Turn the Other Cheek? Is Pacifism Right?

There have been suggestions that Israel should “Turn the other cheek” and not respond with more violence to the atrocities of October 7. The idea is that a pacifistic refusal to engage in more destruction would end the cycle of violence and bring peace. But is that true? What does the Bible have to say about war and violence? Here are some thoughts from one of our professors at ONE FOR ISRAEL's Bible college, Andreas Stutz, looking at the New Testament teaching of turning the other cheek.

The Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament

For a better understanding of the dilemma, it is helpful to compare the Mosaic Law and the New Testament. The Law given at Mount Sinai is part of a theocratic state: God defines what is required and what is forbidden – not only in regard to worship but also in regard to possession, to relationships, and even to wars. It is full of instructions on how to govern the entire nation according to God's will. Even the king is required to study intensively the law of God so he would know how to implement God’s will. Thus, the king is not a monarch who is free to do as he pleases but is to be God’s servant. In the Old Testament, war is not rare.

Now, the New Testament, especially the Sermon on the Mount, has passages that are often interpreted as support for a pacifistic worldview. See especially Matthew 5:38–42:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’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. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.”

However, it seems that these passages are addressing individuals in their private lives, not national leaders, politicians, policemen, or soldiers in their duty. A judge that demanded a victim of a robbery to forgive and not seek any justice would not be considered a good thing. Similarly, if a policeman were called to a rape victim and insisted that the victim forgive the rapist and not let him experience any consequences, it would be considered very problematic.

We do not want our judges and policemen to insist that the victims to turn the other cheek. Furthermore, it is striking that the Gospels do not contain instructions regarding political and judicial structures.

turn the other cheekFor example, while the New Testament gives explicit instructions for the election of deacons and elders, it does not give such instructions for the appointment of judges, policemen, etc. That is not to say that the faith of a judge, a policeman, and a soldier will not have a clear positive influence on his service. This is supported in Romans 13:4, where the government is twice described as God’s servant who holds the “sword” in its hand.

Turning back to Matthew 5:38–42 we may, then, conclude that Jesus addresses here His followers, calling them not to seek personal revenge. This seems also to be implied by the fact that Jesus speaks of someone slapping, taking away, and forcing “you.” Thus the question arises: What if I see someone hitting, rubbing, or threatening another person? What does my responsibility for a third party look like? But before tackling this question, more observations must be made. Well, though the New Testament does not explicitly solve such cases, we may recognize several fundamental biblical rules:

(1) I am to love my neighbor (Leviticus 19:18);

(2) My love for my neighbor must be practical (James 2:15–16);

(3) God wants us to protect the oppressed (Isaiah 1:17).

From all of this we may deduce that my love for my neighbor whom I see being oppressed, endangered, or threatened requires me to act – very practically. At times, this may require force. Thus, the call not to seek personal revenge must not be taken as forbidding us from protecting others. Thus, my neighbor is protected by his country — by the judicial system, by policemen, by fellow citizens who are called to love him… and by the army, which exists for our defense. Yes, the army is one more entity that has the task of protecting citizens from harm, that is, harm from outside. Here, too, the state has the “sword” (Romans 13:4).

Should believers serve in the army?

The question is then: Should disciples of Jesus serve in the army? There may be several reasons for answering this question with a negative. Let’s look into them:

(1) “Believers should not serve in the army because the Bible forbids killing.”
However, just as English, Hebrew differentiates between “killing” (which can even be the result of an accident) and “murdering” (which is motivated by comes out of hated, envy, and so on). In the Hebrew original, Exodus 20:13 does not say lo taharog (“You shall not kill”) but lo tirtsach (“You shall not murder”). Otherwise, God would contradict His holy will, when requiring capital punishment (death penalty) or war.

(2) “Believers should not serve in the army, because they could still act out of revenge.”
This is a valid concern, especially in the current situation where Israel was brutally attacked, there is the danger of revenge. However, there is a double response to that:

First, Israel has very specific rules that do not allow recklessness. Soldiers who do not obey these rules will face severe punishments. After all, a soldier is not on the field to act on behalf of his or her emotions, but on behalf of their country.

Second, and not less important, believing soldiers are required to fight their wish for revenge and act according to their conscience as they follow Jesus.

Thus, the Bible does not forbid believers to serve in the army. This conclusion is strengthened by John the Baptist’s answer to the soldiers who came to him:

“Some soldiers were questioning him, saying, ‘And what about us, what shall we do?’ And he said to them, ‘Do not take money from anyone by force, or accuse anyone falsely, and be content with your wages.’” (Luke 3:14, NASB)

John does not say to them: “Stop being a soldier.” A soldier should be a loyal and trustworthy servant of the people, just as a judge and a policeman. A soldier should regard himself to be a protector of his fellow citizens, protecting them from those who want to eliminate them.

While it is true that believers are not required to seek to serve as soldiers (or, even more, as soldiers on the front line), I cannot see how serving their country as soldiers, selflessly protecting their neighbors, contradicts God’s word.

In the current situation, protecting Israel’s citizens may mean very practically eliminating the Hamas and the Islamic Jihad. These organizations have made it their highest goal, their core objective, to murder the Jewish people… including old people, handicapped people, and mothers with their infants. Regretfully, the horrors of the current situation have demonstrated that stopping them requires destroying their houses and killing them. This will, hopefully, ensure the security of Israel’s citizens. Note, that Israel did not seek or initiate this war, but was forced into it. May God bring an end to it swiftly.

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