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Non-Violent Resistance to Evil

Tolstoy says, "The Dotrine of non-resistance to evil by force has been professed by a minority of men from the very foundation of christianity" (Kingdom of God, p. 1). He sites many different players in the Christian world as defenders of the true faith in this holy doctrine, from the Quakers to the Mennonites to the Society for Non-Resistance founded by William Loyd Garrison (the famous champion of the emancipation) to the writtings of Adin Ballou and Tsech Helchitsky (15th c.). With this crowd of wittnesses, all of which claim to be prepared to die for the sins of the evil, what is the sincere disciple of Christ to do? Are we prepared to give all of our power back to the hoplessly unrighteous and proceed in progress towards the kingdom unarmed? Does God require this, or can we be Christians and killers at the same time? Or, is this doctrine as Tolstoy says actually the cornerstone of Christ's Kingdom?
Generally, the idea of non-resistance to evil is based on passages such as Matthew 5:39: "do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also"; and Romans 12:17: "Never pay back evil for evil to anyone. espect what is right in the sight of all men." However, the Bible does not really teach that we should never resist or oppose evil.

In fact, both Matthew 5:39 and Romans 12:17 are speaking of revenge, not of preventing evil. Matthew 5:39 is Jesus' twist on the popular misuse of the Old Testament standard of an eye for an eye (Matt. 5:38). People in his day were demanding exact justice and retribution, and were not forgiving. His teaching was not that we should let evil run rampant, but that we should make room for mercy, and that our default response should be grace. He did not mean by this that we should never use violence or force to withstand evil (compare his instruction to the disciples to arm themselves in Luke 22:36-38). In the same way, Romans 12:17 is explicitly about revenge, not resisting or preventing evil. The context of 12:17-19 makes this clear, as does the very language of "pay back."

Notice that in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus stated that the Old Testament Law was still in effect (Matt. 5:17-20) when he gave his instruction about turning the other cheek. Part of the Old Testament Law stipulates that a woman who is raped is to call out for help, i.e. she is to resist the rape, and those who hear her call are also to resist the rape (Deut. 22:23-27). Similarly, many passages teach the importance of defending others (e.g. Prov. 31:9; Isa. 1:17,23; Jer. 5:28).

The only exceptions to this seem to be when Christians themselves suffer for the sake of the gospel, and only then when it leads to the opportunity to testify for the gospel (e.g. Luke 21:12-14).

I'm afraid I must disagree with Tolstoy et al. quite strenuously on this point. Christians are not to let people rape their wives, daughters or selves; they are not to let murderers take lives at will; they are not to make it easy for evil to triumph. Rather, we are to be forces of good in the world, and we are to defend those who need defending -- including ourselves most of the time. As well-meaning as they may be who advocate non-resistance, they are presenting an irresponsible view. But let's not end on that note -- we also need to recognize the force of the Bible's exhortations to be patient, forgiving, restrained people. We are not to let vengeance motivate us, and we are not to use the evil others do as an excuse to do evil ourselves. We must be strong, but we must also be forgiving and slow to anger (Jam. 1:19).

Answer by Ra McLaughlin

Ra McLaughlin is Vice President of Creative Delivery Systems at Third Millennium Ministries.