Answering Allison: Pacifism and the Law

As part of my research for the Anarchy in May series, I was lured in by the title of Dale Allison’s The Sermon on the Mount: Inspiring the Moral Imagination. Hoping to have my moral imagination inspired, I cracked the spine only to find that I still feel more invigorated by the old familiar text of Matthew 5 than by Allison’s exposition of its meaning. More than anything, his attempt to take to task the pacifist interpretation of the command to “resist not the evildoer” stirred the polemicist in me, unsurprisingly. In fact, quite contrary to the very limited homiletics training I had many years ago, I managed a list of five distinct problems with his critique that can be answered with relative ease.

The first, perhaps most absurd and opportunistic, of the arguments pertains to the role of the Law in the New Covenant. Allison writes, “There is force in Calvin’s [just war] view. For if indeed Matthew understood 5:38-42 to enjoin an absolute pacifism and so to outlaw participation in all wars, it is very difficult to see how he could have included in his Gospel 5:17-20, with its strong affirmation that Jesus did not come to abolish the Law.” With no further explanation, Allison marshals to his cause the verse which has been the source of so much confusion and debate throughout the course of Christian history since, after all, Jesus seems to be immediately in tension with his own words as he juxtaposes his teachings with those of traditional Jewish wisdom and jurisprudence. The standard line is, of course, that Jesus is not erasing the Law so much as getting to the root of what it was trying to achieve, in a partial and anticipatory way, for human ethics. This is, of course, entirely consonant with a pacifist reading which sees in the Law, relative to alternative legal codes, an attempt to ameliorate violence and enshrine love and mercy in its place.

But Allison’s argument doesn’t even require so sophisticated of a refutation. It is enough that he offers no further explanation of the ongoing influence of the Law to demonstrate just how facile the attempt to unseat pacifism is. After all, all Christians throughout Christian history have agreed both that Jesus did not abolish the Law and that the Law no longer as legal force in Christianity. Allison might just as easily have argued that Jesus did not come to abolish the law and therefore the Sabbath or ritual sacrifice must be enforced on Christians. Admittedly, at least one of those positions has manifest itself on occasion historically, but Allison will have trouble pressing it now in a world of workaholics. In the absence of a more comprehensive hermeneutic of the Law in light of the New Covenant, the reader is left to curiously wonder just how much Allison thinks has gone unabolished. Frighteningly, he seems repeatedly to recommend lex talionis as an eternally valid legal principle, which would give the Sermon on the Mount all the restraining force of Shari’ah (if I can sound momentarily like an alarmist Oklahoman) and would seem to directly contradict Jesus’ monumental transition from a justice that springs from superficial fairness to one that is born out of love.

In other words, a blind appeal to the Law—even to the “spirit” of the Law, which Jesus makes plain is love and not violence—has no force in determining an interpretation of the command to “resist not the evildoer.” Unless Allison would have us return to Israelite jurisprudence for ruling the world, something which I doubt he or, especially, Jesus wanted, then shallowly claiming that the Law is not abolished and therefore violence is somehow ethical is insufficient on its face. More importantly, it makes the fatal error of assuming that violence was ever considered virtuous, even in the Old Covenant. One need only look at the numerous denunciations of violence—the violence which precipitated the flood, the violence which precluded David from building the temple, the violence which God “hates” in Malachi—to understand that Jesus’ command, if a truly pacifist one, would be more consistent with the Law than Calvin’s just war understanding (which, curiously, finds not clear foundation in the Law).

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