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April 29, 2012

A path away from Passivism, better not taken

I was surprised, about a decade ago, to find someone who proclaimed himself a Christian and a Biblical Literalist (his capital letters) - but who didn't think the Sermon on the Mount applied to him.

He'd been talking on a political forum about how the best thing to do to pacifists was punch them in the face, wait for them to get up, ask them if they were still pacifists, and if they said yes, punch them in the face again, then repeat. Yes. That was his gentle version.

I asked him how it squared with his proclaimed faith and the Sermon on the Mount that's generally front and center in Christian conversation, and he said, no, no, the Sermon on the Mount is "kingdom teaching". It's a nice idea now, but only tells you what the kingdom to come will look like. In the meantime, it doesn't apply to Christians.

I was puzzled, but over the next few years later I found more discussion of this approach, which seems to come from the dispensationalist interpretation of the Scofield Reference Bible. If you take the notes to the Sermon on the Mount in that Bible literally, you can reach that conclusion, exempting yourself from considering the Sermon on the Mount (and its parallels, and many other similar passages) obligatory.

The notes (which are now out of copyright) read:

Having announced the kingdom of heaven as "at hand," the King, in Mat 5.-7., declares the principles of the kingdom. The Sermon on the Mount has a twofold application:

  1. literally to the kingdom. In this sense it gives the divine constitution for the righteous government of the earth. Whenever the kingdom of heaven is established on earth it will be according to that constitution, which may be regarded as an explanation of the word "righteousness" as used by the prophets in describing the kingdom (e.g.) Isaiah 11:4 Isaiah 11:5 ; 32:1 ; Daniel 9:24

    In this sense the Sermon on the Mount is pure law, and transfers the offence from the overt act to the motive. Matthew 5:21 Matthew 5:22 Matthew 5:27 Matthew 5:28 . Here lies the deeper reason why the Jews rejected the kingdom. They had reduced "righteousness" to mere ceremonialism, and the Old Testament idea of the kingdom to a mere affair of outward splendour and power. They were never rebuked for expecting a visible and powerful kingdom, but the words of the prophets should have prepared them to expect also that only the poor in spirit and the meek could share in it (e.g.) Isaiah 11:4 . The seventy-second Psalm, which was universally received by them as a description of the kingdom, was full of this.

    For these reasons, the Sermon on the Mount in its primary application gives neither the privilege nor the duty of the Church. These are found in the Epistles. Under the law of the kingdom, for example, no one may hope for forgiveness who has not first forgiven. Matthew 6:12 Matthew 6:14 Matthew 6:15 . Under grace the Christian is exhorted to forgive because he is already forgiven. Ephesians 4:30-32 .

  2. But there is a beautiful moral application to the Christian. It always remains true that the poor in spirit, rather than the proud, are blessed, and those who mourn because of their sins, and who are meek in the consciousness of them, will hunger and thirst after righteousness, and hungering, will be filled. The merciful are "blessed," the pure in heart do "see God." These principles fundamentally reappear in the teaching of the Epistles.

(line breaks and emphasis added)

Though this certainly strikes many of the components of the earlier description of the Passivist conversation, it has many other consequences. (American premillenial dispensationalists did, for a long time, find other reasons to stay out of activism beyond what they considered strictly religious, but returned as a force in the political world over the past several decades.)

I've never found Scofield's reading of the Bible to be anything close to literal or even to resemble plausible. I can't propose this approach as an acceptable path away from Passivism.

April 28, 2012

A Recipe for Christian Passivism

I've spent a lot of the last few years contemplating the difference between "pacifism" and what I call "passivism" - sometimes dismissively, sometimes appreciatively.

Passivism comes from a plausible reading of the New Testament. It gets used on defense:

"I don't do X because I'm imperfect and it's God's to change."

It also gets used on offense:

"You shouldn't do X because it's God's to change and who do think you are you imperfect person, you hypocrite."

It can bring arguments to a sudden end, as people who've deployed it for offense have frequently also used it for defense, and find criticism of this point personally, well, offensive.

