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May 1, 2010
The “Sermon on the Mount.”  Simply to mention it, in the context of any discussion of Christian ethics, will change the tenor of the conversation.  It may impart an aura of sanctity and infallibility, or it may evoke images of Anabaptist radicals turning their collective cheek.  It now looms larger in our cultural imagination than perhaps any other Biblical passage, standing, depending on whom you ask, for all that good about Christianity or religion, or for all that is weak, silly, or absurd.  The ethics of the Sermon on the Mount have come to take on an absolutist dimension, so that Max Weber could famously write, 

“The Sermon on the Mount, by which we mean the absolute ethics of the Gospel, is something far more serious than those who are so fond of citing its commandments today believe.  It is not to be taken frivolously.  What has been said about causality in science also applies to this ethic, namely that it is not a hired cab which one may stop at will and climb into or out of as one sees fit.  Rather, the meaning of the sermon (if it is not to be reduced to banality) is precisely this: we must accept it in its entirety or leave it entirely alone.”  

Max Weber invoked the Sermon on the Mount to illustrate the irresolvable tension between Christian ethics and political life--in political life, it simply wasn’t possible to live by the absolute demands of the Sermon on the Mount, and so the politician must conceal this beautiful, powerful ethics of conviction in his bosom, and live by a different ethics--an ethics of responsibility--so long as he served in a position of civil authority.  
In seeing this tension, yea, this contradiction, between the Sermon on the Mount and the ethics of political life, Weber is of course not alone; indeed, the passage has been a ceaseless gadfly to all attempts to formulate a Christian political ethic since the earliest days of the Church, and perhaps especially since Luther and his clashes with the Anabaptists.  In this essay, I want to sketch some of the contours of the way Christians have tried to make sense of the ethical demands of the Sermon on the Mount, suggest where I think some of the key pitfalls are, and try to lay down what seem to me the most promising ways forward.  I will be particularly focusing on two treatises by Luther.
First of all, let’s get the text in front of us.  Although the Sermon on the Mount is about many things, the verses that have been most offensive are 6:38-44:
“38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 But I tell you not to resist an evil person. But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. 40 If anyone wants to sue you and take away your tunic, let him have your cloak also. 41 And whoever compels you to go one mile, go with him two. 42 Give to him who asks you, and from him who wants to borrow from you do not turn away.
43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you.”
Now, standard responses among those eager to keep us from over-absolutizing these verses, those who refuse Weber’s challenge that you must take this passage all-out or not at all, are “Let’s not take this out of context” or “Let’s remember what Jesus’ main point here was” or “Remember that Jesus was speaking metaphorically.”  These are all rather vague.  Let’s look more closely at what the potential routes are to keep us from over-absolutizing. 
First, we might say that Jesus is speaking hyperbolically.  Of course he is speaking metaphorically--his point is clearly not a narrow one about cheek-slapping.  When people object “He is speaking metaphorically,” they presumably mean to say that Jesus does not intend us to take these commands as far as they might seem to go, and instead to take them as representative of a general attitude or demeanor we are to have.  What this objection often boils down to is some kind of inward/outward distinction: Christ is not telling us exactly what our external actions should be--he is not literally saying to turn the other cheek or even not to defend ourselves--but is telling us what our inner attitudes should be: unselfish, loving, more concerned for the other than for ourselves, slow to wrath, etc.
Second, we might say that, if we read the passage in context, we will realize that Jesus is only speaking about certain circumstances, not about any conceivable circumstance in which we find ourselves attacked, robbed, or confronted by an enemy.  Variations on this argument include a) the idea that Jesus is talking about someone who has been a long-standing enemy, not someone who just tries to mug you in the street, or b) the idea that Jesus is talking about everyday trials and tribulations, not about life-threatening situations.
Third, we might say that, if we read the passage in context, Jesus is only speaking to certain people, not to everyone indiscriminately.  For example, we might say that a) Jesus is talking about specifically about the circumstances of the Jews under Roman captivity, and giving practical advice aimed at that particular situation, or b) Jesus is talking to private citizens, not to public authorities or soldiers, who are obviously supposed to act differently.
Finally, we could point that Christ is, in each case, talking about self-defense.  He is telling us how to respond when we are attacked, abused, etc., not how to respond when someone else is attacked, abused, etc.  This seems to leave a lot of the radicalness in place, as it would seem to rule out all self-defense, but it would still allow, potentially, for military service, civil magistracy, and various forms of intervention on behalf of the oppressed.  
In following installments, I shall see how some of these approaches have been tried out (primarily by looking at Luther), and then return to offer an assessment of how tenable and useful  each of these four (or really six) options might be.


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