Resist Not Evil
It is an amazing thing, that Jesus should tell His followers to “Resist not Evil” (Matthew 5:39). Aren’t we to shun evils as sins against God? Doesn’t Swedenborg tell us that the shunning of evils is the heart and core of the Christian religion? Didn’t Jesus Himself resist evil when tempted in the wilderness? Wait a minute! Read the context and you will see He was not speaking here of evil suggestions from the devil, which of course must be resisted. He was referring to unpleasant things directed against us by other people. “Whosoever shall smite thee on the one cheek, turn to him the other also; and if any man take away thy coat, let him have thy cloak also.” Resist not evil actions! Do not retaliate, do not attempt to defend yourself. Calmly submit to whatever comes along.
I have heard it said, “Oh, Jesus could not have been speaking literally; we must understand Him spiritually only.” And indeed, there is a problem here. Sometimes I believe Jesus was only speaking spiritually, as when He said: “If thy hand offend thee, cut it off; and if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out.” How can we tell what to take literally and what spiritually? The only guideline I know of is, How did Jesus Himself act? His words cannot be understood apart from His life. He not only spoke the Word of God, but was Himself the Word made flesh. I do not believe that Jesus meant literally that we were to cut off our hand or gouge out our eyeballs or mutilate ourselves physically in any way, because there is no record that His immediate disciples did this, which they would certainly have done if He had meant them to. The same test can be applied to the “signs” which He said would follow those that believe: “They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing it shall not hurt them; and they shall lay hands on the sick and they shall recover.” I take the first two signs spiritually, not literally, because we have no record that Jesus Himself handled snakes or drank poison to demonstrate His immunity. But the third sign, that they should heal with the laying on of hands, I do take literally, because Jesus Himself was apparently doing this, every day of His life.
Now, how about resisting evil? Jesus strongly resisted many of the evils of his day. Hypocrisy, for instance. “Woe unto you, Scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!” In the film version of the Book of Matthew, which uses only the actual words of the Gospel, Jesus comes through as an “angry young man,” not at all the meek and unresisting person we usually think of him as. It was his implacable condemnation of the corruptions of the establishment that brought about his downfall, humanly speaking. But, on the other hand, when He Himself was under attack, He uttered not a word! Arrested and tried for His life, first before the Sanhedrim or Council of Priests and then before Pilate the Roman Procurator, He refused to say anything in His own defense. Misjudged, accused falsely, blamed for what He had never said or done, He uttered not a word, so that Pilate marveled. He was simply acting in literal conformity with His own teachings, given in the Sermon on the Mount, “Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you, falsely, for my sake.” Don’t resist evil; accept it, let people say what they will. It can’t hurt you if your conscience is clear; and if your conscience is not clear, then the criticism may help you to get it clear! So, in either case, let it come.
I learnt this in one area in my teens, long before I ever came into the ministry. I had written a very immature article in our church magazine, and someone had scathingly criticized it in the correspondence column in the next issue. I rushed to my own defense with an equally scathing reply, of which I was very proud. My minister, who was a wise man, said, “Why did you write that letter? Don’t you know you have cheapened yourself by writing in your own defense?” I said, “Well, the accusations were false; I had to put the record straight.” “Why?” he asked. “Well, I couldn’t leave people thinking badly of me like that!” “They will think worse of you now,” he said. And that, of course, is true, even on the lowest level. When someone is attacked, people sympathize with him and take his side, but if he strikes back, they think: “Oh, he’s as bad as the one who attacked him!” But on a deeper level too; we do cheapen ourselves if we try to defend ourselves, to justify ourselves, to “put the record straight,” as we say. The only time we need to put the record straight is if someone else is involved, and then we must do it for the sake of the other person. But to get indignant on our own account is always harmful, even if it is fully justified. It panders to our pride, our ego; and this does more damage to us, spiritually, than anything the unkind critic could do or say. What if you have been falsely represented? It won’t hurt you! There is only one person who can hurt you spiritually: you yourself.
