In 2006 a man named Charles Roberts broke into an Amish schoolhouse in rural Pennsylvania. After sending the teacher and the boys away, he shot each of the ten remaining girls, ages six through thirteen, in the head. Five died immediately, and five were left in critical condition. Roberts then shot and killed himself. Within hours of the shooting, members of the Amish community arrived at the home where Roberts’ wife and three children lived, bringing with them gifts of food and offering support for the family. A few days later nearly forty Amish people were present at Roberts’ funeral, and in the coming weeks they also gave help and support to Roberts’ parents.
We can easily imagine other ways of responding to a violent attack on innocent children. Laying down any hostility and providing help to the family of one who has brought such horror and grief to a community is not the first instinct most of us would have. In fact, many people are likely to find this response virtually incomprehensible. But for the Amish community, it wasn’t a matter for consideration or debate. The way they behaved flowed out of a deep sense of who they were. As a community they were shaped by an ethic of nonviolence and nonretaliation. They had learned by practice the way of grace and forgiveness.
Of course, the way of living they had learned could be traced back to the teaching of Jesus. In contrast to the common response of retaliating against those who have wronged you, Jesus urged his followers to forgive. In contrast with loving your friends and hating your enemies, he told his disciples to love their enemies. Needless to say, most people, including most people who say they are Christians, do not live that way. When people do live this way, their behavior stands out.
Our biology and our cultural training predispose us to treat people well who are treating us well, but to respond to those who abuse us by adopting a more hostile attitude. If someone strikes you physically, hit them back. If someone speaks harshly, speak to them with the same kind of harshness. If someone causes you to suffer, make that person suffer. Our intuitions seem to tell us to respond to people in accordance with how they are acting. As long as they are showing kindness and respect, we should return it. But when they begin to behave abusively, we should take a more aggressive stance. In other words, we should behave in neighborly ways to others, but only as long as they are being neighborly to us.
So, how could Jesus take issue with what seems like common sense to most people? Part of the answer is that Jesus takes God as the model for how we should behave. God, he says, gives good things (such as sun and rain) to all, not just to good people. But I think his teaching is also based on observing where common sense behavior leads. First, we’re quick to take offense. Our judgment about when we are being treated well and when someone has failed to give us what we deserve are warped. Seeing the faults of others more clearly than we see our own inclines us too quickly to turn a relationship from something neighborly to something more adversarial.
Second, a policy of retaliation for perceived wrongs easily gets out of control. Jesus warned about the way anger can lead to violent responses. And it is well known that once violent responses are unleashed, those who receive them typically feel justified in initiating their own violence. While we tell ourselves, I’m only getting back for what the other person has done, what we see all too often in human life are cycles of violence that continue, sometimes for generations. We get ourselves into the kind of hostility that we can’t control and don’t know how to end.
Third, our tendency to classify people as either good or bad misrepresents a reality that is more complicated. Those we label bad have sometimes done genuinely bad things, but it’s typically too simple to say that they are just bad. Jesus, I think, was convinced that even those who are stuck in cycles that are bringing out their worst qualities may be redeemable, and he thought that experiences of grace (getting more than you deserve) were often vehicles for bringing about positive transformation. He was more concerned with bringing out the best in others than he was with making sure that people suffered in accordance with their wrongs.
So, Jesus urges a shift from responding in kind to those who do us wrong. He teaches his followers not to retaliate against wrongs, but instead to respond with love even to those who behave badly. I don’t understand this teaching to mean that we can never protect ourselves or others from abuse, but I do take him to be rejecting violent responses as an option. Often when we are confronted by abusive action from others, we see only two choices: fight back or back down. Some of the teachings of Jesus, I think, are intended to enlarge our imagination so that we can recognize other possibilities.
When Jesus says to turn the other cheek or go the second mile or let someone have what he is trying to take from you, he is describing unexpected behaviors that can potentially change the situation. His examples are not rules to be applied rigidly, but specific examples of alternatives to responding aggressively that may startle someone who expects a different response. In elaborating on the teaching of Jesus, Paul suggests that returning good for evil can appeal to the conscience of someone who is doing wrong. But the teaching is not a guarantee of getting that kind of response. The point is to act with love rather than hostility whether it pays off or not. When people try to live in the way Jesus taught, their behavior stands out. Just look at the Amish.
For a fuller discussion of this issue, see chapter 15 (God’s New Order: Enemies and Violence) and chapter 17 (Learning to Love) in Changing Your Mind Without Losing Your Faith.