Pacifism and Retaliation

How does the principle of “turn the other cheek” work in a world threatened with violence, terrorism, and war?

Portrait of an angry man ready for retaliation and revenge. (Image: © Bigstock/Aaron Amat)

Yeshua instructed His disciples to forgive injury and insult and forgo retaliation. He asked them to set aside their personal right to demand “an eye for an eye” and to turn the other cheek. He said, “I say to you, do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also” (Matthew 5:39).

The Master’s censure on retaliation does not extend to an institutional level. He did not ask law courts to set aside justice for the sake of mercy, nor did He ask governments to adopt policies of pacifism and appeasement toward tyrants and adversaries. In no way does Yeshua imply that the Torah’s measure-for-measure principle of justice should be abandoned.

Imagine what would happen if a court of law decided to apply Yeshua’s instructions to the courtroom. Imagine a case involving an assailant and his victim. Suppose the judge decided to be merciful and pardon the guilty criminal on the basis of Matthew 5:38-39. Then he told the victim that she must turn the other cheek and forgive the assailant. Such a court would be guilty of committing a serious injustice. God is a God of justice and truth, not injustice.

Likewise, some followers of Yeshua use the “do not resist an evil person” passage to justify an ideology of pacifism and non-violence. When we understand the words, “do not resist an evil person” from a Semitic and Jewish perspective and then compare those words with similar passages from the Hebrew Scriptures, Yeshua’s words carry the more direct meaning of “do not compete with an evil person in doing evil,” i.e., “do not retaliate.” The Delitzsch Hebrew English version of Matthew follows a similar rendering: “Do not retaliate against a wicked person.” That is to say, “Do not repay evil with evil.” Paul paraphrases the Master’s teaching when he says, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:21).

Do not say, “I will repay evil”; wait for the LORD, and He will save you. (Proverbs 20:22)

Do not say, “Thus I shall do to him as he has done to me; I will render to the man according to his work.” (Proverbs 24:29)

Forgiveness is the prerogative and privilege of the injured. No one else can forgive on his or her behalf. Yeshua’s teachings against retaliation, personal vengeance, and demanding one’s “pound of flesh” apply to the individual, not to a court of law, not to a community, and not to a government. Indeed, a court that set aside the principles of punishment and fair compensation would be an unjust court. An administration that refused to protect its citizens from aggression based on a principle of non-retaliation would be an unfit government. But praiseworthy and pious is the man or woman who willingly chooses to forgive an offender and forego his or her right to exact a measure of retaliation.

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