Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
On the morning of 11 September 2001, 19 men affiliated with Al-Qaeda hijacked four airliners all bound for California.
Once the hijackers assumed control of the airliners, they told the passengers that they had the bomb on board and would spare the lives of passengers and crew once their demands were met—no passenger or crew member actually suspected that they would use the airliners as suicide weapons since it had never happened before.
The hijackers intentionally crashed two airliners into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre, in New York. Both buildings collapsed within two hours from fire damage related to the crashes, destroying nearby buildings and damaging others.
The hijackers crashed a third airliner into the Pentagon, just outside Washington DC. The fourth plane crashed into a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, after some of its passengers and flight crew attempted to retake control of the plane, which the hijackers had redirected toward Washington D.C., to target the White House.
No flights had survivors. A total of 2,977 victims and the 19 hijackers perished in the attacks.
On September 11, 2001, I was sitting on bed with my dad—as we watched the news, he attempted to explain what was going on— what had just taken place—the depth and significance of the event unfolding before our very eyes.
But I was only 9, and my brain did not have the ability to understand the nuisance and complexity of this evil, so I picked up the idea that it was the 'bad guys' who attacked the 'good guys'; and through the little I could pick up while watching the news I learned (implicitly) that the 'bad guys' live in the Middle East. I learned they look a certain way. Through schoolyard jokes and cartoons I was reinforced with the narrative that it was people 'over there,' who look like that, who did this.
And when in the following weeks President George Bush announced that "this crusade, this war on terrorism, is going to take a while," I along with most of the Christian West agreed. I bought into this narrative that called on the 'good guys' to take out the 'bad guys.'
I've never had a particular affinity for war, or violence. I've never had a punch up, or enjoyed watching boxing, MMA, or the little scraps in rugby. Instead, they've always brought a little sick feeling into my stomach, a deep underlying sense that this isn't how it is supposed to be.
But when it came to this "crusade, this war on terror" I became resigned: "I guess this is just how it has to be." I'd attended church all my life, and not even there did people seem to have another opinion; I'd heard mention of this 'just war theory' and I guess that means Jesus is okay with it...
According to a Congressional Budget Office (CBO) report published in October 2007, the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan could cost taxpayers a total of $2.4 trillion by 2017 when counting the huge interest costs because combat is being financed with borrowed money.
Over 6,800 US service members and over 6,900 contractors have died in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
An unusually high percentage of young veterans have died since returning home, many as a result of drug overdoses, vehicle crashes, or suicide.
Coalition partners have died in large numbers: approximately 43,000 uniformed Afghans, Iraqis and other allies have died as of May 2014.
Approximately 210,000 Afghan, Iraqi, and Pakistani civilians have died violent deaths as a direct result of the wars.
War deaths from malnutrition, and a damaged health system and environment likely far outnumber deaths from combat.
Surely there is another way? Surely it is time to try something different?
An eye for an eye?
Jesus sat on the top of a mountain and moved with compassion he outlined his ethical code, his moral teaching—his most basic exposition on how to find life. A key to this life that Jesus offered was his radical call to "love your enemy, and pray for those who persecute you": the most counterintuitive way in which one could approach conflict.
You see the Jewish people already had their ethical teaching. They had a way in which to approach the 'bad guys.' This approach could be summed up as "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth" or retributive justice. But the crazy thing is Jesus, moved with compassion, explicitly condemns paying back evil with evil saying, "But I tell you, do not resist an evil person."
Jesus says: "You have heard that it was said, 'Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.' But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also." (Matthew chapter 5, verse 3)
Don't call me passive
Now if this is taken at face value, pacifism is the easiest interpretation—Jesus is teaching his followers to be passive... But he wasn't. If you press a little deeper, you notice that Jesus is not at all calling for passivism from his followers, but radical non-violent direct action.
At the time Jesus was speaking, the Jewish people were under Roman oppression. This oppression meant the Jewish people were often beaten and disgraced by the Roman soldiers.
In his teaching, Jesus implies a backhand or left-handed strike usually reserved for those of lower social standing: a slave, child or woman. This emphasises the shameful nature of the strike as opposed to the physical pain inflicted.
He explicitly condemns hitting back, which, as NT Wright explains, "keeps evil in circulation," but instead turns evil around. Jesus then teaches: "turn the other cheek also," telling his followers to stand back up, and offer the oppressor to strike again on the other cheek, with a closed fist, as an equal.
Can you imagine the scene? A Jewish man is walking home from a hard day's work, looking forward to dinner with his family, but ahead on the road is a group of Roman soldiers.
They notice the man walking alone, and one of them decides to exert his power; they slap him on the right cheek and he falls to the ground as the Roman soldiers laugh. In this situation he is to step back up and offer the other cheek—not to fight back, not to call down curses from heaven, but offer the left cheek. Symbolically indicating to the Roman soldiers that he will not accept this behaviour and that if he is to hit him he must be struck as an equal.
How different to pacifism? This was radical non-violent civil disobedience.
But does it work?
Mahatma Gandhi (a man who daily meditated on this particular teaching), lead what is known as India's independent movement. He organised boycotts against the powerful British Empire, leading this movement through non-violent direct action—peaceful forms of civil disobedience.
Gandhi deeply understood the relevance of this sermon saying—"You Christians look after a document containing enough dynamite to blow all civilisation to pieces, turn the world upside down and bring peace to a battle-torn planet. But you treat it as though it is nothing more than a piece of literature."
Sarah Thompson asks the question: "What would the world look like if instead of spending money on violence and war, the same amount of money was invested into alternative ways of peace-making?"
I believe this call of Jesus is just as relevant today as it was in first century Palestine: "You have heard that it was said, 'Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.' But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also."
You have heard it said that the only way to fight power is with power. You have heard it said that we have no option but to fight back. You have heard it said that the only response to violence is more violence.
But I tell you Jesus is calling us to take a step forward. To make the next step of human adaptation, to step beyond an eye-for-eye mentality and embrace his radical call to non-violence.
"But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you."
— Jesus of Nazareth (Matthew chapter 5, verse 44)
Tim Shallard a co-director of Mosaic Workshop a shared creative space in central Auckland. He is a part owner of Crave Café, founder of a cider company, studies theology at Carey Baptist College, runs a poetry collective. His passions include coffee, community, and living the dream.
Tim Shallard's previous articles may be viewed at http://www.pressserviceinternational.org/tim-shallard.html