans. But when Christians live in the midst of a non-Christian society which defends itself by force of arm, and calls upon the Christians to join in waging war, then the Christians have an opportunity for revealing the truth to them who know it not. A Christian knowing the truth bears witness of the truth before others, and this testimony can be made manifest only by example. He must renounce war and do good to all men, whether they are foreigners or compatriots.

“But there are wicked men among compatriots; they will attack a Christian, and if the latter do not defend himself, will pillage and massacre him and his family.” No; they will not do so. If all the members of this family are Christians, and consequently hold their lives only for the service of others, no man will be found insane enough to deprive such people of the necessaries of life or to kill them. The famous Maclay lived among the most bloodthirsty of savages; they did not kill him, they reverenced him and followed his teachings, simply because he did not fear them, exacted nothing from them, and treated them always with kindness.

“But what if a Christian lives in a non-Christian family, accustomed to defend itself and its property by a resort to violence, and is called upon to take part in measures of defence?” This solicitation is simply an appeal to the Christian to fulfil the decrees of truth. A Christian knows the truth only that he may show it to others, more especially to his neighbors and to those who are bound to him by ties of blood and friendship, and a Christian can show the truth only by refusing to join in the errors of others, by taking part neither with aggressors or defenders, but by abandoning all that he has to those who will take it from him, thus showing by his acts that he has need of nothing save the fulfilment of the will of God, and that he fears nothing except disobedience to that will.

“But how, if the government will not permit a member of the society over which it has sway, to refuse to recognize the fundamental principles of governmental order or to decline to fulfil the duties of a citizen? The government exacts from a Christian the oath, jury service, military service, and his refusal to conform to these demands may be punished by exile, imprisonment, and even by death.” Then, once more, the exactions of those in authority are only an appeal to the Christian to manifest the truth that is in him. The exactions of those in authority are to a Christian the exactions of those who do not know the truth. Consequently, a Christian who knows the truth must bear witness of the truth to those who know it not. Exile and imprisonment and death afford to the Christian the possibility of bearing witness of the truth, not in words, but in acts. Violence, war, brigandage, executions, are not accomplished through the forces of unconscious nature; they are accomplished by men who are blinded, and do not know the truth. Consequently, the more evil these men do to Christians, the further they are from the truth, the more unhappy they are, and the more necessary it is that they should have knowledge of the truth. Now a Christian cannot make known his knowledge of truth except by abstaining from the errors that lead men into evil; he must render good for evil. This is the life-work of a Christian, and if it is accomplished, death cannot harm him, for the meaning of his life can never be destroyed.

—Leo Tolstoi from "My Religion

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There is a Christian form of resistance. In spiritual warfare the Bible tells us to fight. Resist the devil and he will flee. The way I do this is a relaxation exercise. I calm myself by calming the mind and body. It’s a letting go or surrendering. When we surrender we win. Relaxation influences our entire state slowing racing thoughts and jumping. It also sedates the body and impulses (temptations) from moving and springing every which way. Relaxation (resting in God or letting go and trusting God) dampens the emotions so they don’t create such intense fear, anxiety, or worry. This all happens naturally. The simple act of resting in God (relaxing) slows the mental, emotional and physical being. There is no need to struggle or put force into resisting an impulse or ignoring a feeling. You just work on calming yourself and the rest takes care of itself. This is resisting the devil.

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I’ve read all that you’ve posted by Tolstoi, as well as the much longer piece you linked to some time ago, and have received some benefit from it.
Still, I cannot fault a Christian, or anyone for that matter, that is convinced that a large portion of showing love for neighbor or family is, in fact, defending them from harm. The quote above says clearly that the ONLY way a Christian shows ‘the truth’ is by NOT defending self or others; am I reading that correctly? That a Christian really is NOT a follower of Christ if he defends his family or neighbor from an aggressor? Surely that must be articulated more clearly to allow for basic human love, for prudence, for order?

So do you thereby consider Jesus to have been mistaken by commanding non-resistance to evil people?

I’m discussing Tolstoi, actually, and disagreeing with his take on the subject - specifically, inferring that it is sub-Christian to show love by defending others. Which, I think, is nonsense.

Then how you regard Jesus’ instructions for non-resistance? Either Jesus was mistaken, or else He was applying non-resistance in a limited way, such as to those who might strike you or your neighbour, but not to those who might kill you or your neighbour.

I’m not sure that your either-or is a valid objection. I’m sure he was not mistaken; I’m not so sure we understand what he said then and there.
And I don’t think we can divide who is a Christian and who isn’t on the basis of that verse - do you?

Paidion, you know I believe God does not kill people, or want anyone else to kill people, either.