How do you get here? It's not difficult to proof-text, even just from the Sermon on the Mount. Citations are from Matthew, in the King James Version. (I cite the KJV because it's a translation whose creators' biases run largely against my own.) I've bolded verses I've personally heard deployed to criticize other people or to justify inaction.

Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.(5:5)

Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy. (5:7)

Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God. (5:9)

Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake.

Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: (5:11-12)

I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment: and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire.

Therefore if thou bring thy gift to the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath ought against thee;

Leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift.

Agree with thine adversary quickly, whiles thou art in the way with him; lest at any time the adversary deliver thee to the judge, and the judge deliver thee to the officer, and thou be cast into prison.

Verily I say unto thee, Thou shalt by no means come out thence, till thou hast paid the uttermost farthing. (5:22-26)

Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth:

But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.

And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloak also.

And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain.

Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away.

Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy.

But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you;

That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.

For if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye? do not even the publicans the same?

And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more than others? do not even the publicans so?

Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.(5:38-48)

Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on. Is not the life more than meat, and the body than raiment? (6:25)

But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.

Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof. (6:34-35)

Judge not, that ye be not judged.

For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.

And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother's eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?

Or how wilt thou say to thy brother, Let me pull out the mote out of thine eye; and, behold, a beam is in thine own eye?

Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother's eye. (7:1-5)

That's a large part of the Sermon on the Mount, much of which repeats in the Sermon on the Plain (Luke 17-49). Matthew 22:31 provides the oft-quoted "Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's; and unto God the things that are God's."

It's not just Jesus' statements, but what he does. He regularly dines with the unjust (tax collectors, or publicans as the KJV calls them), bringing salvation to the house of Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-9) and following up with a parable (19:12-27) about how "unto every one which hath shall be given; and from him that hath not, even that he hath shall be taken away from him." (Luke 19:26).

Jesus heals the servant of a centurion, "a man under authority, having soldiers under me" (Matthew 8:9) and says of him, "I have not found so great faith, no, not in Israel" (Matthew 8:10). He defends the woman who took "an alabaster box of very precious ointment, and poured it on his head", in a feisty conversation with his disciples:

Now when Jesus was in Bethany, in the house of Simon the leper,

There came unto him a woman having an alabaster box of very precious ointment, and poured it on his head, as he sat at meat.

But when his disciples saw it, they had indignation, saying, To what purpose is this waste?

For this ointment might have been sold for much, and given to the poor.

When Jesus understood it, he said unto them, Why trouble ye the woman? for she hath wrought a good work upon me.

For ye have the poor always with you; but me ye have not always.

For in that she hath poured this ointment on my body, she did it for my burial.

Verily I say unto you, Wheresoever this gospel shall be preached in the whole world, there shall also this, that this woman hath done, be told for a memorial of her.

Then one of the twelve, called Judas Iscariot, went unto the chief priests...

See where questioning Jesus about wasted wealth takes you?

When one of the disciples cuts off the ear of a servant of the high priest, come to take Jesus to his trial and crucifixion, Jesus immediately heals him. (Luke 22:50-51).

In Acts 8:26-40, Philip baptizes the Ethiopian, "an eunuch of great authority... who had the charge of all her treasure" without ever stopping to question that authority.

Paul has similar moments. Perhaps the most startling today is Colossians 3:22, "slaves, obey your masters," which the KJV broadens a bit to servants:

Servants, obey in all things your masters according to the flesh; not with eyeservice, as menpleasers; but in singleness of heart, fearing God;

The Letter to Titus reinforces that:

Exhort servants to be obedient unto their own masters, and to please them well in all things; not answering again;

Not purloining, but shewing all good fidelity; that they may adorn the doctrine of God our Saviour in all things. (Titus 2:9-10)

Another piece from Paul, Romans 13:1-7, is a classic text often used to argue that Christians should obey the civil authority regardless of what it does:

Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God.

Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation.

For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same:

For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.

Wherefore ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake.

For for this cause pay ye tribute also: for they are God's ministers, attending continually upon this very thing.

Render therefore to all their dues: tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honour to whom honour.

There are others, but this list is, I think, most of the foundation.

After reading all this, can you still imagine daring to interfere with the workings of the world? (Yes, that's next.)