Some people seem to be proud of their hurt feelings. They think it proves they are sensitive, highly strung, of a special and superior nervous quality. Actually, anybody’s ego becomes sensitive if it is blown up; but a swollen ego is something to be ashamed of rather than proud of. The fact that you are easily hurt at any particular point is an indication that you are sore or sick at that point. You should examine yourself and try to see why you were hurt, why you reacted in the way you did. Then, instead of striking back, you should set about trying to put things right within yourself. Let the prick burst the inflated ego! It is rather like bursting one of those blown-up air balloons that children have; prick them and they almost disappear! If our pride is burst, we no longer react to what previously caused the hurt feelings, and so we are no longer hurt. We can be slighted, misjudged, ignored, insulted, without taking offence. It all falls off us like water off a duck’s back.
Our calm refusal to justify ourself may land us into trouble. In the case of Jesus Christ, it took Him to the cross; and it may lead us in the same direction. But isn’t that what Christianity is all about? Jesus said: “Take up your cross and follow me.” The cross was the Roman instrument of punishment, but the Romans were not particularly concerned as to whether the victim was or was not guilty of any crime. Jesus, as we know, was completely innocent. And so the cross has come to symbolize: “Deliberate and willing submission to undeserved punishment.” Whenever you see a cross you should remember the words of our text: “Resist not evil.”
Let’s come down now to specifics. Does this mean that, if a mugger attacks you in the street, you should not try to defend yourself? It is not an easy question, and it deserves careful consideration. When the people of Nazareth attacked Jesus and tried to throw him over the cliff, he simply “passed through them and went his way.” (Luke 4:30). He was protected by the strength of his personality. And numerous other cases are on record where people’s lives have been saved by the sphere of innocence surrounding them. I read of a girl who was seized by gangsters in New York, and one of them pressed the point of a knife in her side and said he would kill her if she cried out. She was perfectly calm and untroubled, and smiled, and said she was quite prepared to die because Jesus was with her. Soon the men got bored and felt ashamed and let her go. There is a similar story in one of Shakespeare’s lesser-known plays, Pericles Prince of Tyre. We are each one of us surrounded by a sphere, which attracts or repels the spheres of other people; and if this sphere is heavenly it protects us from harm. Even animals feel our sphere and react to it, which is the basis of the legend of St. Jerome and the lion, and of many incidents in the life of St. Francis of Assisi and other saints who had dangerous animals fawning on them and eating out of their hands.
Even if our characters are not yet sufficiently mature to surround us with a protective sphere, a willingness to submit to evil can be beneficial in the long run. It was the martyrs, who literally took up their crosses and followed Jesus, who eventually won the world for Christianity. Without striking a blow, they defeated the military might of the Roman Empire, the greatest Empire of the ancient world; which was more than the Goths and Visigoths and Vandals and Huns could do with all their violence and cruelty. And, strangely enough, the British Empire, the greatest Empire of modern times, began its collapse in India with the so-called Passive Resistance Movement led by Gandhi, which was so passive that it could hardly be said to “resist” at all! And future historians will probably say that one of the major forces in twentieth century America has been the “Non-Violent Movement for Social Change” inaugurated by the Rev. Martin Luther King.
There is no future for the aggressive, belligerent, violent man or nation. Assyria, the wolf among the nations of antiquity, disappeared from the face of the earth within a few years of the ultimate defeat of its army. Hitler and Mussolini are no more, and their like will probably never arise again. Looking through a fossil bed in South Africa we saw remains of the saber-tooth tiger, perhaps the most ferocious creature that ever lived. You would have expected that it would have destroyed every other creature and become the sole living occupant of this planet. Side by side with the bones of the saber-tooth tiger were remains of the harmless bunny-rabbit. Many individual rabbits must have been killed and eaten by the tiger and other predators without offering any resistance; but the curious fact is that the rabbit population has survived and increased, whereas the saber-tooth tiger is an extinct species. “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.”