But I don’t believe that “following in the footsteps of Jesus” includes passively allowing ourselves or our loved ones to be murdered or violated. After all, in the divine exchange at the cross, JESUS was already rejected, defrauded, and killed on our behalf, so that WE could be accepted, blessed, and privileged with abundant life.

So yes, I believe the non-resistance Jesus spoke of had a limited application: we are not to seek vengeance.

Regarding divine protection available to us today: we may remember, for example, the prophet Elisha, who supernaturally knew of coming ambush attempts against the life of the king of Israel (by the king of Aram), and would warn his king. These failed attempts frustrated and angered the king of Aram, who was told it was because of the supernatural warnings provided by Elisha. Nevertheless, the king of Aram foolishly believed he could get Elisha out of the way by sending his army to surround him at Dothan, somehow taking the prophet by surprise(!):

…And no one had to die. Also, Psalm 91 has great promises to be invoked regarding divine and angelic protection.

Believing as I do now about God’s true nature, I can no longer endorse Christians going into the military to possibly kill and be killed. Nevertheless, the prophet John the Baptist’s instruction to kingdom-seeking soldiers regarding repentance included nothing about them leaving the military:

Luke 3:14
Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?” He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.”

And Peter had no exhortation to the godly centurion Cornelius to repent of the military (Acts 10)–whereas slaves were exhorted by Paul to leave that state and gain their freedom if they could (1 Cor. 7:21).

You’ve made some good observations there, Hermano.

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Those ARE good points. What would Jesus say, Don?

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Interesting discussion! An instruction not to resist evil folk sounds just like the kind of language the Anabaptist interpretation would rest on. OTOH it sounds to most of us as nonsense for violating reasonable love toward others more innocent, and it’s not clear whether such words are meant to apply to every context. Plus there is not much clear addressing of the later assumption of Christian roles in differing spheres wherein participation in lethal violence would be appropriate in some contexts.

OTOH the whole corpus of Jesus and the apostles lacks much support for any call to respond to evil people with bodily assault. It’s most explicit about preferring the witness of martyrdom to striking back. And it’s as least striking that it appears the centuries of the church nearest to these texts widely read them as calling for consistent non-violence.

The only often touted exception is Jesus’ words about his ministry coming to a point where swords would be the need. But with the offering of numerous non-literal interpretations of this saying (and Jesus explicit rebuke when swords were used, or any other kind of violence was affirmed by his disciples), it’s hard for me to feel that the possible implication here that Jesus is saying to actually use swords in their defense is enough to outweigh the consistently clear and profoundly challenging call to respond to the wicked and enemies with love that would explicitly follow his model of laying down his life, rather than assert their own rights to preservation.

I.e. I sense Jesus’ words push me in one direction, while my own ‘moral reasoning’ pushes me in the other.

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It could be that those were not Jesus’ words. Moral cunundrem solved! :grinning:

BUT, <insert: waiting for Don to invalidate your points>…

It is in fact that simple… in all my years of study it wasn’t until I came to this universalist forum that such as this and related options never existed for consideration — but they fix so much :wink:

As a non-fundamentalist, my tension is not that I feel bound by the text’s account of words. It is that
I sense that my ego’s own self-preserving instinctive ‘reasoning’ may need to be challenged by the Gospel’s portrait of Jesus’ example and his apparent call to replace my inclination to justify lex talionis with a commitment to a more sacrificial peacemaking.

You don’t trust your own judgement? I have been there, but don’t operate from that mode any longer. I am willing to hear all sides, but I decide what is right. And, sure, I might be wrong, but I could be wrong just as much by not trusting my own judgment on the matter and instead look to a book, text, person, etc…

No, while I do think my judgment is plenty fallible, you aren’t seeming to recognize that my statement
that I think my more egotistic instincts need to be challenged IS precisely & entirely my own judgment.

You didn’t come to a conclusion though. Are you fence sitting on this one?

I think we should recognize Jesus sometimes used hyperbole to emphasize a point like if your hand causes you to sin the cut it off! Didn’t Paul qualify this statement by speaking about a similar topic but saying “to the extent possible” in referring to living in peace? Also IMO we do not have a right to sacrifice the lives of others in the quest of being a martyr. By loving our neighbor and family we should defend them if necessary against harm. If a financial swindler wanted to trick our neighbor into giving him their house should we warn our neighbor about this or not help? Is physical violence against our neighbor or family less important?


Well, I did conclude that my ego can use challenging. But if you mean, did I express seeing both sides of the debate about justifying violence, yes that’s what I reflected. I don’t always have total certainty about when it’s good to wage war, or that a person is justified in using deadly force against another, etc.

I be believe the Anabaptist emphasis on finding ways to pursue peacemaking is valuable rather than so instinctively resorting to force and violence, but I’m not convinced of a consistently pacifist posture. Do you always feel dogmatic about such things, and see those who straddle any fences as weak?