Each fall it is my great pleasure to walk through the four Gospels with anywhere from two to four sections of first semester students at Abilene Christian University in a course we call Jesus: His Life and Teachings. I find the title notable because I am convinced that the two are intertwined and must not be separated if we are truly to understand who he was and is, as well as what it means to bear his name and title, to be a Christian. I am convinced of this because I am convinced that Jesus was neither a hypocrite (a loan word from ancient Greek meaning an actor) nor a sophist (another loan word from Greek that takes its meaning from the group of ancient teachers who would sell their lessons, and thus it was said, would allow their conclusions and lessons to be unduly influenced by those willing to pay). Jesus, in contrast to both these groups, lived what he taught and taught what he lived.
Two recent experiences highlight this amazing quality of Jesus, that he lived what he taught and taught what he lived. First, my undergraduates have become more and more flabbergasted that Jesus might teach that one should allow another person to harm oneself without any move towards defense and/or retaliation. They come wielding the phrase “self-defense” as both talisman and sacred doctrine. They know that not only is self-defense allowable, but it is a moral imperative!
The second experience is more broadly catalogued in my recent essay, “Reading the Sermon on the Mount with ChatGPT”. ChatGPT is one of many explosive recent technologies that have much of the Western media, political, and university classes in an uproar. It is an internet chatbot that can produce intelligible responses to a vast number of conversational prompts a human user might pose to it. Naturally, I decided to talk to it about the Bible. In doing so, I became increasingly struck by its tendency to tilt toward metaphorical interpretations that would allow it to avoid making any claims that might approach being offensive. That is, until I asked it if any of Jesus’s teachings should be taken literally. It suggested that one might follow Jesus’s instruction in Matthew 5:38-39 literally. Here, the evangelist records Jesus as teaching his disciples, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye’ and ‘Tooth for tooth’. But, I say to you, do not resist the evil person, but rather if someone should strike your right cheek, turn to the that person also your other cheek.” I was fascinated. Did ChatGPT really just provide a response that would deeply offend my undergraduates? Did it’s predictive language not account for the immediate response I hear in class each fall (“But, self-defense!”)? So I pursued the conversation.
It turns out, ChatGPT would somewhat quickly renounce its own suggestion of this as a potential teaching to be followed to the letter. After a bit more conversation, it would go so far as to label someone who actually embraced a life of Christian pacifism as “pollyanna-ish,” a move more recent editions of the bot would not repeat. Yet, I find both my students’ inability to imagine a world of turning an actual other cheek and this generative AI’s quick repentance from its own claim that this teaching should/could be followed to the letter, revealing of a particular temptation. This temptation is likely a preeminent human one, as the text of Matthew’s Gospel reveals (see below). Regardless of its universal application, though, I find it to be a prominent temptation for many Christians in the US. It is the temptation to excuse ourselves from the call to discipleship under Jesus’s teachings and example because what Jesus taught and how Jesus lived is somewhere between offensive and unimaginable to us. To be sure, there is a long history of wrestling with the Sermon on the Mount broadly and the teachings in Matthew 5:38-39 particularly, but this is not a history with which many Christians in the US are familiar. We simply can’t imagine Jesus asking us to allow ourselves or others to be harmed (or even worse, killed) without resistance. Yet, if we pause and consider for a moment, perhaps this line of thought is what should be unimaginable to us. After all, how could it be so far out of the realm of possibility for us to consider when we worship and proclaim Jesus as our Lord, Jesus whom we claim was not only unjustly arrested, but also beaten, tortured, and killed without resistance, all while he had the power to not only stop it, but to stop it without doing any actual violence himself (if we believe all things possible for Jesus).
Consider the trajectory of the Gospel of Matthew and the idea of being Jesu’s “disciple”, one of the evangelist’s favorite terms for those of us who would later take the name “Christian”. “Disciple” is often glossed as “a student”, but in some ways the idea of “Christian” comes closer to what a disciple of Jesus, who is called Christ, actually is. The term Christian was first used as a mockery of those who proclaimed Jesus as Lord. It was meant to identify them as “little Christs” because they were so devoted to Jesus’s teachings and imitating them that others wanted to associate them fully with a man seen as shameful and weak in the face of the might of Rome, a crucified man. Jesus in Matthew does not shy away from this either, proclaiming that his disciples will be treated like him and worse (Mt 10:16-26) and calling his disciples to “take up the cross and follow him” and “lose their life for him” (Mt 10:38-39, 16:24-26).
Perhaps it is odd to us to hear these texts connected to the suffering of physical violence because we have come to know them as calls to be sacrificial with our time, our money, to “deny ourselves” in terms of resisting some symptoms of comfortable middle class minor character vices, such as refusing to raise our voices in anger at someone else. And to be sure, there are passages of Scripture that invite just such an application, but these texts come on the heels of Jesus speaking plainly about real physical violence, and chapter 16 comes directly after Jesus has rebuked Peter when Peter tells him that he must certainly not suffer physically and be killed. Thus, it is much more challenging to read them as if in this Gospel they are not actually about threats to our physical well-being, for we risk making Jesus into a Sophist in his teachings, subjugating him to our whims because without our witness, our commitment, our preaching (we imagine), his legacy would not endure. So we imagine ourselves to “pay” Jesus and thus his teachings must be domesticated to what we find palatable and comfortable.
Moreover, as I stated at the beginning, Jesus is not a hypocrite. One of my favorite exercises with my first-semester students is to walk through the Sermon on the Mount with them through Matthew’s narrative of Jesus’s Passion (Mt 26-28), showing them how Jesus lives up to the high bar of his teachings at every turn. For our purposes, let us consider simply the turn the other cheek teaching and the arrest in the garden (26:47-56). Judas comes and kisses Jesus on the cheek, a symbol of friendship, but here a sign for arrest and physical violence. Jesus calls him a friend in response, a turning of his other cheek to welcome another kiss, while simultaneously refusing to resist those who laid hands on him and arrested him. One of Jesus’s companions would draw a sword in attempted defense of his Lord and Rabbi, but Jesus responds thus, “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword. Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?” (52-53) No physical violence in defense of others, no physical violence in self-defense. Simple surrender and trust in God, the one who judges justly. (By the way, let us not forget stories in Exodus, Joshua, Judges, etc. where angels to come and the amount of violence one or a small handful can visit on humanity when we hear these words of Jesus.)
So, what do we do?
You may be wondering whether I wrote this to draw some line in the sand: become a Christian pacifist or renounce your claim to be a Christian. But this is not my intent nor within the realm of my authority. Rather I write in hope for a renewed engagement with the life and teachings of Jesus, one where we may stop and imagine, especially when those teachings might seem most offensive or unimaginable, that Jesus might be serious, that Jesus might actually mean it, especially since, in this case, he actually did it. I hope this engagement might also excite you to explore the wealth of our 2000 years of wrestling with this and other teachings of Jesus. Let us understand positions that justify harming others in defense of self and others so that we can make decisions about what it means for each of us to follow Jesus’s teachings in conversation with our sisters and brothers who have gone before us as well as who journey with us today.