Perhaps you don’t like the idea of being killed and eaten, even with the assurance that the meek will eventually inherit the earth. Perhaps you don’t fancy the role of a martyr prepared to submit to an agonizing death rather than compromise with the ways of the world. Perhaps you lack that strong sphere of innocence to protect you when the mugger raises his knife. In which case I would reluctantly agree that, if attacked, you should defend yourself. You should resist evil physically, but only in the same way as you would resist a mad dog. You don’t hate the dog; it is simply that the situation requires you to try to prevent it from hurting you. So with the mugger. You can punch him in the jaw, or do whatever else suggests itself; but you must avoid hating him or feeling indignant. You must wish him well as a man. Maybe it is for his own sake as well as yours that you are resisting him. There was a case in Johannesburg of a girl who was assaulted by a ruffian as she got out of her Volkswagen. Unfortunately for the man, he did not know that she had studied self-defense and was an expert in Judo. As he lurched at her, she calmly threw him over the top of the car and he fell down crash in the roadway. Then she hurried round to pick him up and see that he was all right! – and gave him a coin to get a meal. That was self-defense at its cleanest; it was swift and effective, and there was compassion in it, not hatred. Jesus upset the tables of the money-changers in the temple and opposed the hypocrisy of the Pharisees; he hated the evil but loved the people concerned and wished the best for them. We must resist the sin but love the sinner.
Now we come to another aspect of our subject. Should we resist evil which does not affect us personally? The self-centered man, who would go the whole way in his efforts to defend himself, says: “No! Don’t get involved! Don’t stick your neck out! It’s nothing to do with you!” And there is a point there. We can go too far in interfering with other people’s lives, trying to play God. But when corruptions appear in the State, and the whole integrity of the Administration is undermined by bribery, trickery and perjury, are we, as responsible citizens, to look the other way? Are we to “resist not evil?” I would say that it is the Christian duty of everyone who has any influence in the matter, to use that influence to the utmost to resist corruption and false dealing and illegal maneuvering, and do all in his power to preserve the integrity and honor of his nation. But still he should do this from the right motive: not to gloat over the fall of the Great Ones, as so many of us do, but to seek only the good of one’s country, including those who are corrupt. It is basically the same as resisting the mugger; you should do it as an unpleasant duty, without hate or indignation or scorn or contempt. When a Judge condemns a criminal, he does not hate him; he condemns him for the good of society as a whole, including the criminal himself. Always true justice is tempered with mercy. And so with anyone who is “resisting evil” in our national life; there should be no compromise, no white-washing, no respect of persons in the sense of letting the rich and powerful go free where you would penalize the poor and the weak, but one common justice for all. However, while we must resist evil on the external plane, inwardly we should love all men, recognize all men as our brothers, respect the dignity of all men, and, even when we have to strike out, do so with compassion and humanity. We must “overcome evil,” not with evil, which would put us in the same category as the evil, but “with good.”
Lastly, what if you have no influence in the matter, and hardships come upon you which you are totally unable to prevent? The rise in the cost of living. Losing one’s job. A car accident, a flood. Well, if you can’t avoid it, you must put up with it, with as much grace as possible! Do your best to improve matters, but beyond that you must just “grin and bear it.” This is not “compromise with evil,” it is acceptance. Two people have muscular dystrophy. One whines and complains the whole time and is overcome with self-pity. The other accepts the pain and discomfort. The first looks inward to self and is miserable; the second looks outward to his friends and loved ones and is happy. Which of the two comes off best in the long run? The answer is obvious.
And so we come back to the same thing we always seem to come back to: It is not the circumstances of our lives that are important, one way or the other, but our reaction to those circumstances. It is in our reaction that we show our Ruling Love, whether to the Lord and the neighbor or to self and the world. It is not our circumstances that take us to heaven or hell, but the way we choose, in freedom, to react to them. Someone said: “There is only one prayer: ‘Thy Will be done,’ taken in the sense of calm and willing submission to whatever Providence has in store for us.” Dag Hammarskjold wrote: “For all that has been, Thanks! To all that shall be, Yes!” But the shortest prayer I know, and perhaps the most inclusive, is the single word: Amen! “So be it.”